What should I bring on my writing retreat?
Arthur Bowen Davies, Hudson Valley Landscape, 1914–18.
I’m off to the woods to live deliberately! Or, just to live, as it were—all I can do is hope that my deliberateness (and discipline and patience) will kick in eventually, since my destination is an artist’s colony upstate, on the border of Massachusetts, in a forest-locked village called Austerlitz.
In an effusive piece for The Morning News, Alexander Chee once described the writerly boons of retreating to a solitary enclave like Austerlitz, where time and space seem to bend in one’s favor—more pages written, delightful colleagues, and bucolic settings. “Imagine, if you will, the Umbrian countryside in May,” he wrote of a particularly idyllic residency. “Hills and fields, forests, etc. You feel like you’ve wandered into a Merchant Ivory adaptation.” But I flinch each time I consider disrupting what is a perfectly fine routine in Brooklyn: I like my run-down apartment! I like the shitty folding chair I sit in every day to write! I like having to remember to spray down my roach-infested sink with borax while the minutes tick down to a deadline!
My irrational nervousness has to do, in part, with how wild it seems that everything will be taken care of for me: groceries replenished in the communal kitchen, dinners cooked by a chef named Donna. There are free linens and a cleaning person. Even distractions are warded away—a five-page Microsoft Word document explaining colony rules enforces headphones and bans visitors from overstaying their welcome or even using the kitchen or dining rooms. “Studios are private and require a personal invitation,” warns the guide, protecting residents even from each other.
Having nothing to worry about means there’s nothing on which to blame procrastination. Aside from Emersonian rambles in the woods, it seems like there are barely any ways to procrastinate at all. Even during my busiest writing days in Brooklyn, I like to sneak into a bar to soak up ambient company, but the closest drinking establishment to Austerlitz is ten miles away. Walking to Massachusetts would be faster than finding a bartender to complain to.
Having everything within reach—food, shelter, peace—has presented a perplexing diversion, however: what to pack. Right now, my little blue suitcase is open on my floor, and so far I’ve only thrown in stupid things: shelf-stable hummus, a few old handwritten journals, a picture of my mother, and two field guides to North American ferns. (The beginning of autumn should be a good time to go sporangia hunting). Normally, I include a hostess gift, as well as a few pulpy books and magazines to pass the time. As for clothes, there won’t even be anyone to dress for, in the middle of the woods. I could get by with one change of clothing, a phone charger, and a laptop. But I have extra room in my luggage, so why wouldn’t I fill it? Everyone seems to have advice for me in this realm—my mother: pack a coat; my best friend: pack whiskey—but I can’t help but recall the packing habits of a few literary greats.
Joan Didion famously kept a lean list taped to her closet door for when she had to leave on a reporting assignment, her wardrobe pared down to two pairs of shoes, two skirts, two leotards, and a sweater. She packed only essential toiletries, aspirin, a mohair throw, a typewriter, her house keys, and bourbon (in case of cold). I’ve always been cranky about how chic this list is—like so much that has been assigned to Didion’s image lately, just a hair too precise and lovely; an exquisite sphinx cat that is more ornament than animal.
At the other end of the spectrum, Henry David Thoreau, who would certainly have praised Didion’s dedication to simplicity, was horrible at the practice himself. For a twelve-day excursion to Maine in 1857, he took a cavalcade of supplies: twelve pounds of sugar, a pound of coffee, all sorts of books, weapons, gadgets, handkerchiefs, pins, needles, and thread. To Didion’s five articles of clothing, he took more than a dozen, including “a neck ribbon,” a “thick waistcoat,” and an “old Kossuth hat.”
My favorite peek into a writer’s luggage, though, involves a story about the early twentieth-century journalist Emily Hahn’s, who worked as the New Yorker’s roving correspondent through the first half of the century, reporting with as much care from the Bronx Zoo as from the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. During the depression, she went to the Congo looking for a subject for a book and ended up spending eight months living with her friend, the anthropologist Patrick Putnam. In her time there, she finished reading all the books in his library—all tomes on Africa—and was relieved when two giant suitcases filled with the Encyclopaedia Britannica arrived by canoe. She read it all the way to “Pottery.”
Wei Tchou is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.
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