"WHAT THE HECK is an artists' retreat?" people kept asking me as I packed my bags for a two-week stay at Yaddo, a 400-acre haven for artists, writers and composers located on the edge of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
I told them as much as I knew. "It's a place where artists go to do their thing."
I was attracted by two words: "free" and "retreat." I have no money -- I am a free-lance writer. What money I make I earn writing nonfiction. Writing fiction, which is my special love, is something I have to do in my spare time.
I had always wondered how much fiction writing I could get done if I had nothing else to do. No excuses. No "I didn't get to write today because I got 10 phone calls in a row." No "I would have finished the third chapter but a friend dropped by."
My good friend Calvin Forbes, a poet and instructor at Howard University, had gone to Yaddo several times and in the peace and solitude had been able to write profusely. At the time I applied to Yaddo I was taking a writing class taught by Gloria Naylor, the author who won the National Book Award for first novel last year. To get accepted at Yaddo, I needed two recommendations. Naylor and Forbes wrote them. I also had to send writing samples.
The samples did not have to be published works, and nonfiction articles were not considered. I sent a one-act play, a short story and the introduction to the novel on which I would work while at the retreat. I also had to send a letter explaining exactly what I'd be working on while there.
When I got accepted Naylor was ecstatic and told me Yaddo was "where most of the well-known writers go."
I didn't know that, but it's true. The Yaddo Author's Library, which contains volumes and volumes of books by writers who have visited the retreat, includes works by Eudora Welty, John Cheever, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Alice Walker, Truman Capote and Rosa Guy. Among those at the retreat when I arrived was one poet who had won a Pulitzer, and most of the other writers had books already published or coming out in the next few months.
From the time my cab passed between the stone columns at the entrance to Yaddo, I was mesmerized. The ride takes you past two of four lakes and halfway around "The Mansion," the 55-room house built in 1893 that was to be my home and work place during my stay.
The estate also includes three smaller houses, a swimming pool, tennis court, studios and a rose garden open to the public. It once belonged to Spencer Trask, a banker and philanthropist, and his wife Katrina, a writer of dubious quality. The couple often entertained artists, many of whom stayed at length with the family. The Trasks left their property and an endowment to establish the retreat.
I was given a sparsely furnished room containing a few antiques, including a lovely brass and iron bed. My studio was adjacent to the bedroom, with a daybed and a desk. I shared a bathroom down the hall. From the bathroom window I could see the blue hills of Vermont.
Most writers had studios in the mansion, and during work hours, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, you could hear the faint clicking of typewriters. Most of the composers and visual artists had studios in the small houses nestled among the pine and oak trees, and when I walked through the woods I could hear the birth sounds of new tunes. Guests were not allowed on the premises during work hours, and you were expected not to visit a fellow artist without an invitation.
The first three days I buried myself in typing paper. I couldn't take a nap while other typewriters clicked around me. I didn't dare sneak to the pool before 4 p.m. for fear my fellow writers would sneer at my laziness. When asked about my work I wanted to be able to say, "Oh, I got 10 pages done today." I convinced myself I was in a race and that I would win.
But by the fourth day I found the routine boring. I missed my daughter's rock 'n' roll blasting from morning to night. I missed pollution and story deadlines. I called my sickness "the urban blues" and thought it was unique until I found that most of my fellow artists had also suffered from it at one time or another, particularly during their first visit to a retreat.
They promised me it would pass and it did. The cure included mixing a little fun with my work, something I would have done if I had been at home. I struck up a close friendship with two other women, a young composer from Phoenix and a grandmother from Montgomery, Ala. We ate our lunches together on the screened porch, and hopped into any car leaving for the ice-cream shop, the movies or the post office, regular haunts for those who were desperate for the outside.
The urban blues faded. I had found the perfect balance between solitude and socializing. The writing became easier. And when I read the book "The Habit of Being," the letters of Flannery O'Connor, I laughed out loud. The author, now deceased, wrote to a friend more than 20 years ago: "The kind of people at Yaddo are so much all the same kind that it gets depressing . . . after a few weeks at Yaddo you long to talk to an insurance salesman, dogcatcher, bricklayer."