Apple Orchard’s and Hemingway’s Cottage
15 Jun, 2012 - Laura Tokie
The true artist works alone, many say, and who am I to argue? Famous men from President Kennedy to Steve Wozniak spoke of this, as did Ernest Hemingway when he accepted the Nobel Prize:
“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”
Creation, in this image of the artist, becomes a a guarded space, a time when no one is allowed inside. Sometimes the artist struggles, but it is internal, a personal storm. Keeping others out is a way to allow the work to grow its own way, unaffected by others, shielded from the harsh weather of the critic. He is strong already, the critic within; what artist would open the gates and offer him reinforcements?
I discipline myself as a writer to rarely grant access to my work in its early, formative stages. I want to know what I want to say before you tell me what you think of it. I keep the door to my ideas shut, the way Windemere, Hemingway’s cottage in northern lower Michigan, is generally closed to the public. An heir lives there, and preserves it from the crowds.
I learned of Hemingway’s cottage while at the Bear River Writer’s Conference (BRWC). The cottage and the conference share Walloon Lake, but that might be all they have in common.
I appreciate Hemingway’s perspective. BRWC offers a different one. I find room for both. While I wouldn’t endorse the early exposure of a creative work as a new best practice, there are some benefits to cross-pollination.
Growing up, my room faced west. Its only natural light came from a window, maybe 18 inches wide and three feet high. We had obscured the view with bunk beds. The wooden slats rubbed against the sill, but I found a way to curve up and through the frame, pressing my face into the screen, breathing in all that was outside. The glow of a near night sky might draw me, but certainly a warm spring day would find me there. That second story window offered the best view of the apple blossoms.
I have no idea how old our small orchard was. The house was built in the thirties, and I imagine the trees were planted then. This would’ve made the trees 40 years old. Most of them, anyway.
There was one little tree, tucked underneath the MacIntosh or Red Delicious. It was probably a volunteer, sprouted from a dropped seed. It grew, and one year, it not only flowered, but the fruit set.
As its apples formed and turned, they looked nothing like the others in the orchard. The ripe fruit was almost pink.
Where that tree came from, and how it grew such unusual fruit, was a mystery to me for quite a while.
What I learned later is that many apple trees require another type of apple tree, in bloom at the same time, in order to produce. These trees are called self-unfruitful. The fruit of some types of trees only set when the blossoms are cross-pollinated. The seeds produced from this process are therefore made of more than one type of apple, and there’s no guarantee what sort of fruit you’re going to get.
It’s funny. Even the few apple varieties that are self-fruitful benefit from cross-pollination. It increases their yield.
When artists get to it, when they go to work, how do they go from the flowering of an idea to a fruitful project? What if you let someone into it early? What might become of your vision? I imagine it could be like a frost. Some people take questions hard, some people give answers harder. The bloom might fall, and the joy of this creation will never get past the early stage of idea.
I realize my process and preconceptions will be tested on the very first day at BRWC. We are here to generate new material; we need to do it in less than 24 hours; I have not pondered my ideas prior to my arrival.
At one time in my writing life, I would have been able to produce something brief, coherent, and safe, but not now. I have taken to the Anne Lamott method of a true first draft. She discusses it as a slightly different discharge, but I view it as catastrophic hurl, where I force myself to just vomit words on the page, knowing I can clean it up later. To have strangers examine my puke, this is not anything I want, but I’m here to take some risks, be generative, write something new.
The beginnings of a piece hit the page. I let the process stand. I run it through the printer and bring it the next day. The other workshop participants share their experiences that connect, and it is nothing like frost. They ask good questions and give genuine insight. Our leader highlights two sentences and calls them out as my voice. I am prodded to write more like that. The fruit sets, and my second draft is incomplete, but transformed.
As I work and take in the setting and the people, other ideas form too, lists of them, mounds of them. Interacting with poets and fiction writers over meals, hearing authors read their work, walking from building to building in days of rain and moments of sun, I see more possibilities, more stories to tell and ideas to explore.
Later I wonder what would have become of the workshop piece had I continued alone. Would it have revealed a different voice, a different form? Perhaps, but now it will bear an image shaped by the group and her leader, the lake and the weather, and in the shadow of Windemere, I will enjoy it for what it is.