Learning to Commit to Writing at VCCA

Last February, I left my three young boys, my job, and the ten thousand things I “should” be doing at any given moment, to put writing first. This was something I had never done. For all my talk of wanting to prioritize a calling that has doggedly pursued me over the years (as I’ve just as doggedly tried to ignore it),

I had never actually dropped everything to do nothing but write for an extended period of time.

The breathtakingly bucolic Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst, Virginia.

My instructor at GrubStreet had pointed out gently to me and my comrades in the Memoir Incubator that if we were serious about birthing our books someday, we were going to have to commit to caring for them attentively during their period of gestation.

Residencies, she said, were a great way to do that. So, with great furrowing of brow and biting of nails, I applied for one at the Virgina Center for the Creative Arts. After I sent in my application, I checked my email obsessively until I couldn’t stand it anymore, and then I forgot about it. I have since learned that artists’ colonies of this type have an algorithm that calculates the average length of time the human brain will obsess over something it wants (especially related to its creative self-worth), wait until said length of time has passed, and then spit out an email at the applicant while they’re at the grocery store on a Thursday, causing a massive surge of anxiety and cortisol in the bread aisle while they tap frantically through to see if the email has little balloons floating down it or not. Happily, mine did. So, after two flights and a meandering taxi ride, I arrived at the rolling, sculpture-dotted grounds of VCCA in Amherst, Virginia.

The colony offers retreats of various lengths to writers, composers, and visual artists in a breathtaking bucolic setting complete with circling hawks, antique silos, and red clay pathways. Each person gets their own studio, and is provided with three meals a day. Coffee is available at all times, and it is very quiet. Aside from the coffee, this is unlike life in my regular household in every possible way. As a mother of three, I would apply for a residency just to have someone cook for me for ten days, let alone being given a quiet space of my own where I could sleep through the night without a small human in my bed. On top of all this, I had heard from previous attendees that VCCA was special, as colonies go, for some intangible quality of the artists it attracted, who were apparently totally awesome—but in a charming and humble way—and for the nature of the place itself, which was described as “magical” by each and every former fellow I asked about it. And it was, I found. But why?

Writing is hard. So yes, with all excuses not to write stripped away, sitting at an empty desk in rural Virginia, I had a few moments of sheer panic. But the words came, and some of them were worth not deleting, so I did the best I could and made some headway on my book. But the real exercise was not in writing. Like any shame-driven masochist worth their salt, I can make myself sit at a desk and weep and write anywhere, so doing it in Virginia really wasn’t that big of a deal.

What was hard—in applying, in accepting the fellowship, in leaving the kids and the “real” job and the ten thousand things, in sitting at the Buick-sized desk each morning with the barn cat sauntering by and winking at me—was really committing to this thing I love, but am ashamed to love for reasons that still mystify me.

The magic of VCCA, for me, was the experience of writing solely in the company of other writers and artists who could teach me to commit.

It was a chance to exit what I have always been told is “the real world” and enter a world that turned out, for me, to be infinitely more real than any other I’ve stumbled into. For my wide-eyed inner girl-child, it was like falling down a rabbit hole into an old wardrobe and then stepping out the back into an enchanted forest. At VCCA, everyone was like me: a terrified, creative introvert posing as a gregarious, confident extrovert (you can imagine how exhausting this is). We sat at breakfast and ate our eggs and hash mostly silently, and then scurried back under our logs to make art. At one point I turned to a composer next to me and she just held up her hand and pointed at her coffee. Now, that is some boundary-setting I can get on board with. For the first three days, no one even asked me what I was working on. It was heaven.

I heard at a writers’ conference last spring that in developing an “action plan,” and creating a “platform,” one should have an answer ready to the pernicious questions people ask at cocktail parties when you tell them you’re a writer. “Oh,” they say first, “what do you write?” and then, worse still, “have you written anything I would have read?” Since the most polite answer I can ever think of in these situations is “fuck you,” self-promotion hasn’t historically gone well for me. But at VCCA, everyone treated their own work, and mine, with a kind of compassionate respect that I had never experienced being practiced at me by a such a large group of people. And they taught me, by example, to practice this compassionate respect toward myself and my own writing. They listened carefully, without interrupting, when I finally came out of my shell enough to talk about my book. They nodded and patted me on the back when I cried through dinner after a rough day in the trenches. They never, ever…not once…asked what I did for a “real job.” The relief and gratitude at having found this tribe—my tribe—to teach me how to take my work seriously, was, indeed, magical. So until I can afford an expensive publicist who will say “fuck you” for me at parties while I go get a club soda, there are places like VCCA. I’ll be back.

Guest blogger Alicia Googins is a graduate of GrubStreet, Inc.’s 2016-2017 Memoir Incubator, and a recent recipient of the Emerson College Full Tuition Fellowship for an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Cambridge with her three children.