There’s a tradition at many artist colonies: When a residency ends, the artist leaves his/her signature behind in their studio.
In February of 2012, on my first day of my first residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I checked out the wooden plaque by the door. It was covered with names and dates. Some names were scrawled. Some were faded. Some were small but precise. Some were as brash and bold as a Sharpie could make.
One of the neat, slightly faded signatures? Alice McDermott.
That I recognized some names was both thrilling and terrifying. As a newbie, mostly terrifying.
I had been awarded a two week residency. I arrived with an idea for a novel, but zero words written. My studio was affectionately called the chicken coop because, in a former life, it was a coop for chickens. Every day, I sat in the chicken coop and worked diligently. Every time I felt less than diligent, I glanced at the plaque, felt terrified again, and got back to writing. I wrote a lot of pages. Apparently, being terrified inspired me.
Fast forward to December, 2013, and my second VCCA residency. I came prepared to write the last scenes of that novel I’d begun 22 months earlier. I was upgraded from the chicken coop to the cottage. Again, when I arrived, I read the wooden plaque by the door. Again, I recognized names, from book shelves and movie adaptations and various awards and honors.
2013 had been a good year for me: publications, a grant, steady work, now this residency. I was happy with my lot, until I saw the august names of my fellow artists…and started comparing. I had been published, but “only” short stories and articles and essays. Now I was writing my first novel-length manuscript–at the advanced age of 50+. As a novelist, I was – am – behind the curve.
A residency is a gift, but here I was, staring a gift of two weeks of private writing time, and all I could see was the curve. The names on the plaque seemed to taunt me. What was supposed to be a time to focus and create turned into a ticking clock.
For two days, my insecurities grew like the kudzu choking the arbor. I tried scolding myself: I’d made the cut to be here—twice! Surely, if I was a fraud, I’d have been found out by now.
Every writer I know has endured an “Am I a fraud?” period. More than any other place, this one should have settled that matter. Instead, I wrangled with my head more than with the words on my laptop.
On the third day, I stared off into space thinking of some plot point, and the plaque by the door came into focus. And I began to wonder:
What would the author who printed her name in blue do about POV?
Didn’t that novelist who signed along the edge do well with an episodic narrative?
The guy who wrote his last name with a curlicue, didn’t he open a story the way I wanted to start mine?
I wondered some more, not about writing but about the writers themselves: Had they sat in the chicken coop and compared themselves to the names on the plaque? Had they, at some point, felt like frauds too?
Of course they had. And they would probably be appalled, as I would be, if they learned the names made a fellow artist feel inadequate.
My terror vanished. I was still playing catch-up, but the names on the plaque stopped holding me back. Instead, they started cheering me on.
I went back to diligent. I didn’t quite make my goal of completing my novel manuscript. Three days of waffling over “Am I worthy?” took their toll, and I fell a couple of scenes short. But I got close. Better than that, I wasn’t terrified anymore.
The last words I wrote? My name on the wooden plaque by the door.
Ramona DeFelice Long received grants from the Delaware Division of the Arts as an Established Artist in Creative Nonfiction in 2013 and in Fiction in 2009, as well as fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, and the SCBWI. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies, and her creative nonfiction in The Arkansas Review, Literary Mama, Lunch Ticket, Cricket, and TOSKA. Her day job is as an independent editor. On the web, she can be found at ramonadef.wordpress.com