I'd written very few stories since middle school. I remember writing at least one in a creative writing class in high school, and a few more in an environmental fiction workshop in graduate school. Feedback from my teachers was honest (this needs more development, this ending is a bit of a cliché), but also somewhat discouraging, and I never really tried to get better at this type of storytelling. But I had the feeling that my creative nonfiction essays were trying too hard to be essays, and that instead, they should be written as fiction.
I wrote my first story in years this past fall. Set in The Bahamas, where I lived for a year, the story deals with themes of friendship, place, and displacement. It came out in two short bursts, a rush that felt quite good—something that we wish always happens when we write. On a whim, on the deadline day, I submitted this story and some other materials to the Vermont Studio Center. A month later, I found out that I was one of 1,300 applicants, and that I had been accepted.
The Vermont Studio Center provides the time and space for writers and artists to focus on their craft. For the month of April, I would have a bedroom, meals, nonstop coffee, and a writing studio overlooking a small river in Johnson, Vermont. My studio had its own thermostat (this was nice, because April in northern Vermont is still very much winter), a writing desk, and a reading chair. The river rushed by, ceaselessly, and one writer pointed out that this flow was great inspiration for her writing work.
In my application, I wrote about a novel I wanted to write. It's about a young woman named Ava. Ava's mother was a field ornithologist in Australia, but she was killed in a car accident when Ava was 13. Ava is now 20, and she has decided to travel to the Atherton Tablelands in Australia, where her mother did her research, to discover who her mother was as well as the place that her mother loved. When I traveled in Chile in January, on a long bus ride, I dreamed up an outline for the novel, so when I arrived at VSC, I was ready to get started.
The preface to the novel, in which Ava is introduced and the fact of her mother's death is explained, came out quickly. I read it to an audience of writers and artists and received encouraging feedback. But getting started on the first chapter was harder; I had to shift in time from Ava as teenager to Ava as young woman, and I had to find a way to get Ava to Australia without starting too stereotypically with her flight landing at the Cairns airport. On top of that, I spent the first two weeks of my time at VSC fretting about what to do with my future and applying to jobs, which was rather a great distraction from the writing process. But about midway through my residency, I figured a few things out, and I was able to produce the first chapter of the book.
Though the residency is designed to provide one with the perfect conditions for producing art, life, of course, still manages to get in the way. I envisioned drafting much more of my novel during my time there, but I still feel that it was a productive experience. I read, a lot: two books of nonfiction, one novel, one book of short stories, and three literary magazines cover-to-cover. One of these books was Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, which was the perfect book to read when feeling discouraged. "I tried to work and failed," Dillard writes. "After eight hours of watching helplessly while my own inane, manneristic doodles overstepped their margins and covered the pages I was supposed to be writing, I gave up. I decided to hate myself, to make popcorn and read." I did my share of giving up, hating myself, and reading during that month, but I also accepted that this was part of the process and wasn't necessarily a bad thing. When I wasn't trying to write, I read, and I tried to more carefully examine the ways writers did what they did. This was helpful, and productive.
There were many other benefits of the experience other than forcing myself to sit at the desk and either producing or not producing any words on the page. Our group of writers got together weekly to share a page of what we'd been working on and set goals for the week; we sat in on two craft lectures by visiting writers; we talked about how to get published; we listened to each other read and talked about our favorite books and our writing processes.
The visiting writer for fiction during the month was Gladys Swan. Gladys is also a painter, and she had her own painting studio for the month. I hadn't heard of Gladys before checking the schedule for the residency, but my mother remembered her from her time at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Gladys was Wally Lamb's advisor there; Wally had written a short story, and, as my mother tells it, Gladys told him he had too many pots on the stove, that he was really working on a novel and not a short story at all. That short story became She's Come Undone. So before I met her, I felt like Gladys was someone whose judgment I could trust.
Gladys is in her eighties, but she's still making art. Due to vision loss, she can no longer read, but that didn't stop her from engaging with the work we were doing or working on her own stories. She stood at the podium and told stories about her writing life; she quoted authors without referring to any notes; she listened to each of our stories and gave pointed, detailed feedback without needing to ask any questions about a character's name or the order of events. She was sharp, and generous with her time and feedback.
After her evening lecture, during which another writer read from her books, I purchased a copy of Carnival for the Gods, and I read it once I got back from my residency. I have some goals, you see, to keep writing a little bit each day, but on days when that isn't working so well, I want to keep reading, to keep thinking about how a writer crafts a novel. I want to create and maintain good writing habits, always trying to get more down on the page, or spending time on revision. Gladys, and the other resident writers, gave me plenty of tips. So now I just have to keep at it.