The Crane House Speaks (A Quarry Farm Testimonial)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally feature testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows, which combine conversational illustrations of their research and writing process with personal reflections on their experiences as Twain scholars, teachers, and fellows. Applications for Quarry Farm Fellowships are due each Winter. Find more information here.

The main house at Quarry Farm speaks. It sighs in the morning when I sit with my journal and tea overlooking Elmira in the valley below. When I switch from page to screen, the radiators hiss and pop. Their clatter and the calling geese are the only sounds in my silence. The squeaky kitchen door greets me from my afternoon woods walk. I leave my boots at the door and settle into the study for reading and one warmer whistles a welcome. This is my second stay at Quarry Farm and I’ve learned the way of the house by its hum. It’s helped me find my own writing rhythm too. It’s November and I’m tucked away on East Hill for a two-week fellowship.

My writing process has always been to binge. In Washington, DC my days are filled with teaching, attending department meetings, writing letters of recommendation, serving on committees: the labor of university that fuels and delays my creative work, but none of that reaches me at Quarry Farm. As a fellow, my job is to write or as I call it, to make. On the first day I manage only three pages but they are a pivotal scene in my novel-in-progress. When I’m stuck, I read from the books I’ve brought or wander through the house for a volume I didn’t know I needed. Since my first stay at Quarry Farm, the internet speed and capacity has vastly improved so I keep my laptop offline to counter the ambitious improvements from the Center for Mark Twain Studies. If I’m researching detail, the study is stocked with resources, including a capable computer with a lightning connection to the outside world I’m keeping out.

Much of my work is rooted in my hometown, Hannibal, Missouri, which I share with Samuel Clemens. In my debut novel, Flood, set during and after the 500-year flood of 1993, I reimagine Becky Thatcher through a female friendship more akin to Tom and Huck’s famous mischief. Flood is a story of identity and how we construct narratives, especially those based on false assumptions. I wanted to avoid the familiar “Can you go home again?” in favor of the more ambivalent “What happens if you have to?” Like the Mississippi River that once ran backwards, Laura Brooks, Flood’s protagonist, flows in a dangerous direction through her past as she seeks to recalibrate her future. Like Mark Twain’s work and social criticism, I examine race, class, and ideologies of rural communities. I’ve come to Quarry Farm to work on Flood’s sequel and see how a modern Becky emerges on the page. I can’t help but find the view of Elmira in the valley below and the Chemung River matching the riverbanks and bluffs I was born and raised admiring in Hannibal. Sam and I are in on a secret.

By my third day, I have a plot map for a short story and a newly drafted sample chapter which I will take apart and rewrite four more times in the coming week. The ability to stay in work and to hold the pieces in my head as I move from study to kitchen to fields allows ideas and words to percolate until the steam from the boil must meet my page. The time, space, and place at Quarry Farm is ideal for the deep work necessary for scholars and creatives alike.

When the house can hold me no longer and I’m out of groceries, I drive to Elmira for provisions, art, and research. I explore “Mark Twain’s Elmira” at the Chemung County Historical Society and spend hours learning about Women’s Suffrage and the NAACP’s presence in the community. The generous docent at the Arnot Art Museum teaches me about the ties between the Arnot and Langdon family and she is patient with my many questions. I bring my journal so I can scribble on a bench in the gallery in the beauty of this collection. 

On the last day of my two-week residency, I send the sample chapters to my agent and the revised manuscript proposal to my editor—it’s the amount I’ve been trying to juggle in my academic days for an entire year—and it’s done. I’ve begun three new projects and they must now marinate until I can clear my calendar again for the gift of time.

Susan Crane understood that a writer needs solitude and support. She had dinner ready and a community to bolster Sam’s spirits when he returned from a day writing up the hill in his studio. As an artist informed by scholarship, Quarry Farm inspires me and I listen. The rabbit holes of research I fall into become a phrase for a future poem, a line of dialogue I hear imagining a hallway conversation between Sam and Livy, or a scene that might make its way into my next novel. I like to think that the Langdon-Crane crew might be pleased that a fellow girl from Hannibal made her way up to East Hill to write in Mark Twain’s footsteps.

Melissa Scholes Young is Associate Professor of Literature at American University and author of the award-winning Flood (2017).