A Cautionary Tale
First: pack. What does one bring to an "artists' retreat"? Like many writers, I tend to sit at my computer in sweatpants or underwear, beginning in the morning when the line between dreams and reality is still blurred, doing little more than brushing my teeth before losing myself in the words, my hair hanging from the granny knot on top of my head. But friends who've attended Ragdale in the past have told me about the group meals, the readings, the all-night talks with fellow residents, the "networky" Christmas party that will take place during my two-week stay. So instead I pack as though I am going out to dinner. I bring pointy-toed boots with three-inch heels. I bring a blazer. I bring my Kate Spade journal tote. I bring three shades of lipstick and my straightening iron. On December 1, 2000, I drive the hour-plus to Lake Forest from Chicago, feeling giddy and nervous as though, at 32, I am off to summer camp for the first time.
What I at first don't realize is, I am off to camp--albeit at the onset of a brutal midwestern winter. Though Ragdale has given up its earlier label of artists' colony (the "colony" part smacking too much of free love), it is still largely a social enterprise; rules and regulations boil down to a moratorium on talking during daylight hours, a proscription against leaving the premises for anything longer than a coffee run, and healthy but watery dinners served at an unsettlingly early hour. Ragdale's grounds comprise 50 acres of virgin prairie, a majestic wood-beamed main house full of giant bedrooms with settees and sunporches, and, a stone's throw away, a spare, drafty building called the "Barnhouse" that holds the administrative office and a TV room and kitchen on its ground floor. Upstairs, the bedrooms are small and the beds are twin. Artists, dancers, and composers are given separate studios, some of which have living areas. Of course I find myself in the Barnhouse. My room is directly above the TV and features a narrow, floppy bed, a long table to be used as a desk, and a small dresser--hardly a haven offering more than the comforts of home. Looking around, I anticipate the cramps my arms will suffer from typing at the table. I don't know what I expected, exactly, but a return to my college dorm room wasn't it. When I am informed that I'll be sharing my bathroom with the as yet unmet resident of the room next to mine, I feel the distinct desire to run.
What I know going in: Ragdale was built in 1897 as the summer home of Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw. In 1976 Shaw's granddaughter, poet Alice Judson Hayes, created the Ragdale Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide work space for artists of all disciplines. Ownership of the estate passed to the city of Lake Forest in 1986, to help ensure its preservation, and each year Ragdale houses and subsidizes more than 200 international artists. It's the fourth-largest such retreat in the U.S., and the most prestigious in the midwest. Novelist and biographer Susan Cheever--John's daughter--is among the alumni; Lynda Barry, a former employee, painted the phone booth; gritty writers like Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones) and Dorothy Allison (Bastard out of Carolina) have gotten away from it all at Ragdale. Being here is an honor. Serious stuff.
What I soon learn: artists' retreats carry their own ghost lore, and word has it that Ragdale is haunted. Having arrived at night, I quickly abandon any hope of working and surrender to a tour of the grounds. Billy, a playwright (I've changed his name and those of the other residents), and I stand wide-eyed in the main house as a poet who has been here many times before regales us with tales of how Sidney--deceased stepfather to Alice Judson Hayes--now occupies the mattress in her room. The poet has been burning thyme and reciting spells to banish his spirit and says that now he wakes her only at particular times of night and is otherwise quite well behaved. Billy, who's staying across the hall from the haunted room, mutters something about needing a cigarette and makes his exit. Alone, I scamper back across the pitch-black prairie to the Barnhouse; I do not believe in ghosts, I remind myself.
Later, safely back in Chicago, a friend will tell me that once, while she was walking this same path, a resident leaned out the window to inform her that the ghost of Frances Wells Shaw (Howard's wife) "practically ran right into you." Then, I will be able to guffaw and gently mock her when she admits to having felt "nervous." Now, however, I am in for 14 days of having to keep a straight face during ghost sightings (aren't we supposed to get s'mores with these stories?) and chiding myself for my own idiocy as I walk darkened paths with prickles up my spine, to return to my floppy little bed and either the creepy quiet or--worse--the noise of the TV blaring some film I do not like into the wee hours.
Another thought crosses my mind as I get ready for bed. Every time I want a cup of tea or a snack, I'm going to have to go into the kitchen and risk running into any number of people with whom I'll have to be social, who will scrutinize what I'm eating, who will notice if I forget to load my cup into the dishwasher, who will ruin my creative momentum with their...strangerness. Here is one thing the founders of Ragdale failed to consider: many writers, myself included, are mildly or severely horrified of strangers and can only tolerate meeting them on the pages of a manuscript, not half-dressed in a shared kitchen or toilet. Has my bathroom mate noticed yet that I pee more often than any other human being over the age of three?
What have I gotten myself into?
Let There Be Light
The morning of my first full day at Ragdale, proud of having thought to bring Balance bars and a bottle of water, I proceed with my usual underwear-clad routine at the computer. There's a story I've been working on--or rather, wrote two pages of several months ago and haven't returned to since. It's a tricky one, told from a male point of view, involving a gay commitment ceremony run by a pretentious wedding coordinator and violent flashbacks to a grim childhood in Venezuela. It's been eluding me; I only recently completed a novel I worked on for four years and have yet to become reacquainted with the short story form. This room, uncomfortable and sweltering, is unlikely to produce inspiration, but I am here, I am stuck, so I might as well try.
Ten hours later, the story--36 pages long--is done. I lie on my bed, exhausted and wired. Though I don't know then that it will win me a $7,000 Illinois Arts Council fellowship the following year--more money than I've ever made from writing--I know in my bones that it does not suck. I also know just as surely that had I not come here, this story would have taken months to finish, between my magazine editing, part-time teaching, freelance journalism, husband, family, friends, house, unanswered E-mails, and whining cat. And even then, it would not have been this story, written here, in such a frenzy of avoidance of strangers in the kitchen, in ten hours, in this silly room. I'm a weepy mess. I miss Miguel, the protagonist, already. To experience that loss here in this unfamiliar place feels dangerous; though I am hungry, I would rather not go down to dinner. But despite the ghost stories and the unfamiliar voices rising from the dining hall, I get dressed and go.
Affairs Are Easy To Have Here, Dear
I have chosen the wrong clothes. I look like a refugee from Sex and the City who's stumbled into a union rally. My blazer, the color of blood in a vial; my spike-heeled boots of the same color; my matching lipstick: all wrong. Everyone at the table, male and female, is dressed in slouchy jeans or some bohemian variation on khakis. Hair is shaggy, shoes are broken in and practical, if worn at all. Lipstick--what lipstick? I sit like a frivolous purchase over which one should feel embarrassment and wonder how I could have failed to consider this possibility. I have been to grad school; I know about artist grunge. But I am in my 30s now. I own a house. Ragdale is in a wealthy suburb on the North Shore. I thought it would be acceptable to wear heels.
Thankfully, men, even straggly bohemian men, are never entirely averse to a little lipstick, and so some speak to me--Billy the playwright and Duncan, an Irish painter. Duncan's brogue and the German rasp of Gretchen, a composer, are the only voices at the table loud enough to be heard. Friends who have been to Ragdale have come home either with horror stories or rapturous tales about the dinner conversation--but I can hardly hear it. Around the table sit a handful of painfully shy women who remind me of the poets in my graduate program, all of whom were barely audible and dressed like Laura Ingalls Wilder. There are no floral prints here, but the muttering factor is even worse. Two other men--an older, highly successful author of thrillers and an AIDS activist/fiction writer--are practically mute. The collective anxiety at the table is so thick it could be added to our food like cornstarch. I have never seen a group of people more in need of alcohol.
Sylvia Brown, Ragdale's marketing and programming director, is dining with us. A regal British woman of a certain age, she chats dutifully, a camp counselor who has seen identical groups of shy children many times before and is probably tired of us but cannot show it. I think wistfully of stories I have heard of raucous Ragdale residents: the performance artist who, whenever anyone asked her a question, stood up, flipped her waist-length hair back, and posed before answering; the argumentative man who aggressively challenged the other residents' every statement; the torrid affairs. "Be careful," Sylvia Brown is rumored once to have told a new staff member, "affairs are very easy to have here."
If there were any less sexual tension in this room, none of us would have a pulse.
This will remain true over the course of my time here, except that Billy will develop a seeming infatuation with Gretchen, although he has a girlfriend and she is gay. They sit up yapping in the TV room, keeping me awake with an intensity that, though unconsummated, is touching.
Fifty Ways to Leave Your Twin Bed
I have been at Ragdale for just over 24 hours and I am burned-out. I am pragmatic: I have already completed more work than I could do over any normal two-week period. Miguel and Venezuela are still buzzing around my brain--I am nowhere near ready to jump into another character, another world. It commonly takes me weeks to come down from a story--what am I supposed to do during the remainder of my time here? Really, I should be free to leave.
And so I pack. My Balance bars, my bottle of Listerine that takes up half the sink, my several pairs of shoes (none of which have sensible heels), my computer from this uncomfortable pseudodesk, my hair dryer, which makes such conspicuous amounts of noise that I have decided never to use it here. I jam them all into my bags, but then, just as I'm ready to make a break for it, I think of something Miguel's sister should have said when they fought about her refusal to attend his commitment ceremony, and I lug out my laptop again, plug it back in. Two hours later it's too late to leave, and it's snowing. I'll go in the morning, before anyone notices me. I pack up the computer, take a Lorazepam (I'm feeling more Sex and the City by the moment), and go to sleep.
Come morning, I remember: I can't face my friends if I leave without taking a walk on the prairie. Everyone I know who has been here raves about the prairie, and since I grew up at Grand and Western and never went to summer camp, I am not entirely sure what a prairie is other than a flat patch of land. I owe it to myself to find out, so off I go in my long wool coat and spike-heeled boots, trudging through the faint snow, prepared to plow right through any wayward ghosts. I don't get much farther than the artists' studios before my coat is soaked through at the bottom, my feet are wet, and mud is caked on my heels. What was I thinking, packing this way? It's not like I don't own hiking boots.
Though I forge on for a while, I cannot deny that I hate the cold; that the flat land is disturbingly unbeautiful to my midwestern eyes, which crave exotic mountains; that my hiking boots exist mainly to provide laces for my cat to chew while I write and ignore him. Twenty-four hours in this former colony (if there were more free love, would it be more to my liking?) and I have already begun to second-guess my every instinct, including the desire to get the hell out of here. Frustrated and wet, I head back to the Barnhouse, fetch my cell phone, prepare to call my husband and say I'm coming home, prepare for his "I told you so."
David isn't home, so I check the machine. There is only one message, from an agent in New York to whom I'd sent my novel two months ago. It's cryptic, and I anticipate the worst--I was referred by one of her clients, so she's probably just being kind enough to reject me by phone rather than by mail. I call her office back as instructed, and there, in Lake Forest, in my wet coat and trashed boots, my computer packed and ready to roll, my future agent tells me she loves my novel and wants to represent me. "I'm at Ragdale," I tell her, "for a writers' retreat." "Great!" she says. "Are you working on another novel?"
I emerge from the conversation much as I emerged from the short story: shell-shocked and edgy and feeling like I didn't bring nearly enough Lorazepam to cover this trip. I do not, of course, go home. I go upstairs and change back into my pajamas, and I outline my next novel: about a woman traveler with cystic fibrosis. A short story I wrote when I was 22 could be its first chapter. I tinker with the story and the outline for most of the afternoon. Before dinner, I shower and use my hair dryer and put on dry high heels and then go downstairs, where the food is still watery and the residents are still as soft-spoken as a Margaret Cho impression of an idealized Korean girl.
I will never hike the prairie; I will not leave this place with lifelong friends. But I'll make it to the Christ-mas party and even have my tarot cards read. I'll sit up with Billy and Gretchen and watch some movies, and soon others will join in. I'll tour Duncan's studio and be awestruck by the way he uses paint to create the texture of skin, so that a wound in the flesh is an actual hole in the painting that you can stick your finger into. I'll start eating shredded wheat for breakfast, and when I run into the thriller writer in the kitchen, he'll mercifully act as though he doesn't see me. The way Gretchen plays the piano will make everybody fall into a silence that's not shy but strangely intimate, and after that the voices won't be quite as soft anymore.
Here Are Some Things Ragdale Is Not
It is not a gourmet restaurant, a luxury hotel, a fashion show, a hiker's paradise, or a place to have an affair--unless cramped twin beds and slouchily dressed people who believe in ghosts and not being able to speak before 6 PM is your style.
Here are some things it is: A place where you will read every good book you've avoided for the past two years (if you're smart enough to pack same). A place where you will write some of the best work you've ever produced because there is nothing--and I mean nothing--else to do. A place where vegetarian options abound and there are 20 kinds of herbal tea and the cupboard never goes bare. A place where good things happen, even if you are wrongly dressed and suspicious and don't believe they will.
I would like to say I settled gracefully into Ragdale after getting my agent and outlining a novel I didn't even know existed, but the truth is I packed my bags twice more before my residency was over. Once I was prevented from leaving by a snowstorm, and once I did disappear for 24 hours to go home to my husband and have Thai food and sex. But I came back. Now that I'm the mother of two-year-old twins and realize, in a way I couldn't fathom then, just how valuable a single-bedded room of one's own can be, I will (if they will have me after this!), with sensible shoes in tow and hair dryer left at home and a lot more faith in my heart and even more books in my tote bag, gladly go again.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Emily Flake.