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The Impact of Artist Residencies | Jhumpa Lahiri

“I left Provincetown forever changed, forever marked as a person. I left with the certainty that I am a writer, with a commitment to the creative life that I have never since questioned or doubted.”

Jhumpa LahiriI kept a journal while I was at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and before sitting down to write this essay, I decided to have a look at it. I was in the middle of reading when my young son woke up from his nap, and as I held the journal in one hand, and soothed my son with the other, I realized how profoundly my life had changed in the past six years. In 1997 I was thirty years old and had just finished graduate school in Boston. I was an aspiring writer, and on a lark, instead of applying for academic jobs, I applied for a fellowship at the Work Center. Even after the call came, offering me a place, I was unsure whether to accept. New York, where my now-husband lived, beckoned. I wanted to write, and part of me believed that I could find part-time work and write stories just as easily in New York.

In order to help make my decision, I decided to visit the Work Center. I had grown up near the ocean in Rhode Island and assumed Provincetown would be a similar sort of setting. I was wholly unprepared for the remote, magnificent, minuscule place I found. I was greeted by Roger Skillings, long-time Chair of the Work Center’s Writing Committee, who kindly showed me around the property. He led me into a shingled barn, up two sets of crude wooden steps and through a door in the ceiling, into a raw, loft-like space under the roof. Roughly in the center, there was a white picnic table, to be used as a desk, set out like an island on a patch of carpet. The windows were small, but light poured in from a cupola overhead. In that brief glimpse, the value of my fellowship was revealed to me. It was a combination of things: the silence, the pure, almost sacred atmosphere of that room, the separation from ordinary life I felt upon arrival in Provincetown, and finally, the gentle affirmation that I was invited there to be a writer and nothing else.

In my journal I write frequently about that beautiful space where I did indeed live and work for seven months. I write about the rain that drummed, sometimes for days at a stretch, on the roof and the cupola that leaked occasionally, so that I had to keep a bucket below it to collect water. I write about my solitary evenings, when I heard nothing but the howling wind, and the sound of a foghorn, and occasionally, through the gaps in the floorboards, the murmurs of the couple downstairs as they prepared their meals. But mainly I write about time: the unfettered hours of each day, and learning to adjust to them. Somewhere in the course of my stay, a routine had emerged: writing in the morning, errands or exercise in the afternoon, reading at night. These days that routine is an unquestioned ritual, and in spite of my new responsibilities as a wife and a mother, it is how I organize my days. It was Provincetown that taught me that discipline, which must be born from within, and which can only result from total freedom.

A few things happened during my residency that seem momentous in the arc of an emerging writer’s life. I found an agent to represent me, and she sold my first book and also sold my first story to the New Yorker. While I like to think that it was the magic of Provincetown that made those wonderful things possible, I know that they might have happened eventually, even if I had not gone there. What would not have happened—what is far more profound—is that I left Provincetown forever changed, forever marked as a person. I left with the certainty that I am a writer, with a commitment to the creative life that I have never since questioned or doubted. I left understanding that separation and seclusion are essential in order to create, but also that life must necessarily surround us at all times, shaping and inspiring and even distracting us. At Provincetown that life was the sea, the sky, walks with my fellow artists and writers across the breakwater, glorious hikes across the dunes. It was the cupola that leaked during rainstorms and the picnic table that was my desk. These days I sit at a different desk, in a different room, and light pours through a different window. Instead of a foghorn I hear a subway rumbling past. But those details are insignificant; for the few hours each day I try to write, I return to my room at the Work Center, a place in which I was blessed to have set foot, and which, in my heart, I have never left.

Jhumpa Lahiri: