Rural Vermont is, it turns out, very rural. When we arrived, the gray-haired tour guide, who also doubles as the office secretary, detailed which walking areas were safe and which were not. It’s hunting season, she said. You know those blaze-orange beanies you’ve been seeing in town? That’s to set you apart from the deer. I nodded soberly, immediately recalled this horrific hunting “accident” I’d seen on the Investigation Discovery channel months before. Spoiler alert: the dead guy was wearing an orange hat. Stay on the marked trails and you should be fine, she said half-joking. And everybody laughed. But here’s the thing: she was only half-joking.
Later I saw a woman in running clothes outside my studio building. Where’s the best place to go around here? I said.
Up the road, she said, past the lumber store, take a left on the trail. It’s a little secluded, but totally beautiful.
Clearly, I thought, this woman does not watch Investigation Discovery. Do you know how many women runners are accidentally, or not-so-accidentally, hunted when they’re out alone? I don’t have the exact figure, but thanks to a mass chain letter my mother once emailed me—PLZ READ IF YOU LOVE WOMEN, said the subject line, and so I did because what kind of person would I be if I didn’t?—I no longer wear my hair in a ponytail when I run.
And it’s safe? I asked the woman.
I’ve never not felt safe there, she said, shrugging. Which I guess is the most assurance we can get in life, but still.
So, five days into this residency, I’m learning some uncomfortable truths about myself. Like I have a lot of disturbing stereotypes about rural settings. And I watch way too much crime TV.
Also, this: when all you do is hole yourself up in a little room to write made-up stories for days on end, personal hygiene seems pointless. Who do I have to impress? I shower every other day at best, let my body hair grow out, wear the same clothes for days at a time. If I catch a whiff of myself, I pull out a stick of my husband’s deodorant, which I sometimes take with me on trips when I travel alone, both to ward off body odor and occasional swells of homesickness. You don’t have to tell me how sad/unsettling/surprisingly effective this is.
Lately I’ve been skipping a lot of meals to work. The muse and I have an on-again/off-again relationship (okay, more off than on), so when she decides to show up, however belated and bedraggled (muse-work, I imagine, is an exhausting gig in this place full of writers and artists), I stick around. This morning, to make up for last night’s missed dinner, I ate two breakfasts: first, an unabashedly mountainous bowl of Rice Chex in the dining hall, and then, immediately afterward, a maple-chai latte and maple-oatmeal scone at the indie coffee shop around the corner (did I mention I’m in Vermont?). Breakfast(s) of champions, I know.
So far I am learning that too much solitude can drive a person mad (see above notes on personal hygiene). But so can too many people. There is no such thing as small talk at a residency program for writers and artists. The dial is set to eleven, always. Where are you from?, that most basic staple of conversation between strangers, is neither a simple nor an innocuous question. What are you working on?, even less so. In my experience, communal meals often require a nap afterward—to digest the conversation as much as the food.
As for the writing, here is what I’ve learned most of all: it’s really, really hard.
But there are things that can help. A bottomless supply of mass-manufactured, processed snack foods, preferably beef sticks, Ritz crackers, and oversized chocolate Crunch bars. Frequent, if unnecessary, bathroom breaks. A swipe of said hubby’s deodorant. The view of the river just outside my studio window, where, by my rules, if I happen to nod off on a gray and rainy day like today, I fairly count as writing time. (The runner wasn’t wrong: rural Vermont is totally beautiful.)
And, maybe, just maybe, a blaze-orange hunting hat for protection here in my little writing studio. Because if I’ve learned anything from Investigation Discovery, it’s that the real wild is inside.