The Block Island Times

Mark Twain’s Shed

By J. V. Houlihan, Jr. | Feb 08, 2014

In my new book, “Sheds,” I explored the places where some very interesting people create their work. My boat is my shed. In fact, I’m writing this column in said shed right now. This is also where I wrote the original “Sheds” piece for The Block Island Times; then the book happened. We want to know what it’s like writing on a sailboat in January when the wind is blowing 20 knots in Newport Harbor and its five degrees, don’t we? Well, it’s cold and Reverie is rocking and rolling as I punch the keys to inform the reader about Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain.

My research for Mark Twain was extensive, yet the intention I had of this book was for it to be a compressed and fast-paced read. Twain had a lot of words in that head of his ― we know this, because we’ve probably read “Huckleberry Finn.” Furthermore, over the course of his life, Mark Twain composed between 50,000 to 100,000 letters. Here is a sample of one he sent to his mom while he was out and about. “My dear mother: you will doubtless be a little surprised, and somewhat angry when you receive this, and find me so far from home; but you must bear with me, for you know I was always the best boy you had, and perhaps you remember the people used to say to their children ― ‘Now don’t do like Orion and Henry Clemens, but take Sam for your guide!’ Well, I was out of work in St. Louis, and didn’t fancy loafing in such a dry place, where there is no pleasure to be seen without paying for it, and thought I might as well go to New York. I packed up my duds and left for the village, where I arrived, all right this morning.” Twain was putting a balm on his poor mother’s world of worry for her son ― thoughtful guy!

Mark Twain was not only prolific writer; he was sharp and very funny. He referred to himself as a “scribbler.” (I call myself a scribbler also, because that’s exactly what I do while writing literary non-fiction. My scribbling is atrocious and is getting worse as I geez onward. (Island artist Cindy Kelly once gave me a Moleskin notebook in which to scratch out my nouns and verbs. Best gift ever!) I have a vision of Twain scribbling: names, dates, adjectives and important facts, while researching a story. This guy was a keen observer, and you didn’t want to cross him. If Twain didn’t like you and you ended up in his crosshairs, well, that was too bad for you. (I give an example of this in my book.)

Today, I still scribble notes on pads and notebooks; been doing that since I was 14-years old. It’s the best way to snatch information for a story, on the quick. I also have a blog calledNotes from the Docks.” A friend once told me I should do a blog ― this friend has never given me bad advice. One day at the ferry dock, Fraser Lang also suggested I write a blog on the paper’s website. I readily agreed without knowing what a blog was; my daughter informed me later that day. (I’ve crunched out about 100 of these things.) Blogging is a great way to practice writing. I bet Mark Twain would’ve been a blogger.

In “Sheds,” I also write about novelists Edith Wharton, Herman Melville and playwright Arthur Miller. These authors have informed and inspired me for 50 years. It was a challenge to write about these iconic folks without sounding overly academic.

Mark Twain’s shed, by the way, was in his billiard room at Nook Farm in Hartford. It was here, between two Tiffany lamps on an oak desk, that he constructed “Huckleberry Finn.”

I often wonder if he’d give this “scribbler” a respectful nod for his efforts, or if he’d pull out his poison pen and scribble a missive that would send this slinger of verbs and nouns to a therapist.

I’d be fine with either outcome.

“Sheds,” by J. V. Houlihan, Jr., is available at Island Bound Bookstore.

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