I’m at Vermont Studios Center an artists’ residence, in Johnston, VT, for the month of February. This is the first writer’s residency I’ve done so I wasn’t sure what to expect, of the place or of myself.
It’s seriously wonderful.
Twice I’ve woken up early and done yoga postures in my room until it was time to put on the fuzzy orange gloves Patricia gave me (not to worry, my friend, apparently nothing, even me, can be hunted this season) and walk over to the Red Mill where kitchen genies make the 55 of us big bowls of steaming oatmeal or eggs with crispy maple flavored bacon.
Afterward I walk to my studio, my very own studio. I’m in the Maverick Building (you’ve got to love the name) that houses the 16 writers. The rest of the residents scatter to various buildings and sheds to paint, sculpt or otherwise make visual art.
Each morning I hang up my coat, plug in my computer, slide my hands into the soft fingerless gloves Ginger gave me and write in my journal to clear away the mental and emotional flotsam and jetsam. When I’m done, it’s time to step over to the small wing chair facing the window that overlooks the river blanketed in snow. I wrap myself in the shawl Jean gave me and heave the first volume of my manuscript onto my lap and begin the heavy lifting of the day: I read.
What I’m Doing Here
The first draft of my book is on the long side. It takes a trio of three-inch binders to hold it.
But that’s why I’m here. This manuscript is like a block of precious carrera marble filled with patterns, highlights, weak spots. Opportunities. How can I make use of the strengths of this material and cut away the chaff?
Like a sculptor, I must first study the marble. Know the marble. Read it. Love it. Get right up close to it, close enough to see what book lies within yearning to be carved out of the thousand pages and set free.
Since I’ve been working on this manuscript for several years, some of the material I read I don’t remember writing. I like the sense of discovery. I finally have enough distance, most of the time, to read the words almost as if I hadn’t written them.
I know it sounds like easy work. It’s exhausting. I keep track of recurring themes. Some of them I expected; some surprise me. I write comments in the margins of sections I like, circle awkward stuff; mark areas that might get cut no matter what book I wind up writing. I list questions the material poses and ideas that surface from it.
Sometimes I wander over to the bookshelf and take down the book on the Northeastern Forest, Changes in The Land, from Meg. Sometimes I jot down a concept in a notebook from Madeleine or Vivian. Sometimes I skim suggestions for revision gifted me by Lyn and Jean.
So far I can digest no more than one hundred pages of my manuscript a day so by the fourth day I’m still just studying the marble, the raw material from which I hope to craft a piece of art, a book.
Two Books So Far
Yesterday I saw a book, a book I didn’t know existed, a book with everything needed to make, I think, a moving, readable story. It rolled out before me like a highway, a complete, whole book. But there was a problem: it isn’t a book I want to write. I’m not ready to write that book, not yet, maybe not ever.
It distressed me to think that this might be the only book within the marble or, even worse, the best book. Years of work just to come down to a book I don’t want to write.
But today, like everyday this week, is a different day. This morning I slept late, ate breakfast fast and didn’t speak to anybody. I rushed off to my studio and dug in. Two hours later, I was jubilant. I saw another book, its outline sweet and whole, a book more like the book I wanted to write when I first sat down to write a book.
After two days of constant snow, the stuff was so deep I often couldn’t see my ski tip when I broke trail.
Sometimes we had to ski through, or around, woodsy obstacles.
Though I know no one here, gifts from friends from home keep me company. As I iced my knee after skiing, I read Poets Thinking that Mary Lou gifted me to keep my mind sharp. Cards of encouragement are pinned to the bulletin board in my studio, including a picture of Georgia O’Keefe that came in the mail (real mail!) from Larry, the guy who’s at home walking the dog and shoveling the snow and doing everything else to keep our lives running while I’m not there doing my part.
As you see, I am not alone. My family and friends support me here, along with the good people of Vermont Studio Center, all giving something so that I may have the great luxury of focusing (most of the time) on my art. It humbles me.