Sunday, April 24, 2016

How I Spent My Residency at the Vermont Studio Center

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Hello! I'm back from my two week residency at the Vermont Studio Center and excited to tell you all about it. (Don't know what VSC is? Check out this post for more info.) Before I left for Vermont, I read the website and handbook to prepare myself, but I had a hard time finding any thorough, first-person accounts of what, exactly, people did during their residency. This post is an attempt to remedy that situation, and to share the peaceful and productive time I spent in a truly amazing place. It's also really long, so maybe grab a cup of coffee and find a comfortable seat before we dive in. 

VSC after a few days of rain and snow.

The B Team Makes Their Debut 

I arrived at VSC on Saturday, April 9th. The way the residencies are set up is that most people stay for a full month. The folks staying for two weeks are split between groups A and B. The A group is there for the first two weeks of the month, and the B group (or the B Team, as we called ourselves) stay for the last two weeks. There were only nine of us who arrived on the 9th for the second half of the month. This was perhaps the only negative thing about my experience, and it wasn't even that bad; it was akin to moving to a new town your senior year of high school and trying to break into the cool crowd. Luckily, everyone on the B Team was super interesting, nice, and fun, and we had a great time bonding over meals in the dining hall and beers at the bar. If I ever go back to VSC (and I hope one day I will) I will request to come for the first two weeks of the month, because I think that will yield a very different experience. Not necessarily better, just different. 

Resident artwork as seen during Open Studio Night.

New Friends & Social Time

VSC offers residencies to both writers and visual artists. One thing I didn't realize until I got there is that the artists outnumber the writers by 35 to 15. It was refreshing to be around so many artists, especially since they were doing such a variety of work. It was also interesting to compare artists and writers - our work habits and processes are so different, and I'm still working through some ideas based on what I saw, heard, and learned. While the days were very quiet and focused on work, there was usually something going on each evening at 8PM. Sometimes it was resident slides, during which artists shared photos and gave presentations of their work, and sometimes it was a reading by the writers. There were also guest artists and writers there, and they gave presentations/readings in addition to meeting with residents one on one. Antonya Nelson, the wonderful short story writer, was visiting VSC while I was there, and I was thrilled to attend her craft talk and get her feedback on a short story I've been struggling with for almost two years now. 

A beautiful little yoga studio. I came here almost every day.

The town of Johnson, where VSC is located, is really tiny. It has two bars, a coffee shop, and an oddly large number of hair salons. One night, everyone went out for karaoke. A number of nights ended with drinks at the bar. There were two or three laid back bonfires at VSC, which was cool. I also went running a few times along some pretty trails, and there was a VSC yoga studio where I took a class almost every day. Basically, there were just enough social activities to keep you from getting too lost in your own head, and to provide breathing space from your own work. I was grateful for it, and for the friends I made while I was there. (Goooooo, B Team!)

It snowed!

A Comfortable Routine 

I think people who don't consider themselves artists or writers assume creative work is this magical, inexplicable thing. That we're all drifting along, waiting for inspiration to strike, communing with our muses late into the night. In reality - at least for me - creativity and inspiration usually strike when I'm engaged in a routine. Luckily, VSC made it easy to establish a routine almost immediately. Our days were structured around work and food. Breakfast was from 7:30 to 9AM, lunch was 12 to 12:30PM, and dinner was 6 to 6:30PM. This meant all 50 or so residents stopped whatever they were doing and went to the dining hall at the appointed times to eat and take a break from their work. This also meant that every day, from about 8AM until 12PM and then from 1PM until 4PM, I worked. There wasn't much else to do, which was actually kind of wonderful. The dining hall had fresh coffee all day, so sometimes I'd walk over for a refill, but otherwise I was writing, revising, and researching in my small studio. This made it so easy to focus, and I got way more done than I anticipated, which was really gratifying. 

L: the walk to town. R: my little room. 

Room and Board 

All meals were served in the Red Mill, which is the biggest communal building at VSC. It was very comfortable, very cozy, and very beautiful - a great place to talk, eat, and spend time. As you probably know, I love food. I also have some weird dietary restrictions - I don't eat meat, and I avoid dairy as much as possible. While the food at VSC was overall very good - fresh, healthy, and local - it wasn't ideal for a semi-vegan. Most nights there was a vegetarian option alongside a meat dish, but sometimes it was lasagna, with cheese. There was also a big salad bar, warm bread, and a killer cheese plate every day at lunch. I ended up eating quite a bit of cheese (for me) and it didn't seem to affect me too much, which was nice. I know some other people who were more sensitive to me, either to dairy or to gluten, had a harder time. Overall, though, I ate well and appreciated the fact that we had dessert every night. Also many people brought wine or beer to dinner, and if you go to VSC I highly recommend buying a box o' wine and keeping it in your studio. Cost effective and convenient. 

Residents at VSC stay in various houses along the same road. From what I saw and experienced, it seems like the Vermont Studio Center basically bought up a bunch of houses and buildings, then converted them into a sort of commune/paradise for artists. I stayed in Corner House, which a yellow house on a corner. The room was small, comfortable, humble, and even though I shared it with five other people, I almost never saw them. Because we all eat at the dining hall and work in our studios, the houses are only used for sleeping. This was fine with me, because my studio was the best place at VSC, and my favorite place in which to spend time. 

Maverick: Where the magic happens. 

Maverick Writing Studios 

At the Vermont Studio Center, the writing studios are all housed in Maverick. This a long, narrow, two story building had eight studios on each floor. They each hold a desk and rolling chair, a bookshelf and a bulletin board, and a reading chair. Each one also has a large window overlooking the Gihon River, which cuts through the center of the Vermont Studio Center. While I have my own little office at home where I write, my studio in Maverick felt different, almost magical. Maybe it was the fact that it had been used by countless writers, maybe it was the river outside my open window, maybe it was the freedom and privacy it offered, maybe it was just the "room of one's own" vibe. Whatever it was, it made me happy, glad, and grateful to spend time holed up in it, whether I was writing, reading, or staring out the window. 

Draft #2!

The Work 

Every writer I met was working on different types of projects. Some were poets, some did short fiction, a few were working on novels, others were writing memoirs. We were also at different stages of our projects. Personally, I'm really glad I was able to arrive with a completed rough draft of the new novel I'm working on. I'd hoped to make some solid progress on draft #2, but by the ninth day I actually FINISHED it. I couldn't believe it! At home, it would have taken me months to make that kind of progress, because I only have about an hour or two a day to work on it, and so much of that time is spent reacquainting myself with the book. At VSC, all I did was work, write, and revise, for six or eight hours a day. I never left the world of the book, and so I was able to dig in and stay there. The hardest part of writing a novel is holding the whole thing in your head at once, keeping all the threads organized, the characters humming along. It's even harder to do this when you work full time and need to reserve space in your head for all sorts of other, non-writing things, like spending time with your partner, walking your dogs, grocery shopping and cooking, going to work. At VSC, those responsibilities fall away, and nothing stands between you and the work. It was actually a bit overwhelming at first, but I acclimated quickly and used my time well. Returning to work tomorrow might be the harder adjustment... 

Final Thoughts, AKA TL;DR

I really enjoyed my time at VSC. Bringing a rough draft of a big project and staying for two weeks was an ideal situation at this point in my writing life. I met great people, stayed in a remote and beautiful town, ate well, and spent hours every day completely immersed in my craft. If you're a writer or artist, I definitely recommend applying for a residency and/or a fellowship. 

Thanks to the Vermont Studio for what was perhaps the most peaceful and productive two weeks of my life. Until we meet again!