Writing at the Vermont Studio Center
By Dorene O’Brien
Like many people, I have a bucket list with items that range from the realistic to the ludicrous. Somewhere in the middle of the list was “Writing Residency,” which in many ways seemed to be a little bit of both. After all, I’m an award-winning writer who has been publishing fiction and poetry in literary journals for decades, and I teach creative writing at the college level. But then there’s this: how could I take a month-long leave of absence from my life, and who was I to think I’d earned unencumbered time to simply eat, sleep and write? Like everyone else, I was busy. Recently, after my daughter went off to college and the notion of a residency was all but forgotten, I received an email from a writing listserv promoting applications for the Vermont Studio Center, the largest international program for writers and artists in the US.
I applied for a two-week residency for multiple reasons: 1) Buffing up my CV always made me feel better, 2) Engaging any activity that nurtured my writing life confirmed that I was still an active member of the creative tribe, 3) Two weeks is long enough to start something substantial but not long enough for home life to unravel and 4) I wasn’t going to be accepted anyway. So I filled out the application, checked the box that said I was interested only in a free ride (there are work-exchange or paying outright options) and paid the $25 application fee. I would add the rejection letter to my current collection, which is large enough to wallpaper a small to medium-sized bathroom (which I plan someday to do). I hit the Send button and promptly did what I always do after submitting a poem or a story or an application: I put it out of my mind.
Then the unexpected occurred: I received an email from the VSC stating that I was a finalist for a full-ride fellowship but asking if I could stay for a month. Have you ever been simultaneously ecstatic and terrified? How could I leave for a month? How could I not? The house might get dirty but it would not fall down. The dog and cat would not starve under my husband’s care. My husband knew how to fire up the grill or order a pizza. I was going to Vermont for the entire month of June to work on a new novel. Hope, meet trepidation.
The Vermont Studio Center is located in Johnson, a small, sleepy town about an hour north of Burlington. When I arrived by a shuttle sent to the airport by the VSC, I learned that there would be 16 writers and 40 visual artists from all over the world living and working in multiple shared houses and private studios. Each writer was assigned a spacious room with a window overlooking the Gihon River and offered opportunities to give public readings and have private conferences with visiting writers (poet Jane Hirshfield and fiction writer Sam Lipsyte). In addition to a striking setting, a quiet space and access to professional writers, the VSC offers freedom from everyday chores. There is a weekly linen service, which means that on Friday mornings I placed used sheets, pillowcases and towels on a table in the foyer and by Friday afternoon fresh ones appeared. The resident chef, who does not believe in deep frying, prepared a wide variety of high-quality meals three times each day, which included freshly made bread, a salad bar and homemade dessert. When basic needs are met and when a well-designed space is provided in a place where art is truly valued, magic can happen. I completed 230 pages of my second novel (after failing to complete my first stalled novel) and returned home with an enhanced desire to write, to finish this book and to begin another. Sometimes you have to move away from your writing place and your writing practice to see how you can improve it. Because I felt I had to “prove” myself worthy of the trust the selection committee had placed in me, I never stopped writing. Even when the writing did not feel good, I knew I could go back and fix it. A novel is not like a story. I learned that a novel requires time and patience, that you have to keep swimming until you reach the shore before you plunge back in on the next draft.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the writing residency at the Vermont Studio Center was a lifetime highlight: I made friends with creators from all over the world, I completed the bulk of my book, and I learned that my leaving my life for a month only made it better. Trepidation, meet success.
For information about applying to the Vermont Studio Center, visit http://vermontstudiocenter.org/
Writing listserv: (CRWROPPS-B@yahoogroups.com)
About Dorene O’Brien:
Dorene O’Brien is a Detroit writer whose work has won Red Rock Review’s Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction, the New Millennium Writings Fiction Award, the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award and the international Bridport Prize. She was also awarded a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts a residency at the Vermont Studio Center, and her stories have been published in special Kindle editions. O’Brien’s fiction and poetry have appeared in the Connecticut Review, The Best of Carve Magazine, Short Story Review, Passages North, the Baltimore Review, The Republic of Letters, the Montreal Review, Detroit Noir and others. Her short story collection, Voices of the Lost and Found, won the National Best Book Award in short fiction.