Writing from Elsewhere: What It's Like to Write at an Artists' Residency
I found out I'd been accepted to Elsewhere Studios for two months while I was in Paris with Kerri. It felt important because these were the first people to ever put eyes on a passage from my novel. That seemed like a good sign, that they hadn't run, screaming, from the project. But a few weeks before I was supposed to go, I became filled with doubt. I called the Program Manager, Henry. "I mean, do people really just up and leave their lives? Don't they have important meetings? Families?"
Henry explained that every artist's situation was different. He had lived in different residencies for five years before sticking around in Paonia to apprentice so he can open a residency of his own. Some of the other artists are on sabbatical. Some actually leave their families for a month. For others, residencies aren't a possibility because of obligations at home.
Having no expectations before I arrived, I have already found there were some things I wish I knew before I got here. These are some insights about why a writer might like participating in an artists' residency:
The residency gives you the space to create. I assume that each month, different residents build a different culture. Our culture is quiet and serious, and I can hear my thoughts. In my studio, I can speak aloud about the problems I am trying to solve for my story. I have walls devoted to plotting my book. The space alone has been so valuable.
The residency removes the obstacles that stand between you and breakthroughs in your work. There are few logistics involved: if you need something, you can rummage in a cabinet or drawer and come up with a reasonable substitute. You do not have to break concentration by going into the world. We cook and eat sparingly, so we can focus on the work. I have made more progress on my novel in two weeks than in the past two years.
The residency is full of images and ideas to challenge your assumptions. Everywhere I look in this building, there are small details to discover. The bathtub in the corner of my room is on a bed of river rocks. I feel that the people who have inhabited this room before me were here to create something. That they were devoted to it. There is evidence of that everywhere, and it is motivating to feel part of it.
The residency is yours to make worthwhile. In the days leading up to coming to Paonia, John went out of town for a conference. And I could feel myself gearing up to write. I thought about scene ideas. I was picturing my characters in new ways while I emptied the dishwasher. I wrote 15,000 words in my first couple of days. Now, I am working at a slower, more deliberate pace. I want to have the structure of my work in place before I rewrite or edit. This has been a totally different process. One I have needed quiet, space, and time to explore.
The residency creates a community for working artists. I didn't get an MFA, so I have never been in a group of artists who are serious about their work. This residency is the first time I feel seen and taken seriously for my creative writing, for my novel. We had a meet and greet last week, and I shared a piece of my book. A high school student raised her hand and said, "I really like your book." And of course I almost cried.
There is a list posted a few places around the residency that has been incredibly helpful to me. So Mary Welcome, wherever you are, thank you. Here is what she says:
- Treat your days like a long precious ritual
- Make yourself a schedule
- Keep a calendar diary
- Be generous
- Leave your lover at home (sorry, John)
- Don't forget your house slippers, pillow, and ear plugs (all three of these have been very useful to me)
I worried about whether or not I would be able to work remotely, but by eliminating a lot of the back-and-forth I typically do in a week, I've been much more productive and focused in my other work too.
It's hard to be away from John. But until we have a studio space where I can set up my writing table and really get to work, an artists' residency is a good match for me. It is giving me an early spring away from the snows of Colorado, and it is a place to be seen as a serious writer. And I think when others see you that way, it becomes easier to act the part.