I'm getting ready to head out for a short sabbatical at VCCA
, an artist colony in southern Virginia. I've been there before, and I posted here
about the work of visual artists and others at the colony.
Each time I've visited in the past, I've had a specific project to focus on. The last time, I was supposed to be revising part of a novel. Instead, I started writing a new one, and wrote 40 pages of it in about 10 days. I like to think I was helped along by the mostly silent audience of local wildlife.
I don't count the cows as wildlife, exactly. And the cows are not silent. At this time of year, a number of them are about to give birth, so they make a lot of noise, and you can hear it from far away.
My studio was in a cottage that had not been used by Fellows before, so I was breaking it in. This is probably the only time I'll be happy to say my name is the first on a tombstone. The "tombstone" is the place in each studio where each Fellow "signs in" to show who has worked there and when.
As it happened, last year, there was a plague of stinkbugs in that area, and most of them seemed to land in my studio, where they would crawl out of the ceiling light and fly, buzzing, across the room at random, surprising moments. I started keeping a vacuum cleaner next to me, and after a few days, I was adept at typing with one hand while reaching up with the vacuum hose and sucking stinkbugs off the ceiling where they tended to gather above me, 20 or so at a time. They might have been interested in my work, but I don't really like anyone to read over my shoulder. On the other hand, when I read my new pages aloud, which I often did, they refrained from critical comment.
Once the stinkbugs abated, the fake ladybugs arrived. Fake in that they're not the useful kind that eat aphids, but a cheap imitation capitalizing on the good reputation of their betters. They streamed in around cracks in the old window frames by the hundreds. I had brought some painter's tape for hanging up manuscript pages on the wall...I used that to seal the cracks where they were getting in. And, after a few days, they stopped coming, too.
Then, on a particularly nice fall morning, I opened my back door and was swarmed by wasps. I called up Bruce Hartless. Bruce is the facility manager at VCCA, and also tends a herd of Angus cattle. I'm sure that poor Bruce was tired of hearing from me, but he was always good-natured and never let on. So I told him about the wasps.
He said, "These might not be the stinging kind; not all of them are." And he described the difference for me. I didn't want to test the theory.
Bruce came by to check out the wasps. "They are the stinging kind," he said. "But all you have to do is take a paper towel, fold it up, and squeeze them a little." He proceeded to demonstrate, quickly dispatching a wasp that clung to the wall. I told him I thought I would leave the squeezing of stinging wasps to someone else.
My upcoming trip to the colony will be the first where I don't have a particular project I feel compelled to work on. If I'm overwhelmed by limitless options, there are some story drafts I'd like to finish and some new novel chapters I could write. But there is absolute freedom in the idea that I can start from nothing, that all I really need is a pencil and paper. (And if that's the case, what's all this stuff I'm bringing along??) Maybe, like last year, the first line for something will simply pop into my head while stinkbugs are milling around above it.
Last year, when I came home and unpacked, and I was back in my office here, I heard a scratching sound coming from somewhere on my desk. As it turned out, I had a stowaway: A stinkbug had hitched a ride in my printer. It's still there. I read to it every day, and it never complains.