Some years ago, I applied to Ragdale, an artists’ and writers’ residency outside Chicago. I was accepted. In many ways, the timing was perfect. I had 300 pages of a novel to fix, I wasn’t sure yet how, but the generous folks at Ragdale were giving me four weeks of food and space to figure that out. It was January, and I’d get to wear the cozy parka and cozy boots I never needed in San Francisco while on long walks in fluffy snow (no ice or blackened slush in my fantasies). I had my own studio facing acres of Illinois Open Space, a studio complete with fireplace and a faded red-velvet sofa for afternoon naps. My father, back home, had been battling a mysterious ailment, but I’d gone with him to the doctor before leaving, and he seemed stabilized and under good care without my being there.
Except that when I got to Ragdale’s splendid Arts-and-Crafts house and lay on the red-velvet couch for a nap, I woke to an eerie, powerful presence. That night at dinner, the other fellows informed me of the ghosts. I couldn’t get a fire to start in my studio’s hearth, and my novel wasn’t cooperating. I read through the whole thing. OK; now what? I started chapter one farther in. I switched point of view. I stared at the screen, I stared at the printed-out pages I’d brought. I made small, tentative notations and huge scrawling flow charts. I lusted after the writer in the adjacent studio, a younger man with soft dark curls and the habit of saving a seat for me next to him at dinner.
A week went by, then two. I grew desperate. I napped too much (but never again on the sofa). I browsed the shelves of the downstairs library, looking for inspiration and sneaking peeks at the curly-haired writer’s bare feet as he wrote in an easy chair. I drafted sonnets about lust, villanelles about desire. One day, walking into town on (yes) icy sidewalks, I started thinking about how-to-write advice. Kill your darlings. Aim for unity of time and place. Show, don’t tell. I recalled something I’d once heard someone say: “I want to fuck your mind.” Now there’s dialogue that does more than one thing.
In the next few days, as I ate too many potatoes and casseroles, as I made a clumsy and unsuccessful pass at the writer next door, as I kept tabs on my father by cell phone and slept with the light on (one of the ghost stories involved a man in corduroy who visited fellows’ rooms at night) and joined a poet and painter for yoga every afternoon at four in the living room before a crackling fire, I wrote down every line of writerly advice I could think of and began creating vignettes for each. I had something to work on, after all! The novel had felt calcified, “done”—its phrases honed, its plot charted, its elasticity slack—and this was new, rough, exciting. In a time of frustration and fear, of lust and loss (my father would die three months later), it made me happy.
And, in the interest of full disclosure, victorious. Not just over the ghosts and the torpor and the boy next door (who, a week after turning me down, slept with the skinny blonde poet from Vermont), but over – well, I’m not going to give that away. Come to Sacramento on April 27 and hear for yourself, when an actor will read “The Art of Fiction” at Stories On Stage. Or click here, to read it as published in Bellingham Review. And as for the novel, it took a few years (including the writing and publishing of a memoir), but I finally did see what it needed. And no parka was involved.
What writing plans have taken an unexpected turn for you? When has writer’s block paid off in a surprising way? Which rules do you follow—or spurn?