DIY White Mountain Writer’s Retreat

View across the valley of Hurricane Mountain

I love my life in New York City. It’s full to bursting with happenings, friends, and new ideas. I love that there is always a corner of the city I have not yet unexplored and new places to check out. However, this year I’ve also made a commitment to focus on my own practice as a writer and to finish a book project by September.

Covered bridge, New England pastoral

With a full-time job and full roster responsibilities and interests, I found that the book project was not getting done. It’s too easy to put off the really important, creative projects and focus on the less important. Watching my time drain away and my deadline approach I decided, “I need an artists residency where I can focus and get this done.”

The white mountains, pine trees, granite: the Mt. Washington valley in a nutshell

Here’s the problem: most artists residencies cost money. I don’t have money to spend on that kind of getaway right now. Many of them also require you apply and have work samples, which I’m still working on developing. So I thought, “What do artists residencies provide? Ah, space, time and a chance to focus.”  Then I realized: the book I am writing is about do-it-yourself culture, so why don’t I take my own advice and create my own residency?

The trail on Mt. Stanton

I took a week off from my day job and friends of my family were nice enough to let me stay in their “chalet” – an A-frame cabin they built in the 1960s in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. When I was younger I went there with my parents, my parents’ friends and their kids. We would all pile in to the house for days of skiing and sledding and spend evenings cooking huge communal meals and playing board games. I loved returning to a place I knew as a child and rediscovering it.

Desk du jour

Embarking on my “self-imposed writer’s retreat” made me nervous at first: could I take my creativity seriously enough to devote my days to it? To allay my fears I needed a plan.

Simple lunch en terrace

I created a menu of healthy, easy to prepare meals so I wouldn’t be tempted to spend hours in the kitchen or only eat junk food.  I made a list of the writing tasks I needed to complete and a schedule for accomplishing them. I know I work best in the morning, so I made sure to get up by 7:30 and be writing by 8. I also know that I get really tired after lunch, so instead of forcing myself to keep working when I’m not going to be productive, I took a two-hour hike up a mountain behind the chalet, and wrote for four more hours when I returned. Finally, in the evenings after dinner I did smaller writing tasks, such as blog entries, correspondence and article drafting.

Morning coffee by the river

At the end of my four days in the mountains I had completed a first draft of my book. I also rediscovered the fact that writing, especially writing well, takes intense concentration and is hard work. It’s about sitting in a chair, focusing your mind and putting one word after another, even if it feels painful. I was proud that I mustered the creative self-discipline to pull this off. I also am pleased to confirm that I can, and want, to write for eight hours a day. Next step: make that possible more often.

Casual chalet summer style: J Crew t-shirt and shorts with espadrilles

I also found this: as a teenager I wanted nothing more than to get away from the woods of the northeast, but I’ve fallen back in love with this environment. I’m incredibly fond of the mountains where I spent childhood weekends and it was hard for me to leave the chalet after only four days.

A little beatnik, a little north woods: USMC jacket (stolen from my father), J Crew t-shirt, generic linen scarf, Mavi jeans, Converse sneakers

I loved my days of solitude, where my only human interaction was with the clerk at the New Hampshire State Liquor Store where I went to buy a bottle of Cotes du Rhone one evening. When I arrived at the chalet I felt emotionally on edge from all my running around New York City and constant engagement with so many different projects.  Waking up to dappled June sunlight, the sound of the river, and feeling like I spent my days in a tree house slowly helped me gain back perspective and I left feeling emotionally grounded and creatively accomplished.

A map of the white mountains at the chalet

I might just make my “self-imposed writer’s retreat” an annual event.

And lest you think I’ve become a monk thanks to four days in New Hampshire, on my way out of North Conway I succumbed to temptation, outlet shopping, and that state’s lack of sales tax and bought my first pair of Minnetonka moccasins since the 1980s.
After being a holdout... I buy my first pair of Minnetonkas since childhood!

One more caveat: after reading this entry are you surprised that my favorite book as a teenager was The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac?

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The Utopia Project Volume III: The MacDowell Colony

The library at the MacDowell Colony

The main building at the MacDowell Colony

Far into the wilds of southwestern New Hampshire, down a back road shadowed by pine trees, is the MacDowell Colony. It is an artists’ residency that is over 100 years old tucked away in the small town of Peterborough. It was founded by composer Edward MacDowell and his wife Marion, a pianist, who bought a farm there in 1896. Edward felt he created his best work in on the farm and when he passed away Marion championed the idea of giving artists a chance to thrive in the same environment he found so inspiring.

Kitchen garden at MacDowell

MacDowell Chickens

The MacDowell Colony invites artists from all disciplines to take part in a residency where they work in a community with their peers. Artistic excellence is the only standard for acceptance and all room, board and tuition is covered.

Inside the library at MacDowell

Entering the grounds of MacDowell feels stepping into a unique microcosm of society. Each resident is given a bike to use to travel around the campus to their studio, residence and the library. There are regular talks and presentations. The food is locally produced, much of it grown on the MacDowell campus. A local sheep herder brings their sheep to graze on the fields of the colony during the day.

Residents' wine bottles in the dining room

I also admired MacDowell’s openness and interaction with the local community in Peterborough and Southwestern New Hampshire. They regularly host lectures, presentations, screenings, and performances that are open to the public both on the campus and in downtown Peterborough, a super cute New England village if I’ve ever seen one (and I’ve seen a lot!). The Resident Director David Macy is very involved in making Southwestern New Hampshire a culturally vibrant place and is involved in town and regional planning organizations. I think this speaks volumes to the strength and history of the colony and how it is not just an isolated place for artists to perfect their craft, but a dynamic organization that helps serve as a cultural anchor for the region.

I have a secret dream to move back to Maine and start an artists residency and organic restaurant on my parents’ farm. David’s involvement in cultural development in Southwestern New Hampshire helped me see that my vision could also combine my interest in city planning and public policy and that a pastoral artists residency can also be a responsible community member.