For the past two weeks I lived in a house with a bunch of other women writers. Then I drove with one of the residents and was dropped off in a rest stop and picked up by my Spouse and a friend. It was a poet drug deal. Being in a car with two men was the first major transition. It took me a couple hours, but finally I was able to explain to DP why I was being so weird.
Every day I woke up and padded into the kitchen. Sometimes people had even made coffee already. As soon as I saw one of my coresidents we talked about one of my very favorite things in the world: doing the work she and I loved best. Then eventually we told each other to stop talking and get to work.
I can’t talk about my work to casual acquaintances. “What did you do this weekend?” “Oh I read a book about XX in order to write about YY. Then DP and I went to a coffeeshop to write.” Not very interesting. Or they ask you questions you can’t answer like, “When are you going to finish your book?” When I’m done, never, and bursting into tears are all possible answers to that question, none of which are terribly socially acceptable.
Then I had all day to do my work. It still wasn’t easy. I spent a lot of time trying to get myself into the right headspace to be productive. Even though I love my work, my brain would rather be on vacation at all times. And then I worked. At the end of the day, I went for a walk with my friend S and had amazing and silly conversations. Then, back at the house, we all discussed how our work went and how it could go better. If there was drama or if I was bored I could politely excuse myself. My job was not to be a social person; my job was to get my work done.
I can’t just ghost on a conversation with my spouse in real life. I have paying work to do and a dog to feed and social and emotional obligations. Yesterday I mowed my lawn, and it was surprisingly refreshing to do something that concrete and easy to finish.
I do not have kids. I do not want to have kids. I adore my nieces and nephews. I love my friends’ kids. I love my invisible friends’ kids. (That’s you guys, except Cougar’s kids. Those are my nieces and nephews and grand nieces and nephews.)
My spouse didn’t want kids. I wanted my spouse. I had never really wanted kids. So we settled down. His phrase was, “If we want kids we can adopt a 15-year-old.”
I work with college kids. I am a mentor to college kids. They stick around. Spouse is pleased that I have brought him young ‘uns that he can torment and that can torment him. It’s a nice dynamic.
And so today I woke up from my residency haze and realized that some of my college buddies have graduated. And I needed to acknowledge them and celebrate them because they are my friends but also my mentees. I am their sassy irritating aunt. I Jewish mom them. We cuss together.
The residency is intensely selfish. You do everything for your art. That sounds pretentious, but it isn’t. You are given two weeks where all you do is write. Your job is to be a good citizen, but to write your ass off.
But sometimes you have to look up and get in touch with your faux kids. Most of you are parents for real. Who has faux kids? I know it isn’t the same, but I love it.
What’s it like for you?
One of the great inconveniences of writing residencies is hunger. You get settled, have some writing to do, you’re typing away with your books spread around you
at your desk in bed, and suddenly you lose all focus. Shit. What happened? What’s this woozy feeling? Oh, I remember. Food. It’s time to eat.
[Aside: The desk chair is not so comfy, so I do a lot of writing in bed here. I am not ashamed. Edith Wharton wrote in bed too. She probably had maids to bring her lunch.]
One could go out to eat, but it’s pretty expensive in [location redacted]. One could walk to the grocery store and prepare a proper meal, but usually I just want to keep writing; or I have just finished writing and I’m too lazy/tired/worn out to shop for real.
This is how I found myself in the kitchen last night making writer’s hash. In the spirit of Maternal Clause, I feel I must inform you that you can make hash with any kind of cooked or roasted vegetable. Hash with beets is called red flannel hash and it is delicious. Fish is delicious in hash: salmon (smoked or otherwise), or some leftover fish. Bacon is delicious in hash, as is ham. Beef is traditional. But sometimes all you have is half an onion, a potato, and eggs.
Writer’s Hash, serves 1
- Slice an onion into wee tiny pieces. I cut off the rotten parts of the onion and it was still delicious and I lived to tell the tale. If you want to be fancy, you can add garlic at this point as well.
- Fry the onion for a few minutes in butter, olive oil, or whatever one of the former residents left behind that is suitable for frying onions. Pause to reflect that frying onions smell delicious and make it seem like you are cooking for real.
- Peel and dice the potato. You should have done this before you started frying onions.
- Add diced potato to yummy-smelling onions and stir at medium to low heat. This is a good time to pour a beer. You’ll be in front of the stove for a little bit because the potatoes have to cook all the way through. Reflect upon your writing.
- Rifle through the cabinets to find appropriate spices. Salt, pepper, and cayenne are near-essential. I added some oregano too. But you could also go for cumin or cajun seasoning mix or parsley or whatever.
- Wait 10 or 20 minutes (at that point a bunch of other writers were in the kitchen and I was talking too much to pay attention to the time) until the potatoes are cooked through. Stir often. Cover the pan and it will cook faster.
- Turn up the heat, scrape the onion/potato mixture to one side, and add one or two eggs. Cook until eggs are at desired state of doneness.
- Devour. Do your dishes. Other people have to work in this kitchen. Go back and get writing done.
What are your favorite easy dishes?
One of my challenges is to write about my Historical Character in a way that sounds natural. This is the first time I have ever written about a Historical Character in my prose and so I have fallen into a number of beginner traps.
First I sounded like a robot. Then I sounded like The History Channel. After that I wrote about her so sparingly that I took all the things that were interesting about her. My current challenge is to write about her without slipping into nineteenth-century turns of phrase.
One of my readers commented on my sometimes old-fashioned use of language. This was even before I put my Historical Character back in.
“I know, it’s just something I do. Hazard of being an English major,” I told her. “Is it okay?”
“Yes,” she said. “I like it.” And a few days later, thinking back on the conversation, I realized that all the Anne of Green Gable books I read and reread in my youth profoundly affected my vocabulary.
It’s day 4 or 5 of this residency, and I’m exhausted. You spend a lot of time at a residency questioning yourself: Am I doing enough work? Should I work on this or that? What should I read? Bike ride or walk? Take a break or get back to work? So I question my exhaustion.
I’m doing a new (to me) kind of writing about my Historical Character. And then I keep getting into intense, intellectually arousing writer conversations. We stay up too late drinking wine. And then I went on a long bike ride yesterday. I took a nap at a weird time today, but I justified it.
A writing residency has AWP levels of intensity. And I left AWP completely exhausted. But the duration is longer at a residency. So I have to pace myself, and make choices that will enable me above all to keep writing.
What have you justified for yourself today?
Day 2 is a little early for hitting a wall in a writing residency. I should still be flying on the joy of being here and having time to do nothing but write. I could blame the quantity of wine the residents collectively consumed last night. But that’s not quite it.
At previous residencies, my goal was to just write. One year I had a word count goal, and another year I just read and wrote poems. This year, my goal is to add Historical Character back into my memoir. I am at late stages of the whole damn process, so I’m aiming for quality over quantity.
I spun my wheels metaphorically speaking between noon and two. Finally, disgusted, I went out for a walk. I took the long way to end up at one of my favorite perches. Firmly perched, I had no desire to go back to the room, to the computer, to the page. Nope. I was ready to stay on that perch until I froze to death and starved (not necessarily in that order).
My main resistance to my current project is that I need to understand circumstances around Historical Character so I write about her with the same clarity and confidence with which I write about myself on a good day. Not only do I have to understand the first thing about her work and her time period, I have to get it on the page. It has to be clear, interesting, and lyrical, because that’s how I roll.
There is an immense amount of detail I have to uncover and recreate faithfully. I am building a world from scratch and I want it to resemble the actual world I am writing about. No wonder I wanted to stab my eyes out after writing only 500 words. Biography is brutal.
What did you learn today?
Day -1. Go to an old friend’s wedding with DP. Beam uncontrollably during the ceremony, and check to see the lilacs are coming out all around you. Then chat, eat, drink. Eat more, drink more, toast the happy couple. Then drive two hours. Thank your lucky stars you married a man who didn’t mind driving you places at night. Stay at a nice old inn a little too close to a bar.
Morning 0. Wake up, eat, kiss your husband goodbye and travel to your residency. Try not to feel guilty at the relief you feel about going to the residency. You still love your spouse; you just also love your writing. Take a variety of modes of transportation to end up at your final destination.
You’ve been here before. Find your room, put down your bags, burst into tears.
Day 1. Unpack, calm down, meet your fellow writers. They are not as horrid as you thought they would be. In fact they seem really nice and down to earth. Eat with them, have a cup of coffee, observe the sun. Then collectively agree that you should probably get back to work.
Lesson 1. Writing is a mind game. Residencies are a mind game. One of the times I was at this particular residency it became a mind game for real. Fortunately I was not one of the principles involved, but I was a little bit gun shy this time.
I have no social obligations other than to be polite when I choose to see people. If and when I choose to see people is entirely up to me. I am here to write. The only mind game I’m playing is to do whatever I can to keep writing.
How do you keep writing?
In general I am confident about my writing. Not every piece of writing in every situation, but if I have a challenge that can be solved by writing, I have some basic confidence because writing is my best skill. And as yesterday’s domestic (as my sister calls it) showed me, I am far better dealing with writing problems than I am with human problems.
The fight was a long time coming and was exacerbated by many things. [I know you don’t care, but this is eventually about writing.] It’s the end of the semester and I haven’t seen the sun in days. But more relevant to this blog, I’m about to go on a writing residency, and I’m terrified.
In the past, at residencies, I have not had a clear plan. At my first residency I was buoyed by my friend’s assertion that even if I wrote nothing but crap, that was 30 days of crap that I would not write again. At my second residency I wrote a poem sequence that is the root of my current memoir. I wrote my zero draft of the memoir at a residency. My only requirements were that I write 2,000 words a day and that I write them about anything. That was 100 pages of pure suckage, but helped me figure out where I wanted to go and what I had to say.
The Fucker is mostly done. But I’m adding in some new material. I tried to do it the first time round and didn’t know enough to incorporate it properly. I’m super happy about the new topic, and have been ignoring everything in my life in order to research it (cf. aforementioned fight). The two weeks at the residency are when I’m testing it out. I’m going to write it.
And it’s scary. What if it doesn’t work this time? I’m getting ever closer to actually sending this poor Fucker out into the world. What if it isn’t good enough? There’s too much riding on this residency for me. I’ve got to play it down. But I’m also excited to have all the time. I know a couple of my friends I met previously at the residency are going to be there. My work ethic has been pretty good at residencies, so I have no reason to think I won’t get something worthwhile done.
OK now that I’ve blathered on and complained about my privilege, please help me out by recommending a Netflix show to binge on in the evenings when my little writing brain is mush.