Panic at the Artist’s Colony. Guest post by Ramona DeFelice Long

JordanWriting. Practice.18 Comments

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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.

Gulp.

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.

Another gulp.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JordanPanic at the Artist’s Colony. Guest post by Ramona DeFelice Long

18 Comments on “Panic at the Artist’s Colony. Guest post by Ramona DeFelice Long”

  1. Mary Sutton

    I can relate to every word of this. No matter how many times people compliment me, I am still terrified that someday they’ll figure out that I’m just making it up as I go and I haven’t got a clue in the world! Of course that’s not entirely true, but you get the gist. A friend of mine and I even came up with a response to moments where we get validation – we call them “I really don’t suck!” moments. =)

    1. Ramona DeFelice Long

      Mary, you are in good company–to some degree, we are all making it up as we go along! I know your work, and you so don’t suck. =) I think a bit of healthy insecurity is good. It not only keeps you grounded and humble, but it makes you try to be a better writer.

      Thank you for commenting!

    2. Ramona DeFelice Long

      Mary Sutton, I think we are all making it up as we go along! I know your work, and you do not suck one bit. =) I think the occasional dash of insecurity is a good thing, because it makes you try to be a better writer.
      Thank you for coming by to comment.

  2. StorytellerMary

    Thanks so much for sharing this — you spent those days doing important work, facing that demon of insecurity and sharing the encouragement, ” I was still playing catch-up, but the names on the plaque stopped holding me back. Instead, they started cheering me on.”
    . . . as for “behind the curve,” in my exercise classes at the Y, one of my mantras is “It’s a journey not a race,” and no one has disagreed with me yet.

    1. Ramona DeFelice Long

      Mary, I agree. The ticking clock of age is not new to me, and I know I am not alone in this. Your journey comment is one well worth remembering. Thank you! You are always encouraging and upbeat. Maybe I’ll pack you in my suitcase for my next residency.

  3. Hank Phillippi Ryan

    Thank you, Ramona. Every day.

    But I try to rationalize–it’d be worse if I didn’t challenge myself, right? The people who think-“oh, have this”..they don’t.

    And congratulations! xoo

  4. Ramona DeFelice Long

    Hank, you are so right in that our insecurities keep us on our toes. Although it was angsty at the time, I see how it made me think about how other writers approached what I was trying to do. Next time, though, I’d like to do it with a little less panic!

  5. Polly Iyer

    I think feeling as you did is a healthy thing. The big problem is when a writer thinks she is better than she is. That’s when she stops learning. Me? I don’t think I’ll ever be good enough for me.

    1. Ramona DeFelice Long

      Polly, I absolutely agree with you. Complacency is a killer in any profession. It’s great to be confident of your skills and to recognize what you do well, but when you stop admiring the work of others and think you’ve learned it all…I think that would spell the death of your own creativity.
      Thank you for stopping by!

  6. E. B. Davis

    I question myself all the time. Whenever I get a critique back, whenever I can’t think of how to begin a story, whenever I think of my age as a beginning writer, ect.

    Like you at 50+, I’ve had shorts published, but I have no track record in novels. If I do get a novel published, the ultimate test will be if readers think my writing is worthy. The self-assessment seemed never ending. When people have commented about my short stories, they say how much of a boost to my ego getting published must be. Little do they know the experience is quite the opposite. We are humbled and hope not so diminished that our love of craft isn’t extinguished. It can be heart-wretching.

    1. Ramona DeFelice Long

      E.B., you are not alone in questioning yourself. I do think this is a good thing, unless it becomes paralyzing or makes you stop writing. I feel certain you will not do that.

      I agree with your comment about the ego boost. It is certainly gratifying to see your work in print, and it does validate you as a professional, but for every story that finds a home in print, there are the ones that aren’t working, or not quite working. But do enjoy and appreciate the comment, because I know I am boosted when I get new work into print. It’s part of the reason why I was able to climb out of the blues at the residency–knowing I had gone through the same process to get there as the impressive names on the plaque.

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  8. Claire (Clamo88 online)

    That nagging self-doubt lurks in my mind constantly. It has followed me through everything. Even though I run a computer lab (have run several) and can build computers from motherboard to finish, and figure out most software in no time, the nag is there.

    When I was delighted by praise from a published author for one of my short stories, a friend who is a good critic said to me, “But, Claire, you are a good writer.”

    That nag can be detrimental but it can also spur us to better work and pay greater attention to the details that turn good into better. But it can be a pain in the a** sometimes, too! 😉

    1. Ramona DeFelice Long

      Claire, you are exactly right. Self-doubt can be like a dog nipping at your heels: bothersome, but it also keeps you moving forward. I hope you can focus on the moving forward part!
      Thank you for the thoughtful comment.

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