commentary by Gay Degani, Editor of Flash Fiction Chronicles
Some writers find it easy to say “no” to real life.
I once heard a story about a famous writer — either Faulkner or Fitzgerald—who locked himself in a dark and dank bedroom to write and would not come out until he’d completed a full draft.
He didn’t worry about clothing, bathing, shaving — not even who won “America’s Next Top Model.” As for meals, his wife tiptoed up the stairs, placed a tray of food by the door, knocked softly and scurried away.
No one dare ask him to pick them up at the auto repair place, to organize a dinner party nor act as designated driver to a Laker game. Nope. He made it perfectly clear he wanted to be left alone.
Not, I suppose, the healthiest way to run one’s life. However, whether this tale is apocryphal or not, whether it’s about Faulkner or Fitzgerald, no one can contest the method produced some damn good books. They had talent, yes, but the were adamant, too, about having a dedicated time and a place for writing are also key ingredients to writing strong fiction.
It has taken me years to come to that realization, to stifle the “Of course! Yes! I’d love to.” that always wants to pop out of my mouth. But I’m getting there. “No’ gets easier as I get older.
Still, I have nurtured a fantasy that someday I would treat myself to a locked-door room where I don’t have to worry about anyone but me and my writer-self. This year I did it.
In early fall, I attended a week-long program at The Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, and on September 23, I arrived in Johnson, Vermont, to spend four weeks (count them: four weeks!) at Vermont Studio Center.
Here’s what happened.
I quit my job teaching English composition a couple of years ago with the specific plan to finish my novel, What Came Before. But I had a secondary plan, too. Market my short fiction and get published.
When this year came around, I realized I’d met the second goal but was struggling with the novel. What could I do differently to make this year the year I get that submission draft of What Came Before completed?
My fantasy about locked doors and other people cooking dinner came to mind, so I went to the Internet and looked up Writers’ Residency Programs.
I did some stumbling through my research, trying to figure out if it was some kind of prize only special people won or something I could actually apply for. I discovered there are several kinds for writings at all levels. I ended up applying to the Writing With Style Program at The Banff Centre in Alberta and The Vermont Studio Center in Vermont.
Banff is the home of the Leighton Colony program, which offers a writer a small room of her (or his) own. However, I wasn’t qualified to apply there because I didn’t have a published book under the belt, so I chose insteadthe one-week Writing With Style program.
This was a classroom situation with six students and one established writer. The focus I chose was historical fiction because part of my book takes place in the 1940s. But honestly, I would have gone to anything to have the time to write.
The Banff Centre, located near Calgary and Lake Louise in a National Park, is considered a cultural leader in Canada. Their mission is “Inspiring Creativity.” In addition to leadership and aboriginal arts programs, they offer study in visual arts, theater, music, digital film, and, of course, the literary arts.
For a list of their writing programs, please follow this link: Banff Centre.
Banff is beautiful and well set up for writers. The accommodations for my program included a private room in a hotel-like setting, with maid service when needed. The room had its own coffee pot, a long desk, comfortable chair, small work table and internet.
Places for dining were a short walk away, including a lovely restaurant-style cafeteria, with windows that presented stunning views of the Canadian Rockies, and two smaller sandwich places.
For class, we met at 9:30 each morning and workshopped one or two writers’ submitted pages, discussing craft and process — specifically and in general. We had the afternoons to write, read and wander through the park.
And we each had an opportunity to read our work, one night during the week, down the hall at the Writer’s Lounge — where coffee, two computers and a printer were available 24/7 .
Banff was a great experience. Being in the mountains and close to nature was motivating and challenging, and writing coach Joan Clark provided encouragement and sound advice about putting together a novel and sticking with it.
The Vermont Studio Center seemed to offer more of what I was seeking — a chance to be on my own for four weeks to finish my book.
It’s located in the northern part of Vermont in the tiny town of Johnson. I was excited to be in New England in the month of October when the leaves are turning and the days would be autumn crisp.
All of that and a community of writers!
VSC was founded twenty-five years ago by a group of visual artists who wanted to live in a creative community. As a part of that mission, they decided to offer artists a place to work away from the distractions of every day life. To find out more about the residencies, please follow this link: Vermont Studio Center
I stayed in a large Victorian house along with several writers and artists. There was a small library — offering both fiction and non-fiction books — on the first floor, as well as a common room for meetings or conversation.
The Red Mill is the hub of the center; for communication, parties, and eating, three meals a day and cereal, coffee, tea and soda available 24/7. The town of Johnson offers a coffee house, a bakery shop, a diner, a pizza bar with pool and a Chinese take-out place. Ebenezer Books is right on the corner.
But the best part for me was having my own private studio in Maverick, an Amish-style building, long and narrow, along the Gihon River. All sixteen studios faced the River. Internet and printers were available on both floors of the building. Plus the building was always accessible, so if I wanted to spend the night I could.
There were readings once a week for the writers and slide-shows for the artists. Two published poets, Major Jackson and Pattiann Rogers, were guests of the center while I was there.
I loved the center. The opportunity to bond with other writers and artists is not to be denied. The surroundings are lovely and inspirational — they have a meditation center and beautiful garden — but one has to be disciplined here. The assets can be distracting.
With three meals a day as part of the tuition, and so much fine company, it is a temptation to stop working, even when the words are flowing, to head off to the Mill for the next meal and mingle with the other residents.
Since no one was tiptoeing up to my locked door and knocking softly, I had to work hard to strike a balance between writing and social. However it was worth it. Being in another time and place did wonders for my motivation.
What Came Before is well on its way to completion.
Gay Degani lives in southern California. She has been published in two mystery anthologies, in THEMA Literary Journal and on-line at Every Day Fiction, 10Flash, Night Train, 3 A.M. Magazine, Tattoo Highway and Salt River Review. And she is Editor of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles, a blog dedicated to the growth of quality flash fiction for writers and readers online.