On To MacDowell

Out of my wildest dreams, 2013 starts off with a three-week fellowship at the nation’s oldest arts colony, MacDowell founded in 1907 in Peterborough, New Hampshire. If yours truly wasn’t also accepted to The Retreat for Writers at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland for June this year as well, I’d be suffering from a serious case of imposter syndrome. And below is why. A shortened list of some of MacDowell’s past fellows and the projects they worked on during their stay should give plenty of reasons for doubt and legitimacy. Sally Field, I feel you.

Marian MacDowell in front of Edward's log cabin, the Colony's prototype studio. Archival image.

Aaron Copland
Meredith Monk
Duncan Sheik
Nick Carbo
Amy Bloom
Lan Samantha Chang

Louise Erdrich (known to have worked on one of my all time favorite novels, Love Medicine)

James Baldwin (Giovanni’s Room)
Eric Gamalinda
Jessica Hagedorn
Garrett Hongo
Allison Landa
Rick Moody
ZZ Packer
Nzotke Shange
Lysley Tenorio

From their website:

The mission of The MacDowell Colony is to nurture the arts by offering creative individuals of the highest talent an inspiring environment in which they can produce enduring works of the imagination.

The sole criterion for acceptance to The MacDowell Colony is artistic excellence. MacDowell defines excellence in a pluralistic and inclusive way, encouraging applications from artists representing the widest possible range of perspectives and demographics.

So, what will this soon-to-be-fellow do at MacDowell? A game plan would be nice though a very near and dear writer friend called just days before departure with her advice since she’s been to Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, and East Anglia. She was adamant about not expecting too much: “You’re not going to get everything you want done, but you will get what you need.” Echoing the wise words of Mick Jagger, she confessed wishing someone had told her that during her residencies.

The expectations thus far have waned and waxed with anticipation, and we’ll see which if any come true, knowing that as my partner’s ukelele instructor once warned during a music lesson, a creative person is never satisfied by their creation, prepare to be perpetually dissatisfied and to feed off your dissatisfaction.

With that in mind these goals may sound abstract but here they are: to tighten voice & style or at least have a stronger sense of each. Not that the entire projekt will be tightened but a firmer grasp on voice & style, and how it changes from character to character, from start to finish, just a keener sense on what each of them are and their evolution would be wonderful. Which leads to the question about structure. Does voice and style dictate structure? Is it vice versa or do the two really have nothing to do with the other? Perhaps that question will be answered on the Eastern seaboard.

More than anything a mental map of where this projekt needs to go is the ultimate aim, and that map needs explicit directives on voice, style, structure, and tone, knowing that all of this should evolve from one chapter to the next depending on character and progression of plot.

This residency is not only a good chance for the physical, mental, and spiritual kick in the arse as all good travel is since I’ll be clear across the country in a completely new and snowy environment. There’s also the mingling with other writers, painters, musicians, architects, sculptors, and who knows what these encounters may bring, but the relationship that is utmost in mind is the intent to gain a newer, closer, almost incestuous, yes, I said it, intimacy with the projekt. Even after five years, it still feels so much of a foreign beast. Is there anyway that the projekt might feel like a part of me, an extension of self? And in getting to know this piece better, getting skin close to it, is there a possibility of taking Writing to a different level? To not just make this art a second nature but first? That may be asking too much.

Satisfaction with dissatisfaction. If that’s one guarantee, I may just be ready.

If you have advice about New Hampshire, Boston, cold weather fun, what do and what not to do at residencies, and or creative-making, I’m all ears. Happy 2013. May yours be a healthy and bright new adventure!

@ Mansfield Studio

and my studio Mansfield in the mist

What is the latest at Mansfield Studio at The MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire? And who has been the greatest at Mansfield Studio? Mansfield Studio is a spacious hideaway just a seven minute walk from Colony Hall and Eaves dormitory, which is where yours truly finds herself hard at work for the next three weeks. Equipped with its own fire place and bathroom sans shower, an enclosed but chilly porch for sipping hot cocoa, and two desk spaces with enough room to dance the shivers away. Mansfield might be the space where I redefine my role as a writer and where I am renewing my vows to the act and art of writing.

Who has been the greatest at MacDowell? Each room has a set of boards, called headstones, where past fellows inscribe their name and the date of their stay, some of the greatest, though by no means not all include: ZZ Packer, Michael Chabon, Tillie Olsen, Richard Yates, R. Zamora Linmark (two fellowships at Mansfield!) Jean Valentine, Tayari Jones, Mary Jo Salter, Susan Steinberg, Julie Orringer (who I worked with in grad school, thank you Julie, your wise words stay with me even today). Rosellen Brown, and Rick Moody. So in the short time that I’ve been here, I’ve tried to channel the best of these great writers, who have paced the floor where I now pace, stared out the window, possibly pulling their hair as I do now, and rested on the bed staring at the ceiling. These are the artists and writers I know in my limited experience though the headstones span all the way back to the turn of the century.

Check out R Zamora Linmark

Since arrival, the first thing one may notice is how astoundingly loud a single, individual mind can be. The silence is deafening meanwhile my brain has been screaming to make up for the void of sound. In the dormitory, the most noise you’ll hear is the clank of the furnace when it switches on, which can seem thunderous compared to the moments before and the moments that follow. The studio is twenty time as quiet, and my brain feels like an airport. I can’t seem to shut off the flow of thoughts, words, song snippets, and random dialogue with myself that manifests in instinctual reaction to the utter noiselessness. Obviously some meditation is in order here.

a misty afternoon

What happens at MacDowell stays at MacDowell, particularly the meals, which are outrageously decadent. Soon as I arrived my first dinner was a hearty serving of ginormous pork chops with a cherry and red wine reduction, and someone offered me a gin martini. That’s right, gin, not vodka. Blessed be. The next night, lamb as the main course and cream puffs for dessert. We enjoy baskets of lunch delivered to our doorstep, and I’m trying my best to keep working past noon, so I don’t stand at the door like a panting dog, Pavlovian conditioned.

the daily basket of lunch


Aside from stuffing ourselves silly and hanging out like college kids again in Bond Hall, we are here to work, and there is plenty of work happening. Its twenty-four, seven. Someone is always away @ their studio, no matter the hour or deep into research in the one building that has internet connection. The underlying idea here is that each fellow forges a new, more committed relationship with their craft. I really feel like I’m renewing my vows and wonder how my role as a writer, my relationship with writing may gain a different and/or deeper meaning in this completely new and wholly dedicated context. Its exciting, the evolution.

There are readings almost every other night and open studios for artists who want to show their work. I’ve met architects, composers, photographers, poets, writers, ceramacists, and painters. What is easy to take for granted but is most sacred and special about this fellowship is that the process is prized above all. It doesn’t matter what you end up creating. Its not really about creation or a finished product, at all, but about creating and even thinking about creating. One doesn’t have to necessarily create. I consider a stay here the equivalent of those long peripatetic walks that the Romantics took. As much as it is about the act and art of creating, what this time and space encourages is the meta, being conscious about the form and matter of the act of art-making.

work in progressIf not in the morning then in the evening someone is bound to ask how the day went, and that question has an entirely different meaning here than in any other context. There’s an unspoken understanding if the day went well or was steeped in hair-tugging frustration. Asked the same inquiry a couple of days ago, I could only respond that I felt like I was in the boxing ring, going to toe-to-toe with a beast of manuscript I had sworn to tame. Now I’m feeling that the projekt is more like a cousin who I’ve only seen on holidays but am now enjoying a long season with and starting to find some rhyme and reason to this cousin’s idiosyncracies. Though I’m fully aware that this relationship can turn on me much like the weather. One day its 53 degrees and warmer than the Bay Area, which I’m missing like crazy, and tonight we’re expecting snow showers.

I’ve been reading Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul, and she quotes a Turkish saying: “The soul needs to shiver to wake.” We shall see if my soul shall waken with the cold to come.

the road to my studio