I just returned from my annual writing retreat at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA.
My boyfriend was asked repeatedly during the week, “Where’s Kellie? She’s where? Is she at a conference? Is there a workshop going on? She’s just there writing? How come you don’t give her a place at your house to write?”
One friend even asked, learning I was in P-Town again, “Are you sure she doesn’t have a girlfriend there?”
The average person might not understand the draw to P-Town. It is a bizarre place, but an amazing one—you can go there and parade down the street in a getup that is not acceptable in other parts of the world, be with you who want, and no one will judge you. But you can also do what I do, which is instead hide in a hole at an artist’s residency and pursue my art and be alone. All are welcome and all are equally loved.
P-Town is at the tip of Cape Cod and about the end of the world. But it’s not just any place to go write or paint—it’s the longest standing artist’s retreat in the country. In 1916, The Boston Globe wrote a story about 300 artists and students who were at P-Town and the six schools of art in operation there at that time.
Writer and filmmaker Norman Mailer wrote most or all of his 30 books there, spending time there from the 1940s until he died in 2007. Playwright Eugene O’Neil brought “a trunkful of plays” to Provincetown and the very first reading of Bound East for Cardiff happened right on Commercial Street, where I take daily walks to get to the breakwater. Norman Rockwell and Jackson Pollock both spent time studying their craft in P-Town. Poet e.e. cummings spent time there. Jack Kerouac wrote part of On the Road holed up on an isolated beach there.
There are pictures of Tennessee Williams—who wrote The Glass Menagerie while he was there—parading around the beach naked in the early 40s. Sure, he was naked. But the guy was brilliant. And the dune shacks of the Peaked Hills Bars district where he stayed have an amazing history—they were originally built to provide shelter for washed-ashore sailors, and for members of the United States Life-Saving Service who saved shipwreck survivors along the coastline.
I have not tried a residency at a dune shack yet, because I am too much a fan of electricity and running water and am not sure I could stomach so many mosquitoes and ticks. So I find my solace at the Fine Arts Work Center.
Poet Mary Oliver lived in Provincetown for 50 years, and Her poem “The Journey” sums up my draw to P-Town well:
One day you finally knew / what you had to do, and began / though the voices around you / kept shouting / their bad advice / though the whole house / began to tremble / and you felt the old tug / at your ankles. / “Mend my life!” / each voice cried. / But you didn’t stop….
So when I wash up on the shore of P-Town once a year—exhausted from the frenetic pace of my hectic schedule, the ridiculousness of our political situation, and the terrors around the world—it renews me. Like a shipwrecked sailor, it saves my life just a tiny little bit.