When it emerged Sunday night that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan, some people thought I might not hear about it for weeks. Not because I only consume news about Sarah Palin but because, for the last month, I’ve been in semi-isolation in the New Hampshire woods. I’m on a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony, a hallowed institution that provides artists of all kinds ― writers, visual artists, composers, filmmakers, even architects ― their own studios (mostly rustic cabins and beautifully designed loft-like structures) so they can work in uninterrupted, idyllic solitude.
Colonists eat breakfast and dinner family-style, but our lunches arrive in baskets that are left quietly outside our doors so we can work undisturbed. There are optional activities in the evening ― a poetry reading, an art exhibition, a fierce round of pingpong ― but the name of the game is seclusion. There aren’t many rules here (no one counts how many pages you wrote or paintings you made), but the one big no-no is visiting someone’s studio without an invitation. Do this and you risk getting ostracized at dinner, which can be a big deal when it’s potentially the only time of day you see another soul.
The system works. Thornton Wilder wrote “Our Town” here. Aaron Copland wrote parts of “Appalachian Spring,” Leonard Bernstein wrote his “Mass” here and Michael Chabon worked on his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” Me, I’m currently working on … this column. But it’s a temporary interruption in what has otherwise been a remarkable opportunity to think about my work in a new way, to not worry about space restrictions or newsworthiness, to not anticipate the barrage of reader comments, to quiet my mind so I can more thoughtfully and effectively speak it.
Life here is lived on a small scale; topics of conversation at dinner include the weather, white-tailed deer sightings, the creak of the birch trees in the wind. The studios have no Internet service and only limited cellphone service. To get online we must traipse to the library, a dank stone building where people can be found pursuing all manner of highly artistic inquiries: surfing eBay, checking bank balances, reading gossip blogs. We don’t get a regular newspaper delivery here, nor can a television or radio be found in any common area.
When the attacks of 9/11 happened nearly a decade ago, staff members of the colony went from studio to studio informing the artists of what had happened (surely one of the only times the “no unscheduled visits” edict was violated). Today you have to wonder if that would be necessary. As much as those of us here think of ourselves as closed for regular business, communication technology darts in and out of our lives with the same randomness and skittishness as those white-tailed deer.
There’s one cellphone carrier that works throughout the property, so, for some of us, the Walden-like reverie is punctuated by a steady flow of calls and email. It’s not uncommon for colonists to text message each other throughout the day. On the one hand, this makes perfect sense given the taboo against knocking on a cabin door. On the other, it makes for a funny tableau: a bunch of artists communing with nature and sending texts like “c u in the meadow.” More than once I’ve been in the library and received a Facebook friend request from someone sitting right across from me.
By dinnertime on Monday, it appeared that only one colonist had missed the memo about bin Laden (which I took to mean she must be getting far more work done than everyone else and will soon win a Pulitzer). The rest of us had not only heard the news but had in some cases gathered as many details ― via smartphones and hasty visits to the library ― as we might have if we were at home glued to CNN.
I’m not sure whether to be heartened by this or mildly bummed out, though I will say I found it far more enjoyable to talk politics with composers and sculptors than I often do with my usual crowd of journalist types. Maybe it’s because it was the end of the day and I was starved for conversation. Or maybe it’s because afterward, I went back to my studio and did something I’d be hard-pressed to do at home: forgot about it altogether. Now that’s the way to get your news.
By Meghan Daum
Meghan Daum is an essayist and novelist in Los Angeles. ― Ed.
(Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)