Bad Advice Wednesday (Thursday Edition): Take a Break

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour

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MacDowell Colony Cabin

I’m in New Hampshire as I write, enjoying the annual Roorbach family gathering at the lake.  Five or six hundred of us, including container loads of Elysia’s cousins, have climbed Mt. Cardigan, eaten large amounts of everything, swum, fished, sailed, sung, rope-swung, toasted marshmallows, thrown horseshoes, and etc.   And I, I haven’t written a word.  I am taking a break.


But that’s just one of the kinds of break I’m talking about here.  Another is the opposite—the writing break.  In which you carve out a week and take yourself somewhere (preferably boring, preferably alone), and perform an ambitious task: finish that book, start that play, learn Russian.

The best thing I got done at the MacDowell Colony (15 years ago) was to learn how to work.  At that wonderful place, not far from here, you’re given a studio with a bed and fireplace.  Mine had a porch, too, and a piano.  At noon, one of the zookeepers brings you a basket with nice food—he won’t even say hello.  At six p.m., the dinner bell rings, and you walk toward the center of the campus, joining other artists till you arrive at your cocktail.  Then a great dinner, then a studio visit or reading, maybe some ping-pong with a photographer from Russia who kicks your butt and insults America but who’s gorgeous and blindingly intelligent.

Every day the same.

I was there three weeks.  The first I felt half-panicked, scanned the horizon for the lunch man, sprinted for my cocktail, the abuse of my Russian friend, and thought about Spalding Gray, who hated the place.  Second week I worked in an ideal state, wrote drafts of nearly all the stories that ended up in my collection Big Bend, and learned five or six songs on the piano, singing my heart out with no one to hear.  Third week I worked nearly as well, but with growing dread and attendant disruption: soon I’d be leaving.

At home I found myself at my desk earlier and more focused than I’d ever been, and sat there longer.

The lesson has never really left me: the more you work, the better you work, and the less you yearn for lunch.


The best lesson was provided by a visual artist named D.J., I think (whose full name I have to locate, with apologies).  She had six weeks at MacDowell, and her plan was to do nothing.  Nothing at all that you would normally consider making art, that is.  She walked, she looked, she sat, she thought, she listened, no distractions, including those wrought by ambition itself.

That’s the kind of break I’m talking about.

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