How To be a Writer-in-Residence
Basically, the gig is to be alone for two weeks in a cabin, courtesy of the Park Service and the artist-in-residence program at Hot Springs, Arkansas. It sounds fantastic to me as a writer—and it is—but why?
Some of it is—a lovely setting. The cabin is super comfy if simple. I like being in the campground with the feeling of a little village around me. At the far end there are stepping stones across a steam and then the trail goes up the mountain. There is redbud and other flowering trees, fat robins, and dramatic claps of thunder before rain. It’s beautiful—and unfamiliar—in this wet hardwood forest.
There is a sense of purpose—the Park Service, after all, wants something from me. To write about the park. To present to the public. To be here, as a poet. Each hour of the day seems meaningful. (And, I must add, in this day of Donald Trump, writing about climate change, geology, and unvarnished history feels not just useful but downright radical. As does volunteering with a system beset by censorship and financial cutbacks).
Then there is…and this is the trickier part…writing and solitude. I’m not really a solitary person, but I do crave it. Benefit from it. And have a large tolerance for things lurking at solitude’s borders—boredom and isolation. I’ve been doing this balancing act for many years.
I have my tricks—one of which is to set up a mild schedule. Breakfast. Brisk walk around the campground. Write. Then off to town! Wifi in the library. Strolling the promenade with its view of the city, its architectural touches, its steam rising from hot spring breakthroughs. A field trip—maybe to the baths, maybe a tour of the old (scary) hospital, or a search for fried okra. The necessities of life—laundry, dishes. A phone call home or to a friend. More writing. Lots of reading. Staring into space. Embroidery. Suminagashi (marbling is a wonderful meditative addition to my creative life). More writing.
I have my treats, too. A massage. A visit to some beautiful botanical gardens. I haven’t been yet—it’s a treat for week two. Not a reward, but a way to maintain a good rhythm. I’ve been invited to the open mike in town. Will I go? Sure—although I never would at home. It’s a perk of being away—discovery. Small things are entertaining.
As for writing—the years have taught me to relax. I’m writing probably 10 times as much as I usually do. Years ago, this mild mania freaked me out—scared me so much I once fled from western Mass to Hoboken just to catch a break. Is it good? I don’t know, or care…yet. That’s for later. I’m writing an audio play for voices. I’m writing a lot of things that don’t fit…yet. That’s what week number two is for! Or the rest of my life, God willing.
I don’t feel I could go on forever as a hermit. But it’s good to know some of the skill set is there, for introspection, quiet, communion. Ten years ago I was in the Everglades—a transformative experience. It was the start of the most exciting creative work I’ve ever done—working from land, terrain, the physical world. It was also among the loneliest times in my life. Dusk fell early in the winter solstice tropics. Melancholy settled on me. It was a learning experience.
Several years later I was alone in a trailer at the edge of a bombing range in the Great Basin—Wendover, Utah/Nevada. It was there that I realized I could not survive a week in an anxious or worried state of mind. I would have to radically accept my surroundings, and myself, to survive emotionally. It was a transcendent experience that has never totally left me.
In the Everglades I was writing about beauty; in Wendover I was writing about destruction. In both places I was writing abut water. I still am. And I’m thinking my theme is transformation.