First Person

A Writer’s Retreat

A Writer’s Retreat

One of the internet’s more delightful creations is a compilation of Aaron Sorkin quotes assembled by a man named Kevin Porter in 2012. Its purpose is to expose the screenwriter’s propensity for repetition. Some of the examples, plucked from sources like Sports Night and The Social Network, are highly unfair. Sorkin frequently employs the phrase “you bet.” However, once the guy starts using the same extended references during the same sequences of dialogue, things get good and funny. The “Sorkinism” I kept alighting upon during my month at Yaddo, the famed writer’s colony in Saratoga, New York, was the “camp” one.

“This isn’t TV camp,” says a character on Studio 60.

“This isn’t government camp,” says another on The West Wing.

This is no time to coddle adults as if they were children. This is a professional situation, goddamnit. Act accordingly. By going to Yaddo, I had shipped myself to writer camp, a place that, until then, had lived mostly in my mind. By the time I went, nearly all of my writer friends had been or applied (I could detect no discernible difference, qualification-wise) or consciously rejected the enterprise. For me, Yaddo was different. It was a residual rite of passage. My sister had gone to Skidmore, also in Saratoga, so I’d taken a tour of the grounds when I was thirteen. I fell for the gardens, the twisting pathways, the haunted mansion on the hill. Being a writer is not like having a snowballing set of skills, like being a chef or a doctor. You have to decide on a daily basis if you’re qualified to do it. If you want to do it. And for a good stretch of my teen years, the mere existence of Yaddo, just having glimpsed it, was enough to keep me writing.

The place certainly sounds a lot like camp. There are the late-night swims and the crunch of pine needles underfoot and the breakfasts in the dining room (where James Baldwin and Truman Capote also ate), and the lunches prepared in metal pails. The lunches turned out to be exactly as advertised. But I arrived at Yaddo during a particularly harsh winter, when the population was quartered and the garden frozen over. Power lines fell. The mansion was mostly closed off due to construction. We rejoiced on balmy days, when it was -8. And, due to sheer coincidence, I was the only writer there. 

Part of the delight of any artist’s colony is the sensation of plugging back into a creative mainframe that includes documentary filmmakers and composers. But writers talk differently about our craft at the breakfast table in that we never talk about our craft at the breakfast table. We’re finicky and private, secretly assuming that what we do is more difficult precisely because it requires less training, because we do not have “instruments” or “materials.” We are prone to viewing the accessories of other art forms as advantages instead of what they are—intentional handicaps. But at least a filmmaker can speak about the challenges of getting the lighting right without also speaking directly about her own failings. There’s always a toe shoe or a kiln to carry some of the creative burden. What do I have? My laptop died? Thus I found myself intimidated by my fellow artists, unable to answer complex questions like “did you get a lot of work done today?” 

Perhaps because no, I did not get a lot of work done today. Or any day. I longed to show up to breakfast and announce that I’d gotten up at dawn, having been slapped awake by Capote’s ghost, to pour myself coffee like I really deserved it. I longed to fulfill a childhood dream that predated most of the books I’d ever read. The others seemed to want that for me too, as I was the de facto representative for all writers. I kept thinking: This is a professional situation, goddamnit. You are taking up space. Get to work. But no work would come.

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