Friday, May 21, 2010

A Month at Millay

Ten years ago this month, I was a resident at the Millay Colony for the Arts, an arts retreat near the town of, Austerlitz, in the eastern mountain country of New York State. I often refer to that month of Millay as being the first time in my life when I lived as a writer.
The Colony is located on the estate of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, she of the bohemian, “my candle burns at both ends” aesthetic of the early 20th century. The colony was founded several years after the poet’s death by her surviving sister, to be an open, creative space to which artists could retreat for a month at a time, to work, play, rest or merely exist, away from distraction or demand. Millay occupies a beautiful setting. There are fields and forests, and a mountainous state park a short walk away, and lots of gravel roads cutting through the steep and robust stands of trees.
At the start of each month, six artists - writers, musicians or visual artists - are welcomed to the colony, provided cozy bedrooms and spacious studios, a well-stocked kitchen, a prepared dinner every evening – and lots of quiet. During my month, four of us occupied a roughly converted barn, with bedrooms on the ground floor, and huge, corresponding studios above. There was lots of bare timber, uneven floors and mismatched furniture – rough and plain. I felt I was entering a space that had been cleared for me, and was ready to absorb and feed back my energies over the coming weeks. I bought along my 1940’s era, cast iron, Royal office typewriter, and when Gail, our hostess and manager, heard me clanging away on the first afternoon, she said it had been years since she’d experienced that sound, and she welcomed my noise with the same respect and accommodation with which all or our actions and requests were met.
It wasn’t merely that I lived as a writer for four week; I was treated as one, as one doing meaningful work. There’d been an application process, which included samples of work, a loose proposal as to how I expected the residency to further my artistic goals, and I’d needed a reference letter, which a more successful, writer friend had provided. But otherwise, not before, during or after the experience, was there ever an expectation to show work, to report on progress, defend ones worthiness or even to pretend to be working if one wasn’t. We were invited and expected to do with time and the universe as we pleased, and every time I said a thank you to anyone, it was returned, with a declaration that they were the ones honoured, by my presence there.
I settled into a rhythm of days that was dictated solely by my artistic pace, which I hadn’t known until then. I found that I naturally woke between nine and ten, feeling alive and ready to move. I’d immediately climb the narrow stair to my studio and do my morning stretches on my Royal beast. There was hot water on hand for hot chocolate, and I postponed my first cup of coffee for the kitchen. I’d do some stream of consciousness writing, look over my previous day’s pages, and jot some notes and ideas for future work. And by the time I took the walk for breakfast, I’d be into my day with purpose.
Breakfast was oatmeal or eggs or pancakes, but also a chance to chat briefly with whoever else was a late morning eater. Some of the others I rarely saw before dinner. Liz, one of our two painters, rose at about 5, and I sometimes met her improvising a lunch while I started my breakfast, she with anyone else’s full day’s work already behind her.
I’d get back to work after eating, and would go for two to three hours. This session was always an attack on a new chapter or section, churning out fresh material, pushing myself into the unknowns, and daring myself to take pathways that were confronting for reasons I didn’t generally know. This was always the most exhausting, and also the most exhilarating of the day’s work. By the time I finished, I was ready for a snack and a walk.
Upon returning to my studio, physically tired, but emotionally recharged by the outing, I put in another hour or two, generally augmenting and editing the early afternoon work, before keeping the solitary appointment of the day – dinner with my fellow residents.
We had a great crew that month. The six of us – 4 writers, 2 painters; 3 women, 3 men – philosophised and laughed together, shared about the progress and the hurdles of the day, drank wine and rejoiced in this time we knew was so special, even as we counted down the weeks, then days. I didn’t keep up with the others for very long, but Liz and I became lasting friends, and she’s remained an inspiration for her work ethic as well as her artistry.
After dinner, I’d write a bit more, but without agenda, letting my ideas dart about, small inspirations spark from the work and exploration of the day. And I’d usually have another short walk, into the night, to study the sky and stars. And it was a time to read. I’d bought along a stack of books that I got part way through, but the real reading pleasures were two-fold. First, my discovery of George Perec and his amazing novel, Life: a User’s Manual, that I found in the small library and sampled, morsels at a time.
Then there were the collective journals, in which residents over the decades had reflected on their stay, and on their artistic lives, often on their doubts and fears. The journal writers – and generally there were only one or two residents journaling during any given month – sometimes wrote about the workaday lives and families they’d left behind and would shortly return to, using the distance to see with fresh eyes how they were situated in life. I remember one writer’s entries, written in the dead of winter, comparing the quiet, mountain roads of the area to the city streets he walked at home. Another reflected on his isolation at home, and not quite understanding it. And he wondered at being now thrust into this very temporary family of kindred folk for four short weeks.
And yet another wrote about the joblessness, poverty and rootlessness waiting at home, and all the stresses that came with it, which would threaten to overwhelm the vision of the project that was then underway, with such a sense of accomplishment, zeal and purpose. “What will it be like to get off the bus at the downtown terminal, of a Tuesday afternoon, and not know what I’m going to eat for dinner?”, paraphrases one of his premonitions.
I’d have been devastated if told that ten years later my novel would still be unpublished, un-represented, and only barely finished. But – and I console myself – I’d have been proud of the feeling I have about the novel I have produced, with a beginning and an end, and 120,000 words in between, with characters who live and inhabit a breathing world.
That month helped bring Bursting about. It’s where the name finally came to me. I’d started the book three years before, and it would be another eight before it was done – a journey I’d never have imagined. At Millay – taking up from Rob, another of the writers – I’d begun to tape outlines and character notes, tentative chapter titles and poems, to the thick, wooden walls. It gave the world I was slowly scripting a dimensionality it hadn’t had before. Each of the days stretched long enough that I could dive into the book several times, and have slow, drifting ascents back into my quiet, barn loft studio. I took lots of walks into the hills and fields, while I let the story and characters take me over and reveal themselves. It was so much like what I’d imagined a writing life to be, and yet so different. I hadn’t known, for example, that five to six hours was the most I could manage, sitting at my beast and writing fresh material. But I also hadn’t known how my mind, mood and spirit would so wrap themselves in the work, that I was constantly working it, shaping it, feeling my way through it. The work filled me up, I carried it in my limbs and it overflowed my skull and brain.
I did finally finish my novel. There is some disappointment about it, flowing from the teeming mass of details of my created world that do not survive on the pages of the manuscript. And from how short it falls of the brilliance I have aspired for it to be. And doubt keeps me yet from sinking fully into a second novel that will test what I think I’ve learned.
But I continue to write. And that time at Millay left its imprint on me. I now know the rhythms that work for me. I’ve felt the scope of the creative dimension I can inhabit when I am focused and engaged. And when I find my creative zone, sitting on the second or third level of the Toronto Reference Library most likely, or in the window seat before my desk on Sproat Avenue, I know the place, and I am at home.


  1. That was the most beautiful thing I have read in many, many years. Thank you.

  2. I have been speaking this truth of we Exonians for over year now:

    We are, all of us, burdened with the expectation of extraordinary accomplishment.

    May you be unburdened. May you write. May you write truth; that would be extraordinary and that would be enough.