Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Get Out of Town!

Every year around Halloween, I get nostalgic for the month I spent at the Vermont Studio Center, an artist colony nestled in the Green Mountain range of Johnson, VT. I was there from late October to late November about five years ago. Joining me were 70+ artists from all over the country and a good number of international artists as well. There were sculpters, painters, photographers and writers, and we were all in awe of what everyone else was doing.

As artist colonies go, VSC is large, but it didn’t feel that way. Almost everyone was there for a full four weeks and there were so many daily opportunities to interact, that I got to know quite a few people, certainly all of the other writers. Ages ranged from some very precocious 20 year olds who’d already been producing art for years to recent retirees who finally decided to pen that novel. I was in my early 30s and there was a conspicuous lack of residents in their mid 30s to mid 50s, which is understandable given so many people are raising families then and would find it difficult to leave home for a month.

I wish I could say my current novel was begun at VSC, but the truth is, I had another project in mind then. I was going to work on turning a long-ish short story into my first novel. It was a story rich with interesting characters and subplots, and I’d already done a fair amount of freewriting about their histories and the main conflict that would take center stage in the book. I was productive while there, by my account. I turned out 100 or so fresh pages that month. But if I had it to do again, I’d make sure I was farther along on a project. A residency would be perfect for me now, for example, as I have a finished novel but am working on a revision. That kind of concentrated time is just what I’m lacking, but with two little ones, I’m just not able, nor would I want to, get away for that length of time.

That 100 pages is still sitting on my desk, and I’ve picked it up from time to time. There’s some promise there, but I’m just not excited about that story right now. Still, I wouldn’t trade my month in Vermont for anything. A month to do nothing but write, read, eat (a fabulous chef prepared all our meals), and talk to other artists about art, politics (this was during the Bush-Kerry election year), the thickness of ice on the Gihon River outside our dining hall, the fluffiness of the whipped cream on our chocolate tortes, anything!

Most of the writers were on a schedule whereby we’d see each other briefly at breakfast before heading to our studios with our laptops where we’d spend the morning tapping away at the keys. Lunchtime, we’d meet back at the dining hall and compare progress, then people would slip away to hike, nap, read, or all of the above. Many of us would meet later in the afternoon at the local coffeehouse, the Bad Girls CafĂ©, for a shot of rejuvenation. We also did some informal workshopping with each other or had meetings with one of the two visiting writers who was there (one week each) during our month. After dinner, there was usually either a reading from one of the writers, a slide show from one of the other artists or a studio walk to see what everyone was up to. There was so much cross-inspiration going on. Oh, and there were parties of course. Anyone familiar with artist colonies knows of the reputation for boozing and casual hook-ups. Those pursuits were certainly there to be found for anyone looking.

I keep coming back to this idea of community and, though I’ve since lost touch with all but a few of the friends I made at VSC, the community I found there has kept me inspired for years. It’s no small thing to be surrounded by people who value what you do and encourage you to do it better. For writers, this is such a gift, especially for writers who might not find this encouragement elsewhere.  Today, I’m just fondly remembering the night I stood outside the front window of the gallery and looked at the lit jack-o-lanterns that the artists had gotten their hands on (why did I not take pictures?) and felt some kind of transference of energy from the most amazingly talented people all gathered there in one small space. It was inspiring then and it continues to inspire my daily work. That said, if you have a chance to get away with like-minded people and dream and plan and work, do not think about it for a second. Just go.

Update: An essay I wrote, and read at a public reading, while at VSC titled "My New Old Name" was later published in Skirt! Magazine. A poem I wrote shortly after returning home, titled "On the Bank of the Gihon River," was published in the Iodine Poetry Review. That 100 pages of "stuff" has found its way, in bits and pieces, into my first, and now my second novel. Save everything, keep writing.

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