Life in the Colonies
Notes on customs, habits, and mating rituals of the residents at Yaddo, MacDowell, and other artists’ retreats.
So all day you make art. You are alone with your words or notes or images, your heart and soul and whatnot. You visit other studios if invited. You take walks, you run, hike, work out, swim, watch TV, play pool and ping-pong. The food tends to be excellent. At Yaddo after breakfast you bring lunch to your studio in a tin lunchpail. At MacDowell your lunch arrives by truck around noon, quietly left outside your door in a picnic basket. In that case, lunch is the only external event of the day. Once at MacDowell there was a new and muscular girl working in the kitchen. In her first day she screwed the soup canisters so tight that hardly anybody could get them off, even in hours of trying. That night we were all traumatized.
Most of the MacDowell studios are in the woods out of sight of each other, each with a unique design. One summer I had a tidy brick studio next to a little pond. I took to visiting the pond after lunch to observe the fauna. One afternoon I stood watching a dragonfly perched on a leaf, eating a common fly that was bigger than its head. It was turning the fly around and around, and in the course of a minute devoured it with tiny audible chomps. I tried to imagine eating, in a minute, a piece of beef the size of my head. In the pond lived groups of crayfish. I'd get a stick and play with them. Most would jet away backward with a flick of their tails, but always the alpha crayfish would come for the stick and poke at it with his claws. Day after day I lay beside the pond boxing with crayfish.
Yaddo has a fringe of woods, but it's near town and next to the racetrack. (In August you hear the end of each race, which sounds like a wave rising and crashing.) The more interesting fauna at Yaddo were inside the mansion. We had noticed these things that looked like oversized butterfly nets hanging in the halls and wondered what they might be. One night several of us went out to see the movie Alien, in which a horrible creature is stuck to a spaceman's face. In the middle of the night a poet from the group was having a nightmare about that creature and woke up to find she had a bat on her face. Naturally she began to shriek wildly. The door flew open and a fellow colonist ran in brandishing one of those nets. As it was narrated by the poet at breakfast next morning, the scene was classic farce: naked screaming woman in bed and man in underwear thrashing around with bat net. That's how we found out what the nets were for.
What can I say but that, at the time, in the utter absence of distraction, all these things were marvelous, better than TV, better than the Internet. I mention the last because to date none of the MacDowell or Yaddo studios is wired, Internet is only in the main buildings, and cell service is spotty—which is the way most colonists want it.
A few people produce legendary work at the colonies, and a lot of others come into their own in their individual ways. Colonies are where, in the course of making new friends and recovering from a busted marriage, I finished growing up about as much as I'm ever going to. In regard to my music, it's where I found out, more or less, how good I am and how good I'm not—pretty good, in my opinion, but one needs to learn how far from Mozart one's work lies. It's where my back first went out; it never entirely returned. (Back and neck pain is endemic at colonies; you're hunched at a desk or piano or easel all day.) A colony is where, when I took up briefly with a suicidal short-story writer, I learned for the first time in practice rather than in theory what a bad idea a roll in the hay can be. Colonies are the last places I danced my ass off. They're the last places I fell in love. They're where I made friends who are still with me, along with friends I met through those friends, all of us in the business of creating things.
So how deranged, sodden, lascivious, egomaniacal, and so on, are the colonies? Actually the level of excess disappointed me. I found the bulk of artists to be, on average, no crazier than anybody else. After all, a substantial percentage of the human race is nuts, and most of those people don't have art as an excuse. The percentage of drunks and loonies I encountered at the colonies is not significantly higher than the percentage to be found among my own friends and family. And as best I can tell, my friends and family are not unusually loony.
Artists generally refer to their work as a job, but the reality is that few artists of any kind make a living at it. Most of us are not pretentious enough to speak of it as a calling, but that's what it amounts to. We do it because there's nothing we'd rather do, because we're good at it, because we're wired up that way. There are far too many artists in the world, far more than the market can bear. The reason is that art is one of the greatest things in the world to do. In a perverse but typical corollary, the gods have decreed that art will therefore be one of the worst professions in the world to get by in. For the run of able and passionate but uncelebrated artists, the colonies stand as one of the few genuine perks in an endeavor that is absurd and unprofitable in nearly every way except in the doing of it. The abiding mood of irony and the sometimes wonderful camaraderie of the colonies is based on that shared understanding. Here, at least, you can laugh at it all.