I’d like to pretend that it’s unusual for me to go quiet on this blog, but the truth is I’m an irregular blogger at best. But this time I have a pretty good excuse – I’ve just come back from a month as an Artist In Residence at Caldera Arts in Oregon.
Caldera is an amazing non-profit organisation with a mission to provide creative and environmental programs to underserviced and at-risk kids and teens from all over Oregon. They bring together artists and young people to complete a variety of projects in school and outside school, and during summer they run camps. If you watch the TV series Portlandia, you might have seen the funny sketch set in the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy. Caldera is the brainchild of advertising executive Dan Wieden. While at Caldera I read a newspaper interview with Wieden, where he talked about the need for diversity in the creative professions, and the dangers for a society that draws its designers and artists and filmmakers and other creative professionals from a limited and privileged pool of people. His comments kept me thinking for a long time.
During the winter months January-March Caldera runs three sets of month-long residencies for artists on its property near Sisters, Oregon. I was in residence with another writer Harvey Hix, two visual artists Erin Beaver and Erik Peterson, and the theatre group Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. I can now tell you that the theatre people drink the most wine, and probably have the most fun.
I got to live in a simple and beautiful A-frame cabin with a kitchen and bathroom and loft bed and a balcony overlooking a rushing creek, nestled into a valley bookended by two spectacular lakes, Blue Lake and Suttle Lake. As a writer, my living space was my workspace, but the other artists had studios in the expansive Hearth library building. I didn’t have access to the internet in my cabin, I had no phone, and the nearest town was ten minutes drive away (not to mention I was too terrified to drive the camp van as I could not get my head around the whole drive-on-the-right-side-of-the-road thing). We had weekly communal dinners on Wednesday nights, and would occasionally take trips into town for groceries, but other than that, we were on our own.
So, quiet isolation + natural beauty = the perfect work conditions. For the first few days I found it difficult to believe I was actually allowed to live in such a nice place where my only responsibility was to write. I had an imaginary person looking over my shoulder tut-tutting that I wasn’t doing enough, or that I wasn’t doing it in the right way. Luckily that didn’t last long, and I soon unwound and learned to let the residency be what it needed to be. Because I wasn’t squeezing my writing in around other things, as I have to do at home, I could wake up in the morning and ask myself: what do I feel like doing today? It was very different to my usual approach of planning what I am going to write in a particular allotment of time, and then feeling obliged to do exactly that (and guilty if I don’t).
I was right at the beginning of a new book so for two weeks I did a lot of reading and research. I’ve chosen to write on a topic I know little about, namely art, so for the first time I’ve had to do some serious research. I’m not much of an academic or non-fiction reader so I was a little nervous about this, but I found I really enjoyed reading biographies of artists and art history, and watching documentaries and feature films (for the record, the movie Modigliani was deeply silly, but Pollock was brilliant).
One of my writing techniques is to `act out’, that is, do what my characters have to do, so I also forced myself very reluctantly to sketch and draw and photograph, in an attempt to see my surrounds in the way a visual artist might. Please don’t ask to see my amateur efforts! Coupled with other things that may seem unrelated to writing, but which in a strange way are very related – morning yoga, meditation, walking around lakes, watching snow fall, talking to the other artists about their work, collecting weird leaves and bark – and I had quite a strange daily schedule. I have to say one of the most effective things I can do for my writing is simply to go for a walk. I’ve smashed down many brick walls and road blocks that way.
The second half of my residency was spent plotting and writing. I’m a `pantser’ rather than a `plotter’, but I would like to remedy this. I don’t think I’ll ever be the sort of writer who plots in minute certain detail, but I would like to improve the structure of my narratives. I made a lot of giant posters out of cardboard and black texta, detailing characters and timelines and other nitpicky stuff, and did some excellent colour coding in Scrivener. I felt very pious about the amount of plotting I had done, and then I wrote some sample chapters, picking out the scenes that seemed like they would be the most fun to write.
Towards the end of the month we had an Open Studio, where lots of locals drove through some quite heavy snow to hear and see what we’d been doing. It was really lovely to talk to people who were passionate about what Caldera does, and who were genuinely interested to see what we’d been doing in our caves. I put on a wig and several tablecloths, and read a short story (ahhh, there was a context to my costume, just in case you were wondering).
So there you have it. Not only did I get my write on, but I also acquired some important skills while at Caldera.
1) Cougar defense
On arrival I was quite alarmed to be warned about seeing racoons, bobcats and cougars. I relaxed somewhat when I was told what to do in the unlikely event of coming face to face with a cougar (OK, just to be clear here, I am not talking about older women, I mean the big cat sort of cougar).
You simply turn yourself into a Big Scary Giant by taking off your coat, putting it on back to front and raising your arms above your head. Backing away – slowly – and talking in a deep voice are also advised. See? No worries at all…
2) Fire building
I took ridiculous amounts of pleasure in chopping wood and learning to build the perfect fire (I was not a Girl Scout, and I did not have mad firebuilding skillz to begin with). Writing and reading are activities that are ten times better in front of a toasty fire.
3) Snow shoeing
As the only foreigner I became disproportionately excited every time we had snow, and I even enjoyed the chore of shovelling snow. Snow shoeing may be The Greatest Recreational Pasttime Known To Mankind. It’s like walking, but in snow, and with tennis racket things strapped to your boots. I can’t explain why walking in the snow with ski poles and tennis rackets strapped to your feet is so much fun, but it just is.