Monday, August 19, 2013

Bob Elder's Writing Cabin

We love writing sheds (and cabins) here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. It seems more and more historians (see our interview with T.J. Tomlin of the University of Northern Colorado) are doing their work in these small detached structures and I hope one day I will be able to join them.

I recently learned about another shed/cabin worker.  I first met Bob Elder through my affiliation with the Lilly Fellows Program in Arts and Humanities at Valparaiso.  (I was a fellow from 2000-2002 and currently sit on the board of the organization).  Of all the young American historians working on projects related to religion in the American South, Bob is one of the best.  His first book, Sacred Communities: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the American South, 1790-1860, is currently under contract with the University of North Carolina Press.

After entertaining several job offers following his two-year stint at Valparaiso , Bob decided to take a job at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas.  He and his young family have taken up residence on his family's farm and built a beautiful writing cabin on the property.

When I learned of Bob's decision to move back to Kansas, take the job at Tabor, and build his cabin, I could not resist interviewing for the blog.  I caught up with him recently and asked him a few questions.  Enjoy!  --JF
JF: You just took a college teaching job in Kansas and moved to the family farm. Tell us a bit about the decision.

BE: We were very fortunate to have a decision to make at all in this job market, but in the end the choice to take the job near home hinged on certain things I believe about the importance of place, community, and one way to live a good life. I was lucky enough to grow up in a very distinctive place, a small community outside Wichita where my family runs an organic farm. Both my wife and I come from families that have lived in specific places for a very long time (hers in South Carolina), so when the opportunity to live and raise our kids near family presented itself, we felt like we had to try it. I've read a lot about graduate school as a form of socialization that instills unrealistic expectations in young academics and makes them think about their careers in certain, rather inflexible ways (although I think my graduate program and my advisor did a great job informing me and preparing me for the reality of the academic market). That tendency to idealize in abstraction a certain kind of career doesn't die easily, but in my case two things helped me look at my academic career from a different angle. The first was a long exposure to the agrarian/communitarian intellectual tradition, people like Wendell
Berry and the Nashville Agrarians (we're calling my cabin the Lytle Cabin in honor of Andrew Lytle, one of the Nashville Agrarians and my parents' teacher at Sewanee). In particular, Berry's address to the NEH last year really hit me hard at a time when I was very conscious of being subject to a job market that placed no particular emphasis on place or the importance of "affection," to use Berry's term. The second thing that helped me look at my career from a different angle was the Lilly Fellows Postdoctoral Program at Valparaiso University, where I was fortunate enough to spend two years learning to teach and thinking about my academic vocation in terms of a Christian calling (I'm working at a college in the Mennonite tradition). In the end, I think I could have put my ideas about place into practice nearly anywhere, but I feel very fortunate to be where I am.
JF: Why a writing shed/cabin?

BE: I'm living on (or around the corner from) the family farm, but I'll be driving half an hour to work at least three days a week, so some sort of a home office seemed to make sense. Also, while I love the fact that my parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, and old friends can just stop by, and that we have a very active, some would say hyperactive, social life in that
regard, sometimes I'm going to need to get away from that. So I felt like I needed a separate place where I could work on the days I'm at home and in the evenings. Plus, my wife was happy to have all my books out of the house! I also felt that if I created the space I'd feel more obligated to use it, particularly for writing. Part of the rationale about living near family is that we'll be able to spend more time during holidays and the summer at home, and hopefully I'll be able to use those extra weeks to write. It worked out perfectly because there was an existing structure on the property, an old garden shed, that already had a concrete pad and electricity running to it. My brother runs a small sawmill and provided some of the wood, which he milled from local trees (yes, Kansas has trees!), and another friend who's a general contractor helped out with other material and supervising the project (tip: you don't want me drywalling your house). I'm really happy with how it turned out.    
JF: I know that you just finished the project, but I wonder if having a place like this to write has changed your writing habits?  Have you developed a writing routine?

BE: I started using the cabin this summer, and although at first it was a little weird walking out the front door ("Bye, I'm going to work!") and just walking down the hill to the cabin, I really started to appreciate the routine and the ability to have a separate work space but still be "at home," have lunch with the family, etc. I anticipate using the cabin during the evenings and a couple days a week during the school year. One thing I've already noticed is the difference it makes mentally to be in a place where you know, barring marauding children, that you won't be interrupted. I haven't had that sort of space since I wrote my dissertation in a tiny office at the very back of the top floor of the Emory library. It's really great. I think I read and write differently because of it.
JF: Any drawbacks to working in a writing cabin? 

BE: The cabin is air-conditioned (this is Kansas) but there's no bathroom, and given my coffee habit that can be a challenge. Of course, I can always walk up the hill to the house or, given the fact we're on five wooded acres with no neighbors in sight, use the woods. Don't tell my wife.

Thanks, Bob.

And I might add that my offer is still on the table.  If there is a contractor out there who wants to build me a shed (I live in central Pennsylvania--Cumberland County) I will be happy to provide his/her shed building company with unlimited free publicity and a permanent advertisement in the sidebar here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Let's work out a deal.  Contact me at jfea(at)messiah(dot)edu

Do you work in a writing shed or cabin?  We would be happy to consider featuring you here at the blog.