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In Praise of Unfinished Basements

The basement at my parents’ house in New Hampshire is unfinished, the ceiling lined with extension cords fastened to wood beams, its concrete floor covered in self-stick carpet tiles. As a kid, I saw it as a respite from a too-public life: My bedroom shared a door with my parents’ room, and my mom worked out of our living room. Chasing solitude, I went there to make things without interruption, outlining imagined episodes of “Batman: The Animated Series” and rapping over beats I composed in my head. Bleary-eyed and needing a break, I’d rip open garbage bags full of my dad’s old clothes, or hop up and down on a mini-trampoline. Then I’d read a few pages from a random book, play some chords on an out-of-tune guitar. I could spend entire days down there, lost in my own head.

When I visit my parents’ house, I still find myself drawn to the basement. The room hasn’t changed much since I was a kid. The smell of musty furniture hits my nose as soon as I open the door; paperbacks, collapsible bins and hand-drums are stacked atop one another in bewildering configurations, sectioned off like displays in an antiques shop. Usually, I wait until after dinner to go down and sit on the stiff, floral-patterned sofa, staring at the decades-old detritus, eager to tap into my childhood creativity. I can still spend hours there alone, reading and writing until my eyes shut. Even now, entering the basement makes me feel like I am descending into parts of my mind that I didn’t know existed.

The year after I graduated college, reading Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, “Invisible Man,” put my relationship with the basement into perspective. The novel’s unnamed protagonist lives in an abandoned and shut-off portion of a basement below an apartment building that forbids Black tenants. He siphons his electricity from a power company, the basement ceiling wired with over a thousand bulbs of stolen light. Here, the basement is a staging ground where the narrator reflects, writes and bides his time until he can re-emerge to resist the forces that have rendered him invisible. Ellison drew inspiration from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1864 novella, “Notes From Underground,” which has a narrator alienated from polite society, aspiring toward a vision of reality that can touch the sublime. He embraces the underground as a place outside the scope of production and capital, laboratories where new kinds of thought can take shape.

That’s the gift my childhood basement gave me. Even when I got older and became envious of my friends’ opulent dens — finished rooms boasting billiards tables and big-screen TVs, mini-fridges lined with sodas and I.P.A.s — I preferred the more bare-bones setup of my basement. It remained mutable, adaptable. Early on in college, my friends and I transformed it into a makeshift recording studio during our summer breaks, crafting concept rap albums in a space free of distraction or judgment. There was no game console to occupy our attention; we worked with ascetic focus, knowing that soon we’d have to emerge aboveground and once again be subject to unwanted expectations and parental pressures. The basement afforded us the privileges of escape and reinvention — a place where life was more than what it seemed and our messy thoughts wound their way toward purpose.

Credit…Brian Ulrich for The New York Times

As a writer, I try to recreate this alchemy in my work spaces. The sustained delusion and immersion required to make art requires time, privacy and patience — luxuries I’ve struggled to attain in my adult life. I spent my 20s occupying small apartments in big cities, living in rooms that were bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms rolled into one. When I lived in New York, I often wrote sitting on the floor, hoping to trick myself into thinking I was somewhere else, a place reserved for writing. When I lived in Austin, Texas, I sometimes recorded music in my car, believing that the distance from my duplex would put me in a head space where worries of productivity would dissolve into a state of receptivity. It’s hard to say whether these mental gymnastics worked — I usually returned to reality feeling drained and disappointed, wishing I could linger in that open-minded state for a few hours more. Without the ability to flee underground and arrive at this threshold, I mapped out alternate routes for doing so. I developed rituals meant to announce my entry to a more creative head space: clapping twice before sitting down to write; splitting up sessions with a long, agonizing run; spreading books across my desk, hoping to osmotically soak in their wisdom. Somehow these strategies worked. I may never return to the days of dawdling in the basement, but those days taught me what creativity could feel like. I’ve learned to channel that mind-set into a sustained creative practice.

In June, my wife and I relocated back to New England. The house we rent has a basement, one that’s exceptionally dark and floods after the faintest of rains; I venture into it only to do laundry or fetch the ladder. I’m fortunate to have more space now, including a room dedicated to writing and music. Even so, I still make use of what the basement taught me: I imagine myself into an elsewhere, where reality softens and my creative potential helps me explore what remains unknown. Sometimes it takes burrowing belowground — even if only figuratively — to realize how many worlds we have left to see.


Brady Brickner-Wood is a writer and critic living in Portland, Maine.

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