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.
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.
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.
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.
If 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.