Summer is often idealized as a season of endless free time, when the obligations of life and work are relaxed and we can do the things we dream about. For most of us, this is but a childhood memory, but for Theresa Williams, creative writing, this summer will truly be such a time.
Williams has been chosen for a writing residency in Provincetown, Mass., on the tip of Cape Cod. Paid for through the Ohio Arts Council, the competitive award will enable her to spend three months at the renowned Fine Arts Work Center, where she can have uninterrupted time to write, along with the company of other authors and artists and the expansive seacoast for inspiration.
Located in the country’s oldest continuous arts colony, the center was co-founded in 1968 by a group of now-famous writers and artists, including the late Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz and painter Robert Motherwell, and has spawned many well-known authors and artists.
The OAC grant provides traveling and living expenses, a monthly stipend and the opportunity to do a public reading and to take three workshops, which are taught by prominent writers and artists. (See www.fawc.org/.)
This is the second OAC grant Williams has received. In 2006, she won an Individual Excellence Award and the top prize of $10,000. She has published short stories, poems and a book, The Secret of Hurricanes, in 2002. (See www.bgsu.edu/offices/mc/monitor/06-19-06/page21923.html.)
Monitor spoke with Williams as she prepares to leave June 2 for her sojourn in New England.
Q. Did you apply for the grant in order to work on a specific project?
Yes, my main goal is to finish my Ohio River project. In 2005, my husband and I floated the whole length of the Ohio in a small boat, and I want to write a novel about it. I’ve been researching the last three years and I’ve made many attempts at finding the center of thought and right voice for the work. I hope that three months in a beautiful watery setting like Provincetown will inspire me.
Plan B is to work on several short stories while I’m there.
Q. Have you ever spent this much time away from your family, and how do you think having this solitude and time to write will affect your work?
No, I haven’t. Of course I’m a little concerned about that because I’m not sure what my reaction will be. I think it will be hard. My children don’t live at home anymore but they all live in Bowling Green. I’ve not been away from my husband any longer than a week or so. I hope I can channel the loss of contact with my family into good writing. On the other hand, solitude is something I treasure, and I hope it will make all the difference in my ability to get a lot of writing done this summer.
Q. Do you think being alone will help you write more from your inner self, as opposed to your identities as a mother, spouse, faculty member, etc.?
You’ve hit on an important struggle in my writing life. I do think that being on my own will give me the courage to write from a true part of myself. When I say “true,” though, that doesn’t necessarily mean authentic to “who I am as a person.” It could mean being authentic to who the characters are in the story I want to tell. It does take courage to do that, because it’s hard at first to separate your characters from yourself. Your characters might be more heroic than you are or more despicable.
Q. How closely does your work spring from your own experience?
All of it, in one way or another, springs from my own experience. But the writer has to be true to the story and not to the experience. So, therefore, the story will always be different from the “way it really happened.”
Q. Are the same themes still recurring throughout your writing? How have they changed with maturity? We’d talked about the terror of the sublime in the past—is this still a concern in your writing?
My first novel, The Secret of Hurricanes, was based on my childhood and adolescence in North Carolina. While writing that book, I was able to deal with a lot of baggage from my past. I do still write stories for that purpose, but less and less. I’ve become more interested in the grand themes of human experience. I know this sounds egotistical, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean that I’m more interested in connecting my own experience to something outside of myself, outside of my own pain. These grand themes can make you humble.
So this notion of the terror of the sublime is still very much a concern in my writing. For instance, I must try to feel what it was like for Lewis and Clark when they went down the Ohio River. They had no idea what they would encounter. True, as with any long journey, a lot of it was boring. But that boredom was punctuated by awe and wonder. In fact, they were actually on the lookout for living mammoths! This is because the belief was that God had created a perfect universe, and, in a perfect universe, no animal could become extinct. Mammoth bones had been found along the Ohio River, particularly in an area called Big Bone Lick. So it followed that there must be some living mammoths somewhere to the west.
Q. Have you finished the short story collection you were working on in 2006, and, if so, has it been published?
No, but I have published individual stories from the collection. The last published story was “Trash.” It appeared in The Sun magazine in September 2007.
Q. It’s interesting that the river project had this water theme, and now you’ll be on Cape Cod. Is water an inspiration for you?
I’ve always been afraid of water. I grew up near the beach in North Carolina and so you always heard about people—sometimes people you knew—drowning. I did take swimming lessons but I’ve never had a lot of confidence in myself as a swimmer. So water takes on an aspect of terror for me that it doesn’t for a lot of people. There are moments when I feel calm around water, too, but mostly it scares me. I do plan to take Whitman’s Leaves of Grass with me. “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is one of my favorite poems. The poet Theodore Roethke also wrote a lot about water, saying “Water is my will and my way.” I take a lot of comfort in Whitman and Roethke’s poems.
Q. Please speak a bit about your work style; for example, do you try to work a set number of hours a day or as the inspiration strikes you? Morning or night? Do you keep notebooks?
I’m not very organized, so a strict work schedule would not work for me. Sometimes the hardest part is starting because, you know, sometimes you’d rather just play. Or maybe you’re afraid inspiration won’t come and you don’t want to feel defeated so you just don’t write that day. You feel like a failure either way, but if you don’t write, at least you can tell yourself that you might have gotten inspired if you’d tried.
Once I’m going, once the writing is going well, I don’t take very good care of myself. I stay up at all hours, push myself to exhaustion, and it can sometimes take me several days to recover from an intense work session. It’s very unhealthy, yet I don’t know what to do about it.
Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, is a teacher and prolific writer. She seeks to apply Buddhist teachings to her everyday life. Obviously, it isn’t spiritually rewarding to work yourself to exhaustion, so she doesn’t. Even when the writing is going well, she stops. She understands that it’s wrong to continue because she is giving in to a selfish want. I admire Chodron, but I’m not as enlightened as she is! I’m still selfish when it comes to my writing. I want to get it down, no matter what the physical effect will be on me. I figure I will just deal with the exhaustion later.
So the question hanging in the air is whether or not Provincetown will be good for me in the long run. Will it be freeing and give me more time to write? Or will I have so much time to write that I will work myself to the point of exhaustion? I just don’t know.
Maybe the real benefit of my time at Provincetown won’t be what I accomplish in terms of pages but what I discover about myself as a writer while I’m there.