Fifteen years ago I moved off the power grid—away from the cultural electricity of New York City and urban life in general. It was a vocational leap of faith, but very similar to the leaps that all writers coming to work at a remote colony must make.
Once, stuck in a New York City traffic jam (caused by Pope John Paul II’s motorcade) with the writer Hanif Kureishi, I told him that I “had always loved books.” “Ah, many people love books,” Hanif said. “But not everyone likes writers.”
I do like writers, very much. I also like composers, painters, photographers, sculptors, and all kinds of artists, which is fortunate, because 15 years ago, I left New York book publicity (at Scribner, in its various corporate manifestations) to work at Ucross, an artists’ colony on a 20,000-acre working cattle ranch. Most of my time now is taken up by nonprofit administration, but for many years my job here involved ensuring that our fellows were settled, comfortable, relaxed, happily getting along with each other, and had the rare opportunity to live for a month in a state of peak creativity.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s wonderful book Why Read Moby Dick? quotes a letter from Melville to Hawthorne: “I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose,—that, I fear, can seldom be mine.” This was written in 1851. Can you imagine what Melville would think of today’s world? How does a writer enter “a silent grass-growing mood” while wrangling cellphones, e-mail, blogs, and tweets?
At places like Ucross, which supports writers with uninterrupted time, solitude mixed with congenial community, and a removal of daily worries, this mood does exist. After traveling the 30 miles down a two-lane highway from the Sheridan airport—and surviving the propeller plane flight from Denver—writers know they are in a different place. Cattle ranches, herds of pronghorn, bald eagles soaring overhead—this is a magical place where technology matters less and less with each passing mile. Ucross has cellphone and Internet service, but they are nowhere near the center of existence.
What’s close is the natural world, and writers begin to tune themselves in to that world, and to each other. Names of literary agents and tales of publishing do get exchanged over dinner, but more often than not, there’s a story of a badger on the bicycle trail, or a query about the hawk species that hides in the cottonwood trees, or the great horned owl near the creek that hoots each day at dusk. In our “rec room,” Buck’s Cabin, writers might watch TV late into the night, or play Ping-Pong or pool, but they also take time to view the Milky Way and the full moon.
Most of our fellows come from the big cities and face some adjusting. One New York City artist complained that the nights were too dark and the sun was too bright. (She wasn’t entirely wrong.) We provide small head lamps for getting around at night—one writer noticed that light startles the cows. Recently an artist mentioned that during his first few days here, he felt a deep sadness, intensified by the silence and lack of constant human interaction. He was a little worried. But after that third day, he had a sudden breakthrough in his work that brought him continued joy.
When Ucross first opened its doors 30 years ago, there were about 25 arts colonies in the U.S. Now, there are more than 200 throughout the United States, and many more around the world. A second Wyoming colony, the Jentel Foundation (founded by the artist Neltje, whose son is Macmillan’s John Sargent), opened about 10 years ago, just eight miles away from Ucross. And a brand new colony near Saratoga, Wyo.—Brush Creek—opened this year. We protect and nurture wildlife and the environment; we also need to keep nurturing the best creative minds of today, with this gift of a silent, grass-growing mood.
As for me, the move to Wyoming has brought many joys, too, including my Labrador retrievers, road trips with Ucross fellows, and the chance to finally read Moby-Dick. Greatest novel ever!
Sharon Dynak is the president of the Ucross Foundation (www.ucrossfoundation.org).