Getting to Ucross is not easy. There aren’t many direct flights into Sheridan, Wyoming. You have to fly to Denver, where there may or may not be a tiny plane waiting to take you the rest of the way. After that, budget another forty-five minutes by car. Unless it’s snowing. If that is the case, you’ll get there when you get there, but once you do, it’s paradise. I have a theory about artists residencies: They are helpful only if they provide something that you don’t have at home. A friend of mine who has a big family says that a retreat is any place her kids are not. When I was a young writer accustomed to writing on a desk shoved into a closet, a room with a window constituted luxury. By my fourth novel I had a room of my own, but I didn’t have peace and natural wonder. Ucross is situated on the open prairie. As an early riser, I delighted in glorious purple-streaked sunrises. Just outside my studio, deer pranced like jackrabbits. Needless to say this was a far cry from my life in Jersey City, where I once looked out of my window just in time to see a greasy raccoon scurry up a lamppost for a better look at the drunks tussling in the middle of the street. In the quiet dawn of Wyoming I solved a major problem in my novel An American Marriage. There in my studio, completely alone, I decided to experiment with an epistolary format. The solitude of Ucross lent itself perfectly to the idea of separated lovers communicating by post. The helpful staffers provided me with a typewriter so I was able to duplicate the way my hero would write letters from prison. Each morning for a month I awoke filled with anticipation. I tiptoed downstairs to my studio where my characters waited for me to break the silence of the dawn with the sharp click of a typewriter, scoring their words onto clean paper.
Three Points of Productivity:
1. It’s multidisciplinary. There’s less of a sense of competition—and less pressure to network, or to be networked—when folks aren’t in the same lane.
2. Meals are provided. Until you don’t have to feed yourself, you don’t realize what a hassle it is to feed yourself; also, good healthy food makes for a strong writing day.
3. The hikes are gorgeous. A daily sojourn into nature became a way to loosen up knots in my story; it was a meditation of sorts.
Tayari Jones is the author of four books, including the novel An American Marriage, published by Algonquin Books in February.