The Writing Life: a Cautionary Tale

contributed by Sara Johnson Allen

My entire life I have been a writer, and for my entire life I have written for the wrong reasons. In 2004, the program director at Emerson College tried to explain this to me as I demanded to transfer in more than 12 credits. He tried to explain that an MFA program is about using the time to write. Trying to get out as fast as possible is sort of missing the point.

The next semester, for all the wrong reasons, I decided to apply to “better” schools. Maria Flook, who would become my thesis advisor, agreed to write me a letter of recommendation, but said it didn’t matter where I went. I needed to find my core community of writers. That was all that mattered.

I did find my core, and I never transferred. We are scattered now, but I would likely trust those people with my first-born, or even more frightening: a rough draft.

Despite my best efforts to resist it, I did grow during my MFA program at Emerson. I did learn.

After I finished the program, my focus changed. I got married. I started a freelance writing business. I had a baby. I got a job as a professor. I had another baby. I had another baby. One day I woke up and didn’t have to beat myself up for writing for the wrong reasons; I wasn’t writing at all.

In fact, I had not written in. . . wait for it. . . 6 years. Not a word.

So I started looking for a place that would give me the time and space to write again.

In 2005, I had gone to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Like many large writing conferences, it was packed with programming, helpful workshops, readings at night, parties in the barn, parties by the bonfire, meetings with agents, craft lectures by the literati, and meals with new friends. It was an amazing experience, but it wasn’t the kind of place you went to produce work.

I had heard that writing colonies were many a writer’s solution to getting away from the distractions of every day life. Most had application processes, but I get a secret thrill from seeking external validation from admissions boards, so that was no problem. However, the residency periods were incomprehensible to me. I couldn’t get five minutes to go to the bathroom alone much less set aside 6-8 weeks for my art. It was becoming increasingly unclear if there was any art left in me at all.

Then there was the week the mice invaded my home, the sewer pipe broke into the kitchen, and I sat at a restaurant holding a carton in my left hand for my middle child to vomit in while I continued to eat my dinner with my right hand.

Also during that same dark week, two of the people who I had met and liked most at Bread Loaf popped up in my Facebook feed. On the same day, I learned that one had been nominated for the National Book Award and the other had just signed a double book deal.

Of course I was happy for them, but my heart broke. I accepted that I hadn’t made it, that I wouldn’t write again, not the way that I always thought I would, not in the way that defines you as a person.

My father is fond of saying that sometimes we do the right thing for the wrong reasons. And so perhaps again for the wrong reasons, I went through an online directory of writers’ retreats, one-by-one, looking for places that didn’t have a required length of stay.

In November of 2012, I checked myself into the Wellspring House, a retreat for writers and artists, in Ashfield, Mass. I spent four nights in a stark room with a creaky twin bed and an old wooden desk. Occasionally, I walked around a pond. I researched crossing the Mexican border in El Paso. I watched videos about the murder capital of the world: Juarez. I didn’t have to make anyone dinner. Besides my dishes, I didn’t have to clean anything. I didn’t have to go to bed early knowing someone would wake me up before 6:00.

One advantage of being a full-time professor and mother of three is that four days alone can seem like an eternity. Wellspring was incredibly lonely and intentionally isolating, but I was productive.

I wrote.

I wrote 80 pages. I figured out the arc of my novel. I made one more trip the following June where I finished my first draft. I don’t think I wrote a single word in the 6 months that separated those two trips.

I have come to understand what the program director at Emerson was trying to say to me nearly a decade ago. Time and space are the most precious and essential commodities for any artist. Also, it doesn’t hurt to find your core community.

Take it where you can find it, and embrace it for as long as you can.


Author’s note: I think for the most part I have stopped doing things for the wrong reasons. I am so thrilled to be hosting L’ATELIER Writers Retreat and Workshop from June 14-20 in Villeferry, France with two of the people from my core community at Emerson. We hope that L’ATELIER will live somewhere between conferences like Bread Loaf and retreats like Wellspring House. Limited programming, limited participants, limited loneliness. Just enough solitude to give us the space to create.  Just enough people to keep us connected.