Author and PLAYA alum Melanie Bishop has a delightful Young Adult novel in the PLAYA library: My So-Called Ruined Life (2014). This “introspective page-turner” (Publisher’s Weekly) was a top-five finalist for both the John Gardner Award in Fiction and Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’ Firecracker Awards. She is Faculty Emeritus at Prescott College in Arizona, where for 22 years, she taught creative writing and was Founding Editor and Fiction/Nonfiction Editor of Alligator Juniper, a national literary magazine and three-time winner of the AWP Directors’ Prize. She has published fiction and nonfiction in The New York Times, Glimmer Train, Georgetown Review, Greensboro Review, Florida Review, Vela, Essay Daily, Carmel Magazine, Huffington Post, New York Journal of Books, and Family Circle. A short story, “Friday Night in America,” is being adapted for the stage as a monologue, premiering in 2019 in Orlando, by Beth Marshall Presents. Her online publications can be accessed here, and her website is www.melaniebishopwriter.com.
Melanie, what led you to PLAYA?
Both times I’ve been to PLAYA (2012 and 2015), it was the desire for solitude, silence and vastness that brought me there. Of all the residencies I’ve been to, PLAYA is unmatched when it comes to scale, and the writer’s relative smallness, and the remoteness. It’s a particular feeling there that I will return for as often as I can. While some people bemoan the lack of wifi in the cabins, this is for me one of PLAYA’s selling points. There are fewer and fewer places in this world that aren’t wired. I seek these places out and relish time spent in that silence.
Did you come to work on a specific project? If so, did you make progress on it?
My first stay, I was working on a revision of a memoir and made substantial progress. My second stay, I was trying to complete the first draft of a second book in my Young Adult series, and once I got into a groove, I made remarkable progress and finished the draft. (This seemed miraculous at the time, given how little progress I’d been making at home.) The routine I usually go through at a residency is I start out slowly, but soon there’s a momentum established that drives the rest of my stay. It always works for me. And PLAYA is especially helpful to me because it’s only two nights a week that you meet with others for a shared meal. The shared dinners can be great fun, but on the days you are not expected anywhere, the solitude deepens and that can lead to some of my best work.
How do you think the land and waterscapes here affected your work?
There is no other way to describe it other than to say the landscape opened me up. Opened up a vastness inside me where possibility lives.
Describe a typical day at PLAYA.
There were no typical days. The playa is constantly changing, and no one moment is like the next. To watch it is mesmerizing and hypnotic. And the good thing is there is enough time in every single day to just look out over the playa for hours, and still get plenty of work done, and exercise, and sit by the pond, and watch birds through my binoculars.
What were some highlights for you?
During my first stay, there was a huge storm, driving rain and wind, and I went out on my deck to feel it, and there in the tree to the left of my deck perched a Snowy Owl. He/she was huge, about two feet tall, and we watched each other in that rare proximity for several minutes before she flew away. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.
Melanie offered to share an excerpt from a beautiful post about writing retreats, written for Jane Friedman’s blog. Here is just part of the post from https://www.janefriedman.com/writing-retreats-back-home/:
It was mid-September of 2012, and I was driving home after a three-week residency at PLAYA in south-central Oregon. Only an hour or so into the 11-hour drive, I stopped at a one-man fruit stand, just outside Lakeview. He was set up in the shade of a big tree, just off the main road; he was selling only one thing—Donut Peaches, also known as the Saturn Peach—small and squat, donut-like, the pit where the hole would be. Without even tasting one, I bought a dozen of this man’s September bounty.
Back in the car, I used my water bottle to rinse one of them, and took a bite. What? This was the best-tasting peach in the world. My pleasure was audible as I consumed it, bite by bite. I washed another one off and began eating it, as I pulled back onto the road. “These are fantastic!” I called to the farmer. He gave me one firm nod.
Soon I wasn’t even bothering to wash these fuzzy delights; each one was maybe only four good-sized bites. They went quickly and deliciously, and before I’d driven half an hour, I’d collected half-a-dozen pits in the drink holder cubby. I don’t know that I’d ever enjoyed fruit more than in those moments, in that car, just south of Lakeview, Oregon, on Highway 395.
I know it sounds like I was high on something—I was—high on the effects of a three-week retreat at PLAYA, Summer Lake. My perception was altered by the experience I’d had. A combination of the beauty, the quiet, the vastness, the newness, the generosity, the utter expanse of the playa itself, had left me feeling anything was possible. Had left me so drenched in my own ideas that I couldn’t write them down quickly enough. As I drove on that next hour, I kept having to pull over to photograph something—something that felt like a miracle, but was really a dilapidated barn. The barn, in its demise, was exquisite, and I took about three dozen photos to capture how rare it was.
Soon, the PLAYA high began to wear off, just enough to notice something was changing. How to keep it from parting ways with me completely? How could I prevent the real world of my regular life and work from flooding in on me, and flushing all the goodness I’d cultivated—the peace and direction, the discipline and the naps, the solitude and the camaraderie. The farther I got from PLAYA’s dry lake bed, those layers of mud and cracked dirt, the more I felt the glow fading. I spent a good bit of the remainder of the drive home identifying just what it was that had made the time there so transformative, and how I might bring some element of that feeling into my life on my return.
This is the first step: naming the specifics of the goodness. It can vary person to person, what is most unique or most valued. One person may feel it’s the landscape, its wildness, the birds. For another writer, it may be the “room of one’s own”—that freedom to spread out, be messy, not have anyone else in the creative space. And for another, it may be the luxury of that many days off in a row, to focus exclusively on a project and make great strides.
Once you’ve identified what made your time productive, unique, and to be cherished, you can ponder ways to replicate aspects of those features in your home life. Even though you’re not likely to have three weeks of 24-hour days to work on your writing again anytime soon, you can decide on some amount of writing that is workable in your daily life. Maybe it’s one hour every morning before going to work. Or maybe it’s only one hour per week, Saturday mornings from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m., getting up while everyone else in the house is still asleep.
On the last day of your retreat or on your way back home, pose this question to yourself and take it seriously: How can I take the way I’m feeling home with me? What does this feeling consist of? What contributed to it? How can I replicate even a smidgen of it in my post-retreat life? Come up with a concrete plan and commit to it. One writer may decide to invest in the rental of office space, to have a quiet place to go that becomes the writing studio. Another person may request a different schedule at work, to accommodate a few hours of writing time per week. Some may commit to a weekly visit to the closest place where the natural world is protected and celebrated—a bit of wildness akin to that at PLAYA.
Edge effects in ecological science are the “influences of border communities upon each other” (Brittanica.com). PLAYA alumni, friends, guests, and neighbors are invited to submit blog posts that explore the diverse influences experienced here or because of time spent with us—whether the effects are among disciplines, environments, relationships, or communities. Email PLAYA’s Executive Director to join this conversation.