A Break

I’m at an artists’ colony in Virginia. It’s beautiful here. I sleep in a cozy brick-walled dorm room, and my work space is a five-minute walk away, down a gravel path that passes through a sculpture garden and a horse pasture and leads to a converted barn, where I find my private studio with its napping cot and its view of this deep country. Some days I wake up a little later than breakfast, so I bought myself some fibrous cereal and a can of Chock Full O’ Nuts at the Food Lion and I put them in the main barn kitchen, where I can get to them after breakfast is closed in the dorm. There are not many distractions here except for the exceptional people and glorious hikes. It seems like the perfect place to, oh, say, draft an entire novel in one month. But this has not happened to be the case with me. I’m getting work done, certainly, but not the kind of skull-pounding, ass-numbing eight hour days I expected to put in. Instead, I’m finding something I didn’t expect: I’m becoming easier on my writer self.

If there’s one thing most writers I know can agree on, it’s self-loathing. My particular self-loathing looks something like this: Every day in my real life, I set an impossible writing goal (either by the hour or the page number) and every day I become distracted. I fail to be at my computer, coffee in hand, by 7 am (like some writers I know), by 8 am, by 9 am, by 10. Then I start self-flagellating for not being someone who can get their day’s–nay LIFE’S!–work done before lunch. This feeling continues even after I finally sit down to write. Thusly have I furrowed a well-tread neural pathway that leads me, every day! to feelings of inadequacy and failure.

Enter the residency, where the coffee is already made. Where there are no dogs to walk or rabbits to feed or boyfriends to banter with through the shower curtain. There’s nothing to do here at night besides listen to the coyotes cry, so bedtime is early and I’m up by 7:30 or 8:00 most days. But here’s the thing: I still don’t write. I still sit there at my desk. I try. I begin and erase and muddle through sentence after painful, grammatically dubious sentence for a couple of hours and get nowhere. Then, almost every morning around 11:00, my language brain wakes up and I’m able to get to work.

And it’s difficult for me to articulate why that’s fine when I’m here. Maybe because even in the perfect, most distraction-free environment a body can be provided, I still can’t manage to be that enviable morning writer. That successful My-Real-Work-Is-Done-Before-Breakfast-Allowing-Me-To-Float-Happily-Along-Through-The-Rest-Of-My-Day-Like-A-Lobotomy-Patient writer. That Writer-Being-Interviewed-About-How-To-Be-A-Writer-But-Only-In-Terms-Of-Non-Writing-Particularities-Like-How-Many-Times-Do-You-Dunk-Your-Tea-Bag-And-What-Direction-Does-Your-Desk-Face? writer.

This residency is baring my weaknesses to me. I’m like Atreyu in front of the mirror. My true writer self can’t really string together a sentence in the morning. My true writer self writes in 1.5 hour increments of focused activity, but then she needs a break. It feels good to just acknowledge these things instead of using them against myself. I think this is that mindfulness those annoying yoga teachers have been going on about my whole life. Out here, I’m figuring some stuff out about my writing practice, but instead of hard these truths are buoyant. When I get back to civilization, to dogs and bills and tag-team dinners, I’m going to put my new practice into practice. I’m going to be easy and see what happens.

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