Sometimes, when I’m writing and barred from Twitter and blogging and all manner of distracting things, I keep a journal in which I talk to myself. I did this while I was away for a short residency at the Hambidge Center in Georgia, and I wanted to share selected bits with you. Some of the more personal things—and all the specific thoughts about my novel-in-progress—have been removed. But there’s a lot about process and being at a colony.
Here are some selected bits from my journal…
Day 1: June 12, 2013
I am happy to say I was able to sleep last night without any tricks beyond keeping the bathroom light on and closing all the blinds so no night creatures (more about creatures later) could look in and watch me sleeping. Usually at colonies I have the most terrible time sleeping. But for some reason here in this place I could sleep. I also made sure to lock all the doors and lock the screen doors. I slept. I woke up to a headache, but I slept.
Headache from all the travel yesterday. And lots of talking to the other artists once I got here, and I’d taken a Dramamine and I just don’t think I’d recovered. After dinner I went back to my studio in the trees (Foxfire), and my ears were buzzing and I started reading a book: Tell the Wolves I’m Home.
There are six other artists here, but I can tell already that they are far more social than I want or can be while I’m here. This is a work retreat for me, really, and I have to focus. I can’t fuck this up. But it’s a short time and I’m sure people will understand.
The thing about being at a place like this is you can be as social as you want to be—or not be. You can spend all day sleeping. Really, the time is yours.
The time is mine. Mine!
This weekend I want to hide away and focus and get so much done that I’ll look back on this and know it saved me.
This is a boring update. I should tell you what the place is like. Foxfire is a little studio house hidden in the trees, but very close to the main house and the main office. The walk to dinner is maybe five minutes, seven tops down a dirt driveway and then a dirt road. The studios seem really close together, but I don’t see anyone from my windows. It feels private enough (though I can’t let myself think I’m alone; I still remember when I was at MacDowell the last time and two people, an artist and her guest, wandered in front of my window while I was writing, and it was a good thing I had clothes on). It’s nice to have a kitchen and food here, it’s nice to have a shower here, it’s nice to not have to go anywhere until dinner. That makes me feel like I will get some work done here. I mean how can I not? If I can’t here, then I don’t deserve to be anywhere.
I fell asleep.
And I had a weird dream that ended up with two girls outside my door trying to get in and then rescuing food and messages left for me from a tall pole, and a dying cat thrown into the road for mercy.
Hambidge has this in the welcome booklet:
“Know that the time is yours to use in any way that supports your creative journey. After all, creative ‘work,’ as we all know, is not always recognized in terms of Mr. Webster’s definition. Above all, be kind to yourself, honor the muse that guides you and believe in your talent.”
Day 2: June 13
I shouldn’t have taken that Benadryl so late last night. (I started having some weird panicked, nervous reaction before I left, and I think the heat here is making it worse, so I took a Benadryl, hoping the antihistamine would help… only I took it past midnight.) I kept waking up every two hours, sounds jolting me awake, like reflexes, like someone was in here or right outside and I had to defend myself. It was nobody and nothing. (Though I killed a great big enormous bug in the bathroom around 4am. I’ve noticed that the bugs here seem to be generally even larger than the ones I’m used to in the city… there was a moth that first morning that clung to the kitchen window and I swear was as big as a bird.)
Georgia blueberries aren’t as good as New Jersey blueberries, just so you know.
Goal today is massive work on the outline. I’d like to email a chunk to E.
I should shower soon.
It’s good to be here with a deadline. It really pushes you along. Otherwise, I can’t be trusted not to sleep in even later and spend my whole time just reading every book I brought on my e-reader.
I don’t know. I have to say this. I’m sitting here working on my novel’s outline, adding in a new character, thinking hard on the arc and playing with the reveals, and the fan is going and there is a nice breeze and I’m wearing these new red soft shoes and a striped tank top, and there’s a fresh crunchy green apple beside me, and speaking of green, I look out this wall of windows outside my studio and it’s all green: the trees are filled with color, and the wind makes the leaves move, and I can’t be dallying about on the internet, and I don’t have to get dressed for dinner for two hours, and I can hear the rush of the wind and it’s so nice I don’t even have music on, and this novel is coming alive under my fingers, each new hour put in helping me see more and more into it, all these scenes begging to be written in this sweet exciting little thrill of a way… and hey, this is nice, being here. This is great.
There are the weeks of stress that always happen before I head away to a colony—mostly traveling, which I am just not good at, especially when it involves a plane or a car, and this involved both. And the being away from E … But even so, even with the stresses of being apart and the anxiety that I had in getting here (which I still have a rash from, I think), even from that, I’m glad I’m here.
I know I will have to be antisocial with everyone over the next week, and I am sorry for that because it does take away some of the creative inspiring aspects of being at a colony with other artists. But this deadline awaits, and I kind of love that it awaits. It pumps through my blood. It makes me sit up straight and drink another cup of jasmine tea. It makes me love this novel even more than I did just yesterday.
I really don’t mind all this time to myself. I actually thrive on it. This just cements that the colonies where you live in a house with all the other artists and cook and clean together like on some warped socially awkward reality show are not the best ones for me. I like the solitude of this live-in studio. I know I am here for free thanks to the NEA grant, but I even think this is worth paying for: the $200 a week. I wonder if, in the future, I might come again and just go ahead and pay for it. This studio is kind of perfect for me, and the quiet is even more perfect for me… and I love being alone with myself. I am, more and more, loving alone time, especially alone time that keeps me disconnected from the rest of the world. It’s the internet, on the outside, that really murders me and makes me less of a person and a terrible writer. I wish I could find a way to have this more, in shorter bursts and with E a part of it—but I wish this could be a part of my real life, instead of a special present I can get once a year if I’m lucky.
It rains. Faint rolls of thunder in the distance. Birds calling. Rain pattering the leaves of the trees, so not all of it hits the back deck of my studio. That sound. The warm drops on my bare shoulders. I stepped outside for a bit.
Day 3: Friday, June 14, 2013
I didn’t reach my first goal. Which was to write to a certain point by last night and send it off to E. And I know it was because I wasn’t sure of my character O., like how I can’t get my finger on her somehow. Then, sometime in the night or in the haze of the morning, when I wasn’t sure where I was and had ignored my alarm and wasn’t out of bed yet, so kept drifting off with confused dreams putting me here and also there, in the city, until I remembered where I was again, which was here, I thought of her. O. And a click.
Something wonderful: There is a composer right now in the studio down the hill, the one I think I can see the door of through the trees, and I can hear the piano rising through the air to reach me through my windows. It’s a wonderful sound, distant but touching me all the way up here. (That was not meant to sound gross.)
Voices carry here. I can hear—though I can’t make out their words really—two artists talking in the road.
Today is June 14. When I saw the date this morning, I immediately knew what it signified. It’s my IMAGINARY GIRLS pub date. This was the day, in 2011, that the hardcover came out, and this was also the day, in 2012, when the paperback came out. Now, it’s no day and nothing comes out for 2013, but it will still be a special day for me. That book meant everything to me, still does. I wish more people had read it… but hey, I wrote it, and isn’t that all that matters?
Day 4, Saturday, June 15
Last night I couldn’t sleep. Or I couldn’t STAY asleep. I did send stuff off to E, but it wasn’t nerves. It was that annoying fear of sleeping in a strange place all alone.
E and I talked on the phone. Mostly we talked about how what I have so far is jam-packed full of stuff. Too much, maybe, and maybe too many stories I want to hit. Sometimes it feels like this is the last novel I’ll ever get to write and I want to shove every single last idea I ever had into it… like the world is about to end or something.
I need to focus, and make choices.
And I need to remember: This won’t be the last novel I get to write. I have a two-book contract! There’s a whole other novel after this and we haven’t even talked about what it might be! I don’t have to cram everything and the kitchen sink into this. I can save some things…
How to wake from an illicit nap:
Roll over and happen to look, woozily, out the window at the head of the bed. Find a strange brown Georgia beetleish-roachlike insect staring at you, its antennae pointed skyward, its bug eyes settled on you. Leap out of bed with the reflexes of a much younger you. Smash bug with nearest, hardest shoe.
I always go through these humps after I get feedback on something. I’m going to start calling it a hump. Because it slows you down, because sometimes you have to stop altogether and find a way to climb up and over in order to keep going. And also because sometimes you want to stand up there at the top and you’re afraid to leap back down and keep going, because fear is always there.
I guess I just need to think for a while. So much thinking goes into the writing of a novel, gah!
But, hey, listen: It’s Saturday night—and you don’t need to go anywhere. You even napped (woke up by beetle/roach) and so that means you might just be alert enough to work through the night until bedtime. And also: You finished your book, and maybe you shouldn’t start a new one just yet… Short stories only maybe. That way, reading can’t be such a distraction, because the last book (Where You Can Find Me by Sheri Joseph) was so phenomenally good.
Listen: You have tonight. And listen: You have all of tomorrow and Monday. You don’t have to call the office about the photograph on Monday… you can wait till Tuesday. And I think you can wait to do laundry on Wednesday, though it will be dire on Wednesday and you’ll really have to be sure to make it happen. But you can maybe not wear socks Sunday and Monday, if you’re staying home anyway, right? I think we have enough underwear; it’s more the socks. (Can’t use laundry machines on Mondays or Tuesdays.) If you start getting stressed out about this tomorrow night, you can do laundry, but only if the writing is going really well.
So listen. Stop writing ABOUT being here and write WHILE you are here.
Day 5, Sunday, June 16
Today is a day I get to spend all by myself. I don’t even know the last time I did this. I don’t have to dump out the garbage today if I don’t want to. I don’t have to do the laundry today. I don’t have to go anywhere at all. It’s funny how my natural instincts come out when I’m left alone in a place: I eat. I read. I isolate. I write some. I talk to myself in these journal entries. I don’t even want to sleep all day. I want to wake up and be alone with myself. And I love the idea that I don’t have to go to dinner at 5:55, or whenever to be there at 6, for two whole days. I don’t have to do anything at all except be here and be alone with myself, if that’s what I want.
I started reading Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon last night. I know I should be sticking to the short story collections because they are easier to pick up and put down, and so I won’t get distracted wanting to swallow a whole novel instead of working on my own today, but I kind of remember what happens because I saw the movie, so maybe the urgency of needing to finish to find out won’t overtake me this time. and also it’s all about writing, the protagonist and narrator is a writer… and the particular miseries and circular thoughts of being a writer working on a novel and feeling like the novel has gotten way ahead of you and beyond your capacities as a human and certainly your small talents as a writer. There’s a lot to recognize here. And some of it amuses me, makes me laugh.
I should shower. There were so many bugs—beetles, spiders, and daddy long legs—in the bathroom today. I squashed some, ran some down the drain, and saved some with a glass and a magazine to let loose on the back deck. But so many. I’m kind of on edge still, thinking of them all.
Is this what it’s like to live in the country? Bugs galore first thing you wake up in the morning? Do they gather around and fester in every night?
Bugs… I should add that to my novel. Write that down somewhere you’ll find it later.
Today is Father’s Day. I have no comment on that.
I am here. I have all night. I have at least four good hours, possibly five. I can do sprints of bits. I can write forward. I can plan. Then I can take chapter-reading and snack-eating breaks as motivation.
But it really is true that I am coming into my true self here. I don’t want to go outside. I don’t want to get bugs on me or have to get dressed or put on actual shoes. I want to eat whenever I’m hungry and whatever I want when I’m hungry and I don’t want to have to follow mandated mealtimes. I want to take breaks to read—and, boy, as if my true childhood self is rising through the mush and haze of adulthood, I sure do want to read A LOT. This is how I used to be as a kid, as a teenager, as a college student, and then… I guess I grew up and my true self got crushed. I have to go out all the time at home because we have nothing there: my morning stuff is out. The mocha (which I’ve just been enjoying green tea, and have to say, I’ve been fine) and the bagel (and we don’t have a toaster at home), but as I was telling E, I think my true natural state would be to stay in if I could. If I had a writing room at home, if we had a house and food enough to last a week, would I ever leave? He said he’d be afraid I’d become a recluse. I am thinking my actual natural state is that of the Writer Recluse. I wonder if I’ll become more myself as I age into my forties and turn into that.
Staying silent online has been pretty nice, too. It feels good to not insert myself into insignificant conversation. To not pay attention, and also to not be paid attention to. Probably no one is thinking of me. Probably no one notices I’m gone. In a way, that’s nice. In a way, really, I like disappearing. I’ve always loved the idea of disappearing, haven’t I? I always like to slip out of places unnoticed if I can—how many times in life have I done just that at crowded parties? And Twitter is like a crowded party in which most of the time no one wants to really talk to me anyway.
Oh blech, I sound like I’m feeling sorry for myself. I’m not. I’m feeling good. I’m feeling happy. I’m feeling like I’m having a good weekend here—except for having trouble sleeping and missing E, especially at night, and hoping he is okay up in New York right now.
SIX DAYS LEFT!
You have to be better at working. You have to be better at forcing yourself to work. You need to try tomorrow—and you need to carry that discipline home with you to New York, where the internet and the distractions and the home and the people and the copyediting projects await you. serious.
And you have to be a better writer. You have to be better. You are not good enough yet. You are not good enough yet. You need to be better.
You have to change who you are and how you act. There’s no time for all the self-doubt and small-making. I mean: fuck you. are you trying to sabotage me? I think you are sometimes.
Day 6, Monday, June 17
I am very, very aware of what little time I have left here.
Today, I woke up and it must have rained last night. I tried to get a big moth out of the studio, but it just wouldn’t go out the door I kept opening and pointing the broom to, I lost another moth, I relocated a spider out to the back porch, and I had to kill a little crippled moth that was living in the bathtub and wouldn’t leave.
I don’t have a book to read today. I keep looking longingly at the reading chair… but that’s not what I’m here for. I read a bunch of books. I have them in my mind now. But now, today, I need to finish what was I was supposed to finish, according to my schedule, I think on Friday! I’m really behind. I had a whole plan for what I’d accomplish here and I’m not following it.
But I have today. And I think maybe it helps with the panic if you think of one day at a time—one task for the day that you want to accomplish. One goal in mind—and have your eyes set on it all day. I know what my goal is for today. It’s doable.
Day …. 7! Already Day 7! Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Should I be surprised at how slow I am? I am always so surprised—and yet I am always so slow… and the funniest thing is how much I believe in myself in those initial moments of giving myself a crazy deadline.
I’d wanted to finish the whole thing this weekend—by Sunday night. (Even though I kept pushing it out.) But I gave myself till Sunday night when I was trying to be realistic.
Ha ha ha ha ha. And ha.
I panicked while falling asleep. I woke up, occasionally, in the night, to panic. And I got out of bed instead of letting myself drift with sleep because 1) had to pee and 2) couldn’t help but panic.
[No entry Day 8—must have written up a storm!]
DAY, WHAT IS IT DAY 9? 10? THURSDAY JUNE 20
Something clicked in my mind, suddenly, or I should say finally. Last night it was eating at me, last night I needed it to come and I felt like I was forcing it, like the army of moths that slam at bat at the window screens at night, trying to get in to where the light is, and they were going insane last night, as was my imagination, trying to form into an orderly line and get these ideas articulated onto a page in words in English. I mean, what the fuck, why is creating a novel so hard? Why is every stage so hard? Why do I try, each new time, with each new novel, to make this easier on myself and each time I seem to fail?
There is no way to make this easier. It is always going to be hard. Why can’t I learn this.
Anyway, here I am today, and the ideas are flowing and the words are moving and I will tell you the secret because hey, it’s an obvious one and I think it will be recognized by writers (and artists) the world over.
I MADE A POT OF COFFEE.
I mean, damn, I’ve been doing 2, 3 cups of green tea a day, but I ran out of my favorite jasmine tea and the green tea substitute I have tastes kind of muddy and I was beginning to suspect there was no caffeine in it at all because I felt so woozy this morning and then it hit me: I had an emergency bag of Starbucks coffee I could brew in that little coffeepot. And I also had hot chocolate packets I could sprinkle in.
FUCKING COFFEE WHY DIDN’T I MADE COFFEE BEFORE THIS?
Including today, I have just three days left before I leave here for Asheville.
Not to panic.
Back to it.
DAY 10 I think, FRIDAY JUNE 21
There is a married couple here now—they met at another artists’ colony, but have separate studios in which to do their own work. I am hyper-jealous because I wish E were here with me. This is what happens when you’ve been with someone and grown up with someone and changed and grew and came into yourself with someone over a span of almost twenty years. Also he reads every word I write and is very helpful, actually essential, no one even realizes how essential, and I guess not all writers can live in an isolation tank away from close feedback from people who know your work best and he’s my Someone and I’d like him to be in the tank with me. (Also, he’s home and not feeling well and I am worried about him.)
I took a slice of cake home from dinner last night and I’m so going to eat it today. It’s coconut. E hates coconut. I feel like I’m doing something illicit.
I have not allowed myself to read a book in days. Punishment.
E told me to go out and get some sun. I don’t want sun. I want words!
I am running out of food—well, food I want to eat—and I have no way of getting to the grocery store on my own.
But I leave Sunday at noon, so there’s nothing to worry about.
Basically, I have: some Rice Krispies. Some black beans. Some frozen corn. And peanut butter and bread I froze in the freezer. An old mushy apple. And a bunch of chocolate I hid from myself.
DAY 11, SATURDAY JUNE 22
TODAY IS MY LAST DAY.
I realized last night that sometimes, when I am falling asleep, I imagine the sound of sirens and it calms and soothes me and lets me drift off. The fan, when heard with my ears at a certain angle, can sound like faraway city sirens in the strangest way.
If this was meant to be a diary about being away at an artists colony, I’m afraid it’s turned into a diary of deadlines and panic and being a working writer trying desperately not to disappoint your new editor. A diary of a recluse. A diary of how utterly boring and painful it can be at times to write a novel.
I mean, it’s supposed to be romantic, yeah? Magic?
The lesson here could be that you don’t want to go to a colony stay when you have a deadline because you don’t want to spend your time panicking. Then again, the best way to make a deadline is to have all this time ahead of you and no distractions, and the colony stay, for me, came at the perfect time. Except it was too short. I could have used another week, I think—only, I’m missing E too much for a whole other week.
I don’t have any colony stays planned after this. This is it. I don’t know if I’ll ever get invited to one of these again. And I didn’t get to see a bear. I had a bell to ring on my keychain if I saw one on the path, too—apparently the noise will alert them that you are there? And then they’ll leave you alone? I don’t know, the little tinkly bell sounds very enticing…
Either way, no bears.
I’m feeling reluctant to go back into the real world where the internet lives. So I need to find a way to carry this experience with me. Well, everything except the bugs. If I carry a big spider back in my suitcase I will freak the fuck out, let me tell you. I am going to shake that thing out before I start packing. Wish me luck.
This colony stay was different than others I’ve had: More time with myself, which I loved more than I expected. No game-playing (I miss pool-table PIG, though I lost every game). And a constant sense of the ticking clock, which I think is mainly because I was only able to come for two weeks. But that’s the beauty of colonies: You make the experience into what you want. I did that. My only reget is not taking leftovers back to my studio of Rae’s mac and cheese.
Yeah, I’d come here again. Hey. How soon can I come here again?