I am coming to the end of my first artist residency. I’ve been revising my second novel, Pretty Lights, sometimes triumphantly, sometimes with a deep insecurity that it, my writing, will never be widely liked. I’ve also been drawing, at first as play, then increasingly with a seriousness that I have grown to cherish. And I’ve been walking a lot, on an average three miles a day. I had not known that a residency could be a space of such creative work and beauty.
Four weeks ago, I flew into SFO and was driven here along with another artist, Beatrice Pediconi, a visual artist. On that drive she said two things that foresaw the shape and future of this residency for me. First, somewhat sternly, or perhaps she was just tired from our long and delayed flights from New York, she said that artists are here to work and don’t disturb each other. When she said this, it sounded almost monastic. I wasn’t intimidated, more curious. She also said that she does one residency a year. Now, I want to do the same.
Another writer, an established author, had told me about residencies about five years ago. They were places of work and community she told me. She sent me her list, and Djerassi was on that list. At that time, with my other work and family life, a residency had seemed a complicating luxury. Then, after my first foray into a formal program for writers, Under the Volcano in Tepoztlan, Mexico in January 2018, I decided to apply to one residency. I was still living in San Diego and didn’t want to travel far. Djerassi looked beautiful and I loved that they mix artists of different kinds. Of course the chances of my getting selected were slim, though I didn’t know how slim until I got in. Soon after applying, my marriage started falling apart for reasons unrelated to the application, at least on the surface, though no doubt there were resonances from my writing into and out of the fault lines in my marriage.
I got the forwarded hardcopy notification from Djerassi just a day or two before the deadline for responding, when I was already settled into my new life in New York City, that of a single woman claiming “writer of literary fiction” as her primary professional identity. The letter arrived like a soon-to-expire password to the new level of a quest, and I carried it like a child’s talisman, opening it on the subway and elsewhere for the rush of pleasure it gave me.
So in the second week of September, I came to Djerassi, a few days before my younger child’s twenty-first birthday and my own almost-sixtieth birthday. I had just parted ways with the publisher who’d contracted to publish my first novel this fall. It was a late – and painful for me – parting that we mutually agreed on as it became increasingly clear that they wanted to publish a novel quite different from mine. Djerassi had been the first major acknowledgement of me as an artist. Now it remained the only major acknowledgement of me as an artist. But I came to Djerassi more confident of myself as a writer than I’d ever been and I’m leaving more confident of myself as an artist than I’ve ever been.
My decision to withdraw my book from Speaking Tiger was remarkably without rancor. The decision was clear. I am not averse to further revision or editing, but I know now, quite profoundly, that I can only revise for a better version of my novel, not simply for a novel the publisher wants to publish. One day those will coincide for my work, but at this time Speaking Tiger and Night Heron are not a match.
I came to the Artists’ House, the main house with old rooms, shared bathrooms, a lovely large kitchen, and views of forest, redwoods, ocean, dry grasslands, and variegated hills.
The beauty starts off stunning as I drink my coffee on the deck in the morning, enwraps me through the day, especially on my long hikes, and closes with spectacular sunsets almost every evening. The few days we had a foggy cover come in from the ocean, the greens turned dull and a kind of gloaming settled on the day. I came to expect day after day of light, shadows, shapes, nature, and art.
My last new walk – also beautiful, though the most ordinary, indeed the most dull – made me realize how addicted I’ve become to the quiver of sensory, intellectual, and emotional response to striking beauty. This addiction and its sources have run through my knowing and claiming every part of my creative work here – dreaming, writing, revising, drawing, experiencing shame, speaking about shame, researching my next residency, planning my next round of submissions, staring at the breeze – as work.
Every one of us here worked. To my knowledge, every one of us worked every day, including over weekends. This was not vacation, nor was it a retreat from work. It wasn’t put-your-head-down-and-create-a-monetizable-product work, though all of us would want to earn from our art and for some of us art is the primary source of their income. It wasn’t work simply aimed at an externally demanded deliverable,* though all of us would want others to read, or see, or hear, or watch our work and feel some of what drives us to make it, perhaps remake it from their own history of being, perhaps think something new, jumping off a moment of the phenomenon of our work, and jumping into some wide mindscape of their own knowledge. Here at Djerassi more than ever, I deeply sensed, felt, and recognized how in the quivering process of creative work, art connects the deeply introspective – the interior and idiosyncratic space of living, being, sensing, feeling – with the world of historical time, of physical phenomena, of conventional forms and social understanding, and of the imprecise emotional lives of sentient beings who live together.
The Djerassi program gave me almost constantly beautiful space and expansive time. Among other goodies, Chef Dan cooked us dinner every weekday evening, and our fridges, fruit baskets, and bread baskets were always full. My ten fellow artists – three visual artists, a composer, a choreographer, and five other writers, including a poet and a playwright – helped make this an intensely creative workspace for me, one of productive solitude as well as sometimes easy, sometimes intense interaction; artists at work as well as a community of artists. My fellow writers challenged me shockingly, shockingly productively. I am particularly grateful to the visual artists for letting me see some of what they see. And quite apart from the space and time it gave us, I am grateful to the program for inviting us to conceptualize an outdoor artwork (which I greedily assumed extended to me, a writer) as well as requesting from us an “artist’s page” as a small representation of the two-way gift between the program and each of us.
These invitations led me first to conceptualize a Brutalist window – mimicking a window of The Met Breuer building – between the Djerassi junkyard and the forest beyond it, a reflection on the ineluctable immanence of two sides, indeed of a general integration. In this piece and three more that followed, I experimented with visually representing some passages of my writing. Emboldened by these efforts, I then experimented with creating a visual piece with no connection to my writing, indeed with no prior content intention at all. To me this piece is naïve art and delightful.
Djerassi has been a place where I can work with intensity, seriousness, excess, and naivete. In many ways, my time at Djerassi was rather like falling in love for the first time.
I close with deep thanks: to the Djerassi program for selecting me and placing me with this group of artists at this time; to my fellow artists for introducing me to new ways of thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing, grieving, and even laughing. I loved the mountain lion spirit that came into our group early, and then stayed with us. And, of course, many, and big thanks to all of you – artists and staff – for making my birthday this year one of the best ever!
Below are some photographs of wild life and cattle who also charmed and shaped my life at Djerassi. And at the end are two videos that convey sounds of the wind when it blows. .
* Some of the artists worked to deliver on commissions.