Where I learned of the badgering hour: June 2013 at Hawthornden Castle, Part I

Hawthornden from the Lady Walk
Hawthornden Castle from the Lady Walk

Forty five minutes outside of Edinburgh, tucked in a hidden pocket of Midlothian, sits a 15th century castle where I spent my June at the Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers. Not even the bus drivers knew of the castle. Kept a secret, deep in a Scottish glen, the ruins, renovated in Victorian-era, were tipped on a crag overlooking the River Esk, and here I continued my ongoing education of reading and writing for a summer month.

But the story doesn’t start here.

If we were to go all the way back, it would have opened two years ago when at a faculty gathering poet and friend Raina León prodded me to apply. Get thee to a writing residency was her imperative, and she clued me in on this gem of a fellowship with a low profile at Hawthornden Castle. Thank you, Raina.

This fellowship is sponsored and run by the great patronage of Drue Heinz of the Heinz company. Publisher of The Paris Review, she established the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the Drue Heinz Lectures in Pennsylvania. Deepest gratitude goes to Ms. Heinz and her staff.

There is no magic I know of that got me to Scotland for a month of committed writing. Persistence and focus is what I brought to the table. Applications to these residencies are something like gearing up for grad school. Long and involved forms that demand you know who you are, letters of recc to prove you are who you say you are, and a writing sample that speaks to enough people on the committees that matter. I’ve been applying to residencies off and on since grad school, which means I’ve lived in hope for over six years. Let me say again, persistence and focus.

The Pentland Hills and sun
The Pentland Hills in the distance

The plane trip from San Francisco to Edinburgh was another test of patience: ten hours trying to sleep upright, a three hour layover in Charles de Gaulle, where splurging on Lauderée French macaroons was worth every euro, and a final two hours that seemed like forever before touching down in Scotland.

The sun still had a good hour to set when I finally arrived around 10pm, which I would later learn was the badgering hour. Jet-lagged and frazzled, I met two of the writers who I would live with for the next four weeks, one of whom was an East Coaster turned Bay Area based. She happened to know many of my colleagues and writer friends back in California and thankfully made me feel that much closer to home despite being a continent and ocean away.


property of the Abernethy family from the 13th century
The castle garden

Born to John Drummond, the first laird at Hawthornden Castle, William Drummond (1585-1649) turned laird of the castle himself at 24 when his father died. A poet and historian, William Drummond read well and widely, tackling the History of Scotland during the Reigns of the Five Jameses as one of his many literary works. Over 400 years later, in his study, a room where he was known to pace between tackling quill to paper, I stared out the window that overlooked the gravel driveway, pulled my hair out rearranging scenes and crossing out swathes of paragraphs, and dragged myself to bed, willing myself to sleep at midnight even as the last sun rays still poked their way through the west-facing window.

Flowers in the sun
On the walk to the bus stop

On the first full day since my arrival, still adjusting to UK time, I woke at 5:30am to metallic squabbling and screeching of what I thought to be baby dinosaurs nesting right outside my western window. One bird would start up and then her siblings, would follow in discordant chorus. Almost every morning, afternoon, and early evening was graced with their shrill choir, and not only did I viscerally experience the scientific fact of how birds are cousin to pterodactyls and triceratops, but I understood how quickly and deeply I’d been thrust into nature. The castle was immersed in all things wondrous.

Evenings made the badgering hour when the lawn in front of the castle became a buffet table for a family of five hungry badgers. Stags, doe, and their fawns were frequently spotted on the road that led to the castle. Peregrines learned to fly just across the river, and we watched them from the castle garden at lunch time as they tested their wings. Spiders insisted rather persistently to claim the sinks and bathtubs as their resting spots. They were known to creep up cozy into our beds on more than one occasion.


I never knew I could be so jealous of poets.

The town of Roslin
The town of Roslin

These daily and nightly encounters with all things feathered, eight-legged, doe-eyed, antlered, and winged charged the poets, and they wrote with a sense of immediacy that doesn’t really jibe with long form fiction. One evening, a bat flew into the drawing room, circling over our heads for a good seven minutes. We tried to guide it out the window, but s/he seemed to enjoy our company more. Eventually, tiring of us, s/he took to an open casement and was gone. The next day, all three poets reported writing poems of our vespertine encounter. I hadn’t ever felt so keenly envious of poesie writers up until then. What I would have given to slip out of time for a day or two, to step away from my projekt and write in attendance to the here and now with such urgency? Fictions writers, particularly those noveling are stuck in another time zone and geography that rarely meshes with the present moment. We are caught in a loop of our own making.


We were there to write.

And we did. Everyday,  at least six days a week, from eight in the morning to at least five in the evening. Oh, there were mid-day strolls along the castle grounds listening to the songbird soundtrack that ran from sun up to sun down, late afternoon jogs on the Old Railway to Dalkeith, and jaunts to Lasswade’s The Laird & Dog pub, which was the closest and easiest access to Wi-Fi. All sworn to an informal oath of silence while in the castle, Hawthornden’s motto was “Requiescat in Pace,” and from nine in the morning to six in the evening, we maintained relative quiet, so all writers could work in peace and decent ease.

River Esk
The River Esk

With no internet access, limited mobile service, and a vow to abstain from talking, the task of writing wasn’t necessarily easier but the setting secured focus and commitment to both the projekt at hand and the vital art in which all writing thrives, the act of reading. In a recent Guardian article “publicising a novel – the problems,” (Thursday 25 July 2013) Anakana Scholfield speaks to an issue close to this heart:

…why is there so much fuss in the media about how to write a novel – “everyone can become an author” – when the more important thing is how to read one?

There seems to have been a shift from a reading culture to a writing culture, a diminishment of critical space for the contemplation of literature. Writing needs to be discussed and interrogated through reading. If you wish to write well, you need to read well, or at least widely. You certainly need to contemplate reading a book in translation, unlikely to be widely reviewed in newspapers, many of which are too busy wasting space on “how to write” tips and asking about an author’s personal fripperies. It’s a great deal more fulfilling to read and think about a fine book than to attempt to write one.

Six years into the projekt, reading is the through line that keeps this writer grounded as the shape and meaning of the story collapses, condenses, and often over complicates itself, constantly morphing like land shifting under volatile forces. To write is to read. There’s no way around it. But how to keep up the art? How to maintain the necessary strength and focus for such a vital skill? You’d think that as one grows older, reading would become easier, but it doesn’t. Its just as much of a challenge as it ever was. Technology and the ten million distractions aren’t just to blame. The old adage the more I learn, the less I know seems to confound the reading eye. The mind skitters, won’t settle but jumps with expectations, preconceived notions, rather than sitting with words, images, sentences. Slowing down to savor syllables seems a fleeting wish. The reading mind must be taught and re-taught, and taught again. Its a muscle that can easily atrophy.

Reading at Hawthornden was s-l-o-w. As it should be.

Decades into becoming a “professional” reader, its hard to come to literature with an open mind. The more one reads, the more layered the lenses the reading eye gains and cannot shake away. So we must learn to read through prisms, knowing these prisms can be switched, combined, simplified, or complicated.

Prismatic. Requiring constant practice. The conjoined arts of reading and writing remained the main focus, but not the only activities at Hawthornden. There were encounters with Crusties, treks to the Pentland Peaks, and day trips to Edinburgh. But that’s all to come next…

For another a peek at the Hawthornden experience, check out poet and professor Gregory Leadbetter’s post “After Hawthornden” on his site.

Midlothian wheat
Roslin Glen Park in the distance

Save the Date: “Life After the MFA Panel” @ SMC 11/20/13

Interested in writing fellowships and residencies? Yours truly has been booked in advance to talk about recent fellowships at The MacDowell Colony and the International Retreat for Writers at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland UK for Saint Mary’s College of California’s MFA Creative Writing Program Panel: “Life After the MFA” Wednesday, 20 November, 2:35pm, location on campus TBA.

Hope to see you there!

1928 Saint Mary’s Road, Moraga, CA 94556 (925) 631-4000

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