Yaddo and MacDowell: Works in Progress

Alone again, artistically: A glimpse of what it’s like to be present at the creation
By D.C. DENISON  |  July 24, 2008

This article originally appeared in the July 18, 1978 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

In the East Room of the Yaddo mansion, Virginia Spencer Carr, a biographer, is relaxing in an overstuffed antique recliner, casually reading the drafts for her next book. She is sitting in a bay of large French windows overlooking a small pond surrounded by deep woods. The tops of the windows are stained glass, and the morning sunlight casts their colors over the Persian carpet and hardwood floors. On the other side of the study, next to a pile of finished work, a typewriter sits on a stand; the page in it is already covered with neatly typed prose.

Virginia Spencer Carr has the look of someone who hasn’t answered a phone or washed a dish in six weeks. In fact, she hasn’t. And today, for the 43rd day in a row, she knows she will not be disturbed: there is no telephone in the room, and the rules of the house forbid anyone from so much as knocking on the door unless he has been invited. She will not even have to break for her midday meal: a lunch basket (containing a tuna fish sandwich, carrot sticks, an apple, some cookies and a thermos of coffee) prepared by the cooks downstairs sits on an end table and will be there when she wants it. There are diversions of course, but not of the mundane variety. She could, for example, take a nap on the large 19th-century brass bed in the adjoining bedroom, or soak awhile in the oversized bathtub in the next room. Or she may decide on a late-morning stroll through the 400 wooded acres that surround the mansion.

But Virginia Spencer Carr is not in the mood for diversions; she is getting too much work done. Her current project is a biography of Carson McCullers. Not coincidentally, McCullers wrote in this very suite during her many summers at Yaddo in the 1940s. (She wrote The Ballad of the Sad Café here.) Presumably — as if the situation isn’t already inspiring enough — McCullers’s ghost is helping Virginia Spencer Carr with the biography.

Carr is one of the privileged guests of Yaddo, an artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. When McCullers was here, she described it as “an emotional Shangri-La and a literary mecca.” Since then, others have been less dramatic in their characterizations (it is often called a “fresh air fund for artists”), but the deal remains irresistible: every artist-guest receives free room and board and plenty of zealously protected privacy, for an extended period of time — usually six weeks to three months. The object is creative work, and unlike in most places where artists get together, distractions are kept to a minimum: there are no workshops, no pretentious symposiums and no anxious students. All the artist is asked to do in return for this blissful situation is to spend his or her time creating — or, as founder Katrina Trask put it in 1899, “creating, creating, creating!”

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