18-Minute Chili

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by Jessica Danger

Who wouldn’t want to apply?

I did, after reading the description from the website at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony: “Dorland Mountain Arts Colony is a beautiful retreat where artists, writers, musicians and composers can create in a secluded, natural setting.”

I had the place to myself for a week. I was about 85% done with a memoir I had been working on in the years since my father died. Coincidentally, the week that I was at Dorland included my birthday as well as the third anniversary of my father’s death due to alcoholism, also the topic of the memoir. It was the perfect week to be there, in the middle of nothing, in a little cottage with no television, no husband, children, students, none of it.

I spent the first two days just clearing my head. I read a lot. I finished A Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing and started and finished a novel I found in the cottage. I re-read Marie Howe’s What the Living Do. I went for hikes, went grocery shopping. I slept A LOT.

It gets dark early out there, and the guidebook on my dining table encouraged me to let my body succumb to the natural cycle of the sun. So I did.

JessicaDangerI woke up with the sun and the cacophony of birdsong, passing leisurely mornings counting the quail out my kitchen door. I worked at the desk or read for a few hours over very strong coffee. I ate simple breakfasts then trained hard at the local CrossFit box in triple digit summer weather. I wrote all afternoon, furiously and without regard to editing or hurt feelings, still in my stinky gym clothes, the radio playing the whole time. In the evenings I mirrored the morning. I ate my dinner on the front porch, in a creaking rocking chair that I moved every twenty minutes or so to catch the sun. I watched the birds, looking them each up in the Birdwatchers Encyclopedia in the house. I counted the lizards, I scared off snakes. When the porch light could no longer suffice for reading, I went inside and simply went to bed.

Sometimes I sat on the hardwood floors, in the middle of the living room, and just cried. This stuff was so hard. The writing, the memories, the anniversary of his passing. The silence had a presence. One of my best girlfriends sent me a package, with a letterpress sign that reads, “You are doing a great fucking job.” I drank several bottles of wine, with disregard to the time of day.

I hiked a lot. I checked for ticks. I cried some more.
 I got back to work.

After a week at Dorland I did what all writers dream of doing: I left with a finished first draft of the memoir. I breathed a cavernous sigh of relief. It is finished. It has been done. I packed up my little borrowed cottage, said goodbye to the caretakers and blasted the radio on the way home, windows down.

Now all I have to do is revise it.
 No big deal, right? I mean the hard part is finished, no?

I went home to my dog and kids and home to the relentless list of things screaming and blinking at me like carnival lights on Labor Day. Things that zap your time, suck your energy, lust after you NOT TO WRITE.

My draft is piled very neatly in a plastic storage crate in an office I am borrowing from my boss until mid December.

The semester has started. I have welcomed my students. I am trying—desperately, desperately—to memorize their names and pronounce them correctly. To remind myself that I too at one time was a college freshman.

Oh yes, that pesky memoir.

Carolyn See, who sadly we just lost, offers guidance in her book Making a Literary Life. She charts two options, “Carolyn’s 18-Minute Chili” or “Carolyn’s 18-Hour Chili,” in her seemingly foolproof plan.

The one I am going to run with this semester is the 18-Minute option. Write a thousand words a day or two hours of revision every day and send off a nice note of appreciation, “five days a week for the rest of your life.” By this, she means a note of appreciation to an editor, writer, etc. See calls these “paper airplanes of affection.” (Today, from my borrowed office, I sent an email to Lily King, praising her novel Father of the Rain. Have you read it? Because you should, right now, and then you should ALSO send her a note of appreciation.)

How quickly we allow ourselves to be distracted. I repeat myself, telling my students that it is their responsibility to manage their time, just like I tell my children. I cannot do it for them. So why is it so difficult to do it myself? Why, as a mother and a teacher and a wife and friend and daughter and all the other hats we must wear, why do I allow the work to be put on the back burner? Every. Damn. Time.

Bukowski writes, in one of his many doodle crowded letters, “There is nothing more magic and beautiful than lines forming across paper. It’s all there is. It’s all there ever was.”

How easy it would be.

Why is it so impossible to duplicate the headspace I found at Dorland? Since then, I’ve found many other writers that tell me the same thing. That they cannot write in the house, they have to go somewhere else. Sometimes that means the library sometimes that means a place like Dorland. I know one author that can work right there at the kitchen table, in the afternoons, with his two beautiful daughters twirling around him in the after school madness every parent recognizes as they pull around the corner.

Me? I ignore my kids and spouse. I retreat. I shut the door. But I follow the steps. I write.
 I encourage and support the community in which I identify. That of writers.
 I send notes of gratitude.

What is your plan?

Jessica Danger lives, writes, and teaches in Southern California with her family. She holds an MFA from Bennington College in Vermont. Her work has been published in several journals, including Gold Man Review and Thin Air Magazine. She was recently shortlisted for the Iowa Review Nonfiction Prize.

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