A few thoughts from my first week at the Millay Colony of the Arts!
It is so quiet here, sometimes I wonder if I’m wearing my earplugs.
We all have quaint private bedrooms and vast private studios equipped with desks and couches. My studio has large windows facing the brush field and sky, and a wall-ladder leading to the window of an unfinished attic. Names of past residents are penned into the mahogany doorways of our studios. My fellow writers and I made the shocking discovery on my door of the name “Leonard Cohen.” It’s truly a bit intimating—to be alone, occupying a couch and a desk that Leonard Cohen, alone, likely also occupied.
It’s incredibly beautiful here, just as I’ve heard so many times from prior fellows. I’m realizing now how, before arrival, I was subconsciously growing tired of hearing about “all that beauty.” Maybe I was becoming skeptical that I would find beauty in what so many others had already professed beautiful. Or maybe, given my aesthetic interest in the texture and density of the city, and given also my recent defensiveness and protectiveness of New York City and Brooklyn (especially as so many people have flocked elsewhere) I didn’t really want to believe it.
But it really is beautiful, hands down! You can’t construct this kind of beauty, even in all its simplicity! The fields of yellow-flowered brush beneath starry sky. The glowing, moss rugs along the forest paths. The trees filled with tiny apples. I am reminded of this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay (on whose property the colony is founded) that I saw yesterday along the Poetry Trail:
Spring rides no horses down the hill,
But comes on foot, a goose-girl still.
And all the loveliest things there be
Come simply, so, it seems to me.
If ever I said, in grief or pride,
I tired of honest things, I lied:
And should be cursed forevermore
With Love in laces, like a whore,
And neighbours cold, and friends unsteady,
And Spring on horseback, like a lady!
At dinner, my fellow artists, all of whom are very progressive-minded and well-informed on social justice matters, talk about the pandemic and racism and the rise of fascism—but in some ways, being here throws me back to a much younger time in my life when I didn’t really think about these things. A time when I read more pastoral literature and nature poetry and a lot of white New England writers—a time when I read myself out of my urban setting, instead of as I seem to do these days, literarily-dig my heels into it. I’m not sure what to think of all this, but I really do enjoy Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry. From conversations with my fellow residents about their grad school experiences, I’m also thinking a lot about how completely under-read I remain, across eras and genres, and how I still feel like I should go back to school; how I’m still waiting to be exposed to the whole gamet of things.
I spend most of my time in the studio, working. It’s often hard for me to talk about the details of the writing process but here I’ll give it a shot:
•I spent a few days rewriting the chapters that take place in the 1950s-1960s. This is a crucial period in the book because it’s when Brownsville transitions, almost overnight, from an 80 percent Jewish neighborhood to a nearly 100 percent Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. I spent some time rereading Wendell Pritchett’s book on Brownsville and trying to make sure my timeline was accurate. During those years, the media and even social scientists often spoke of the migration of African Americans and Puerto Ricans to urban areas like Brooklyn as an “invasion.” The biggest challenge is to render the existence of such racists narratives—and to depict the racially-tinged views (if often unspoken) of white people fleeing such areas—while also allowing the reader to see through and beyond such racism.
•I wrote and revised some contemporary scenes depicting the police shooting of a mentally ill Black man. One scene is from the point of view of a half Chinese, half Jewish female journalist (sound familiar?) and the other scene is from the point of view of a young Black male organizer in the neighborhood. For the latter, I had trouble putting pen to paper, so I pretended I was this person and then monologued into my phone’s voice recorder app for an hour. Very daunting. I have no idea yet whether I have effectively crafted a believable and engaging voice—both in terms of content and language.
•Worked on some smaller revisions to more clearly delineate the political growth and the romantic life of the character Letitia Rodriguez
•struggled and continue to struggle with some technical financial details of the plot. How does Richard end up buying all that commercial property when he can’t even afford to buy a house in the neighborhood he wants to? etc. …
The goal is a fully revised new draft by October 1st.
Last but not least, I’ll add that no experience for me can be completely serene or enjoyable while I have still not fully recovered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I don’t wish to dwell on the details of my struggle in this post. But I will note that perhaps the most profound change for me, in coming here, has been my decision to remove myself from social media and only check my text messages and e-mails on weekends. My addiction to communication is kind of stunning. I turn to my phone when I’m bored; when I want to procrastinate; when I’m anxious; when I don’t want to feel whatever I’m feeling. My goal for the coming week is to also cut out all my stupid, anxiety-driven google searches!
To have to sit in quiet with myself is very scary but also feels somewhat transformative. I think with time I might learn to hear myself better—to stop turning to everyone but myself for answers.
So incredibly grateful to everyone who routed for me this week and supported me during the transition.
One thought on “First week at the Millay Colony”
It is really wonderful to be a part of your journey. From your descriptions, I can almost see first-hand, the beauty of Millay, and I can relate to the writing process and its struggles.
I look forward to more entries, and I wish you continued inspiration.