"Keeping a Creative Mind" is a bi-weekly series by New York Times Notable Author Molly Moynahan. This week, she speculates about her feelings toward writers' retreats.
photo via Gonzalo Barrientos on flickr
My favorite story from a writing colony is the brouhaha that occurred at Yaddo in 1941 when Carson McCullers fell madly in love with Katherine Anne Porter. Apparently Carson “prostrated” herself outside of Katherine’s door. Katherine responded by stepping over her afraid she was going to be late to dinner.
Later, Porter sums up McCullers thus: “it was a peculiarly corrupt, perverted mind and a small stunted talent incapable of growth; and her further work has borne this out in my mind.” Ouch! Of course, the importance of dinner in these places should never be underestimated.
When I was eleven years old my father was asked to teach at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. Since both my sisters were attending a hippie camp in Maine called Grove Farm, where they were learning valuable life lessons like smoking and playing the washboard, I was the only child in residence at a place described by its current director Michael Collier as: “one of America's most valuable literary institutions.”
We were given a really cool log cabin built halfway up a mountain that had banisters with peeling bark and a raccoon that kept getting into our garbage and menacing the cat. My mother was not thrilled. A practicing architect who did not view her role as handmaiden to the man of letters, she set up a work area and refused to attend the numerous cocktail parties held to create a gin induced sense of community.
Collier goes on to claim, “Bread Loaf is not a retreat — not a place to work in solitude.
"Instead, it provides a stimulating community of diverse voices in which we test our own assumptions regarding literature and seek advice about our progress as writers.”
In 1968, Bread Loaf was full of nuns who, in the spirit of the sixties, had renounced their faith to write sexy poetry. I was allowed to run amuck and attended ten performances of an all-nude production of an ancient Greek anti-war play whose title I forget. Men walked on the Moon and my father drove our Volvo across the director’s lawn protesting some elitist ruling he rejected.
Full disclosure, I will spend a month at the Djerassi Foundation in Woodside, California this September. I was accepted as a playwright, which is a bit of a shock as I’m unsure what I submitted for consideration. I’m a novelist but I recently wrote a play. So, they can’t tell me to go home. This is how I feel about winning these things; clearly, they made a clerical error. Djerassi serves its artists three meals a day and drives them into town once a week so they don’t develop cabin fever from its remote location.
I was there seventeen years ago and on one of our days off I invited David Wong Louie, another writer, to have tea with Alice Adams who lived in a beautiful Pacific Heights apartment in San Francisco. She was a good friend of my father’s but sadly has since died. Alice was very nice to us. Driving home we felt ourselves to be quite impressive and literary and deserving of the good things Djerassi was providing.
In any case, I just returned from a trip to Truro on Cape Cod. Truro is one town away from Provincetown, where the Provincetown Art Association is located. This is a gold standard artist’s retreat. At the PAA an artist is housed for six months complete with a stipend and an apartment. So far they have rejected me three times. I mentioned this to my mom who claimed my father had said something unforgivable to the previous director and I should give up. So I applied again because the director had changed and was promptly rejected.
I was wait-listed permanently at McDowell, and another place has rejected me four times but constantly sends me e-mail inviting me to fundraising cocktail parties.
Then there’s Yaddo. Yaddo also didn’t want me.
Fourteen years ago I spent nearly a month at the Wurlizer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico. The Wurlizer gives you your own pueblo and that’s about it except you are living in one of the most beautiful places in the world. There was a snake in my shower, my 18-month-old son forgot I was his mother and my ex-husband told me I was a terrible human being for leaving him in Dallas to sell our house. I met a gorgeous painter from Montreal and we drove to Abiqui and walked around Ghost Ranch and then parked outside Georgia O’Keefe’s house and stood on my car so we could see over the hedge. Despite the fact that writer’s retreats are rumored to be hotbeds of illicit affairs, I did not cheat. Still, my ex-husband resented the dreamy look in my eyes when I spoke of the painter and the mountains. Eventually, my son remembered me.
The topic of artist’s retreats was in my head on this trip to Cape Cod because I attended a reading in Provincetown given by the writer Sarah Blake, who has written a novel called, The Postmistress. The novel has made the NYT Bestseller list and is doing very well.
However, I thought Sarah was one of those PAA fellows and I immediately got an attitude. I drove over to the PAA, sat down and found myself watching a slide show. The photographs were okay but I wondered why there was no reading. When I asked about Sarah I was told she was “not a fellow.” My attitude changed immediately. I checked my notes and realized her reading was at a gallery on the other side of town.
Sarah turned out to be, despite her considerable success, friendly and unpretentious. When I asked her about the Provincetown Art Association Fellowship she wrinkled her nose and said, “Oh, my husband won that.” Apparently Sarah’s husband is a poet but we won’t hold that against her. She read from her novel and it sounded terrific.
* * *
I like being chosen.
Djerassi states on its web site that they received 600 applications and chose 60. I am one of those 60 which makes me feel both smug and guilty because, deep down, I am Catholic and believe all good things are accompanied by suffering.
* * *
Here is my memory of Norman Mailer. He is walking me up 43rd Street after my session at The Actor’s Studio and he is being kind because many of the audience members were not. He asks me about my writing, I tell him briefly about the fate of my latest novel and he laughs. “It’s a terrible business, isn’t it, Molly? Every day I wake up and wonder what the hell I’m doing.”
I was flummoxed. “But you’re Norman Mailer,” I said idiotically. “Isn’t that over?”
He shook his head. “We’re writers,” he said, “It’s never over.” He twinkled at me. “But we love it, don’t we?”
I nodded, speechless at his kindness, his humility, his including me in the world of writers he inhabited.
Mailer has left behind a legacy, a center for writers where they can stay and work and not worry about the wolf at the door. Support his dream.
Molly Moynahan is the author of three novels. The most recent, Stone Garden, was a 2003 NYT Notable Book. She is currently working on a memoir. Molly lives and teaches creative writing in Chicago. Her website is www.teachersway.indiemade.com. Her blog is mollymoynahan.blogspot.com.