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The Impact of Artist Residencies | Michael Chabon

“[At a residency] I am never not engaged in the imaginative work even when I’m not sitting at my keyboard, and that is such a magical, beautiful state to be in.” 

Michael Chabon (b. 1963) is an acclaimed and bestselling author whose works include the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000). Chabon achieved literary fame at age twenty-four with his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), which was a major critical and commercial success. His book Wonder Boys (1995), another bestseller, was made into a film starring Michael Douglas. One of America’s most distinctive voices, Chabon has been called “a magical prose stylist” by the New York Times Book Review, and is known for his lively writing, nostalgia for bygone modes of storytelling, and deep empathy for the human predicament.

Chabon serves as Chairman of the Board of The MacDowell Colony, where he was awarded his first residency in 1996. Caitlin Strokosch – Executive Director of the Alliance of Artists Communities – recently spoke with Chabon about the impact residencies have had on his life and his work. Their interview is excerpted below.

Caitlin Strokosch: When was your first residency at MacDowell?

Michael Chabon: January 1996.

CS: And how many times have you been there?

MC: 11, I think.

CS: What kind of impact did you hope your first residency would have? What did you expect from it?

MC: The main impetus for me was that we had just had our first child. I had started working on what became The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and I knew it was going to be a big book and it was going to take a lot of time to write and I had to do a lot of research and reading. And we just had a new baby and I was trying to adjust to that. In hindsight, now that we have 4 kids, it seems laughable that I thought my time was so compromised having one small, relatively easy-to-manage baby. It seems ridiculous now but I was in a state of panic. “How am I ever going to get this work done and finish this book? It’s going to take forever and now it’s going to take even longer and I can’t concentrate.” … I just had a sense going in that I would work, work, work, and that’s really what I was looking for and hoping for. And it’s indeed what I found. I got a ton of work done while I was there.

CS: Were there other things that surprised you? Did the residency impact your way of working?

MC: I don’t know if this was as clear to me the first time I did a residency as it became in subsequent times over the next five-to-seven years as our family grew. What I realized once I was at MacDowell and every time I’ve done a residency since is that I almost never get into the proper space, the ideal space, the necessary state of mind to get my best work done. I can get good work done under pressure of a deadline – that’s one way. And the other way is what happens at a residency: even when I’m not working I’m still working. I can be in that open, porous state of mind because I’m spending so much time of every day working. At a residency, even when I’m taking a walk, when I’m eating, when I’m talking to other people, when I’m reading the newspaper or whatever books I’ve brought along with me to read, I’m still working. I am never not engaged in the imaginative work even when I’m not sitting at my keyboard, and that is such a magical, beautiful state to be in. It’s a state I frequently found myself in when I was younger and I didn’t have kids and I would just be taking a walk and thinking about my work and so I’d still be working. But once you have children, I’ve found that they take up so much of the surface area of your consciousness, that when I’m not actively working on writing I am working on them. They hold you on the surface of life. You can’t go down too deep because you have to always be ready to come back up in case you’re needed in some way. It’s not proper, and for me not even possible as a parent, to remain in that kind of abstracted state – that flow state – that I frequently am in when I’m really engaged in my work.

But at a residency, I might bang my head against something for one night and then go to bed, start reading, and suddenly figure out the solution, find myself in possession of the complete solution to the problem I was working on all day long and all night long. I just see it and it’s 2:30 in the morning and I get out of bed and I go open my laptop and I start working, and I could work for another 3 hours and get the thing done. So I’m up ‘til 5:30 but it doesn’t matter, I can sleep ‘til 12:00 if I have to because I don’t have anybody depending on me, I’m not impinging on the schedule of the life of the family in any way. Every moment is an opportunity to get work done, even when you’re not actually working at all in an apparent way. That is a thing that I didn’t know until I’d been in residence a couple of times and realized that it only happens for me there. For that kind of sustained focus and to keep the level of engagement so high on an unconscious level as well as a conscious level, a residency is an incredible gift to me.