Thursday, January 10, 2013

Anatomy of a Ten-Day Writer's Residency

Day One: After a two-and-a-half hour drive from my Mom's house in Floyd, Virginia, I'm here!

Oh. My. Gosh. It's gorgeous and wonderful and I'm so thrilled to be here. I drove in, walked to the place where they said my packet would be waiting for me, saw my name on the envelope, and promptly started crying, because it meant that it wasn't a mistake after all. (I hadn't realized until that moment that I was waiting for someone to tell me my acceptance had been a mistake.)

I read all through the packet, but couldn't find my room anywhere on the map. I was walking all around looking for it, and I found the grounds guy and said, "Can you tell me where WS11 is?" He smiled big and said, "You've got the Queen's Suite." He showed it to me and I have the most marvelous, large, wonderful room, right next door to the resident studio is part of my room, I have my own I started crying all over again and called and left a semi-incoherent message on my mom's answering machine, babbling and blubbering.

The weather is fabulous and it's time for me to get to work, lucky, lucky, lucky girl.

Day Two: Today was good. I got a full night's sleep last night. Comfortable bed, good temperature, no noise. I woke up just before 8am and breakfast goes until nine, so I showered quick and hustled down there. The table I picked was rather quiet, but the next table over was having a wonderful time. I was still full from the delicious dinner the night before and so only had yogurt and coffee and then went back to the room to work. (I am definitely going to go home weighing more than when I arrived.)

After breakfast I got to work. First reading over my notes and then editing yesterday's work. It was slow and sort of dispiriting and so I sat in the sun and read some more notes hoping for inspiration. Finally, I hit my stride just before lunch, so I went to the buffet and took a plate back to my room and kept working. Then I read and took a nap and wrote some more. So far, I have produced 3,000 words today (3,000 ugly, unkempt words, but still, words). I was very optimistically hoping to make it to 5,000 by end-of-business. I may yet. With the nap, I think I can keep going late. There's a documentary film showing at 9pm that I want to see, though. I think it is called "Cropsey." I'll report back on it tomorrow.

After the nap I also took a walk through the hay fields and explored the woods a little bit. Dinner was delicious and I had some nice conversations which was good because I was starting to feel like my day was spent in isolation. I sat at a table with two friends-of-a-friend and that was nice.

And now, I must get back to work on those additional 2,000 words. I'm shooting for a whole big mess of "literary clay." It's not pretty, but it's at least not a blank page, so I'll have stuff to work with when I return home. I'm treating this like NaNoWriMo.

Happy writing to me!


Pasta with fresh parmesan and optional sausage or veggie sausage
lovely tender-crisp broccoli florets
sauteed carrots with a hint of lemon
chocolate cake

Day Three: Yesterday was an interesting day. The film was great. It's "CROPSEY" by Joshua Zeman. You can find info about it here. It's filmed like a horror film: creepy background score; close shots of things that may or may not be ominous; bemused, slightly threatened narrator....but it's actually a documentary. It's about a string of children who went missing on Staten Island (in the 70s and 80s) near the site of an old mental institution and the man they suspect of taking them. Several of the children are found dead/buried in shallow graves, most are never found, nearly all have a mental impairment of some sort. After watching that movie, I had to walk all by myself back to the Queen's Suite at 11:30 at night. Oh, and the other thing people had been talking about before the movie was how they had been hearing bands of coyotes howling really close by. So creepy at night.

But the novel scenes I'm working on right now are really creepy, too, so it's good fodder for me.

Yesterday was less productive for me. I got caught up in research, and I can do that at home. I don't need to be researching while I'm here, with this abysmally slow internet. I need to be moving forward...but I know so little about the NYC subway system, that I felt like I couldn't write the scene I'm writing without doing at least a little research. But that's the trouble I have, it's never a little research. One thing leads to another and before I know it three hours have passed and I'm looking up tile artwork in the subway system when I'd only meant to find out how long the line was from Atlantic Avenue to the Bronx Zoo.

So I only wrote 2,000 words total yesterday. I had some really great conversations at all three meals, though, so that was good. My stomach was hurting most of the day (the morning coffee was perhaps a little strong for me) and I was so glad to see a mild dinner. Then, suddenly exhausted I went to bed to read at 8:30, fell asleep, woke back up, fell asleep again, woke back up, got ready for bed, and then couldn't get to sleep. So I read.

The first two nights I slept like a baby. last night, not so much.

The thing about only writing forward (not looking back over what you wrote the day before) is that I am starting to feel chased by it. Like running up the stairs without looking back because you sense someone behind you. Or walking down a dark road at night and thinking you hear footfalls. I don't know if what I've been writing is good and I don't want to take the time to turn around and check because I want to keep moving forward. And what if it's terrible? I'd feel like I have to stop and fix it. So I'm being pursued by my own work. Freaky, huh? You'd think it was almost Halloween or something.


Mashed potatoes (thank you, sayeth Mary's stomach)
ground beef and broccoli something (also on the bland side, which worked for me)
green beans, sauteed, tender crisp
and some sort of cranberry stuffing-ish thing
lemon meringue pie for dessert (I passed on that)

Yesterday (for the first time since I arrived) I didn't have anything alcoholic at all to drink in the afternoon/evening...which isn't terribly unusual for me. I may have only one or two drinks a week in my day-to-day life. But last night was the first night I didn't sleep well here, so I think I'll go back to drinking today.

This evening we have an open studio tour at 7:30.

Day Four:  Word count, running total: 22,738 words

Yesterday is kind of a blur. I worked, but not until later in the day. I read a lot, suffered through a sinus headache (the weather is changing) and had some great, great conversations about the big stuff of ART.

Lunch was a big pile of beans and rice that had me all excited, but it was simultaneously bland and very spicy, if you can imagine that. I think they only added cayenne, which had little flavor (no salt, no cumin, nothing). I brought a big plate back to my room because I was writing well, then added half a lime (from my G&T stash) and tons of salt. I also drank a nice cold beer with it, which helped, but that contributed to my late-day headache, I think. I love beer at lunch, but often pay for it later. So much for my plan to drink more.

I got 2,000 words in (I've revised my crazy, unrealistic 3,000 words-a-day goal) and I've decided to be happy with that. The work is still chasing me, begging me to read over it, to make it better, to organize it, but I'm turning a deaf ear. It's a mess back there, I know it is. It's like going on a trip and leaving your house dirty with piles of crap everywhere--it feels so WRONG, but I'm doing it. Forward only. Sort through the musty basement later. I'll eventually throw out half the stuff (or more) but there will be a few treasures in there, too.

I'm up to 22,738 words. I came with some, so it's not nearly as prolific as it sounds, but it's a satisfying number. I do need to go ahead and get my characters out of the NYC subway system, though. Time to hit the streets and breathe some fresh air, then on to the woods (my favorite place in the world). I wonder if writing about a place I love will be harder or easier?

(I'm asking myself a lot of these types of questions here, where I have so much time to think, to be conceptual. It's good.)

The studio tours were great, but I really wasn't feeling that well, so I felt like an inadequate audience for them. I've tried to tell each one of them today how much I enjoyed their work to make up for being a slug last night. Long phone conversation with hubby about all the crap he had to deal with during the day being the only parent. Didn't feel bad about it. Sorry that he had a bad day, but refused to take on any guilt for it. (He wasn't trying to make me feel guilty, btw, that's just my standard MO, so it was freeing to give sympathy but not feel somehow responsible.)


Chicken Marsala
Spinach with raisins and pine nuts
Spaghetti squash

For dessert: Coconut cream pie (delish)

But I am eating waaaaay too much. Time to pace myself. Today I've done much better. A banana at breakfast, long hike up a mountain, pbj sandwich and an apple. Hoping to keep dinner modest, too. I'm feeling ill from overeating.


Day Five: Word count, running total: 24,137

After days of being a slug, walking only to and from meals, one of the fellows here said she was going on a hike and would take anyone who wanted to go, so I went. There were four of us. It was a moderate hike, but with beautiful waterfalls. Crabtree Falls is the hike and it turned out to be about a 40-minute drive just to get there, but the hike was lovely. Only 1.7 miles, but mostly vertical, with views of the falls all the way up. It was well maintained, and a fair number of people were there, especially on the way back down (we got an early start and had lunch at the top). The hike was good. Short, but I got plenty winded by the climb, got to sweat and breathe hard which always makes the rest of the day better for me.

Funny story: On the drive back through the country, two of the fellows in the car (from New York City) started talking about trick-or-treating and wondered aloud what kids who live way out in the country do. "Do they get in the car and drive from house to house?" one asked, incredulous. Well, life in the country, I know. The part of Virginia we were passing through looks exactly like where I grew up. So I said, "Yep! That's what you do." Unless of course you live so far out that it doesn't even make sense to do that and your parents aren't interested in carting you all over Hell's Half-Acre, anyway. So I told them about the time when I was five years old and instead of taking me trick-or-treating, everyone in the house (two parents, three siblings) went and hid behind a different door and then I went around the house (it was a big, three-story old farmhouse) and knocked on each door. "Trick-or-treat!" I cried. And each family member made a fuss over me and gave me some candy. What's funny about this story? The people in the car with me said, "Oh, my god, that's so saaad!" They thought it was pathetic. And all this time, it had been such a happy memory for me. My family all came together to make a special memory, just for me. They cared enough to find a way that I could still have fun. Maybe I've always been easily pleased, but I plan to keep this one filed away in my Happy Memory folder.

We didn't get back from the hike until 2:30 so I felt a little behind in my daily writing goal. I still managed to crank out 1,500 words before dinner (and do some r.kv.r.y. work) and get a shower in, to wash off the sweat of the trail.

There were three evening readings, which were good. I think about ten minutes is an ideal time to read, fifteen max. But it says in the program that 20 minutes is what the presentations should be. The final reader read for about eight minutes and it was delightful. She read just enough to get us interested, to give a taste of her work, but not enough to give my mind a chance to wander. If I read, I'll try to keep it short. Still on the fence about that. I do think it's nice to share with people what you've been working on....but I haven't been polishing, only cranking out, so I'll have to think about that.

After dinner I was able to finish up my remaining 500 words.

I saw the groundhog. Got quite close. What a little fat, calm, Buddha-rodent he is. Steve? Ralph? What is his name??

Lots of fellows talking about the Frankenstorm, wondering if they should leave early or try to stay later.

A professional photographer was shooting with one of the horses and two models in western attire at the gates to the barn studios.


Bass (fillets)
Carrots sauteed with tiny strips of ginger

Dessert: Carrot cake (and all my resolve went out the window)

osage orange and bittersweet

Day Six:  Word count total: 26,130

The days are starting to run together...let me think what happened yesterday.

I wrote. I read. I wrote. I did yoga (stiff from the hike). I had great conversations....

I brought lunch back to my room to stay in work mode. Yogurt, some Swiss cheese, an apple, and herb tea.

People are starting to panic about Frankenstorm, wondering if they should leave early, or stay a few extra days. Looks like I'll miss it for my travel, which is good.

In my novel I got out of the NYC subway system and started writing from the male POV. Writing from a male perspective, of a fistfight, in first person...very challenging for me. (I've never been a man. Never been in a fistfight. Hate violence and anger, always avoid it.) I'm sure it will still need a lot of work. But one of the interesting things is that it became sort of erotic for these men. They've been isolated for so long and men so seldom touch each other anyway, that when they finally do, even though the skin-on-skin is violent and painful, it's somehow cathartic and erotic. I have no idea if this ever happens in real life. (Hopefully it's not just a female fantasy surfacing.) But all that wet flesh slapping and the overpowering of one over another...anyway, my characters seemed to want to "go there" so I went.

I'm back to the female POV today.

I have a visitor coming this afternoon for a brief visit! Very excited to have an outside friend come.

Had a nice late conversation of several hours with a fellow writer here. Covered many, many topics about life and motherhood and writing and pressures of the outside world. She brought a bottle of port to the conversation, and I like a good after dinner port. (Almost never have it, but I like it.)

Got my 2,000 words done later in the day and evening (1,500 before dinner, 500 after my guest left), but they came easily enough.


Pork medallions with poached pear
roasted root vegetables (beets, parsnips, sweet potato, turnip--so yummy and fall-ish)
fried polenta cakes

dessert: peach pie (I managed to refrain and had a cup of coffee instead--that was probably just as many calories by the time I doctored it up...)

Read until about midnight. Slept well.

(Believe it or not, I'm reading Stephen King's THE STAND here at this wonderful artsy residency. The uncut version, at over 1,000 pages. It's working for me and I'm reminded how much I enjoy King. He's got some beautifully artistic strokes.)

Here's a chapter ending that I loved:

"By nightfall on July 4 he was nearly to Oklahoma. That evening before he went to sleep he stood in another farmyard, his face turned up to the sky, watching a meteor shower scratch the night with cold white fire. He thought he had never seen anything so beautiful. Whatever lay ahead, he was glad to be alive."

Day Seven: Word count total: 28,085

Yesterday was lovely. I got most of my work done before my special visitor arrived. We got caught up on everything writerly, had a cup of tea, I introduced him to a few fellows he didn't know, and we hiked the trail that's on-property together. (I hadn't been able to find it before, so he helped me navigate. The trail was sort of overrun after the derecho storm earlier this year.)

Dinner was delicious and I said good-bye to one of the fellows I have gotten close to. Nice to have made a new writer friend, sad to see her go. I'm now on the down-side of my stay here, so I'm starting to understand that feeling of needing to get the most work done possible.

The storm didn't arrive here (or at least the first wave of it) until after dinner last evening. It rained steadily and for some reason I had a hard time getting to sleep (that cup of coffee I had at dinner, perchance?). Then at 2:45, the power went out. I got up at about seven this morning and piled more clothes on and went back to bed. At 9am I moseyed on down to the dining room thinking everything would be behind schedule, but they had coffee and scrambled eggs and a fire in the fireplace. Kind of amazing.


Braised beef with mushrooms
Garlic mashed potatoes
some sort of soured greens with onions
Squash of some sort, perhaps pumpkin, that was cut into slabs and roasted

Dessert was a smorgasbord of all the leftover desserts from the week. The guy beside me nabbed the last/only piece of carrot cake so I had chocolate cake instead, with coffee. Hard times.

skylight in studio

Day Eight: Word count: 30,279

Okay, really on the downside of my stay now. I leave Thursday to drive home, and although I can stay in my particular studio until midnight, I'll have a ten-hour drive ahead of me, so I guess I won't. Also people waiting at home...

Yesterday was good. Did a little more than my word-count goal and topped a big number which feels satisfying.

I am starting to reconsider my word-count push now. Not because I don't want to do the work, I do. And I came here to get work done. But now that I only have two days left, I'm realizing how important the connections and conversation are. I mean, I've got silence at home. Every day, my "men" leave and go off to school and work and I've got silence. What I don't have--and what I miss having--is connections to other artists and human interaction and the discussion of big ideas. I crave that, and here I've cloistered myself away to do work. And it's not like I've been a monk, but I have made the work most important in my mind and let the great conversations happen only at meals. I think for my last two evenings, I'm going to seek out people and not hide away. That will be every bit as useful to me (after I get home) as the word count.

Last night after dinner I wanted to see some moving pictures of the storm so I went into the TV room and surfed around a little. Yikes. I hope my east coast friends are staying safe and dry. Scary stuff. Then another fellow came in, saw what we were watching and said, "Oh, God. I've watched so much storm porn I don't think I can sit through any more." But he did. And we were all riveted. Storm Porn. That's what it's come to. Very strange. (But true.)

The storm was still going pretty well here last night and my door kept getting blasts of wind that would make it sound like someone was knocking on my door. (And if you recall, I'm sort of off away from most everyone else. I'm next door to the resident artists, but I never see or hear them, so I do feel like I'm in a distant country. I was worried those "knocks" on my door would wake me up overnight so I wedged a bag under the door and that seemed to help. Either way, I slept fine. I really have slept so well here. Only two nights weren't good. Every other night I've clicked off the light around midnight and hardly moved until about 8am. God that is good. Almost worth the residency even if that was all I accomplished. It's probably been years since I've had such a good period of reliable sleep. Usually I have a cat waking me to go in or out, a son walking around banging on things, a husband getting up earlier than me...I just want to say, it's been nice. Thank you sleep gods for shining on me.

And last of all, I am reminded how very much I do love freaks (I say this with fondness--I hope the term doesn't offend anyone. In my world, it's good to be a freak.)  And god, we're all freaky here, but there's something so endearing to me when people wear it proudly. God bless the freaks.


Stuffed green peppers with sour cream
sauteed green beans
and something else that I ate...?

Dessert: Carrot Cake! (and DECAF coffee)

Day Nine: Word count: 31,720

Yesterday I didn't make my word count for the first time since I started. Will try to make up for that today, my last day.

Had a great conversation last night until about 11pm with a female fellow whose name I knew, but only that. Turns out we have a million mutual friends, but somehow never crossed paths in person. Lots of talk about agents and publishers and more.It was a lovely and very interesting chat.

Spent three hours yesterday morning in one of the visual artist's studios. She opened up her work space and let me do a collage with her materials. Great fun, good to use that other part of my brain. And plenty of parallels with writing--cutting, arranging, combining, layering, but visually. So I made a collage for myself with underwater themes and I also made a square for the Painted Quilt Project which is a project in the phone room, where each artist who wants to participate paints or writes in a square of paper (precut) and signs it then adds it to the quilt. Kind of fun. I love collaborative things like that. I also cropped one side of my collage by about 2 inches, and voila! instant bookmark.

After dinner one of the fellows showed a short film (actually a 30-minute segment of a work-in-progress) that was really wonderful. It interviewed four people about their "Life's Work" which was also the title of the film. It followed a man who is attempting to digitize black southern gospel vinyl before it all disappears, a man who is trying to revive/propagate old growth trees like redwoods and elms and others, a woman who listens for signs of extra-terrestrial life, and Paulo Soleri, an architect who has been trying to build a desert city for his whole life. Very interesting and inspiring. None of them will see their life's work come to fruition in their lifetimes, and that was sort of the crux of the film. How do you deal with that? And how do you keep working in the face of that knowledge?

So...between the studio time and the long evening talk and the film showing, I didn't make my word count. But I am off to remedy that right now. I only need 280 more words before I start on today's count.


Fried chicken
Mashed potatoes and parsnips
broccoli with black olives
Green beans...? maybe. I can never remember the fourth thing. I'll see it today at lunch as a leftover--then I'll remember.

Dessert: Key Lime Pie (yes)

Day 10:  Word count total: 34,345

Got in a good spurt of writing on my final day. So sorry to be leaving. (Shhh, don't tell my family.)

Good, sociable breakfast conversation. Came back to my room and started packing up. Wrote. A fellow stopped by to see the mythical WS11 room. I got my lunch to go and ate in my room and worked more and also mapped my route for tomorrow.

At 4:30 there was a mixer at the main office to meet-and-greet. I went last Wednesday, but there weren't many people there. This week tons of staff were there and they were all in costume, offering Halloween candy. Before dinner one of the fellows played his guitar (he's been doing that every evening before dinner--it's very nice). Dinner was great fun. I made sure tonight to not be first in line, because last night I was first, and I sat down first and ended up sitting at a table with a bunch of people I probably wouldn't have sat with if I had chosen where I wanted to sit. They were nice, but with only two dinners left I kind of wanted to hang with the people I had gotten to know well. I could hear them laughing it up at the next table over and I wanted to bad to move over there and join them. So, tonight I made sure to sit where I wanted and it was a great dinner of camaraderie.

After dinner a composer played some of her music for us and it was really cool and generated some great discussions. She often composes work in response to books or other written work. One piece was a response to On Chesil Beach. Another to the Korean War Memorial in DC. Very interesting to hear her talk about the work before hearing it. As someone who knows very little about composing classical music, it helped me to appreciate it even more.

I stayed in the library with a group of women (writers, artists, and the composer) and talked until about 9pm. I came back to the room, called home, packed a bit more, and finished up my daily word count.


Italian Sausage with Parmesan
Sweet potatoes, mashed with walnuts
Carrots and Peas with dill
And that ever-elusive fourth thing...?


Chocolate cake and a decaf coffee. All my jeans have shrunk.

I will eat drink and be Mary, for tomorrow I drive.

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