I’m home.  Sitting in front of the fire with a cup of tea on a raw Sunday afternoon, I’m feeling good about how I’m handling my Post-residency Stress Syndrome.  I was prepared for it, having read an article in a recent issue of Poets & Writers magazine about how hard the transition can be from the wonderfully creative and nourishing space of a residency center back to every day life.

A key point of the article is to plan how to “keep the momentum and sense of creative freedom you had at the colony.”  Vermont Studio Center has an abundance of creative freedom, which was evident at every visiting artist, sculpture and painter slide show and reading, and the slide shows and readings by residents.  The range of writing projects included free verse poetry and sonnets, novels, a book on the sound rhythms of everyday life, a book on Tibetan Buddhism, short stories, a book on food allergies, a few of us working on memoirs.  One woman was translating essays by the Austrian writer Robert Musil.  One writer was on an “emergency residency” to try to catch up to an approaching contract deadline for a novel; another was preparing publicity text and related essays for a memoir that will be published later this year, a memoir she wrote during multiple residencies over the past ten years.

And I can’t even begin to describe the diversity of the projects of the visual artists, from representational oil painting to tiny tempura paintings of single eyes and lips on individual ivory piano keys to closets constructed for an installation and filled with hanging extension cords and ropes and large empty aluminum cans and antique green ginger ale bottles.

But the most precious part of the residency was the time for my own project and how much momentum I built in focusing on my memoir.  I wanted to come home with the book fully occupying my mind, and I did.  Can I keep it up?

I have a solid plan for structured and dedicated writing time that I’ve stuck to so far.  Yes, it’s only been a couple of days, but I’m hopeful.  Instead of structuring my days around time in my studio and getting to meals, as I did in Vermont, I’ll structure my days around going into my study, shutting the doors and turning off the internet, for at least two hours at a time, at least five times a week.  And that’s just 10 of the hours a week I’m planning to devote to writing, and reading that nourishes the writing.  That total is going to be 20. And if I routinely exceed that minimum, which I hope to do, I’ll up it.

I came home from Vermont in the middle of writing a book.  Now it’s just a matter of getting from the middle to the end.


Word Count


The memoir manuscript is currently at 101,800 words, though I already know a lot of those will be coming out once I get to the serious editing phase.  My word count of new writing each day over the past weeks, on days I’ve written rather than cutting and pasting what I’d already written before I came to Vermont Studio Center, and taking notes on that writing and then coloring those notes, has been 1,510, 2,508, 1,555, 1,017, 2,561, 2,034, 1,606, and 1,657.  I’m already at 2,153 today and there’s more to come. There’s a particularly painful passage in this story that I’ve been reading about in my journals and saved emails for several days now, and I want it out of my head and on to the page.  Today I care more about getting past this part of the book than I do about the word count.  But I’ll still record it.

Does this seem a bit obsessive, to be counting how many words I write a day?  I’m not alone, and that’s one of the wonderful things about being at a writing residency.  Over lunch yesterday I talked with another writer about how much we both like boxes.  She’s writing a novel in boxes.  I told her about the boxes of poems in The Truth About Death, my obsession with shaping the poems on the page to look like containers for the grief and disorientation I was pouring into them.

Then at dinner I sat with two other writers and we started sharing word counts.  One is writing a novel, another a nonfiction book.  Could we all cram another 500 words in during the hour we had between dinner and the poetry reading last night?  We did, and in fact we all went over.

Besides counting words, I’m counting the days I have left here.  Two after today. We’re all counting in some way, and we know we’re among others who count and keep track or let go and lose track.  Wherever our creative process takes us, we follow.  At least while we’re here.  That’s why we came.

Coloring A Book


When I was at Vermont Studio Center in 2007 putting together the manuscript of The Truth About Death I created a map to figure out what I was doing.  My mind couldn’t hold on to the 271 pages of poetry I’d brought with me to shape into a book.  I was overwhelmed and stuck.  One morning I woke up and knew what I needed to do.  I read each poem and took notes on its images and ideas.  Then I bought colored pencils and colored — light blue for any kind of water, red for the demon, gold for death, purple for birds, a deep green for trees.  I’d been inspired by all the visual artists at VSC and understood that engaging the right side of my brain more directly would help me figure out how to shape my book.

I was right.  Once I’d colored all the pages of poem notes, I hung them on my studio wall and started drawing connections between the poems, relying on the colors to lead me to poems that would hold together in layers across the book.  It worked.  And it was fun.

So I’m doing it again.  I’m coloring.  I’ve taken notes on all the different pieces of the story I’m trying to make into a book and colored the notes according to a color key: Eric is Ice Blue, David is Vermillion, Dark Green is Anxiety/Secrets/Impatience, Blue Violet is Grief and Wildness, Time is Bluish Grey, Poetry is Orange, Love is Bordeaux Red.  I’m looking for balance — is there enough about each thread of the story I’m knitting together?  Too much grief, too little anxiety?

I put the colored notes up on the bulletin board in my studio and studied the colors. Then I started making a timeline map on a big piece of paper hanging on the wall, using the same color code to write out scenes and themes.   As I was putting the colored pencils back in their box I realized I could measure the balance of what’s going on in the book by their relative size.  The pencils I was using the most were smaller,  a natural graph. So far there’s an equal amount of grief and love in the book, a good sign I think.



David and I get ready to go cross country skiing on the community trails a few miles from Vermont Studio Center.  Except now he realizes he forgot to pack his ski boots. He also didn’t bring his micro-spikes for walking on packed snow trails. We study the walking maps VSC provides and decide to snowshoe on the Long Trail where it crosses through Johnson.  We get to what we hope is the trail head (the hand drawn map is completely out of scale and hard to connect to where we are) and I realize I’ve left my snowshoes in my car back at VSC.  And I don’t have my hat and mittens. Luckily an extra hat and mittens are things David did pack and they’re in his car.  I put on my micro-spikes, because at least I have those.  David puts on his snowshoes.

We follow what we think is the trail, but we never see any white blazes, which mark the Long Trail, and eventually turn around.  We try a different direction on the packed road into the woods and find another parking area.  This time we find white blazes and head uphill, to what we hope will be Prospect Rock.  The map says it has a great view.

It does.  In fact, it’s a 180 degree view, so that hiking intention for March is now met.  It feels good to get something intentional done.  The Green Mountains rise up across the wide valley of the Lamoille River.  It’s sunny and warmer than it’s been for a very long time and we drink in the hint of spring.

We’ve been talking about the book I’m trying to pull into some kind of shape, and some of what’s been confusing and hard to grasp is coming into focus.  From the distance of six years, the disorienting time I’m writing about makes more sense.   How our decisions and reactions and responses to deeply felt needs and answers to those needs affected all that rippled out from that passage in our lives is clear in a way it hasn’t been before.

Spending four weeks away from home, navigating the dislocation of sleeping in one room, writing in a studio a few minutes walk away, eating in a separate building where meals include talking to what start out as 60 strangers and become a new family, figuring out where to keep my computer and books and snacks and journal and boots and toothpaste starts to feel more worth it, because it’s putting me in a place of concentrated focus on this book I’ve been carrying around as a huge intention for years.  Is this an intention I’ll start to meet more fully?  I’ve figured out where to keep my toothbrush, so the work is bound to go more smoothly now.  Right?

When David and I get back to the car, I find my hat and mittens.  They were in a bag in the back seat.

A Map to Where?


A cup of moon hung above the Maverick writing studios last night, a faint outline of its whole self filling the crescent, a pale circle hovering.  The Gihon River is a long, broad ribbon of snow between its banks, the only water bubbling through at the falls that drop past the old mill, steaming in the frigid morning air.  Bushes along the road have long spikes of red branches, blushed with new sap, though spring seems far away here where I’m waking to morning temperatures well below zero.  Vases hold twigs throughout the Red Mill building, the tips breaking out green, flowers enough for March.

An image strikes me, turns into language in my mind, I need to write it down.  This has been happening to me for as long as I can remember.  It’s why I’ve come to Vermont Studio Center for the month of March, to try to organize some of what has come out of this compulsion over the past seven years.  I was here in the summer of 2007, putting together the manuscript of The Truth About Death.  There are two more books stewing around in my brain and I’m here to try to make a shape that can hold the words that might be in those books, to figure out what those words should be.

Yesterday, my first full day here, I managed to stay off the internet most of the day and began reading and trying to organize the memoir I first started writing in 2008.  I spent much of the morning talking myself out of abandoning the whole thing.  Today I finished reading what I’ve written so far of the memoir and completed the notes I hope will help me map the book. But where will that map lead?  And do I want to go there?

Today at lunch I talked to other writers and artists who are also just beginning their months here, and found lots of encouragement to keep muddling along, to give myself time to get used to giving myself time.  I’ve given myself four weeks here to write.  Four weeks!  No wonder I’m terrified.