Writers World

The Writer’s World

Notes on Writers’ Retreats

A column by Molly Moynahan


molly moynahan

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness, but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”

Ernest Hemingway

Writing is an isolating process. This column is an attempt to create community, to explore the world of writing, publishing, teaching, reading, living in a world of words, and finding common truths. I hope you will share your ideas with me, as to how you live, write and read.

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Summer is the high season for writers’ retreats, and the gathering of utopian communities that encourage creativity while providing harried teachers with a room of their own before they return to their classrooms and real life.

My favorite story from a writing colony is the brouhaha that occurred at Yaddo, in 1941, when Carson McCullers fell madly in love with Katherine Anne Porter. Apparently Carson “prostrated” herself outside of Katherine’s door. Katherine responded by stepping over her, afraid she was going to be late to dinner. Later, Porter sums up McCullers thus: “it was a peculiarly corrupt, perverted mind and a small stunted talent incapable of growth; and her further work has borne this out in my mind.” Ouch! Of course, the importance of dinner in these places should never be underestimated.

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When I was eleven years old, my father, the novelist and literary critic Julian Moynahan, was asked to teach at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. Since both of my sisters were attending a hippie camp in Maine called Grove Farm, where they were learning valuable life lessons like smoking and playing the washboard, I was the only child in residence at a place described by its current director Michael Collier as: “one of America's most valuable literary institutions.”

We were given a really cool log cabin built halfway up a mountain that had banisters with peeling bark and a raccoon that kept getting into our garbage and menacing the cat. My mother was not thrilled. A practicing architect who did not view her role as handmaiden to the man of letters, she set up a work area and refused to attend the numerous cocktail parties held to create a gin induced sense of community.

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Collier goes on to claim, “Bread Loaf is not a retreat—not a place to work in solitude. Instead it provides a stimulating community of diverse voices in which we test our own assumptions regarding literature and seek advice about our progress as writers.”

In 1968, Bread Loaf was full of nuns who, in the spirit of the sixties, had renounced their faith to write sexy poetry. I was allowed to run amuck and attended ten performances of an all-nude production of an ancient Greek anti-war play whose title I now forget. Men walked on the Moon and my father drove our Volvo across the director’s lawn, protesting some elitist ruling he rejected.

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Full disclosure … I will spend a month at the Djerassi Foundation in Woodside, California, this September. I was accepted as a playwright, which is a bit of a shock as I’m unsure what I submitted for consideration. I’m a novelist, but I recently wrote a play, so they can’t tell me to go home. This is how I feel about winning these things; clearly, they made a clerical error. Djerassi serves its artists three meals a day and drives them into town once a week so they don’t develop cabin fever from its remote location. I was there seventeen years ago and on one of our days off I invited David Wong Louie, another writer, to have tea with Alice Adams, who lived in a beautiful Pacific Heights apartment in San Francisco. She was a good friend of my father’s who sadly has since died. Alice was very nice to us. Driving home, we felt ourselves to be quite impressive and literary and deserving of the good things Djerassi was then providing.

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I have just returned from a trip to Truro on Cape Cod. Truro is one town away from Provincetown, where the Provincetown Art Association is located. This is the gold standard of artist’s retreats. At the PAA, an artist is housed for six months, complete with a stipend and an apartment. Thus far, they have rejected me three times. I mentioned this to my mom, who then claimed that my father had said something unforgivable to the previous director and suggested that I should give up. So I applied again, because the director had changed, and was promptly rejected. I was wait-listed permanently at McDowell and another place has rejected me four times, but constantly sends me e-mails inviting me to fundraising cocktail parties.

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Fourteen years ago, I spent nearly a month at the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico. The Wurlitzer gives you your own pueblo and that’s about it, except for the fact that you are living in one of the most beautiful places in the world. There was a snake in my shower, my 18-month-old son forgot I was his mother, and my ex-husband told me I was a terrible human being for leaving him in Dallas to sell our house. I met a gorgeous painter from Montreal and we drove to Abiqui and walked around Ghost Ranch and then parked outside Georgia O’Keefe’s house and stood on my car so we could see over the hedge. Despite the fact that writer’s retreats are rumored to be hotbeds of illicit affairs, I did not cheat. Still, my ex-husband resented the dreamy look in my eyes when I spoke of the painter and the mountains. Eventually, my son remembered me.

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The topic of artist’s retreats was in my head on this trip to Cape Cod because I attended a reading in Provincetown given by the writer Sarah Blake, who has written a novel called, The Postmistress. The novel has made the NY Times Bestseller list and is doing very well. However, I thought Sarah was one of those PAA fellows and I immediately got an attitude. I drove over to the PAA, sat down and found myself watching a slide show. The photographs were okay but I wondered why there was no reading. When I asked about Sarah I was told she was “not a fellow.” My attitude changed immediately. I checked my notes and realized her reading was at a gallery on the other side of town. Sarah turned out to be, despite her considerable success, friendly and unpretentious.

When I asked her about the Provincetown Art Association Fellowship she wrinkled her nose and said, “Oh, my husband won that.” Apparently Sarah’s husband is a poet but we won’t hold that against her. She read from her novel and it sounded terrific.

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I like being chosen. Djerassi states on its web site that they received 600 applications and chose 60. I am one of those 60, which makes me feel both smug and guilty because, deep down, I am Catholic and believe all good things are accompanied by suffering.

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Here is my memory of Norman Mailer. He is walking me up 43rd Street after my session at The Actor’s Studio and he is being kind because many of the audience members were not. He asks me about my writing, and I tell him briefly about the fate of my latest novel and he laughs. “It’s a terrible business, isn’t it, Molly? Every day I wake up and wonder what the hell I’m doing.”

I was flummoxed. “But you’re Norman Mailer,” I said idiotically. “Isn’t that over?”

He shook his head. “We’re writers,” he said, “It’s never over.” He twinkled at me. “But we love it, don’t we?”

I nodded, speechless at his kindness, his humility, and his including me in the world of writers he inhabited. Mailer has left behind a legacy, a center for writers where they can stay and work and not worry about the wolf at the door. Support his dream.

This year at the Annual Benefit Gala, on October 19, 2010, the Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony will honor the great Turkish writer and 2006 Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk, by presenting him with the most distinguished Mailer Prize for Lifetime Achievement. In addition, a special Distinguished Journalism Prize will be given to Ruth Gruber (now 98 and still walking) a Jewish heroine, a real humanitarian and a writer whom Mailer also respected. Ruth Gruber, who lives in New York, will also be present to receive her Mailer Prize.

Tina Brown will be Honorary Chair of the evening and Diliana & Spas Roussev, two of the founding benefactors, have agreed to support the program for the year 2010-2011.

Molly Moynahan was born and bred in New Jersey, but now lives in Chicago. She is the author of Parting is All We Know of Heaven, Living in Arcadia, and Stone Garden, a 2003 New York Times Notable Book. Her website is located at: www.molly.moynahan.indiemade.com. Her blog can be found at www.mollymoynahan.blogspot.com.



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