Deep in the woods behind my friend PR’s farm is a tiny jewel of a place: Bijou Glabin. This “glamourous cabin” and its gem of an outhouse are sheltered in a shaded, light-splashed forest where the land is settled—centuries of rock and moss, thick roots and carpets of pine—yet gently dynamic, as breezes, insects, and bird song sift through the spaces, lifting toward the sky.
Finding space and time for focused writing is a challenge for most of us. Not just the putting of words on the page, but the long, thoughtful hours of uninterrupted pondering, questioning the plot and the characters’ choices, and answering in ways that make the story feel true—this sort of space and time is hard to come by, and exactly what Bijou gave me for three nights and days in the middle of July.
My sweetie arranged this amazing get-away for me, and it was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. My camp stove, my cooler, the cabin’s marine battery for charging my laptop, and no agenda but my own, gave me space inside and out to see my novel-in-progress with a clarity that is crucial for every work, periodically.
The whole time I was there, I heard only song birds, mosquitoes, an occasional red squirrel, gentle winds, the scrabbling of a mouse in the wall, and, on the last morning, one cow mooing from across the acres beyond the wood.
Indoors, and this was an essential gift of the place, I tucked myself into the loft bed.
A window at my shoulder, a skylight overhead, and the small space of the cabin opening before me, I spent most of my hours with my words. They tumbled into the contained air around me, lifting and falling with the rhythm of the light, landing on the page until I’d advanced my draft by six thousand words—about twenty-four pages. Best, though, was that I had time to spot huge gaps in my story logic, and spent another six or so pages of asking and answering questions about whether and how my characters can move convincingly along the paths I’ve set out for them. In some cases, they can’t, and I need to let them walk a different path, to exit at a spot near where I had planned but just a little to the right or left.
The metaphoric and the real paths were equally important on this retreat.
Outdoors, on a humble wooden bench in the sun (which, in its real life, is the resting spot during games of darts), I typed, and mused, and played with a small hover fly who found my laptop beguiling. In between, I swung on the wooden plank swing, lifting my toes to the tops of the trees, letting my thoughts smooth into unruffled calm as my body moved.
And I walked, along kilometres of trails that PR clears through meadows and woods, sometimes picking my way over uprooted trees that recent storms had downed, sometimes under the chittering of a red squirrel dashing along the branches, sometimes with the broad lavender vistas of sun-hot fields unfolding before me, acre over acre to the tree line.
Walking is one of my most effective writing strategies, often bringing word after word on an endless string to match the swing of my legs and arms, to match the distance covered by my feet. During this weekend, it was a way of shaking loose the thoughts I was carrying inside.
On the last day, I met the Philosopher Tree — surprising, powerful, inevitable. And I understood that if I compromise on my story’s logic, I will have a weak sapling that will never reach the sun. So whatever my story’s starting point, whatever pains and beliefs my characters carry on their at-first crooked path, allowing the story to grow as it must, not as I impose, means we will finish tall and strong.
Like a forest, a story is made of new and old.
Forest seeds sprout and attempt to become new trees. Animals from mammals to mayflies are born, live their short lives, and make way for another generation. Giant trees hold down the land, while rocks and soil endure over centuries.
The stories humans tell can bring new people and their particular dilemmas to life, but the urges that move them and the questions they seek to answer are as old as our species. We want to belong, we want to be loved, we want to give the best of ourselves to others. We spend our lives searching for degrees of meaning and direction and joy, and this has never changed, and never will.
This story will be better, I’m convinced, for having an impeccable logic within it, even if it ends near, but not at, where I had planned. The Philosopher Tree says it this way: follow the story as you follow the sun, and you will see it cannot grow any other way.