The City of Ideas

March 18, 2007

For the last year or so I’ve been actively referring to myself as a fiction writer. I am most definitely not a “retired schoolteacher.” I am not a retired anything. When asked what I do, I say, “I’m a fiction writer,” or, sometimes, “I’m a fiction writer and essayist,” so that I can follow the almost inevitable, “Oh? Are you published?” with a confident “Yes.” (These essays, posted on the Internet on a site with an ISSN, are published just as much as if they were in print between the covers of The New Yorker. At least for the purposes of copyright and first North American serial rights.)

The truth is that although I wrote my first short story since high school in 1989 and have been carrying the idea for a novel about domestic life among the Pennsylvania Germans in 19th century Berks County since 1982, I am still very much a wannabe. I work slowly, am easily distracted, and can be scattered in my approach, producing a lot of beginnings that don’t become finished stories and ideas that don’t get developed.

And I work in isolation. I’m not in an MFA program nor do I teach in a university. The local writers’ groups that I have been able to join from time to time tend to attract people whose development is at an even more basic level than mine or whose participation, compromised by professional and family obligations, is haphazard.

But I have seen some movement in my work, especially in the last year, and even more so in the last three months. This is, I think, due to my participation in the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, to which I sent my fifth annual application on Friday. The first year, 2003, I was probably among those whom Rebecca Mead (in a New Yorker essay most people at Bread Loaf consider unfair and mean-spirited) called “middle-aged historical novelists with grown children and supportive husbands” who treated Bread Loaf like “a fantasy camp for would-be Nobelists.” Well, I do have a grown child and a supportive husband, but after an extremely painful workshop experience that first year (the workshop leader seemed to have targeted me for ridicule and humiliation) I cried for a month, never went back (yet) to the historical novel, and started all over again. I was not going to be a poser.

Bread Loaf 2006 gave me more encouragement than I had ever known before (and 2004 was memorable in that regard). Some unusual energy entered my life sometime in November, and I found myself in January feeling light, optimistic, and ready to try something new.

Almost on a whim, I sent out applications to four artist residency programs. In an artist residency, you go to some remote location (remote if you don’t already live in the little town such places usually are on the outskirts of) where you’re furnished with an apartment or studio, meals, and sometimes other services so that you have nothing to do but work on your manuscript. Deadlines are always months in advance. I was applying in January for spots beginning in September.

I had everything done before I went away for a week in the middle of January to practice visual art. This meant that I even did the hardest thing, at least the hardest thing for me. I asked people, including the genuine published writer who’d been so encouraging at Bread Loaf, for recommendations. I asked other people to vouch for the fact that giving me space and time to work on my novel would not be a waste of an arts organization’s limited resources.

While the recommendations are important, the most significant aspects of your application are your work sample and your proposal, the outline of what you would accomplish with all the space and time and support you would get at the residency. I sent 6000 words of a planned 100,000 word novel (that’s about a 250-page book, what an Anne Tyler novel in hardback looks like on the shelf), a plan for completing the first draft by spring so that another section can be discussed at Bread Loaf, and a plan to work on the second draft (the really hard work that begins to turn your novel into something publishable) while in residence.

And then I forgot about it, or at least tried not to think about it. Most facilities accept only 10% to 20% of those who apply. It’s like getting into Georgetown or Stanford. And I went back to work. I didn’t get very far on the second 6000 words, but, driven by a need to produce work for a writers’ group I’d been invited to join, I did write two short stories. That’s not much, but it was more than I’d done in a long time.

Constantine Cavafy, a modern poet of Greece, the place where poetry was born, writes in “The First Step” of a young poet who complains to the master Theocritus that he’s completed only one idyll, a single poem in two years of trying, and that his production seems so paltry and so unworthy of recognition. Theocritus tries to reassure him:

To have reached this point is no small achievement:
what you’ve done already is a wonderful thing.
Even this first step
is a long way above the ordinary world.
To stand on this step
you must be in your own right
a member of the city of ideas.
And it’s a hard, unusual thing
to be enrolled as a citizen of that city.
Its councils are full of Legislators
no charlatan can fool.

On Thursday, the director of the Jentel Artists Residency Program in Sheridan, Wyoming offered me a month’s sojourn there, to begin on November 15 and end on December 13. They take only six residents in any month, and only two of them are writers. The past rosters show that the members of that city of ideas have Pushcart Prizes and two-book deals and other recognitions I have not even dared to dream of. The director said the admissions jury found my work “exciting.” Surely they are wise readers who cannot be fooled by a charlatan.

Many of you reading this have supported and encouraged me for a long time. I thank you again, and thank you for continuing to read.

And now, to get back to work on that first draft!

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margaretdeangelis [at] gmail [dot] com (replace the brackets with @ and a period)

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6 thoughts on “The City of Ideas

  1. Congratulations! Jentel looks like a fascinating place! Can’t wait to see your picture among the artists and writers! You deserve this!

  2. So happy for you- Did you ever imagine a return trip to Wyoming as a writer in residence? Best, Dennee

  3. You go, girl. Please accept my profuse wishes for your utmost happiness and success in all that you do.

  4. Congratulations. You are going to a truly incredibly place. I’ve gone twice. I’ve been transformed and then re-transformed again — Enjoy.

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