Kate Flora here, checking in from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’m in Amherst, Virginia, spending two weeks as a writing fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. This is my second time here. I first came here in early April two years ago with the intention of spending two weeks experimenting with a non-mystery that had been rattling around in my brain for a few years.
I had only eleven real writing days last time I was here, and during those eleven days, I spent ten to twelve hours a day in my writing studio. I wrote obsessively. I got incredibly high on the process. At the end of my residency, I had written 163 pages. I went home exhausted and amazed. I never have had time, during the two years since, to get around to finishing that book.
I was afraid to come back for two reasons: First, because being here last time was so wonderful that I
was afraid a second visit couldn’t possibly measure up. I didn’t need to worry. This is a place designed to give creative people the space to create. Every Fellow has a bedroom and a working studio. Someone else does the cooking. The internet is sketchy, so even the e-mail addicted have no excuse not to work.
The grounds are gorgeous along the quarter mile walk from the residence to the studios. Lilacs are blooming, wisteria hangs from the trees, the honeysuckle buzzes with bees. Walking to my studio one morning, I was caught in a shower of apple blossoms, and had to stop and remind myself to enjoy it, because being in a beautiful place with heightened senses is a treat and an inspiration, not something to be rushed through to get to work.
There are poets, fiction writers, essayists, novelists, nonfiction writers, and writers who are doing video novels. There are visual artists working in many forms of collage, doing wall-sized works, making prints, and painting the spring as it emerges. There are sculptors. There are composers. There is so much creativity here that the air vibrates with it. You can breathe it in as you walk to your studio. It invades your brain as you sleep.
Yesterday someone said that this truly is a place where the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and that is so true. A conversation about an artist’s dilemma may also help solve a puzzle in my work in progress. Seeing the world through other creative eyes challenges me to demand more from myself and from my writing. Discussions about letting the work tell us where it wants to go remind me that sometimes I’m more creative when I let my characters take control than when I’m trying to control them.
I was also afraid to come back because my stated intention, coming here this time, was to finish the book I started two years ago. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find the thread of the story again, or bring my characters to life.
For the first few days, that was true. Then it began to come back. I started to dream the story at night, and would wake knowing what the next few chapters would be about. I hit the wall, despaired of the book, wrote crap, threw that crap away, sat down and confronted my characters and rewrote something I rather liked. I had twenty page days and one monumental 35 page day.
I had to keep reminding myself that I was aiming for first draft. That if what I was writing bored me, it was absolutely going to bore a reader as well. My characters came back to me and reminded me why I had wanted to spend time with them in the first place. A flawed and troubled bunch but ones for whom I wanted good endings. They didn’t all get them. I sat here in the chair, resisting the temptation to do anything else, until I finished a first draft. Another 110 pages. I carefully have not typed “THE END” at the end yet, because I’m not sure the book is really done. I only know it feels done.
There have even been a few days left to work on another project, nonfiction this time. Doing them back-to-back like this, I can see how much more excited I get, inhabiting the world of imaginary people and watching them as they come alive and interact. What excites me about nonfiction is different–it’s getting the story in the first place, those amazing human interactions that let me begin to discover why the story wants to be told and the voice that it will have.If I’m lucky enough to get invited back, I think next time it will be all about fiction.
Meanwhile, despite the ten hours a day I’ve glued myself to my desk chair, I’m noticing the world around me in new ways. In the quiet hours after I leave my studio, I listen to the young male Mockingbirds who sit up half the night, complaining in a dozen voices that they don’t have a girlfriend. They seem to be on the midnight to 4:00 a.m. shift. This morning, two Canada geese flew overhead and I could actually hear the sound of their wings. The invading giant stinkbugs whirr ominously at night as they fly toward my desk lamp. Bees bumble in through my open door. Late at night, the world is filled with thunderous noise and lonely whistles as the freight trains rumble past.
Soon, I will have to pack my car and head for home. Enter the “real world” as the signs here say. I will be going home once again so grateful that a place like this exists. That there is somewhere where the world can truly be left behind and artists can have the freedom, time, space, and care from the kind people who cook and clean for us, to get deeply immersed in work and make exciting discoveries.
In another time, perhaps, writers and artists has muses (and wives). I, and the amazing people around me, have VCCA.