This past Friday, I returned from my time at the Millay Colony for the Arts.
I confess, before I went to Millay, I had no idea what to expect from the experience. It was my first residency ever. As April turned into May, I wrapped up my teaching and grading obligations and drove to upstate New York on a day when it wouldn’t stop raining.
Steepletop–the name that Edna St. Vincent Millay gave to her property–is gorgeous; a sprawling, lush wilderness. The Colony is composed of Edna’s and her husband Eugen’s old white barn, where I lived and worked, and a main building that has more studios and a kitchen and communal space. This is adjacent to her old home and studio, owned by the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society.
We–me and five other residents–were there as the season was changing. When I arrived, the branches were mostly bare, and the weather was chilly and damp. By the time I left, the days were hot, the trees full and green, the air roiling with humidity and thunder. The grounds, over which we were free to tramp, were full of animals and broken things and strange secrets. I put on knee-high galoshes and walked everywhere: miles down long, tree-lined lanes and hiking paths and through uncleared forest and to the top of Harvey Mountain, where the New York – Massachusetts border was marked by a low stone wall and a granite cube with “NY” on one side and “M” on the other. On clear nights, we could see Mars and Saturn and Jupiter and what felt like a billion stars. During the full moon, we went to Edna’s studio to see how the moonlight fell on its floor.
I also spent part of my time there reading Savage Beauty, a biography of Edna’s life. I hadn’t known much about her. Edna was wild and bohemian, but her life was also marked by sadness: pain, alcoholism, depression, and morphine addiction. She was willful and charismatic, selfish and brilliant, driven and haunted. One day, when meandering through the woods near Edna’s grave, I found a large pit of old gin and morphine bottles. I was told later that they were collected there by the grounds’ caretaker, during Millay’s life. It was heartbreaking. The book cast a strange, but necessary, pall over my experience there. I think that it would have been wrong to have been in all that beauty and not understood the woman who had owned it, to have some sense of her life.
As for the residency itself, I couldn’t have been more pleased. I’d heard that other people can make or break a residency, especially one that’s small. I’m not sure if that’s true, but if it is, then I lucked out–I was with an amazing crew of people, a mix of writers and artists who were generous and kind and brilliant. I felt like I was at the Millay Colony for a million years, like I’d known them forever.
I did a lot of work during my month. For the first time, I finished a draft of a novel. This was a complete novelty to me. It showed me that a project of this size wasn’t beyond me, that all I needed was time and space to focus. I’m going to write a longer post about that specifically at some other time. The novel is a mess, and needs a lot of work, but it exists. It’s amazing that places like the Millay Colony are so generous, and value the arts so highly, that they are willing to gamble on people like me and our weird visions and dreams and needs. For that, I will always be eternally grateful.
So if you’re a writer or artist looking for time and space to work on a project, and you love the wilderness, you need to apply to the Millay Colony.