Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Masha Hamilton's Guest Post: Love Song To Artists’ Colonies

I’ve only twice been able to organize my life in such a way that allowed me to drop out of it for a month, but both times have resulted in astounding and memorable experiences. One, I’m convinced, directly impacted the way my latest novel, 31 Hours, turned out. The two colonies I’ve visited are Yaddo and Blue Mountain Center, both in New York State, easily reachable from my Brooklyn home. (We don’t own a car: I want a place I can reach by Amtrak.)

Yaddo, right outside Saratoga Springs, was my first colony experience. For those who don’t know, when accepted to a colony, you go free of charge and you receive a room, three meals a day, and privacy to work. In the case of Yaddo, they also gave me $1,000 toward childcare for my three kids while I was gone. The evenings tend to be communal, with a shared dinner and activities that invariably arise afterwards. But the days are loaded with silence and privacy.

Just being at Yaddo was an amazing gift. Collectively, the artists who have spent time at Yaddo have won 61 Pulitzer Prizes, 56 National Book Awards, 22 National Book Critics Circle Awards and a Nobel Prize. I felt completely humbled, but determined. I got about six months worth of work done in that single month. So that’s one way artists’ colonies impact novels: they allow them to get finished!

Yaddo (named by one of the children to rhyme with “shadow,” as the story goes) was founded in 1900 by Katrina Trask, herself a Brooklyn-born poet, and her husband, financier Spencer Trask . The couple lost all four of their children in infancy or childhood, so decided to turn the estate into a retreat for artists. Spencer died in a train accident on New Year’s Eve 1909. Katrina died in 1922 and is buried on the grounds.

So of course, Yaddo is haunted. But in a good way. Every day, when I got to a sticking point in my work, I went into the magnificent piano room to keep writing, taking a yellow pad with me. After an hour or two of working by hand, I would return to my room and laptop. On my way out of the room, I would pause briefly before one of several life-sized paintings of Katrina in the mansion, her curls piled atop her head. “Thank you,” I would whisper. One day, a vase in front of the painting trembled audibly. I could never make it happen again; It was, I’m convinced, Katrina saying: “You’re welcome.” That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

I have other Yaddo stories—one about a flying squirrel, another about a Ouija board—but I’ll save them for some other blog.

A few years later, I went to Blue Mountain Center, in the Adirondacks. Blue Mountain is very strict: no cellphones allowed, and the only Internet connection is in a musty basement room underneath the kitchen – they want you to forego the distractions of your daily life, find harmony and focus on work. I went with only a few pages written of 31 Hours and while there, I wrote the entire first draft.

I needed to be away from my home, in a small room overlooking the nonjudgmental Blue Mountain Lake, I believe, in order to write the first draft of 31 Hours. In that room for those four weeks, I lived and breathed the story that was revealing itself to me. I wrote letters to the characters, argued with them, found myself struggling with tears and nightmares as I wrote about their lives. I don’t think I could have submerged myself that deeply into the story at home, given the demands of regular life.

I also believe completing that initial draft in one rush of 28 days contributed to the driving pacing of the story—a pace I believe necessary in this case, part of the story’s “voice”—and that it would have turned out differently I’d written that draft over many weeks and days.

Thank you, Yaddo. Thank you, Blue Mountain. And for any writer whose story is pressing against them, but who cannot find the time in between the distractions of daily life, consider the colony.

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