Rainy Tuesday afternoon in Iowa, a begrudging winter still trying to hang on. Kind of melancholy and I sit here trying to write, but thinking more about the last two weeks at Vermont Studio Center and trying to wrap my ahead around what they meant.
It’s difficult to explain to others why a residency is so useful for a writer. A painter or sculptor, OK, because they need space which can be hard to come by. But a writer? I have everything I need with a computer or a pad of paper and pen. And I’ve been on sabbatical, so I’ve had time as well: why the great need to get away? Isn’t it just a vacation? I can’t really argue with that. And I certainly don’t want to argue it’s anything other than a real luxury. Two weeks with everything basically taken care of, with plenty of good food and nothing but time to write. But it is a very useful luxury.
The challenge I think is trying to make art in our normal lives. Now be assured that I don’t generally talk about Capital-A art; I use the term art in a pretty inclusive way, from the very mainstream to the avant-garde. I like popular culture; I like Weeds, 30-Rock, and mainstream movies. But I don’t want that to be the only thing available. But those arts that aren’t mainstream will always struggle for an audience (but this isn’t a statement of their overall value). And those artists struggling for an audience will always struggle to juggle livelihoods and to fit their art into those lives. Some manage to do this quite successfully; some, like me, struggle endlessly. So you may say, “it’s just a matter of priorities” or “it’s all psychological,” and of course that’s true. But it’s also a bit like telling an addict that he has a problem: true, but what’s important is finding the tools to actually deal with the problem. Without that, what good does such knowledge do? I know it’s a psychological problem (and I’m far from alone judging from the many conversations I’ve had with many writers and artists) but the question is what tools can I use to combat it.
I’ve been productive on sabbatical, but my old habits have remained. Time to work will not alone shake you out of habits. And there is the benefit of the residency: my old habits of avoidance or procrastination or self-inflicted angst or whatever are almost impossible to sustain. There is a studio without much in it: some books, my computer, my notebooks, a lamp, a chair overlooking the river. There’s the endless April gray, snow and rain, and cold and wind (and frankly this is just right–I don’t know if I’d get any work done coming here in the summer; I’m sure I’d spend all of my time down at the swimming hole). There’s a communal fridge where I keep some beer. And there is the quiet, punctuated by the faint sounds of someone else tapping away or perhaps pacing the hallway outside your door (reminders that others are working as hard or harder than you–keep at it!). In a building across the alley, I have a bedroom–not a particularly comfortable one, so I don’t really feel like being there–and then there is the Red Mill with a lounge and a dining hall. It’s a comfortable place to sit and have some coffee, but there will always be someone there who will inevitably ask, “How’s the work going?” reminding you of what you’re there to do. And if you do want to hang out, well then they’ll want to talk about the work, what they’re doing, what you’re doing, what everyone’s doing. There are three meals a day, so even if I wanted to think about what I should be fixing for dinner, I wouldn’t be able to (ah, food, a great avoidance technique of mine). At dinner, we all gather and share our day’s successes and struggles, and afterward we share our work, have some drinks, then go back to work for as long as we feel like. In other words, you’re always in contact with people who care immensely about your success, about the larger creative work in general. Everyone. That’s a rare thing. You may have your network, and you may talk about the work once in awhile, but it’s so constant here that you begin to think about your work differently. Everything else starts to fall away and your old habits die away and the work feels fresh, exciting in the way it’s hard to sustain in the “real” world. In two weeks I made headway on 4 projects, any one of which would normally have taken me twice that time; I spent about 60 hours alone just transcribing the Batwa stories I’ve been working on; this alone would have taken me forever, but I also managed to write an introductory essay to those stories. The real challenge is, once you get into a habit of writing until 3 or 4 in the morning, snapping back out of it.
The other aspect really is to be in this constant contact with people doing such exciting work, and not just writers who I sometimes spend too much time with anyway. There’s the sculptor doing a combination of 3-dimensional and musical homage to the Gihon River (which runs through the studio grounds); there’s the painter doing translucent paintings on both sides of sheets of mylar as a way of investigating space; there’s the chinese sculptor working with long plastic threads as a kind of fiber optic, swirling lines of reflective plastic making a different sculpture every time the light shifts; there is the painter/photographer/multi-media artist with her series of work, “Devices to Save Everyone from Everything”; and on and on. It’s a kind of collective intelligence that starts to take hold in a setting like this–it’s no longer just you and the work, it’s the WORK pouring through the collective mind, taking on its many manifestations. OK, that might sound a bit over-the-top, but it’s how it feels, and what that feeling does to your work is invaluable.
I come back with a huge body of writing I’ve accomplished, but more importantly I come back with a fresh sense of process, a fresh relationship to my writing. Now, I can’t imagine staying at a place like that–the intensity really is a bit much to sustain. Most residents stay for a month, but I only stayed for two weeks–I certainly wondered how a month-long stay would have played out, but I can’t imagine more than that (there are a handful who do 2 or 3 month stays). But as good as this all feels and how energized it makes me about my work, there’s a kind of melancholy that accompanies coming back to the day-to-day world. As one painter sarcastically said, “Oh, yes, I know I’ll go back to my job where everyone will be so creative and energized and have such witty, wonderful things to say about art in the world,” and we all knew what she meant. I went to the Studio Center ten years ago and remember coming back with some of the same feelings: I had a serious case of insomnia because I was so jazzed about possibilities and my mind wouldn’t stop. I started working on plans to start an arts colony somewhere in the midwest, plans that never really materialized, but it was still an exciting moment. I find myself again wondering about how to maintain some kind of community with the same intensity and commitment.
Many would say, well you work in a college, surely that’s got the same kind of community. And certainly there’s a supportive community at the college, but it’s far different. We’re so wrapped up in politics and teaching and grading and committees and the day-to-day work that we don’t engage on the same level. And what work is supported is far more likely to be academic in nature rather than creative (I don’t like to make such a distinct binary between these two ideas, but there is a strong divide and these terms are the best I can use to describe the division–my “academic” side feels far more nurtured in this setting than my creative). This is not to say anything about the quality of work being done here–writers, visual artists, musicians, students and faculty alike, are all quite wonderful. But most of us rarely find the time to just sit and talk about process, for instance. And the dynamics of interchange are quite different here. Here I am the “authority.” At the studio center, I certainly was feeling older, shifting to some role as elder of the tribe, but I was also just another artist. People maybe wanted advice from me on how to get jobs or how to get published and those more mundane but essential realities (to which in this climate I really have no advice anyway) but in terms of the work, we were all just equals, we were collaborators.
I suppose one lesson for me, then, is to figure out how to bring more of this dynamic to my teaching; how do I collaborate more with my students, knowing all the while that I still am inherently the authority. But more importantly I find myself wanting to find another community. I know that Iowa is filled with wonderful writers and artists, but it takes a kind of social commitment and energy that I don’t always have to find them and interact with them (this whole post on the importance of community for one’s art is strange for such an introvert as myself–another benefit of such an insular community as the Studio Center is that it forces me into a kind of creative extroversion). So perhaps I’m where I was ten years ago after all. Maybe I really should start an Iowa arts co-operative. We could buy some farm land with buildings we could turn into studio space, we could do community arts projects, we could hang out and talk, we could grow a communal garden, and of course we could do our work. That’s my dream for this rainy Tuesday. Who’s with me?