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.

Until, two weeks in, when I was saved by a textile artist named Lucy. Lucy was not cowed by the environment. She was confident like the others but she had a lightness to her. She offered me a tour of her “sick” studio. The moment we made eye contact, I knew we’d be friends. Smoking on the bench outside her door, watching our plumes of breath meet in the air, I realized it was not so much an issue of vocation that was creating a barrier between me and my more demonstrably talented fellows. It was an issue of temperament. I’d put too much pressure on an old fantasy and given myself a punishing sense of writer camp.

“I think we should go to the movies,” she suggested.

“Where?”

“What do you mean, ‘where?’”

It had not occurred to me to go into town.

“What have you been doing this whole time?”

“Sitting at my desk,” I offered. “Staring out the window?”

She was horrified. I had not been taking walks. The pathways were too slippery. 

“No, no, no,” she said, “You need to see a movie. And not Truffaut. We’re going to the multiplex right now and seeing the first movie that’s playing.”

I have never been one for this game. I could win a gold medal for literary snobbery but I like to think I’d have a shot at the bronze when it comes to film snobbery. But Lucy knew it wasn’t just about the movie. It was about getting a big-screen reprieve from the pressures of small-screen typing. It was about getting in the passenger seat of her car and rubbing my gloved hands together while she started the ignition, about engaging in an activity that would remind me of the kid who’d looked up at the mansion on the hill and wondered what stories lurked inside. Really, it was about going to this slightly-sticky theater with boldly designed carpeting in the lobby and teenagers with their own dramas manning the popcorn machine. There’s a calm to being in a theater like that, particularly for anyone who grew up near malls. It’s very hard to have an existential crisis on an escalator.

On top of this, “what was playing” was I, Tonya. This is not a movie I’d felt compelled to see in the theater before heading upstate. No special effects or establishing shots of cliffs. I could wait. But it was exactly what I needed. The big screen highlighted director Craig Gillespie’s wide shots of skating arenas. The camera dramatically panned around Margot Robbie as she prepared to twirl it up in sequins. I, Tonya is smart without being esoteric. There’s a powerful Dangerous Liaisons nod in which Robbie shakily applies her makeup in the same way Glenn Close removes hers (signifying certain doom), but the soundtrack features Supertramp and Laura Branigan. It’s the perfect film to pick out of a hat in the middle of winter, to watch in a crowd of people who really and truly do not care how much you’ve written that day. 


The movie also features a deceptively simple structure because of its pacing and subject matter. The combination of fourth-wall-breaking, cuts between the past and the present, and straight-to-camera interviews peppered throughout gives one the sense that this movie is having
fun with itself. It’s enjoying its own art. This made me acutely jealous. Such narrative three-point turns are tough to make when writing a novel. They can be jarring to read and difficult to write, depending on when you decide to include them. But sitting there with Lucy, laughing as a bird pecked at Allison Janney’s shoulder, I couldn’t wait to get back to my room and experiment, to return to the place I’d once imagined. That night I wrote until the sun came up. I didn’t answer any questions at breakfast because I slept through it.

That was three years ago. And now, like anyone else writing at this moment, I am doing so during a pandemic. It’s the last week of March 2020 and I am stuck in a small apartment in New York. What do I do all day? I stare at my laptop. The kitchen has started to feel like a dining hall. It’s once again a dicey proposition to take walks. I keep telling myself to pretend it’s Yaddo. You’re taking up space. Get to work. So much time is laid out in front of you. Too much time. I used to think the people who went to writer camp and produced nothing were precious. Maybe I still think that. So at night, I’m doing what Lucy taught me to do: I’m giving up and watching movies. Most of the movies I watch feel more like cheating than medicine, the kind of movies that you forgot were so good but the second you stumble upon them, certain lines and performances come flooding back. Maybe even the context in which you saw them comes flooding back, those rows of tightly packed movie theater seats, symbolic of a world we hope is not lost. Perhaps these types of films didn’t make you reconsider your entire existence. But they did their job. They picked you up, brought you elsewhere, and deposited you back home before dawn.

—April 2020


Illustration by Xia Gordon