Amherst, Virginia, 10pm - I check the weather report, gather up my pajamas and walk down to my studio. I have left the Republican debate, and a warm living room filled with writers, artists and composers who have become my friends over the past two weeks.
The familiar sound of boots crunching on leaves is soothing. It reminds me of country rambles as a child growing up in Yorkshire, England.
Earlier that same day, I take a walk through the woods below the barn with two visual artists. The ground is covered in dry leaves, dotted with red berries, slightly disturbed by others who have walked this narrow trail before us. The familiar sound of boots crunching on leaves is soothing. It reminds me of country rambles as a child growing up in Yorkshire, England. Among other things, I am trying to write about my childhood during my residency here at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and this walk somehow makes it easier.
I point out a thick tree whose trunk has been partially gnawed through by the beavers that live in the murky lake below. We watch the tree, swaying slightly, and we pause for a moment, wondering why the beavers left it mid-munch. Nancy Manter, a visual artist, suggests wryly that this is another one of those art projects that never reaches completion.
We wander along, talking about our own projects and how a single idea for a painting or a poem might branch off into something completely different, the unknown. We talk about landscape architecture and desire lines that physically lead from origin to destination, and as we talk, we wander along the edge of the forest where fallen trees, their slender trunks touching, have formed triangles with the forest floor. When we realize we’ve left the trail, we scramble up the steep slope, laughing and taking photos. Finally, we come to a clearing, and then a road, which winds around the wood, that leads us back to what is home for us right now.
I think of this walk as I wake to the rumble of the train that brought me here, to the snow that fell through the night and now covers the leaves in a thin, crisp layer. At 6am, I stumble outside in boots and pajamas and head to the kitchen that I share with the others to make coffee. Through the semi-dark, I see a small figure exiting one of the studios, coming towards me. It’s Dorianne Laux, a poet who arrived a couple of days ago. We laugh as we meet across the snow, two women in pajamas and boots, hair tousled as dawn breaks.
At 6am, I stumble outside in boots and pajamas and head to the kitchen I share with the others to make coffee. Through the semi-dark, I see a small figure exiting one of the studios, coming towards me.
I think of the path that has led me to this particular moment in time: I’m terrified that I will not be able to follow my own desire line here, that I will not manage to complete the first draft of the memoir I came here to write. My writing is on the line, and I must prove I can do it.
After coffee, I bundle up and step across the field and into the woods. I’m looking for animal tracks before the snow melts. I see none but, on my way back, I spot soft imprints in the snow, curving around the back of my studio. I wonder momentarily what animal might have been moving around here but then realize with a start: these are mine.
In NOTES FROM AFAR, writer Joanna Chen sends us weekly dispatches from Amherst, Virginia during her six-week residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In Notes, Chen explores challenges and advantages particular to women writers, the allure and the reality of leaving her partner and children to write and the importance of personal space as she charts her own creative process in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains far from her home in Israel’s Ella Valley.
NOTES FROM AFAR is the first in a pilot series focusing on women in the arts and one that we hope will become a regular feature.
This is the second installment in the series. Click here for Notes From Afar, Week One.
Joanna Chen has written for Newsweek, The Daily Beast and The BBC World Service, among others. Her lyric essays have been published most recently in Guernica, Narratively and The Los Angeles Review of Books, where she writes a column.