The Artist Suffers in a Vineyard

The Artist Suffers in a Vineyard, but Writes

Steven Ross Smith
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A myth suggests that artists must suffer for their art. And indeed some do, although it’s often not clear if the art makes them suffer, or if they were already suffering and it shows up in their art. Think Van Gogh, Plath, Cobain, Winehouse, and Robin Williams, who are often cited. We tend to think of suffering in extreme, but there are degrees of suffering, and it is relative.

I’m a poet and I know that the modest payback for most poets haunts them and in some cases propels them to drive taxis, to hold sessional academic posts, to try to sell their books on street corners in rush hour, or just to live lean, all of which might cause degrees of suffering. And of course there is Buddhist wisdom that suggests that we cause our own suffering, but that’s contemplation for another day.

It’s all enough to drive one to drink…well, maybe one or two glasses of red.

To match the modest returns from their art, most writers I know—except, I suppose, the richly successful, and those with delusions of grandeur—have modest expectations. I have seen these expectations surpassed, overwhelming the writers when they’re treated well—for instance, in residencies where they’re ‘taken care of’: at Sage Hill Writing Experience, with its lovely rural Saskatchewan setting, tasty meals, and endless conversations about writing, all free from the distractions of home; or at The Banff Centre, where accommodations are pleasant and can be serviced every day, the food excellent, the setting spectacular, and you get an ID card that states “ARTIST” (yes, in upper case); or at those endowed retreats where a basket lunch shows up at your cabin door, and where you even receive a stipend for your presence.

Once in a while writers get invited to festivals and are put up in posh hotels. Such treatment makes us buoyant, while feeling somehow, inadequate. We love these luxuries, perhaps because of their rarity in our modest, “suffering” lives.

I remember a comment poet Steve McCaffery made to me many years ago: “Artists don’t get rich, but the artist’s life is a rich one.” He wasn’t necessarily referring to material or financial wealth, but to the vivacity of the imagination, the engaging people one meets in artistic circles, the rewards of utilized creativity, and occasionally, a dip in the pool of posh and dosh. How precious those perks are when they come.

Well, I recently received a perk. Through an organization called Writing Between the Vines I was granted a one-week residency at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in Oliver, B.C., in the south Okanagan wine-growing region.

On leaving home in Banff, I’d loaded the car—a 2002 Camry—with computer, printer, suitcase, bike, and I humped a big heavy cooler of food into the trunk. The drive from Banff to Oliver was about nine hours. I rarely got out of the car—once in Revelstoke for a latte, sandwich, and ginger cookie at the Modern Bakery; in Kelowna, at Safeway, for more supplies—skim milk, cans of beans, whole wheat bread; for gas near Penticton; and then onward to the Sandy Beach Motel, right on Osoyoos Lake, to spend the night before my Tinhorn Creek Winery experience began.

When I got out of bed the next morning, pain shot through my lower back, and my right hip seized up. I leaned and twisted like a gnarly old grape vine. My body wouldn’t straighten. And if I sat down for fifteen minutes I had immediate pain when I stood up. I did some stretches and took some pills, but the condition persisted. I was suffering—surely great writing was in the offing.

Tinhorn Creek Winery sits high up on the western Golden Mile bench (or ridge) just south of Oliver. On arrival I went first to the vineyard tasting room to pick up my room key. The friendly wine host I met, Marilyn, insisted that I linger long enough to taste some wine—obviously a plot to distract me from my work. When I mentioned my kinked back Marilyn said, “More wine might help.” I swirled, sniffed, and sipped, comparing three kinds of Merlot and two Cabernet Francs. (I would have to return another day to get to the whites.) After tastings and pleasant conversation, I took my key and drove upslope past rows of vines, signs at the beginning of each row designating their varietals—Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, and so on—then downslope past more rows to the Fischer House, which sits just below the vineyards. I opened the door to the Shaunessy suite—a four-room accommodation with lots of light, and more than one good workspace. To write, I could choose between one end of the large dining room table, or the comfortable couch in the living room, in front of the fireplace.

From the large windows I took in a view that spanned a broad reach of the valley and the March-brown distant hills and mountains, including Mount Baldy where, I am told, in early spring you can don your skis while golfers way below in the valley are hacking divots and missing putts. (I did none of these things, as I was there to write.) So, I quickly settled, then set up my computer to bear down on a new poetry project I’d been thinking about for several months. I intended to do substantial work.

But I soon realized that, given my sore back, and to keep the poetry front of mind, I would require some help. So, off to the local physiotherapy clinic. With treatments there, morning stretches on my yoga mat, and nightly medicinals, I began to straighten and keep my attention mostly on my writing. I did find myself pausing now and again to think, “Why am I suffering now when I’m supposed to be having this great time writing, exploring the area, and sipping wines at different vineyards? Why don’t I take better care of my back? Is this retributive justice or masochism meant to deny me a fabulous time?” It was hard to keep the voices (the unwanted ones) at bay. I was not really interested in suffering for or because of my art. But when I did manage to get into the writing current I forgot about these existential matters, and just dwelt in the words. Nonetheless, by the third day I had to stand up to write, computer stacked up on the kitchen counter on a couple of thick books. It worked well and eased the pain. And I recalled notable writers who have chosen to stand while writing—Hemingway for example, and Yann Martel.

Throughout the week, and despite my back issues I was able to take a couple of hikes on the Golden Mile Stamp Mill Trail which took me even higher above the winery. There I came upon Tinhorn Creek itself, running right alongside the vineyard. And I had views about fifteen kilometres south to Osoyoos Lake, or north over Oliver, and across the valley to the Black Sage Bench where a host of other wineries perched. As the afternoon glow hit that bench, buildings gleamed and light shifted on the tawny hills as clouds passed over the sun. I also managed two bike rides along part of the flood control road beside the river that runs through the valley bottom. Part of that area is designated IBA, Important Bird Area, and though I was too early (in March) to catch the spring migrations, I did appreciate what it might be like in April with the singing flocks, and I vowed to return.

A bonus to my residency was that I received a discount on wine purchases and meals, and so one evening after a ride, I decided to escape my can-opener cuisine and treat myself—feeling worthy of a reward after my hard work—to dinner at Tinhorn’s Miradoro restaurant. I’d been lured by the special—the five-course, wine-paired dinner. The dinner opened with a Tuna Crudo, Grains and Krauti, well-presented on rectangular white plate—pale tuna triangles that were tender and slightly salty, a red root vegetable, which I assumed was the krauti, a touch sweet after the tuna and the soft chewy seed grains, all providing a tasty and enjoyable combination of textures. The paired wine was a light, crisp 2014 Pinot Gris, which balanced perfectly with the dish. Then three more excellent courses—a soup, potato gnocchi and duck leg—all in modest but satisfying portions; I could describe them all, but I’ll leap here to the finale, a Tiramisu, the Italian “cheer-me-up” dessert. This one had a dusting of cocoa powder on top of the chocolate icing and layers of creamy whip and cake beneath. The sweet, light tiramisu was paired with a Black Sage Pipe, a smooth and delicious port-style wine made by Sumac Ridge Winery, several miles north of Oliver, in Summerland. The whole meal was beautifully paced, varied, and delicious, and the wines added that distinctive complementary flair. It was a bit extravagant, but, still at bargain early spring rates. I thought, “When will I have this opportunity again?” I went for it. Eat now, pay later…a bad practice if it’s a habit for a writer with a modest lifestyle, and the extravagance might create suffering later, when the bill comes in, but….

I had first read about the residency at Tinhorn Creek Winery two years prior, in an online post. The residency is run through an entity in the U.S. called Writing Between the Vines, and the initiative was founded by American Marcy Gordon, a wine, food, and travel writer. Now Executive Director of the Vines project, Gordon says, “I write about wine and visit a lot of vineyards and always find the atmosphere in vineyards to be tranquil and inspiring…except of course during the harvest when it’s quite chaotic. But the idea of writing retreats germinated while I was visiting a vineyard in Portugal and thought the location would be a great place to spend some time alone and write.” While she hasn’t yet engaged a Portugal winery, currently in North America there are five wineries that take part, four in the States (in Texas and California) and one in Canada. Ms. Gordon reports: “Our goal is to place as many writers as possible each season; in 2016 we hosted twelve writers. There are many logistical details to manage with multiple retreats, but we’d like to expand to ten vineyard locations by 2017.” There is an application fee of $30 and the writer does have to supply his/her own transportation and meals, but perks at the wineries, including the free accommodation, help offset, or at least ease, the ‘suffering’ such costs might cause. Information can be found at www.writingbetweenthevines.org.

While wine did not feature in the poetic work I did at Tinhorn, I’m sure the glass or two I had in the evening contributed to my relaxation as it also eased my back pain. I achieved several hours of focused work every day I was there, sitting or standing, so moved the new poetry along. This, of course, is the feature of such retreats, fancy or basic, wherever they are—escape, focus, and productivity. The value-added lovely setting, comfortable accommodation, and quality wines will remain in my mind, contributing to a memorable instance of “posh” treatment I’ve had as a writer. And I’d learned a lot about wines and wine-making. This opportunity let me experience one distinct moment of the “artist’s rich life” that Steve McCaffery spoke of.

Suffering? Mine was limited to a sore back and a somewhat lighter wallet. Not bad, given what I gained, and the indulgence offered by Marcy Gordon’s Writing Between the Vines wonderful idea—“pairing” me, the writer, with this winery’s facilities.

And now, here in Banff and with a healthier back, it’s time for a glass of Tinhorn Creek Merlot taken from a bottle in the case I brought home with me. I’ll sip and recollect my view over the tan and tufted ridges and hills. Then, back to work.

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