Facing an Existential Crisis or, Attending an Artist Residency During a Pandemic
We were sitting in unstained Adirondack chairs, our feet in the Gihon River. My new friend, Victoria Sottosanti (Read her work! Seriously, do it now. I'll wait.) had read a piece of mine, which had started as an essay and become, I believed, part of a memoir about my mother and my relationship, the ways we've hurt ourselves and how we've healed. I'd written nearly 200 pages of said memoir in the past year, workshopping those pieces countless times with my writing groups, and hoped to get a really good draft done during this two-week residency at the Vermont Studio Center.
"Maybe this isn't a memoir," Victoria said casually, "maybe it's something else. An essay collection, focusing intently on the theme of food, going deeper in each essay." Shit, I thought. Maybe it's something else. I'd put so much time and thought and energy into this thing, the idea of completely flipping it on its head and making an entirely new book was exhausting. I sat at the edge of the river, watching ducks paddle and drift downstream, took a deep breath and thought, OK. Maybe it's something else.
I'm really good at giving advice and pretty terrible at taking it. I tell my students lots of (I think) useful things: just write and we'll figure out what direction it's going in later, don't worry about it being any good yet, it takes time, be open to letting the book tell you what direction it wants to go in, show don't tell, kill your darlings. But, man, that good advice can be hard to apply to my own work. I want my book(s) to be done NOW, to be sent out to agents, to try to sell. But, I know, I need to be patient and OK with the books maybe changing shape and needing to be rewritten, that these projects may take a long time ("Writing a book is hard work," I tell my students. Why don't I listen to myself?).
"Try not to think of it as a book right now," Victoria advised river-side. But to not think of it as a book felt devastating. "Well, OK, think of it as a book if you need to," she said. "But just take it one essay at a time. Go deeper." And the thing that got to me was I knew she was right.
So I spent a few hours after dinner pacing around my small office overlooking the river, scribbling ideas for essays, inspired by food, on my white board. Soon, the board was filled with hastily-or-perhaps-sideways-written ideas with arrows and random words in between them. Ideas. And I was excited about writing it again, instead of feeling stuck. I wrote 72 pages of essays in the following week at the Studio Center in Johnson, VT (OK, that's sort of cheating - a few things I was able to pull from previous work). I was amazed at how many food memories tied into larger issues of my former eating disorder and my bipolar disorder and my family history of alcoholism. Maybe the story wasn't about breaking, as I'd been saying for a year, but about feeding. Healing.
"What it is about?" Victoria asked at a dinner a few days deep into my maybe-this-is-an-essay-collection crisis. "And I don't mean the plot," she said.
And, though I'd worried more about writing in the past few days than what it was really about, it came out clearly, as if someone wiser and better prepared than me was saying it.
"It's about hunger," I said, "my mom's and my own, the ways we starve and punish ourselves and our bodies, the ways our minds punish us, feeding and learning to take care of ourselves and each other, me trying to understand my mother and the parts of me that come from her, hungering for acceptance and love from her. It's about sustenance."
"YES!" she said.
It started with an essay about butter. I was spreading soft Cabot butter from a little plastic tub onto the delicious bread served at the Studio Center, eating my lunch in my office again, when I thought of the pats of butter in greasy parchment paper that they made me eat when I was a thirteen-year old anorectic in a teen psych ward. And then I had an essay. "Here's your book," Victoria said. And, again, I think she might just be right. If that essay was the only thing that had come out of my time at the Vermont Studio Center, I think I'd be happy. But it wasn't. By a long shot.
For one, some great friendships. This amazing painter is going to paint an abstract portrait of me (can't wait!). I submitted 41 pieces to literary journals. I accepted the first 25 or so pieces into A Tether to this World: Mental Health Recovery Stories (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2021), which I'm editing. It was heartening to hear people excited about being part of this project. I revised and submitted several old stories. I submitted poems and had a few new ones published in Red Tree Review. I ran the rail trail and did yoga. I swam in the Gihon with new friends. I learned from other artists. I read. I thought a lot.
Amidst a pandemic, I was so grateful for this community, though much smaller than in a normal residency, with safety precautions in place. It had been a long time since I was able to connect with other artists - in person! Distanced, of course. I needed that kind of creative sustenance to keep trudging forward with the three (OK, really it's four) books I'm working on, especially as I'm trying my very best to be OK with one taking on a whole new shape. The biggest thing that came out of those two weeks, for me, was re-energized creativity, a space to sit and think and create and get messy. After a few days, moving around my office was like playing leap frog, hopping in between papers to find a safe place on the floor to step. The desk was cluttered with half-eaten muffins and apples, fruit bar wrappers and seltzer cans. I got down on the floor and sorted through my half-formed ideas. I got to work.