In the Colonies, It's Write Mischief

Summers of love at writers’ getaways; anxious spouses left at home

(Illustration by Joe Wilson)

They summer in the colonies, the writers of New York, scattering forth to the hills as the days grow more sultry: to Yaddo, to MacDowell, to Millay and Ledig House! They go to work, of course, to work uninterruptedly and produce literary classics, and then, after all that exhaustive working, to play Ping-Pong and drink. But what of those left behind? The husbands and wives who change diapers and listlessly push swings on garbage-strewn urban playgrounds while their spouses stroll the green glades?

These spouses have to speak in baby talk to screaming children while their lovers giggle at the witty asides of sculptors and poets. While the colonists collapse in Adirondack chairs with cheeks flushed from a riotous game of table tennis, the city-bound are taking out the trash and eating bad takeout.

And then there’s that other sort of anxiety.

“I don’t want to mention anybody by name,” said the novelist Jonathan Baumbach, father of the filmmaker and writer Noah Baumbach and inspiration for Jeff Daniels’s character in The Squid and the Whale. “But there was one person there who’s a fairly well-known writer who made it his business to sleep with every passable woman there.”

Did he succeed? “I guess, pretty much,” said Mr. Baumbach. “I think he did pretty well.”

Mr. Baumbach visited Yaddo a number of times between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s, overlapping with the likes of Philip Roth and Alison Lurie. But, as Katie Roiphe always tells us, those were just the glory days. Today’s writers are no longer the adulterous, cigarette-inhaling booze hounds of yore, right?

“It was the painters that were having affairs and not the writers; the writers were drinking a lot,” said the novelist Joanna Smith Rakoff, who is married to the poet and writer Evan Smith Rakoff. But, she added, “I do think that that is a somewhat valid fear—I saw something like that happen when I was at MacDowell.” But with painters, of course.

“There’s usually one person like that,” admitted the nonfiction writer Jeff Sharlet when asked whether there were sometimes writers on the make. “The hounds tend to take advantage of someone who is going to do something they’re going to regret.”

“It’s a place of intensity, right? It’s an enclosed space,” said the novelist Rebecca Wolff, who described herself as “deeply familiar with the experience of falling in love in three days at the writers’ colony.”

She added that she had just been discussing the subject with a good friend who is soon to depart for Millay. “We’ve already talked about the possibility that maybe there’s somebody there that she’ll have a magical enclosed experience with.”

Her friend, the poet Catherine Wagner, got on the phone. “I just started seeing two people at the same time but one of the reasons that I was particularly explicit about not being exclusive was that I needed to keep my options open for the colony,” she said, adding that as a single mom, she sees conferences and festivals as places to “have a little fun.” She recalled with fondness a professor who drove her and some undergrads up to Bread Loaf, where she worked as a waitress.

“He stopped outside of town in Middlebury, at a convenience store, and bought condoms, then promptly hooked up with one of the attractive middle-aged women who paid to be there.”

Ms. Wagner is single (more or less). Ms. Wolff, while married, said, “My husband is peculiarly uninterested in writers’ colony action.” Mr. Smith Rakoff, however, did admit to some posturing while his wife was at MacDowell. At the time, cell phone service at the New Hampshire retreat was spotty and colonists had to share limited space on pay phones.

“Donald Antrim would answer the phone every time and I would try to sound scary,” said Mr. Smith Rakoff. “My wife is incredibly brilliant and attractive and I always say to be sure to tell everyone I’m 6-foot-4, weigh 200 pounds, and that I’m from the South and I fired my first rifle when I was 6.”

“Donald Antrim was often in the area, and it’s possible he was waiting for a call from his girlfriend,” said his wife. “My memory of it was that I actually called Evan.”

As for when Mr. Smith Rakoff had his turn at Yaddo, Ms. Smith Rakoff said her worries were more about the lost income that leaving a job to go to the colony entailed, particularly because his sojourn coincided with the bust of the dot-com bubble.

“He had fun there,” she said. “He played Ping-Pong and pool.”

For other couples who are both writers, professional envy can compound the problems.

“My spousal anxiety doesn’t revolve around affairs; it’s more a question of jealousy,” said the writer Ayelet Waldman, who trades shifts with her husband, Michael Chabon, caring for their four children and spending time in the colonies. “I envy when he goes there that he gets to write more.”

She said that they both will usually apply at the same time, and that they have a strict two-week limit. “Whoever gets in goes and the other person cries.” The one time that Mr. Chabon tried to go for three weeks was a disaster. “By the time he came home, we had been reduced to balls of neuroses and anxiety,” she recalled.

Those colonists whose spouses aren’t writers by profession occasionally have to deal with interrogating inquiries into why writers would need to be specially isolated and fed three times a day to do any work.

“We had a big fight,” recalled Mr. Sharlet of his relationship with his wife in the days leading up to his MacDowell retreat. “She’s a historian, and was like, ‘Why do you get to do this and not me?’

“Every night I would call, and she’s home and bored and I’ve been working all day, and then I drink and play Ping-Pong,” he continued. “At the point I would call her, I would have been drinking and hanging out for a few hours and it sounded like a party to her.” Like most of the writers interviewed, Mr. Sharlet said he really did get more work done at MacDowell than at any other time in his life. Then he recalled the hot tub party he had at his last sojourn in the colony, when he got a giant cabin with heated flagstones and a Jacuzzi.

“It ended up with lots of people crammed into this Jacuzzi,” he said. “But nerdy people,” he added hastily.

One New York novelist said his wife forbade him from talking about picnic baskets after his return from MacDowell, where lunch is left in a basket on the doorstep of colonists’ cabins each day.

“It’s like an extended business trip or a salesmen’s convention,” said Susan Orlean, whose husband, John Gillespie, works in finance. “There’s always spousal anxiety when you’re apart and out of sight, whether very, very low key or extremely amped up.” She said that at the time she went to Yaddo she was a newlywed and singularly focused on working. On nights when she did not opt to stay in and work, she said she played Ping-Pong or cards. “I had so much work to do and so much pressure to get it done, I couldn’t have been in a less romantic state of mind.”

Jonathan Baumbach couldn’t remember whether his wife cared. “I am no longer married to the wife I was married to the first time I went there so I can’t really speak to her feelings,” Mr. Baumbach said, but he confirmed that there were affairs (although he said he did not participate in them). “It’s like any kind of colony where people are alone, and men and women, they find a way of coupling off and getting together. It’s true at Yaddo and it’s true at MacDowell for all I know.”

Mr. Baumbach cautioned, however, against romanticizing the old days. “There were a lot of rules in those early days,” he said. “One episode—he was what they call a visual artist—he had a townie girl come up to his place; he was living in one of the towers,” he recalled. “She was up there with him and some people from the town were throwing rocks at the tower. He had to leave.”

One way to prevent the worst jealous urges is to opt for the off-season, when passions run cooler.

“I’d once in a while be walking around the property and see signs of a different Yaddo,” said the young novelist Nathaniel Rich, who went there over the winter holidays and was one of only seven colonists in residence at the time. “The swimming pool was covered in snow and you’d see the reclining chairs sticking out of the snow; or we’d be playing Ping-Pong in winter jackets and I’d look in the corner and see tiki torches. I realized there was another Yaddo that goes on in the summer.”

“I like low season in these colonies,” said Gary Shteyngart, who is engaged to be married and said he’d “never witnessed any kind of hanky panky at these things.”

His opinion of affairs is that they are a waste of precious time: “Every moment up there is a gift and you can’t squander it by shooting up heroin or Googling yourself,” he said, describing some pressure to finish a memoir he is working on. “I’m almost 40, so it’s time to get it out of the way before I die,” he said. “Russians live until 56, the men on average, so I’ve got to wrap this up.”

At MacDowell, couples can go to the colony together, but only if they are collaborating on a project and both of them get in. Ms. Waldman, who is working on the screenplays for an HBO show and a musical with her husband, said she and Mr. Chabon would apply together were it not for the four children. “There’s no human on the face of the earth who would be willing to take care of four children,” she said. She does, however, have a long-term plan to facilitate the placement of couples at MacDowell.

“If we have any money when I die, I want to create ‘the Chabaldman Studio for Couples,’” she said. It would be a cabin with two studios, separated by a little bedroom in the middle.

In the Colonies, It's Write Mischief