Monday, June 6, 2011

Writers' Colony

Dierdre asked me who am I, what am I hiding, in response to my noting in the last post the desk where I wrote my first book. The answer is I am nobody you ever heard of, I wrote a few books that a few people read, and now I work as an editor and raise my children and do for my elders. And I blog.

But Dierdre's question reminded me of something my son once said. His sister, then four years old and newly a reader, had just noticed a book in the house with her mom's name on it. She said, "Mommy, you wrote a book?" At which point my son, age seven, piped up excitedly, "Yes, she did write a book! Didn't you know? Mommy is famous, it's just that nobody knows it!" We still laugh about that. And it's still true.

Another memory. One year in November, I spent a glorious few weeks at Yaddo, a writer's colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. The way it happened was pure magic. A letter arrived out of the blue. Some influential person, whose identity I sought but have never been able to discover, had identified me as someone to receive an invitation to take up a residency at the retreat. I was invited to come whenever I wished, and to stay as long as I wished. At the time, my son and daughter were still young, nine and six, so a residency of longer than a month was out of the question. Passing up the offer was also out of the question, so my mom flew north to help my husband care of our kids while I was gone.

Truman Capote wrote his first novel at Yaddo.

At Yaddo, I rose at seven each morning and walked up a hill to the next building for breakfast. All the artists in residence took meals together in a dark wood paneled dining room full of gracious antiques. After breakfast, we stopped by the kitchen to pick up lunch boxes that had already been packed for us, then went back to our studios to work. I had been assigned an expansive old world room with a wall of windows looking out onto the woods, a room I was told Truman Capote used to prefer. I would sit at the white-painted desk and write, or lie on the chaise and think, or wander the gardens allowing my characters to whisper what happened next, watching them play out the action across the screen of my brain, and it was the most comfortable I have ever felt in my skin, except for when I am mothering. I was working on my second novel at the time, the one that never got published because my editor back then found the homeless mother and child at the heart of it "too sad," and found one of the characters, a young hustler, "appalling." Yet never have I felt so in the flow of the creative process as I did in that place.

At four every afternoon all the artists would put down their work and gather in one of the living rooms where we would sip red wine and talk about our progress in the completely absorbed and unselfconscious way of people who have total assurance that their listeners will not sigh inwardly or suppress a yawn because they are genuinely interested in your process and they understand. It was like being safely enfolded in an amniotic sea where the light was filtered and perfect and the world beyond lay waiting, but you didn't have to go there yet, you could stay here for a while with people who knew just how you were made, because they were made that way too.

Appearances didn't matter. The men had stubble on their faces and the women barely combed their hair and our clothes were rumpled and often mismatched and it mattered not at all. We would crowd into each other's rooms late into the night, talking and laughing and reading from our work or showing short clips of our films, or we would troop to one of the artist's studios to view an installation or listen to a piece of music still being composed, and I remember feeling that these were my people, these were the ones who knew me at my core and I didn't even have to try and explain. 

If I could go back there, I would write fiction again. I would reenter that world and allow it to claim me again fully. Until then, my concentration is too fractured and captured by all the things I want to capture it—my husband and children, my elders, family and friends—and also by the thing I often wish I could escape, the need to make a living, but of course the latter is necessary to support the former and that's the way it is and I don't rail at the fates about it, because I am so freakin blessed and I know it.

And so I blog because as my husband knows better than anyone if I don't write I will wither away. The gifts of blogging are unexpected. I can go to Paris. Or hold my breath at discoveries made in an art museum in Chicago. Or visit with friends in Ohio, Florida, New England, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, somewhere in Canada or Antigua or New Zealand or a gorgeous spot on the California coast where I can almost feel the spray of the surf on my skin. And this is where I have found the people who most remind me of that November at Yaddo. Everything is so immediate and relentlessly unfolding, life as it happens pierces right through, and this is how it is to be alive, to feel everything so keenly yet not come undone because there are people who even if they don't understand exactly are willing to bear witness. It is sustenance.


  1. Yes, I can tell you are a writer. It's all making sense now. And you're right, blogging is like being with supportive friends. It's nice.
    Your Friend, m.

  2. This place looks amazing….truly magical. I find that there is much to be said about being in the right "head space" to write and environment along with mood has much to do with that.

    Funny, mommy and I were mentioning you last week and your book came up! I must read it now :-)

  3. I feel the same way about myself, like I am famous only nobody knows it - or rather the people that matter know it and that is enough for me.

    I love your description of the creative company of writers. Life is certainly about the day to day trappings but when we can step away from all of that and let our imaginations and minds wander off a bit the heart beats a little faster and we live a little longer.

  4. My dream. Your description makes me feel it with an impossible nostalgia for something that has never been.

  5. This is beautiful. Thank you for reminding me how connected we all are, even if we are not "connected" in the physical sense. It makes me feel as if I'm doing something right. It makes me want to keep going.

  6. A friend, an art therapist, speaks of how essential it is that we become "enlightened witnesses" for each other. It may be as simple as a nod of the head, a silent acknowledgment of the process and product of a kindred soul. We are so fortunate to have found that encouragement here in our unlikely, virtual retreat. My mind seems to wander no matter how much everyday life cries for attention.

  7. you were already, but now you are truly a princess in my mind. YADDO! you dont know the yearnings i've had to go there or macdowell, places i only know of from years of reading about the people who went. oh my...i cant imagine such splendor. for me, it's never been the love affairs or high jinx that you hear about betw the artists and writers; it's just the sheer luxury of carving out that space. oh how wonderful that you did that; that you'll always have that. if only we could all do that for ourselves...

  8. Oh thank you for this. It's perfect and tantalizing, I have an urge now to read that sad hustler novel.
    I was thinking today, how can I get teh name of those novels out of that woman - if you ever want to tell me...
    and damn i'm back to anonymous, I don't know what's going on with blogger...

  9. I am speechless .
    At all of it.

    And in tears.
    And full of hope.

    you so rock , Angella.


  10. I know I left a comment here yesterday, but I don't see it! I loved this piece, Angela -- it reflects so perfectly the beauty of blogging. I am only slightly envious :) of your experience at Yaddo -- my god, that must have been awesome!

  11. Mark, sometimes with blogging, you even find family! Love to you, dear brother.

    koshercritter, you're so right. this hectic new york raise-em-right life is definitely a challenging head space. always nice to see you here.

    Gary, i know you're famous, so that's not quite nobody. :) my heart beats faster just remembering being there. whoever made that possible, i whisper thanks all the time.

    Beth, it was my dream too. I still seems unbelievable that I lived it for a brief moment. Some of the artists stayed months, even a full year! Welcome. I think this is the first time you've commented here. I hope you visit again often.

    Rachel, you are such a bright light, so gracefully scaffolded by kindness. i love coming to your corner of these internets. i love reading you. i love knowing you.

    Marylinn, it is such a simple idea, to bear witness, and yet the result on the other is so profound. thank you, dear one.

    Susan, yes!!! I felt the same way about the place! perhaps you and I should one day start an artists' colony of our own. That is another fantasy I have, quiet as it's kept.

    Dierdre, is it my imagination or do you seem a couple of degrees freer and more exuberant when you write under anonymous? Or maybe it's Paris. I love it, and you.

    deb, I am speechless when I read it back, too. It is one of those perfect memories in a life. Thank you for feeling it. So much love.

    Elizabeth, I don't know what's going on with blogger as I've left comments that didn't go through, too. But this one of yours came through, and I'm glad. As for being envious, can one be envious of oneself? I wish I could go to that place at will, but my life is simply not set up that way. Nothing to do but embrace what is. My "what is" is also pretty damn awesome. I try to remember that. I love you, dear woman.

  12. Heaven. Absolute heaven. So very glad you had the experience and brought it back to share with us. I am going to take these memories to bed with me. Blissful dreaming. Thank you!

  13. Oh dear one, if only we could combine all of our "lives" into one. I went on a writing retreat the year before my beloved brother died, twice. It was the first time that I had ever left my family and it was both scary and exciting. The first time, I took a class with a NY Times Notable writer who has several books out and I fell in love. Back in love with the writing, in love with this beautiful place in Mexico, and in love with the author who taught the class. I felt renewed and encouraged and supported and was almost ready to sit down to begin writing my book. It was not long after that that my brother passed and life took on a very different meaning for me, for us. It was no longer time to branch out, but a time to furl back into my husband and our children. I still correspond with my writer friend and I know that someday, she will play an integral part in my writing life, if and when...

    Your recounting of your incredible experience connected my soul with yours on yet another level. You are a writer. It has been evident to me from the very start, and yet, you are more of a mother, which is what connected me to you in the first place.

    When you come to California, we will walk on the beach and talk about our babies. If I come to New York before that, you will get to choose.

    So much love, dear heart. So much love...

  14. Kathleen, blissful dreaming indeed! Nice to see you. I'm headed over to your neighborhood now to catch up with your beautiful family, and your lovely art. Hugs.

  15. Debra, you are rght, dear soul. I am a mother first, but very close after that I am a writer, in the sense that I need to write to make sense of things, of my life. there is something so healing to a psyche battered by the demands of the everyday to be around people who have the same introspective rhythms, who see your core self and understand. I feel that from you. I always have. Love to you.

  16. I am not nearly a good enough writer to explain how much this post affected me. I've been thinking about it since you posted it over a week ago, and I still don't really know what to say.

    I've begun working on my second novel, and knowing I have you as my cheerleader makes more of a difference than you'll ever know.

    Thank you for everything.

  17. ellen, i love love love hearing about your process, and i love more than anything that you're loving it.

  18. Angella i'm so glad you had this. I am a strange kind in that the thought of being surrounded by nothing but other writers makes me shudder. I have never wanted to do any writer's groups, retreats, etc. I am a bit of a hermit with my writing process, although obviously not with my actual writing.

  19. Maggie May, writing is such an individual process, whatever way works for you is the right way, because your writing is just extraordinary.

  20. Thank you for this! I'm about to spend a few weeks at Yaddo, where luckily my family will be able to visit me. I would *LOVE* to read a novel about a homeless mother and child and a young young hustler – I'm sorry your past editor was so dismissive of it and I hope you consider resurrecting it.