A Return to Presence

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The beauty of writing is that it can happen anytime, anywhere, with anyone around. On a cracked laptop on a packed redeye to Albuquerque, sure. Atop the monkey bars with a journal and a gel pen, yes. Standing in line at the grocery store, typing up notes on your phone, it happens. The places where we find ourselves writing, the times of day, the weather, and the people and conversations and noises around us can impact not only the writing process but the work itself in unexpected, often inspiring ways. It’s as if our surroundings become imprinted, almost invisibly, into our creations, as if all we truly know is what we can only feel.

Ernest Hemingway famously said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Openness, presence—that’s the secret. It’s understandable, then, why so many writers crave a set time and space to write with no distractions, no peripheral commitments, and sometimes no human interaction whatsoever to engage most fully in the solitary act of writing. To complete her final draft of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling locked herself in a room at the Balmoral Hotel when her daily life had become too hectic to finish the work at home. “It turned out to be stimulating,” Rowling said in an interview with Oprah. “I thought, I can go to a quiet place! . . . The first day’s writing went well, so I kept coming back to this hotel, and I ended up finishing the last of the Harry Potter books in this hotel.”

When one needs that set time and “quiet place” away from it all, the opportunity to write at an artist residency (like the solace of a hotel room) can provide writers with the creative freedom and the physical and mental space necessary to do the diligent work of writing. My first residency experience was with the Grin City Collective the summer after I graduated college. In a century-old farmhouse on a 320-acre farm in Grinnell, Iowa, I lived with two performance artists, two sculptors, and a fiction writer, all recent college grads, all serious about pursuing art for a living. Adjacent to the farmhouse was a huge studio area where each resident was given a spacious, semi-private area for creating.

The environment at Grin City felt closely connected to nature and the Grinnell community and collaborative among the residents. We’d cook each other dinners with food from the garden and the local grocery store, trading off nights doing the dishes, and we’d have bonfires and play Settlers of Catan over Miller High Lifes afterward. We volunteered together at RAGBRAI, opened a pop-up free shop in the park, and hosted a public reading, performance, and exhibition at the Grinnell Area Arts Council that brought in hundreds of local art enthusiasts. I think back on Grin City often and feel nostalgic for what I loved most about my time there: writing alongside and getting to know the artist residents and locals, being involved in Grinnell’s arts community, and experiencing a beautiful new landscape for a full month of summer with open sky, fields for ages, and miles of breathing room for new ideas.

Hill House interior 1Years later, eager for more focused time to write, I arrived at the Hill House, a two-story log cabin nestled deep in the woods of Northern Michigan, for my second residency with the Crosshatch Center for Art & Ecology. Unlike Grin City, the Hill House affords residents the luxury of absolute solitude for two whole weeks. I was there in March 2014, the winter of the Polar Vortex (and the Frozen phenomenon), so not even the neighbors were home, and the silence was at times peculiar yet healing. One of the best features of the Hill House was an upright piano by the stairs and other instruments around to play in case things were ever too quiet. The kitchen there was stocked with food in advance, and I loved the Hill House’s handmade journals—in which residents would write about their experiences, give advice, draw doodles, suggest scenic trails, and share original work created at the house—because they connected all residents past, present, and future across space and time, capturing gusts of feeling and coffee stains on tattered parchment.

Of course, regardless of where one is, one must do what one must do to do what one must do (write). Frank O’Hara liked to write on his lunch breaks—he sold postcards in the Museum of Modern Art gift shop and eventually curated exhibitions and wrote catalogue copy there—and his poetry is known for its playful sense of urgency. Writer Caleb Crane elaborates: “O’Hara was aggressively present in his poems; he aspired to ‘the immediacy of a bad movie.’” Whether he was picking up a newspaper on a New York City street corner while running errands on his lunch break or answering the phone to chat with a friend while writing a film script while being filmed for a documentary about American poetry, O’Hara was in the moment, writing about what was happening as it was happening. “I am mainly preoccupied with the world as I experience it,” he wrote in his statement for New American Poetry, “and at times when I would rather be dead the thought that I could never write another poem has so far stopped me. . . . It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or, conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.”

We feel—we know—that indivisible connection between space and what comes out of it. The work is born right out of the moment, through the very experience of writing it. If, as writers, we lose our sense of space or don’t have enough of it, the work can suffocate on its way out of our minds, out of our hands. “We all react, consciously or unconsciously, to the places where we live and work, in ways we scarcely notice or that are only now becoming known to us,” Tony Hiss writes in The Experience of Place. “These places have an impact on our sense of self, our sense of safety, the kind of work we get done, the ways we interact with other people, even our ability to function as citizens in a democracy.”

Hill House Loft (by Allison Peters)It is our inner states, directly connected to our surroundings and each other, determining how in tune our feelers are feeling, how aware we are of the infinite. What residencies offer artists is a return to presence, a chance to escape the stresses of everyday life, to focus on creating in a new place, generating ideas, and doing the real work of making. Sufficient time and space—and when we can find it, peace—are invaluable resources for writers to work, get inspired, and breathe fresh air and feeling into new creations again.

 

Lead image: Hill House interior; photo by residency alum Scott Hocking. Middle image: Hill House interior with harp; photo by residency alum Jennifer Crighton. Bottom image: Hill House writing loft; photo by Allison Peters.

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