I've been here at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for four days, more than halfway through my allotted time, so I have a better sense of the place to share with you.
(Normally residencies are two weeks to a month, but I asked for a week (have a trip to the UK in the late summer and limited vacation time). So if a week is too short, in your mind, you can have longer.)
No place is perfect, so I'll tell you what I liked about VCCA, and what doesn't work for me. You decide for yourself whether you might want to apply.
I had a little trouble finding the place because there are about six different Route 29s out here, including a business route - they weave together in a very confusing manner and the signage doesn't quite do the trick. I went to Hollins University for my MA in creative writing, so the wiliness of Virginia backroads is not new to me (Maryland has them too). This and a couple of other directions issues (the turn for 6 East comes about 5 miles after the turn for 6 West - how that works is beyond me. I kept turning around thinking I'd missed it and stopped twice to check where it was) added an extra hour to my drive so I arrived about three p.m.
As I wound up the narrow drive, I met up the welcoming committee:
Six calves have been born recently, and on a trip out to WalMart (I needed a bit of civilization, for what's it' worth, and an electric teakettle - no kitchen in the cottage and I can't trek all the way out to the barn every time I want tea), I saw two of them. One a golden brown, the other very dark. Both playful, running along with my car as I crawled past. They then ran to press themselves against their mother.
It's very hard not to hug the cows.
I found the residence hall and picked up my packet at the mailboxes in the lobby. Inside were my keys, my room and studio assignment, a map of the campus, a handbook, and about six papers I had to fill out (could have been mailed or emailed to me to mail back prior to my visit - more efficient).
Using the map I found the cottage to the right of the residence hall and hauled my suitcase, etc. down. The building is quite charming:
My studio is on the left.
I let myself in and stood, a bit perplexed, in the foyer. To my right was a door marked A, in front of me a door marked B. Between the two a flight of stairs.
I had the B key so I unlocked that door, thinking it was my room. It wasn't. It was my studio. No bed. No bathroom. Hmm.
The source of my confusion was the room and studio assignment on my sheet. Both said "Cottage B." I thought this meant my room was also my studio. Odd, but okay. I could live with that, since the cottage seemed like it would be quiet. I thought there were two other rooms/studios upstairs (see the windows at the top in the picture), or that the cottage was divided in half, like a condo, with the studio on the bottom and the room on the top. It sounds simple, and I don't know why I didn't get it, but I didn't. I would have taken the stairs up to see if the bedroom and bath were up there, but I heard voices up there and thought maybe the whole top floor was a studio and didn't want to make a fool out of myself by walking into someone else's living/working space.
So I called the office. They told me my bedroom was indeed upstairs. I'm sure they thought I was an idiot, but not knowing the layout of the house, I didn't want to make the wrong choice. All would have been easily fixed by adding a brief description to the assignment sheet, explaining the studio and bedroom arrangement. So if you come here and get the cottage, now you know.
The studio is terrific - just big enough and I love the layout:
I went back to the car for a few more things and on my return met my cottage-mate, Barbara, who came over to say hello. She's in her mid-fifties, I'd say, with a short bi-level hair cut and a penchant for hats. I've seen her in several, from a canvas hiking hat to a broad-brimmed white number you might wear at Easter. I dig it. She has a very expressive face, with an an enthusiastic child-like quality and a great sense of humor. She did tell me, though, that her studio had the kitchen, that the cottage used to be the VCCA offices. I wish they'd found a way to keep the kitchen separate. Ah well.
I sat down to fill out the 6 pages of paperwork, which I then walked up to the office. Surprise: there's a $20 deposit for your keys and the handbook, which was merely a 5 page color copy of the PDF you can print online (I'd done that and had a copy in my bag), clasped into one of those clear folders with the plastic spine you slide on and off, like you used to use for book reports in school.
A bit of the campups as I walked back to get some work done. Here's the residence hall from the back, and the gazebo:
I spent the afternoon and evening after dinner writing up an outline of the end of the novel I'm working on from the pages and pages of notes I had. I came to VCCA with about 80 pages left to write.
Dinner is in the residence hall, where all the other fellows are (more about that later). The tables seat about 6 people. Dinner is buffet style and the food is excellent. The chef, Sarah, is a diminutive woman. Older, very pretty, with short white, flyaway hair. She carries out huge trays to replenish the buffet so she's strong. My first night there was salmon with a mild salsa made with plenty of avocado, sweet potatoes, swiss chard, candied carrots, and salad. Dessert was pecan pie.
I'm an old hand at the 'dinner with strangers' thing. At Bread Loaf, you're told on your first night that the best thing to do is sit at a different table for every meal. If you've been to BL, you know how huge the dining room is. So following this practice isn't a problem. I did this for lunch and dinner there, as breakfast was included in the price of the room at the Chapman Inn, where I stayed instead of in the Middlebury dorms (I had an adorable room at the top of the house for an amazing price; I think $50-60/night or something; highly recommend it).
So I chose a table and said, "Hello, may I join you?" (if you're not good at this or hate it, just say that and smile. If people don't respond or smile back, that's their problem. Most do, so don't worry.)
I sat next to Cheryl, a painter, who runs the VCCA residency in France (!) half of the year, and was in Virginia for a month off to work. She's very mellow and nice, and had an edgy haircut I liked a lot. She talked about how much work the France part takes and I offered to be her assistant for room and board but that didn't seem to amuse her. Perhaps too many have offered the same and she doesn't find it funny anymore. I can't imagine being sick of running a residency in France, but I suppose you can grow tired of anything.
On my right was Carrie Brown, a novelist, who teaches at Sweet Briar College, just down the road. She lived and wrote in Maryland for a number of years, and I'd seen her interviewed for the HoCoPoLitSovideo series. She is very friendly and asks lots of questions, which is what you need when you're first meeting people at a conference or residency. You need to be willing to ask questions and get to know people (even if you have to feign interest, do it!), and vice versa.
So the first half of the dinner was very pleasant. Many at the table already knew each other from previous residencies (most of the people I discovered, had been coming back for years, which I have to admit I found a little annoying. I'm all for putting a cap on the number of visits someone can have in a certain period so that more new people can have the opportunity. Maybe it's a money thing and they don't have enough applications for that, but I've always understood VCCA to be very well thought of and competitive, so...).
The conversation slipped into that sort of 'been there, done that' tone people have when they are over the bright and shiny newness of something. A catch up about past fellows and where they are now who I didn't know, then how most were there to revise a book for a publisher, who had published what recently, and I excused myself. I guess I'd been hoping for people to talk about their work, the process of it, the discoveries made, what they loved about their books or the poem they wrote that day, the experience of stepping outside of routine and how precious that is. Not New York City dinner party conversation.
After dinner Barbara and another woman, Ruth, gave a reading in the living room across the foyer from the dining room. Most of the fellows came so I got a look at those I hadn't sat with at dinner.
Ruth, a poet from Israel living in the U.S., wrote about place and had a very elegant and calm way of speaking and reading. I couldn't tell you anything substantive about the poems, it had just been too long of a day with too many things to adjust to, as any first day on a trip can be.
Barbara gave us a performance piece. It's a one woman show about her experience with a mentally disturbed sister who her mother clearly has always favored over her, no matter how well Barbara steps forward to help with her sister, and any time her parents need her. It's a great story, but the execution was so fragmented (she was trying out new writing and went from reading her pages to acting some out) I found it a little hard to follow. There was a lot of action on the phone, which I don't think is ever very engaging for an audience (unless you're Bob Newhart. Look him up if you're too young to know him. He's famous for his stand up about one way phone conversations. His most famous are the air traffic controller and the driving instructor. They are hilarious. Here's the air traffic controller on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour:
Granted, this was drama, not comedy, but if you're doing a phone convo, the dialogue/story has to be compelling and I'm afraid it wasn't.
Still, I respected her for getting up there and working it out in front of us! That takes courage.
Back to the studio for more work, then bed, where I killed the first of many stinkbugs. Sigh.
I made sure to step outside onto the balcony first, though, to reacquaint myself with all the stars I never see in Baltimore.
Tuesday I woke up really dizzy, fatigued, and nauseous. Don't you hate how, the minute you go on vacation you get sick? There's so much running around you have to do before you leave, anticipating every possible crisis that could happen in your absence, that you sort of collapse when you get somewhere and the body says, "Finally! A break! Now we can be sick."
Well, I wasn't having it. I got up and staggered to the bathroom to shower and dress, then went down to my studio. I turned on my computer, choked down a cup of tea. Eventually my head stopped spinning and my stomach settled.
I'd missed breakfast, which is at 7 a.m. Let me say that again: 7 a.m. Who eats that early? It's practically the middle of the night (you must know by now I don't rise early!), so by lunchtime, feeling better, I was hungry.
Lunch, the handbook said, is in the visual arts kitchen. I checked the map. No visual arts kitchen labeled. I called the office. "It's in the barn" I was told. "Where's the barn?" I asked (not on the map either). "On your map you'll see a block of buildings on the far right" I was told. "Yes," I said, "but they aren't labeled and there's no indication which of those buildings houses the visual arts kitchen." "When you walk up the hill, go straight ahead through a red door" I was told.
If I didn't think I'd lose part of my $20 deposit, I would label the map I have for the next person!
I found a back way from my cottage to the barn, a lovely road between hedges of boxwood, I believe:
Lunch is leftovers from the night before, sandwich makings, salad, fruit, and yogurt. Also all good. You'll eat well here!
A few people were sitting at the table, eating and not talking, which I didn't find inviting, and the few who came in while I made up a plate just smiled when I said hello, but didn't really talk either, so I took my plate back to the cottage.
I learned from some of the women I sat near at the reading the night before, that it's a very serious group here right now. The packet says not to be offended if people don't want to enter into a conversation and don't socialize much beyond meals, which I totally get, but how hard is it to say hello and talk for a few minutes? I'm not socializing much either - I'm here to work - but I'm making an effort to be friendly and ask people about their work while we're in the buffet line or stop a say a few words if I pass someone walking around. It's strange.
Of course, part of it is that I'm isolated in the cottage. I'm not in the residence hall so there's no casual interaction there, and I'm not in the barn, where everyone else's studios are. Barbara and I are the only ones separated at the other end of the campus. I wish I'd known this ahead of time. I would have asked for another assignment. I think you should be asked if you'd prefer that arrangement (if you come here, let them know your preference; they won't ask). Everyone else is running into each other in the hall and barn, having a chance to get to know one another. I can't sit in the visual arts kitchen in the barn hoping to run into someone to make conversation. Nor can I hover around in the living room or laundry room. So awkward!
Before you think I'm a loser or a wallflower, I'm also glad to have more quiet than those in the barn probably have (if you don't count the blaring radio from the nearby residence hall kitchen or the hundred and one pickup trucks coming and going as the staff and groundspeople do their work), so there isn't the distraction of other people to keep me from my work. And I do like the cottage itself, having my studio right here, not having to walk across a dark campus late at night back to my room.
I'm not here to leave with best friends, but I am used to meeting several people with whom I bond and keep in touch at these things, so it takes getting used to - how everyone is withdrawn into their spaces. I'm someone who needs regular breaks - for tea, for walks, for a quick chat, before I go back to work, but not everyone is like that.
And there is plenty of socializing at dinner. I've been lucky to pick tables where, aside from that first night, we've had light, fun, conversations and laughed a lot.
So, what about the work?
On Tuesday, feeling ill, and getting used to my surroundings, meant I only managed about 7 pages. A far cry from the 20 I'd planned on every day! What was I thinking? It had been a month since I'd worked on the novel and I felt like I didn't know the characters at all any more. I'd lost their voices. Well, not lost, but they were pretty far away. I had to wander around for a few hours before I caught a trace of them. Even so, it was slow going.
Wednesday I began 'the turning point' chapter, where one character tells another a serious event from his past that starts the momentum to the end of the novel. I dug through all my research and discovered that the one group of papers I needed wasn't in my bag. I'd left them home. I just sat on the couch and felt totally defeated. I always forget something, but that was the worst thing to forget.
Then I thought, trying to be optimistic, that perhaps it was for the best, and I'd find a better way of writing the chapter by doing some new research. And that is, in fact, what happened. In the end, the chapter I wrote yesterday - 17 pages, hurray! - is much richer and more complex than the one I'd had planned. It absolutely flowed without me having to do much but keep up. I wrote from 10 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. and fell into bed, exhausted, but very pleased with myself.
Late start today. I have three full days left, a couple of hours on Sunday before I head home, and all the chapters ahead are intense and crucial to the story. I now am not sure if I will finish the novel here, but if I get through the next three chapters and have only the denouement chapter to finish once home, I'll still feel great about my time here.
If you do a residency, know that it might take you a couple of days to adjust. If that happens, be patient with yourself and keep at it. Keep your butt in the chair and keep writing. Even if you throw it out the next day. It's rare to have time to just write, without having to take breaks to grocery shop, let the dog out, do the laundry, have dinner with your parents, spend time with kids and husbands and friends. For the week, weeks, or month you're in this special setting, your job is to write, which is both thrilling and terrifying. It works and it doesn't, like anything else.
If you only write 10 pages over a week, you've accomplished something. One woman, BJ, said to me at dinner the other night, "Enjoy it. Even if you don't get much done. It's important to get away and have time with your work."