Sorry to have been out of touch for a bit but I have had several distractions. There were some short stories that wouldn’t let me alone until I got them down on paper. I attempted a huge writing project but I got in over my head and had to face the fact that I wasn’t man enough for the job. One other, a more pleasant chore, was to gather and organize “my papers” which the Library of Virginia has consented to house and to nurture and to make available to one and all. There is pride!
So back to BETWEEN YOU, ME AND THE LAMP POST. I’m calling this entry:
”PARADISE ON FIVE DOLLARS A DAY!”
Every writer yearns for an inexpensive place were he can enjoy privacy and where he can write without interruption. Aware of that need, at this time of year, writer’s magazines arrive, not only with helpful tips on how to find an agent, how to conquer writer’s block, or the surest pathway to publication, but also with advertisements for writers retreats. Descriptions of such havens tend to sound more like poetry than invitations to a place to get some serious work done.
Recent ads that I came across were: “Private room on the banks of the river Seine, only an hour from Paris!” “ Come to our mountain cottage for silence, solitude, and the sight of deer grazing in the meadow!” Or my favorite - “Old Virginia farmhouse on the James River in the Blue Ridge foothills, explore nearby vineyards and local history.”
I once rented such a retreat. Following my graduation from the University of Cincinnati I had the good luck to land a job as a radio writer at WLW, the major radio station in the state.
It was a terrific time in my life, a transition from student to professional writer, a time of growth, of learning, of forming friendships that would last a lifetime. Cincinnati was home to some of the most beautiful girls in the country and I fell in love with each and every one of them.
WLW paid handsomely, and I led a frugal life that allowed me to save a sizeable nest egg.
I once had the good fortune to interview Katherine Anne Porter. When I asked her to describe her writing process, she said, “Somewhere out of experience, out of travel, life, the past, or just imagination, an idea seizes me and won’t let go. I don’t act on it immediately but put it away to cook. After a while faces, language, customs, traits, colors, events, all come together around that idea like iron filings around a magnet. Even then I don’t begin writing, until one day the book tells me it is ready to be written and that is when I begin.”
I knew what she was telling me. I had reached that point. The novel I had dreamed for years was clamoring somewhere in my brain - demanding to be written.
I quit my job at WLW and rented a small cottage I found advertised in the “Writer’s Digest” column called “Paradise on Five Dollars a Day.”
I rented “Paradise” sight unseen through the mail from the owner, a lady named B. B. Caverly. The ad described a small stone cottage at the foot of Rich Mountain in the heart of the Ouchita Mountains of Arkansas. The ad went on to mention that the cottage had neither electricity nor indoor plumbing. To compensate for the lack of such amenities, Miss Caverly informed me that food has a special flavor when cooked over an open fire and there were fish in the stream nearby for the price of a worm.
I traveled by bus to the small town of Mena, Arkansas, and spent the first night in a charming old hotel called The Antlers. Miss Caverly, my new landlady, called for me there the next morning. There was a Texas twang in her speech and her dark hair and chinquapin eyes made me think she might be partly American Indian. Many folks in that part of the country do have Indian ancestry and will quickly and proudly boast of what percentage of Osage or Cherokee or Comanche blood runs in their veins.
After a stop for groceries, Miss Caverly drove a distance out of town until we came to a deserted stretch of highway. She parked her pickup truck on the roadside and led the way down a narrow path through some underbrush. I carried my duffel bag and the groceries. She carried my portable typewriter. We crossed an abandoned railroad track where weeds grew up to our knees between the rusted rails and the rotting wooden ties.
Past the railroad tracks she led me to a fallen tree trunk. It turned out to be the only access to the other side of a small creek. I wobbled across the log after her and made it successfully to the other side where a six foot long black snake reared up in the path ahead.
I recoiled, ready to abandon “Paradise” and rush back to civilization, but the lady said, “Don’t be scared. It’s a good snake. They eat the poisonous ones! Practically wiped out the water moccasins!”
Slightly reassured I followed her up the mountain to the cottage. It really was as charming as promised. There was a wide veranda across the front that afforded a fine view facing Rich Mountain. There was a kitchen, a living room with fireplace and a bedroom. A suitable distance out in the woods was an outhouse and in the side yard was the cooking facility – a barbeque grill made of the same native stone as the house.
Before she left, Miss Caverly suggested that I not go out after dark, or if I did to carry a strong flashlight. She then went on to say that the cottage was in the middle of something called “a snake run.” She explained that the snake population at the top of the mountain had no water supply, and they came down to the creek whenever they got thirsty, and that the cottage happened to be right smack in the middle of their path.
At that point it crossed my mind that I might be sacrificing my life in order to write my book, but I bravely decided to risk a week or two before returning to civilization.
Being an old country boy I was accustomed to the shrill and creepy sounds that come to life as soon as the sun goes down. But I had usually snuggled under the covers with the comfort of being surrounded by a sprawling family of brothers and sister, a protective mother and father. Now I was alone in strange country and the sounds were not familiar like the old hoot owl from back home, or the sleepy lowing of a cow. Out here in nowhere the night sounds reached a crescendo of screams, screeches, and howls. On top of that I was convinced there was a water moccasin under the bed. I slept not a wink.
Gradually I grew used to being a hermit and facing the challenges of my paradise. I received my mail by tetter-tottering across that cursed log to get to a mail box on the highway. I hiked the four miles into town once in a while when supplies ran low. No matter how many times I made the trip I was never comfortable walking across the fallen log and the risk of falling into the moccasin-infested water.
As primitive as my cottage was, it provided a perfect atmosphere in which to write. I had no human visitors. Occasionally a deer would wander across the property or a cottontail would hop by going about its business. There was no telephone, no radio and the only sounds were the songs from a variety of birds that came and went.
By the end of that summer I had finished more than half of a manuscript that I had first conceived in the hedgerows of Normandy. It was to become my first published book and to this day I have to thank Miss Caverly for placing an ad in “The Writer’s Digest” titled “Paradise on Five Dollars A Day.”