AIR Reflections: Garrett McDonough

Garrett McDonough is a writer who joined us from New York City to work on his novel. Garrett was wonderful company during his stay, known for getting the residents together for a good time and a good laugh. He’s also fast on his feet, demonstrated by his quick and honest responses to many hypothetical questions thrown his way one night after a BBQ. He flips a pretty good burger, too.

In his interview, Garrett used his talent as a writer to share his Byrdcliffe experience.

Clara, Stephanie, Garret, and Blair at Open Studios

Clara, Stephanie, Garret, and Blair at Open Studios

What are you working on here at Byrdcliffe?
I’m revising the latest draft to my novel about the paparazzi. They’re on the hunt for the first ultrasound photos of the Sexiest Fetus Alive. (Or not-yet-alive, depending on your beliefs.) Shenanigans ensue. It’s also about being dumped and lonely. I’ve been working on it on and off since 2009. It was my thesis project in grad school, and now I’m trying to make it a real book.

How did you find out about this residency program?
The school where I got my MFA sends around a newsletter with opportunities—Byrdcliffe was in it. I’d never done a residency before, and this one sounded like the perfect blend of time to write and immersion in a community of artists. I was especially excited that Byrdcliffe brings artists from so many disciplines. I thought that would be inspirational, and I was right.

How do you balance your art practice with other obligations in your life, such as your job and family?
Not well. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to go to a residency—to be able to focus on writing without all the distractions of my real life. I couldn’t do this year-round—in addition to needing an income, I’ve come to depend on the liveliness of living in a city. But for a month Byrdcliffe has been the perfect break from the daily grind—half-vacation, half-bootcamp.

Where did you find inspiration for your current project?
I had toyed with the idea of making a character a paparazzo for a long time—I love that they’re nomads, that they’re almost universally loathed, that they live on the fringes—but it wasn’t until Britney Spears shaved her head that it really clicked for me. She actually started to date one of the paparazzi who was following her around, and I realized there was a lot more crossover between celebrities and the paparazzi than you would expect. Not only is there a symbiotic relationship in terms of their careers, but these people end up spending a ton of time together—in Britney’s case more time than she probably spent with her family and friends. It’s not just a matter of creepiness or voyeurism—there’s also this strange sense of community. I thought that would be a dynamic world to set a story in.

What inspired you to start writing?

What is your daily routine here at Byrdcliffe?
I wake up and read in my room for an hour or two, then I get breakfast and head over to my studio in a historic and beautiful building called White Pines. It’s about a ten-minute walk and the perfect opportunity to clear my head and focus on what I want to work on that day. I couldn’t ask for a more magnificent space to write in. There’s nature, quiet, and plenty of room—all things I’m hard up for in New York.

I take a break for lunch and walk around the woods a little, seeing what kind of trouble I can get in. Then I head back to the studio for the afternoon. When it starts to get dark I return to Villetta, the building where most of us live, for dinner. If there’s no event that night, I’ll eat something easy and use the internet to look up some questions I jotted down during the day (my studio doesn’t have wi-fi—a blessing the importance of which cannot be understated). If there is an event, I’ll hang out with the other residents—we’ve had potluck BBQs, ping-pong tournaments, movie nights, trips into town, work shares, and even visits from the local mushroom forager (something I didn’t know existed until coming to Woodstock). My favorite night so far though was our very heated debate about Miley Cyrus, which featured actual twerking reenactments. Passions ran high. After dinner or an event, I usually review what I worked on that day one last time and set some progress goals for the next day. Then it’s bedtime.

How has Byrdcliffe inspired your work? Do you think  your work would have a different outcome if you were working in another environment?
I know for the visual artists, the environment has been extremely influential, particularly when it comes to the use of elements like color and nature in their pieces. For the writers I think the influence is a little less direct, since we all had preexisting projects we came here to work on. The low-key atmosphere has definitely allowed me to take more time in my revisions, without a sense that I’m rushing to finish something, which in turn has helped (I hope) make my language more refined.

But what I’ve found most inspiring is listening to the way the artists working in other media talk about their art. I don’t just mean the jargon they use—though that’s fascinating too. The approach they take to generating ideas, beginning projects, revising their work, and (this is the one I have the most trouble with) knowing when they’re finished is so different from my own that it’s helped me think about the process of writing—not the product, but the act itself—in a new way. That’s been invaluable.

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