In Carmen Maria Machado’s short story ‘The Resident’, a writer, spending time in an artist’s colony, is accused by another writer of being ‘crazy’:
‘… You’re crazy. You’re crazy. You just walk around mumbling and staring all the time. What is wrong with you? You should be ashamed of yourself.’
Rather than be ashamed of herself, the writer (who is all but named as Machado herself) embraces her Otherness and declares, in a wonderfully articulate expression of self, her right to be in the residency in her own way:
‘… It is my right to be unsociable and my right to be unpleasant to be around… you may think I have an obligation to you but I assure you that us being thrown together in this arbitrary arrangement does not cohesion make. I have never had less of an obligation to anyone in my life, you aggressively ordinary woman.’
The poet to whom this tirade is addressed leaves the residency the next day, the explanation given is that she is ‘exhausted and sick’, although another artist sums up her departure with words that echo throughout the story: ‘not everybody’s cut out for this, I guess’.
The idea of the writer working solitarily in the garret has now been long challenged by the rise of creative writing programs that explicitly require the student to become a social creature: to join a group and have their work examined and critiqued in a workshop. Outside of the academy, writers are encouraged to find a ‘community’ via writers’ centres and writers’ groups and to grow their readership via online platforms that require constant updating and audience engagement.
Running alongside this celebration of connectivity is the proliferation of writers’ residencies, where time and space are given to those who fulfil the requirements of the selection committee. Most often, this requires a project outline and some evidence of past achievement, a guarantee that the gift of time and space outside of normal life will be used wisely.
The most prestigious writers’ residencies in Australia are run by the Australia Council and offer a chance to spend time in Paris or Rome.
It is not my intention to question the value of these opportunities – there is absolutely no point in arguing against the clear advantage of offering ‘time out’ from the demands of daily life to otherwise time-strapped writers – only to raise the question lingering in Machado’s story: who is ‘cut out’ for the artist’s residency, and what does it say about your artistry if you cannot hack the enforced solitude of such now-commonplace retreats? Or if, indeed, your artist’s self cannot be simply cut off from the realities of everyday life?
In a closed Facebook group that I was a member of, someone asked if any of the group (made up of Australian women writers) knew of residencies that catered for children. The answers were, overwhelmingly, in the negative with, from memory, only one writer able to share her experience of taking her child with her to another country to live while she undertook a residency. She admitted that it had been difficult and she had had to stand firm in the face of organisational resistance. She was applauded for her resilience and many others in the group said she had inspired them to think about challenging the residential orthodoxy of excluding family members from attendance. I didn’t enter into the thread but was tempted to wade it with, ‘yes, but that was only one child she took, not two or three… ’
The argument would be, of course, that a residency implies quiet and thoughtful time, which excludes the distractions of family, whether this be children or a partner. Yet this model of creativity – that closes the door on lovers, kids and friends – relies heavily on gendered and cultural assumptions that need to be challenged.
The residencies I have enjoyed in my writing life – at Banff Arts Centre in Canada and Varuna Writers House in the Blue Mountains – were undertaken when I was not in a relationship. My obligations were to myself alone. Yet, after three weeks at Varuna, I was desperate to leave. Whilst I had no acrimonious fallout with my other residents – I got on with most of them, though more with some than others – there was a forced sense of camaraderie that required a suspension of disbelief, that just because we were all writers, we would share a similar vision. As I was very young at the time, I felt over-awed by the more experienced authors and felt horribly lonely. This was also in the pre-internet days, so the isolation was more pronounced: there was only one phone, in the hallway, and you were not encouraged to give the number to anyone except for ‘emergencies’.
Every morning I would take a walk down into the bush and I once spotted a lyrebird, doing a wonderful imitation of the power saws that could be heard in the distance. It seemed a strong symbol of my time at the retreat: trying desperately to imitate what I thought a writer was supposed to be. My clearest memory of those three weeks is lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling, feeling that I had failed because I did not enjoy this aloneness. What kind of writer was I if I couldn’t embrace this opportunity to be away from all of life’s ‘distractions’?
So, where does the artistic soul truly reside? Can it only find expression in the quiet spaces of contemplation? Or does it, in fact, need the bumping noises of outer experience?
Earlier this year I escaped my domestic duties to have a weekend away in Adelaide during Festival time. I spent two days at Writers Week, trying to re-engage with my writerly self – still searching – and believing that listening to discussion about writing would clearly put me back in touch with that pre-family identity. Teju Cole, an American-Nigerian writer and photographer, spoke eloquently about how an artist’s job is to observe, to see, to dig beneath the surface: ‘noticing is what I do for a living’.
After his talk, I sat alone and considered the ability to watch in a thoughtful way, to engage with the monologue inside your head as the purest form of artistic practice. When I realised that this way of being is almost impossible for a mother / teacher / writer / wife / daughter – and, indeed, for any of us who do not have the economic ability to be a full-time artist – I had another of my many crises of purpose. How can you be a ‘real’ writer if your soul is always being interrupted by the non-artistic voices? Is the only way to work to close the door, figuratively and literally, on the others in your life?
In his recent piece for Meanjin on the writing life, Frank Moorhouse talks honestly about his decision to close the door on familial ties:
I consciously decided not to be a father partly because I was aware as a young writer, that I might not be able to meet the financial obligations of parenthood, but more than that, I had an emotionally cold, unhappy, childhood and I felt I would not be adequate at parenting. However, I have had the joy of being something of a stepfather three times, living domestically with children – once for a number of years. But in none of these relationships did I have financial responsibility while having care and responsibility and emotional commitment, even if there was no blood-bond … I think that in redesigning arts funding this dilemma – to have to choose between one’s art and having a family – should be addressed.
Moorhouse’s emphasis on the economic side of familial obligation perhaps stems from his only fleeting experience of parenthood. Whilst ‘arts funding’ might be one solution to this separation between art and family, it might also be a case of a much greater shift in our thinking as to how creativity and the individual work.
Doesn’t the shutting up of other voices come from a place that still privileges the vision of the garret-based author who must work, disconnected and solitary, from the relationships of an ordinary life? The idea of collaboration has long been a feminist strategy to challenge the patriarchal foregrounding of this Genius Author whose work supposedly springs from inherent individual talent.
In a wonderfully celebratory academic article recently published in TEXT, five women – Gail Crimmins, Ali Black, Janice K Jones, Sarah Loch and Julianne Impiccini – remind us of Helen Cixous’s call for writing that will disrupt ‘traditional masculine discourse’. They claim that ‘the productive, and reproductive, energy of collaboration can bring forth ideas and writing that would not have been birthed through individual endeavour or creativity.’ Here they are specifically critiquing the academic requirement for publications authored by a single entity, but their challenge to the orthodoxy of the solitary author, in this case, beavering away in the Ivory Tower, seems to be just as pertinent to the creative writer, left to beaver away in her residency.
Whilst collaborative writing is its own beast – and certainly has no strong history in Australian mainstream literary circles – the potential to allow for greater connectivity within the spaces set aside for creation should be considered, whether this be with fellow creators or those who ground us in our creative practice.
What, then, am I arguing for? That all writers’ residencies become ‘family-friendly’, allowing for the inclusion of loved ones? And, if so, what distinguishes the retreat from the pressures of daily life? Isn’t there a need to shut out the demands – even if only temporarily – and to truly immerse one’s self in the work? Don’t all artists need to be given ‘alone’ time?
Naturally I don’t believe all residencies should allow for the artist whose inclination is different from others but I would argue that the fact that nearly all residencies are currently not set up for any inclusion of non-artistic members makes them an exclusionary zone which favours a specific model of creativity, disallowing for collaboration, collectivism or familial nurturing. If the only artist-in-residence who is valid is the one who is in an economic and emotional position to disconnect from their ‘real’ life, then what are we saying about the process of creating? And who are we privileging?
 It should be noted that the Australia Council residencies do allow for a partner/carer to attend, but neither allow for children.
Image: Doors from the Chelsea Hotel on display in New York