Like my early Writer’s Notebook entry “1,000 words,” this exercise requires I post a picture. This picture, though, comes with a title and a caption, which I’ve included with the pic at the right (for the full citation, see the end of the story). Children’s lit fans might recognize the title of this post and/or this image, and so you might have guessed what I’m up to here, but as usual, I’ll save the description of the exercise for the end of the post.
When I’d moved into the cottage, the owner had shown me around — where the cups were in the cupboard, how to prise open the window over the writing desk in the little loft, those sorts of things — but, curiously, she had walked past the tiny door at the foot of the stairs without comment. I’d stopped her and pointed to it. She’d laughed and said, “Oh, that’s our little-person door.”
“You mean, like a midget?”
She stopped laughing, gave me a stern look, but she shook her head and said, “No, it’s just what we call it. It’s a storage area, really.”
“Why’s the door so little?” It was, too — maybe 20 inches high at the peak, less than a foot wide, and it was arched so the doorway was narrower at the top. Even lying on my side and worming on the floor, I couldn’t have fit through it.
She said, “I don’t know. The cottage is very old, of course, they did odd things in the old days. But it will make for good writing, a quiet, clean place for you to finish your book.”
I squatted and reached out a hand to the tiny doorknob, but she put a hand on my shoulder.
“It’s been locked since we’ve owned the place. Best to leave it alone — it doesn’t often do to go poking about these old places.”
“You mean there might be mold?” I said.
She looked at me a moment, then turned and marched toward the little den up front. “Sometimes,” she called over her shoulder, “the light is very pleasant here in the morning, and I think you’ll find an outlet beside the sofa. I have a spare adapter if you need one.”
I looked at the door again but finally just followed her. I was getting this place cheap, a whole month for barely three hundred pounds. That’s something like five hundred dollars. I didn’t want to upset the woman.
But the first week I barely worked. I would eat a quick breakfast in the kitchen, drink a cup of coffee in the den and read a little, and then I’d pour a second cup and head upstairs to write. But on the way I’d stop, stare at the tiny door for a good minute or two — sometimes longer — and when I finally did drag myself up the stairs to the little study, all I could think of was the door. Why its proportions. How to get in. What might be hidden inside, and how old those things might be.
Instead of turning on the laptop and setting to work, I’d dig out my leather notebook and start scribbling lists. I started with the mundane, just to keep myself as grounded and as bored as I could — the more ordinary the room’s contents, the faster I could get to work. Old tools. A rotted straw mattress. Someone’s forgotten tea set and wedding china. But I couldn’t help myself, and soon the ideas became more elaborate. A stash of controversial books banned by the church and secreted away. A spinster’s unused wedding dress. Furniture of a child who died too young. The body of the child.
It was too much. I can’t sit here making lists for the next three weeks. So I’m going in. I’m writing this down now, and dating it, and sealing it and dropping it in the post, so there will be a record. I don’t know what’s in that room, but if it’s something no one wants found, I don’t want people thinking I’m the one who put it there.
And now, here goes nothing.
* * *
For as long as he’d lived in the house, the door had been there. No one could explain to him what it lead to, since on the outside of the house there was only the garden and the big oak tree — that wall was bare, the same mud-plaster walls as the rest of the house and utterly seamless. He’d looked. For all he knew it opened onto the inside of the wall, someone’s idea of a joke. But he’d never been able to find out, because he didn’t like to climb the ladder to reach the doorknob so many feet off the ground, and the few times he’d risked it the knob wouldn’t turn.
It was better, everyone told him, to leave the door alone, and in the end he’d decided they were right. It made a nice conversation piece when he had visitors. Better still, all that wood, as wide as half the wall and rising clear to the high ceiling, made an excellent display wall for his wife’s country paintings. Best not to disturb them.
Still, he liked to stand in the grand hall from time to time, studying the door, the strange width of the planks, the doorknob bigger than his head. He’d heard there were some trees over in America that grew hundreds of feet high, dozens and dozens of feet across, and perhaps the planks of this door had been milled there, cut from these huge trees. But who would take the trouble to import such wood here, and for such a cottage — despite the grand hall with the huge door, his cottage was otherwise small and unremarkable.
He wondered at the craftsmanship necessary to cast a doorknob so large, but he wondered, too, if the engineering had simply proved impractical, if the doorknob in fact didn’t turn at all, the door mere decoration and never meant to open, and that’s why he’d never been able to manage it from the ladder.
But then, as he was standing before the door one summer afternoon, the air warm through the windows on his back, he felt a tremor, two careful thuds, like trees had fallen outside. He flinched and thought to run around the house and check the big oak in the garden, but before he turned he noticed the paintings, all his wife’s little country scenes, were trembling on their hooks. It was only a moment, but he knew he’d seen them shake. Then he heard another thud, this one against the house itself, and he went very still, the sun no longer warm on his back, his hands tense and unsteady. His heart was pounding. He was sure he had seen the doorknob turn.
For those of you who didn’t recognize the title or image, this is from Chris Van Allsburg‘s haunting little book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. This exercise was my wife’s idea; she came home from the library where she works all happy and grinning slyly, and she told me, “I have a great idea for this week’s writing exercise!” And then she handed me the Van Allsburg. His books have always been favorites for both of us (my wife, who has a graduate specialization in youth literature, introduced me to Van Allsburg), but I suspect this particular exercise was partly inspired by our nephew Aidan, who is this year beginning to read some Van Allsburg, much to his aunt and uncle’s delight.
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is an unusual children’s book, though, because it doesn’t involve much story. Or rather, it directly involves the reader in the story — it requires you to write your own.
The premise of the book is that Van Allsburg “found” these images in the home of a friend, who tells him a strange and unresolved tale of an artist who made a set of drawings to accompany his stories and then left the art behind without ever submitting the stories. The artist, eerily, is never heard from again, and no one can seem to find out anything about him. The only clues are the titles for the images and the small captions the artist had written on the backs of the pages. Those titles and captions, then, are “reproduced” along with the art in Van Allsburg’s book, and it is up to us readers to supply the stories.
Van Allsburg is of course fully aware that he’s written what is essentially a book of writing exercises for children (and adults), because when you visit his website, you will find a link to the Mysteries of Harris Burdick Story Writing Contest, a site which includes instructions for how to go about writing a story from these images as well as scores of reader-submitted fiction (and at least two short animations, and at least two songs written from the images).
So whether you are a child, a children’s author, or just a child at heart (like me)*, I encourage you to find a copy of The Mysteries . . . at your local library, then head over to Van Allsburg’s site and try your hand at a story. (That means you, too, Aidan!)
Stephen King is also a child at heart. In his story collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes, King himself tried his hand at another of the stories suggested in The Mysteries . . . , the final picture, “The House on Maple Street.”