06 Jun Why Writers Run Away (now and then)

Right now, for two weeks, I’m staying at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, an artists’ colony. If you’re not a writer or painter, you may not understand what an “artists’ colony” is or why anybody would invent such a thing. It’s a place that artists go to do their art. The “colony” part means that there are many artists in one place, sometimes staying in one house or dormitory. They don’t stay long, anywhere from two-weeks to two months. What little time they get at the colony they dedicate wholly to their art, day and night. As a result, they get a lot done.

Packing your bags and going some place for two weeks to write may not seem like it’s worth the trouble. You leave behind loved ones and pets and friends and your favorite comfy chair. But you also leave behind a hundred distractions: junk mail, bills, phone calls, grocery shopping, meal preparation, car repair, yard mowing, tree trimming, garbage disposal, vacuuming, weed pulling, toilet cleaning, dusting, washing and ironing, pet feeding and grooming and walking, litter box cleaning, dehunidfier emptying, dish washing — you get the idea. When you add up the distractions you deal with on a daily basis, there’s not much time left for anything like writing.

Still, it’s not easy to get away. Jill often asks me, “Why can you just stay home and write?” She knows the answer, but she keeps asking the question because no spouse likes to be left behind. I do write at home, of course, but I don’t get as much done as I would like because I have duties at home: I do the grocery shopping and most of the cooking and all of the heavy lifting (stuck windows, bags of weeds, garbage cans, etc.). It doesn’t matter who you’re married to or partnered with, nobody is going to give you a get-out-of-all-chores pass when you’re at home.

The worst case for the stay-at-home writer is the spouse who doesn’t understand the writer’s necessary down time. Writers spend a lot of time just sitting at their desks, pondering and agonizing and staring at their computer screens because writing a story or poem or essay is like solving a complicated puzzle — like a Rubic’s cube. I heard one writer recount how his ex-wife never understood this. She would walk into his study and see him sitting or, worse, lying on the couch. Then she would say, “Since, you’re not doing anything, could you take out the garbage?”

If you are the spouse of a writer, you really don’t have to be jealous of the time your partner seeks away from home. There’s nothing fancy about most artists colonies. In fact some can be almost primitive — you get a 8′ X 10′ room or cabin, a little desk to write at, a single bed to sleep on, and a bathroom down the hall. You can’t be squeamish about sharing a bathroom or territorial about sharing a kitchen. For all the time you may spend writing in your little room, you do have to be sociable at the communal meals. And some nights there are card games or charades, even. Other nights, there are readings or showings of work-in-progress. If you’re inclined to charitable contributions, an arts colony near you would be a grateful recipient.

The company’s pretty good among other artists, but there’s almost always one asshole to deal with somewhere along the line — the guy who takes a fifty minute shower and uses up all the hot water or the person who steals the eclair you were saving in the communal fridge. Recently I heard of artists at one colony who had the pleasure of hearing one of their fellow residents masturbating — loudly — every time this person took a shower in the colony’s only bathroom — which was right behind the kitchen and dining room. The self-abuser’s groans and yelps from the shower stall sent the other residents running from the building every time. Dinner conversation among this group was strained, as you can imagine.

The sacrosanct thing about an artists’ colony is that nobody is allowed to visit your study without an invitation. You are totally on your own. You can stay in your room and write for the entire time and nobody will bother you or think you’re odd. Also, somebody else makes the food for you at the colony. All you have to do is show up and get fed. Usually the food is pretty good. I recall, though, staying at one colony years ago that supplied us with pimento cheese sandwiches every day for lunch. Mind you, artists’ colonies are non-profit, budget-conscious operations. At most of them, you pay a nominal daily fee. Others are wholly free to the artist. You have to apply, of course. You have to qualify. Not just anybody can go.

You may have heard that some people carry on inappropriately at artists’ colonies. I’m talking about sexual hijinks. Almost always it’s an embarrassing spectacle to watch two talented people sidetrack themselves into an affair. And especially painful if one or both are married. Sometimes there’s a man or woman who is absolutely determined to get laid because that’s what he/she thinks has to happen at this point in his/her life. These people at an arts colony bring everybody else down because their philandering ruins the group dynamic, undermining everything the artists came here to do. But, thankfully, these torrid incidents are rare.

Outside of commercial interests (e.g., you get paid to write a jingle for a TV commercial), there is very little support for the arts in the U.S.A. By contrast, other countries find significant ways to support their artists. Until 2007, for instance, the Netherlands government would regularly buy paintings from its painters. The only tangible support for the arts in our country are spotty state grants (modest cash awards to artists who compete every other year for a handful of prizes) and the National Endowment for the Arts, which gets about $150 million a year to support all arts in all areas of American culture–from national arts projects to local arts programs to individual grants to artists. That comes out to about 50 cents a year per person. Or .007 cents per person per day. Compare this to the $700 billion defense budget. That’s $233,000. per person per year. Or $638.35 per person per day. Make art, not war?

American artists are a scrappy lot because they have to be in order to survive. Most will never get much money or recognition. Their stays at an arts colonies are a respite from the pressures of making ends meet. So think kindly of your writer friend or spouse who says, “I’ve got to get away.” It’s very possible that a painting or a novel or a song you like came into being in a little room at an arts colony.