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 dctrieschmann@gmail.com 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.

stream surrounded by colorful trees and Roark Bluff cliff face
Roark Bluff in the Ozark Mountains

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!

 

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Thoughts from the curator

A series on balancing responsibilities as a working playwright and as a parent.

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I know very little about the organization of artists residencies, but are there simple solutions that would make some of them available for writers to bring their children with them and still have the ability to have alone time? Like a summer residency with a children's program to keep them occupied during the day? Do those exist already anywhere?

I've done 3 retreats--2 at the MacDowell, and one at Ucross--and they were GLORIOUS. Also, pre-motherhood. I've got my eye on another one someday, someday. My daughter will be starting 2nd grade in the fall, and I feel like we're getting into a zone where me being gone for a month could work out just fine. The tough part is not the going--it's getting accepted somewhere on a particular schedule so things can work out with the spouse at home! I have to look into that Millay "virtual residency," that might be a path. But in the meantime, just about anywhere at all for a long weekend--Motel 6, a pup tent, house/cat sitting for a friend--any time that lets me focus more deeply than the usual day-to-day is a gift.

I'm lucky and incredibly blessed to have a stay-at-home spouse who quite effectively manages the chaos of our three kids. Still, I do notice some raised eyebrows when I take off on some adventure or other and Dave stays home (something that never seems odd when the gender roles are switched, and Daddy goes off on that business trip). That said, we take a pretty significant financial hit with only one of us working - our house is tiny, cluttered and cramped with only one bathroom, and as the girls get older I feel my daily ten minutes of "me" time in the shower rapidly dwindling.

My ideal writer's retreat? A house with some space. And a butler.

Yes, yes, and yes. This also raises a very interesting question: what journeys do we deem too self-indulgent to take? I tend to make choices based on finances. I will travel for long periods for production (and therefore, royalties) but not so much for workshops and retreats. BUT often you need the quiet of a retreat or the collaboration of a workshop in order to get the material done in the first place.

Either because I lack the discipline of that steel trap of a distraction-resistant mind (which I'll readily admit) or because my children are extra-distracting (which I'll also gladly stipulate, and not necessarily in a flattering oh-my-kids-are-just-bursting-with-lively-curiosity way), I find that, if I'm going to get stuff done, retreat is necessary. That doesn't have to mean retreat to a scenic rustic idyll or a stunning Italian getaway; indeed, it pretty much never ever does. But because I typically have to leave town whenever I'm doing theater, it means every work trip is an opportunity -- more like an imperative -- to Get Writing Done. (Especially since I'm leaving my spouse behind to parent alone: the unspoken understanding is I'd better be getting writing done.) And when I'm not out of town, that's what the local coffee shop is for. Basically, wherever they can't find me.
I'd be a more functional, more productive writer if I could steal work time here and there at home whenever the kids spontaneously afford me the brief opportunity, but the past six years has been a slow and not-yet-complete process of realizing that, y'know what, maybe I'm not that kind of writer.

Eric writes about realizing that "y'know what, maybe I'm not that kind of writer." I think it's super-important for all of us, parents or not, to figure out what kind of a writer we are and not beat ourselves up for not being some other kind of writer. For most of my life, I have battled with the cultural ideal of the artist as someone who is obsessive and single-minded. I am not that person. I love writing more than *almost* anything. But I love and value other things too. My approach to "retreating" as a working parent when my kids were young was to get them out of the house and stay home alone whenever I could (I'm not much of a coffee-house writer). Of course, good quality child care requires parents with good-paying jobs (not in theatre!) and working for an actual living definitely cut into writing time ... but there's no perfect solution.

I do want to add a small note of dissent here. As a working actor married to a very busy sound designer we both spend long chunks of time away from our young child. and have done since he was tiny. (I didn''t go anywhere until he was weaned, but after that I HAD to get back to work.) In fact, my partner is at the Guthrie right now while I am in rehearsals here in Philly. Every career has its demands and for us travel is part of a sustainable life in the theater. We do our best not to overlap, but we also embrace the fact that his childhood will not have the same shape as many others do. He may not like having me away for a month, but he also got to live on a house boat in Amsterdam last year so it can have it's up sides. Other practical issue may make travel difficult for you, but I just wanted to pipe up and say that if a retreat is what's needed for an artist to make their work, then find a way to make it happen. Your kids will adjust.

The Millay Colony has a virtual residency for parents. You can come and go for a month, and for as few as 4 days. I don't know how that helps the process of writing or not, as I've yet to apply. I have managed to go away for weekends up to 17 days or so. The thing that kills me every time is the stress of getting an entire household in order so I can go (and the cost of babysitting) as well.

I spent a weekend this past February at a playwriting retreat in Banff, Alberta. Nothing compares to the beauty and the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies. That's inspiration, for you. Now that I've been, I am so wanting to return as part of the Banff Playwrites Colony. That's the dream right now. Mind you, the Sage Hill Writers Experience in Saskatchewan (just outside Regina) is a whole different kind of beauty. Flat land and big sky.

Thanks from central Arkansas! After babysitting my grandchildren (2+ mo. and 3 yrs.) for five days, I enjoyed your scary funny story, laughed and said, "Amen!" Now, where'd I put those great notes I got two weeks ago at Sewanee?