SAD in the Studio

RamonaGravitarAnd on the 7th day, I got depressed.

 It’s raining as I write this post, which is a departure from my usual how to, what is, or inspirational ramblings. In the past, a rainy, cold, dark January morning would say “perfect writing day” to me. I’d have lit a candle or two and spent the day in relative darkness, writing away. Not today. A few minutes ago, I strung a length of white Christmas lights across the windowsill in front of my desk. A lamp is shining down on my keyboard. A soothing aromatherapy candle is burning on the shelf to my right. Continue reading “SAD in the Studio”

Return to Writing Camp

VCCA Blue RidgeI began this final month of 2013 by driving to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to begin a two-week residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. VCCA is a year round working artist colony that provides work time and space for writers, visual artists, and musicians. Resident artists, called Fellows, are granted a private studio, private bedrooms, meals, and the camaraderie of two dozen other Fellows who have also rearranged their home, work, and family lives to devote a few weeks to creating their art.

This was my second time as a Fellow. I chronicled my first experience at my blog here in posts called Postcards from Writing Camp, Part I and Part 2.

 My first residency was nearly two years ago. I arrived with no clear idea of what to expect. I spent my two weeks there writing in a converted chicken coop, which I fondly called The Ark. I arrived with an idea for a novel, but nothing written. I left with a lot of pages written, and a vow to return.VCCA installation path

This time, as a veteran, I had a better idea of what to expect. I packed a favorite pillow, more shoes, my own big cushy bath towel, and a coffee maker.  Every writing experience teaches me something new. This one taught me, among other things, I needed access 24/7 to a coffee maker.

The reason for the coffee is, when you are charged with doing nothing but writing 24/7, you don’t have to adhere to a 9:00 to 5:00 schedule. Although I am self-employed and work at home (sometimes in my pajamas), I stick to a schedule. This, I have learned as an adult, is how one successfully makes mortgage payments.

But at an artist colony, the schedule went kaput. The three meals in the dining room grounded me, sure, but my studio was in a self-contained cottage: two bedrooms, two studios, a shared bath. The cottage is separate from the converted barn where the other studios are situated, past the fields and the two permanent resident horses.

I was a little sad to be separated from the barn area, but the cottage had perks. I could wake up in the middle of the night in the upstairs bedroom and, quietly so I didn’t wake my cottage mate, sneak downstairs at 3:00 a.m., or 5:00 a.m., or any other a.m., and write in my studio. After about three days, it was bliss.

VCCA cottageWhy after three days? Well, I had a little problem at first. I had the opportunity to write about it in a guest post at Jordan Rosenfeld’s blog. Panic at the Artist Colony exposes a side many writers share, but don’t often discuss: feeling like a fraud. Most of the time, I’m relatively confident of what I’m doing and where I’m going as a writer, but from time to time, I’m not. This time, the uncertainty hit like a truck.

Thank you to Jordan for generously allowing me the space to write about overcoming the fraud feeling, and thank you to the writers who commented at the blog or emailed me personally about your own experiences.

We are not alone. Even in a private studio, at an artist colony in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, writers are a community.

In keeping with this theme, I returned to Delaware to the wonderful news that a collection of work created during the Delaware Division of the Arts’ 2012 Cape Henlopen Retreat is now in print! Thanks to the spectacular editorial team of Phil Linz, Maria Masington, and Beth Evans, the collection of work by 8 poets and 7 prose writers, plus introductions by our retreat mentors JoAnn Balingit and Alice Elliot Dark, was gathered and became Wanderings: Cape Henlopen 2012.


War Eagle

I am from the South—and right now, I am in the South—so from time to time, I write about football.

Unless you live in a cave, under a rock, surrounded by molten lava that messes up your Wifi connection and prevents you from logging onto Facebook, you know this past Saturday night’s Iron Bowl will go down in college football history, legend, and lore.

This post isn’t about the rivalry between Auburn and Alabama. I wrote about that once before, on the Working Stiffs blog, contemplating the poisoning of the trees at Toomer’s Corner,  and how obsession can turn criminal. It’s not about karma or hubris or getting cocky, although it could be. It’s not even about bad decisions. I teach a workshop for writers called Decisions, Decisions, the crux of which is that every mystery novel is a series of bad decisions.

Saturday night’s Iron Bowl left me with two takeaways. One was new. Another was a reminder of something I know.

The new takeaway? Auburn football fans have a battle cry: War Eagle. The etymology of this phrase is murky, so maybe that is a post for another day, but when an Auburn fan says, “War Eagle!” that means it’s time to rally up.

The reminder takeaway? Every second counts.

In about an hour, I leave for a two week residency at an artist colony in the foothills of the  Blue Ridge Mountains. This will be mVCCA-in-Snow--Studios-from-Office-Window-2-20-12-Reducedy second time at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. When I was here in February of 2012, we had a few days of snow, and I was charmed by the countryside covered in white, the horses kept warm by their blankets, the view outside the window of my studio, which I called The Ark.

This year, I don’t expect to get snow, but that’s all right. I’ve been awarded two weeks in a private studio, with no meals to prepare, no outside duties to perform, and nothing to do but write.

It’s great. It’s also terrifying. A residency is a gift. A gift is not to be wasted. Already, mixed in with my excitement and anticipation, I feel trepidation. What if I can’t write as much as I plan to write? What if what I write should be scrapped? What if I choke? What if I waste my time?

This, surely, is how the Auburn football team felt Saturday night at the start of the Iron Bowl.

I drove from Delaware yesterday to Charlottesville-where I am now-down US29. US29 is known as the Seminole Trail in some places and Lee Highway in others. Its official name, designated by the Virginia General Assembly, is the “29th Infantry Division Memorial Highway” to honor one of the Virginia Army units that landed on Omaha Beach, in Normandy, on D-Day.  The highway goes from the border of North Carolina to the Potomac River.

There’s a strong sense of place driving down US29. At stop lights, signs are posted on the roadside so you can read about Civil War sites while you wait for red to turn green. There are churches advertising Cowboy Church services, and wineries offering tours and tastings. There are bales of hay decorated like Santa Claus and, inexplicably to me, statues of cows in the middle of fields mingling with the real beasts.

I love Virginia. I’ve been to Manassas and Monticello. Both of those places are maintained as national treasures, but they also live on in words, in the Declaration of Independence and in the many novels about the Civil War. Words keep history alive.

This, of all places, seems like a good place to adopt a battle cry, and to remember something I already know: Every second counts.

The pressure is on, so off I go, with my newly adopted mantra: War Eagle!

The Hate Stare vs. The Good Citizen

Three years ago, I sat on a rock on the beach at Cape Henlopen and waited for my muse to show up. Instead, I got a surfer.

Cape Henlopen sits on the southern tip of the Delaware Bay as it juts out into the Atlantic Ocean.  Seventeen miles across the Bay is Cape May, New Jersey. There are two lighthouses on the bay side at Cape Henlopen and a World War II watchtower rises over the sand. Cape Henlopen is also a popular state park, for camping, fishing, swimming, and surfing.

I wasn’t there to enjoy any of that beach fun. I was there to write. The Delaware Division of the Arts had sponsored a Poets & Writers Retreat—eight poets and eight prose writers selected and housed at a former World War II military training center revamped and renamed the Biden Environmental Training Center.  From Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon, the sixteen participants and two group leaders were to meet for critique sessions. In our down time, we were to hunker down and write. Those were our orders: write. Don’t chit chat in the hallway. Don’t interrupt your fellows’ efforts.

I was honored to be selected. I appreciated the opportunity for three days of studied work and feedback and free, uninterrupted time to write. I had no plans to chit chat or interrupt my peers.

There was just one problem. The ambiance of “You are here to write, so go write, dammit” guaranteed I couldn’t.

I hate the term writer’s block. I’m not sure I believe it exists—or maybe I just refuse to give in to the concept. Stuck, mired, stymied, hesitant, frustrated, stumped, those are all words that describe when a piece of writing grinds. BTDT. Blocked means there is a something in your way—a physical impediment between the writer and the writing. I make a living by writing, writing about writing, and working with writers. The only thing that stands between me and my productivity is the ever ticking clock and whatever outside stuff I allow to intrude. That’s the attitude I live by, 24/7.

When I get stuck, mired, stymied, hesitant, frustrated, or stumped, I don’t stop writing. I tinker. Or write something else. Or go for a walk to clear my head.

Yes, I know I am going to get into trouble for dissing writer’s block, so I’ll add a disclaimer: But that’s just me.

That weekend at Cape Henlopen, I could not produce for two reasons:

  1. I stubbornly tried to write a piece that stubbornly wouldn’t come together.

  2. I had a bad case of Good Citizen.

I was handed this chunk of free time to write, not fiddle-dee-dee on the beach. The Good Citizen in me commanded me to produce, not…enjoy myself.

The Good Citizen has a guilt complex.

So I stared at my laptop for nearly a day, wasting that precious time and that opportunity, until I told my Good Citizen to take a hike and took myself on one. The wind was brisk so I bundled up. With the watchtower to the north and the lighthouse up ahead, past the rickety beach fence and the rock jetties splitting the water, I pulled up a cold rock and absentmindedly watched a half dozen brave/foolish surfers out on the water while begging my muse to come out to play.

I got nada.

Finally, “Hey there!” a voice said, and I jumped a foot.

I had not noticed him approach from the other side of the rocks. The surfer wore a black wet suit. He had jet black hair and pink cheeks and an adorable smile. He was adorable all over, as a matter of fact, the way a grown man looks adorable when he’s spending a weekend morning surfing in way-too-cold water. Exhilaration radiated from him.

I wanted to punch him in the face.

I’m thinking here! I wanted to cry. You think I’m sitting on a freezing black rock on the edge of the ocean on an unseasonably cold and windy October morning because it’s fun? No, you jackwagon, my butt is a Popsicle because I need to be alone to think. So, Go Away.

He came closer.

Do strangers talk to you? A three year study by someone at Yale University looked into this phenomenon. It’s an interesting study, but I think they forgot the genetic factor. Everywhere she went, my grandmother was hit up by strangers wanting to spill their life stories. Ditto with my mother. Now it’s my turn. There is no avoiding it. It’s a karmic vibe of some kind. Trust me, the vibe says. Talk to me. Tell me everything. I’ll listen…even if you are totally intruding on my personal space and time and interrupting my muse. I’ll listen.

According to the article, one deterrent is a “hate stare.” Do I need to define this? No, I didn’t think so. I would love to have a hate stare—a face I could pull on that says don’t mess with me. Don’t come sit next to me. Don’t tell me your life story.

I have no hate stare. It doesn’t jive with being a Good Citizen.

I thought I’d left my Good Citizen back at the Biden barracks, but the surfer propped his board upright against the rocks and unfastened the loopy thing around his ankle. I sighed and did what my grandmother and my mother would have done.

I listened.

When he found out why I was there, the surfer told me, hey, he wrote poetry too! But then he asked about podcasts and what did I think about the electronic publishing revolution? This was no ordinary adorable surfer. Later, when I Googled him, I discovered he was a hot-shot who’d worked for CNN and various big news outlets and was now at a philanthropic think tank in Washington DC.

But that morning on the beach, he was just someone I wanted to stop from talking to me.

Finally, he did. And when he did, guess what? My jumbled thoughts un-jumbled. My brain felt clear. I practically ran back to my room to start working.

Sometimes, you just need to escape your own head.

Fast forward to now. Over the past three years, I’ve attended a number of retreats. Some sponsored, some DIY. I did an intensive on short stories. I’ve holed up with a friend for a weekend at a hotel that was hosting (at the same time) a quilting marathon and a drag queen convention. I’ve spent two weeks at an artist’s colony.

The number one thing I’ve learned is, if you stare at a blank page long enough, it’s going to start staring back. If you turn to another piece of writing, or take a walk on the beach, you may not be being a Good Citizen, but at least you’re not staring at a blank page.

I still don’t believe in writer’s block…but that’s just me.

As for the surfer, well, I’ve been selected for another Poets & Writers Beach retreat, in September. That gives me a month to work on my hate stare. Or maybe not.

What do you do when the blank page toys with you?


A Writer’s Happy Place

It’s 5:19 in the morning, and I am at my writing desk. Since it’s still dark out, I have a candle lit and my lava lamp is fired up, providing enough light to see the keys but not enough to destroy the ambiance of darkness. I also have a vase full of daffodils and trimmings from a Japanese Spindle by the window.

The house is quiet. I have coffee. I am in my writer’s happy place.

Last week, after I posted about immersing myself into a new writing project while at an artists’ colony, my friend and fellow writer Leslie Budewitz asked, “Any tricks for recreating that balance now that you’re back home? Always the post vacation or retreat challenge….” Continue reading “A Writer’s Happy Place”

Goodbye to the Working Stiffs

Today  I posted my last guest post at the wonderful, Pittsburgh-based group blog known as the Working Stiffs.

My post today discussed writers as artists. You, the Artist asks writers to accept that the words they piece together into stories is indeed art, and we should all band together to encourage the next generation as they enter the wacky world of writing and publishing.

I’ve had a lot of fun as a Working Stiffs contributor. Posting there allowed me to touch on a range of subjects–some light, some dark–but I hope all thought provoking in some way. It was a great pleasure to work with such fine writers, who amused, challenged and entertained me with their posts, and honored me with their friendship.

Here’s a summary of my contributions to the Working Stiffs:

The Gift of Time and a Boxed Lunch. (Yay! I’ve been accepted to an artists’ colony!)

Over There. (A Veterans Day history lesson on the War to End All Wars—ha—and the little known Bonus Army of 1932.)

Paging the Lorax. (I speak for the Hwy.  50 Shoe Tree and the Spirit Oaks at Toomer’s Corner.)

Twelve Average Citizens. (On a quiet Tuesday night in Georgetown, Delaware, a Patrolman named Chad Spicer was killed in the line of duty.)  

Who Do You Love?  (The story of Charles:  the love of my life—and how he wooed me when I was five.)

Double Dating a Killer. (Have you ever known a murderer?)  

A Position of Trust. (On Dr. Earl Bradley, the worst pedophile you’ve never heard of, and how he was able to abuse so many children, for so long.)

Are You Intrepid?  (On being brave, and trying something new in life.)

Beggars Can’t Be Writers. (Is it okay to ask for something for nothing? If so, tell me where to put the DONATE button.)

In With the Old. (A recipe for My Favorite Cake, and why a vintage cake cover is necessary for success.)

Three Questions for Two New Authors. (A couple of new mystery writers to watch.)

I’m a Big Girl Now. (Will your parents ever stop treating you like a child? No, probably not, but you gotta love ‘em for boldly not trying.)

I Bought the Book, It’s Mine Now, So….(Is it a sacrilege to write in a published book?)

To Have and To Hold…A Grudge. (A post-election look at Delaware’s Return Day tradition, and a question about how long you hang onto hard feelings.)

Three Travel Adventures (Embarrassing moments on the road.) 

I’m Not a Believer. (Goblins, ghosts, woo woo and voodoo—what rattles your chains?)  

While I Was Out

My plan was to disappear for the month of February.

Not disappear as in I created a new identity, or I found a real invisibility cloak, or I ran off with Blond Bond, or I decided income tax was illegal so I quit filing, built a hut in some remote location, and lived off the grid.

No, I just wanted to disappear for a little work vacation.

I’ve already posted (twice) about the residency at the artist colony that led to my February decision to disconnect from home, work and the Internet. What I discovered was, the decision to disconnect is a lot easier than actually disconnecting. Here are a few reasons why. Continue reading “While I Was Out”

Postcard from Writing Camp, 2

A funny thing happened at the end of my residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts: my car would not start.

 Was this a message?

“Please stay with us, Ramona! Two weeks was not nearly long enough. Oh, sure, you accomplished the specific goals you set—with two days to spare—but think of the goals you could reach if you had two more weeks! And the wonderful social time you chose to enjoy: The Valentine’s Day reading with the pink marshmallow snowballs! The Open Studios afternoon when the visual artists blew you away! The snow day and the horses wearing their adorable plaid blankets! The delicious meals that you didn’t have to cook or serve or clean up! The generous Fellows who shared their work, respected your schedule, and offered their friendship! The party with the stories about the deer head and the handcuffs and the Mason jar of real moonshi–”

 Uh, anyway. I heard the message. Sadly, this time, I couldn’t heed it.

Last Sunday night, a group of us watched the Season 2 ending episode of Downton Abbey in the VCCA library/TV room. It was great fun to hash and guess what Season 3 would bring. It will be a long wait until Season 3 will be broadcast, but it is in the works and it will finally come and it will be worth the months of anticipation.

That’s how I feel about leaving the residency. It was wonderful, I will return, and it will wonderful again.

I could take the Downton Abbey analogy a step farther and compare being Upstairs to being a Fellow. We didn’t have our every whim catered to, but daily needs were taken care of efficiently and unobtrusively.

A lot of artists come and go. You can be social, go to meals in the dining rooms and linger, participate in after-dinner performances or runs to the dollar cinema in Amherst. You can ramble around the grounds, pat the horses or be adopted by a cow (Hi, Wendy!)  Or you can spend all day and night – literally, since there are beds in the studios – focusing on your work. You can talk about your work, if you want to. You can give a performance or showing, or not. Your choice.

If you consider the activities in my imaginary “please stay!” message,  it sounds like a vacation. It was, in some ways, but very much a working vacation. I hit my studio diligently every morning after breakfast. I opened The Ark’s skylights, fired up the Christmas lights, sat at my desk, and got to work. Some days I free wrote like a madwoman; one day I hammered out 14 pages. The next day, I cut it back to 8 pages, then down to 2½, but such is free writing. Some days I paced around or stared out at the cows while letting my thoughts brew.

No one disturbed me, called me, knocked on my door. No one interrupted my creative process. The Ark was sacred, and I was able to immerse.

The time flew. Each day felt a minute long.

This is the value of a private work studio. It’s a mind game as much as physical. The studios are for work. One works in the studio. My Internet connection was sporadic, so I gave up trying to go online from my studio unless I needed to do research. If I needed a nap, I took one in the bed five feet away from my desk. When I woke up, my desk was staring at me. Beckoning.

I’ll sum it up this way: Every time I walked through the door of The Ark, I was walking into my story.

I never left the grounds, which explains the dead battery. Next time, I’ll go for longer and plan an excursion or two. I don’t know if I’ll get The Ark again. I’d be happy to, but I’d be just as happy to write my name in the door frame or on the wall of some other studio.

 My thanks go out to the VCCA, the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation for awarding me the fellowship that funded this residency, and most of all, my fellow Fellows and friends there. I hope we meet again.

Postcard from Writing Camp, 1

The first thing I noticed when turning into the long, narrow, winding driveway to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts  were the cows. Cows in the field, cows sitting along the roadside, cows sitting…in the road.

I swerved around that cow and got the message. You’re a visitor. Respect that.

Yesterday – my Day Seven – we got several inches of snow. I watched the flakes fall from my home away from home, which was once a corn crib, now all dressed up and converted to Artist Studio W5. W5 is a chocolate brown building with a slanted room and skylights. Inside is a desk, an ergonomic chair, a book case, a rocking chair, a couple of lamps, and a bed.  My first day, snooping around, I found a set of Christmas lights in the desk.  I immediately hung them up. I also moved the desk. We’re told to make ourselves at home.

There’s a row of corkboard along the long side walls. I hung drawing paper there so I could work on a Three-Act Storyboard. I’m still in Act One, but I have seven days left.  There’s also a wooden plaque, painted white, hanging near the door. It’s where artists who have used the studio sign their names and dates of residency when they leave. I peruse it when I stand to take a break. I’ve also stolen a few names from it for characters, I admit. I was thrilled to recognize the names of two writer friends. I was also thrilled when I read “Alice McDermott” written there.

Plaid café curtains hang on the row of windows that look out past the Barn, where most of the studios are housed, except for  a couple of Artist Cottages and converted farm structures, like mine. I see past a tangle of leafless trees and rickety wooden fence to a rolling field of cows. Three of them stand near the gate, all day, rain, shine or snow. The hay is delivered to that gate. Every morning, I take a break and watch them have breakfast. Sometimes I go near the fence for a closer look. When I do, they watch me watch them.  

I’ve nicknamed my studio The Ark. It’s a safe haven, warm and dry, bright with my Christmas lights, and outside I see not a single dove finding land, but three cows that live off the land. All day, they stand around and eat. All day, here, I sit around and write.

Well, not all day. I do stop for meals. Breakfast at the Residence Hall, a dorm-like building a quarter mile up the road from the Barn is quiet. Most of us swoop in for coffee the moment the nice lady with the sweet southern Virginia accent puts out the pots. Midday, lunch is delivered to the Barn dining room, which is small. We do our own dishes, but that’s all. Food is cooked for us, served for us, cleaned up for us. At lunch, some of us stay for a break to chat. Some grab a sandwich and run back to the studio.

There are rules at the Barn and the surrounding cottages and studios. No loud music or talking. No interrupting other artists. No eating food that’s not yours. No leaving doors open so wildlife can crawl in. The ambiance is quiet, respectful. We stay out of each other’s way while we create.

Not at dinner. Back at the Residence, at the stroke of six, we gather for a buffet that’s always scrumptious. I’ve had homemade hazelnut torte with strawberries, twice, for dessert. That’s the level of scrumptious. We talk about the day and our productivity for the day. Some days, everyone is buzzy and bright. We all seem to have good days on the same day. Other days, ask someone “How was your day?” and the response is, “I wanted to slit my wrists.”

My first day, I wrote fourteen pages. New pages.

During dinner, someone might clink a glass and announce a reading or a performance or an open studio. I’ve heard four authors read so far—two novelists, a short story artist, and a poet. I’m scheduled to read with a new poet friend on Wednesday.

 Last night, one of the composers shared work he’d created the week he’d been here. We sprawled across comfy sofas while he introduced two pieces. One he said he wrote about a person recovering from a serious illness. The first part was diagnosis, the second hope for recovery. As he played, I closed my eyes and pictured the character I’m writing about—who has a serious illness. Listening to his notes, I could see her face clearly for the first time. Scenes from my story, some of which I have yet to write, appeared under my closed eyelids.

 Later, talking about his work and how he visualizes objects, colors, people, he played a quick succession of notes. “’To me,’ he said, ‘that’s the color aquamarine.’”

 After his performance, a small group of us gathered to watch the season 2 end of Downton Abbey. We sat long into the night discussing character growth and story arcs and women’s roles then and now.

I have seven days left in The Ark. Being here, I’ve touched onto things I already know: that I love cows and that I can hammer out a bunch of pages when I am gifted with good light, good food, and solitude.

I’ve also learned things, not the least of which is the sound of aquamarine.

 More next week.


*This residency was funded by a fellowship from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation*


Absorbing involvement.

This is the definition I found when I looked up immersion, which is my word for the month of February. I don’t usually have a word-of-the-month, but this is a unique February. In two days, on February 1, I will disappear.

No, not like Houdini or Amelia Earhart, but as people do when they plan to be out of pocket for a bit. It’s not so unusual, this plan of mine to go poof! 

Writers call it being “in the hole” as they spend day and night chained to a desk trying to meet a looming deadline. Survivalists build a sturdy shelter in the wilderness, stock up on supplies and ammo, and live “off the grid.” Covert operatives kiss their loved ones and strap on some super-secret spy gear that lets them “go dark.” (Okay, confession: I don’t know any covert operatives, or their loved one, or if the term “go dark” is valid—I just needed a third example, and I didn’t want to use the word “vacay” in any form.)

My plan is not so dramatic. It is not dramatic at all, actually. The cause of my upcoming disappearance is simple: I was awarded a fellowship from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation that will fund a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In celebration, and in preparation, I’ve decided to detach myself from technology for the month. At VCCA, my basic human needs (aka food and housing) will be provided by others. All I have to do is work on my writing project. I’m going to do it without the distraction—or benefit?—of email, cell phone, or Internet access.

It will be an experiment in immersion, a chance to try out some absorbing involvement and see how that works.

Au revoir!  See you again in March.