I can't tell you how to create or what to create. But I can tell you that the best stuff comes from when you HAVE to create — when you've given up and there's nothing left to lose. Some declare it “a calling.” But now that you can identify the curse of creativity, where do you do it? And when?
I am not the best writer and artist. I was never entrusted to take over a major franchise and endow it with my sensibilities. However, I was thrown the occasional bone because I kept showing up and I was acceptable enough to help perpetuate intellectual property. Alas, my adolescent dreams of contributing something substantial to any number of four-color fables I grew up cherishing never came to fruition. But it didn't stop me from sparking my own lore.
As far back as avoiding junior high school homework and jotting down ideas on note pads and bar napkins at part-time jobs, to sitting at desks and art tables at home and in shared studios, I never left a pencil and pen alone too long from filling up a blank page. And, then I learned about artist residencies.
When I applied to Yaddo in 2012, I was surprised to be accepted into the legendary artists’ colony. I didn't think I'd make muster, but someone in the jury of my peers believed in me. And when I showed up and was sobered to the belief that I was entering a non-judgmental workspace, it meant I had to prove myself, to myself.
Jeez … talk about pressure. I'm a frustrated perfectionist who knows, for a fact, that anything I ever made or will ever make won't come close to the people, places, and things I admire and inspire me. I've spent the last decade trying to eradicate most of my influences so as to let deliberate accidents and gut feelings craft my work and mark my territory.
As we get older, we develop shortcuts. A creative shorthand. It's part of adapting your style. But it can prove lazy. The first night at my inaugural Yaddo residency, I wanted to shrug off the rigors of my creative comfort zones, especially if I was going to dedicate precious time to writing an unsolicited novel. But I'm a cartoonist by passion and by trade, so that first evening I took the loose sketch of a character I initially called “The Rascal” and typed a six-page comic book story that would later be developed into The Red Hook. A few months later, that script would be illustrated during my tenure as “master artist” at the Atlantic Center for the Arts.
That illustrated effort would later be used as an audition to write and draw a superhero series for a major comic book publisher. My tenure on that franchise coupled with my history as a progenitor and curator of personal webcomics would alert a keen editor to have me pitch and successfully sell an original, creator-owned Red Hook webcomic series. And at age 52, I'm currently experiencing a creative autonomy that I know won't last, which means I need to work even harder.
That first night at my fourth residency at Yaddo in the late summer of 2019, I stared at the blank page and wondered how the hell I was going to crack and complete the script for a 130-page graphic novel in one month. Deadlines are great motivators but there's no guarantee. So I panicked, banged my head against the wall, and then … I did something I never do. I procrastinated. I don't procrastinate very well.
I also don't like carrots.
Yaddo is famous for slipping a wax bag of sliced carrots into our lunch pails. It's a tradition. For the first three days of my residency, I made myself eat them. But, then my philistine distaste for the sweet, snappy root took over, despite the fact that I'm slowly going blind and EVERYONE knows carrots are good for your eyes. Still, aren’t pain and suffering the bedrock of art?
I accumulated a tower of carrot sticks in the corner of my writing desk which looked down at the colony entrance from the second-floor window. It’s a busy corner where artists, staff, and visitors come and go, including groundhogs, who worm their way around the grassy knolls and disappear into black holes.
A week or so into my residency, I spotted a curious groundhog. So I pocketed my tower of carrots and ran down the stairs and out the front porch door. I ducked behind a column so as to not startle the furry creature and watched as its body heaved and wiggled its way across the parking lot and toward the great lawn behind the mansion. I tiptoed behind the groundhog as it made its way to a tree with a hole and dove into it, disappearing. I slowly opened the crinkly wax bag and sprinkled the sliced carrots next to the hole. I sat a few minutes, hoping the sweet fragrance of the eye-healing vegetable would woo the groundhog from its earthy nest.
Suddenly, its nose appeared, sniffing at the orange snack. I watched as it grabbed and ate each carrot, one by one, staring at me the entire meal. As it consumed the final carrot, I spoke softly to it, trying to make a new friend. “Do you actually like carrots?” He or she blinked. Was that a yes or a no?
I revisited this part of Yaddo a few times a week and alerted other residents of my secret donations before they confessed to me about their own columns of carrot rations. With the amount of carrot peace offerings shared and dispersed thereafter, the groundhogs must've concluded that humans are the evolution of monkeys copulating with rabbits.
My procrastination accomplished, I was forced to do the hard work of staring at the man in the mirror. This 130-page graphic novel wasn't going to write itself. But I'm not composing this to discuss the nuts and bolts of writing, because everyone has a different process. Remember, this essay is a “How did I,” not a “How to.”
Peers ask me, “What is Yaddo like?” It's almost impossible to answer. It's like a microcosm of real life, only not at all. It requires you to let go of familiarity and immediately embrace equal concentrations of inclusion, inquiry, and indifference. It's a little bit like high school. A “Breakfast Club” among introverts, extroverts, masters, and outliers, where an unwritten embargo between the artists and life outside the retreat in the “real world” is a daily negotiation. An olive branch offered to relieve you of the toxicity of the world and surrender to a small, private camp of wildly diverse imaginations. It can be emotional and super-sensitive. The only real rule is that you account your whereabouts for dinner; otherwise, you might just be dead.
When you're not discussing the day's creative struggles and epiphanies among a revolving tribe of rookies, journeymen, and veterans at dinner, you're holed up in your studio, punching and hugging, and sometimes snubbing what brought you here. Circling the idea you were granted free reign to make or break. For me, that involves some soul searching versus the trifecta of proposed merit, value, and universal appeal coupled with personal legacy. And then there's impostor syndrome, a certain kind of torture you'll never witness in a horror movie. But more importantly, it requires work ethic. When you can no longer justifiably ignore your project and need to unpack it; make sense of it. You must engage the blue collar worker in your arsenal in order to get things done.
Are we striving for that eureka moment, that much-heralded lightning in a bottle, or is it okay to rummage, meditate, and vacillate? Dip a toe into the oasis of your brain cloud only to come up snake eyes? They say it's okay to fail as long as you fail hard, but your mileage may vary. Some can see the cliff and decide to stop before jumping off it. Others live on the ledge. And as individual as we are encouraged to be, emboldened to access honesty, excavate the truth and express yourself authentically, what makes us better communication artists IS our community. Our first wave of readers, viewers, and listeners – the front lines of creativity – before we brand ourselves and market our wares to consumers. And, if you're lucky/not lucky: the self-entitled fan.
Most of us have our “people” whom we rely on to render constructive criticism. To pat us on the back and high-five. To tear us apart when necessary. But what Yaddo yields is a group of unlikely artists mashed together (sometimes the good with the bad). Artists you would never have met. Art you may never have occupied on your own. And this kind of tension helps confirm a lifelong commitment to art while creating a testament of life. After all, a lot of artists grow up in public. Warts and all.
Despite the grueling, self-imposed and/or deadline-oriented task of making something that means something, knowing that an institution provides for you – so you don't have to – is comforting. And understanding that respite actually informs the work, you can split the difference between production and play. Find a way to reward yourself – within reason. If you complete a certain amount of work you get to swim in the pool or play ping pong. If you make your daily quota, you get to commiserate in the Drinks Room and engage in word and role-playing games. Or, wholly disengage and watch trashy TV on your laptop under the covers. When you set mini-goals and manage work expectations, you get to play hide and go seek or sneak off-colony for southern fried chicken, bean curd Sichuan-style, Japanese hibachi, and/or visit the local water fountain to sip sulfuric seltzer from the bladder of Saratoga Springs (Instagram-published spit-takes optional).
But how DID I write a graphic novel in 30 days? I didn't. WE did. Sure, I did all the hard work, but I couldn't have done it without the specialized provocation, privacy, and procrastination.
What Yaddo gifts is a personal deep dive to search and destroy, resurrect and evolve the extraordinary you. To help embellish what already exists by giving you something you don't necessarily know how to give yourself. Creative energy, solitude, community, and a daily dose of clarity in the shape of sliced carrots, waiting for you, right outside your nest.