22
Mar 14

What Did You Do On Your Residency? I Sat And I Stared: A Lesson from Seinfeld

The writing process is notoriously mysterious and hard to describe, especially when one is in it. Writers are used to having to prove to people that they actually work, even though what they do doesn’t look a lot like work, or a lot like anything. Case in point: I’m coming up on the last week of my residency at the Vermont Studio Center. What did I do while I was here? It probably doesn’t look like much. The question reminds me of that Seinfeld scene where Elaine describes doing nothing.

JERRY: So what did you do last night?

ELAINE: Nothing.

JERRY: No, I know nothing, but what did you actually do?

ELAINE: Literally nothing. I sat in a chair and I stared.

JERRY: Wow, that really is nothing.

ELAINE: I told ya.

IMG_4090Most days of the residency involved walking from one building to another, eating food, talking to people, but most of the time just sitting and staring: out the window, at a book, at the computer, in my notebook. Today, for example, I wasn’t expecting much. Like every other day, I showed up at the writing studio really hoping I’d come up with something to write about. Then I decided to spend the morning avoiding writing, by doing some administrative work for my literary journal. This was a useful distraction––I got some things done, which felt good, but it had nothing to do with my writing.

Then when I was ready to really work, I picked up the photocopy of William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, which I had decided at some point was going to inspire me. I waded through some beautiful sections, some confusing parts, and then landed on something that made me stop. The sentence spoke to a difficulty I was having in moving forward and more deeply into my poetry collection. Something about the sentence made me put down the photocopy, pick up my notebook, and write. And then I wrote something that really surprised me––that felt new and exciting. It was probably the thing I’d hoped would happen, but not at all the words I would have expected to come out.

You can’t ever know what will happen.

And I know people say this a lot, but you really have to show up. And showing up is brave. I totally dread approaching my work sometimes cause I think I have nothing to say or it’s not going to be great. But I surprise myself over and over. I’ve seen that happen during the residency, where my job has been to show up. I’ve learned that if you sit and stare long enough nothing will become something. So what did I do on my residency? Nothing. And everything. And I even have some poems to prove it.


16
Mar 14

In the Middle of It: Notes from Vermont

IMG_4100I’m on the other side of the Ides of March, post-Purim (the holiday of reversals), and inhabiting another side of myself. I am two weeks into my first writing residency, with two weeks to go. The first week here at the Vermont Studio Center was long and deep. I started writing immediately on the first day (even at the airport on the way from Philadelphia), and kept up a good pace for the first few days. The experience has been a big adjustment, an inversion of my everyday life at home, where there’s always something else to do other than focus on my poetry. Here poetry comes first, and that’s thrilling and frightening.

I enter my writing studio after breakfast and I expect to just walk straight into the deepest parts of myself. Eileen Myles was a visiting writer here the first week and talked about the writing process as similar to when a dog circles and circles trying to find the perfect position in which to get comfortable. That’s how I feel when I walk into the studio. I pace, move books around, fill my water bottle. Finally I sit down in the velvet green armchair by the window overlooking the frozen lake. I stare out the window and start to feel my mind move. Sometimes I fall asleep. Sometimes I pick up a book and read and a sentence injects itself in me and I grab my journal and start a new poem. I get up for lunch. I return. I go to yoga or to chop vegetables for my kitchen duty. I eat dinner, return to the studio at night.

I have moments where I’m worried I haven’t written enough each day––that old capitalist impulse toward mass production. But artistic production is much wider and deeper; poems don’t take shape on an assembly line. They inhabit the moments in between the actual writing of poems. It’s true that you have to show up for the muse. You have to treat the process as primary, as the first thing you’re responsible for. So that even when you’re not writing, the poems brew. You learn to be gentle with them. You learn to be okay with just sitting there for a while. The longer you do it the more normal it feels, and like animals, the poems begin to feel more comfortable emerging from the underground.

It’s kind of painful at first to transition to this way of working––you’re afraid you won’t make anything good, that you’re wasting time. You want to go home, be with your partner, go to a party, watch a movie. But the poems are spirit animals walking alongside you, sometimes going off on their own, but always returning. You have to feed them. You have to make it your full-time job.