For years, I have dreamed of taking the time for a writer’s residency where I just parked myself somewhere still, ignored my responsibilities, and wrote for a while. But the timing was never quite right and my teaching schedule really limited my ability to do it.
But, then, this past fall, I attended the Innovation Institute’s Think Like An Artist two-day workshop, and I was reminded of my longing to retreat. It felt like maybe things were settled enough at home that I could go for it. Moreover, I had decided to take the fall of 2016 off from teaching and so I knew that I had a little bit more time to try to fit one in. With that in mind, I researched Writer’s Residencies (basically, the idea is that you apply to usually non-profit artist or retreat centers that host visiting artists for a period of time that allows them to focus on creating and the cost ranges from $0 to a suggested nightly fee or flat rate) and found some that I wanted to apply to based on fit (location, structure, timing, etc.).
The first deadline was for Wild Acres retreat center, and so I got my materials together, sent them off, and held my breath. In late winter, I was thrilled to learn that I had been accepted there.
Wildacres Retreat is a conference center offering its facilities to non-profit groups conducting educational or cultural programs on topics such as music, art, science, religion, lapidary, craft and writing. It is also available for staff and board retreats for non-profit organization. At an elevation of 3,300 feet, Wildacres is situated on 1,600 acres atop Pompey’s Knob, a mountain near the Blue Ridge Parkway in Little Switzerland, North Carolina.
In addition to their normal conference center offerings, Wild Acres has three cabins that they offer weekly to artists for residency. Artists can create all day and dine, as they wish, at the staff table at the conference center. The residency is free after one pays a $20 application fee. The only costs are transportation to the retreat center and any food you decide to prepare on your own.
As my May retreat week neared, I started thinking about what I would write from three options I was considering:
Option #1: Work on the non-fiction book that had been brewing inside of me and felt like it was my next book.
Option #2: Work on a novel that I probably started in 2005 and then stopped after getting a contract for Hijas Americanas.
Option #3: Start a collection of essays about motherhood/daughterhood (yeah, I know that’s not a word but I am taking poetic license).
What I hadn’t realized when I was applying, though, was how stunted my writing and creativity have been since my mother’s death. In many ways, I am still in a place of deep grief and reflecting, and writing, for me, is a process of discovering what I know deep down within. What I knew about me and the world was altered a year ago, and I am not quite sure that I know anything new yet or have fully synthesized the things that I used to know through this new lens. When this occurred to me, I realized that this retreat would be an especially interesting challenge and one that would require me to make way before way had been made within me. Because I just wanted to practice writing again, I wanted to see if I could string one word with another and have them MEAN something, mean something worth investing in, I decided that I would work on the novel. It felt, on the surface, like the most emotionally safe thing for beginning again.
And then I got to Wild Acres, unpacked my little cabin, and started rereading the novel and what I remembered was that the main character had lost her mother to cancer. Life imitating art indeed. It’s funny how life knows what to do.
My residency was Monday to Sunday, and it came during a week of downpours, and so I spent every morning and afternoon just working away in my cabin with a daily word goal of at least 2500 new words, at least 10 new pages written.
Each day, I would start by reading and editing what I had written before, plotting out what I thought would happen that day or points I wanted to make, and then writing word after word until I reached my goal. It wasn’t effortless, but I did it over and over again. If I reached my goal early, I read. And then each night, I would make the journey up the mountain to the retreat center (sometimes by foot on a hiking trail, sometimes by car, depending on the weather) for dinner with the gracious Wild Acres staff and the two other artist residents for the week- Cynthia Lee, an incredible potter specializing in hand builds and Rachel Pollock, a fiercely creative writer, professor, and costume designer. Cynthia and Rachel were wonderful company, and I found their work so inspiring. Sometimes while I was up the mountain for dinner, I would check email or text messages (there was no signal down in the cabin), but, mostly, I tried to just focus on my writing that week. On Saturday, with our self-imposed writing expectations met, Rachel and I ventured into Little Switzerland for a delicious lunch and a stroll through a little gallery.
The gift of that week was incredible, and I am really so humbled that Wild Acres offered me this opportunity. What they give artists is beyond a gift; for me, it was breath and air, a way back into me when that route has felt both so very far away and rugged.
“I just stopped to tell Anna,” I say. “I am running home to Charlotte to clean up my classroom and get clothes and then I’ll be in Atlanta for a while.”
“Anna,” he says, and it occurs to me that he thought I had stopped at the pub to see him, to tell him. And, maybe, I did, but I don’t really know and now I can see him trying to repackage this in a way that isn’t too much for me but still true to him.
“Listen,” he says and his hands fall to mine, gently holding them. “I know this is a whole lot for you to deal with and I want you to know that it’s not too much for me. I am here for whatever you need. I can be in Atlanta in an hour. It’s not exactly the best timing, I know, but I loved Sunday and I would like nothing more than to string together even more days like Sunday with you.”
Overwhelmed with his words, with his intentions, I nod. And, yet, I don’t have any hypothetical Sundays to give him right now. I have a little brother who I have long neglected who needs me to show up this time and, truth be told, I am terrified that when I finally show up for him it will be for his death and the idea of that is wrecking and consuming me.
“Yeah, cancer never really has the best timing, does it?” I say, and my joke falls flat.
His face registers something, and I see his features change with that realization.
He hugs me one more time and then gives me a final pat on the back before saying, “You be sweet, Cami Cruz. You have my number if you need me, if you need anything at all.”
And though I want to explain myself, though I want to find words to keep this from being the end of us, though I want to tell him to just let me get to the other side of this cancer and then maybe I can figure out how to make room for him not just in my life but in my heart, what I know deep down inside is what I already knew on Sunday. Justin Sawyer is capable of reading every single one of my fault lines and to be known like that is a reality that I cannot bear.