The Muse Wore Orange

At the Jentel Artist Residency, my most valuable hours were not spent writing.

By Sandra Beasley on 10.26.09

She stands by our front door: a painted cutout of a winged woman, complete with red spirals of hair. Angel, muse, safety monitor, she models the bright orange vest that each of us must wear if we venture into the hills surrounding the Jentel Artist Residency Program.

“So that you don’t get shot by hunters,” was the friendly instruction. “Or run down by truckers.”

I am one of this month’s residents—two writers, four visual artists, coincidentally all women—in a surprisingly lush complex twenty miles outside Sheridan, Wyoming. I say “surprisingly” because accommodations vary at colonies and conferences; having gone to a half-dozen in as many years, I take nothing for granted. I’ve lolled under a down comforter in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s barn, and choked down microwaved cod in rural Virginia. At Vermont Studio Center I’d spend an hour in a gleaming-redwood yoga studio, followed by an hour scrubbing broiler pans.

At Jentel, our household is a mellow lot. Evenings end in Scrabble, tea, perhaps a movie (colonies are the last known refuge of VHS). Free of the communal dining required by some places, we eat separately, happy to honor idiosyncratic hungers. The refrigerator holds six varieties of hummus.

Whenever I announce a colony stint for two weeks or a month, my friends nod supportively. “Oh,” they say, “that should be a wonderful vacation!” In a way, yes. My time is my own. Dinner was bread and pepper relish at 11:40 p.m., with no one objecting, nor will anyone tease if I’m in a robe at 11 a.m.

In a way, no. Jentel is four hours from Yellowstone; I should rent a car and go. But as we close in on our last week, Old Faithful can’t compete with my studio. Not only will I sacrifice sightseeing for writing, I’ll sacrifice sightseeing for the 1/100th possibility of writing. With two books coming out, I’m lucky enough to make writing my job for a while. It’s still a job.

Yet I couldn’t bear to be where the buffalo roam without enjoying the dry sun that makes nine months of Wyoming winter worthwhile. So I walk. Every day. Wearing a day-glow vest and the first tennis shoes I’ve bought in nine years. (I’m a city girl, having made even grocery runs in stilettos.) I walk two miles to where the country road meets highway, then I turn around and walk back.

I feel like I should claim that each walk strikes something off my cosmic to-do list: That I always return with a new poem, or that I’ve lost five pounds, or that listening to Steven Tyler for an hour changed my whole take on Aerosmith, or that I carry a camera. I don’t. I have nothing to prove that antelope shimmy under fences, while deer leap over, or that a snapping turtle with a six-inch Stegosaurus tail polices the cow pond.

The truth is, thoughts flow and eddy on these walks in a way that doesn’t sustain formal creation or observation. I’m grateful to think of life back in DC with genuine longing. I’m grateful for doggerel verses that surface even if they’ll never make it onto a page. I’m grateful to chart the map of my next six months, the first time in my adult life I’ll be out of a desk job. I’m grateful to accept my sweet tooth and my moral failing and resolve to buy my own damn raspberry fig bars in Sheridan, because I keep stealing them from someone’s stash in Jentel’s pantry.

Why come to a colony? Like many poets, I follow the debates: Can MFA programs teach writing? Should you be laying brick instead of adjuncting? Is Flarf a worthy discipline? Should I be Twittering this essay in 47 installments?

How afraid we are of losing time! As if we can’t afford to write poems that won’t endure. As if the road can’t include both blackboard-jockeying and troweling cement. As if a few years spent on workshops, post-workshop pubbing, and rubbing elbows with professors you pray might blurb you—and I, too, went into debt for my MFA—wouldn’t have been spent in some other way equal parts tectonic and navel-gazing. Backpacking in Europe. The fixer-upper house. A rock band. An MBA.

I come to colonies because honoring yourself as an artist means accepting and indulging it all: Eureka moments, blisters, elegant shawls, and orange vests. Once I went to a colony and wrote thirty poems in thirty days, the bulk of my first book. Once I went to a colony, fell for a boy, read, and toasted marshmallows. Here I’m writing not what I meant to write, but writing.

The road is long. I walk because I love the walk, even when it takes me nowhere in particular.

Editor’s Note: Sandra’s prize-winning second collection of poems, I Was the Jukebox, will be published by W. W. Norton in April 2010. Read her blog, Chicks Dig Poetry.

topics: Columnists


Matthew Nienow said on 10.26.09 at 3:29pm:

Great essay Sandra. Thanks.

Amy D. said on 10.27.09 at 9:06am:

I second that.