The Horrific Joy of No One to Blame

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In the car, nearing Vermont, someone asked me how I felt. Like I’ve been wandering in the desert, I thought. But am about to drink water.

Dramatic, I know, but this was no exaggeration. For months I’d felt besieged by my own Constant Life Activity, each day an over-stuffed schedule of hosting, greeting, emailing, planning, talking, working, commuting, responding, reacting. And little writing.

To relax, I’d listen to horrific news updates while brushing my teeth. I caught up on podcasts while biking to work, thanks to special sweatproof headphones. I couldn’t stand to go unstimulated for more than twenty seconds. I even put a speaker in my shower, stuck to the tile with a giant plastic suction.

Meanwhile, I was trying to write a short story, about a mansion on a beach that gets swallowed by the ocean. (A coincidence? Likely no.) It was fine. “Pretty and dead,” as a friend described it. She was right, but I couldn’t seem to fix it, and the process itself also felt laborious, like dragging a boulder-filled wagon with square-shaped wheels.

My life is too busy! I wrote in my journal. Too much noise everywhere that I turn. Other people I decided were my problem, with their constant needs and prattle.

So when I received a generous ALSCW fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center, I thought all my troubles were over. Far away and surrounded by forests, I knew that VSC would free me from my annoying activities. No need to cook. No grocery-shopping. No commuting. No cleaning. Thanks to the ALSCW, there would finally be no job. No email, news alerts, messages, texts, tweets, podcasts, TV, Facebook, and reminders to muddy my inner genius.

Indulgently, I set up my studio. Unpacked my books and lined up my colored pens in an arrangement worthy of Instagram. Smoothed a sheet of fresh, creamy paper. Cracked my knuckles. Raised my pen.

But guess what? Nothing happened.

I waited for vibrant words to pour out of me. But they were just like back home: pretty and dead.

I was terrified. Suddenly I wanted to get out of there, and fast. My skin itched to check my email. My pretty desk became a pile of wayward scribbles on corners of paper. Apple cores littered the carpet. And hair that I frustratingly yanked from my own head.

Finally I had the quiet, the distance, the room of my own. So why the hell was the writing still so hard? “Take your life in your own hands and what happens?” writes Erica Jong. “A terrible thing: no one to blame.”

I stared out the window, begging for distraction—a lawnmower? People gossiping? A plane overhead? Hello?

But there was only the bubbling river. The white sky. An occasional branch of thin leaves, shuddering in the wind.

I realized, with anguish, that “other people” weren’t actually my problem. My problem was a lack of solitude, which was of my own making. Yes, I could rid all the noise and find some peace. But I’d forgotten how to be truly comfortable in that peace.

Without options, I gave in. I brushed my teeth in silence. Showered only to the sounds of pummeling water and soapy lather. But soon none of this “silence” sounded silent at all, my mind suddenly blooming with ideas for my fiction. I started noticing—quite naturally—the potency of the world around me. Houdini, the local cat, mewing over a bloodied chipmunk. Warm butter pooled in a dish of scrambled eggs. An ink-smudged thumb. An unsettling breeze. And the trees all over campus were suddenly very loud, each with her own distinctive personality.

At night, when tired, I didn’t collapse on the couch with a beer. I didn’t listen to podcasts or surf the web until bedtime. Instead I returned to my studio, and learned—very slowly—to find my “rest” on the page.

Ironically, the writing happened when it was no longer a feat to do so. Simply returning to my art—habitually, unremarkably—was what produced any magic I found. Over time, it actually became easier to write than not to write. No longer was I hauling boulders up a mountain; instead it felt like water, rushing from an unblocked gorge.

While at VSC I completed two story drafts, one chapter of a novel, and three flash fiction pieces, which were published before the bus ride home. I wrote about the flood-swallowed mansion, but also a delusional father, and an old woman who loves her job at Pizza Hut. All of this is because VSC creates ideal conditions for artists to succeed—in fact, when you here, it is hard not to succeed.

I give to the ALSCW my humblest gratitude and thanks. To be at VSC is to glimpse another world, where a person is valued not for her salary or worldly status, but for her creativity, honesty, vulnerability, and generosity. I hope that the art I’ve made here will reflect this vital ethos, back into the “regular” world to which I now travel.