Monday, June 12, 2017

My First Time: Sarah Moriarty

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Sarah Moriarty, author of the new novel North Haven. Sarah received her MFA from The New School and has worked as a writer and editor for A Child Grows in Brooklyn, What to Expect, and Lost magazine, among other digital publications. She taught writing and literature at the College of Staten Island and Saint Ann’s School, where she strived to prove to her students, and herself, that writing is worth the work. Sarah lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.

My First Residency

In 2008 I arrived at the Vermont Studio Center with a good idea and forty pages. On the wall of my studio I tacked a piece of paper where I hurriedly wrote in all capitals, “NO FEAR, NO EXPECTATIONS, NO JUDGEMENT.” Only I misspelled judgment. It took everything I had to leave that paper there and not edit out the extra E.

To call Johnson, Vermont a hamlet would only be appropriate if I were a 19th-century aristocrat or a real estate agent. But it is picturesque: the church with its broken clock tower; the old, red mill building that is the heart of the Studio Center; the coffee shop in the first floor of an old Victorian where you can sit on the porch with its scroll-work trim and drink coffee from mismatched mugs. The bookstore is a small, brick colonial house on the corner of the one of the only intersections in town, where we all dream of having our books one day. It is the kind of town that feels tucked in, houses close, but hidden behind copses. The yoga studio is in a converted barn (of course), the mediation cottage at the Studio Center was once a chicken coop. Instead of calming the monkey-mind you must subdue your inner clucking.

At the other end of the spectrum is the strip mall with the grocery store and the laundromat, the abandoned school that looks like it should be the set of a horror movie. The studio center has multiple buildings, one an ancient clapboard house with a cupola, which is clearly haunted by the long-dead factory workers who slowly suffocated in their sleep from inhaling too many cotton fibers. Other buildings are newer like the drawing studio with angled skylights where intrepid residents posed nude for one another. I wondered if in such a small town it was difficult to find people to take off their clothes for these art tourists/visitors/ interlopers/economy sustainers. We were exactly that, tourists, but our destination was internal, in a fugue state much of the time emerging only to be reborn in the river, to be baptized by the bonfire. While there I learned three essential things.

First, I was reminded that I instinctively place my self on the outside of any group, even one to which I should ostensibly belong. This trait had been easy to forget when I was wrapped up in teaching and friends and my husband. But when I arrived at what, for many, is essentially sleep away camp for grown ups, I found that my knee-jerk social strategy was still strongly in place. I lay back in the cut.

Ironically, one of my closest friends was already there, and this was not my first visit to Johnson. My partner in crime from our high school days, Lissa, was from a nearby mountaintop, and I had been to Johnson twice before with her. During the residency she was living in Burlington but often came back to see her parents. She lent me a handmade quilt for my bed. My studio, number 5, was on the ground floor and, like all of them, faced the river. Lissa would periodically appear at my studio window. Standing in the grass between the window and the river we’d talk through the screen. She took me out to a distant roadside bar to meet her new boyfriend. The three of us sat out behind the bar on top of a splintering picnic table. Her new man, of whom I was already wary because of my utter devotion to her ex-girlfriend, turned out to be amazing. A renaissance man, James was a graduate professor, who in his spare time raised and slaughtered his own sheep. Ah, Vermont. A friend of theirs joined us, a grizzled dairy farmer, who, when I asked a very Brooklyn question about the wonders of raw milk, replied, “Oh I don’t drink milk! I’ve seen those vacuums pop off a tit and suck up everything, no way. No milk.”

I was more comfortable with this band of outsiders than with the majority of the residents. I wasn’t the youngest, just 32 at the time. The younger set treated the experience more like an all-inclusive literary spring break. I did envy them for their lightness, their ease. But I felt an urgency that kept me from forging my way into their circle. I felt a longing to work, and was blissfully lost in it, the way you try to get lost in a foreign city to let serendipity take over. It was in those serendipitous moments that I found Anne and what my book was truly about.

As I inevitably and unconsciously always do, I found myself bonding to one of the few queer ladies at the residency. Maybe that tendency is a function of being raised mostly by gay women, but I gravitate toward the queer community like a flower turns to the sun. As Anne and I lay in the sun beside the river together, we talked about her partner, and both the fluidity and specificity of sexuality. We talked about her preference for transgender dudes who hadn’t fully transitioned. And I thought how magical and wonderful that our world has created space (however fraught and fought for and constantly at risk) where the niche in her heart could be filled. Maybe it was those conversations or the way they made me think about my childhood, my marriage, my own sexual awakening, but suddenly my novel about a summerhouse family drama became a book about sexuality, and was all the better for it. I didn’t go there for friends, but they found me, hanging out at the edges, peering in from doorways and riverbanks, from the cozy kitchen where on breakfast duty I stirred a giant vat of oatmeal or sorted through questionable salad greens.

Second, though I didn’t bond with many people there, I found that just being surrounded by artists was enough. I felt a connection with everyone purely through the act of creating. In that open, vulnerable state, every conversation I had, learning over the salad bar, struggling through the reeds at the end of someone’s yard to find to the hidden path to the river, stayed with me. My senses were heightened, sounds were crisp and everyone’s word choices and facial expressions were a new insight. Like I’d been bitten by a radioactive spider (or maybe a leech). I absorbed the passion in others’ work and it lit me up.

The river curls around the town center bordered by the old mill, by fields and rocks, and backyards. It is a secret passage, like railroad tracks hidden behind houses. The river has leeches. I never got one, but still carried packages of salt with me just in case. I always felt as if the river, and maybe the leeches too, saw me as one of their own. My devotion to the water was complete and I never felt truly threated by those bloodthirsty slugs. I swam every day at a deserted bend in the river, not the crowded swimming hole near the waterfall up stream. I preferred the swirling eddy edged by pebbles on one side and large flat rocks and long grass on the other.

One night at dinner, I told my fellow diners that I was feeling some guilt about my daily swims. A painter told me that she had spent the entire day sitting in a lawn chair in a shallow, gravelly spot in the middle of the river, the water looking amber in the sunlight. That was her process for the day. This was a revelation. You mean I don’t have to bang my head against the grindstone every second to eke out ideas? Shocking! Honoring my process had to be paramount. The process, at least for me, couldn’t always be in the chair, at the desk, hands on the keys. Writing is observing, interpreting, imagining, unraveling, this can’t always be inspired by a blank word document. Julia Cameron says we must consistently “fill the bank,” and I was finally able to internalize that philosophy because I began to look at the creative process not as a linear progression but an amorphous experience.

Third, at the time of my arrival at the residency I had never published anything. I was the queen of glowing rejections. The recognition of being accepted, of being brought into a community of writers (no matter how socially reluctant I might have been) helped me own that label. But being there also let me move past it, expand beyond it. This was another benefit of being surrounded not only by writers, but by artists of all types. Yes, I am a writer, words are my medium, which is only a fine slice of the larger picture of my whole identity. There, in the constant flowing waters of the Gihon River, I understood I am an Artist. Capital A. I also learned to make breakfast for 80 people in 20 minutes (hooray for quick oats and yogurt). Who says artists don’t have real world skills?

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