I’ve spent the last six weeks tucked away in a hamlet in the hills of Western Massachusetts, just off a highway that has hosted moose in the past, and very many black bears recently, and which boasts two bars, a library, a hardware store, and a gas station that rents DVDs. This, for a person who has only ever lived in major cities, has been an epic transition.
I came to this tiny village to slow down. The manuscript edits I needed to complete had stalled, and my agent’s check-in emails assuring me she would give me as much time and space as I needed, appeared to have tapered off. The three or so jobs I worked to afford a room in a four-bedroom Somerville apartment had ground me down to a state in which I second guessed whether I was using even the simplest words correctly. I’d burnt out. My brain felt fried.
At just the moment I needed a change, I was awarded a fellowship that provided free room at an artist retreat. In exchange, I would give part-time help running the place. When I arrived, I expected the bulk of my duties to revolve around my experience in program management and arts administration, but was surprised to learn that much of the work would take me away from a computer screen, and would involve power tools and trips to nurseries and lumber mills.
I was nervous. I’ve got a bad back and no evidence of a green thumb, and I was tasked with moving hay bales, hauling mulch, and keeping roses and rhododendrons alive. What I’ve discovered in this work is the satisfaction of interacting with the earth, with seeing the results of my labor manifest in the physical. You plant a rose-bush with ground-up compost and compacted soil, and water it consistently to either see it die in spite of your efforts, or, hopefully, open up in a gorgeous burst of color.
Working in a garden comes with obvious benefits to a writer: Not spending forty hours a week staring at a computer screen, to then have to go home and attempt to create art on that same device; being able to think through characters and themes and plot lines while doing physical labor. But the psychological benefit goes beyond that.
When your day job involves shooting off hundreds of emails per week into the void, or lecturing to blank faces in a classroom, or marking up a client’s manuscript with what you hope are helpful comments, the results of your work can at times feel nebulous.
Completing a full-length manuscript can feel similar. It’s difficult to see the whole of a novel or story collection, and copious rounds of editing can feel like endlessly pushing words around. Yes—I delight in crafting what seems to me a beautiful sentence. But a change in characterization, or setting, or plot a hundred pages earlier in the book may necessitate deleting that sentence, and a second look might illuminate that the sentence wasn’t that great to begin with. The same might go for any proportion of the project.
When your day job and your art both feel like endeavors involving long stretches with intangible results, this can lead you to believe that all of your time is spent getting not a whole lot done, which can be discouraging. With writing, you have to allow time for discovery, which might mean pushing words or ideas around with no end in sight. Balancing your art with work that provides tangible results can help you to delight in the joys of wading through the unknown. And keep you from drowning in it.
-Jonathan Escoffery, 2017 Ivan Gold Fellow