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Cabin Fever

The creative sensation at the MacDowell Colony.

Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By EVA TALMADGE
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I stand there on the dark road trying to remember whether I’m supposed to pass a streetlight on my way. I’m not. I’ve never seen this light before. I must turn back. I cannot see. I smack my flashlight until it emits a pale orange smudge of light. I point it at the wall—I can just make out the outlines of glacially rounded, mossy stones—and when the wall vanishes, I turn.

Three nights later: Now armed with a Maglite that’s heavy enough to beat a rioter into submission and powered by three brand-new D-cell batteries, I hear a rustling in the woods. Several colonists have recently encountered bears while wandering the colony’s 450 acres, and though I know that black bears are harmless—more afraid of me than I ought to be of them—I am frightened. The rustling gets louder. I point my flashlight at the flaming autumn trees and see absolutely nothing.

I’m very far from civilization—almost back to my studio now, and not near any other studio that’s inhabited at night. I’m so scared I crouch. The rustling does not stop. It’s coming toward me. It’s not a bear, I tell myself; it’s Sasquatch. And then I see it: A small, dark animal climbing out of the woods and onto the raised dirt road. A porcupine.

Only when I’m close enough to blind him does he seem to notice me. He stops, quills up, and looks over his shoulder. Anthropomorphic projection: He appears mildly disgusted and annoyed.

Possibly a Friday: We know it’s the weekend because the cook has changed. It’s taco night. After dinner, I head over to the library to print a few pages of a story. I like this story, but the beginning isn’t right. I lay the pages in a semicircle around me on the floor, look at each section, then stoop to draw circles around paragraphs that might need to be moved or deleted.

It’s a house of cards: Take one piece out, and the whole thing falls. I let out a few exasperated sighs. At some point another writer enters—the library is a good place to avoid the after-dinner social hour without being entirely alone—but he pays me no mind, and I don’t mind him. I keep drawing lines and sighing. For a while I just sit there, brooding, face buried in my hands.

The next morning, I decide what the story needs. On my walk to breakfast I encounter a coyote. For a moment, we both stand and stare. Then, as if showing me a magic trick, he disappears.

Some day toward the last: There are multiple requirements for admission to the MacDowell Colony (work samples, personal statements, letters of recommendation, CVs) but no restrictions on the art produced while in residence. One must not damage the facilities or disturb other colonists, but like the motto of New Hampshire (“Live Free or Die”) and the motto of the colony itself (“Giving Artists Freedom to Create”), once an artist arrives here, no one will interfere. MacDowell does not require any proof of output; nor does it perform checks on what colonists are doing in their studios while in residence. On my application, I stated that I needed the time to finish a story collection; during my residency I worked mainly on a novel.

If a sculptor or architect or composer wants to spend her day pacing around her studio, muttering to herself and hurling curses at the gods, she can. If a writer throws her notebooks across the room in a fit of childish vexation (I’m speaking hypothetically, of course), no one is going to pop his head in to ask if she’s okay. You can cry all you want. Sleep all you want. Write or paint or play the piano at triple-F fortissimo all night, every night—and then do it again the next day.

So what does go on in the studios at MacDowell? A lot of work, from what I have observed. Colonists aren’t permitted to visit one another’s studios without an invitation, but the question at dinner every night is, “How’d work go today?” Everyone I heard who was asked this question gave what sounded like an honest answer: “Pretty good. I wrote my thousand words,” or “Awful. I spent all morning rewriting a paragraph, then deleted it this afternoon.”

A sculptor speaks of a few hours spent just looking at her work, lining it up across her studio and thinking about it in a way she never gave herself the time to do back home. An orchestral composer tells me about devoting an entire morning to a piece of music she couldn’t end, then indulging in a nap and hearing the rest of the piece in a dream. A writer from Kansas City boasts of producing an astonishing 80,000 words in her three weeks at MacDowell, and a painter opens her studio near the end of her stay to reveal more newly painted canvases than she’d finished in the entire preceding year.

We all stand around admiring them, amazed. 

Eva Talmadge, a writer in New York, is coauthor or The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide

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