On Retreat in Vermont (12/6/10)


Like the bulk of writers and artists in the U.S., I do many, many things in order to carve out space for my creative work. I have, for example, tended bar, worked on Wall Street, taught classes, held three jobs at once, babysat movie stars’ children, babysat movie stars, developed marketing campaigns, cleaned houses, made jelly, ghost written dating advice for a matchmaker, enrolled in degree programs, started a dot.com, cooked meals on land and sea, juggled friends and family, and fought the demons of other people’s expectations and my own insecurities. What I have not done, until now, is find myself with four weeks of nothing to do but write.

No meals to cook, no house to work on, no critters to care for, no 1001 things competing for my time and energy. Just the work. A desk, a chair, some paper, a computer, some books, a pen, and a view of the Gihon River. What a terrifying and beautiful prospect.

After almost a year of planning and anticipating, I arrived at the Vermont Studio Center (VSC) in Johnson, Vermont and realized at dinner on the first day that I didn’t know what to do. How does one write full time? What does that mean? Where’s my dog? The feral cats? Shouldn’t I be cleaning the gutters? This must be when I definitively discover that I truly have nothing worth saying. I spent my first night navigating significant nightmares and awoke on day two in an almost debilitating fog of self-doubt. Then came breakfast.

One of the lovely things about some residencies, of which VSC is a prime example, is that the community is vibrant, and the energy that the community generates feeds the residents in multiple ways. At VSC, collaborations and cross-fertilizations between literary artists and visual artists are possible, and throughout each day, the community shares energy in less formal ways. For those interested, group meditation happens each morning; yoga classes are held daily; and more to the immediate point, meals are shared. On my first foggy morning, I dragged myself to breakfast and discovered the energy and courage I needed to show up for my work in the studio. In the conversation and companionship of my fellow residents and the collective example of fifty other creative folks about to embark on a parallel path, I felt encouraged and supported. I even found a different way to approach my desk. Armed with a sense of play, which I borrowed from some of the visual artists I talked with, I went to work.

By the next day, I was in the groove and discovering new ways to access material I’ve been thinking about for a long time (and never quite finding enough time or focus to dig into it). I’m mining the vein that I hoped I’d be, but I’m writing in surprising ways while doing so. I have to credit this new place, routine, and focus. I have to credit the phenomenon of the residency (and this one, in particular). And, I have to credit my fellow residents for their examples and generous spirits. Since Virginia Woolf, creative people have been talking about a room of one’s own. I have that at home, and although it’s certainly a gift, it can’t compare to this gift of a fully supportive and conducive environment in which to create.

For most of us, the residency way of life may not be sustainable for an entire year, or even for a part of every year. I, for example, will head back to critters, house, to-do lists, and my overly busy normal at the end of four weeks, and I have no immediate plans for, or promise of, a residency to follow. I will take home with me, however, some work-nurturing habits that I’ve begun to practice here–daily meditation, a re-invigorated yoga practice, shared meals when possible, the value of talking with others about their art and art making processes, time to play. I will also carry with me the vision of what is sometimes possible for artists. This vision is likely to sustain me in important ways until my next lucky shot at a sacred space in which to create in the company of others. I expect that these touchstones will keep me grounded in my work back home even while the work competes with normal. And, now that I know that this kind of creative space is real, I can dare to hope that I might even convince normal to shift towards the art and life affirming living that I’ve found at my residency in Vermont.


originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on December 6, 2010

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