Four years ago, I wrapped up a month-long residency at Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio, where I focused on finishing the manuscript that is now THE WIDOWS. I was–and am–and forevermore shall be grateful to Thurber House. I cannot overstate how incredibly important the residency was to me creatively and personally. Any time I get a chance, I sing the praises of Thurber House!
So today, I’d like to share what I wrote then about that residency:
Today marks my last day as this year’s John E. Nance Writer-in-Residence at Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio.

I came on Sept. 29 with 15 months’ worth of writing, re-writing, researching, brainstorming, character-creating and outlining completed for my novel-in-progress, only about 125 polished pages, and the rather extreme goal of completing that novel.

Before I pack up and head back home today, I want to summarize my experiences while still living, for a few more hours at least, in the third-floor apartment at the Thurber House. And then I’ll let you know.


The Thurber House Ghost! OK… really just a fun Halloween decoration.

Let’s get this–ghosts, no-such-thing-as-ghosts, maybe-yes-maybe-no-ghosts–out of the way first.

Truth be told, I don’t think much about ghosts, although I do love a good ghost story, and even have an idea for a fun one that I might (or might not) someday write. It never crossed my mind that Thurber House might be associated with ghosts… until I received news of this residency.

Then, it seemed, everyone kept saying to me: “You know Thurber House is haunted, right?”

Turns out, there’s even a Ghost Hunters episode about Thurber House. No, I haven’t watched it. Yes, I probably will eventually. (I actually hadn’t even heard of the Ghost Hunters TV show before this residency. Read the whole blog and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find a link to the episode at the end!)

So since I know I’m going to be asked “did you experience any ghosts?” I’ll just answer right here: probably not. Well, maybe.

After I’d been here about a week, I woke early one morning, about 6:15, to the distinctive sound of footsteps coming up the stairs. The sound was definitely not birds or branches or the expected pops and creaks of a 140ish years old house.

My very first thought? “Oh, wow, Susanne is in early!”

Susanne is the program director; the residency apartment occupies most of the third floor, but Susanne’s office is in a room on the other side of the apartment door.

So, I went about my morning ablutions, and then popped out to tease Susanne about coming in so early. But Susanne wasn’t there. In fact, the Thurber House employees didn’t arrive until 8 a.m. or so.

I’ve since been told this is the sound that inspired Thurber’s story, “The Night The Ghost Got In.” So… ghostly mischievousness? Or a writer with a big imagination hearing some ordinary sound, in the early twilight, and interpreting the sound as footsteps?

Sorry, I’m going with the latter.

But it did make me think about ghosts. And here’s the conclusion at which I arrived: if there are ghosts at Thurber House, then there are ghosts pretty much everywhere, and thus I’ve been walking amid ghosts my whole life. There is nothing I can do about the existence of ghosts (or the non-existence), so I’m fine either way.

The Residency Itself

The “magic rope” at the bottom of the stairs up to the residency apartment.

I’ve been asked a few times by local high schools if a student who is interested in being a writer could job shadow me. I’ve always said “no,” or offered to meet the student at the school to answer questions about writing careers, because this is what the poor student would otherwise have to do: Watch my yoga-pants-and-t-shirt-wearing self frown, grump and/or type at my computer or write in a notebook or stare in space. For hours.

The most interesting part of the poor kid’s day would be observing me pour a fresh cup of coffee, or suddenly stop writing and start pantomiming wildly with gestures or punches or expressions as I try to figure out just how to describe said actions.

If you’d been with me at the residency, that’s what you’d have observed me doing, for 10 or so hours a day, with a few breaks here and there for yoga, meditating and walking. I did take some longer breaks to enjoy Columbus–the art museum, the Franklin Park Conservatory, browsing at a great vintage shop called Flower Child in the Short North, and dining at Katzinger’s Deli, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, and Rubino’s Pizza. And of course I enjoyed getting to know the wonderful staff at Thurber House, and exploring the historic, beautiful first and second floors.

Which makes the month sound boring… except it wasn’t. It was glorious.

What a gift… spending a whole month on solely delving into my novel-in-progress, hanging out with my characters, writing, re-writing, polishing, tucked away in a comfy, cozy, quiet apartment. (As part of the terms of the residency, I did lead two brief evening writing classes and give a reading of my work-in-progress, but other than that, I was writing. And occasionally pantomiming.) Such concentrated time, away from all obligations other than the rudimentary needs of being human… ah! Joy.

The residency came at a perfect time, both creatively and personally. Creatively, I had reached the point in my current project where I simply needed to concentrate on pushing through to “the end.” Personally, I’m wise enough to know this kind of opportunity is extremely rare, and I didn’t squander a bit of the time. What’s more, our kids are grown (one in college, one just graduated from college and working at her first professional job), so though of course I missed my husband, taking time away wasn’t as complicated as it would have been just a few years ago.

It sounds odd–after all, I’ve written other novels, been a weekly newspaper columnist for 12 years, and direct a writers’ workshop, but the experience also affirmed that I Am A Writer. Affirmation, though, isn’t something we ‘arrive’ at and never need again. I think we all need re-affirmation time and again of ourselves as beloved, as creative, as worthy, and this residency was a delightful reaffirmation of myself as a creative writer.

So, Did I Meet That Goal?

On October 18, I hit “The End.”

I made myself take 24 hours to just relax… I went to a movie, binge-watched Parks and Recreation, napped, walked, met a cousin who lives in Columbus for coffee, talked with my husband and daughters, shopped a bit at Flower Child.  (I purposefully didn’t bring any books with me for pleasure reading; I only brought books for research, two inspirational writing books–“The Mindful Writer” and “Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path” and my well-worn copy of the Tao.)

And yet, the demons rushed in.

Remember how I said I don’t actually believe there are ghosts? (Or if there are, I don’t believe I can sense/experience them?)

Well, that doesn’t mean I don’t believe we aren’t all haunted.

That demons–of doubt, despair, fear, apprehension–don’t find us all from time to time. Or maybe even pretty often.

Somehow, I always forget how vulnerable I am to my own ‘haunts’ when I reach a major milestone, even an obviously positive, celebration-worthy one. Haunts about my work. Haunts, even, about my own worthiness as a person, what’s more as a writer.

So, it became very tempting to simply… delete everything. Toss it aside. Let those haunts possess me.

Here’s the thing about despair, though. It quickly becomes pretty boring.

I finally gave myself the lecture I always give myself at these times: so what you’ve created might not please everyone? Well, d’oh! Of course it won’t! So what? I don’t like every book I read, movie I watch, art piece I observe, and so on. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t touch others… or that it wasn’t important for the artist to create.

What you’ve created might not find a publishing home? Well, d’oh! No one gets to create with a guarantee of success. In fact, such a guarantee would only stifle any real creativity.

And so, even while still struggling with those haunts (which I share, because I think everyone has them, and it helps, doesn’t it, to know we all do),  I didn’t delete everything I’d created. I’ve spent the last week copy-editing and proofing, and yesterday I sent the polished draft to my agent.

What happens next? Well, obviously I hope she’s enthusiastic about it. I’m sure (I hope!) she’ll have suggestions for improving my novel. And then… we’ll see.

In any case, this has been an affirming, once-in-a-lifetime creative and personal experience for which I’ll always be thankful, and will always cherish.

P.S. And in case you really want to watch the Ghost Hunters episode about Thurber House, here’s the link.

P.S.S. from today–I’m so glad THE WIDOWS did find its perfect publishing home–Minotaur Books! THE WIDOWS is now available for pre-order, too!