A Residency of One’s Own: Navigating the Complicated Path to a Writers Retreat

Melissa Scholes Young
From the March/April 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

What about the kids?” they asked, again and again, especially the women, when I shared the news of my upcoming writing residency. To which I thought: “I didn’t stop being a writer when I gave birth; I won’t stop being a mother during my retreat.”

No one asked Virginia Woolf, “What about the kids?” when she sat alone in her study and composed A Room of One’s Own. “A woman must have a room of her own and money if she is to write fiction,” she wrote. It was perhaps easier for Woolf, with her small inheritance and privilege and child-free life. But we all have boundaries to break—Victorian, mental, and otherwise; some are imposed by others, and plenty are our own.

A room of my own seemed unachievable to me at twenty-six, when I read Woolf’s treatise. I was pregnant with my first child. I wanted to be a mother and an artist, and I was also a high school teacher. Rubbing my expanding belly, I birthed my first short story. I began planning my own room, but it was crowded with seven classes of high school students every day and a partner writing his dissertation every night. At thirty-two, there was another baby, another postponement, and more students. I was writing plenty along the way, publishing in magazines and literary journals, and deep into drafting my novel. Even then I knew that my solitary room, free of everyday demands, was necessary, for both the mental and physical retreat it would afford. A writing residency, it seemed, was the only way to find it.

In her essay “Professions for Women,” Woolf warns that we must kill Victorian poet Coventry Patmore’s “Angel in the House,” the ghostly wife who adores chores. The murder of domesticity, Woolf wrote, “was part of the occupation of a woman writer.” Woolf didn’t have diapers to change, but she cared for her father, struggled to manage her staff, and became embroiled in an intimate and ambivalent eighteen-year relationship with her cook. Domesticity took up a lot of space in Woolf’s diary; the sound of scraping dishes and floors being mopped followed her to her room, even if it was her own. She may not have been at the market every day buying her own fish, though she did try and fail once, but managing life took up plenty of her mental energy.

My role as mother, as caregiver, as cook and house manager feeds my work too. My family’s dialogue creeps into my stories. When I’m walking the dog, I restructure plot in my mind. With my hands in a sink of dishes, I catalogue idiosyncrasies of a favorite teacher for character traits. Our modern definitions of womanhood, partnership, and motherhood have surely grown beyond Patmore’s Angel, yet many of the same questions remain. Must I choose between making art and making babies? If I prioritize writing, will I fail my family? Does mothering or not mothering affect how my work will be judged, the goals I set, or how much I can achieve? If I had never wanted kids at all, would mother writers let me in their room? Are male writers-in-residence ever asked the same questions? The freedom to choose installs plenty of complicated locks on our doors, and I’m often left fumbling with the keys.

At almost forty, having moved from teaching high school to teaching college, my kids a little older, and my partner now employed, I find myself finally able to answer Woolf’s call with “a room with a lock on the door”—at least for a while. I’ve been awarded a four-week writing residency at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, supported by the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Katharine Bakeless Nason Endowment. Several months ago, when I received word of my fellowship—my venture into solitude, my vacation from vacuuming—I shared the good news with friends and colleagues, but initial reactions weren’t always congratulatory.

The problem with the question “What about the kids?” is that it assumes the only way to care for my children is to be home, awaiting their needs. It also insinuates that, as a woman, child care falls solely on my shoulders—that my partner, perhaps because of his gender, isn’t as capable. The question also suggests that my children aren’t self-sufficient enough, physically or emotionally, to survive a month without me. I’m happy to say they are both. At eight and thirteen, my daughters are becoming young women of their own, navigating choices, trying on ways of being, walking to friends’ houses solo, and doing their own laundry.

What would Virginia say to the “What about the kids?” question? She’d say it was my choice to become a mother. And she’d be right. She’d say it’s also an authentic choice not to, and she’d be right again. She’d pat my kids’ dear heads, high-five me for my success, and leave my girls outside my residency room’s door. Choosing to be a mother doesn’t mean I have to choose not to be a writer. It just means this complicated path is my own.

Getting out of my life and off to the residency was no easy task. I arrived at D.C.’s Dulles airport for my flight to Paris three hours and twelve minutes after I taught my last university class for the semester. I carried forty-two research essays to be graded, a seventy-page committee report to be proofread, and a professional panel proposal due the next day. Before I left, I created a spreadsheet of each of my daughters’ activities and social events during my absence. My partner inputted all the details into his phone and set alarms for who needed to be where when. I prepaid all the bills. I stocked enough dog food for the month and froze pans of lasagna. I shopped for every bat mitzvah dress and listened to all the piano recital songs. I bought the kids new shoes, knowing they might grow out of them five minutes before they needed to be at an event. I asked family to visit, to pitch in, and to check in. I prewrote letters and mailed them to my kids, and prestamped and addressed envelopes so they could write to me. I checked all the Skype connections and my partner upped my cell-phone plan for unlimited international texting. I coordinated my absence with my dean, department chair, and director.

My strategic withdrawal was careful and extensive. Neither my family nor my life is an enemy from which I’m retreating; on the contrary, my family members are my support troops, cheering on my victory. When I first received the fellowship news, my daughters gave me homemade cards: “Congrats on France, Mommy. We’re proud of you!” My partner listened to my hesitations but gently defused every one of them. My real enemy, I’ve discovered, is how all of my responsibilities fill the head space I need to write. My struggle is to not pit my writing against my mothering, but to give myself permission for both.

It’s true that I’ve run away just a little, but I’ll run back again and again.