Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 5, 2008

Writing in Hideouts

Reading children’s lit, the themes of imagination and refuge reappear. We have the One Hundred Acre Wood, which Christopher Robin gets to visit. Terabithia is where two children feel free from the pressures of home or school. Jo March perched on a three-legged sofa in a garret, with a sack of apples, a pen and ink.

Some of my students wrote about retreats in makeshift forts. Many were nostalgic for places where they remembered figuring out the strange lives of parents, or vowing to be nicer to a sibling, or dreaming up ways, like kings and queens of yore, or Frodo, how to save the world. They missed the escape from structured activities to places where they didn’t have to do anything, except maybe dream or think. One student wrote about wishing for an old comfy chair like the one that gave her comfort through family problems and adolescent angst, and was also where she tucked herself away when she was happy. Not only would a new chair not have the old stains, scents, and memories, she wondered if such private comfort is possible while at college. Where is home?

I think of E.B. White, who struggled with depression, writing CHARLOTTE’S WEB partly as a way to bring back the imagination and hope he took for granted as a child.

I’m no E.B., but I think writing is my haven and fortress-in-the-woods, the place where I go to be alone – but like many of my students, remembering their childhoods, may share with a trusted friend. Writing about old private sanctuaries, several students mentioned the one trusted person who was allowed to enter. One kept a hideout with a stash of nail polish, snacks, and a shared journal: lest it be discovered, the two girls wrote their names backwards. Tricky.

When writing. I think it’s important to feel as if we’re writing in safety, even, or especially, as we dare to push beyond what feels safe. To feel as if we’re writing to that one special friend we trust with our backwards-written name. For a while, no one may sneak into this cobbled-together fort. Then one day we open the door to all our best friends and say: enter, please.



  1. people who have studied children and environment (psychologists, environmental scientists, landscape architects, etc) have noticed the same thing: that children prefer play areas that have a place of refuge to one that is wide open; especially if they can look out from it to see what is happening around them. There are some interesting books on children and play (my mind is blanking right now) and it’s interesting to see how that field of study overlaps with children’s literature…

  2. I think you’re write–creating a safe place is critical. I lucked out when we bought our house–it had space for two offices (who needs a dining room?!), and I’ve always had a place that’s FOR that. As I got closer to publication in the last couple of years, I’ve tried to keep the room even more for my work, less for my other stuff.
    Check out the t-shirt that Vivian at Hip Writer Mama won, if you haven’t seen it yet.
    But reading has always been the true haven for me. Except on those very good days, I don’t escape as fully into my writing–away from the distractions and the what-ifs–as I do with someone else’s book. Pretty sure that’s my dream for my own fiction, that someday it will let another child go absolutely away for a while.

  3. As a youngster I had an apple tree just close enough to the house to sit in and observe the comings and goings of family members. It was a place to read and think. There was also a big hunk of a rock further down in the woods by the creek that I loved to go to for solitude. Oh and there were nice cavities inside the huge boxwood bushes in our yard. I was lucky to have lots of quiet spaces which was a good thing because with 7 siblings there wasn’t much silence inside the house.
    And I do believe that is why I write. The page lets me speak. It always listens. It doesn’t interrupt or argue or rush me. I love the page.
    Thanks for sharing this lovely post!

  4. I agree. And it’s not only the physical space, the space inside has to feel safe, too, but sometimes adjusting the physical space helps to create that. I know I do my best writing when no one is home, much as I love my family, and despite the fact that they are all old enough not to distract me. It’s the feeling that my house is all mine for those lovely times that helps me write.

  5. Hey, I had a fort…well, it wasn’t really a fort, but to me it was – my own special place tucked beneath trees — or somethimes up in the tree. Beautiful post. Brings back those wonderful memories — those “little-house-on-the-prairie” days for me 🙂
    J – I WANT TO BE IN YOUR CLASS! What a treat for those young women!

  6. So well said. It also brought back such strong memories of my own various hideouts, not to mention the realization that I often revert to calling my office, “my room,” as if it were my childhood refuge.

  7. Mine haven was reading while eating apples–Winesap to be exact! Today, reading is still my escape, but sadly no winesap to be had here on the west coast.

  8. Children and the rest of us, I’d say — it’s always good to look out, and keep our backs protected.
    Thanks for your comment!

  9. Love that t-shirt! Thanks for the link.
    What a wonderful dream — to lure someone else away like that. It will happen, Becky.

  10. And thank you, Joyce, for sharing that lovely response! Yes, I had different trees and rocks for different activities — but not seven siblings! I’m so glad you found your refuge and have kept it.

  11. I know — it’s weird, when we may sadly say goodbye — but the house becomes ours in a different way.
    Hope your house folds around you this fall.

  12. Hey, if you say it was a fort, it was a fort! Doesn’t have to be against evil or anything huge, but just… the world for a little while.
    Nan, wish you were here! But the class is a treat for me, too.

  13. Yes, I call mine a writing room. Who’d want to work in an office if she had a choice? Hope you have great times this fall in your refuge!

  14. Well, we’ve got the apples, you’ve got the weather. My favorite is the McIntosh and Macoun, but winesap sounds very Louisa May Alcott! Maybe I should branch out. (and there’s always popcorn).

  15. I bet. It gives you that chance to go through it all through their eyes. What fun!

  16. Boy, this made me think. Took me back to my own hideout beside the refrigerator, where I crouched with a pencil and wrote my name and lots of important Stuff on the underside of a kitchen counter/bar. I’ve occasionally wondered what the next homeowners thought of my scribblings – or if they ever found them. Thanks for posting!

  17. Boy, we were quite a crew, weren’t we? Um, maybe present tense though glad you got out behind the refrigerator space! I would love to see those scribbling under the kitchen counter!
    I crouched on the radiator by our refrigerator, going to the windowsill when it got too hot.
    Thanks for your story!

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