Creativity and control — letting go at Villa Lena, By Natalie Reiss
The idea that creativity is something bestowed upon a few lucky souls, or received in a perfect moment of inspiration, is only partly true. The somewhat unromantic reality is that a creative practice requires discipline and routine; after all, it’s ultimately a muscle, right? So, what does that mean for a writer / musician / Creative Director who — like the rest of the world — was dormant (in many senses of the word) for 2020 and at least half of 2021?
Alarm goes off at 6am; brush teeth; pull on activewear; grab headphones; stuff keys and Monzo card into my sports bra, open the squeaky front door onto the London street and run, run, run into the morning. The canal is foggy, dotted only with a few other joggers who are also hell bent on a moment of outdoor solitude before their lockdown day begins. Takeaway coffee in hand, quick WhatsApp call with a friend in Oz, and then it’s back to the bedroom home office where the laptop opens at 8am and shuts at 7-ish pm.
Rinse and repeat for a year and half — the routine keeps you safe — and then fly to a Tuscan villa and tell yourself to “create”.
After a week of Covid-19 isolation in an airport hotel, surrounded only by snacks and everything on the internet, I taxi to Pontedera train station before spotting a tall, friendly-looking person wearing a paint-splattered t-shirt who I decide must be a fellow artist, and it is. One more artist and a Villa Lena team member later, and the four of us are driven to what I think must be the largest supermarket I’ve ever seen, resembling a boxy, cinematic relic from the 1980s.
It feels like a social experiment: being thrust into endless, wide aisles filled with Italian goods, fluorescent lighting, muzak and the sound of trolleys, nodding at the fellow artists (who you met ten minutes ago) in the Parmesan section, which is twenty variations strong.
Back in the car, up the winding road and 30-minutes later, we arrive. The heat and horse flies are the first things I notice, oh and the eye-wateringly beautiful, bathed-in-sunlight terracotta monolith that is the villa. Andrew — a fellow artist in residence — and I make the most of day one and swim in the pool at Renacchi — it’s like a scene from Call Me By Your Name and there is no angle on my iPhone that does it justice. Day one is a fake day one because the final artist arrives on Tuesday, so we don’t “work” as such and I feel an internal sense of unnerving that I attribute to a lack of routine (and subsequently, guilt) on a Monday.
Wake up on Tuesday covered in a slip of Summer sweat, feet kiss the cool, tiled floor and head to the studio via the gravelly road, before being faced with a huge space. Three of the four walls are covered in white; blank canvases, ready to receive. I think about what it feels like to open a new Google doc… that moment before you start writing and the blinking cursor stares at you aggressively; I look up and realise that the blank page has come to life and it’s multiplied. I nod at the three walls and decide which one I’ll turn my back towards; an important decision before getting to the serious business of writing and creating a routine for the month ahead.
The nights are hot, the mosquitoes are relentless and my sleep is compromised in a way that makes the days even more dreamy than they are. I struggle to succumb to the nature of that ease, resisting the romance and determined to create a structure for this opportunity and maximise, economise, squeeze everything I can out of my time here but alas, a sleep-deprived soul has a different trajectory and I start to wonder if this twilight zone is a blessing, disrupting my masochistic, capitalism-induced workhorse nature.
I read Rainer Maria Rilke and Patti Smith; I go through old iPhone notes and folders filled with project ideas that I never started, and I begin to realise that corporate force won’t yield good creative crops.
This is the new routine; the shape is so different to that of London-lockdown-work-life that I judge it, briefly, as lackadaisical before remembering that daydreaming and falling down rabbit holes of interest, and travel and connection is what actually feeds a mind, body and spirit — it’s absolutely needed for creation, rather than control.
“Presence over productivity”, I tell myself as I stare at the sky, continuously cursing the horse flies circling my head on my daily walk to the studio, but I count them too and sometimes I even talk to them; part of my new daily practice.
I think of Mary Oliver and consider her wise words, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Perhaps my three white studio walls will become an ode to the horse fly.
Routine doesn’t leave me completely and I joke about my skincare regime being an anti-Vogue guide to glowing skin, as I layer on insect repellant, morning and night, which gives me a dewy sheen and a mild high. It doesn’t repel all creatures, but bonding over itchy bites at our family-style dinners in the garden reminds me that there is structure in this dreamland, and I wonder when exactly it was, that the world started valuing busyness over being.
My own personal act of resistance loses steam and I realise that I’ve been writing poetry without meaning to, and a loose series starts to form.
I was adamant that I wouldn’t create work about my time here and / or the villa because it feels too obvious, but one morning, a short story starts rushing out of me and so, the horse flies and I run to my studio so I can type before my brain forgets.
Only one more week of wonderland remains and I’ve decided to focus on the poetry series and a screenplay I started, the short story becoming third on my list of projects to complete. It seems obvious that space, time and the picturesque Tuscan countryside would heal and inspire, but we often avoid what’s most obvious, deeming it too simple, too good to be true.
Endings and goodbyes start to loom and I wonder what the next life routine will look like, what shape will it hold? The beauty is in the mystery and moving with — not against — what’s in front of you; a lesson I’ve learned at Villa Lena and something I’ll carry with me up the gravelly Tuscan road, onto the plane and back to London. Arrivederci, horse flies.
– Natalie Reiss @piecesofreiss is one of the writers in residence at the Villa Lena Foundation. Find out more about the Villa Lena Foundation here
All images by Natalie Reiss