It's been said many times: writing is at heart a solitary act. In the light of archetypal sites like the tower, the garret, and the study, there's something fascinating about writers congregating by a lake or among mountains to practise their art, even if they have their private spaces there. A writers' communal get-away can be many things: an absurdity in the eyes of a fiercely independent lone wolf, a godsend to a lonely or overly distracted creator, a welcome experiment for a writer eager to exchange ideas with others and change daily routines.
In Canada, the best-known retreat of this sort is the Writing Studio of the Banff Centre for the Arts. (The word "studio" itself seems peculiar referring to a bunch of twenty writers hammering away on their keyboards in separate rooms.) Rachel Wyatt, the energetic and beloved director of the Banff writing program, once told me that in selecting participants no consideration is given to region, gender, or age; the quality of the applications is all that counts. Here's proof: three of the ten poets chosen last year were not only from one province, Nova Scotia, but also from one urban area, Halifax-Dartmouth. Moreover-remarkably-all these women are members of the same informal poetry workshop.
One winter morning, I meet in the Trident Café and Bookstore in Halifax with these three friends of mine-Sue Goyette, Dee Dwyer, and Lynn Davies. As the conversation rolls along, their lingering excitement and their reflections about their recent time in Banff fill the air along with the smells of our tea and café au lait.
One thing that quickly becomes clear is how much their experiences differed. At the beginning of the five weeks, Dee started with work on revisions, and only later embarked upon new poems. She says she soon discovered that she is "not a machine-I don't have to do a poem every day." Lynn, on the other hand, worked hard at revising a manuscript she'd brought with her, but couldn't write new poems: "I found I was overstimulated.... Every meal was a social occasion, and it was easy to become very excited first thing in the morning." Unlike the other two women, Sue wrote nothing but new poems, and adopted what she calls a "condensed process": she intensely wrote and revised new work four hours most mornings, ate lunch, then in the afternoon read in the library or went to musical concerts. Obviously, it would be foolish to give a short, general answer to the question What's it like writing at Banff?
The women say that they became curious about everybody else's writing process, and that "everybody else's process seemed better." They laugh at their and others' insecurities. Lynn says, "It was very easy to feel vulnerable," but she also recalls a welcome aspect of the sojourn at Banff: you didn't have to rationalize writing, "You didn't have to explain yourself to anyone." Sue notes that with so many other writers around there was a "feeling of being raw, of having privacy taken away from writing." "The downside of this," she says, is that people could feel "spent" and-Lynn's word pops up again-"overstimulated". Then Sue gratefully, enthusiastically recalls that there were "great people to bounce poems off of" (last year's faculty included Robert Hilles, Don McKay, Erin Mouré, and Jan Zwicky). Lynn adds, "The feedback will take months to digest." For Dee, as for the others, the weeks were valuable for the generosity and helpfulness of the faculty poets-in one-on-one meetings to discuss their poems, and in casual encounters drinking beer, playing shuffleboard, or hiking in the mountains. The women would also bring home new expressions to stimulate thought-for instance, McKay's amused comparison between "a space satellite" and someone's finely tuned ear for off-key moments in poems, and his fondness for the "moosey-faced poem", one that chooses sprawl and inclusiveness over skinny-lined conciseness.
Mountaintops and slopes, waxwings and deer-what Lynn calls "the proximity of nature"-soaked into the women's senses. They say they all noticed how the place began moving into their poems, sometimes in subtle ways. There were also irresistible chances to watch films, see sculpture, and hear classical and jazz concerts in unusually small settings. Sue says that for her it was the first time "the musicians were right there. It was almost like watching yourself."
I was at the May-June 1993 Writing Studio, the last year before the program moved from spring to fall. Some things the women say seem familiar; in other ways their experiences sound different from mine, and we try to find out why. They're amazed that I often had one meal a day alone-I'd wander into the cafeteria and settle in for a quiet, short meal, which I didn't mind since the two other meals would likely be enlivened with the company of other writers. It dawns on the women that the fall studio probably led to a more intense indoor socializing because there was less temptation to go outside and "we started to lose the sun at three o'clock." Ah, then there's the fact that of the twenty writers selected for last fall eighteen were women. Dee, Lynn, and Sue suspect that a conversationally tireless "bonding" happened that would be less likely in a year with a more balanced female-male ratio. The women deeply missed their families (some jokes about the demands of celibacy), but beyond that Lynn admits, "I began to miss men-to miss the male side of things."
We've finished our café au lait and tea. Before we leave, I ask, "How's it been like writing at home since you got back a month ago?" Once again, their answers demonstrate difference and variety. As if coming down from a creative high, Dee reports, "I've not written much since my return." Lynn's experience has been different: "Something about home makes it easier for me to work-I feel more focused." Sue, however, has recently "found it harder to write at home. What I did in one hour at Banff now takes a week." She says she's learned to "respect the days I'm just reading," to see that such days are part of the writer's work, play, and progress.
I imagine each of these women sitting at home, once again adapting to the environment for writing she knows is her standard, the one she will live with for most of her life, at the dining-room table or in the study or den. Home is where their imaginations will have to thrive, where their writing tangles with the ordinary obligations, headaches, and pleasures of life. But their weeks at Banff have left a unique imprint; my friends must sense they were forever changed by the people they met, the trails they hiked, the discoveries they made, and the poetry they wrote. l
Brian Bartlett has published three books of poetry and completed a fourth.