Friends, do you remember my happy stint as the writer-in-residence at the Kerouac House a few years ago?
This spring, I’ve been having a similar experience, this time in the Berkshires.
Since mid-February I’ve been staying in a sweet 1-bedroom apartment on Stockbridge, MA’s Main Street (a site captured forever in Norman Rockwell paintings), teaching a twice-weekly creative writing class at the local Waldorf high school, and luxuriating in time to focus on my own writing as the Stone Court Writer-in-Residence.
It’s funny how I thought I would hide away here and pile up the pages. While I have gotten a lot of work done, it hit me soon after arriving that it can be hard to hermit in a town of less than 2,000 inhabitants. Just heading out my door to go for a walk I’m sure to run into someone I know. It’s a delight. Paris undoubtedly has pleasures galore, but there are many to be found in small town life, too.
The biggest surprise and fortune has been making a connection with The Mount, Edith Wharton’s elegant country home in Lenox, MA. I admit before my residency, the extent of my Wharton knowledge was the required reading of Ethan Frome in high school, a bleak experience that did not exactly leave me clamoring to seek out more of the author’s work.
But from the moment I stepped inside The Mount, I felt a magical energy. And by some further magic – and the very real generosity of the incredibly kind staff – I was allowed to spend nearly a month writing there each day. WOW!
The Mount inaugurated their own writers-in-residence program this spring and I was invited to a celebratory dinner for the three selected writers. As I’m living just down the road, the idea that I could also work there organically arose. It was the off-season, you see, and they had space enough to spare. It seems fitting, too, they said, to welcome more writers there.
Little did I know just how fitting the arrangement would be. The novelist Henry James, one of Wharton’s closest friends, described The Mount as “a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.”
Indeed Wharton designed The Mount herself (one of her earliest books was The Decoration of Houses) and was a total Francophile. For me, it was quite the discovery. I was writing about Paris in Wharton’s home and learning about her own deep connection to the city. She spent nearly three decades living in France!
I split my writing time between Wharton’s bedroom (where she wrote herself!) and the bright sewing room. One of the information panels in that room is titled “A Lady’s Work is Never Done” describing the domestic duties of household staff. A writer’s work is never done, I’ve often thought. Somehow constantly seeing that phrase spurred me on. As did the view of the exceptional gardens and the lake.
“Keeping up with the Joneses” is an expression that referred to Wharton’s family (she was born Edith Jones). Though I’d once assumed that her tales of elite New York society (the film adaptations must have seeped into my mind, even if I hadn’t read the books they were based on) would be a barrier for me to connect to her work, I found the depth and skill of her novels breathtaking. I’ve started rectifying my oversight and went on a Wharton reading binge: The Age of Innocence, The Custom of the Country, Summer, The House of Mirth (a fave!) and I’m just starting in on French Ways and Their Meaning. (She has other tomes about L’Hexagone, too, including A Motor-Flight through France and Fighting France).
Even more powerful was learning about her. The charity work she did during World War I, her award of the French Legion of Honor, the over 40 (!) books she wrote, most not until after reaching her 40s. That latter fact was the most inspiring to the writer in me.
And while her money and privilege certainly afforded her opportunities that greatly support a creative life, one doesn’t write 40 books without tremendous discipline and drive, too. I learned that writing fiction was actually an activity looked down upon for a woman of her class. So it sounds to me like Edith was a rebel. How cool.
I have just a couple weeks left before I head onto my next adventure, but how many memories I will carry with me. And I’m excited to end my sejour here on a bang.
Tomorrow I’ll be at the Stockbridge Library presenting the documentary “Haunting the Kerouac House” with my partner, French filmmaker Frederic Monpierre. It’s a film about my stay living in Jack’s house. Trailer below!
We’ve just learned that the film was selected for the Cayman Islands International Film Festival this summer, too. Not that budget allows, but wow, how dreamy would a trip down there for that be?
And on May 22, I’ll be reading at The Mount. How meaningful to share my work there after how much that place has affected me.
If you’re anywhere near the Berkshires, please do come on out and say hi.
Or if we don’t cross paths but you make it to this neck of the woods some other time, do go visit The Mount. (It opens to the public May 14). And for you writers out there, their applications for the next writer-in-residence cycle opens in August. Apply!
As for me, I’m grateful for all the gifts I’ve been afforded. My only worry is that it seems I now write best in famous writers’ homes. And how often can that situation happen? Though who knows what the future holds!
“Haunting the Kerouac House”: Documentary Film Screening & Discussion
Tuesday, May 10 @ 6:30 pm, Stockbridge Library
46 Main Street, Stockbridge, MA 01262
My reading in Edith’s house!
Sunday, May 22 @ 3 pm, The Mount
2 Plunkett Street,Lenox, MA 01240
Both events are free with refreshments to follow!