Emory Report

February 21, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 22

First Person:

Rosemary Magee says Reverie hard to find in 2000

The making of a prairie, suggests Emily Dickinson, requires three ingredients: clover, at least one bee, and reverie. She further reflects: "The reverie alone will do/If bees are few."

This term "reverie" conjures up lazy notions of daydreaming. Yet throughout history, philosophers and scientists, along with poets, have noted the significance of a spontaneous insight or discovery--often when one is not actively working on a project. The power of the unconscious, or whatever we wish to name those undirected processes of the mind, can be essential to any endeavor, but not often in accord with a tight schedule.

It seems difficult these days to invoke moments of reverie. The world is impatient, with communication systems relentlessly invading places of refuge--libraries, boats, concert halls--once reserved for private reflection. Instead of reverie, we indulge more frequently in wild raving, derived from the same root word but implying incoherence rather than inspiration. In a noisy universe, it becomes difficult to sustain complicated thoughts or explore the vicissitudes of the imagination. True solitude, essential for reverie, may be endangered.

Still, there remain places that intentionally safeguard contemplative life, and there is such a place in Georgia. The Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts and Sciences, established in 1934 by Mary Crovatt Hambidge, offers a retreat to writers and artists accepted for residencies ranging from two to six weeks.

When I stumbled upon information online about this center one day last fall, I decided to apply for a residency. At that time I had been actively writing fiction for just over a year. Hoarded evening and weekend hours, in the midst of a demanding job and important family commitments, were not sufficient to allow my imagination to pursue its own pleasures. I craved more concentrated time. I needed to identify that prairie--not necessarily inhabited by clover or bees, but certainly affording reverie. I found it in the North Georgia mountains.

Each "artist" or "resident" at the Hambidge Center is assigned a studio: a Spartan cottage in the woods of the compound near Dillard. The studios come equipped with kitchens, and vegetarian dinners are provided in the central lodge on weeknights.

Three principles govern Hambidge's program: residents are expected to show up for the evening meal; outside visitors are not encouraged; and interrupting others during the day is not considered socially acceptable behavior. There are no telephone outlets in the cabins-hence, no provisions for Internet access--and no televisions. Cellular phones are out of range, and it is even a challenge to tune the radio to NPR.

In the evenings, residents gather to eat and discuss their work, and only chance encounters occur otherwise. Even so, visiting artists often develop close relationships as they confront the mysteries of isolation and creativity.

During the three weeks I stayed at Hambidge, all the other residents were women, and nearly all were visual artists. They came from Boston, Miami, Austin ( Texas), Lilburn (Ga.) and Atlanta. Some were completing projects, others just starting out. One night after dinner, as our time in residence drew to a close, we conducted a "studio walk" to share the results of reverie: sketches, paintings, video instillation art, ceramic sculptures and a brief reading by me.

My schedule at Hambidge was fairly straightforward. In the mornings I was sitting in front of my laptop by 8:30 a.m. I wrote until noon, when I took a walk and then returned for lunch. I wrote again all afternoon until 5:30. Usually after dinner I revised what I had drafted during the day or read novels until nearly midnight. I composed a few letters, took an occasional nap and even found time to daydream.

What felt most unusual to me was the opportunity to allow an idea or image to evolve at its own pace instead of organizing my life in 30-minute fragments. I experienced the freedom and chaos of letting things unravel a bit in order to meditate in nonlinear, impractical ways.

Through administrative work, I have learned a great deal about complicated processes and creative problem solving. The challenge in any endeavor is to find a new approach: to turn the dilemma upside down or inside out and then set it loose.

Since I began writing fiction, I have been more inclined in all areas of my life to allow disconnected threads--at least for a time--to assume a course of their own and only later apply rigor and direction. New ideas emerge in surprisingly satisfactory ways.

Mary Hambridge fervently believed in the essential harmony between nature and solitude, between creativity and introspection. During my stay at the Hambidge Center, I wondered why this experience seemed more meaningful than simply renting a secluded cabin for a few weeks.

I concluded that one critical component was the daily awareness of other artists nearby. I felt supported--even if I saw no one for most of the day. Posted by my cabin door was a wooden tablet where residents inscribed their names, hometowns, dates of residence and nature of their work. Artists from Japan, New York and South Georgia had stayed in my cabin. At night, when I awoke to what sounded like savage beasts agitating in the deep forest, I imagined the dreams of previous residents. At times, interior wild beasts awakened me as well.

I have now turned to other writing projects, temporarily setting aside the work of last summer. Back to my normal schedule, I rely on a cellular phone; I check my e-mails throughout the day; I surf the World Wide Web. And I remember a brief moment when all such intrusions were ignored, a time of peaceful purpose.

As the novelist Ellen Glasgow has written, one must "Preserve, within a wild sanctuary, an inaccessible valley of reveries." The elusive nature of such pastimes means they will never be fully understood. The presence of reverie can only be savored and its absence bravely endured.

Rosemary Magee is senior associate dean of Emory College. This essay was written for The Quadrangle, the Emory College Newsletter.

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