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  • sarahkaingutowski

How It Started // How It's Going

Updated: Oct 17


This sabbatical hasn't gone the way I expected or really wanted, and I think it's a fairly good and perhaps necessary reminder that so little of our lives are controllable, that our plans often amount to nothing more than daydreams or good intentions. I'm having to practice flexibility, or grace, in the face of obstacles -- and to realize in a real, bodily way that my expectations for myself and others are not always going to be met. It's a difficult skill to adopt as I'm a natural planner, and I take my writing projects seriously (perhaps too seriously), and I tend to like things the way I like things. But one can't bully the world into one's way of thinking, and the world will always disappoint, and we will disappoint the world in turn. Maybe that's okay, maybe it's not. I feel oddly ambivalent about it all.


The strangest thing is to feel so ambivalent in the face of so much good fortune -- like, how ungrateful can I be? Currently I'm in Corris, ensconced in Stwidio Maelor for my two-week residency, and the house is solely mine for the next 24 hours. I've loved meeting Sam Llewellyn-Jones, an artist and photographer from London who finished a three-week residency here just as I arrived, and Julie Hagerty, an Irish memoirist and one of the coordinators of Maelor -- she's one of the kindest and most helpful people I've ever met. It's been lovely having them around and talking and taking meals together, but it is also good to have absolute silence, and this beautiful -- albeit chilly -- space to think and write in, all to my confused, contradictory self.

A man holds a photograph negative up to the light above a kitchen sink
Sam Llewellyn-Jones and a negative he developed at Stwidio Maelor this month

The first part of my visit to the UK was spent at my uncle's home in Cambridgeshire, in a little village called Ramsey St. Mary's. My uncle gave me the updated digital archive of our family genealogy, and I spent many hours reading letters, photographing war medals, and scanning birth and death certificates and photographs, while taking notes and writing down ideas for the play and its characters whenever they occurred to me.


The play keeps shifting. It's one structure and then another; I keep changing my mind about characters and themes. I feel like chucking out everything I've written and starting over again on a regular basis. I'm not completely disheartened by this, but I'm also not at all reassured. There is, after all, a deadline looming. It might be three months away, but it's there nonetheless.


The one thing that keeps me steady is reading -- I read The Woman Destroyed by Simone de Beauvoir and The Darker Face of the Earth by Rita Dove this past week and both were fantastic in very different ways. de Beauvoir's stories are masterful and beautiful in the way they reveal the brutal and ugly side of female aging, and they align too with some of the issues and themes I'm exploring with my play; Dove's two-act verse drama made me feel keenly how extremely wordy I am in my current drafts and is partly responsible for my desire to chuck everything and start afresh. Oh, and also I finished Jane Allison's Meander, Spiral, Explode -- and that, too, gave me material to ruminate over, particularly regarding how I might structure a dramatic work about the lives of three women (and in doing so, perhaps avoid the typical, traditional narrative arc).

Next I'm reading Denis Johnson's Soul of a Whore and Purvis, two verse plays in one book, and as I know him to be a prose writer who already has taken risks with structure (he's the author of Jesus' Son) I'm expecting that I'll be able to learn a thing or two from him. He's also one of the few contemporary writers who have published a verse play. There aren't many recent examples for me to draw on -- Mike Bartlett's King Charles III is also in my residency stack of books-to-be-read, and Derek Walcott's Moon Child, but the rest of the plays I brought with me are plays in prose. I'm reading them primarily to educate myself more thoroughly about contemporary drama and to explore the possibilities presented by text written for the stage.


I've been going on long walks up the steep hills that surround Corris, and if I keep up the habit I might gain back The Butt That Covid Stole From Me (the Delta variant was brutal and wiped out almost all of my muscle tone). It's so good to work my lungs again, too, as I haven't run since Covid-the-First triggered my RA in 2000, and walking the flat streets of Long Island hasn't really been doing much for the ol' lungs. Welsh hills, however, completely steal my breath away, in a very literal sense. It's wonderful.

Author selfie with trees and slate hills behind her
My tired face against the timeless beautiful wild

Tonight I will meet with my poetry group over Zoom, and then I'll either curl up under the coverlet in my room to avoid the chill or I'll battle it from the inside with a stout in the pub next door.


Oh, who are we kidding? I'll probably choose the stout. (One thing I'm rarely ambivalent about.)



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