Around the time I began working on my MFA, I started to hear other writers talk about applying for residencies at “artist colonies.” I was new to the writing world, and I wasn’t sure what a colony was. I had the vague impression of a kind of commune: poets and painters hanging out in gardens, plucking lettuce and talking about aesthetic cross-fertilization; canvases set up on easels in the sun; musicians strolling about, minstrel-style. Before long, of course, someone filled me in: if you’re a working writer, or painter, or composer, there are places on the planet where you can live, work, and eat for free. For weeks, or even months, at a time. They give you a studio to work in. Some places give you a studio AND a separate living space, in case you prefer to live apart from your work. In fact, some of the colonies will pay you—in the form of a stipend—to be there.
To a mother of four with barely an hour a day of writing time, the deal sounded made up.
I finished my MFA in 2009, published a few stories and a couple articles, and applied to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Hoping, hoping. I got in. I went for three weeks in the fall of 2009. But here’s the thing: I didn’t keep a journal. I know I wrote stories; I know I made friends, and ate a lot, and took long runs around the wooded property and into town. I remember listening to composers play their music in Colony Hall in the evenings, and poets read their lines, novelists their paragraphs. I remember sight-reading (badly) show tunes at the piano while the other residents sang along. I remember trying to build a fire in my studio and setting off the smoke alarm.
But I don’t remember many specifics about my first days. How did I transition from my noisy life of carpooling and dishes and homework to the quiet, wide-open hours that kept coming, hour after hour—even after school, and after dinner–even after midnight, if I wanted? What did I do with all that blessed, blessed time? I swore that if I ever had the chance to go back, I would keep a daily journal.
I got that chance two years later, in the fall of 2011. I’d like to share my first three entries with you. There’s nothing profound here. But looking back over what I wrote, I can see the ways in which I was transitioning into the work: locating myself within the Colony’s history; making friends, joining in traditions, leaving my own mark on the landscape. Acknowledging the mommy-guilt, letting it go.
For the record: There was a garden, though as far as I know, no one hung out in it.
I did pick a little lettuce.
9/24/11. First day in my studio.
Doors and windows open. The crickets are loud, even at noon. There’s a high-pitched chirping coming from the screened back porch; I find a nest on a joist just above the back door. Two babies. I don’t know what kind of birds they’ll become, or not become. The nest is precariously situated; a strong wind will surely knock it down.
I spend some time looking at the wooden plaques lining the walls. The last time I was here I learned they’re called tombstones, because of their shape. Each colonist inscribes his or her name, genre, and dates of residency on a tombstone. I love the democratic nature of the tradition, the wildly famous smack against the unknowns.
I recognize some of the recent names. Ken Urban, playwright, and Derek Simonds, screenwriter—both acquaintances from my last residency. I find my friend Jacqueline Woodson, her block letters like old typeset branded into the wood. There’s Kevin Young, “writer and badminton champ;” Alan Burdick, “word processor;” Sheri Wood, “quilt maker.” A woman who identifies herself only as “goofer (golfer?) and vegetarian.”
One composer drew a treble clef with a single note for each letter of his name. I take the tombstone down from the wall and set it on the Mason Hamlin, then play the letters. Lots of flats. His name sounds like the theme from a horror movie.
I spot Lynne Tillman, Walter Mosley, Mary Jo Salter. Amanda Stern, whose name is spelled out in stickers. I discover there was once a dog in residence here: “Corky, seeing-eye dog, 6/94.” I imagine he slept beside the small twin bed on the back wall, where I’ll sleep tonight.
With each name and date, I think back: what was I doing while so-and-so worked in this space?
Joanna Priestly, juju, Nov-Dec 95 (had my first child)
Stephen Dunn, poet, June 93 (at William & Mary working on MA)
Nancy Lord, writer, 92 (graduated from college)
Galway Kinnell, writer, Jan. 1988 (senior in high school)
Lois Lowry, 81/82 (sixth grade, Ms. Erwin’s class)
Louise Erdrich, 1980 (got a blue Schwinn for my birthday)
Back, and back. 1974: my Yaddo friend Joseph Caldwell was here. (Last summer at Yaddo, when the others stayed out late, I would come back to West House and play the piano while Joe read his newspapers. It became our routine. Sometimes we’d talk about his work, or mine. Sometimes he’d ask me to play certain pieces–Beethovan’s Waldstein Sonata was his favorite.)
1965: a painter carved out a small circular hollow into which she glued a black and white photo of herself. She didn’t write her name.
The ink and etchings fade with the years. The earliest tombstone dates from the 1940s. The first signature is so worn I can’t make it out; only the impression of a name remains.
At breakfast I meet some of the other Colonists. One is from Denver; another is from Melbourne, Australia. Most are from New York. Several say they’ve never been to the South.
I’ve been to Texas, if that counts, a painter tells me.
I learned to walk slowly in Texas, he says.
We talk about the MacDowell Oracle, a clear plastic ball hanging inside an outhouse behind Chapman studio. The ball is stuffed with aphoristic phrases written on fortune-sized slips of paper. The procedure: you ask a question aloud, then pull a slip of paper from a hole in the bottom of the ball. (If you’re a Chapman resident, you inherit the job of re-stocking the Oracle with “answers.”)
A composer tells us her Oracle story. She’d just finished a chamber orchestra suite and was ready to start something new. But the music was gone. She couldn’t come up with a single note. For five days straight she got out of bed and sat at the piano and cried. All day, every day, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. She wouldn’t let herself get up from the bench.
It was five days in hell, the composer said.
On the sixth day she visited the Oracle. She made the hike out to Chapman studio and, quietly so as not to disturb the composer at his piano (God, the jealousy, listening to him work, she said), she stood inside the tiny wooden hut and asked her question: What am I supposed to do next? Then she pulled out a strip of paper.
A man at dinner will be wearing a blue shirt. He will have the answer you need.
It so happened that the poet Stephen Dunn wore a blue shirt to dinner that night. And the composer was desperate. She walked up to Dunn and said: What am I supposed to do next?
Absolutely no idea, he said.
After dinner, though, Dunn gave a reading. The first poem gave the composer what she needed.
So I guess he did know, in a way, the composer said.
This morning I have five story ideas in my head. Which to start? I’m struggling to focus on new work, with the collection out on submission. What if no one wants to publish it?
After breakfast I select one of the communal bikes parked outside Colony Hall, tag it with my name, and ride out to Chapman. Standing inside the musty hut, I think: I’m about to talk to a plastic hamster ball.
I ask the Oracle two questions:
1. What should I be working on?
2. Will someone buy the collection?
Selfish questions, I know. But isn’t that why I’m here? To do work, then put it out into the world—in part, to give back to this place? I try to remove a single slip of paper but two fall out, so I open them in order:
1. You’ve had enough. Take a break.
2. The soul selects her own society; be generous.
I ride back to my studio. Read a David Means story, play some Chopin. Take a nap. A rough barking wakes me. I go out onto the porch and see what looks like an extraordinarily fat cat sitting just outside the screen. When it begins to move, waddling side-to-side into the forest, I see that it’s a porcupine. I name him Omi, after Omicron, the name of my studio. And his presence does feel like some kind of omen. A good one, I’m sure.
At home, my youngest daughter has lice.
She probably got them on her camping trip last week, my husband tells me.
She has to cut her hair and she isn’t allowed to go on her 6th grade class trip to Huntsville. She cries a little on the phone with me, says she doesn’t want a short haircut. She tells me she’s wearing a shower cap with thick medicine soaked into her wet hair. I get her talking about Project Runway, ask her who got kicked off this week. (You’ll never believe it, Mommy: Oliver. Heidi said he has time-managing issues.)
My husband tells me the prescription treatment cost $147. He tells me he has to comb out nits twice a day. I picture the two of them in our kitchen, my daughter sitting on the counter, tilting her head back, my husband awkwardly wielding a metal comb. I can’t remember seeing him brush the girls’ hair—not since they were toddlers, anyhow.
I feel guilty about not being there. Also, my scalp has started to itch. I go into the tiny bathroom in Pans Cottage and close the door, crane my neck, lift strands from the back of my head. I find nothing. Thank God.
I take a bike ride into town to pick up some wine for dinner (everyone pitches in and shares here). I need to distract myself from the guilt. I get carded buying Sauvignon Blanc at Roy’s, and—ah, vanity—feel instantly better.
A chipmunk lives in a hole in the dirt road that circles around the back of my studio. Sitting on the back porch eating lunch, I watch him carry acorns from the woods across the road and down into his tunnels. I’ve discovered that chipmunks chirp—a hollow sound, rhythmic; the cadence and timbre of large water droplets falling, from a great height, into a deep pond.
After lunch (mushroom quiche, vegetable soup, carrots from the garden, stems still on; an orange, a lemon poppyseed cookie), I walk across the field to Savidge library, where I meet a woman named Rachel. She’s a visual artist, has just arrived back from a magazine shoot in New York City.
I remember you, she tells me. We barely missed each other, the last time you were here.
I actually inherited your shampoo, she says.
In a strange way, it’s good to hear that my shampoo went to Rachel, good to be remembered—a tiny connection, a fine thread linking the present to the past. So much has changed since 2009. Raymundo, the dog who used to herd the sheep, is gone. The sheep, too, are gone. Mr. T, the old black longhaired cat, is gone. Gone on, is the way Kyle put it. Thank goodness Blake is still here, faithfully making his rounds, delivering our lunch baskets. The chickens are also here, the rolling chicken coop with its fiberglass roof currently parked beside the garden—flourishing, as usual, under Emily’s care.
Inside the library, I check out a Galway Kinnell collection. I want to read it in my studio, where he once worked. I crack it open and read:
Nobody likes to die
but an old man can know
a kind of gratefulness
toward time that kills him,
everything he loved was made of it.
Outside the library, a girl is sitting in the sun, laptop open. She’s Skyping, wearing headphones. When I walk past she smiles and pulls an earbud out.
I don’t think I’ve met you, she says. I’m Katya.
Jamie, I say.
I’m leaving tomorrow, she says, but let’s sit together at dinner tonight.
Sure, I say. I’ll look forward to it.
I like your necklace, she says, replacing the earbud.
I walk back across the field, following the swath I cut through the grass on my way over. The grass is long, tipped with yellow flowers. Some of them reach my mid-thigh. By the time I leave, I think, I will have worn this swath-cut between my studio and the library into a bona fide path.