The most intensely focused part of any low-residency MFA creative writing program is its residency. Far-flung faculty and students gathered together under one roof for dawn to post-dinner meetings, lectures, readings, and workshops—not to mention the poker and basketball games, late-night tarot sessions, dance parties, and all of those long literary conversations in the Library Bar. Meals are prepared, sheets and towels are changed, and personal obligations are put on hold while the rarefied world of residency convinces us that we were put on this earth to write, rather than trifle with the trappings of day-to-day existence.
The writer’s residencies that exist in the world at large are even bigger and better than an academic residency. More time to write. Exotic or remote and relaxing locales. None of those pesky meetings with mentors. No lecture summaries. Some offer three meals a day prepared by real chefs. There are meditation sessions, tea and coffee at the ready, massage therapists, and esteemed colleagues.
I wrote most of my MFA thesis at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, and as an Auvillar Fellow in the south of France. At my last month-long residency at the Virginia Center, I drafted seven short stories. Not a remarkable feat since I could sleep until I awoke naturally between 6:00 and 7:00, then go downstairs to the dining room for my fresh fruit, eggs, and coffee. Cozily ensconced in my writer’s studio, I’d meditate in the overstuffed chair, then cross the room to my desk where I’d begin jotting down notes and shuffling my index cards notes around until a story took shape. There were walks in the woods and swimming when I needed a break. And at the VCCA, each studio is also furnished with a bed in the event that a creative ecstasy brings on an exhausted collapse that requires a nap. Familial obligations, jobs, plumbers, appliance repairmen, divorce mediations, and domestic duties do not exist at writer’s residencies.
In the real world we have an endless stream of legitimate reasons and lame excuses to not write. Funerals, weddings, birthday parties. Sick children. Injured pets. Infirm parents. Jobs that devour our time. Spice drawers that need alphabetizing and closets that must be cleaned right now.
I began writing at the age of 49, and while you might think it should have been painfully obvious that much of my life had ticked away, it wasn’t. Focusing on anything for me requires…..well….focusing—and where was I? Yeah, in my non-residency writing life, I wasn’t much of a writer.
About a year ago, I moved my 89-year-old mother in with me. She’s forgotten how to cook and doesn’t drive. She talks to herself most of the day, and at night shouts in her sleep. Writing became more and more of a refuge for me, and maybe I became a little more respectful of the passage of time. Last week my boyfriend moved into my house as he recovers from surgery that removed a portion of his lung as well as the cancerous mass that was lodged there. He can’t drive either and is prohibited from lifting anything heavier than a phone book.
A few months ago, I finally began polishing those stories I wrote first drafts of in Virginia. The recent days that I spent at my boyfriend’s bedside in the hospital were a writing marathon. Tonight as I sit on my couch next to my 20-year-old cat, I can hear the click and hum of my mother’s oxygen machine and the creak of the bed upstairs as that man I love tosses and turns waiting for the pain pills to carry him off to sleep. Right here, right now this just might be the best writer’s residency of my life.