Return guests, on the other hand (both colonies allow artists to come back again and again), usually know exactly what to do when they get there. Ruth Whitman, a Brookline poet, has been to MacDowell five times. “When I arrive, I turn into a work machine,” she tells me. “During the year, as a mother and a teacher (at Harvard), it’s hard to get the time to write. So when I get to MacDowell, well, it’s like water to a thirsty man: I start working immediately. I’ve discovered that at MacDowell, I can accomplish in one month what would take me a year to do in Cambridge.”
Whatever the artists do all day, work usually stops at both colonies in the late afternoon-- around 4 o’clock — when people get together for drinks, swimming, walks or tennis. Then, after an elegant dinner in the main dining room, there are the colonies’ own versions of social life, reminiscent of one of those 1950s shipwrecked-on-a-deserted-island melodramas: 30 artists, all away from friends and spouses, find themselves huddled together far from civilization. Naturally, social fireworks ensue, and though some of the colonists are content with an after-dinner drink and a game of checkers (there is no television at Yaddo, and no one seems interested in the set at MacDowell), each season witnesses its share of passionate affairs, artistic confrontations and general boarding-school behavior. At Yaddo, as John Cheever related in an article in the New York Times, things frequently get out of hand after hours. “We would slide down the banisters, put hats on the statuary,” he wrote, “and romp naked in the atrium pool.” Romantic entanglements, of course, are too numerous to consider. As one colonist told me, “Put 30 artists together — non-stop — for two months, and things are going to get very warm and passionate. Sometimes it gets a little complicated to be sure, but ultimately, I think it all contributes to the creative life of the colony.”
For these reasons and others, applications to the colonies have increased over the years. Last year MacDowell received 1200 applications for 200 places; Yaddo, 600 for 125. And fortunately, since many of the more successful artistic and literary luminaries already have their own rustic hideaways, the bulk of the openings go to their unknown and undiscovered contemporaries.
Applications are screened at both places by advisory panels consisting of noted writers, artists and alumni. Typically, the panel’s decision is based on the recommendations and work samples that must accompany the application. MacDowell, for example, asks composers to send two or three scores, including a large-scale one (a string quartet, sonata, or work for orchestra); visual artists are required to send five color slides of their work; and writers must submit six poems, a portion of a work in progress, or a published work.