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.

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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