Last month I took a trip to Arkansas for a writing residency.
The thing about writing residencies is that you’re often in community with other writers while there. You share living quarters or a common area. You attend each other’s workshops and public readings. You bump into each other while navigating the town surrounding your residency space.
During my first residency in June, I spent time with two poets. We each were in different stages of life, from different backgrounds, and had shared ideals. We did a lot of laughing on the front porch while fireflies gathered around us. We talked about our personal problems in the living room after dusk. We drank beers at what locals called the beach even though it was just a lakeshore.
But as I headed to Arkansas, I ruminated on a line from the welcome email. It stated that the colony provided community dinners for the residents, and it was strongly encouraged that we eat together. For a moment, let’s remove the fact that this happened during a pandemic. A small bolt of anxiety shot up into my brain as I read the email. Community dinners. Eating together. As much as I enjoyed eating with people during my last residency, I realized that I wanted isolation. It had very little to do with the pandemic (okay, there was some influence) and everything to do with “my time” – coincidentally the title of the fellowship that allowed me to go to Arkansas in the first place. I wanted every second there to be in my control as much as possible. I didn’t want to be beholden to conversations I didn’t want to have or to talk much about myself. I was desperate to uncover the gold vein of words hidden under all the clamor in my mind. I wanted to put my head down and write, walk the trails in the woods nearby and write, take a nap, then stretch and write some more. But I felt like I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t find what I was looking for, if I wasn’t alone.
But we cannot hide ourselves forever. Nor should we.
When I was at the residency avoiding others and eating my meals alone in my room, I stumbled across a news article about a Serbian hermit who lived alone in a cave in the Stara Planina mountain. He kept to himself, occasionally journeying to town to scavenge from garbage bins. It was during one of these visits that he found out about the pandemic and immediately received a vaccine. (PSA: Please get vaccinated if you can.) Somehow people learned about him, and he was interviewed for this story. Then he returned back to his cave and the small herd of animals that keep him company.
It’s a bit on the nose, but if the hermit had only kept to himself, he wouldn’t have known about the pandemic. He wouldn’t have known what he was at risk for nor about the help available to him. And his story wouldn’t have encouraged me to climb out of my own metaphorical cave.
The isolation was necessary. I had some personal revelations and got the rest I needed, though I’m unsure if I tapped into the gold vein. But the greatest revelatory moments came when I sat around the table with three other women writers and talked about them and their writing and me and my writing. From their questions and my responses, I learned more about myself than I would have if I sat in the quiet, alone.
I now recognize how far I’ve come and the strength of my voice. What motivates me and what part of giving back to the (literary) community energizes me the most. And what I need to let go of and change.
After returning home, I canceled a retreat I was scheduled to take in December. I couldn’t do it. Travel had worn me out. The delta variant…my anxiety was higher than it had been in years.
I’m returning to isolation, crawling back into my cave, but I’m taking a lot of healing and a better sense of self with me.
Aye yi yi…I haven’t been doing a great job keeping track of my August TBR nor have I completely decided on what I want to read for September, but this is an approximation:
TBR for August and September
Long Division (novel) by Kiese Laymon
Bloodwarm (poetry) by Taylor Byas
i am the rage (poetry) by Dr. Martina McGowan
Vulnerable AF (poetry) by Tarriona “Tank” Ball
Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat (poetry) by Khalisa Rae
Blacks (poetry and novel) by Gwendolyn Brooks
The Night Watchman (novel) by Louise Erdrich
We Need to Talk About Money (memoir and cultural commentary) by Otegha Uwagba