My Year at the Hemingway Birthplace Home—Interview with Annette Gendler

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A writer in residence. Doesn’t it just sound romantic? Last summer I found out that we have a writer in residence right here in Oak Park. Every year the Ernest Hemingway Foundation seeks out a writer for a yearlong residency in the attic of the Oak Park home where Hemingway was born (now the Hemingway Birthplace and Museum at 339 Oak Park Avenue).

The foundation says that they provide writers with what they need most in order to create good work – “space and inspiration”, by providing free use of the workspace for one year. In exchange, the writer is asked to provide “cultural programming – lectures, workshops, presentations or other programs” to the public.

To get an insider’s perspective on writing from the attic of Hemingway’s birthplace we caught up with last year’s writer in residence. Annette Gendler. Annette is a writer and photographer who writes literary non-fiction, focusing on the photography of place. After 15 years of consulting, she left the corporate world behind to become a writer and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Annette has had essays published in several literary journals, teaches memoir writing at StoryStudio Chicago and is currently working to publish her memoir.

AOP:
What do you miss most from your year as the writer-in-residence at Hemingway Birthplace Home?

Anette Gendler:
Now that it’s been a few months since my residency at the Hemingway Birthplace Home ended, I can tell you that I miss the actual house the most. Every time I opened that back door with my own key, I felt so privileged to “live” in this museum of a house, and every time I climbed up the attic stairs, I was charmed by the Bohemian setting under the dormers, draft, heat and all.

I loved its atmosphere of bygone days. It is set up to make you feel as if the original inhabitants had just left. In the beginning, I felt like Goldilocks poking about in someone else’s house. I was so privileged to have the house to myself in the mornings and to have the peace and quiet to take in its atmosphere, which is not something you usually get to do in a museum. Every morning when I arrived and turned the back door key, I got to step back in time

AOP:
Do you live in Oak Park? What do you like most about it?

Annette:
I live in Hyde Park, which in terms of great architecture is similar to Oak Park. Coming to Oak Park was a schlep for me; I enjoyed this opportunity to get to know not only Oak Park but also the neighborhoods on my way, most notably Portage Park through which I drove after dropping my sons off at their school on the Northside.

The grand old homes like the Hemingway House (is what I like the most).

AOP:
What was the process to become the writer in residence?

Annette:
You apply with a writing sample, a proposal for a public program you could offer, and a statement of purpose as to what you plan to do with your residency.

This was actually the second time I applied; I didn’t win the previous year but received a nice note from the Hemingway Foundation’s board president urging me to apply again. So I did. Then in early July, I received an email asking me for an interview. That interview with three board members of the Hemingway Foundation ended up being a conference call I took in Tel Aviv when that city was under constant missile attacks from Gaza. It was a bit bizarre to have to warn my interviewers that if air raid sirens sounded I would have to drop the call and head for a secure spot.

AOP:
What did a typical day in residence look like?

Annette:
I would arrive at nine in the morning after driving for two hours as I would first take my sons to their school on the Northside of Chicago, then drive all the way west to Oak Park. I finished a lot of audio books during those drives! Then I would wander through the silent house, just to make sure I was the only one around (sometimes I wasn’t, if a repairman was there, for example), and then I’d settle into my attic studio for pretty much the whole day until I would leave at five to pick up my boys. My treat for the day would be a lunch at Hemmingway’s Bistro down the street, where I felt most comfortable reading and where the headwaiter Tom pretty soon knew what I liked to eat and drink. I miss that bistro!

AOP:
What did you work on while there?

Annette:
I wrote a lot of shorter pieces, essays, interviews and book reviews. But my main project was trying to find an agent or a publisher for my memoir manuscript. I sent out 70 queries/submissions during my residency. Sadly, none of them met with success.

AOP:
What was the most surprising thing about your experience?

Annette:
How social it was! One has this vision of the writer quietly working away, and with a charming private studio like I had at the Hemingway House, one expects that a residency is mainly going to be about quietly working away, sitting at that great safari-style leather-topped desk. Well, it was, but really, I can work away quietly pretty much anywhere.

Instead, being writer-in-residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home meant everyone in my life, as well as strangers, wanted to visit me! For the most part, I truly enjoyed hosting visitors (family, friends, fellow writers) and showing them around the house (I picked up information about the house from all the wonderful volunteer tour guides). It was important to me that children get exposed to Hemingway and this great resource we have with his birthplace home, so I hosted three third-grade classes from my children’s former elementary school for a field trip. It was a thrill to see how much these kids were into this old house. They loved all the “old stuff,” the phone you can crank, the pull chain on the toilet, the swivel chair on the kitchen sink. The teachers and I shouldn’t have worried that they might find it boring.

My own monthly memoir workshop that I teach at StoryStudio Chicago also came for a field trip, and we held class in the dining room. A group of dear writer friends and I had a picnic in Hemingway’s attic—a truly moveable feast! Last but not least, I taught a memoir class at the house to benefit the Hemingway Foundation in February and March, and that was a beautiful experience. I met some talented writers from the neighborhood, and we read and wrote and discussed memoir right there in the Hemingway parlor with the fire going and snow falling outside. What a setting! Having 91-year-old Ginny Cassin, who oversaw the restoration of the house, as a student in my class was a special treat and guiding her to write about her grandfather was probably the greatest success of my time as writer-in-residence.

AOP:
What advice would you have for someone else looking to be a writer-in-residence?

Annette:
Be ready to give, think about what you can contribute to the organization that is hosting the residency. Judging from my own experience, being writer-in-residence is really about being out there as a writer, sharing whatever you can share, and graciously creating a community around the experience.

AOP:
Would you do it again?

Annette:
I would, of course! But maybe at a time in my life when coming out to Oak Park doesn’t mean so much driving. Nevertheless, having an entire year as writer-in-residence was a huge privilege and ample time to reap the benefits. After a year, it’s time for someone else to move in, contribute in his or her own way and offer a fresh perspective.

AOP:
What, if anything, would you do differently?

Annette:
Spend more time there than I did and have even more people visit.

AOP:
Any writing tips for other writers out there? Do you have a process? Tricks for getting past writer’s block?

Annette:
That’s a big topic! The best advice I have ever gotten regarding writing, that made a huge difference in my life, was to get up early in the morning and write. I say that as someone who is not a morning person, but having that sacred time in the morning, when my brain is not at its highly analytical functioning level yet, and when my family is still sleeping, is what allowed me to earn my MFA while I had three small children and worked a full-time and rather exhausting consulting job. I have never suffered writer’s block—I find that writing begets writing. Ideas will come when you’re writing. Just do it sounds so trivially easy, but it works. Even if you feel uninspired, there’s always something you can do to further your writing, such as researching publishing opportunities, writing a query letter, brainstorming ideas, or applying to a residency opportunity like the Hemingway House!

To learn more about Annette and her writing, visit: www.annettegendler.com

To learn more about the Hemingway Birthplace and Museum and the writer in residency program, visit the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park: http://www.ehfop.org/

About

Kelli is a contributor for Around Media Group. She also (intermittently) writes about the restoration of her 100 year old Oak Park house (and other stuff) at downwithop.com. In her 'real life' she works as a Marketing Research Director. And in her free time she loves hanging out with her husband/friends/family, wine, comedy, design, biking, organizing, traveling, meeting new people, taking classes and exploring OP/RF/FP - not necessarily in that order.

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