October 6, 2022
by Robin Lippincott, fiction and creative nonfiction faculty
Inspired by Greg Pape’s blog post on the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center (“Caring Friends, Generous Communities”) I want to sing the praises of another generous and venerable community: Yaddo, the artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York.
I went to Yaddo for the first time in October of 1997. I had read so much about it over the years, in biographies and memoirs, as well as in the letters and journals of writers and artists I admired; I was so excited that I practically started hyperventilating as I approached the entrance that first time. Set on 400 beautiful acres, Yaddo was established as an artists’ retreat by Spencer and Katrina Trask at the turn of the twentieth century, after the premature deaths of all four of their children, one of whom had invented the neologism to rhyme with “shadow.”
That first time, my combined living quarters and studio were where Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes had been ensconced during their stay at Yaddo in 1959 (Plath’s studio space was separate). Those rooms are in West House, the building in which Flannery O’Connor also slept and worked on at least one of her visits. As the aforementioned names suggest, the list of renowned writers, painters, musicians, sculptors, dancers, choreographers, and performance artists who have been to Yaddo is long and impressive: Langston Hughes, Milton Avery, Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Truman Capote, Leonard Bernstein, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, James Baldwin, Aaron Copeland, Alice Walker, Oscar Hijuelos, and Chloé Zhao, to name but a few.
Another room I occupied, more than once (and one of my favorites) was nicknamed “The Breast Room.” Situated on the second floor inside the turret of West House, the positioning of the light fixture in the middle of the circular ceiling made it look—like a breast! But it was also called “The Breast Room” because it was reportedly where Philip Roth wrote his novel The Breast. I also liked staying in the cottage known as Pine Garde, because of its coziness and working fireplace; and once, I was put up in one of the airy, light-filled studios for visual artists (Pigeon Barn): I adored that space, too.
I should explain that I always intentionally went to Yaddo in the “off-season,” which is October through April, when only the outbuildings, and not the mansion (because it’s not winterized), are open to guests. The off-season population maxes out at eighteen (and in all my time there rarely reached sixteen), whereas when the mansion is open the population almost doubles.
A typical day at Yaddo: A full breakfast is served in the dining room between 8:00 and 9:00. (Because mornings are prime working time for me, I usually skipped breakfast and just made coffee in my room). You can pick up your lunch box and thermos on a bench outside of the dining room at any time after breakfast, and then between 9:00 and 4:00 (and also after 10:00 PM) is quiet time, when Yaddo fellows are not to be disturbed—unless said “disturbance” has been agreed upon by the parties involved. Just think about having this kind of time and space and what it can mean, with no interruptions, for a creative person (I wrote much of my novel Our Arcadia during a couple of stays at Yaddo, for example). Dinner (uniformly delicious) is at 6:30. All meals are provided, and your room or rooms* are also cleaned for you once a week. And meanwhile, when you’re not working, you’re meeting and dining and hanging out with artists from around the world. (Sometimes your bedroom and studio are combined, but more often they’re separate).
The first three times I went to Yaddo, I applied to get in, but after the third time, when I can only guess that the powers that be had decided I was more-or-less responsible and of a suitable disposition, I was asked to be a S.A.P., a role I took on four times in the coming years. The acronym S.A.P., though something of an in-joke, stands for “Special Assistant to the President,” and it was created for none other than John Cheever who, when he was first invited to Yaddo, responded that he couldn’t afford to leave his job (back in those days, instead of applying, one was invited). And so, Cheever was given chores to do, for which he was paid a stipend, while simultaneously enjoying the same privileges as all of the other artists. Back then, Cheever’s duties included tending to cows, but these days the S.A.P. simply welcomes new guests and shows them around, reports the number of guests for dinner that night to the chef, and generally troubleshoots. Imagine being at Yaddo without having to apply, receiving everything that all of the other artists are given, and being paid for it, too!
I always felt so validated at Yaddo, because being there was a kind of recognition that the work I did mattered and was valued. My stays have been for as long as two months and as short as three weeks. I could sing its praises for pages, and though I have also been to MacDowell in Peterborough, New Hampshire, Yaddo is my first and deepest love. It’s a magical place that did wonders for me—from the work I was able to do, to the long, beautiful walks I took in the autumn, winter, and early spring, from the fun I had (and the mischief I got up to), to the friendships I formed with other artists, many of which (including with our own Rachel Harper) continue to this day.
Have I convinced you to apply? If you’re serious about your art, and especially if you’re in the middle of a project for which you just need a little (or a lot) more concentrated time and space away from this crazy world, you owe it to yourself to apply. Go to www.yaddo.org. Admission is based solely on the quality of your work sample.
Robin Lippincott’s latest book is Blue Territory: A Meditation on the Life and Art of Joan Mitchell. He has been teaching in the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing since 2001.