On My Writing Residency: Going back to Johnson in my mind

The Syrup Store in downtown Johnson.

About an hour drive from Burlington is the tiny town of Johnson, Vermont. Notable features include a wool store, Lovin’ Cup Cafe, a syrup store, a college, and the Vermont Studio Center (VSC). If you’re a writer or artist interested in doing a residency, consider putting VSC on your short list.

Not that I’m a writing residency guru. I’ve attended only a few quasi-residencies in Washington: several days at Centrum in Port Townsend, a week at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island, and the ten-day summer MFA residency at Pacific Lutheran University for the last two years.  But the residency I did last month at the Vermont Studio Center was something different.

Why did I go?
My MFA program requires an outside writing experience. I could’ve taught a class or gone to a cabin in the woods or flown to Ireland to research a book or something, but I chose a residency. You see, I’m starting to stress out about finishing my creative thesis. Since I’d been extremely productive at Hedgebrook, I thought I’d get a bunch of work done at a two-week writing residency in Vermont.

What actually happened…
A little writing, a lot of writer-ing. My most important experiences were less the writing itself and more my development towards being a writer. That sounds presumptuous and poser-ey. Ugh. It’s complicated.

Ron Carlson

The Brilliant Ron Carlson

I must have been in a fog when I was filling out the VSC paperwork, because almost everything was a surprise. I didn’t expect visiting writer-in-residence Ron Carlson to give a craft talk in which he shared one of his in-progress stories and challenged my thinking about  the creative process.

I didn’t know he’d give a fabulous reading or that I’d have the opportunity to read my own work to other writers AND artists. And to Ron Carlson, who kindly said, “You read your work quite well. I mean it.”

Me reading. Photo by Remmi Franklin.

I didn’t expect Ron to read my work, to sit next to me in a red Adirondack chair and discuss my story while the Gihon River ambled by and pretended to ignore us. Ron pointed to specifics in the story and asked questions as if getting the story right mattered to him and to the world.

I mean, getting the story right is critically important to ME, but I was off balance by his seriousness.

“Into what life does this story enter?” he asked me. “How will your character, Candace, live on after this story of yours?” In response I smiled like I knew something. I copped an attitude. I acted flirty.

I was afraid because I wasn’t sure what would happen to Candace and also afraid of what might happen to her. He was asking me to go find out. I didn’t know if I could. How fragile everything became in that moment. I tried to distract him. I said stupid things. He said, “Maybe Candace is uncertain?” Yes, probably.

I’m home now and trying to find out what will happen to Candace, but part of me is still in Vermont sitting around late into the night discussing politics and art and the role of women in modern culture…I’m drinking wine and Mezcal…watching Clyde eat a worm…visiting art studios…sitting in those hard chairs in the church…going to the wool store with Eddie…syrup-buying…long walks…cool bridges…Mason ladies…

So many people I will never forget.

P.S. If you’re looking for more info on writing residencies, I came across a post at Meghan Ward’s blog over at Writerland that compares residencies in more detail.

11 thoughts on “On My Writing Residency: Going back to Johnson in my mind

  1. Wow. Again, I’m so jealous and so excited for you M! This really sounds fantastic… I so wish you lived a little closer. I’d love to share our writing experiences more. I always leave your page motivated, stimulated…excited. 🙂

      • I commit to three times a week, though I don’t know if prolific is always quality! I work at it, but it doesn’t always fly. I was happy with the Would You Take A Bullet for a Math Test last week, and it was exciting to see it end up reblogged a few times and linked in a Nigerian newspaper (who would think?) but then I see some other fall so flat. If I just wrote when 100% when I felt like it, I might write less… they might be more consistently good (?)… but I feel like there is some value in the writing often and that’s where deadlines keep me focused! Sorry… a rant here, but I miss having writing buddies to talk about this stuff with… 😉

        • Agreed: commitment and deadlines = critical to writing progress. And I’m not convinced that people liking or viewing or commenting or whatever = quality. Not that I have a profound definition of quality, mind you, but I’m ruminating on it. 🙂 I need to write more when I don’t feel like it. Good for you for sticking to your commitment. It’s the only way…

  2. I’m so happy to hear more about your residency experience. I think you showed beautifully why you do not need to second-guess the importance of ‘writeriness.’ We have to find our people. We can show each other what we need to do, each having our finger on the pulse, our ear to the ground (like a Picasso painting) (I stole that line)…

  3. Pingback: Hedgebrook, A Writers’ Retreat For Women | The Collaborative Writer

  4. Pingback: Year One | Hot Pink Underwear

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