By Elaine Orr, Spalding School of Writing Fiction and Creative Nonfiction Faculty
I recently had the good fortune of a one-week writing residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, not a long retreat, but long enough to crack open my novel-in-progress, roam around in it and warm it up. Anyone who has written a novel knows that if you leave it too long, it goes cold, and it’s frightening to go back in. It’s like entering a winter abode with no means of heat. And who knows if things have gotten worse while you were away. Maybe the furniture is shabbier than you remember, the cupboards barer, the wallpaper flapping off the walls. It really can be like entering a haunted house.
What a residency offers, even a short one, is warmth. At the VCCA, we are given a bedroom and a studio and communal meals in addition to the gorgeous grounds. I was there in October, a yellow month. The days were still long, leaves were beginning to turn, Osage oranges were ripening and falling. When we’re in our studios at the barn, I always think of us—writers, artists, musicians—as bees in a hive. I can almost hear our buzzing. We’re separate but together, all working on art.
I went to the VCCA over my fall break because I hadn’t been able to write for seven days in a row for two years. There was the six month count-down to publication of my last novel, all taken up with proof pages and marketing and promotion efforts, followed by eighteen months of promotion. That, and I was still holding down my paying jobs at North Carolina State University and Spalding University. Still, somehow I had managed to write almost one hundred pages of a new novel. When I got to the VCCA and cracked it open, it was as I suspected: The furniture was shabby, the wallpaper flapping off the walls. It was a disaster really.
But I didn’t scream and run, slamming the door behind me. I walked right in. I had time enough to read through the manuscript, to gain a sense of what was right, or at least promising, how a wall might be brought into alignment with a floor, how a window could be opened, an entire wing added. I walked in and sat down in that novel because that’s what writers have to do if they want to publish. And it’s a lot easier to do at a residency. We’re in school again. It’s fourth period. Keep at it and you can take a walk at three. Then back to the book for another two hours before dinner. Then back to the studio in the evening to look at what you’ve done that day or to write in your journal or read a brilliant novel that will somehow (really) cause you to accomplish more inspired writing tomorrow.
A residency is a place to exercise the (unpoetic) writing practice of “butt in chair.” The theory, and I agree with it, is that the only way to write is to sit down and write—for long periods, day by day, year by year. If writers write, they have butts in chairs. Unfortunately, last month at the VCCA, I wasn’t always finding it comfortable or inspiring to write with “butt in chair.” My body was leading me to other alignments. At first I feared I was just getting cold feet. The novel was too scary. I was chickening out. But I had to give my body a chance, to see if it was misleading me or perhaps guiding me wisely. So when it said—“Let’s put the yoga mat in front of the couch and make the world as small as that matt, and then let’s write”—I listened. Good thing I’d brought the mat. With a rug beneath it, my body and I were comfortable. I set my journals out in front of me and brought my computer to my lap. I didn’t have to think about anything larger than this space and the full, breathing world I was creating in my novel. I rested my back against the couch. I reread a passage I’d been working on. I made notes in the journals; different notes for different journals. I breathed. I admired my calves and flexed my toes. And I wrote on my laptop computer. I was on my magic carpet. From my seated position, I could see my Osage oranges in the windowsill and blue sky beyond. I could still hear the buzzing of our collective residency energy.
After two hours, I took a short nap on the single bed in the corner, and then my body said—“It might be nice to sit propped in the bed and write. We can look out the other window”—and I thought, “Why not, body; why not indeed?” So I made a cup of tea and fluffed the pillows, brought my computer over (I’d been charging it while I napped), and away we went again. The bed was now the writing lair. Out the other window, I could see white wisps of cloud, a section of the silo, now and then a bird. I was looking out one window and into another: out the studio window, into my computer and my fictional world. And that world was getting considerably better. Exciting things were happening since I’d admired my calves and flexed my toes. I was getting bolder. That six-inch snowstorm I’d imagined was now a foot deep. The protagonist whom I’d imagined discovering a treasure was no longer quietly placing it in a safe drawer in her office but throwing it into her car and peeling out of the parking lot.
If your wallpaper is going to flap off the walls, at least make it bold wallpaper to begin with. Give your protagonist a BMW, not a Subaru.
I took my walk and came back to the studio and my body said—“That was nice; how about we sit at the desk now, in a chair?”—and I said, “That sounds lovely.” I was close enough to the windowsill that I could reach out and lift an Osage orange and turn its green knobby being in my hand as I reread the paragraphs I’d written on the bed. A bunny hopped out of the bushes and I got to watch him for a few minutes. And then I had the nerve to cut that passage that was obsolete since my protagonist peeled out of the parking lot. I didn’t even save it temporarily. I knew it had to go.
Is playing musical chairs a way to delay writing? Is it stalling, like my puppy does when he realizes we’re going back the way we came and the walk will be over soon? Who cares? My body was happy moving and my brain followed. The yoga mat and the bed were smaller than the room. They offered security and cleared my mind. In turn, the world of my book became larger and more exciting.
Recently, I’ve wanted to resist Virginia Woolf’s idea that a woman who writes needs a room of her own, though, Lord knows, she certainly does need that five hundred pounds, which would be seventy-five thousand today. A desperado (and I have become one) can write anywhere. But a writer can do very well with a yoga mat, set in a quiet place—even outdoors—a laptop, two journals (at least), and a cup of tea.
The yoga mat is like a placemat. I want mine lovely. I want the bouquet of the tea to be cinnamon and clove. I want the journals to be large with hard black covers and unlined pages. I want something beautiful, whether it’s an Osage orange or a white rose. I want windows. Find a place. Put your butt anywhere. Flex your toes. Your body is a temple. Now write.
Elaine Neil Orr is a writer of fiction, memoir, poetry, and literary criticism. She grew up in Nigeria and has spent her adult life in the American South. The Richmond Times-Dispatch calls her latest book, SWIMMING BETWEEN WORLDS (Berkley/Penguin/Random House), “A novel of great humanity . . . Conceived with compassion and rendered with grace, it scores a triumph for its author and a blessing for her readers.” She has also published A Different Sky: A Novel of Africa (Berkley/Penguin, 2013) and Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life (UVaP 2003), along with two scholarly books and many short stories and memoirs, appearing in The Missouri Review, Image, Blackbird, Southern Cultures, and other places. She is on the faculty in English at N.C. State University in Raleigh, where she won the university’s highest scholarly award in 2019 (the Alumni Outstanding Research Award) for her fiction. She teaches and mentors in CNF and fiction in the Spalding Low-Residency MFA in Writing Program.