Freud famously said, “Love and work — that’s all there is.” Rachel Donadio’s essay, “What I Did at Summer Writer’s Camp,” in today’s New York Times Book Review, explores two of the U.S.’s most famous artists’ colonies, Yaddo and MacDowell, pointing out that love and work are alive, well, and abundant at both.
In her essay, Donadio repeats the popular saying that the sex is better at Yaddo but the work better at MacDowell, and she interviews writers from Alice Sebold to Michael Chabon to Jeffrey Eugenides about what really goes on at the colonies. It’s an interesting piece for anyone who’s ever been to such a retreat as well as for anyone who’s ever thought about applying.
Having never been, over the years I’ve thought many times about applying to one of the myriad retreats available to writers. I’ve heard a lot about them (mostly that a lot more loving than working actually happens). And I have yet to send in an application. Sometimes it’s due to scheduling, a daunting application process, already being happily married, or, in one case, the fact that the location was so remote that I’d have needed to bring my own power saw in case a tree fell and stranded me from the main road.
The main reason I have never applied, though, is that I’ve become so used to being a working writer — that is, a writer with a day job — that I’m not sure how productive I’d be if I had two weeks or a month with nothing to do but write. My writing process has become all about fitting it in when I can, and sometimes it’s the lack of time that makes me the most productive. Donadio’s essay touches on this, with one writer saying that all that free time at the colony evoked in her an “exsistential terror.” Other writers simply report sleeping a lot.
What I do try to do sometimes, and what I recommend to others who can’t get away for long periods of time, is to create a retreat of one’s own. This is similar to what Julia Cameron calls the Artist’s Date. What Cameron means is to take yourself out and enjoy some play time or leisure time. But if writing is what you need to do, set aside a day and go to the library, or the beach, or a coffee shop — somewhere you can write all day, uninterrupted by phone, family, or work. Or ask your partner to make him/herself scarce for the day, and to take the pets and kids along, leaving you with a quiet space to write. (Better have him/her take the remote control, too.)
Great work can be done anywhere; you don’t need an artists’ colony to write. However, it’s still worth looking into. As the essay points out, of the many advantages of places like Yaddo and MacDowell, with all that sex and creativity in the air, returning home with good material is one of them.