Author Joyce Maynard at the MacDowell Colony
Picture yourself in a cabin in the woods with nothing to do but produce a lasting and meaningful work of pure art…
Five and a half years ago — 2008 — I was at a low point in my writing and my life. I was 54 years old, with nine published books under my belt, and essays enough that the pages, laid end to end, would probably have reached from downtown Hillsboro, NH, all the way to Henniker, at least.
But the well had gone dry. My previous three books (“The Usual Rules,” “The Cloud Chamber” and “Internal Combustion”) had gone virtually unnoticed by critics and had sold poorly. I had no publisher, no agent, and as it was explained to me countless times, by the publishing types who offered their condolences about all of this, I had become something of a pariah in the literary and publishing world after the publication of my memoir, “At Home in the World.” I was out of money, but more so, running low on the optimism I’d managed to maintain over the 30-plus years of a writing career — full time, no back-up teaching position or husband bringing home a paycheck — that was never lacking its ups and downs.
That spring, I applied for residency at The MacDowell Colony — the oldest artists’ residency program in the country, a legendary place where writers, musicians, poets, architects and filmmakers lucky enough to be accepted are given a place to live, and the total peace and support any artist could dream of, in which to work. As a New Hampshire native, I was well acquainted with the landscape of the Monadnock Region, and Peterborough — home of MacDowell. But in all the years I’d made New Hampshire my home — 42 of them — I’d never had a residency. Now, relocated to California, I applied.
Two months after I mailed in my application, I learned I’d been accepted to MacDowell for a seven-week residency, starting that August and running through late September of 2008. The way it works, if you get into MacDowell, is that the MacDowell Corporation and those who run it take care of absolutely everything, down to your plane ticket, if needed. But far more valuable even than the financial part of the relationship is the sense a residency provides (and none more so than a MacDowell residency, in my mind) of support and nurturing. This is all the more precious given how frequently, in a writer’s life, those qualities remain in short supply.
The cabin author Joyce Maynard called home.
photo by joanna eldredge morrissey
Whatever place you might find yourself, at the moment a residency commences, at MacDowell they will scoop you up and put you gently down in a beautiful little cabin in the New Hampshire woods, with a desk and a window and very likely a fireplace — a screen porch, even. And total silence all around. Because my cabin was one frequently used by composers (Aaron Copland had spent time there long ago, I believe, and not so far away was the cabin once occupied by Leonard Bernstein) my cabin also held a fine piano, in tune.
I learned that many MacDowell fellows, coming to the colony from places like Brooklyn, or L.A., found the isolation of cabins like mine disconcerting, preferring those a little closer to the main lodge. But for me, part of the wonder in the place lay in the fact that from my windows at night, I could see no other building, no electric light. The stars came through just fine. So did the fireflies.
I was given a separate place to sleep in, a ways off, but I loved my writing space so much I only spent one night there. All the rest of my time at MacDowell I slept on a cot in my writing cabin, making the half-mile walk through the woods, or on dirt paths on a nice old fat-tire bike provided to me, for breakfast and dinner at the main lodge. Lunch was delivered to my cabin every day — quietly so as not to disturb my work — in a picnic basket set on the porch.
My residency continued into September, when the nights grew cooler, and when they did, Blake Tewksbury, MacDowell’s longtime deliverer of lunch baskets — and all-around handyman — brought wood and built me a fire.
In 40 years of work as a full-time writer, I have never worked so hard or well as I did over that stretch of weeks at the MacDowell Colony — rising at five or five thirty most mornings, writing all morning and into the afternoon, but knocking off around four thirty for a long swim at the Audubon-protected preserve of Willard Pond, where I shared the water with the loons. Dinners were spent with the other artists in residence. After, we’d gather on the front porch to talk, or reassemble at the studio of one of our fellow residents, and listen to a writer read from a novel or story in progress, or to hear a composer perform the piece she was working on. While I was there, I heard a world-class performance by a violist at work on a solo composition, studied art installations, including a construction built by a young woman from Brooklyn who had come up with the idea of creating a portable home, small enough that a person could sleep almost anywhere she set it down. I watched pieces of films and experimental theater, listened to a poem completed just that afternoon, read by its author. I made some good friends.
But for me, the heart of my time at MacDowell was about the work, and the glorious (I will use the word “ecstatic”) discovery of what I could do when all the distractions of my life out in the world were removed. There was no Internet in my cabin — and that was a good thing, of course. Having lived much of my life in New Hampshire, not far from where MacDowell is situated, I had many friends (and my precious daughter) living nearby, but I chose to stay on the grounds of MacDowell nearly all the time, and saw almost nobody besides my fellow residents. I didn’t want to break the spell.
The project I had come to MacDowell to write was a memoir about my experience of coming to Lake Atitlan, in Guatemala, and the way life in my small village there changed my life. I started that book at MacDowell, and five weeks later, had completed a manuscript I called “Otra Planeta” — another planet. By now it was the beginning of September.
Author Joyce Maynard relaxing on her screened porch.
photo by joanna eldredge morrissey
But with just under two weeks left before the end of my residency, I didn’t want to stop working. So — in the moments before sleep, in my silent cabin in the woods — I asked my brain (or maybe it was my subconscious) to send a character and a story in the night.
Next morning I woke up with the voice of a 13-year-old boy in my head, telling the story of a hot Labor Day weekend in a small New Hampshire town, in which his lonely divorced mother takes him back-to-school shopping and meets a strange man who asks them to take him home. And they do.
Twelve days later, when I left MacDowell, I did so with the completed manuscript of my novel, “Labor Day,” in my duffle bag. I went directly to New York City, took the novel around, and sold it to a wonderful editor, who remains my editor still. The fact that this event gave my career life again is not actually the most significant part of this story, however. The most important part, for me, was that those two months in that cabin at MacDowell rekindled a creative fire I thought I might have lost forever.
Since that summer, I have remained in a state of profound gratitude to the MacDowell Colony. I’ve written two more novels and attended other residencies since, and had some very good writing times there, but none to equal what I experienced over those precious eight weeks in New Hampshire.
In the six years since, I applied three times for a residency at MacDowell, but I wasn’t accepted. I have reminded myself, each time, that this is a gift so many hard-working artists deserve, I should not be greedy for it. I never forget how lucky I was to have experienced those weeks, and the creative fire they produced in me.
Still, I have longed to return to MacDowell, and so this winter, once again, I applied for a residency in the hopes of returning in June to work on a new novel. In the past, when I applied, I wrote on my application what was most true: that I had no idea what I’d be writing, if granted a residency, but also had no shred of doubt that once installed in that richly inspiring place, free from the usual distractions, I’d find my own best story, as past history had proven I could.
This time around — recognizing that my previous application strategy must seem overly vague — I described a novel I’d been working on the previous fall, despite the fact that it seemed unlikely this would be the project I’d actually be tackling a full six months in the future. Assembling my materials for the panel of eminent writers who would serve as judges of my work — including a recommendation from a well-known writer friend, and sample pages from the unfinished novel — I told myself not to hope too hard that I’d get in. But of course I did hope hard. The application felt particularly significant now that MacDowell has put into place a policy that, regardless of whether or not she’s accepted, a person may apply only once every two years.
Yesterday came the news that I did not get in. I received the letter just as I was getting ready to make an hour-long drive, so I had a good long stretch of quiet time to meditate on all of this: On the experience of rejection, for a writer, and on the curious nature of inspiration, the impossibility of describing a novel not yet written, an idea still only in one’s brain. And I thought about the self-doubt that my being turned down for this residency had brought up for me.
In earlier years, hearing the news of a MacDowell rejection, I’d cried a little, hearing the news. Yesterday, I did not.
I thought about all the good and deserving writers and artists I know, working (unlike me) in small dark rooms, rising before dawn, as I did for so many years, to get an hour or two in before the children need tending, or staying up through the night, because they have day jobs to go to. Who am I to complain, as a woman who has actually managed to live by her writing for her entire adult life? And one who has known and continues to know the supreme gift of having her work seen and read by readers.
Being a writer, or any kind of artist, involves so much rejection. And I am a writer who — this past year in particular — has been luckier than the vast majority. (I need to add, it’s not only about luck. There is some hard work involved, and discipline, and tenacity. I won’t mince words here: talent is also a necessary, though not enough on its own.)
MacDowell fellows over the years is the enduring presence of Blake Tewksbury, who has been delivering lunch baskets to artists’ cabins faithfully since 1980. Here he’s pictured in 2004 walking with NH’s own Fritz Wetherbee (right), who had earned a MacDowell fellowship in 1970 while making a film about the colony.
photo by mark corliss
I wanted to tell this story today, as a reminder to the many writers and artists who may be reading this, that rejection is not reserved for young, unknown, unpublished strugglers. You can and will face it at any stage in your career. (My good friend, the director Jason Reitman, who was nominated for a couple of Academy Awards for a film, a few years back, received a big measure of brutal rejection this past month and a half, for his film adaptation of my novel, “Labor Day.” Despite having made what I consider to have been a beautiful film. Jason’s a lot younger than I am, but he has already learned an essential lesson for any artist who wants to survive: Never define your work, or yourself, by the reviews other people offer up. Just keep on doing what you do, the best you possibly can.)
I can’t pretend the letter that showed up in my inbox yesterday didn’t sting. But in the end, here’s what I know about rejection. You must not allow it to crush you.
A wise artist — a wise human being — may learn a thing or two from the experience of rejection. (I, for instance, have had to concede that the pages I submitted with my MacDowell application, from the novel I proposed to write, failed to represent my best work. Had they been my best work, that novel would be completed by now, instead of abandoned.) But most of all, what I know is that I must never take anyone’s rejection of my work — or (this is important) anyone’s praise — as the ultimate measure of its value, or my own. I must neither beat myself down, nor inflate my sense of who I am.
I will just keep doing what I always do, which is to greet the sun every morning and go back to doing what I love, for the sheer joy and the privilege of getting to do it.
Nestled in scenic Peterborough, each year the MacDowell Colony takes in 250 artists and provides them a peaceful sanctuary where they can create. An extended retreat for artists of all disciplines — from writers to filmmakers to architects — the Colony’s singular criterion for admittance is “artistic excellence.”
In 1896, Edward and Marian MacDowell bought land in the backwoods of New Hampshire and three years later a simple log cabin was built. This studio, built away from their home so Edward could compose in peace during the summers, would eventually become the model of the 32 artists’ studios in the Colony. Edward believed his work at the cabin was among his best and, despite his rapidly deteriorating health, his desire to see his land become a haven for creative minds quickly grew. Even after her husband’s death in 1908, Marian continued the project, working continually to improve and expand the Colony, until her death in 1956.
Today, the Colony and its fellows thrive. Since its inception in 1907, it has grown from a single cabin to become the nation’s premier artists’ colony.
Medal Day 2014
The Edward MacDowell Medal is an award given each year to an “individual artist who has made an outstanding contribution to his or her field.” The award, which was first awarded to Thornton Wilder in 1960, has been presented to a number of MacDowell fellows and non-fellows alike in its 55-year history. From New Hampshire’s own poet Robert Frost in 1962 the first architect to receive the award, I. M. Pei in 1998, to composer Stephen Sondheim in 2013, the award has a history of going to artists with timeless, enduring visions, and this year is no exception.
Betye Saar, this year’s winner, is best known for her assemblages and collages revolving around the myths and stereotypes of African-American community and spiritual concepts of Caribbean and African cultures. Active since the early 1960s, Saar’s body of work is as old as the Edward MacDowell Medal itself, which testifies to the timelessness of her insight on concepts of race and gender. Among her best-known works is 1972’s “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” a commentary on the oppression of African-Americans in post-segregation America.
The award will be presented to Saar on Sunday, August 10, by MacDowell Colony Chairman and author, Michael Chabon. For information visit macdowellcolony.org.
Most people know that the well-known play, “Our Town,” was set in a fictional community that was very much like the real Peterborough. No doubt, that’s because the playwright, Thornton Wilder, was staying in Peterborough as he wrote the play at the MacDowell Colony. But Wilder’s play isn’t the only great work produced at MacDowell — there are many more, including another by Wilder.
- Thornton Wilder, wrote “Our Town” and “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”
- Willa Cather, wrote “Death Comes for the Archbishop”
- Edwin Arlington Robinson, wrote “Tristram”
- DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, wrote “Porgy & Bess”
- Aaron Copland, composed “Billy the Kid”
- Virgil Thomson, composed “Mother of Us All”
- James Baldwin, wrote “Giovanni’s Room”
- Studs Terkel, wrote “Division Street”
- Alice Walker, worked on her first novel and “Meridian”
- Louise Erdrich, wrote “Love Medicine”
- E.L.Doctorow, wrote “Billy Bathgate”
- Spalding Gray, wrote “Impossible Vacation”
- Jonathan Franzen, completed”The Corrections”
- Alice Sebold, wrote “The Lovely Bones”
- Leonard Bernstein, composed “Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers”
There are many others, including Barbara Tuchman, historian and author, and Milton Avery, modern painter.
In all, the MacDowell Colony experience was the genesis of more than 65 Pulitzer Prizes, 12 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Awards” and scores of National Book Awards, Academy Awards, GRAMMYs and Sundance prizes.