Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Ghost of Sylvia Plath, & Other Perks of an Artist Residency

Before I started applying to artist residencies, I pooh-poohed the idea a little bit. I had always managed to write at home, thank you very much. By the time I was leaving for my first residency, in the winter of 2007, my reluctance had ballooned, due to the story a fellow writer had told me about the very place I was going to, where he had had a run-in with the ghost of Sylvia Plath. She woke him in the middle of the night with a creaky metal cart she steered down the hall. Then she opened the door to his bedroom, rolled the cart to his bedside, and flourished a piece of paper, on which was written—unfortunately he couldn’t tell, being too stunned and flummoxed to reach for his glasses.

Imagine my dismay when, on my tour of the place, my guide told me that I, lucky girl, had been assigned the room where Sylvia had always liked to sleep when she was a resident, and where, so the legend goes, a drunk Katherine Anne Porter once fell across the threshold begging Sylvia—or was it Anne Sexton? I was drunk, myself, when another resident told me this story—to make love to her. I was frightened of all of it, and slept my first night with the lamp on.

But Sylvia, it turned out, was awesome, as was the residency itself, and the one I’ve done since. I love residencies. It turns out, for me, anyway, that not only do I get more work done at a residency, but it goes rather more peacefully—due in large part to the fact that you can call writing “work” and not suffer the snickering and censure of family and friends, for whom “work” is something one makes money at; even winning a fellowship or grant is easily confused with going on the dole. Another perk of going to artist residencies is interacting with that wonderful, completely alien creature, the visual artist. It’s true that sometimes you’ll find yourself organizing an artist statement for free (and boy, do they need it!), and they can’t remember anything worth shit (in particular the detailed plots of books and the exact wording of trivial conversations), but the way they work (overall I find them to be more freewheeling and confident), and see the world (in terms of color and shape, rather than in gradations of misery), is inspiring, and can smack a girl right out of her confining writerly shell. You’ll find covers for your current and future books (it’s still going to happen, Katia!), and get invited to fun arty events that are more like real parties than any reading you’ve ever been to. Quite often, I’ve also found them to be good dancers. I’m dating one now!

Residencies are a bit like camp for adults, and like camps they all have their special areas of excellence. For instance, as Rachel Donadio said in The New York Times, “The sex is better at Yaddo but the work is better at MacDowell.”

And the ghosts! One of my last days at my first residency, I was taking a nap before dinner (which they prepare, and serve to you; you don’t even have to do the dishes. This isn’t welfare, it’s a hotel!), feeling warm and sad over the leaving of one of my new friends, when, just as I opened my eyes, a woman’s voice, tender and a little amused, softly called out my name. “Sylvia,” I responded into the dark, and I was so unafraid, but at the same time so overcome by emotion, that I cried a little where I lay in my bed.

(Right before I left for dinner that night, Sylvia also turned my desk lamp on and off a few times, until I admonished her with teasing affection—“Sylvia!” It must be noted that it’s possible this was actually some kind of short circuit, as an enormous ice storm had recently messed with the electrical system.)

A few days into my residency, after I’d gotten over being afraid of her, I had started to talk out loud to Sylvia, one of my literary heroes, and ask her advice: “Is this a good way to begin? Can I really leave the ending as sad as that? What do you think, Sylvia?” And here she had come, right before I had to go, to help me feel that I was on the right track, and that everything would be all right.

No comments: