I spent the month of October doing a writing residency at a fairly large institution in Vermont’s Northwest Kingdom. If you’ve never done a writing residency, the theory is that, freed from the constraints of everyday life, you will be able to take your work to a new level of intensity, to really, like, hear the whisperings of your soul, catch the bigger fish, whatever your preferred metaphor is. Residencies help you do this by taking care of your daily needs and giving you a room of your own. Your only job is to write, or paint, or sculpt, or do whatever it is you think is your calling. The residency doesn’t really care. It’s like a benevolent but indifferent parent, which is a comparison that will recur with some ominousness.
This residency, like everything else in Vermont,* is fancily rustic, or rustically fancy. You sleep in a small monastic room in a house heated by a pellet stove; you eat delicious food prepared by a chef whose only job is to make food, every day, for you and forty-nine other supplicants. It’s kind of like camp and it’s kind of like Club Med and it’s kind of, very slightly, like being institutionalized. You’re free to barely dress yourself and wander around completely spaced out or clutching your head in agony, because everyone else there is doing basically the same thing.
The first night, one of the residency’s founders gave us a half-pep-talk half-lecture about the artist’s life, and how it’s important not to get too overwhelmed with self-important woe at the difficulty of our creative tasks. It was kind of a “first world problems” lecture – I believe he actually pressed a burdened hand to a furrowed brow and sighed dramatically, to illustrate the mindset we were to avoid. Because, after all, look at us! Living in the shadow of rolling copper hills; eating local organic greens and delicately prepared fish garnished with some other kind of fish; working in well-appointed studios; mashing out our kinks in a yoga studio with heated floors. No schedules, no chores, no responsibilities other than to our craft. To be anything less than constantly joyous would make us total ingrates.
I tried to take this admonition to heart, to remind myself not to be crabby or self-pitying (my two preferred mindstates), to approach my work with an open, joyous heart like some kind of literary yoga instructor. But after a while it started to feel a little fake and even a bit insulting. Because either you take your work seriously or you don’t. Given the amount of time and money and logistic coordination needed to participate in something like this, it’s safe to say we all take our work pretty seriously. And if you take your work seriously, its difficulties can’t be negated by really excellent prime rib. People who do other kinds of difficult, rewarding work that they care about are expected to have hard, frustrating times, to feel bad and useless and like they’re not achieving what they hope to. So it’s normal for us to feel that way too. If my goal was to write decorative sentences to make the world a prettier place, it would be easier, maybe, to feel light and joyous and positive about it all the time. But that’s never been the point. If art matters, and I’m saying if, then feeling bad about it sometimes is a given. (It doesn’t work the other way, though – feeling bad about your art doesn’t necessarily mean that it matters. I would know.) How depressing would it be to feel good about everything you wrote?
I didn’t feel bad all the time, of course. It’s truly wild to live surrounded by people who are doing basically the same thing as you, where you can say things like “I’m working on a novel” and not feel, every single time, like Brian from Family Guy. Like the bumper sticker says, a bad day at a residence is still better than a good day at the rest of your life. Which is partly true and partly bullshit. In daily life you have lots of things to succeed or fail at, to feel okay or stoked or totally miserable about. In residence you have one thing, and that thing is probably the thing that’s the most important thing in the world to you. So a bad day at a writing residence is bad on a big, deep, horrifying existential level, the kind of state where you think, Okay, clearly even under these ideal circumstances I still suck at doing the one thing I care about and am supposed to be good at, so I guess I will just throw myself in this (very shallow) river right now. Which is exactly how we were told not to think. But having your every need met does actually breed a kind of hilariously infantile mindset.
David Foster Wallace writes about something like this in the title essay of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again – the one where he takes a luxury cruise and finds himself turning into the sort of demanding, pucker-lipped, perpetually unsatisfied velour-swaddled person he would otherwise ridicule:
But the Infantile part of me is insatiable – in fact its whole essence or dasein or whatever lies in its a priori insatiability. In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering, the Insatiable Infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homoeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction.
Where DFW charts the terrifying upward spiral of desire in an atmosphere of “total comfort,” I simply observed that, not permitted (or not able) to do anything for myself, I became totally physically and emotionally dependent on the institution’s care, to the point where I almost cried when the pot of coffee I’d been waiting for was whisked away in front of me to be taken to a board of trustees meeting. The staff guy, who has surely seen way too much of people like me, told me another one would be ready in ten minutes. “Okay,” I said. “Why don’t you come back then?” he said. “I’ll just wait here,” I said, like a huge asshole who hasn’t had any coffee.
Lest this be mistaken for some kind of veiled critique of the social welfare state or something, I should say that most of my time there was amazing, and I did actually do some really valuable work and maybe even heard the whisperings of my soul now and then. Anyway I’m back to making my own coffee and worrying about inane things and working on my novel at my desk, at home, joyously and crabbily.
*In Vermont even the things that are falling apart are doing so in a quaint, picturesque way. My friends who live in New England call it “tickety,” as in “tickety-boo”: “This organic maple ice cream shack shaped like a log cabin and festooned with bunting is so tickety.”