The Magazine

Cabin Fever

The creative sensation at the MacDowell Colony.

Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By EVA TALMADGE
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Peterborough, N.H.

Where Thornton Wilder wrote 'Our Town'

Where Thornton Wilder wrote 'Our Town'

Associated Press

Wednesday, June 6: The email notifying me of my acceptance to the MacDowell Colony could not have come at a better time. I’ve just begun writing a new short story—one so new I’m still writing it in longhand, sitting in coffee shops drinking too-strong coffee that I can’t really afford. And I’m having one of those days (every other day) where I find myself adding up the number of hours of freelance work I’d need to do to pay back everyone to whom I owe large sums of money, plus the credit card, minus the value of my collection of potentially resalable hardcover books. I have nothing to look forward to.

Except this: The subject line reads “Confidential Application Results,” and the message opens with an earnest “Congratulations!” I’m so happy I might as well have been told I’ve just won the Pulitzer Prize. “Your new work is good,” the email means. “Keep going.”

By the time I receive confirmation of the exact dates of my residency, I’ve decided to turn my new short story into a novel. The day of my departure looms in my calendar like a deadline—encouraging, motivational, firm. I decide to make it the day I finish a complete first draft. By the time I arrive in Peterborough, New Hampshire, three months later, I’ve written 41,000 words.

Friday, October 5: First day. Residents at MacDowell are given private dormitory rooms in which to sleep, isolated studios in which to do their work, and three nourishing meals each day. Dinners are served family-style, and I’m so apprehensive about meeting my fellow colonists that I sign out of dinner altogether and depart for a nearby restaurant. I’ve arrived with a boyfriend I’m not quite ready to say goodbye to, and eating with a group of creative strangers (at least one of whom has actually won a Pulitzer) seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to put off.

Saturday: The next morning is better. Breakfasts, for the majority who get up early, are boisterous and cheerful and feature made-to-order plates of pancakes, bacon, and deliciously fresh eggs. (The chicken coop is roughly 15 yards away.) I eat more pancakes than seems possible.

I learn that there are six other fiction writers, six composers, four visual artists, two playwrights, two screen-writers, an absurdly young memoirist, a nonfiction writer, a choreographer, and an interdisciplinary artist—a woman from Michigan/Berlin who combines visual art with cultural work—currently in residence. I begin memorizing names.

After dinner, a composer gives a presentation of his work, playing recordings of two chamber ensembles written for both classical instruments and baroque strings. I overhear a novelist asking the nonfiction writer about horses; her novel is set in the early 20th century, and she’s trying to establish the right details for the horse scenes. The nonfiction writer has been reporting on the horse world for most of her career. Another novelist and I swap names of favorite authors. Horse talk is in the air, and I recommend a book by Peter Carey. She suggests Jane Smiley. Someone warns us about deer ticks. A painter complains about the lunch.

A few days later: Most of an artist’s time is spent alone. In my studio, there is just my messy 41,000-word manuscript and me. The writing I did back home was mad-dash/first-draft desperation: I wrote 700 words a day until something in a scene got stuck, then I stopped and wrote another outline. Now, six outlines later, I’m trying to decide exactly how this thing begins. One character seduces another, but I can’t work out which. I try writing the opening chapter one way, then throw it out and start over.

Outside, I hear chickadees and juncos. I get up, look out. In the meadow, I see a flock of wild turkeys. A look through my binoculars confirms it: turkeys. Seven turkeys.

Windows are a hazard. I close every single curtain in my studio. I sit back down. I work.

Night: Half a week, and I’ve lost track of the dates. The moon is at its nadir, and the woods are so dark I cannot see my hands. My studio is a live-in, built in 1909 and originally intended for married couples. It has a double-sided fireplace that faces two identical rooms, one of which I sleep in, one in which I write. It’s about a 20-minute hike from Colony Hall, where breakfast and dinner are served, and unless I can beg a ride, I must walk home in the dark. The very dark. The flashlight I’ve brought is appropriate for a New York City power outage, not the woods. It has two double-A -batteries that give out as I’m walking on the darkest road. Not only can I not see my hand in front of my face, I also can’t see the break in the low stone wall that marks the beginning of the dirt road that leads me home. I miss it. I walk in the pitch-dark until I see the faint glow of a streetlight in the distance. I stop.

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