Quiet Craving: Using Solitude for Deep Work in the Arts

When I was young, I wanted to be a nun.

This was actually a compromise. I aspired to be a monk, but reality was creeping in, and when I cast my eyes into the adult future, I worried that even if I kept my short hair, my double X birdhousechromosomes would somehow be discovered. It wasn’t worth entertaining the image of widened hips or the other unthinkable womanly parts; mendacity in proximity to God was a more legitimate concern.

What was my fantasy monk life? Hours and days and years of monastic quiet, surrounded by scrolls and tomes. Sure, there would be group meals, the occasional monk friend you’d bump into by a library. But all that studying and solitude – could you imagine a better paradise?

One Christmas the nun-thing slipped out to my favorite aunt.

“Honey,” she laughed, “what are you thinking? You’re not even Catholic!”

My Southern Baptist Ozark world had never felt so small.

 

My neighbor – a sculptor – had suggested three years ago I apply to Hambidge,  a residency near where we were living, Atlanta. It took three applications (all wait-listed), but mid-January, I got an email that there was an open slot in February. Nevermind that I had to leave Mardi Gras day (you try getting out of New Orleans against that mob of people, Dear Reader) or that my youngsters would be out of school for half the time. I was going, come Zulu Kings or feral children.

The Hambidge property sits up in Rabun County in northeast Georgia, one of its boundaries just miles from South Carolina, another kissing North Carolina. It’s Appalachia for sure, but within striking distance of Asheville and its mountain art scene. My first morning there I had to temper my fear that a mistake had been made. I had taken a fourteen hour train ride, paid $80 for a mountain shuttle to drop me at 1 am, spent a frozen night in the guest house, and stumbled down to the kitchen on numbed feet to find a heater and coffee pot, when I was suddenly faced with a woman just as startled to see me as I was to see her.

Best Workspace Ever

It was one of the grounds managers, and she hadn’t expected me. Bad sign. A cursory glance at a paper pinned to the hallway corkboard, however, said I was supposed to be in Foxfire. She drove me and my suitcases up a steep gravel hill, showed me how to turn on the propane heater, explained about dinner and the absolutelynotunderanycirmunstances rule against disturbing the other residents. Foxfire is spacious – an enormous studio that manages to be cozy thanks to the exposed-beam vaulted ceilings and kitchenette tucked beside the large writing desk. The bedroom has a piano and a fireplace, and the view gives way to a valley sunrise that would sweep yellow across my papers and laptop every morning. When the grounds manager left, I saw the wooden planks inscribed with the names of every artist passing through Foxfire’s doorway. Surely this amazing cabin was meant for someone else. Perhaps someone with more publishing credits. Thankfully I could not Google any of them.

Unable to settle into the novel I was starting that morning, I got my bearings and journaled. I wrote inspirational notes to myself like, “Thawed my feet in the tub and hope to keep them functional – seems I’ll mostly need my head, hands, and heart here.” Hours later I sat down to dinner with the other artists. Some – like me – were first timers. Some were residency veterans. One or two seemed to be on the “residency circuit,” a nomadic stacking of eight-week colony stints punctuated by brief stays in normal civilization (I’ve read an account of a woman’s doing this for small waterfalla year). They had all driven from as close as South Carolina and as far as Detroit and New York. Among us were three fiction writers (myself included), a poet, a drawing specialist, an installation artist, a ceramicist, and a composer that would arrive later. I was happy that even though I’d missed the previous day’s dinner, everyone still wore eager arrival faces. By the time we’d done the dishes I had a mixed-up craving for the isolation of my cabin and for the next dinner.

My days fell into a routine of journaling, making breakfast, and novel work until lunch. Most often another novel session followed in the afternoons, but sometimes I hiked to waterfalls or did a bit of yoga. I never brought my map or the bear bells on my hikes, just my trusty Leica with its broken light meter. This mapless hubris only bit me once, when a planned twenty-minute hike turned into a two-hour expedition. I got lost, trespassed, forded a frozen stream, and accidentally crossed into North Carolina. Also, I mis-wound film for the first time in my life.

Aside from the convivial dinners, I had a few brushes with the outside world.

One frozen Saturday night a hearty group of townies came out under a sickle moon to listen to us go on about our projects. The fifth day of the residency was a Sunday (no dinners), so a few of us drove into town for burgers (Hambidge serves vegetarian meals). It was jarring to see that the nearby hamlet of Clayton, and the world, had kept moving. Apparently it was Valentine’s Day. But it was easy enough to get seats, and we were updated via smartphone while gorging on fries and meat.

“Scalia’s dead!”

“Do we like him? I forget –”

“He was anti-human.”

“OK, great. What else?”

“Umberto Eco –”

“What?”

“Also dead.”

“Noooooooo!”

“And Trump is now the frontrunner –”

Turns out I didn’t miss the news. I didn’t even miss my favorite espresso or croissants that much. I did miss my daughter’s first sleepover, and found the loneliest hours are the ones after nine, when Netflix and games and the sounds of humans are so distant that your own breath is loud in your lungs. Nature in winter makes a scant companion. During my last nights, it was a relief to seebridge the moon coming to life, throwing down enough light that I didn’t need my flashlight for the post-dinner return to Foxfire.

As my two weeks at Hambidge were drawing to a close, one of my dear friends came to stay the night. I guided her to the burger joint, then later that night we went back up the mountain and built a fire. While my friend slept in the orange glow, I finished organizing my papers, unpinning the plot points and notes from the corkboard. I was already heartsick at the farewell. Somewhere along the way I had sloughed off my anxiety about my right to Foxfire. Instead I was covered with a thick layer of gratitude. I had grown into the space, or the space had possessed me, just as much as the chapters I had written under its roof had.

Thankfully places like Hambidge exist. In such a space you can form a chrysalis, something all creation requires. Like Rilke said: “What is necessary after all is this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours.” For the times in between, if you can approach the ideal of Trappist beer after a long day of writing and kissing the children goodnight, you’re doing all right.

(All photographs by Stephanie Knapp Stoecker.)

 

And you, Dear Reader, how long do you think you could unplug from the world?

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12 thoughts on “Quiet Craving: Using Solitude for Deep Work in the Arts

    • To answer your question :-). Longest writing retreat I’ve taken has been a month ( https://readersunbound.com/2014/06/11/writing-retreat-at-mouse-house/ ). Have also taken some as short as a few days—and everything in between. I’d fit your “circuit” category except that none of my retreats are formal residencies—all self-imposed at vacation homes of friends or family. I’ve found I need ten days or longer to be really productive—always takes a few days to burrow in to deep writing mode—

      • I loved that post, Deb! And I hear you on the self-imposed retreats. Years ago I did one of those in Portland. And I don’t want to count the summer I went to the Iowa Writer’s Fest, because it’s such a different thing (lots of critiquing, a very different kind of productivity) but I loved that too.
        Also, you can’t beat getting fed:)

    • Stepahanie, I’ve read this several times and see something new every time. Love this post and am surely going to apply to Hambidge. One thing I wondered about your stay—did you carve your name in a Foxfire plank?

  1. Lovely, Stephanie. Thanks for sharing this. Fellow residents were lucky to have you among them. Have stayed at Hambidge as well. That solitude is transformative. Favorite Foxfire memento is a framed quote that used to hang above the doorway. Remembered as “I read what I write so I know what I think,” the quote really goes “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” In any case the author is Flannery O’Connor, and I totally agree with her sentiment.

  2. Ha! Loved “Thawed my feet in the tub and hope to keep them functional – seems I’ll mostly need my head, hands, and heart here”! Sounds like something from a text adventure game.

  3. My favorite line is “I was covered with a thick layer of gratitude.” So visual, and it gives a warm and fuzzy feeling that otherwise wouldn’t be there. Very good piece, and Hambidge looks like an amazing writer’s/artist’s getaway. It’s by invitation through a residency, correct? If so, kudos to you for getting there!

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