The ABCs of Writing
An interview with Janet Yoder
by Cheryl Latif
Janet Yoder is a multi-discipline writer whose essays, creative nonfiction, and short stories have been published in various journals. In January she took the stage at Poetrybridge and shared one incredible piece, Alphabet of Tiny (reprinted in this issue). I met with her recently to discuss the piece and how she goes about choosing her subject matter and, doing what she does so poignantly. We ended up discussing a variety of subjects, as the piece touches on many aspects of today’s society.
CL: Alphabet of Tiny uses a form known as Abecedarian, in which the first section begins with A and each subsequent section begins with its following letter. Most of us look upon the ABCs as an elementary school exercise, but here it is, both a writing form and an exercise.
JY: Well, I like being pushed into new forms. Studying with Priscilla Long, we read Dinty Moore’s, “Son of Mister Green Jeans: An Essay on Fatherhood, Alphabetically Arranged.” At the time I thought it an interesting form but not necessarily one I would use. But then I found myself using it to write a piece on espresso, the accumulation of stuff, Post-It Notes and the Alphabet of Tiny, which grew out of seeing micro-apartment buildings cropping up in my Eastlake neighborhood. We now have about 3-5 of them in the area. They’re also in other parts of Seattle. Many units are being rented to the techies.
Anyway, I also began watching shows such as The Tiny House Nation and taking notes. Researching creative storage solutions, interviewing folks doing this. I also toured some of the units. Ironically they didn’t feel claustrophobic. They are designed to feel larger. I started asking myself questions such as, how much square footage does a family need? In the piece I really wanted to ask rather than answer questions.
CL: What other questions do you think the piece presents?
JY: I think overall it pushes us all to look at what our responsibility is as a society when it comes to housing. Zoning laws are changing. These units are quite small – some as little as 100 square feet – and yet they can be expensive, while we still have people who cannot afford shelter at all. We still have abandoned buildings. What do we do as a society?
CL: Hopefully this is something that people will address and your piece will help get that conversation going. It sounds as though it was an enjoyable way to get a message across.
JY: It was. The form is more fun than you might think. I put down the letter and started listing words. Then I’d and pick the right word and start the writing. Rather than write the form and then find the word, I’d find the word and write into the form. I actually set a timer for each (I am pretty self-disciplined –most workshops work this way, so…). It’s really not a traditional narrative arc, the change of which I enjoyed. I will say X was the greatest challenge [laughs]. And I did some rewriting on the Z section so that I could bring a sense of closure to the piece. I wanted to make it wrap together. It’s really a playful form. I encourage those of you who write to try it out.
CL: Thank you, Janet. This piece certainly opened my eyes. You did an excellent job of getting the information out while entertaining in the process!
Alphabet of Tiny
by Janet Yoder
Apodment (actually aPodment®) is a Seattle micro-housing company that owns 18 buildings full of tiny apartments. By tiny, I mean averaging 200 square feet. Each apodment has a sitting/sleeping room with something less than a kitchen—typically an under-counter refrigerator and a microwave against one wall and a bathroom. There is usually a larger, communal kitchen and a shared laundry room. The bed and shelves for clothes are built-in, which is good because there is not much room for furniture. You can move in with as little as your clothes, bedding, towels, minimal dishes, and silverware, as if you were moving into a dormitory or monastery. Rents range from $645 to $950 and rising. This is less than the $2000 average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle. And that rent includes all utilities and Wi-Fi. Just don’t think about what it costs per square foot.
In Seattle the name apodment has become synonymous with micro-housing or micro-apartments in general. At neighborhood meetings all over the city, the word apodment is spoken with a growl by old-timers, meaning anyone living in the city before its Amazon-fueled boom. Apodments bring sudden dramatic increased density to a neighborhood. Some apodment dwellers own cars and park them in already overparked streets. In my neighborhood, an old house is being replaced by a four-story building that will hold 27 apodments. Multiply that times properties all over and you can see how apodments don’t work for some.
Fold-down table, flip-up desk, sofa seat hatches, stair step cubbies, window seat nested in a wall of cupboards, hat hooks, glove bin, pullout shoe shelf, in-floor wine hatch, above-sink hanging dish rack, above-stove pot rack, magnetic knife holder, dog dish drawer.
I read a piece in Crosscut by writer Suzanne Jacobs, who recently moved to Seattle from Cambridge, Massachusetts. She considered group houses, interviewed for a few, and then decided to rent an apodment in a building called Positano. She doesn’t own a car. She pared down. The tiny apartment is perfect for her. She describes the place as cozy and full of light. She also says it is the size of four Ping-Pong tables, so she remains hyperaware of her possessions. It takes her less than 30 minutes to clean the whole place. If she moves to another city, she will skip Craigslist and go straight for a micro-apartment. Multiply her experience times 3,000 (Politico’s count on Seattle micro-apartments) and you see how apodments work for some.
To go tiny, you have to downsize. You have to ditch a huge portion of your stuff. I watch host John Weisbarth on Tiny House Nation help his about-to-go-tiny guests sort through their stuff so they will be able to live in the tiny home being built for them. John Weisbarth puts masking tape down on the floor to delineate the total footprint of the new tiny house. The guests step inside the footprint, and you see them gulp as reality sets in. She cannot have 50 pairs of shoes, not even 20, maybe not even 10. He will have to thin out his collection of guitars and beer brewing gear. Books, papers, bills, bank statements, photos, music, and games will have to go digital. You watch them struggle, make decisions on camera. I admire this downsizing. It looks hard and is perhaps also virtuous. Or a necessity of getting out of debt. Or a conversion of a large debt to a tiny debt.
During the frothy times early this century, people took on big debt in the form of home mortgages. Then in 2008 the housing bubble popped. Home values went down. Debt rose. Banks foreclosed. Jobs vanished. The tiny house movement grew in response to this crisis. Fact: You can build a tiny house for as little as $30,000 to $50,000. Your debt will be tiny. Or maybe you move to a new city where you can find a better job and you land in a tiny apartment home. Tiny as economic survival.
Favela is the Portuguese word for the slum neighborhoods built up around Rio and other major coastal cities of Brazil. Favelas have been around for a long time, despite past efforts to eradicate them. Over time, many favelas have gotten media attention (including visits by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama), sanitation, electricity, education, even community policing. A slum will spring up around any growing metropolis, any place where there is perceived opportunity and a relatively high cost of housing. They are on the edges of cities as diverse as Mexico City, Manila, Port-au-Prince, Cairo, Nairobi, Mumbai. These slums are full of tiny shacks, shanties, huts, lean-tos, shelters thrown together with cardboard, cast-off wood, corrugated metal, all manner of scavenged materials. You will see people living in tiny houses that aren’t even houses, people who didn’t have to pare down because they were born pared down, people who are squatting, people living on the city’s margins, its leftovers, its cast-offs, its trash, people living mostly on air. Tiny, but not by choice.
G. Gypsy wagon
The origin of travel trailers and motor homes is the gypsy wagon from the travelers (Roma people) of the British Isles. The idea is a moveable home, pulled by horses or in later times, by a vehicle. Live where you want, move when you want to move, no need to own the land beneath you. The gypsy wagon attracts us as though it is a carriage of dreams, our fantasy of freedom.
The 2016 One Night Count revealed that in King County—the county that includes Seattle—volunteers found 4,505 people sleeping outside in January. This does not include the number of those homeless sleeping in shelters. The number is a 19 percent increase over 2015. Homelessness is a complex problem that may involve financial loss, high rents, gentrification, mental illness, PTSD, substance abuse, sexual abuse, or a host of other issues, including just plain bad luck.
The ways of addressing homelessness may be just as complex. There are some who want to address homelessness by building more shelters, more low-income housing. Some want to build tiny houses for the homeless. Recently a family from Ephrata, a small town in eastern Washington State, decided to build a very tiny house that is basically the size of a twin bed. You enter under a very low roof at the foot of the bed. The roof slopes up slightly at the head of the bed. The family brought it over to Seattle and arranged to give it to a homeless man who lives under the freeway. The chosen homeless man tried to sleep in the bed/house but felt claustrophobic. He crawled out of the tiny bed/house and found his way back to his tent under the freeway. Maybe someone else will sleep in the tiny bed/house.
“Geek City: The Tech invasion is changing the vibe in Seattle. Boom-to-bust-to-boom Seattle is riding a hot streak again, and the swarm of high-tech newcomers is a big reason why. Young, mostly white and overwhelmingly male, this ambitious code-writing brood earns big bucks while breeding resentment over rising rents and skyrocketing real estate prices. Their onslaught, critics say, has exaggerated economic disparity throughout the region, forged bland and soulless enclaves, and clogged many streets.” Ellis E. Conklin, Seattle Business, June 2016.
A typical jail cell for one prisoner measures six feet by eight feet or a bit more. In a jail cell, the furniture is built in. Sometimes the whole jail cell is pre-cast. Each cell has a one-piece sink/toilet. No kitchen. A jail cell is smaller than most tiny houses, but in some ways, not that different.
Galley, cookroom, cookery, scullery, pantry, larder, hearth, heart. Even a tiny house centers on its kitchen.
A loft may be an open space in a trendy neighborhood full of new galleries, cafes, and bars. A loft in a tiny home may be less than this, perhaps a place for your bed or desk, a space where you will bump your head on the ceiling if you stand or perhaps even if you kneel. A loft in a tiny house gives you more room below, its lofty contribution to tiny.
M. Murphy Bed
William Lawrence Murphy invented the Murphy bed that pulls down from the wall with a patented pinion system. According to Wikipedia, Murphy was trying to woo an opera singer around 1900 in San Francisco. He lived in an efficiency apartment and needed to convert his bedroom into a parlor where he could entertain the diva properly, with no bed in sight. Desire is the mother of invention. Now, some tiny houses and tiny apartments come installed with a Murphy bed that converts into a sofa, a desk, or a dining table.
N. Not So Big
In 1974, my husband and I bought a funky houseboat, one of Seattle’s 500 floating homes, for $8,000. In 1984, we demolished the old houseboat and built a new one the same size, just over 1,000 square feet. With no garage, no basement, and no attic, we did what all houseboaters do—built in storage. We designed a built-in sofa with storage below. Our dresser drawers are built into the bed. Our kitchen is compact but it works, even with two people cooking at the same time. We are proud of our full-height cupboard whose piano hinged shelves swing out for access to deep storage, proud of our below-floor storage accessed by a hatch, and of our guest loft accessed by a rolling ladder. Our houseboat is not so big. The not-so-big-house concept was expounded upon by architect Sarah Susanka, whose 1999 book The Not So Big House presents the idea of designing your house for how you actually use space rather than what society or real estate professionals dictate.
O. One in/One out
Once you have gone tiny, the challenge is staying tiny. That means that for everything you buy that is not consumable, something similar has to go out.
He is writing a novel while sitting on the toilet. She is watching a TV that hangs from the wall above the bathtub. He turns on the shower hose, and she complains the spray blocks her view of the TV. She sits in a closet that doubles as a tiny library because she needs some alone time. The kitty litter box flips up to store against the wall. The refrigerator door opens right into the loft ladder. Toast pops out of a high cubby. He bends over, and she slices toast using his back as a fold-down table. “Move in,” they say. “It’ll take just five minutes.”
Why am I addicted to watching Tiny House Nation and Tiny House Hunting? What difference is the tiny house movement making? Are tiny homes the answer to problems of debt and homelessness? Or to saving the planet? If we spend less on our home, do we travel more? How small can we go? How small should we go? Am I just jealous because floating homes used to be the darlings of the not-so-big-house concept that began years ago? Is tiny good and big bad? Or is tiny just tiny, and you either get it or you don’t? Do I get it?
What is our responsibility to those who cannot afford the high cost of housing in our growing cities?
S. Square Footage
Square footage is just a number derived from multiplying two numbers—the length and width of a room or a house. Some in the tiny house movement are challenging themselves to achieve new levels of tiny, maybe 190 square feet or even 150. Others are comfortable edging up to 500, the top end of tiny. Still, others might push it up to 600.
How much space does one person need? The web site Engineering Toolbox tells us each person needs 100 to 400 square feet. Pre-Colombian Native American dwellings allowed from 20 to 60 square feet per person. In 2007, a typical new home averaged 970 square feet per person and more for McMansions.
Some in the tiny home movement are extreme in their desire for tiny. Though any home smaller than 500 square feet is considered tiny, on the Tiny House shows, a couple may say they want less than 350 square feet. Or 250 square feet. Or 200. It feels as if there is a competition for having the tiniest footprint on the earth, to own as little as possible. Some take the 100 Thing Challenge. Choose 100 things you need to have. Let the rest go. Blog about it. Post your 100 Things.
T. Tiny House Tour
I tour three tiny houses. All are on wheels and can be hauled anywhere a pickup truck can go. I enter the largest tiny house, which has a footprint of 314 square feet. It has two lofts, one big enough for a king bed, though not room to stand up, the other big enough for a queen bed. The second is 255 square feet with one queen sleeping loft with windows on three sides. Both these tiny houses have a rustic cabin feel. The third is just 210 square feet with a modern interior, including a queen loft. I see the appeal of modern in the tiny house. I don’t feel claustrophobic in any of houses, not even the smallest. But I am not ready to move into one.
Designed to be useful or practical rather than attractive, of or relating to the doctrine of utilitarianism, in which the moral worth of an action is solely determined by its contribution to overall utility in creating the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.
Seattle is becoming vertical. Where there is not enough land to build out, developers build up. Our skyline is filling with cool new condo buildings with names like Nexus, Luma, and Insignia. Or apartment buildings called Equinox, Excelsior, Stackhouse, and Aspira. Vertical life is desirable for decks, pools, gyms, rooftop dog walks, and views of others living in their own vertical village.
Everybody poops. In a tiny house, here are some options for toilets: 1) A traditional, plumbed toilet. 2) An RV (low-flush) toilet. When the tank is full, it has to be pumped out. 3) An incinerating toilet that burns the waste down to ashes that can be put in the trash, say twice a week. It uses power and some report an odor during incineration. 4) A composting toilet turns waste into compost. 5) A bucket toilet is a bucket with a toilet seat on it. You do your business and then toss sawdust on it. When the bucket’s full, you haul it out and dump it in a compost area where it cures for a year to become “humanure.” 6) A dry toilet. You use it, close the lid, and hit the button. It sucks air out of the chamber and shrink wraps the waste, which can then go in the trash. Choices.
Xenophobia is fear of the foreign or strange. Some long-time Seattleites fear the arrival of apodment dwellers as if they are the barbarians at the gate, barbarians who would live in a home as small as 150 square feet or even 220, squeeze onto our overcrowded buses, park on our overparked streets, fill up our cafes, and eat away at our quality of life.
On the tiny house TV shows and in the tiny house books, most of the people who have chosen to live tiny are young. The young can easily clamber up ladders to lofts. The young have not accumulated so much that going tiny uproots life as we know it. The young see others their age going tiny. The young are adaptable. The young more recently lived in a dormitory or shared housing and see tiny as a step up. The young want to pay off student loans, avoid a big mortgage, afford travel. The young may want the ability to roll their home down the road. Or move from a micro-apartment in one city to a micro apartment in another city where new opportunities await. The young have already gone digital. Or maybe they were born digital. The young are a good match for tiny.
In Seattle, past zoning law has allowed the construction of micro-apartments as small as 150 square feet. Revised zoning law still allows construction of micro-apartments known as efficiency dwelling units but now requires each unit to have a minimum of 220 square feet and have its own kitchenette.
Zoning allows for a person to construct a tiny home—also called a backyard cottage or detached accessory dwelling unit—in her back yard. But there are lots of hoops to jump through—permits for every aspect of construction, building a separate sewer line and a $10,000 sewer-connection fee, providing one on-site, off-street parking space.
Zoning makes it illegal to permanently live in a mobile tiny house parked anywhere in Seattle on streets or in backyards. Tiny houses are legal in Seattle if they are in a mobile home park, but Seattle has very few mobile home parks with even fewer openings. It’s possible a Seattle tiny house may fly under the radar in back streets or back yards, at least until a neighbor complains. Some say zoning law has not caught up with the tiny house movement, that laws will change as more people get into the tiny home zone.
I watch tiny homes springing up around me, primarily in the form of micro-apartments. I am intrigued by tiny. I may even have tiny envy. Yet 42 years after acquiring a floating home, I remain in the zone of not so big, yet not so tiny.