USA | 2002
Verlyn Klinkenborg lives in Massachusetts and Montana. He is the author of Making Hay, and his work has also appeared in The New Yorker, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Esquire, and Harper’s. Eddie Wenzek is his father-in law.
I came to Santa Maddalena early in June 2002. Like most writers who’ve been there, I was struck by the simple beauty of the place and by the prospect of six weeks of quiet time to devote to thinking, reading, and writing. And indeed I was able to lay out in my own mind most of the book I was working on and to write a good bit of it. The ability to concentrate on my work made all the difference, and whether the physical beauty of Santa Maddalena added to that ability, I’m not certain. I wish I could be. The fact is, that very soon after my arrival, the ordinary domestic circumstances of the household became a distraction. In a larger or more professionally-run writers’ retreat, every effort would have been made to deal with matters in a way that did not distract the writers, on the premise that the writers’ work was what justified the mission of the place.
I assumed that Santa Maddalena was that kind of retreat. But my distinct impression was that the writers did not come first, that they were, in a sense, harbored with a certain sense of hesitation. For, all told, Santa Maddalena is a household as much as it is a writers’ retreat, and, whether they like it or not, writers find themselves absorbed in the ups and downs of the household in a way that frankly overcomes any attempt to stay focused on work. Circumstances may have been unusual while I was there. Certainly the level of household drama was high. But it wasn’t the drama that was unsettling. It was the implication that the writers ought to be able to ignore it and that any attention they paid to domestic problems was almost an impertinence. Writers have enough to ignore in their own lives. My sense is that the needs of the household conflict with the stated mission of the Foundation. I deeply regret having to say that, and I say it despite the fact that I got a lot of work done at Santa Maddalena. But I had planned to stay for six weeks, and I left after three and a half weeks. I attribute that almost entirely to tensions that should never have arisen and might easily have been dealt with. Some writers might have reveled in the situation I found at Santa Maddalena. But I doubt it. What writers want in the precious little time they have to themselves is to be able to concentrate, to focus on the work at hand, not feel as though they have been caught up in a drawing-room drama.
I’m truly grateful to have had the productive time I did at Santa Maddalena. But if the Foundation is to fulfill its promise—the one embodied in the memory of Gregor von Rezzori—it needs to make a clear, sharp distinction between the private life in the villa and the working lives of the writers.