Sunday, October 19, 2008

To the Colonies!

Anybody here ever been to a writer's colony? Neither JR nor I ever have. We've always been too busy trying to make money or having kids or taking care of them. Also, what's two weeks or four or eight weeks, really? If a person needs quiet and isolation to work, she probably needs a lot longer than that to get anything done. Anyway, I always thought, isolation is over-rated: I once spent a summer alone in Missoula, Montana, in an apartment with a mountain view, knowing no one yet, and wrote about five total pages of sheer crap.

However, for whatever reason, I've been thinking it might be awfully fun. For the first time, I think I might tolerate two or even three weeks away from our sons. They're awesome, but you know. When I was a teenager I spent hours and hours ALONE. Wow, that sounds just blissful, now. And though just a few weeks might not be enough to get a ton of writing done, it might kick something off.

Here's the scary part: What if you got into something terrific like, I dunno, YADDO or something, and then you spent the WHOLE TIME just sitting there, staring into space! And every evening at dinner in the Grand Hall, or whatever, you'd be sitting with your plate of rotini while all the other colonists talked about their Big Breakthroughs and how they just nailed that scene in Chapter Five. Maybe shop talk is a faux pas at colonies. I don't even know. But when I start my colony, out in the woods behind our house, it will be Verboten.

And sometimes I think that the main reason to try and get into a colony is for validation. Normally I would sneer at that -- who needs the approval of OTHERS? -- but heck, a little dollop of validation would nice, now wouldn't it?

What do you think? Are writers' colonies just an indulgence for the vain and idle? Or are they a valuable experience?

22 comments:

jrlennon said...

Do writers' colonies have Great Halls? I think you're thinking of Princeton, or the Vatican.

AC said...

I don't know about writer's colonies, but I've been pining lately for our old dormitory apartment. It's so nice to be working on something all day and then come out of your cell and hang out with a bunch of nice and quirky people who've been doing the same kind of work. A real community, not just geographic, is hard to find in this world.

Jade Park said...

I wrote a magazine article (under my "real" name not my pseudonym) about just that very happening: going to a prestigious writers' colony, writing ZERO (or really, nearly zero) and then going to dinner each night, listening to Famous Writers brag about their word count.

It was miserable. But then I made a friend who is the most awesome person in the world (she is one of my BFFs). And something happened there, something unlocked in a part of my brain because I went home and wrote up quite a storm. (okay, after 3 weeks of writing nearly nothing at the actual colony).

I think there is a myth about writers' colonies: that it's 100% bliss, that you'll write every single day for every single minute of the day, that all the other writers are really nice and friendly...

not necessarily true.

Anonymous said...

Does the Vatican do writers' workshops, JR? I'd sign up for one, just to be able to register as Dan Brown.

5 Red Pandas said...

My friend told me about something in the Bay area that sounded cool and I was thinking of investigating that and applying for summer of 2010. Of course, right now, with my crazy schedule and not being able to write anything, not even blog posts, I keep thinking about how wonderful a writer's colony would be. I do think that you should go into it with some kind of plan or a few chapters or pages written. That way you have something to work on and toward.

You and JR could have a nice little racket with a colony up near Ithaca. Get corporate sponsors and shit.

jrlennon said...

The problem, though, would be having Other Writers hanging around our house and spooking the chickens.

rmellis said...

I have a plan: if the New Age church next door ever goes under we buy it and turn it into a writing center. We keep the labyrinth and miniature stonehenge. Maybe we could call it Miniature Stonehenge Writer's Workshop. We could publish a journal, too -- call it Chickens in the Labyrinth Literary Review.

You're all invited!

jrlennon said...

You're all also invited to pony up the dough for this crazy project! Because I'm presently spending all our money on cameras, electric guitars, and bourbon.

rmellis said...

AC -- I know what you mean. There are so many writers in Ithaca, but except for the one I'm married to, I hardly ever see them. When you're young, writing can be kind of communal, but once you move on and get a job and start a family everyone has to become a hermit to get work done.

Jade Park: I KNEW it! That would be me, writing zero. I'm going to find your article...

Anon: I think the Vatican Writers Workshop would provide a needed source of revenue for the church.

Pandas: 2010: That is planning ahead!

McQ said...

Ooh, let me know as soon as the applications for your backyard colony are available. I promise to leave the chickens alone.

And you have a labyrinth next door? Do you ever sneak over to walk it? I'm so doing that if I get accepted to your colony. Who cares about zero word count days when you're in a perpetual state of enlightened bliss from following the path of a New Age labyrinth!

I'd think about setting up a writers' colony in our backyard, but then I'd worry that the fire ants might scare potential applicants away...

Pale Ramón said...

Build a shed. You'll be much happier.

rmellis said...

We had a writing shed at our old place. In a strange twist of fate, it has become a confessional for the Christian church that bought the house...

AC said...

"We had a writing shed at our old place. In a strange twist of fate, it has become a confessional for the Christian church that bought the house..."

That's so perfect. You've been a bad boy? Go out to the shed and wait for your father. So Little House on the Prairie!

Jade Park said...

rmellis: my mag article was only in hardcopy. but i do have one post about my stay at my blog (very sanitized and excludes the Famous Writer who would announce her word count (always 4,000+/day) at the dinner table).

http://jadepark.wordpress.com/2008/05/02/addressed-from-hedgebrook/

rmellis said...

Thanks, Jade!

bloglily.com said...

I've been thinking about this too. For a long time, I thought the whole writing colony thing wasn't for me -- I have a room in my house with a separate entrance and I can take three weeks off from work and go down there every morning after the kids go to school and write until 3 when they have to be picked up. That's a lot of writing and you never have to stand in a single airport security line in your socks to do it.

But then I learned that they deliver your lunch in little baskets! And there's dinner made for you in the evenings! And nobody comes into your room at 3 in the morning because they had a bad dream! And the other writers might be like you, R and JR, and jade park!

I sent in an application to Hedgebrook -- I grew up in the northwest, and I want to write some stories set in the rain, in the dreary suburb where we lived and lunch was never delivered in baskets. I've also got a list of the other colonies and I thought I'd try those too. Why not? Somebody has to eat up those lunches.

Diana Holquist said...

My dear husband is off at a writer's colony of sorts this semester--for academics--and I'm terribly jealous. It's so posh and lovely. But who's getting the work done? Me. Why? Because he's gone. (Just kidding, honey! Luv ya!) No, no. It's because I have the one and only thing that ever has helped me get the pages finished: a deadline. It's the wake-up-at-3 a.m.-in-a-frenzied-panic that makes me produce. Nothing else comes close.

That said, I have been to this fab writer's colony called Starbucks. We all huddle over our computers, ipods blasting, and caffeinate. No talking allowed. I highly, highly recommend it. Of course, you do have to stumble home every night, but you know you have to be back by 7 a.m. if you want to get the parking spaces without the meters and plug in your powercord. Very motivating, that.

--d.

E. said...

I've come *this close* the last two summers to attending a writer's retreat on a farm in the Blue Ridge. Private cottages, basket lunches, communal meals, the works. Two weeks.

Here's why I chickened out: I chickened out. I am too afraid of needing that atmosphere to write -- or convincing myself I need it. It's unsustainable. I figure if I can't integrate writing with my daily life at home, I can't write.

Scaredy-cat.

rmellis said...

You know, lily and e, I think the whole "lunch in baskets" thing is actually key to the appeal. I was looking at Ragdale the other day, and found out that they make you make your own lunch. "Make my own lunch??" I said to myself. "Forget it! I can do that at home!"

Diana -- I think when he gets home, Peter owes you a nice solo trip somewhere to do "research," don't you think?

jrlennon said...

Hoo boy, Rhian, I just reread this and laughed out loud at your apartment "with a mountain view." You failed to mention the girlfriend-beating drunk next door and that fact that you had to peer between the Higgins St. guardrail and the weeds to see the mountain. PLUS you had to make your own lunch!

rmellis said...

That assclown didn't move in till later. That summer it was just a couple of nice quiet prostitutes.

Alicia said...

I'd like to go to a colony like Yaddo or MacDowell to get laid, whoa a gathering of single artsy guys stuck in the middle of the woods, lol. I'm just kidding, but colonies do provide an opportunity to meet other creative , thoughtful people. The conversation and the catered meals are part of an overall luxury of having your life on hold for a few weeks. The recent book by Alison Light "Mrs. Wolf and Her Servants" shows how it's about more than having a room of your own; it's also about not having to clean it.