Monday, March 26, 2012

My First Time: Carter Sickels

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 Carter Sickels, author of The Evening Hour, a novel which Shelf Awareness called "a richly drawn story of West Virginians trapped between indifferent mining conglomerates and a dead-end town."  Sickels is a graduate of the MFA program at Pennsylvania State University, was awarded fellowships to Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, the MacDowell Colony, VCCA, and the Djerassi Residency.  After spending nearly a decade in New York, Sickels left the city to earn a master's degree in folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He now lives in Portland, Oregon.  You can visit his website here.

My First Writing Residency

Two years after I got my Master of Fine Arts degree from Penn State University, I was working at a computer software company in New York City.  My job was to edit user manuals.  I’d had other jobs in New York.  Office temp, mainly.  I made a lot of copies.  I’d worked at a gift store in the Village, selling overpriced kitsch.  For the first time in my life, I was earning a comfortable salary.  Plus, I had health insurance and a 401K.

The work wasn’t hard.  But this was: Spending eight hours a day inside an office.  Meetings, office chit-chat.  Casual Fridays.  Reading nothing but instructions for a software program that I had no idea how to use.

A lot of writers work full-time office jobs and still find time and energy to write brilliant stories and poems.  I wasn’t one of them.  The start of a novel was sitting on my desk.  Although I made an effort to write after I got home from work, I usually ended up watching reruns of The X-Files.  I also tried waking up at 5 am to write before work; that lasted about a week.  I called myself a writer, but I didn’t know if I believed it anymore.  I sent out stories, received rejections.  I applied for a couple of writing residencies, but didn’t expect to get in.

My work was in an office building connected to Madison Square Garden, on the 23rd floor.  I shared a room with four co-workers.  The room had windows; we had a nice view of downtown.  One morning when I got to the office, my co-workers were standing at the window, watching smoke rise from the World Trade Center.  They told me that a plane had crashed; no one knew the details.  Someone guessed that a single-engine plane had flown too low.  Then, as we were standing at the window, a silver plane rose up over the Hudson and flew into the second tower and exploded.

New York was a strange place to be after 9-11.  People walked around in a daze.  Smoke hung over the city.  Churches filled up.  I remember doing a lot of walking, block by block.  I didn’t go back to work for a week.  I was afraid to go underground.  Loud noises made me jump.  I listened obsessively to NPR, spent hours online reading newspapers.  I was lucky.  I hadn’t been near the towers, and I didn’t lose anyone.  There was a woman at my work whose fiancĂ© had died in the towers.  She kept going back to work.  I couldn’t.

Well, I did go back, for awhile.  Then, about a month after 9-11, I got a letter from the Jentel Artist Residency Program.  It was an acceptance letter.  The residency, a month long, would start in March.  My boss offered me a leave of absence.  I’d been working there for a year and a half, and had already been promoted, with a raise.

I turned in my resignation.

The residency was in Wyoming.  I didn’t know how I would get there; I didn’t want to fly.  Then one of the other residents contacted me.  She also lived in New York, and planned on driving.  So one cold, blustery day, I loaded my things into her station wagon, and said goodbye to the city.  The trip took about four days.  As the skies grew bigger, I started to feel lighter.  I’d never been to a writing residency, and didn’t know what to expect.  We arrived in the early evening, just in time for dinner.  The air was cold and clean.  New York was so far away.

Jentel is on a working cattle ranch southeast of Sheridan, Wyoming.  The year I was there it was in its pilot period and the studios were still under construction.  There were only three of us, and we stayed in temporary housing next to a field where cattle roamed.  My writing studio was above the house where Neltje, the residency’s founder, lived.  The first morning I woke at dawn.  I dressed quickly, pulling on gloves and hat and boots, grabbing my backpack and whatever else I could carry.  The sky was lit up orange around the edges, reflecting on craggy hills.  Black angus stood in a field of white.  In the distance rose the snow-capped Big Horn Mountains.  I walked up the path, hearing the sound of my footsteps.

My writing studio had windows on each side.  There was a desk, a couch, a table.  I brewed coffee, and unpacked my books, notebooks, pens, laptop.  And then I just sat there at the desk and looked at the blue skies and felt what can only be described as joy.  That first day, I did a lot of staring out the window.  I opened books and read a few pages and then stretched out on the couch.  I didn’t write a word, not yet.  My body and mind were shedding the weight of New York.  For the first time in months, maybe longer, I felt relaxed, I felt at home.

For one month I read, took walks, stared at the immense sky, watched the cows.  And I wrote; finally, I was writing.  Time stretched out.  The beauty and the quiet buoyed me, and I felt cared for by the staff.  I was amazed that there were people in the world, strangers, who believed in my work.

By the time I returned to New York, the city was, for the most part, back to normal, except for that gaping hole in the skyline.  I lived there for six more years and went to a half dozen other residencies, where I met a lot of great writers, artists, dancers, filmmakers, all passionate about their work.  I grew more confident in calling myself a writer.

I never went back to working in an office.  I managed to get by with freelance and teaching.  Hustling, cobbling things together.  The truth is, I’ve never made nearly as much as I did at that software company.  I don’t have health insurance or a retirement fund.  I’ve got a lot of debt, and I scramble to pay the bills.  But I don’t regret any of it.  Quitting my job and driving west was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Residency life isn’t for everyone, and it’s been three years since I’ve gone to one.  But for me, especially during that time in my life, residencies opened a very heavy door.  Ten years ago, Jentel changed my understanding of myself as a writer, and gave me the chance to immerse myself in the dream.

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