Off a side street on a curving road in South Austin, an open gate leads down a dirt path studded with rocks. If you take the right fork in the road, you’ll arrive at the Writing Barn, a generous space with a big porch and tiny sparkling lights strung up and lit at night. If you take the left fork, you’ll follow the path around to two cabins and a house set back from the dirt road. On the way, you might find some of the deer that frequent the property. They will look up, startled by the headlights or the sound of the car.
When I arrived, on a Wednesday in January, lifted out of the frosty chill of New York and landed in the warmth of Texas, my cab driver took the right fork, and we drove around the long way to the cabin, the place that would be my home for the next four weeks as I embarked on a semester off from teaching to work on a book project I’d been pursuing for four years. My suitcase held drafts and notebooks, pens and books.
As soon as I set foot inside the cabin, I fell in love with the compact, beautiful space with a bed in a loft and two beds tucked on either side. Carin, writer and doodle-guru, who lives in the Book House, described one of the beds as the Harry Potter corner. Tucked under the stairs, it did feel like a space for brewing magic and that under-the- stairs home of the boy with the lightning mark on his forehead. A tiny kitchen and bathroom with all that you need and no more, and a porch to one side for the warm winds that blow through in January.
The next morning, I started my time curled up in the giant elephant-thick chair, scribbling in my notebook before I sat down at the desk. On the desk: a green Buddha head, a lamp with just the right light, a picture of fall leaves in a forest of bamboo, and a speaker linked to a mystery sound system. I sat down to write with none of the fidgeting and up-and-down stairs that I did at home. None of the staring into space or wondering if I should be organizing my closets instead. Here, I simply wrote, following the trail of words until the late morning sun called me outside.
On the refrigerator in the cabin, a magnet reads the words of Emerson: “Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.” That’s how it felt staying at the cabin at the Writing Barn, as if I were living inside a dream. After writing, I went for walks, sometimes criss-crossing with the deer who dart across the paths like furtive neighbors. One day, when carrying laundry across the way, I tried not to startle them, but they had no idea how to relate to this creature piled high with white terry cloth. These gentle neighbors kept me company all month as I wrote. Painted rocks line the paths at the Barn, with phrases to remind me yield to my imagination. Tiny white Buddhas sit planted on wooden walls and on the grass. A cluster of chairs shaped like hands sit between the Cabin and the Book House. It felt entirely possible that the cast of a variety of children’s books might appear and traipse through the grounds. The Boxcar Children, the creatures from the Wind in the Willows, and Pippi Longstocking might stop by on a quiet afternoon at the Writing Barn. At night, workshops fill the Barn with the extended family of regular Barn goers and newbies trying out a new form or technique.
After my month at the Cabin, I left with fifty new pages, a breakthrough passage that led me to a key section in my book, and some new ideas and stories in the sprout stage. More importantly, though, I left with a sense of renewed possibility, having spent a month in a place where above all else, writing matters. Stories and books are the bread of this magical place. Watch them take flight as you stand in the back of the Barn. You’ll see them flicker into the hazy pink Austin sky.
I went on to other residencies and fellowships in the months after the Writing Barn, but none compared to the comfortable solitude there, where all are welcome and the borders of the imagination soften in that space.
Heather Bryant is a writer and teacher living in Sunnyside, New York. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, The Southeast Review, CURA, and in anthologies.
She teaches memoir and young adult literature at Pace University and the course, “Writing as Remedy” at Wellbody in Union Square: http://wellbody.com/writing-as- remedy/.
All photos by Heather Bryant.