Socially, you can be a hermit if you want to; lock yourself up in a room and just write for two years. No one’s probably going to miss you—there are no required events to attend except for the first day meeting. Even student readings are informal and optional. You can finally experiment on growing that beard thick, long, and covered in crumbs.
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop was founded in 1936 and is the oldest-known program of its kind. Things change here at Vatican City pace. Hard copy posters and flyers are preferred to listservs; telephone and personal contact occur more often than e-mails. If it wasn’t too expensive to maintain retro equipment, the Workshop would probably still use typewriters and mimeograph machines. The Workshop librarian takes pictures of all the students and compiles them in a facebook—no, I’m not talking about the one online; this is a physical booklet that has very limited stalking capabilities.
On March 5, 2013, in a sparse room of MoMA PS1, atop a perpetually foggy stage and standing before a packed crowd of predominantly white hipster 20-and-30-somethings, The National played their song “Sorrow” 105 consecutive times in a performance lasting over six straight hours. This was not their idea, but rather was conceived by artist Ragnar Kjartansson as a “durational performance” entitled A Lot of Sorrow, which continued his exploration of repetitive performance as creating a “sculptural presence within sound.” Played without irony, the indie-pop song’s repetition pinged from sad to comical over the hours, maddening to hypnotizing.
The production of what we call art is only a small part of what it means to participate in an art world. There is a core activity, of course: we write, we paint, we make photographs, we dance. But most of our time is spent in associated activities, the most important of which is what Becker refers to as mobilizing resources: supplies, monetary support, distribution, the before/during/after of art-making. Some arts require larger, more visible resources than others. The Metropolitan Opera feels like a far cry from the coffee house poetry reading, but the difference is only one of scale. There is no artistic pursuit that can succeed without mobilizing whatever resources are necessary for that world to exist.
At the age of thirty-two, I have done the impossible and returned home—not for a holiday or a funeral, but to set up residency in a region of the Florida Panhandle so remote that even Comcast Cable has declined the opportunity to overcharge us for Internet service. I say “impossible” because that’s how the saying goes, doesn’t it, that a person “can’t go home again”—or at least Thomas Wolfe and Joan Didion made compelling cases.