April 7, 2016KR BlogBlogChatsEnthusiamsShort Takes/Mixed TapeWriting

Let’s Not and Say We Did: on traveling and literary residencies

“If they told me I couldn’t leave the radius of six miles from my house, I really wouldn’t care. There’s nowhere I really want to go.”

Thus saith poet and musician David Berman in “Dying in the Al Gore Suite,” a now-infamous 2005 article in The Fader magazine detailing Berman’s suicide attempt and subsequent rehabilitation and redemption. (Redemption of a sort at least; Berman’s band, Silver Jews, are currently broken up, and since the article appeared eleven years ago, he, like everyone, has had his share of ups and downs. But semi-recent Silver Jews updates on credible music sites like Pitchfork have discussed how the cult icon is healthy and working again, so to my mind this embodies the redemptive.)

Although I first read it when I was twenty-two, Berman’s 2005 statement on moving and movement has since chiseled out a little groove in the back of my head, namely because, like him, I don’t really like to travel. Shamefully, unless I truly have to, I don’t enjoy leaving my neighborhood, my routines, my dog, my familiar peculiarities. There are exceptions to this, of course—in 2012 I traveled around Iceland for 2 weeks, Iceland being a country that I’ve always wanted to visit since I was a kid. And it was worth the trip. Ireland is another country that I’ve not only lived in—extended summer and semester abroad as an undergrad—but subsequently visited several times after my initial stay. Ireland is magic, plain and sweet. Finally, I also have murky plans to travel to Greenland, hopefully sometime in the next year. Greenland for me holds the same appeal as Iceland. It’s pristine, cold, and isolated, filled with silence and unstated reverence. Greenland is a poem unwritten but softly sung, a kern set apart from the rest of the type because of its innate beauty.

But that’s pretty much it. There’s nowhere else I’m dying to visit, nowhere else without which I’d feel culturally and geographically bereft if I never went to hang out there for five days or a week or two weeks. (I realize that in declaring where I want to (leisure-wise) visit and where I do not want to (leisure-wise) visit, I write from a place of extreme privilege. I’m certainly blessed in that regard and I try not to ever take such privilege for granted.)

All of which is to say that I’ve never applied for a literary residency of any kind. (Or, for that matter, a literary fellowship of any kind. I’ve applied to some local fellowship stuff but never anything big and national. That’s a different mini-essay, though.) And this is something I really don’t think about that much. But as I live in Portland, Oregon—bastion of contemporary literature—and am chums with a healthy glut of local writers, it does seem to mildly astonish other authors or aspiring authors. My reasoning—that I don’t like to travel; that I’d just as soon try to write from the comfort of my own home as compared to a foreign bedroom or office space in Vermont, New Hampshire, or elsewhere; again, that I don’t like to travel—rarely satisfies the residency-aspiring incredulous. Their reasons for applying to different literary residences are various but essentially all come down to this: free time is a good thing for a writer. It begets work, new work.

Every two months the online magazine Entropy does an amazing “Where to Submit” feature and at the bottom of it is the “Residencies, Fellowships and Conferences” section, the section that I normally glance at fleetingly, if at all. But this past Sunday I perused it with a bit more care. I then tried to actualize in my head how I would feel if I was awarded a two week writing residency sojourn on Martha’s Vineyard or an eighteen- to twenty-five-day residency in Lake Forest, Illinois or a ten- or fifteen-week one in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Moving beyond my admittedly shallow “I don’t like to travel” set-response, would I be invigorated by the potentiality of being able to, interruption-free, write as much as I could, as well as I could, in one of the aforementioned places? Would I possibly create something that I never would have created from my apartment in Portland, that I never would have even envisioned creating? New genres to excitedly tromp around in, new patterns to cohere to and then veer away from, new ways of telling and, in the act of telling, inventing?

The answer, of course, is that I have no idea…but I doubt it. No matter its location, I assume what I would think about most at any creative residency is where I wasn’t. Meaning where my dog was and my books and my clothes and my friends and my dumb little knick-knacks and consistencies. Like I do every time I travel, I’d worry about all the things small and large I’m too busy to worry about when I’m home working, things that, like it or not, I oftentimes have little control over. But if I had the time to worry about them, I would, and I think the idyllic tranquility of a creative residency would give me that time.

I’m not totally sure of David Berman’s “[t]here’s nowhere I really want to go” reasoning, and perhaps his motives for staying put are completely different from my own. But some writers thrive on movement and traversing—Gloria Steinem, Walt Whitman—whereas others relish stasis and familiarity—Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust. I consider myself in that latter group, although perhaps there’s still time to change my ways. Especially if I get the opportunity to go to Greenland on someone else’s dime. Such a trip would be worth a thousand bad sonnets and short stories.