Bill Roorbach’s newest book, The Girl of the Lake, was longlisted for the 2018 Story Prize. The Remedy for Love, was a finalist for the 2015 Kirkus Prize, and Life Among Giants won a Maine Prize. His first collection, Big Bend, won the Flannery O’Connor and O. Henry prizes in 2000. His series of memoirs in nature, Temple Stream, Into Woods, and Summers with Juliet, have all been reissued in new paperback editions. Short work has appeared in Harper’s, New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Ploughshares, Granta, Ecotone, New York Magazine, and dozens more. He lives in Maine, USA.
August 22, 2018
Dear Dana, Diego, et al:
At long last, a note of thanks, and to give my thoughts about my residency at Civitella Ranieri. It’s taken me a while to process my experience at the castle, and I know I’ll be thinking about the details for the rest of my life, with the big picture to come. As you’ll remember, I was there in the first session of 2018, from May 5 to June 11 (I arrived a few days after the session started). My overwhelming impression after some weeks of perspective is just as it was the day I left: amazing! And I remain deeply grateful for my time with you, and daily realizing some new benefit, both artistic and emotional, that stems from your hard work.
At my stage of the game I am able to get good blocks of time to write and think at home, but some key element goes missing. I think that element is the time to dream. At Civitella, with the weight of daily cares and obligations lifted, I found myself in a blessed and rather adolescent intellectual space, a positive regression. As Walt Whitman had it, “I loafe and invite my soul/I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” Civitella gave me not only time to invite my soul, but time for my soul to accept the invitation, at a juncture where I’m trying to reinvent myself as an artist, some mysterious sort of crossroads having to do with age, with mourning, no direction apparent. In the weeks since I’ve been back in Maine, that direction is sorting itself out, and the threads of the sorting all seem to reach back to Umbria.
Highlights of the residency were many, and all involved people: the staff, my fellow fellows, the administration of both foundation and castle, the director herself, and definitely her guests, including the jury members and New York staff who were there the first week. Conversation (at dinner and lunch and on many walks and field trips and receptions and informal encounters around the grounds) was another highlight in itself. Subjects easily crossed all the usual boundaries (of genre, for example, or international borders), moving from art and politics to sports and nature, from philosophy and religion to pets, from personal stories to culture, friendships blooming. I adored my fellow fellows’ presentations, these very smart and talented people I’d already come to admire and even love in the social setting, now illuminating their professional and artistic lives. I liked thinking about how budding friendship opened windows onto their art, also, conversely, the way their art widened the paths into friendships. And again time, castle time, to enjoy it all, watch myself grow. And ping-pong. And Foosball. And prosecco in the secret garden. And birds.
But let me talk about the food. It was delicious, naturally, and taught me more about where I was: I loved the Umbrian angle, and the cheerful service (highest marks to all of the kitchen staff), the love in every bite. And the meals brought fellowship, as I’ve said. But something more: at home I love to cook, to shop, to garden. But all that takes time. Not that I begrudge it in real life. But with those duties lifted, an entire block of time every single day was available to be re-devoted to other forms of nourishment. I speak of art: I think for me piano was the chief revelation—At Civitella I could play for an hour or two each day and not cut into my writing time, always at home so closely guarded. And then simply walk to dinner, or practically run, anxious to see who’d be new at the table, who’d have what to say, and what would be on the platters run out of the kitchen with such joy. I also got some drawing time in. I’m not a great drawer, or watercolorist, but if there’s time, I find it helps me see the world more clearly. This is my late-night activity, not different at the castle, except that there I found I had more energy for it. Mostly flowers and plants, a bit of grounding in Italian detail. And inspired by another highlight of my residency, the field trips:
Gubbio, Arrezzo, Abruzzi, Assisi, Perugia, Monturchi, Urbino, Città di Castello, Montone, and of course Umbertide (surely I’m forgetting some), wow. Dana, the hunt for Francesco Della Piero and associated artists was very moving, and I can’t thank you enough. Profound to stand in the presence of one of his great frescoes or paintings and read poems written over decades by favorite poets similarly moved. I admired the way you point out the telling detail, use it to tell the story of the whole, and then add the scholarship, then back to just standing there looking, all in the context of place. Diego gave us a similarly knowledgeable and thorough look at Assisi, such a complete vision of the history and contemporary story from a Perugian! Diego, you seemed still ready to put on your armor and storm the walls over there. I learned so much. I felt so much. Add the contributions of the fellows and guests, each with a little corner of inquiry or expertise, one beautiful city to the next. And gelato. Dana, you know the best places!
Another highlight was the egg-tempera demonstration, which I expected to be wonderful and fascinating. And it was, but also unexpectedly inspiring, a direct connection to the work of the old masters we’d been visiting everywhere we went. What did it take for Piero and the others to get those vivid, lasting colors? Well, now I know, and I know where he wiped his eggy hands, as well. I loved sitting down to paint then with some of the great painters of our own day, watching them experiment while playing along myself, drunk on colors. It was meaningful, almost spiritual, more blades of grass to loafe amongst, and the experience flows into my other work daily now in ineffable ways. I also have ordered pigment. Fresh eggs are no problem here.
And my walks and talks. With Carlo Pizzati, the most interesting man in the world. With Brad Moran and Spencer Reece, comrades on a spontaneous visit to Gubbio. With Brenda Shaughnessy, now a favorite poet. With Brad Cloepfil, who designed one of my favorite contemporary buildings in the world, not that he’d mention it. With Lynn Freed, with
Þuríður Jónsdóttir, with my own old friends who turned up because of the fame of Civitella, and on and on. From each I learned some new perfect thing.
Speaking of learning, I loved my Italian lessons, from Luca, formally, but also from housekeeper Alem, who made a point of talking with me in Italian whenever we crossed paths, patiently helping me say it right, and Phebe, less patient but always eager to help me communicate in Italian, with Paola, who also had caramels to share.
Ilaria is a treasure and gets her own paragraph. So warm and always helpful and full of great advice. I can’t praise her highly enough. I did my best to teach her how to drive like an American. Her Italian improved a great deal with my help.
And do you know who always had a smile for me? And who let me loom over him while he worked on the herbs and didn’t mind my impromptu weeding? Elio. And all the rest, helpful and warm and present.
Well, there’s endless more to report, but I think you get the picture. Civitella was a terrific experience for me, a great, generous gift, and I’ll never forget my hours, days, weeks there. It’s in my bones and DNA and now beginning to emerge in my work, which will be forever changed.
Thank you, thank you, again and again. I am happy to answer any questions or address anything I might be leaving out here, happy to help in any way at all down the road, and looking forward to all the ways we are bound to cross paths in the years and decades to come.
I enclose my recommendations for future fellows. Also my very informal bird list. Books for the library will be forthcoming. Let me know what I’m forgetting.
Love from Maine, Bill