Call it going cold turkey. Earlier this summer, I knew I had to seize -- and slightly alter -- E.M. Forster's famous command, "Only connect..." So off I went to a cabin in the woods of Maine with no Internet or cell phone service in order to "only disconnect." I needed stillness to make headway on the novel I've been writing in fits and starts for years, and the cabin and its setting -- 30 foot-tall pine trees in every direction -- were serene, beautiful, and eerily out of touch.
But when I opened my laptop -- to use as a typewriter -- the cursor was frozen in the corner of the screen. Frozen solid. Until I could get home, I was advised to get an external mouse and an external keyboard, which I did in the nearest town. But the hardware turned my laptop into an octopus that needed a desk, not a lap, and there wasn't one. Close to despair, I remembered the blank book I'd packed, with no particular plans for it -- a still shrink-wrapped black Moleskine notebook I'd found in my sister-in-law's apartment after she died -- and dug it out of my suitcase. Inside the leather-like-covered book a pamphlet told its history.
This brand of notebook was used by artists and writers -- for sketches and first drafts -- from Van Gogh to Picasso, from Ernest Hemingway to Bruce Chatwin, who bought them at a stationery shop in Paris, 100 at a time. The manufacturer closed up shop in 1986, but in 1998, a company in Milan brought the product back to life.
Finding this blank book already so full of hope and history -- from Hemingway's to my beloved sister-in-law's -- was a bit like encountering a bear in the woods: it was just the two of us, and it was up to me to save my skin. I couldn't hide, couldn't escape to the computer or connect anywhere but in its cream-colored pages. I began by rereading the manuscript pages from the novel -- and I winced two dozen times. It was all too complicated, and there was no through line. There were voices but no story -- or too many stories, and I only needed one -- one with enough power to drive a novel.
I spoke to myself out there in the woods, and soon a line came to me about a man in need of a story, and then another line, and then the identity of the man -- his dilemma, his burden -- appeared in a flash. This was a story I'd been trying to tell for years, but the man was new to it, a revelation, a way in I'd never noticed. It was as though the bear in the woods had become a kitten in my hand -- tiny and fragile but alive.
I wrote three pages. By hand. With a pen. Later that day, I wrote two more. I woke up early every day for two weeks and wrote this way. It was primitive and thrilling, like cooking over a campfire, like celestial navigation. I wasn't sure where I was going, but I was on a journey, and it felt natural, instead of cramped, for the first time in years.
Back in the city now with equipment that works, I'm still writing in the notebook, and haven't yet transferred what's there to the laptop. I know that day is coming, but it's still exotic to compose this way after all these years -- twenty-five of them! -- on a computer. It takes me back to the cabin in Maine. To Patagonia with Bruce Chatwin. To Paris in the 1920s with Hemingway. Those were the days.
Do you have a favorite notebook, a favorite place to write, somewhere to go or something you love to do when you disconnect?
Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five novels and the editor of the anthology Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives. She teaches at Brandeis University.