Summer Writer-in-Residence Manuela Silvestre: Carpentry, Composting, and the Case Against Goldfish
Manuela Silvestre is our first writer of the Summer 2023 cohort to spend a week onsite participating in our local residency program at Northern Virginia's Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Our summer writers-in-residence focus their weeks on-site exploring ways to rediscover and re-purpose place and place histories, and use writing as a means to build community, to bring awareness to critical social and environmental issues, and as a creative force of empowerment.
Read on for a peek into Manuela's experience below.
I came here to think about food. To learn how a sustainable farm works and to research the role that agriculture played in the Virginia Quaker antislavery movement. I came for evidence that food is the most central thing not just in my life, but all of our lives, and has been forever. In other words, I was excited to use the week as an excuse to research my topics of interest and to champion food and the intentional communities we form around it as tools for rebellion.
Most of all, I was overjoyed by the idea of having nothing to do but write for an entire week. I’d taken on extra work leading up to the residency to make this happen, and even set an OOO email (my first as a freelancer). No emails to respond to, no dog to walk. Just me and a contractual obligation to actually finish something.
Because that’s my dirty secret. I’m a writer-in-residence who doesn’t write. Are you a carpenter if you never put legs on your tables?
I was hoping my time here would unlock something. I was ready to whittle.
The first two days, it seemed to be working. Without the Wi-fi password, I wrote almost 4,000 words, then chided myself for counting, because who cared?! I was writing. Sure, I was bouncing around between notebooks and word docs, sure, but the words were variations on a theme. I wasn’t running away from one thing to go to the next.
But when I started being present in the space, I left the page. I started listening, and reading, and was pulled in all these different directions. The more I learned, the more tabs I opened. I fell down so many rabbit holes. I started poems, a short story, two different essays. I was repeating the same behavior that has rendered me unable to finish something for years. I kept clicking link upon link, turning page after page, asking question after question, devouring details, like when you look up who directed the movie and the next thing you know the movie’s over, you’ve missed it, but you now know all the steps required to get a mummy a French passport.
I start gathering so much information that I stop leaving myself breadcrumbs, and I lose the ability to imagine a structure that can hold the big pile of words I’ve amassed. I lose steam. I get overwhelmed. I become in need of a week with nothing to do but write.
It’s always easier to start something new than to finish what you’ve started. Some people idolize the ability to begin again, but as someone who’s started over in city after city, who’s packed up and unpacked over 25 times, I’ll let you in on a secret. To keep going requires a kind of discipline that starting over does not.
It’s easier to raze a house and build a new one than to repair a leaky roof that will likely leak again. It’s easier to rent out a plantation for weddings than to examine and interpret everything that happened there.
But you can’t start over without performing an act of erasure. Finishing requires an accounting. Stories are made up of actions and consequences, and reaching a conclusion means dealing with the consequences.
Starting over is full of hope, yes, but it also robs you of earned insight. Following through requires forward motion. If not a vision of the future, it requires a belief that a future will come. Start over enough times in succession and you’re just a little goldfish, happy to swim past the same point again and again with nothing to show for it.
Actually, sustainable farming is just that — following through. When you start over without going through the cycle of composting, you’re not nurturing the soil. You’re depleting your brain of what it needs to function, to sprout, just like the tobacco grown for profit and sown with blood once ravaged the earth at Woodlawn.
I wanted to write about food because I believe it holds the key to all our futures. But even if in my proposal I quoted Howard Zinn, I was uncomfortable sitting with the past. I wanted to skip to the end.
I was ready to rush right by the Washingtons and definitely the Lewises and even the stories of those enslaved at Woodlawn. And what’s all the fuss about Frank Lloyd Wright, anyway?
(<- That’s it. That’s the fuss. I get it now.)
But when you wipe the slate clean without making amends, you’re robbing the fungi and bacteria and worms of a job. You’re hurting the economy! Ideas and beliefs don’t decompose. They rot. They continue among us, living in decay, stinking up the present.
I wasn’t willing to do the actual work of writing. Which is, of course, the messy and uncomfortable act of sitting with things that are difficult. Of laboring to make things make sense.
They weren’t rabbit holes. It’s all one long story, and we inherit all of it. So I’m sitting with it.
I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity to immerse myself in this place, and learn from the docents and interpreters and thoughtful people doing the work of making sure visitors take it all in, actions and consequences, from the very beginning through the not-yet-in-full-sight end.
Manuela Silvestre is a writer currently based in Washington, D.C. She’s held 25 addresses in the last 23 years, and done work for almost as many industries. She graduated from New York University with a degree in English Literature, despite spending most of her time taking Latino Studies and Creative Writing classes. Her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly among others.