Artist Colonies: The Value of Lost Time

Essay originally published in Spalding MFA In Writing Blog.

I recently returned from a 4-week residency at MacDowell, an Artist Colony in rural New Hampshire. It proved to be an important month in my life, and in my writing career, but not in exactly the way I’d thought it would. I went seeking freedom, but what I found was a lot more meaningful.

Due to my work schedule and household responsibilities, it had been nine years since my last residency—something I tried not to resent, yet invariably did—and I was eager to return to the regimented yet utterly open days I had known in previous residencies, mealtimes being the only structure imposed upon each 24-hour cycle: the promise of bacon and eggs at every breakfast, so long as I arrived before 8:30 AM; lunches with hot soup and homemade cookies, quietly delivered to my studio each afternoon; the cow bell rung for dinner at 6:30 PM, where conversations and wine would flow in equal measure. Happily, these things were exactly the same. What I hadn’t counted on was that I was not the same.

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The MacDowell Library

At past residencies, I had unpacked my suitcases and gotten to work on the first afternoon, diving into my manuscripts-in-progress as soon as I opened my laptop. This time, I surprised myself by choosing to visit the library first; four hours later, and late for dinner, I walked out balancing two dozen books by previous colonists: novels by James Baldwin, Amy Bloom, and Ann Patchett; a collection of profiles from The New Yorker; along with several books of poetry, a few biographies, and two memoirs by writers I’d never heard of. I felt like a kid on Halloween as I went back to my room and dumped all the loot on my bed, separating the books into categories: read to inspire; read to relax; read to make me cry.

I tried to “get to work” the following day, but truth be told, I spent the next three days reading other people’s work, napping, going for long walks in the cold New England air (Who knew that New Hampshire winters last through April?), and talking every night about the four projects I had come to work on: the revision of my third novel; the polish of my second, to be published next year; the revision of a TV pilot I had adapted with a co-writer; and story notes for an original pilot I hoped to begin writing. But strangely, I didn’t write.

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Rachel’s MacDowell studio

On one day, I read three entire books, something I hadn’t done since the summer before senior year of high school. I visited other colonists in their studios and looked at dozens of painted canvases, the oil still wet. I streamed a documentary on my iPhone, though the subtitles were too small to read. I ate lots of salad and drank too much tea, trying desperately to avoid the treats they left out by the mail table. I drank whiskey. I played ping-pong. I washed my laundry with the best smelling detergent I’ve ever experienced. But I still wasn’t writing. And I began to feel guilty about it, to panic that I wasn’t getting enough work done, to worry that I was overwhelmed and oddly blocked, that I had fallen victim to the curse of procrastination—that I was losing time. Yet while emailing a friend (something I only allowed myself to do after dinner), I was reminded of a simple truth: that everything I was doing was actually part of the process of writing. Reading, relaxing, sleeping, talking—these are not wasted activities for the writer, especially when given the gift of a large amount of time. In fact, I’ve come to understand just how essential they are.

I had arrived with certain expectations of what a residency was, or had to be, due to the way I had done it before, but those were based upon the writer I had been and how my life had looked back then. When I had no kids, no teaching job, no agent, I had a certain type of freedom, but it is one that I no longer desire, since I now have something even more potent: I have experience. This doesn’t make me a better writer or a better manager of my time, what it allows me is the gift of remembering that everything I choose to do on a certain day that isn’t the actual writing, can still have value, and once digested, will actually nourish the writing itself.

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A view from her desk

This proved to be the case when I did finally pull out the 350-page manuscript I’d been toting around in my computer bag, when I opened the files on my laptop, when I finally sharpened my pencil and sat down to write. Sure, I had less time in the end, but the work I produced had more energy, more authenticity, more truth, than what I would have produced if I hadn’t taken the time to do all that “non-writing” during my first week. I felt more connected to my work, and to myself, after taking that lost time, and for that, I will always be grateful—to the people and the place that made my experience possible.

Rachel Harper is the author of two novels, Brass Ankle Blues, and This Side of Providence, and several screenplays. She has received fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the R.I. State Council on the Arts. Harper is on the faculty at Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing Program.

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