On Re-Orienting, Taos, And the Hardship of Heading Home

“I can’t believe we’re leaving so soon.”

A couple of my fellow Wurlitzer residents and I were having dinner together at a Middle Eastern restaurant in town. A chalkboard on the wall described its’ vision as promoting peace “through evolving people’s consciousness and taste buds.”

We slunk down towards our pita, homemade in the name of harmony, and commiserated about the fact that being in Taos is not unlike being on a different planet.

“Three months seemed so long,” someone said. It had been about two since we arrived. Then, departure seemed a remote, un-envisionable destination. Now it feels like a brick wall toward which we’re being driven, unwittingly.

I was reminded of this conversation a few days later, in a yoga class at the airy, light-filled studio with wood-beamed ceilings where I have been spending much time. As he guided the class through a series of physically demanding postures, the teacher reminded us to re-situate our bodies at every opportunity—to take each chance, whether bent in a soft forward fold or standing in a fierce warrior pose, to take stock, soften the breath. The usual yoga stuff. Except he used a particular phrase that struck me: continuous re-orientation.

That’s what we have to keep doing, always, he said.

Not only in our bodies, of course, but in our minds, our selves. We’re constantly re-orienting, in terms of our internal state, but, probably more often, based on our external context: where we are, and with whom. It’s unconscious, how we gently rotate our manners and personas depending on what surrounds us. It’s also exhausting.

Taos, somehow, demands less of that action.

The space is so open, so generous, the community so eclectic and spiritual, one can almost feel the mountain holding out it’s arms: inviting you to relax, stay a while, be whoever it is you’re meant to be, at this very particular moment in time! It’s the opposite invitation of a hectic urban environment, with its message of Keep up! Get someplace! Keep busy! Do something!

It’s not difficult to understand why so many permanent residents have come here as an escape from previous versions of themselves: post-divorce, post-mid-life crisis, post-professional reinvention or spiritual awakening. To say nothing of the breathtaking scenery, the perimeter of spacious sage fields and rolling peaks, Taos demands that you know what you want (the space will strangle you otherwise), but it allows that desire to take whatever shape.

And then there’s the fact that my co-residents and I don’t actually live here. (Yet.) Most of us have really lovely lives in the places we’re from: New York, San Francisco, England, Atlanta. Good partners and cozy apartments and supportive groups of friends. It’s no reflection of our home lives that we are so loathe to go back.

But going back means (in addition to leaving the majectic scenery and life-altering green chile breakfast burritos), going back to that normal pattern of constant re-orientation.

It’s difficult, and perhaps, for most people, undesirable to lead a purely creative life. Most of us who choose to make art a part of our lives must also wear additional hats to get by: in academia or advertising, journalism or graphic design. Even those who don’t have other relationships in which we play different roles—daughter, girlfriend, brother, uncle, friend. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it does require a constant re-situating of our identities and minds.

Being in Taos has given us the rare opportunity to focus, as exclusively one can, on the creative piece of ourselves.

And in that sense, it’s no surprise that the prospect of going home, of returning to the “real world” in which we must inhabit not just one but a whole series of selves, in which we must be constantly re-orienting to the people and places around us, sounds hard.

On The Noise, The Process, Listening to Others and Yourself

“Trust yourself.”

The woman with wavy red hair and painted lips stood in front of a life-size, watercolor John Wayne. She leaned her elbows on a case of vintage turquoise and baskets of silver.

“I learned the hard way,” she said, telling me how she’d quit three waitressing jobs to take a gamble on supporting her kids as a stunt double. How she’d tried to make it in Nashville and misunderstood the rules on her way to writing a Country Song of The Year. (Never know who you’ll meet in Taos!)

I’d just finished telling her how the anxiety of waiting for feedback on my first book was making it hard to focus on the new project I’d just begun.

She’d nodded, empathic, and smiled as she told me to “let go of my ego.” And repeated that phrase: Trust yourself.

The words seemed to strike at the heart of where my head’s been lately—or rather, where I’ve been trying to get it.

Here’s one suggestion: if you’re setting out for a day of novel-writing, try not to begin it by reading this article. And try not to take personally the endless stream of rejections, or the news of diminishing, risk-averse publishers, or the emails that talented friends receive in which editors lavishly praise their work before, mysteriously, taking a pass. In other words: shut your eyes and ears.

I’m trying. Switching over to a data-free flip phone, circa 2006. It’s a step—one I imagine will send me into something like heroin or sugar withdrawal before setting me, hopefully, a little more free.

But the noise won’t go away, since most of it is in my own head.

The endless, boring self-doubts: Is my story worth telling? Are these sentences any good? Will anyone ever read them? Should they?

It’s perhaps unsurprising that at an artist colony, (if that term eludes you, see this) the question arises: why do we make art? In a climate where the prospects of one’s work ever meeting the world feel so bleak, the query takes on a sharper edge. Without faith that our writing will ever be seen, what should motivate us to get up in the morning, put our heads down, silence the noise, and get to work?

“What if your writing wasn’t appreciated until after you’d died?” V, a British artist and filmmaker and my neighbor at the residency, serves as both collective muse and spiritual guide. She meditates for hours a day.

Across my kitchen table, another neurotic writer from New York and I exchanged a wary glance.

“Sure,” we both muttered.

“But I mean…” I hesitated. “It would kind of suck.”

V summoned us to think of everything in the world as connected, to detach our self-worth from our art, to fulfill ourselves with the process instead of it’s end.

The next morning I took a break from the novel and dashed off a comedic story, feeling smug that I’d actually found pleasure in the writing. And the day after that, I could hardly wait to share the piece and send it into the world. So much for process.

When I left the stuntwoman/country singer’s shop my eyes were wet with ambiguously derived tears: or maybe not so ambiguous. I’d managed to get through two days of writing that didn’t make me totally hate myself, and then ruined it with an abrupt panic over my first book’s word count. (iPhone: be gone!)

I walked to the indie bookstore and listened to an employee explain to a customer that, yes, it was easy to click the button on Amazon and writers could release work there, but they’d never get paid. I bought a book. Across the street I plopped myself down at a diner and ordered an oversized breakfast burrito. (Just, because.) Outside, small pebbles of hail fell from the gray clouds slipping west over from Taos Mountain.

I pulled out my notebook and pushed myself to answer that question: why?

All of my answers felt like tired clichés. For the fun of it. Because it helps me make sense of things. Because I like it! Because, as Alison put it the other night on the phone, I don’t really have a choice?

Flustered, I remembered those words—Trust Yourself—and decided to resolve that, for the moment at least, they serve as answer enough.