Where Writers Write

Included on the John Adams DVD is a special feature on the author of the book, David McCullough. (Fans of the old Ken Burns Civil War documentary have met him before as the voice of that feature’s narration.) McCullough has had phenomenal success as a writer of history. He likes to think of himself as a writer who writes about real people in the past. With two Pulitzers under his belt, I suppose we can say that he’s done a pretty good job of it.

A fascinating revelation in this was the description of where McCullough writes. Behind his house, through a gate in a fence, in a wooded garden there is a small building, no larger than a small shed. In that ‘shed’ is no computer, no telephone, no connection with the outside world, no distraction. There is a typewriter, a desk, a couple of file cabinets, and solitude. This is where his books have been written.

On each side of the gate there are posts. McCullough’s rule is that when he is working no one taller than those posts is allowed to pass through the gate to interrupt him. But if one is smaller than the height of those posts, he is free to come and go at will.

I’m reminded of what I have heard about 19th-century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge whose study was in his home on the seminary campus. Adults knew not to interrupt him when he was working. But little ones? He had the latch removed from the door which opened to the house so that the door would swing freely at the touch of little hands.

Those who want to write (whether it is books, theology, or sermons) need to guard their solitude. They need to build fences around their time and their space which are inviolable. But those fences need to have human sized gates which reflect a balance between isolation and humanity.

McCullough sounds like a guy I’d like to meet.

But not when he’s working.

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4 thoughts on “Where Writers Write

  1. Anonymous

    Interesting to learn more about this great writer. But doesn’t he have assistants who help with research etc? I can’t imagine that he can do all that himself. Maybe he gathers up all the info they discover and takes it with him to his special spot. Hard to believe the “no computer” part these days, isn’t it?I/we have enjoyed other of his books; next on my list is The Path Between the Seas regarding the building of the Panama Canal.–ae

  2. Anonymous

    In May, I read Mr. McCullough’s Commencement Address to Boston University. It was an outstanding speech. Do an internet search for the actual text of the speech and you will find, that in fact, it truly does look as if the speech was typed on a typewriter and not a computer. He likely avoided the hypothetical problem of children spilling water on his computer keyboard. But I digress. Here are some of my favorite lines from that commencement address. “Make the love of learning central to your life. What a difference it can mean. If your experience is anything like mine, the books that will mean the most to you, books that will change your life, are still to come. And remember, as someone said, even the oldest book is brand new for the reader who opens it for the first time. You have had the great privilege of attending one of the finest colleges in the nation, where dedication to classical learning and to the arts and sciences has long been manifest. If what you have learned here makes you want to learn more, well that’s the point. Read. Read, read! Read the classics of American literature that you’ve never opened. Read your country’s history. How can we profess to love our country and take no interest in its history? Read into the history of Greece and Rome. Read about the great turning points in the history ofscience and medicine and ideas. Read for pleasure, to be sure. I adore a good thriller or a first-rate murder mystery. But take seriously –read closely –books that have stood the test of time. Study a masterpiece, take it apart, study its architecture, its vocabulary, its intent. Underline, make notes in the margins, and after a few years, go back and read it again. Make use ofthe public libraries. Start your own personal library and see it grow. Talk about the books you’re reading. Ask others what they’re reading. You’ll learn a lot. And please, please, do what you can to cure the verbal virus that seems increasingly rampant among your generation. I’m talking about the relentless, wearisome use of the words, “like,” and “you know,” and “awesome,” and “actually.” Listen to yourselves as you speak. Just imagine if in his inaugural address John F. Kennedy had said, “Ask not what your country can, you know, do for you, but what you can, like, do for your country actually.” “Thanks for the discussion.Staci

  3. The Domestic Intellectual

    Fun post! I love to hear how other writers craft their work. Being open to children while being creative is a huge boost to creativity for me… Granted, I don’t have any children of my own yet to test my daily tolerance. I have found, generally speaking, that their energy and wonder are amazing catalysts to productivity.On a side note, I was reading Orthodoxy by Chesterton the other day and in the introduction Philip Yancy mentioned that Chesterton dictated his books to his secretary and seldom revised. Many of my college papers came that way, but only after months of thinking them out:-)

  4. Randy Greenwald

    DI – if you have not read Stephen King’s On Writing, you should, if you like reading about how writers write. A fascinating insight and, of course, well written.

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