The Writing Dance

October 5, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 9 5 min read

coverI recently returned from northeastern Wyoming, where I spent two weeks at the Ucross Foundation Residency Program.  At Ucross, I was given my own room, as well as my own writing studio, and on weekdays lunch was delivered to my door:  a sandwich, a piece of fruit, and two cookies, which I tried not to eat–and always did.  Dinners were bountiful and delicious, prepared for us each weekday evening at six.  Except for weekends, when we had to make our own meals (not difficult, considering the amount of leftovers in the fridge), the six other artists and I had nothing to do but, well, make art.  This sounds absolutely magical, right?  I mean, my studio was big-enough-for-cartwheels-big, and my desk view included a field, some deer, a herd of sheep, and insects that looked positively prehistoric.  I had hours at my disposal to work on my new novel.   Hours!

But that’s what I feared most about Ucross: all that free time.  On the one hand, the place sounded magical, and on the other, terrifying.  What if I didn’t want to write?  What if I couldn’t?  What if the lovely endless Wyoming day spat in my face and yelled, “You, a writer?  Ha!  Go waste time on Facebook at your local Starbucks, you fraud!”  The last time I’d gone to an artists’ retreat, I suffered a wee-bit nervous breakdown.  It was the summer between my first and second years at graduate school, and, really, the last thing I needed was time to write.  I had time–too much of it!   That residency felt less like a Writing Retreat and more like Writing Prison.  I got work done, but I didn’t like doing it.

So it’s with great pleasure that I report the following:  I didn’t have a nervous breakdown at Ucross!  I was productive.  I was inspired.  And let me brag here for a moment, people:  I could actually write for hours!  The time didn’t scare me–or it did, some days, but only a little.  If I couldn’t write past 2 pm, that was okay, because I could at least think about writing.   At Ucross I learned that I am capable of focusing deeply for long periods of time.  I love to write.  I don’t think I would have said that before this trip.

coverDuring my residency, I thought a lot about the word retreat.  People love to say that writers should get out in the world, have these incredible life experiences so that their fiction isn’t just navel-gazing;  if a writer has had a previous career–as a bricklayer, say, or a surgeon–all the better, for it will inform his fiction.  I’m not necessarily against this line of reasoning, but I also connect with that famous Eudora Welty quote: “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well.  For all serious daring starts from within.”   Of course it does.  And to write, don’t we need to excuse ourselves from the big exciting world and hole up in a room to mine the invisible?  Fiction writing requires retreat. Stephanie Ognar, a visual artist I met at Ucross, was taking maps of Wyoming and sanding away everything but the bodies of water–the skinny, snaking rivers, the small splotches of lake. The results were beautiful and eerie, and her process reminded me of my own.  All I do all day is sand away, to get at this streak of blue.   And that takes time.

What’s interesting about retreating from your regular life is that you give credence to activities or rituals that, in the real world, you just don’t have time for.  I remember sitting for over an hour on the porch outside my studio, watching the aforementioned field and deer.  I was trying to inhabit the emotional landscape of a new character;  in order to write a painful experience, I had to feel pain (and those two cookies I’d just eaten–well, let me just tell you:  they made me feel the exact opposite of pain).  Thinking about this now, it feels self-indulgent, cheesy even, but, you know what?  It was necessary.  I found a feeling I was looking for.

I also sang to sheep, played ping pong with my fellow residents, dipped into some Guy Debord, and read poetry out loud.   On one particular slow writing day, I read Kiki Petrosino’s debut collection, Fort Red Border.  In “Love Poem” she writes, “Say willow/with your thin throat humming,” and she ends one of my favorite poems, “Dread,” with the line: “So that’s the beginning.”  I read these poems aloud because they were beautiful, and because I wanted to.  So there.  Reading them aloud brought me joy in that big studio where no one could hear me except maybe the dying wasps beating against the windows.  Petrosino’s sentences, their rhythms, asked a lot of my own prose.

But, as I always knew it would, the fantasy ended.  I am back home now.  This essay is the most I’ve written since my dreamy days in Wyoming.  I have no separate writing space here, and my $15 office chair is a crime against humanity.  Yesterday, because they were doing construction on the stairwell outside my front door, I went to work at a coffee shop.  A dude hit on me.  The previous day, I tried a different coffee shop, but it was in Silver Lake and the hipsters were annoying and distracting and beautiful.  (Nobody hit on me there, of course.)   I am wondering how I will keep writing this new book.  How did I ever write in the real world?  This is the real challenge, I guess.  It’s easy to write when that’s all that’s asked of you.  Duh.

Eventually, I will get back into the swing of things.  All I need is one good writing session from this tiny apartment, and all will be well in the world.  And, I must admit, now that I’m back, I feel that familiar buzz of inspiration that only home brings me; Los Angeles provides just enough ugly to keep me sane.  I’ve been thinking about how the true power of Ucross and other residencies is that it’s temporary.  I valued my retreat from the real world because I knew it wouldn’t last, and I had to make the most of it.  The shelter Ucross offered from the obligations of the everyday world, and the shock of time and space I felt on my first day, jumpstarted my creative brain.  But only the most privileged writers could live like I did at Ucross–and I bet even Stephen King has to make his own lunch–and would they want to?  The life of an artist is all about flinging yourself into the world, the muck and annoyance and pleasure of it, and then pulling yourself out, to make art.  Back home, I am retreating from the world, and approaching it, again and again.  It’s a kind of dance.

(But there’s this: Yesterday morning, when I was riding my bike, I thought I saw an antelope in someone’s driveway.  I pedaled faster, my breath catching.  Turned out, it was an elderly woman, kneeling.  She wore a leopard-print dress.   My mind shifted back to reality.  Oh, Edan, I thought, you moron. We’re not in Wyoming anymore. I guess I’ve taken a little bit of Ucross with me.)

[Image credit: Edan Lepucki]

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. “The life of an artist is all about flinging yourself into the world, the muck and annoyance and pleasure of it, and then pulling yourself out, to make art.”

    Precisely! I love it.

    Here via Eric Shonkwiler ( btw. :)

  2. Well said. And I don’t think watching deer is in the least self-indulgent. Really inhabiting that moment–any moment–is so rare and wonderful, and absolutely necessary. I’m glad you had that experience!

  3. Thanks to everyone for their comments! I was certain someone (probably someone named “Anonymous”) would beat me up for talking about my deer-staring.

  4. I loved the sidebar, at the end of the essay. It reminded me, visually, of Wizard of Oz. As if Dorothy herself, dropped into our landscape (a magical land of a different nature), reacted to something hauntingly-familiar from a distance. Perhaps you don’t have to live in a desert (or be from Kansas) to witness a mirage?

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.