I arrived at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the VCCA, in April of 1998 via train and bus. This was my first arts colony stay. I’d tried to pack light: a laptop and a bathing suit, some shorts and shirts and a pair of jeans and a windbreaker, plus some Guy Davenport short story collections.
Cows drifted down the hill as we drove in. At the top of the hill was a strangely modern building, lovingly called “The Chalet,” set on the grounds of what had been, until a fire, a more conventional southern great house. Some people said it was noisy, but I decided they had never lived in New York—I would find it quiet. But I soon learned that someone at a colony is always complaining about noise you don’t hear.
Sweet Briar College, the driver pointed out, was across the road. “They called it Sweet Briar because the first settlers to the area planted roses, hoping they’d act as natural cow-fencing. Didn’t work. But now we sure do have roses,” he said.
Roses were everywhere, in fact. Roses ran up trees and overtook them, lined the fields, had settled in vast, beautifully unwieldy monoliths in the middle of fields. I was two years into a rose garden in my backyard in Brooklyn, and I had thought I might miss it—April is a terrible time to leave home if you’re a gardener. But here I saw my roses were little things next to these colonial-era cousins, these ancient, rangy old hands who had soaked in the plentiful manure and become the area’s dominant species.
Immediately I felt more at home than I could have guessed. It was as if I’d arrived in the post-apocalyptic future of my rose garden, where it had taken over Brooklyn and returned it to wildness.
On the third day, the screen to my laptop failed. “This is terrible,” everyone said at breakfast. “Will you have to go home?” I didn’t understand why they thought a computer was so important. I went to the college store at Sweet Briar and bought legal pads and pens, then called my brother. When I told him what had happened, he FedEx’d a laptop from his work for me to use instead. I barely missed a beat.
I had been working on my first novel, Edinburgh, for five years and needed to turn a corner. I don’t know why I’d thought a residency would work, I just did. I don’t honestly remember how I found the colony either—it was most likely through Poets & Writers magazine. I was waiting tables at the time and otherwise writing my novel, and the pace was so slow my agent would call at the New Year and say “Maybe this year?” and we both knew what she meant.
I had organized my life so that writing was most important—but it wasn’t enough. I needed a particle accelerator, a mystical device I could use to step inside another world and finish the novel and return.
I needed a colony.
For those unfamiliar with the idea, the American arts colony is mostly heir to a model created by the American Academy in Rome and taken up by Edward and Marian MacDowell, founders of the MacDowell Colony, as well as the Trask family that founded Yaddo, and the Byrdcliffe and Maverick Colonies of Woodstock. Generally there is a campus, usually in a rural area, sometimes in an urban one—rarely are arts colonies in the suburbs. The artists, who apply to attend, are gathered under a utopian ideal that believes in both supporting and mixing them: writers, painters, architects, composers are brought together to build a community where each informs the others as all do their work. Solitude alternates with society, as it were. Usually you give a presentation of your work while you are there, but not always—most presentations are optional, and if you are too busy, no one, in my experience, insists.
The artist is usually given room and board—often excellent cooking—and a space to work uninterrupted. The crucial difference between arts colonies and artist retreats (though these terms are often used interchangeably) is that a colony stay, in places like VCCA or MacDowell, is typically free to the artist if their application survives a highly competitive review process (and if not free, available at a deeply subsidized price). And though the word “colony” always makes me a little nervous, in my experience it is a little world apart, never really in danger of taking over the world, but instead helping you colonize your own life, for that nation that is art.
One of the burdens of life among fellow civilians is that when you enter the fugue state required for making art, you can’t really be a normal person. The good news is that at a colony, you’re not expected to.
Utopian ideals aside, there are also compelling pragmatics.
“What’s not to like? Free food, quiet space to write, a good bed,” says my friend Chris Offutt, of his residencies at MacDowell and Yaddo. “At Yaddo I saw a fawn sleeping in the woods. Another time I took the rowboat on the lakes and gave people rides. At MacDowell, I had a cabin with a fireplace in the woods. The key to getting work done is to skip breakfast.”
“Skip breakfast” I think of as code, though literal also.
Fiction writers are often portrayed as fussy prima donnas, and I won’t say we aren’t, but to explain, when we write fiction, we are, all in one head, the actor improvising a scene, the director, the writer writing down the results, and also all the other actors, as well, improvising all the other parts, plus camera, set decorator, grips, etc. When we’re home, we’re also often our own catering and makeup crews, and then we must also be the person we agreed to be to everyone we know.
Colonies provide the time and space to work unbothered. If you interrupt us at work, a complex piecework of notions falls apart. I don’t know if I could have put it that way back in 1998, but I felt it, desperately.
By this I mean that when I first went to the VCCA, I was roughly 100 pages into the novel, and about half of its eventual length was unwritten. It was the hardest thing I’d tried to do in my life, and I arrived in Virginia as someone who was freelance writing in the morning, waiting tables or teaching at night, and then coming home to sleep a little before doing it all over again. I was getting writing done but I knew I needed to go deep, to enter my novel for more than the hour or two my home life offered, and not emerge too much before I went back in for more—a swimmer coming up briefly for air before submerging again.
In this state, I went to my first breakfast.
“What’s your novel about,” another colonist asked. The dining room in my memory is sparsely populated—breakfasts are usually the meal people skip at colonies, or the one they try to take alone. It’s one of the first rules you learn, usually from experience. Talking too much in the morning ruins everything. (The VCCA did have a quiet table for breakfast, for people who wanted to eat but didn’t want to deal with questions from people trying to be friendly—people who were, all too often, desperate to avoid doing their work—but I didn’t know that yet.)
“You don’t have to answer that,” said a woman sitting across the table, cutting into a grapefruit. She was a very tall woman, white, not quite grandmotherly, in huge glasses and dressed with a formal casualness she never let slip for two weeks—the older aunt who’s had more adventures than your mother is ever going to tell you about.
My questioner and I looked at her as she continued. “You talk it out here,” and she pointed to her mouth, “and you don’t write it out here,” and here she mimed typing furiously. She held her hand up to her mouth and made the international sign for “zip it.”
In a Brooklyn bar one night the week before, I remembered telling someone about my novel. I knew right then I might never discuss a work in progress again.
Her name was Marjory Bassett, and she was my newest hero.
One of the burdens of life among fellow civilians is that when you enter the fugue state required for making art, you can’t really be a normal person. The good news is that at a colony, you’re not expected to—you’re expected to be civil to other colonists, and respectful, but not normal. It’s a huge relief.
My studio, when I arrived that first day, was a good walk from the Chalet, part of a group of studios out near what is called “The Meadow.” It was clean and spare, with a chair, desk, and bed. The desk had a view of the aforementioned Meadow. I sat down and began setting up.
The poet in the studio next to me, Kathryn Levy, was at the time revising her work by reading it aloud, recording it, and playing it back to herself. The murmur of it was reassuring somehow. Years later, when I remembered it to her, she laughed and said “I don’t work that way anymore.” I recently asked her about thoughts on colonies, and she said: “You have all the solitude you want, with none of the usual distraction of daily life at home, and then when you want to be in a social situation with interesting people, you have that as well. I find that I experiment in colonies more often than I do at home because I have such an expanse of time, and that I not only write more and think about writing more, but think about life more as well.”
Colonies also teach lessons. Typically there are older, more experienced artists who offer tips on, for example, finding and maintaining silence. I also learned there is almost nothing better for your work than having someone cook and clean for you who is neither a relative nor someone you’re sleeping with. I am something of a cook, for example, and between food prep and shopping, I spend about 14 hours a week on meals. But when I go away to a residency, that becomes writing time. I gain two whole working days from the week.
And so sometimes people would complain about a meal and my only thought was What is wrong with you?
The four weeks I stayed in Virginia became five. When I stopped into the office for some reason, the director said, “We can give you another week. Would you like it?”
“Yes,” I said immediately.
Which brings me to the next rule: Always take the extra week, if it is offered. I had come to turn a corner and in that fifth week I turned the corner. Nearly 80 pages were written there, and in the fifth week I wrote 100 pages more. Almost all of these pages stayed in the final version of the novel. I didn’t finish writing Edinburgh that month, but I had gotten further in five weeks than I had in three years.
“Your name still comes up on the computer when I try to sign into Gmail,” my friend Andrew Sean Greer writes me from the public computer at the MacDowell Colony, and it makes me ache a little to hear it. He reports shortly after this on Facebook that he’s finished edits on his newest novel there, due out next year.
To be granted access to MacDowell feels a bit like you have a wealthy friend who owns a 400-acre estate in Peterborough, NH, complete with 28 cottages, several dorms, a great house, and a staff to cook and clean for you, and your friend one day says, “Make yourself at home. Some other people I like will be there too.”
I’ve attended MacDowell twice. It is one of the very few places I’ve ever been that I feel homesick for when I’m not there.
In 2005, my first visit, I was given five weeks in November. When I arrived, the fields had begun to turn brown, the weather cold. Soon it would snow and cover everything. Every day I woke early and got breakfast from the kitchen—I could choose from five options, and eat a fresh muffin or scone while a cook prepared my food. When I finished eating (by arriving early enough, I had the giant dining room to myself), I hiked out to my studio, taking a shortcut through the woods. I’d been assigned a cabin at the edge of the property. “If this is a colony, I’m the outpost,” I joked. It was about a half-hour walk from the main house, or a very short drive or bicycle ride, using one of two dozen bicycles of various conditions that the colony makes available to residents. My distant studio had no internet and no cell-phone service, and the great house and library were too far away to go check my email.
The rules of MacDowell are very specific: You are forbidden to interrupt other artists at work. No approaching other studios without invitation. Your lunch is unobtrusively left at your door in a picnic basket; you can spend the night in your studio if you wish. So if you don’t want to talk to anyone, there’s no need, even when you’re walking the grounds—everyone understands how shattering it can be to have an idea fall apart at the end of a stroll because of someone who is only engaging in a brief compulsory social ritual.
By this point, I had published the first novel and was now roughly the same distance into a new novel. Soon I found I’d also started working on an essay and a memoir. MacDowell will do that to you. I even began losing some weight I’d wanted to lose from all the walking and regular mealtimes. It was as if I had wandered into a kind of ur-autumn, a magical space of wood fires and bourbon cocktails and pool games, and a vast quiet supplied by the forest and its animals, where nothing could keep me from my appointed task except me, and even I, my own most implacable antagonist, was going to cooperate.
Lunch is one of the most revered rituals, I think, of the MacDowell stay: The picnic baskets are delivered by a lovely white-haired gentleman named Blake who’s been doing it for years, and is one of the nicest, quietest, most respectful men I’ve ever met.
On this visit it was irregularly accompanied by The MacDowell Gazette, a newsletter masterminded mostly by Hope Tucker and Dan Basila, with sections like “Wished Connections” and a mix of real and phony news—anything, basically. “THE NEW GAYDAR—ONLY GAY MEN CAN SEE OTHER GAY MEN HAVING SEX IN THE WOODS.” “MACDOWELL COMPOSERS PARTICULARLY VULNERABLE TO BEAR ATTACKS.” The “Kitchen Buzz Report” noted the musical tastes of a staffer we were all crushed out on: “The young Kitchen assistant SAM’s favorite bands include AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Megadeath, and the Bee Gees. The anomaly was not explained.” A favorite “Wished Connections”: “I saw your footprints in the snow. They went up the hill, they went down. Where did you sleep? Not with me.”
I’ve attended MacDowell twice. It is one of the very few places I’ve ever been that I feel homesick for when I’m not there.
Which brings me to the society part of the society and solitude.
A favorite memory of that first stay at MacDowell: A composer, formerly a circus aerialist, sat down at the piano and played, from memory, Eric Satie’s Gymnopédies. I can still hear it in my head, and feel the way I wanted it to never stop, though the beauty in it is that it did end—it was a moment that was never likely to repeat, and only possible there. And I will always remember the novelist Amy Bloom doing my makeup for a party at the visual artist Luisa Kazanas’s studio, for example, and I know Luisa still has footage of me dancing with a monkey puppet around the pool table, as she and I are still close friends—I met my partner Dustin through her.
Some friendships made at arts colonies last for life, others are quick impressions. The rule perhaps is that it doesn’t matter—the value of a connection is not always its length. What matters is that it happened, these short, electric encounters with artists outside your field opening up your thinking and your work, even or especially while at play.
My friend Roxana Robinson’s description of her time there made me feel almost like I didn’t know her—she’s a very funny but fairly reserved, elegant person—except what she describes is exactly what happens: “I was in a studio at the end of a road in the woods, and driving up to it each morning was like stepping into a German fairy tale. I opened the door and turned up the heat and sat down with my computer. Outside there was no sound. The woods were dim and silent. Where in the world do you find this silence, a world that’s ready to help you work? And in the evenings, the great thrill was a sort of bastardized game of pool called ‘Pig’ that we played with billiard balls but no cues. Someone had brought it from another writers’ colony, and it involved a lot of running around the table and shouting. One evening we sat before the great room’s enormous fireplace, took parts and gave a dramatic reading of Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, which he wrote about Peterborough while staying at MacDowell. It was a great success, we all thought.”
Greer is amused to be accused by friends left behind of only playing, not working: “For me, the simple fact is that I do three times as much work here as at home, with half the pain. Because everyone’s needs are taken care of, and everyone is working on the thing they love without constraint, you also meet people at their very best and most open, and that experience, almost more than any of the above, can be life-changing and affirming. Of course my friends at home all call it a ‘nudist colony’ and assume I am frolicking in the woods. I do like a dance party! But I think it’s hard to grasp how extraordinarily difficult it is to create art, especially since we work so hard to create objects, sounds, and words, highly polished, original. People will never get rid of the idea that great art springs into being from magic or madness, so is it really any surprise they think of colonies as romantic holidays? As far as I can tell, affairs happen as rarely as anywhere else. Artists are overwhelmingly more interested in getting back to work. And if a bottle of bourbon gets finished by a fireside here and there... well perhaps there is a little magic and madness to it after all. But the work produced in these places, and the names on the tombstones, is the final report on what gets done here. Plus a game of pool.”
I’d forgotten about the “tombstones”: small wooden boards found in each studio at MacDowell, with the names of every resident who stayed in that cabin, going back decades. I remembered Colson Whitehead was on the one I first stayed in, and then when I returned a few years later, it was reassuring to see my name on it, though it also held me accountable, in a way, to what had happened since the last visit. I think I had blocked it out until Andrew mentioned it, because, when you sign your name, it is a little like writing your own epitaph.
After an arts colony stay, the re-entry to normal society can be difficult. It was a popular Gazette topic, for example. All of us at MacDowell found it shattering, even the homesick ones. My week of departure, I remember, several guys were leaving at the same time and we decided to grow re-entry beards. Those who couldn’t grow a beard bought re-entry underwear. It was all reported in the Gazette.
I didn’t shave mine off for months.
Many people fantasize about what it would be like to be at a colony and never leave. Michelle Aldredge, a writer who actually works at MacDowell, noted that you would still leave anyway: “As a 13-year MacDowell employee, I couldn’t exactly apply to my favorite colony (how strange it would be to have Blake delivering me a lunch!?), so I opted for two residencies at The Hambidge Center in the North Georgia mountains instead. I thought I knew what it would be like to be at an artist retreat because of all of my years at MacDowell. But I was wrong. I couldn’t have predicted how divine it would feel to be fed, to be given a lovely studio in a gorgeous rural setting, and perhaps most importantly, to be taken seriously as a writer.”
Imagine, if you will, the Umbrian countryside in May. Hills and fields, forests, etc. You feel like you’ve wandered into an Merchant Ivory adaptation. In 2011, I arrived along with approximately 18 other guests from all over the world for a five-week residency at Civitella Ranieri, an arts colony located in an Italian castle in Umbria, outside Perugia.
On arrival I was met by a friendly Italian aide, Diego, who drove me and a French composer through the countryside to the castle. I was trying to take photos out the window—soon I just wanted a video of the entire drive. We pulled off the road onto a stately long drive lined by what I think were firs. I was shown to my apartment, Billiardo, so called because it was just off the castle’s ancient beautiful billiards room, which in turn was off of the Count’s Library, a library with quadruple-height ceilings, vast ancient fireplace, and books on second and third floors available via catwalk. These were the private collection of the Ranieri family, who still owns the castle. Built in the 10th century, added to in the 15th, and then rehabilitated and modernized lightly in the 20th— as I like to say of Civitella, about every 500 years someone does something to the castle.
“It’s almost too beautiful,” the writer Phillip Lopate said to me one day as we left lunch to go back to work.
It really was. But I didn’t feel guilty, not even a little, because by now I had learned that while colonies were for work, they could also act like rewards for the years of sacrifice made during the rest of your life. After years of hard work, rejections, doubt, and misery, suddenly, a castle.
I had always wanted to live in a castle as a child, and I still almost can’t believe it happened. My apartment had a bed and two desks, a bulletin board, and windows original to the castle, complete with winches to crank them shut and a place to stand and shoot arrows if the castle was under attack. A back staircase led up to Phillip Lopate’s apartment, so that if he and I had wanted to have an affair, we could have easily conspired to do so (he was a gentleman).
Around the corner was a sapphire blue male peacock, watching us from the deserted castle’s entrance. He waited for us to approach before heading inside. It felt like an invitation in a fairy tale.
That day I walked with Phillip, we’d just finished a lunch that arrived in a stacked metal tiffin, consisting of beautiful pasta, cured ham, cheese, and fresh salad. Another day, I went for a walk up the road to another castle nearby, under renovation. I paused in my ascent and the journalist and poet Eliza Griswold, also a fellow and a runner, approached. I waved and she slowed down.
“Oh good,” she said, a little winded. “Let’s walk.” We approached this distant brother castle and found it fenced in for workmen. Eliza handily leapt the wall. When I landed on the other side, we saw the enormous tail of something whisk out of sight. Eliza grabbed a metal stick and we gave chase.
Around the corner was a sapphire blue male peacock, watching us from the deserted castle’s entrance. He waited for us to approach before heading inside. It felt like an invitation in a fairy tale. We caught up to him on the stairs, sitting in an ancient window, his back to us. I had never seen anything as beautiful as his tail—until he leapt and floated down to the ground three stories below.
We ran to the window, in time to see him startle a giant Italian hare, who bolted and ran for the overgrown walls.
At the end of our residency, Eliza and I went back to the castle, and wandered the grounds again looking for our peacock. After an hour, we were leaving, disappointed, when suddenly we found him at the edge of a third outer wall of concentric walls surrounding the castle.
He leapt into the branch of a tree, paused there. As we watched, he took off into the air, his magnificent tail floating in the wind.
Neither of us had ever seen a peacock fly. “Was he practicing?” one of us asked the other, thinking back to when he climbed into the window and leapt to the ground below.
“I think he was,” the other said. We walked back, thunderstruck and amazed.
The last rule then, learned at Civitella: Be in awe. However you get there.