I lay in my bathtub at home with the door locked as I took in the news that I had been accepted to an artists’ residency at the idyllic haven of Ragdale. Getting the letter had made me feel so supported. That I would actually get to go was something that needed to soak in quite literally with the bathroom door holding back the tide of duties, real and imagined, which my big trip would allow me to sidestep.
Several months later, I drove an hour north of Chicago for two weeks of nurturing bliss and powerful prose. That first night at Ragdale, I sat in a circle of introduction with the other residents. As my moment approached, I held the worn needlepoint cushion underneath me and rocked in my chair, wondering if anyone had ever asked to skip their turn.
With many warm eyes upon me, I found the courage to declare: “I’m a writer.”
Back in my room, called The Yellow Room, I went nowhere. Plowing forward through a sentence or two, I was soon interrupted by a funky patter, "Who are you kidding? You stink! How can you be so selfish?
I fled my sunny writing perch to climb onto a loaner bike, sip endless cups of tea, and perform a thorough inspection of all and any empty beehives on the property.
For three days I wandered the fields and forests of Ragdale, staring at branches and clouds. I called my husband and daughter from a path in the middle of the prairie. I watched small yellow finches with black striping flicker along plants that shot up into the air and ended in large fuzzy yellow sprouts.
Those birds could sing. Why couldn’t I?
Back in The Yellow Room, I began wondering if my cozy hideaway under the eaves was mocking me. Did the lemon yellow paint imply I was nothing but a yellow-bellied sap sucker? I scratched pen to paper as more dreaded thoughts came into my head.
A friend at home, who knew my insecurity, suggested I write any negative thoughts onto slips of paper, "Put those thoughts in a box and get rid of them. Tell yourself you’ll look at them when you get home."
I resisted her advice, and I certainly hadn't brought a box.
The Voice, however, continued to erode my progress. But, as Ragdale is magical, a little tin box soon called to me from the bottom of the bookshelf near the door. Finally, I could purge these villains and go about my business. Soon I ran out of slips and turned to filling long sheets of legal paper, restricting each negative thought to one line at a time. By evening, I could hardly close the box.
"That is so great,” said a biographer from New York. I was making light of my predicament and I thought maybe he was, too.
"Why?" I asked.
"Now you have two pieces. You have the one you are working on. and the one you’ll make later out of the slips in the box. It’ll be great!"
We lifted sliced tomatoes to our lips and laughed. At Ragdale, New Yorkers are not only edgy. They are kind.
Soon a playwright from Chicago sat down. She had been to Ragdale seven times which made me feel…outranked!
"It is so great to come to dinner and be here with you guys," she said. "It was one of those days when I felt like I was rewriting the same sentence all day long. Just knowing you guys are in your rooms trying to make art helps me so much." Everyone nodded, and we each took a tiny dessert square nestled in paper from a tray.
On Day Five I hit the ground running. My borrowed tin with the slips went into an empty drawer in the yellow desk. I continued slaving away after dinner. Yellow is such a happy color!
A week later I gave my first public reading of an essay that I had revised in my room for cowards.
"That was so great," said the resident who had organized the evening. "You really allowed yourself to be vulnerable."
I spent the next few days revising a ridiculous novella…for fun!
When I kissed my new friends good-bye, I actually felt that warm and fuzzy way you’re supposed to feel at the end of summer camp. And, as I turned onto the highway heading back towards Chicago, a little yellow finch flew across the concrete entrance ramp.