Parenting & Playwriting
A Room with a View
This post is the seventh column of a regular series on Parenting & Playwriting. Find the previous columns here.
Here’s what my advice column will offer you: a place to ask questions and share grievances about juggling life as theater artists and as parents. Here’s what my advice column will not offer you: much actual advice you can use. For those of you masochists longing for some truly crappy advice, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me @ctrieschmann.
Dear Catherine, I really want to apply to the MacDowell Colony, but they don't allow children. How do you juggle being a parent with taking advantage of writer's retreats and extended workshopping opportunities?
The playwrights I stalk on the internet are having fabulous summers. They're writing plays in choice locales, like Martha's Vineyard; Cape Cod; Waterford, Connecticut; Ojai, California; and Bellagio, Italy. Oh, to sit on the porch at the O'Neill where the fog rolls up the sloping lawn every evening, and the sound laps up the shore only a stone's throw away! I know the particular scenery of the O'Neill, because I was an assistant there many moons ago. I don't know the particulars of Bellagio, Italy, but I've seen their views online, and I'd like a room with one, please.
Writing retreats and the like are often held in gob-smackingly gorgeous places, because rich people like such places and rich people like to underwrite writing retreats. I don't know why, but I'm glad they do. It's fairly delightful to only make $16,000/year and still get to Martha's Vineyard and swing with the tan and the swanky. The only thing is, I never actually go on writer's retreats or apply for lengthy workshops, because I have young children who don't fancy being left behind for a month.
Nevertheless, to scratch this itch a little, I decided to contrive my own retreat on a budget this summer. My Uncle Dick, who is a hunter and a gentleman and the only member of the NRA I actively adore, agreed to let me stay at his cabin in the woods in rural Arkansas for a long weekend, while my Mom watched the kids in Little Rock. Arkansas may not be Italy, but it is, in fact, a lovely state with the Ozark Mountains and plentiful lakes and rivers. I imagined writing in a cabin nestled in the foothills with lots of walking trails and starry nights, getting lost in the woods and finding inspiration.
What I didn't realize until arriving at my Uncle's cabin, however, is that south-central Arkansas is nowhere near the Ozark Mountains. To be precise, my Uncle's cabin sits in what is called the "rice bowl" of the country—flooded prairie notable for its ability to grow rice and to attract ducks, turkeys, deer, and other assorted wildlife; in other words, a terrific piece of property for a hunter but nothing like Walden Pond.
Detroit theater people do the work of putting on a production in the same way their parents and grandparents approached going to the plant. They produce art in a very visceral, hands-on way
My uncle met me at the cabin to help me settle in and drew a map of the property, so I might begin my peregrinations immediately. When I enthusiastically emerged from the guest room in my yoga pants and tennis shoes, he took one look at me and said, "I can't let you go out that like."
Fast forward twenty minutes later, and I'm stepping off the front porch in my cousin Andrew's size ten boots, a long-sleeved camouflage t-shirt, hat, and backpack with my journal and a can of mosquito repellent so strong I'm not sure it's legal. I plan to hike to the hunter's perch about a mile north and spend the afternoon writing—much like journaling in a tree house, I imagine.
It's a good thing I'm so well garbed, because as soon as I step into the woods, I discover that the trail is not so much a trail as it is a muddy stream, and while the mosquitoes don't pierce through my camouflage, the dragonflies are the size of my fist and quite determined to bite off my nose. As I trudge through the mud, passing rice paddies right and left, covered in sweat, it occurs to me that there is nothing whatsoever inspiring, literary or otherwise, about this particular nature walk, unless I'm planning to write a play about Vietnam, which I am not, nor ever shall.
When I reach the perch, I find it covered in wasps, which frankly, is not a disappointment. I have no desire by this point to sit with the swirl of insects and my own stink, and so I walk back to the cabin. I take the long route back, as the levee around the pond sits higher and therefore dryer than the surrounding woods, and as I amble along, the forest to my right, the pond to my left, I exhale. A belted kingfisher hovers over the water before diving in. The thin arms of the cypress beckon me with the breeze. All landscapes hold a certain grandeur, if you're willing to let go of expectations and be present to what Mother Nature offers.
Until the bitch offers you a big, fat poisonous snake.
A water moccasin, to be precise. I go still with shock and dread as this twelve-foot long, thick and ropey vat of black poison zig-zags past me and into the pond. Weak in the knees, I make my way back to the cabin, lock the door and don't go outdoors again.
In the end, I did get a fair bit of writing done. I was, after all, alone in a cabin without internet access or children for a weekend. But needless to say, I didn't return filled with the wonder of nature, drunk on the transcendentalists. I did have an epiphany though. Shall I share?
I realized that beautiful scenery and nature walks do not make me a better writer. What makes me a better writer is turning my mind into a steel trap (a cast iron model with large sharp teeth good for entrapping bears) against life's distractions, big and small, wherever I find myself—be it a cabin in Arkansas, a child's room in Kansas, or a dressing room backstage. Transforming one's mind into its own retreat—that's what we should aspire to, not writing in resorts.
Unless the resort is in Bellagio, Italy, of course.
What's your dream writer's retreat? Share with us in the comments!