By Alix Ohlin
Alix Ohlin is the author of The Missing Person, a novel, and Babylon and Other Stories. She lives in Easton, Pennsylvania. In her first post for WWB, she talks about her experience at the Château de Lavigny in Switzerland, the writers' residency established by Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt. Alix says of her current work, and the forces that contrived to bring her to the writers' colony: "For the past couple of years, I've been working on a novel set partly in New York after 9/11 and partly in my native Montreal. The project has been defying my best efforts at structure and organization, and—like many a writer before me—I turned to the notion of a residency where I could focus on it for a dedicated length of time." She speaks here on the real and abiding good that programs like the one she attended really do.—Editors
Last summer, I spent three weeks at an international writer's residency called the Château de Lavigny, in Switzerland. Located in a tiny, picturesque village between Geneva and Lausanne, the château is the former summer home of the legendary publisher Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt, who brought to a German audience the works of writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Nabokov.
Each day, the six of us in residency would write, read, and walk the countryside, dappled with vineyards and fruit orchards. At seven we gathered on the veranda to drink local wine as we gazed at Lake Geneva and the Alps. To be honest, the beauty of the place was overwhelming, de-stabilizing. I felt guilty, like someone who'd won a resort vacation in a rigged contest. The guilt prevented me from focusing on my work, the ostensible reason I was there. Then I felt an additional layer of guilt—for being unmoored by my guilt instead of working productively.
What felt familiar, amidst all the splendor, was the company of other writers. Truly everyone seemed to feel the same way: ambitious, frustrated; unsure of whether to push a project forward or abandon it; reading something new and grappling with its influence.
Of course, there were crucial differences among us, and these were enlightening too. The kind of government funding available to writers in certain European countries, for example, blew my mind. The way the other writers talked about world politics, and our current administration, roused me to even greater passion than I felt at home. I found myself questioning my own work, its scope and mission and audience, more than I ever had.
As the session progressed, we began to talk less of politics and more of the personal, of ghosts and love affairs that had swept through the château. The lovely caretaker, Sophie, who had seen so many writers come and go over the years, regaled us with these stories. She concluded gravely, "The place doesn't change you. Here you become more yourself." Some of us nodded solemnly at this idea. Others grinned uncomfortably and poured more wine.
We gave a reading; we read each other's books. We swore to keep in touch, wrote sentimental inscriptions. By the last week, things were turning silly. We had a sestina writing contest. We stayed up too late. There was a drunken fight at two in the morning on the veranda, followed by a dramatic reconciliation the next day. We talked about each other behind our backs. All this was natural—a way of fashioning the residency so we could live in it. We wove for ourselves a romance of the place, a story that we could be a part of.
I think a colony helps you as much after the fact as it does during the session. When I got home, I threw out half of what I had written, but I had no regrets. I felt more like a writer with a place in the world. More like myself, as Sophie said.
Published Feb 20, 2008 Copyright 2008 Alix Ohlin