Fall Residency in Vermont
Oct 17, 2010 by
Greetings from Vermont. I've been here at the Vermont Studio Center for the Arts for nearly a month. All 55 artists and writers currently in residency will be packing up to leave in just a few days, reversing the process of adjusting to a completely different way of life. It's usually the case, even with residency veterans, that several days are needed to get your head around the fact that the only thing we need to do here is write/paint/sculpt/whatever and show up three times a day in the dining hall if we want to be fed. That's it. On the flip side is the equally weird process of going back into the life that had been so normal before.
This is now my third residency in a row. My first, in 2008, was in a beautiful spot in southern Indiana where it was just me and another writer. The following year I was at Ragdale, outside of Chicago, where 12 artists and writers live together for a month. I was hugely productive there, just as I had been in Indiana. Ragdale had wonderful accommodations and food and support. The twelve of us would gather each evening for dinner and talk our heads off. It was a blast. I enjoyed having the option to be social. Even I, a person with hermit like tendencies, need to talk to people on occasion☺
This year in Vermont I'm having another sort of residency experience. VSC is large enough that I feel I'm living in a village, one populated by the 55 artists and the 20 or so staff who run the place. I've still maintained my solitary ways, but also love the community feeling that happens at each meal. I couldn't ask for a better place to write. You can see the photo of the perfectly fine bedroom I'm given, and I even have my own studio to go to each morning to write. It's like going to work. I leave my house, stop in the dining hall a block away for breakfast, and then walk another to the writers' studio building.
So why have I struggled so much with my writing this month? I honestly thought I'd leave here with a completed first draft of the mystery novel I'm working on. Instead I've done a lot of gnashing of teeth. I won't go into all of the existential debates I've had with myself about what I'm writing, how I'm writing, why am I even writing in the first place, and should I even try to finish this stupid book. By the end of the second week, the 30,000 words I arrived here with had turned into 20,000. I was full speed in reverse. I was starting to feel riddled with guilt. How could I feel okay when I've been given this wonderful and ideal situation for writing, and I'm squandering it? After editing the manuscript to make it better, I could find no new words to add to it.
I learned at the dinner table that the word "squandered" was coming up for a lot of artists at VSC. It's probably no surprise to anyone that we beat ourselves up all the time. Except for at least one notable exception, a French artist named Vincente. He's middle aged and seems to be happy as a person can be. He said, "Sometimes I am a sculptor, and sometimes I do nothing." I wanted to be Vincente. Or at least French.
Then I came around to the notion that I wasn't squandering anything. Struggle is part of the writing process. Production isn't necessarily what's pouring out of the printer every day. As I become a better writer, I'm finding that I am a pickier writer. I'm much more demanding of myself and that's slowing me down. I often wondered why it would take some of the best writers I know of five years or more to finish a novel. I'm starting to get it. If you make active decisions about your characters, your setting, your plot, your language, and then ask them again and again, it's going to take a while to put something together. I'll never be (I don't think) that painstaking a writer. I'm a double Aries and I'm constitutionally incapable of exercising the patience that requires. But gone are the days when I happily sat down and flew through an entire manuscript in a matter of months. I think. Or maybe this has just not been my month to write.
Whatever the "success" level is of my month in Vermont, I still firmly believe it's good for my soul. Taking yourself out of routine, away from the comforting things about home that make us feel safe, diving into a social situation that is not replicable anywhere else – all of these things are very good for me to do, as a writer and as a human being. It's even good for relationships. Linda and I don't like to be away from each other, but the time is a good reminder of our individual selves, our solitary place in the world, our spiritual connection to everything. But I'm glad as hell she'll be here in a few days and we'll spend some time touring Vermont.
I'm already thinking about where I'll go next year.