The Lillian Smith Center Residency, Part One

The Lillian E. Smith Center for the Creative Arts in Clayton, Georgia is located in what remains of writer and activist Lillian Smith’s Laurel Falls Camp for Girls in Clayton, Georgia. Last year, the Center began accepting applications for its first ever Writer-in-Service Residency, which awarded a two-week stay and a stipend for travel to a writer in the Deep South whose work in public service often took away personal writing time. Along with another writer, I was tapped as the being one of the first recipients.

I left Montgomery for Clayton on the morning of July 19 to make the five-hour drive to Rabun County in northern Georgia. I’ve never liked driving in Atlanta but it was necessary — any other way added hours to the trip — and, by the time I passed Lake Lanier and Gainesville, I was seeing small mountains surrounding the highway and knew I was almost there. Clayton, Georgia seems to be a typical small Southern town in some ways, with a charming downtown and enough modern life to maintain a visitor for a while, but there is also kind of an artistic/post-hippie/New Age/mountain living element, too. The Lillian E. Smith Center is tucked into a hillside off of Highway 76 East, and you would never end up there, if you weren’t looking for it. I had spoken with the Fichters, Nancy and Robert, prior to coming up, but had never met them in person. It was all new to me.

I took with me four things to work on: one main book project, three in-progress academic articles as back-ups in case the creative work just wasn’t happening, and a few other smaller things as back-ups to my back-ups, including reading the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I spent the first five days working from the time I got up until the time I went to bed, which wasn’t the smartest way to go. In my enthusiasm for this block of time, only stopping to eat and sleep and take short walks to shake off the cobwebs, I worked myself into a constant backache and a daily headache from staring at my books and a computer screen all day. Strangely, it felt great! The brighter side being that I wrote thousands of words in those five twelve-hour days, I slowed somewhat as the weekend arrived and the new week started. By the weekend, two of the three articles were done and the book had about 17,000 words more than when I arrived.

But I had to pace myself. Luckily, a weaver and artist named Tommye Scanlin was staying in the cabin next door — there are two right together, the Esther Cottage and the Peeler Cottage — and we were chatting for a minute here or there, either during my anti-cobweb walks or when we were both in the Center’s common room at the same time. Thankfully, after a weekend that consisted of less work and more breaks, Tommye rescued me from myself on Monday and drove me up to the Hambidge Center nearby, which also offers artist retreats/residencies. I was glad to meet and get to know Tommye, who seemed to know from experience who to handle artist residencies better than I did, since she never seemed like she had just used her creativity to beat herself half-to-death, like I was doing.

Yet, on Tuesday of the second week, I had finished the first draft of my next book, the “Alabama book” as I have always called it. The weekend and early second week involved me in finishing some writing and merging the myriad of scattered texts that formed the multi-genre hybrid final version.

By late in the third week, what I had come to accomplish was complete: all three articles and the book’s first draft, all done. I would wait to revise them until I got home, since it’s best to put some distance on the texts before trying to re-work them.

[more in the next entry, “The Lillian Smith Center Residency, Part Two”]

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