Monday, November 26, 2012

Guest Blog by Julia San Fratello: Accepting Myself at Ragdale

I am beyond pleased to host one of my memoir students, Julia San Fratello, as a guest blogger today. Julia just enjoyed her very first writer's residency at Ragdale this past September, and so I asked her whether she'd write about her experience. Thank you, Julia, for sharing! Here is Julia:

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.

At dinner on Day Four I blithely admitted to my little trove of insults. "I spend more time writing crap for the box than writing what I came here to work on!"

"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.


  1. What a moving story. Thank you for sharing this with us. It encourages me to not be so hard on myself, when creativity takes a pause, maybe "for three days wanderes the fields and forest" instead of keeping our appointment and meet me at my desk, showing up at just the perfect time for me to write or paint. I don´t know whether it is apropriate, but isn´t there a saying that goes like: It needs two to tango ... (I´m German and I am not used to express myself in English)

    1. Barbara - you still express yourself very well in English, nice to see! The expression in English is, "It takes two to tango." Very true of the muses, for sure.

    2. julia.sanfratello@gmail.comNovember 27, 2012 at 10:01 PM

      Thanks for your comments Barbara. I am wishing you a fruitful and happy walk in the woods, virtual or otherwise!

  2. What a lovely piece. I laughed when you got the sunny advice that you now had two pieces to work on. Talk about glass half full. It's wonderful to see that you are treating yourself to artist's residencies and calling yourself proudly a WRITER, which of course you have been all along. A terrific post, Julia.

    1. Lee - thanks for commenting and for stopping by!

  3. The Yellow Room is one of my favorite places at Ragdale. Lucky you!

    Great comments and I love the idea of the "bad box." You did everything just right with your time and now you shouldn't have any problems marking "writer" when the form asks for occupation. Congratulations.


  4. Most enjoyable read. Thanks for sharing with other writers, many of whom have probably had those same feelings now and then.

  5. A wonderful piece, Julia. Thank you very much for sharing.

  6. Julia,
    I'm late with my comment but I did want to let you know how much I loved your piece. I've been to Ragdale for StoryStudio retreats and have always hated to leave because it felt like I was just getting settled in. Lucky you to have enough time to breathe and take it all in. The writing can't help but follow. Thanks to you and Annette for sharing!!