Time and place to write
If a group of installation artists or experimental music composers formed a commune in downtown Edgartown, people would notice. But writers, arguably the most discrete variety of artists, are different. It is their job to notice, while ideally, remaining unnoticed. In this fashion, the Martha's Vineyard Writers' Residency quietly came into being this month at the Point Way Inn, the opulent, garden-fortified estate on upper Main Street in Edgartown, owned by seasonal resident Claudia Miller.
In many respects, its first season will be a trial run for the fledgling residency, according to its founders and organizers, Justen Ahren and Fan Ogilvie, designed to offer five writers with what they see as the essentials to create.
"The mission is to provide writers the time and space to work on their creative projects," said Mr. Ahren. "I've always wanted to do a writers' residency, to create a little community for myself in a way." The 38-year-old West Tisbury poet laughed, adding, "It's sort of selfish, I guess."
Photo by Ralph Stewart
"Writers don't need a lot. They just need time, and we're giving them that. Free time. We don't even care if they write one decent line," said Ms. Ogilvie, underscoring the relatively unstructured and pressure-free environment she and Mr. Ahren aim to achieve with their residency.
Ms. Miller, who also owns homes in New York City and Key West, Fla., purchased the Point Way Inn nearly eight years ago. In 2004, she converted the building from a traditional inn into a space that provides free accommodation to visiting artists. The Vineyard Playhouse, The Yard, and the Martha's Vineyard Film Festival are among the many local organizations that have made use of the inn over the last four summers.
"The idea is for artists to come and give back to the community of Martha's Vineyard," explained the 57-year-old Ms. Miller. "But ultimately, it's a donation back to the art organizations on Martha's Vineyard. It is my contribution."
The Martha's Vineyard Writers' Residency marks a new direction in Ms. Miller's mission to benefit the arts on Martha's Vineyard - the Point Way Inn has now become the site where art is created rather than just a place where artists can stay while working elsewhere.
Of the participating writers, three are Vineyard residents - Taffy McCarthy, a playwright; Harriet Bernstein, a fiction writer; and Brooks Robards, a poet who is also a freelance writer for the Martha's Vineyard Times. The remaining two are Sara Peters, a poet from Montreal who recently received an MFA from Boston University, and James O'Brien, a Boston-based fiction writer.
The residency costs $150, which includes up to six weeks in a private room at the plush yet homey inn. Ms. Peters is the only person planning to stay all six weeks (September 20 to October 31); the others have arranged to stay anywhere from one to five weeks.
In future sessions, Mr. Ahren said he will encourage everyone to stay for the entirety of the session. "From my own experience, I think you need a good amount of time to really get inside of your work. You almost have to walk around and live it and breathe it for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And it takes a week to settle in and get to know your surroundings."
While each writer is on his or her own in terms of food and transportation, Mr. Ahren has taken time away from his landscaping business to make frequent visits. He made available road maps and bus schedules, as well as information on bike rentals.
"I try to check in every day," said Mr. Ahren. "I don't want to knock on their doors and disturb them. I make my rounds and if anyone is aroun, I'll sit and talk with them for a while to see how it's going. It's pretty hands-off."
After two weeks, Ms. Peters has found the residency's environment to be one of freedom and solitude. At 26, she is the youngest participating writer. She said it had been "wonderful over all. Lonely in very positive ways mostly. It's been strange for me to not have school or work. I am used to making my creative schedule work around those things. Here I have no routine and that's a really, really weird feeling. I can go to bed at 5 am and get up at 7 pm. So that's refreshing but also kind of nerve-racking."
While she was ambivalent about the usefulness of setting goals for herself, Ms. Peters said she hoped to complete five to ten poems during her stay.
The founders' vision of a writers' residency took hold when Ms. Miller, a family friend of Mr. Ahren, gave him permission in June of this year to make use of the space during October. As the inn would be open until the end of the month anyway, the owner was glad for it to be occupied.
To find applicants, Mr. Ahren and Ms. Ogilvie placed advertisements throughout July and August in both Island newspapers and contacted well-connected writers, such as former United States Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, who helped them spread the word in writing communities throughout the country.
Mr. Ahren estimated that they received around 50 applications, each of which included a short biography and a manuscript of under 20 pages. Fearing it would be difficult to attract applicants in their first year, they opened the residency to writers working in all genres. Both founders agreed that in the future the residency will be exclusively for poets.
"That's really where my heart is," said Mr. Ahren. "And I think if I dilute it too much, I'm going to be all over the place. And if I can just concentrate on poetry I'll get a lot more traction. My connections are mostly with poets too."
One of the residency's primary functions is to promote an exchange - not only among those participating in the residency, but one that incorporates the Martha's Vineyard community.
Their goal, Mr. Ahren explained, "is really to expose writers here to writers working off-Island. I'd really love to bring these two communities together. We'd have five or six writers here and then we'd have writers in this community and when we brought them together, ideas would be exchanged, connections would be made."
Mr. Ahren's face lit up as he described his vision. "I see big tables with lots of food. I love food, so any way I can incorporate food and celebration with talking about writing, to me, that's a glorious evening. It doesn't get better than that. On Martha's Vineyard, to top it all off. I'm trying to create what I would want my evening - my life -to be like. That's how I see it."
Other than Thursday night potlucks and voluntary public reading at the end of the month, there are no organized events as of yet. Ms. Ogilvie said that she plans to invite nationally renowned writers, such as West Tisbury poet Fanny Howe, to read and interact with the writers in the program.
While the residency's lack of structure is partially deliberate, its looseness is also a reflection of the residency's nascent stage. "It's really just developing," explained Ms. Ogilvie. "It's not locked in any kind of stone. We're just feeling our way. But we know what we're offering is the dream of any writer - to have their own time and space."