Photo of a windowless garden shed

It’s a common and happy reframe among my retired friends: They are busier than they’ve ever been. They can’t remember how they managed to do all the things they needed to do — make friends, keep a house, have children, run marathons, read books, care for aging parents and more — when they were still jamming on deadline journalism. (And make no mistake, all journalism is deadline journalism. All that varies is the timing of delivery.)

Journalism isn’t the only job that demands attention no matter what else is going in your life, but it’s certainly one of them: Constant deadlines, unpredictable news, sources that can’t be reached but must, drafts that must be fly-specked one more time before they are sent off to the fates.

As someone who is, so far, a Retirement Fail, I don’t fully share the experience. My contract work is, in theory, part time. I have, in theory, world enough and time for all the things I didn’t have time for when I worked 11-hour days in the newspaper biz. And yet I never seem to get as much done as I did when I was too busy to breathe. I refuse to believe it has anything to do with age, so I have told myself it’s just one of those things people say. A conversational cliché.

Novelist Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue

Then along comes Jack. He’s the 5-year-old narrator and protagonist of “Room,” the 201o novel by Emma Donoghue. I broke my usual rule about not seeing a movie before I’ve read the book it’s based on, and liked the film well enough to want to watch it again. That made me reluctant to try the book all these years later. I was not only not disappointed, I was enchanted. Or, as we say in one of the conversational clichés of my household, gobsmacked.

The story centers around Ma, as Jack knows her, who was kidnapped as a young college student and locked in an 11×11-foot soundproof, fortified garden shed, aka “Room.” I’ll leave it to you to imagine why and to decide whether to imagine the all-too-true stories that inspired it. But two years into her captivity, she gives birth to Jack — thus becoming Ma. The book starts five years later on Jack’s birthday and is told, from first word to last, in his voice and from his point-of view.

As harrowing as the story is, it uplifts. Jack knows no other world. He loves the one his mother has created especially and only for him. Anything not in Room is just a story on TV.

It’s when it comes time to dare an escape that Jack has to confront what the rest of us live with every day, which, in his view, is usually too much. His take on the World outside of Room:

In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time. Even Grandma often says that, but she and Steppa don’t have jobs, so I don’t know how persons with jobs do the jobs and all the living as well. In Room me and Ma had time for everything. I guess the time gets spread very thin like butter over all the world, the roads and houses and playgrounds and stores, so there’s only a little smear of time on each place, then everyone has to hurry on to the next bit.

I’m always on alert for fresh ways to say common things. In Donoghue’s imagined story of a horrific reality, all the  common things in life are made fresh through Jack’s prism. The book also offers a rare glimpse into how a writer channels an entire experience through a singular and consistent yet never boring voice. If nothing else, it’s a study in POV and authentic rhythms of dialog — skills that can elevate our journalism.

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