It may be that you already know the joys and benefits of an outdoor office. If not, I’ll fill you in on a few, though there are certain drawbacks, as you might be guessing from my title (I knew that one word would get you reading). For one thing, outdoor offices come fully decorated and painted. The ceiling is a lovely sky-blue color and the walls are generally a forest green, unless it’s fall and then they are multicolored, something like a tie-dye t-shirt (who remembers real tie-dyes, the kind people made for themselves in their washing machines, not the ones you buy in a store now?). The floors are generally carpeted in a green shag, which I know sounds absolutely hideous, like something you might see in some awful horror movie from the early 1970s (where the characters are dressed in their homemade tie-dyes), but the color and texture of this carpet is actually quite nice. And the windows! Have I mentioned the windows? They are floor to ceiling. I kid you not.
Now, at this point, you may be asking, What are you talking about? Who has an office outdoors? If so, I’d say those are good questions, but I’d encourage you to enter into the spirit of this thing I’m describing. In other words, yes, please step into my office, and I’ll tell you how I first came to acquire one.
After my wife Rhonda and I started to build the house we live in now, we sold our old house much more quickly than we thought we would. Suddenly, we were homeless, and while I like working in an outdoor office, I didn’t want a fully outdoor home. So we did what you might expect, we moved in with my father-in-law, who lived out in the country and had plenty of rooms in his two-story home. He also had a very large television in the great room and kept the sound turned up so that he could hear a certain news channel all over the house all day long. Let me be clear, I liked my father-in-law, but I couldn’t work in his house. I was writing a novel at the time and needed quiet. I also had student work to respond to. So I assembled my first outdoor office. All it took was a chair and a card table set under the shade of some very tall pines, and the pine-needle carpet was very nice, with one little drawback, which I’ll get to.
The fresh air was, well, downright enlivening, and the peace and, dare I say, tranquility, helped me to stay focused and to keep out the clutter (as Nick Saban calls all the thoughts that distract us from playing winning football, damnit). While I was writing a novel, I think balancing a checkbook or doing your taxes or grading math quizzes would be fine endeavors to undertake in an outdoor office. In other words, outdoor offices are for everyone, not just writers searching for their “Muse” (roll of eyes, please).
So after we moved into our new house above the Alabama River, I needed to find an office other than the one within the walls of our home. And low and behold, right down on a bend in the river (don’t worry, I’m getting to that snake-it’s already falling) was a picnic area with a table and chair waiting on me. The view was spectacular, inspiring, even, as you maybe can see in the above photo. Unlike the writer Flannery O’Connor, who purposely kept her desk turned to a bare wall without a window, I need to see out at the world in order to write about it. O’Connor’s internal vision was obviously much greater and richer than mine.
Now for a few of those drawbacks. One is summer heat. Ninety-eight degrees is not fun. The cure? Shorts and a t-shirt, or you can do what I do and remove your shoes, socks, and shirt. My friend Kirk Curnutt, who’s a fine fiction writer and scholar, gets a big laugh out of the fact that I do this. I promise I keep my pants on. Another problem, especially if you’re barefoot: redbugs, who also love pine straw in addition to the natural green shag. The answer: Deep Woods Off. (They are not paying me to write that, but how nice if they were.) One more problem is the wind, which can be a real force when it travels over a wide river. For this, hold your papers down with a Yeti, and no, I don’t mean a snow monster from the Himalayas but the kind of drinking glass (see photo) that doesn’t sweat like you if you don’t take your shirt off.
There is also the problem of the unforeseen, unless you happen to be looking up, which I wasn’t. One fine midmorning, when my writing was going tolerably well (or hell, maybe I was just daydreaming about my Pulitzer), I heard a crashing sound in the branches of the tree above me. I thought maybe a dead limb was falling, and I looked up to see if it was about to hit me in the head, but I didn’t move quite fast enough. By the time I looked up, what was falling down hit the floor of my office about three feet behind me with a resounding thud. It was about a four-foot rat snake (okay, maybe only three feet). He is Alabama’s only constrictor, according to my knowledgeable wife, and I suspect he was stunned by the force of the landing, because the poor squirrel he was constricting (who I figure bit the fire out of him, thus causing the fall), sprang loose, and man, let me tell you, that squire was gone. He probably moved to the city.
So I was left with the snake, who remained stunned and unmoving no matter how many half-rotten sticks I threw at him to urge his leaving. Finally, he began to move. Unfortunately it was toward the back of my Easy-Go cart where the maybe still-warm engine was, I’m sure, quite the draw. So I ran (grateful that he had at least not fallen on my head or into my lap), leaped into the Easy-Go, and drove away some distance. I then walked back into my office, searching carefully for my uninvited guest. Then the worst thing happened. I could not find him. When a snake visits you, you want to know exactly where he is. Hide ‘n’ Seek with a snake is not a fun game, though they probably love it. Now I had quite the dilemma. Do I let a snake run me out of my office (and rat snakes, even though they aren’t poisonous, do bite, again, according to my wife, whom I trust with knowing such things), or do I remain committed to my writing and sit down at my desk which sits in somewhat tall grass, or, if I can be allowed to beat the metaphor to death, green shag. My choice? I sat down and wrote and did not see again that “narrow fellow in the grass,” to quote Emily Dickinson. Never let it be said that I’m not committed to my art.
I must finally say something about the river that I see just beyond my huge office windows. It is a beautiful sight, and the wide expanse of the water in that bend has a kind of grandeur to it. The woods on the other side, that are often dotted with white great egrets perched on limbs, reflect their green boughs on the surface of the water and somehow engender reflection on my part as I try to write honestly about the world as I know it and the people who struggle to find their place in it. The beauty I see in that water and along its banks makes me feel present in the moment, open to receive the next part of the story I’m trying to write, but I’m also aware of the past, and, without sounding too grand I hope, I’m aware of all time. An ancient river has the power to do that, I think, even if we don’t think about it consciously. That water has flowed for century upon century. Perhaps what I’m trying to describe is what Thomas Wolfe called “the union of Forever and of Now.” I’ve seen that moment, and it’s fleeting, but I’ve tried to dwell in it as long as I can. Maybe that’s where I’ve found the best lines that I’ve ever written. And maybe on some beautiful day, you’ve seen that moment too. If you have, or if you do, be careful, because, unfortunately, in the union of Forever and of Now, there is always a snake, ready to fall.