Writers’ residencies and artists’ colonies have been an important part of my creative autobiography. When I was in my twenties—drifting, unemployed, devastated by a broken relationship—I went to several. Thanks to graduate school letters of recommendation from famous writers, and how the literary world was less crowded and competitive—I went to Yaddo where I moped, got a cold, and did very little. A season later I was at MacDowell for three months, and here something actually happened. In many ways, it was in that screened cabin in the woods that I turned self into an actual writer. I’m not sure exactly how, because I was still very depressed, given to two naps a day, and to roaming around and flirting all evening. But at the age of 26 two or three concentrated hours of working was very useful—in fact,it still is today.
I had also taken a vow of celibacy, which lasted about a hundred days. Not monkishly successful, but for me radical. No losing myself in someone else. No focus on romance and desire. Focus then…on what? It turned out to be not just art but adventure, a sense of myself in the world. It was my first foray into conscious self-improvement, and it worked.
When I emerged, my love affairs continued as aggravating, ambivalent, and immature as ever. It was just that I was a lot cheerier. And I was writing.
I went a variety of places, from funky communities to chic cabins, and always with success, in that I enjoyed myself and I wrote and also wasted time very pleasantly. When my daughter was born, I ceased my retreats. Then, when she was in the eighth grade, I got a Marfa residency from Lannan Foundation and took off. Alone again after a long time
I had to learn how to tolerate a kind of mania that would descend—a very unfamiliar state. It first happened in Cummington in rural Massachusetts. I wrote a poem, another, another. It wasn’t even lunch yet. I panicked, unable to endure the pace, and rushed off to visit friends in Hoboken and try and break my streak. It sounds odd—don’t writers want a streak? But although I had familiarity with low periods the highs were too scary. I had to be older to handle them.
The house in Marfa was beautifully serene and white walled.It had a deep, but very slow to fill, bath tub. I could write a poem in the time it took the tub to fill. Maybe being a mother and so much older calmed me down. I knew this mania wouldn’t last—so I enjoyed it.
I experienced the sea kind of transcendent state recently at The Betsy Hotel in Miami Hotel. Frankly, it was so delightful there that I can’t imagine any writer being uninspired. The Betsy is a boutique hotel on an art deco block on South Beach. The time from bed to the waves is about six minutes in flip-flops.
I’ve always loved writing in motels and hotels—and funky or remote is good. The Betsy was beautiful and chic, but also dedicated to art. When I was there the hotel hosted a poetry reading, a jazz duo in residence, and several shows associated with Basel Miami. I was housed in the writer’s room, dedicated to the memory of Hyam Plutzik.
And I wrote like a demon.
Photographs thanks to Willa Kaufman.