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

by
Melissa Scholes Young
2.10.16

In southern France, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, there are voices in my head I haven’t heard in years. Not since the first draft of my novel, when the characters were so very clear and the plot wasn’t. In my seclusion, I occupy my characters’ interiors, understand their motivations, see their desires, and create them more authentically on the page. As I revise, I’m discovering the book all over again. I wake at dawn and the work pours out of me until my stomach reminds me that even artists need to be fed. I stroll down to the lighthouse near Plage de la Grande Mer for exercise, fresh air, and espresso. My body takes me there, but my mind is still at my desk, still creating.

Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, were frequent visitors to the South of France. They called Cassis, the fishing village my apartment overlooks for the next month, the “Bloomsbury-on-Méditerranée.” Virginia and Vanessa, genius artist sisters, understood the need for community. Making art is so often lonely. Solitude both feeds and exhausts the artist. Even at my most productive, I can only write for half of my waking hours. You need other people to prop you up, to tell you your poem isn’t the worst thing they’ve ever read, to take you for a walk when you’re stuck on draft eight of your novel, to fuel your muse. Then you need them to leave you alone for a good long time while you wrestle your point of view.

My neighbor in residence, the poet Mary Tautin Moloney, who is also a mother, says the best part of the retreat is carrying all the poems and lines around in her head without interruption. When we walk into town together after writing all day or share a bottle of regional rosé, we talk about our art, not our kids. At potlucks with the other fellows, we recommend books, share successes and stumbles, make plans for adventures that we’ll write about later.

I hear my work differently at the residency. Sentences change while I sleep, and I wake to a pouring of words and ideas onto the page. No one interrupts me for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while I spend hours at my desk, cutting up the structure of an essay until my eyes blur and the order comes into focus. This is my safe space to play, to release the pressure to produce words and pages and remember why I became a writer. It used to be a lot more fun. I’m realizing that it can be again.

Much of my refuge has been filled with books. I’ve read more in a month of residency than I read in all of the previous year. I’ve strolled through the foundation’s library and magically found books I needed exactly when I needed them: Lynn Freed’s The Mirror when I was studying my main character’s interior; Patricia Hampl’s Blue Arabesque when I was answering my agent’s edits about structure; Reminiscences of Leonard Woolf by Roberta Rubenstein when I wanted the story behind the story; and Jennifer Grotz’s translation of Patrice de La Tour du Pin’s Psalms of All My Days, when I needed faith. I’ve read curiously and thoroughly. I’ve reread books from my MFA days and much of Woolf’s work again. I’ve filled myself up with the words of others so that they may power my own.

The truth is that I miss making the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I’m the one who knows which kid doesn’t eat crusts and which one does. I miss their noise and their pudgy (and increasingly less pudgy) arms around my neck. I miss tucking them in at night, hearing the three things they’re grateful for before they drift off to sleep. At bedtime on the evening I packed to leave, through tears my oldest daughter said, “I need you to do this residency more than I need you to stay.” Woolf would be proud of her. So am I. My job as their mother is also to show them how to be women—brave ones—to seek partners who support them, to reach for the things they want, even when it hurts a little.

Leaving my children is difficult for me as a mother just as not writing is hard for me as a writer. Woolf was often prescribed the “rest cure” during episodes of nervousness. Her mental health was always fragile. During her “rest” she wasn’t allowed to read, and she was often restricted from writing. If she protested loudly enough, her doctors and family would let her work on a novel for one hour per day. Such restrictions would be enough to drive any writer insane. At home, it’s hard for me to find the solitude and time a residency allows. Someone can’t find a sock and someone else can’t find the car keys and no one remembers to put out the recycling. At home, I’m not good at closing my bedroom door, at ignoring my family’s questions and needs so that I can write. I do it, of course. Writing is my job, and I always meet deadlines, but when there is no one at my desk at home, my family will find things and remember them on their own. Without me there, they do just fine. I’m the only one who needs to be reminded of this.

At the residency, I run every morning up the steep hills to the base of the nearby limestone cliffs, the Calanques. Sometimes I keep jogging along the coast to Port Miou but often I run back down and sit on the rocks at Plage du Bestouan and watch the water. I have neither a watch nor a phone. I leave when I’m ready and return when I’m done. It is a freedom I’ve forgotten or never knew I had until it was gone. A residency slows down time. The space inside and outside your head encourages you to observe more deeply, to see more clearly, to listen to the world more completely. It fills you up with reserves for the return.

Leonard Woolf cared for Virginia through her bouts with depression, her numerous suicide attempts, and her struggle with what we now know as bipolar disorder. Before Leonard, the duty fell to Vanessa. That’s what a good partner, or family member or close friend, does. They commit and support. And if children come along and you’re an artist, they don’t ask you to choose.

Truly the biggest insult of the “What about the kids?” question is to my partner. Others expect so little of him. If he were a she, would they ask the same? If I were a single mother, would I be met with silent judgment instead? Of course I think about my family while I’m away, but I don’t worry about my partner’s abilities to take care of our children. Neither of us remembers anyone asking, “What about the kids?” while he was finishing his PhD, attending conferences, and traveling on job interviews. The assumption was that I was managing it, and I was. He can too. The assumption should be that my work—as a writer, as a teacher, and as a mother—matters, and that a room of my own is not only necessary but also merited.

The question cuts deep because I’ve been asking it too—both here in France and at home, in my head, at my writing desk, during crowded moments in my classroom.

So, “What about the kids?”

They’ll thrive. And so will I.

Melissa Scholes Young’s work has appeared in Narrative, Ploughshares, Huffington Post, Poet Lore, and other literary journals. She’s a contributing editor for Fiction Writers Review. She teaches at American University in Washington, D.C., and is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo fellow.