Typewriter in the woods
The sound of a typewriter coming through the thin walls of the old lodge wakes me. Then it's chirping birds, rustling wind, and the smell of frying pancakes as I look out at the secluded lake and blue-tinged mountains, grateful for one more day in the Adirondacks. Far from the hustle of New York or Boston, the entire day here is mine for writing, unless I decide to take a swim, canoe across the lake, or meet someone for a late afternoon tennis game. I'm a guest at Blue Mountain Center, one of a dozen or so artists' colonies in the United States where writers, composers, and visual and performance artists can pursue their work in a communal setting, undisturbed by interruptions.
For 10 years I've been spending at least a month each year at one of these retreats. Solitude, freedom from domestic chores, the stimulation of other working artists and scholars, and the freshness of the environment combine to create periods of unsurpassed productivity for me. The unique atmosphere of the colony itself often colors the work: the snakes, wild boars, and Creek Indian legacy of Ossabaw Island off the Georgia coast (now closed owing to lack of funds), the excitement of the race track next to Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, N. Y., or the antebellum legacy of the South at the Virginia Center for the Arts at Sweet Briar, or the rebellious committed spirit of Edna St. Vincent Millay at Steepletop in the Berkshires.
These retreats, funded by family endowments, grants, and gifts, are rewards for our efforts. You're likely to meet writers and artists unfamiliar to readers of the New York Times Book Review or visitors to the Museum of Modern Art. For many of us, struggling with small incomes and no limelight, these centers are a reward. The free room and board or small fees offset the frustrations so common to our lives. When the selection committee offers you a residency, its affirmation gives you hope that you'll find an audience. Certainly we're not all unknowns. An established writer might be sitting next to you at dinner, one whose work you've admired for years, like Doris Grumbach at Yaddo or W. D. Snodgrass in Virginia. Colonies are democracies; there's no pecking order based on fame. Our food and our quarters are roughly equal, and though there's no schedule, only a rule against socializing before 4 p.m., important friendships can be made; established people often provide informal advice for those on their way.
Over dinner at Blue Mountain Center, John describes the masks he's made, part of a sculptural piece on the theme of ''commemoration,'' inspired by his recent trip to Nicaragua. Ren tells an anecdote about the neurologist, Oliver Sacks, who is the subject of his current biography. Lloyd and Kathy, both poets, reminisce about running workshops in the public schools. ''Poet?'' the kids say suspiciously.
''I spend the first session having them write Arabic curses.'May your enemy shrink to the size of an ant and crawl into his ant hole.' They all get involved , even the meanest, toughest rebels.''
''Volleyball?'' someone asks as dinner is being cleared away, and soon a dozen of the twenty residents gather outdoors for a spirited game with much cheering and booing, working off the great meal of roast beef, au gratin potatoes, salad and pineapple, whipped cream cake. After dinner, some will return to their rooms to look over the day's work, or write one more line inspired by a thought at dinner. Others will gather in the living room to listen to the first draft of Jill's new story. I make myself a cup of tea from the hot water urn that's never turned off and carry it up three flights to my third floor quarters. Tiny bugs sneak through the screens, landing on my page as I read, the only flaw in an otherwise perfect atmosphere. I pile the red-lined, marked-up pages near my typewriter so they'll be ready for morning. At last count I had 84 pages of a new novel, 84 more than when I arrived here in June.