Portrait of the artist

Portrait of the artist looking for the red EXIT signs?
Portrait of the artist looking for the red EXIT signs?

Had my photo/portrait/post office mugshot taken today as I begin the final week of my three-week stay at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I’ve done lots of work on a novel — inspired by the life story of the real-life 1920s Italian anarchist with the unlikely name of Severino DiGiovanni — and where they have invited me four times in the last four years to spend time as a fiction-writing fellow because, nearest as I can figure, I’m a fellow who writes fiction.

Anyway, however I got here, I’m very excited about this novel. But I’m wondering about this photo.

A writer friend who’s very smart and very hip and very talented and very published just messaged me to say “Great picture!”

My brother, on the other hand, who I can always count on for his support because he’s blood, emailed back: “You look like a serial killer.”

So, let’s say early reviews are mixed. I myself don’t know what to think.

Do I look like an author? Do I have that intelligent, slightly bohemian, interesting, he’s-a-genius-but-an-approachable-genius look that I suppose all writers — or maybe it’s just me — crave?

Or do I look like I’m lost? Like I’m being interrogated by the NSA and CIA and FBI and KGB all at once in order to save time? Like I have amnesia and I’m wondering why I keep hearing nothing on the radio but country music and fire-and-brimstone preachers? Like I’m doing a screen test for Andy Warhol’s Incredible Plastic Inevitable?

Or like I’m just about finished contemplating and now I’m about to answer a reporter’s question: “What, Mr. DiGiovanni, is the meaning of life?”

Well, if I’m in the mood, and I think you’re all ready to handle it, I’ll answer that question in my next blog post — but in a pre-screened post that will be available only to people who, like my astute writer friend, with declare with great enthusiasm: “Great picture!”

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November

I know there are good things about November: my brother Tom’s birthday, Election Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving.

But mostly the month feels melancholy, a time of fading and dying, as summer’s bounty turns to autumn’s final harvest and then inevitable winter. Click on the Tom Waits song (above), and you’ll hear some of what I’m feeling on this first day of November.

I took a break from my writing this morning, bought a cup of takeout coffee, and drove down a back road, heading in the general direction of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. I found myself on a gravel lane winding up a mountainside through deep woods. A rush of wind blew hundreds of dry brown leaves all around my car. A flock of wild turkeys, about two dozen of the birds, scurried across the road and down into a dark and deep ravine. It felt like a time of conclusions and departures and endings, and I while appreciate the month’s barebones beauty, I’ll be glad when November makes way for December, with its bright lights and boundless, beautiful dreams.

Here’s another song that feels like November. Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going,” sung by Tom Rush:

She walks these hills…

Now, thinking back, I keep hearing that haunting song, “Long Black Veil,” and especially this part of the refrain: She walks these hills in a long black veil/She visits my grave when the night winds wail…

As far as I know, there are no graveyards at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, which occupies what was once a horse farm, outside of Lynchburg, Va. But it is, indeed, located atop a windswept hill, and it was nighttime, very late into the night before Halloween, actually past midnight, so it was already Halloween. And – who knows? – maybe there’s an old farm family’s graveyard somewhere in these fields or woods.

The writing studio I was assigned is more remote than some of the others, which are spread through a sprawling former horse barn. This stands alone, a small cottage. There are woods behind it, then a rural road, and then railroad line used by freight trains that rumble and roar down the tracks more often than I remember from previous stays.

And there are sounds. The hooting and screeching of owls. The yipping and howling of coyotes. The occasional shriek of what sounds to me like a bobcat. And, with the windows open on a cool October evening, there are the things that go bump in the night – weird thumps, unexplained creaks and even, a few times, what sounded like the footsteps of somebody walking right outside my window, although a quick look outside showed that there was no one there and that it was probably just a sound conjured up in the mind of writer who was sitting by himself, in a small cabin, at the edge of the woods, near the freight-train tracks, on a dark hill in Virginia, with no one around, on the eve of Halloween.

There are explanations for all the familiar creepy stories that make the rounds at Halloween – or else they’re so outlandish, told so many times as stories that “really happened to the cousin of my college roommate’s best friend,” that the stories feel safe to tell or hear once more: the ghostly hitchhiker… the babysitter who gets creepy phone calls from inside the house…the life-sized clown statue in the corner (“WHAT STATUE!,” the freaked-out parents scream at the babysitter over the phone. We DON’T HAVE a clown statue!”).

But what about when something really happens? When there’s something that’s not just some urban legend or passed-down story? What is there to say and what is there to think when it’s long after midnight, on the night before Halloween, and the crescent moon is bright, and you go to your cabin door and look outside — and there you see very clearly a slow-moving, misty form gliding softly across the lawn.

You look at it once. You look at it again. And the vision takes shape, and you realize it is a woman in a flowing white dress, and at first you wonder if it’s one of the other artists and writers staying at this place. But it’s late, and the studio across the way is unoccupied, and you just know that this figure – this woman pacing slowly in the moonlight – is not one of us…at least not anymore.

She’s a vision, she’s a glimpse of something we can’t explain and might regret explaining if we could, she’s a spirit or a ghost or some goddamned thing that I can’t explain, and if you have doubts about whether I really did glimpse this woman who walks these hills in a long white dress, then tell me why I went to the cottage door at just that moment. Tell me why I opened it. Tell me I was just hearing things. Tell me that it was just my imagination, that no one really rapped, rapped, rapped at my cabin door.

Feeling at home , missing home…and then a horse appears in the mist

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I’ve been spending time in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, at a wonderful retreat called the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I’ve done four residencies here, working on my fiction, as a visiting fellow.

It’s become so familiar to me that it feels like a second “home” — not at all comparable to my first “home,” New Jersey, where I’ve left behind someone I love dearly for about three weeks so that I can chase my elusive muse, but “home” enough that I’d love to have her here with me so she could hear the coyotes and bobcats and owls at night, and could help me count the stars in the velvet-dark sky, and could enjoy the quiet (except when the freight train rolls by, which it does frequently all through the night) and could meet some of the interesting and inspiring writers and artists and composers I’ve met during my stays here on this former farm called Mount St. Angelo.

Maybe most of all, for some reason, I’d like her to see this dark horse and these misty hills, which I see every morning as I walk down the hill from my studio to breakfast in the dining room:

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Freight Train, Freight Train, Goin’ So Fast…

I was thinking Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash and the romance of America’s wide open spaces.

Instead it turns out that the freight train rumbling through a wooded ravine near my writing studio a dozen times each day probably isn’t carrying hoboes and adventurers and descendants of Tom Joad. It’s more likely carrying Clorox bleach, or Pine-Sol, or Glad trash bags, or Hidden Valley salad dressings, or Brita water filters, or Burt’s Bees natural personal-care products.

Turns out this freight train, which seemed so poetic, is rather prosaic.

The trains run along the Norfolk Southern’s north-south mainline between Washington, D.C., and Birmingham, Alabama, passing through Amherst, Va., which is home to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I’m in the midst of a fiction-writing residency – and to the Clorox Company, which manufactures all of those products. The freight trains service the Clorox facility here, according to the town of Amherst’s website.

My writing studio at the VCCA is at the crest of a hill in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, on property which used to be a horse farm and where a few horses, lots of cows, coyotes, deer — and a woodchuck, which I spotted this morning peeking out of one of its holes in a nearby pasture – share space with about 30 artists, writers and composers.

So while I have been hearing some not-very-desirable sounds, including the hum of the nearby highway to Lynchburg, I-29, and the snap of hunters’ gunshots in the nearby woods and fields, I also hear the neighing of horses, and the barks of coyotes, and the hoots and screechs of owls — and the lonesome whistle and mighty rumble of that freight train.

The freight trains are carrying bleach and plastic trash bags and salad dressing and Pine-Sol? So what? It still makes me think of this song by the late Elizabeth Cotton, sung here by Pete Seeger:

Back in Old Virginny

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It’s so quiet, so dark, so Virginia…so not New Jersey. There are at least six thousand stars in the sky – about 5,990 more than I can typically see in the night sky of Central New Jersey.
The train whistle I hear isn’t the Amtrak train barreling toward Penn Station…it’s a freight train bound for Lynchburg — and maybe bound for glory as it barrels toward the city of the smug zealot Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and Liberty University, a city where you can walk into a wonderful friendly place called Dudley’s and order brains and eggs and grits for breakfast, and to that I simply say “No, thanks, y’all,” to both the scrambled brains and to the late Mr. Falwell’s self-righteous and scrambled-brain brand of religion.
Last night I heard the yip and bark of coyotes in the woods. Tonight I think I also heard the screech of a bobcat and a hoot owl’s hoot. This is what you call authentic. I half-expect to hear a knock at my writing studio door to find John-Boy Walton and Daniel Boone and Buck Owens and the Buckaroos inviting me to the hoedown over in Danville.
Time for a little mood music on a Saturday night in a place that’s lovely, but clearly and definitely south of the Mason-Dixon line:

Stormy weather

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We drive slowly through the narrow lanes, past Newport’s piers and shops, and once again admire the old Rhode Island town’s historic sea captain’s houses and millionaire’s mansions, then head out onto the scenic road that skirts Narragansett Bay.

The bay is hardly visible, as fog has swallowed up familiar scenes. One of our young companions looks out and observes, “It’s like the Newport Bridge never even existed!”

And so I am preoccupied with thoughts of bridges lost and drifting in the fog, of sailing ships and whaling ships, of those who must go down to the sea, of bodies and souls both tempest-tossed, of swirling surf and wild waves, of cabbages and kings.

Just then a snowy egret takes wing before my very eyes, bright pure holy white against the churning dark sea.

This day near the ocean is harsh and howling, its energy chaotic and its strength overwhelming and its roaring message sounding like a warning…It is a lovely day.