Last week I mentioned that one of the best things I ever did for myself as a writer was attending an artist residency at Ucross. Today I’ll explain WHY that was so important and I’ll also mention two other things I’ve done that have been life-changing, especially for the writer in me.
Though some are strictly for scribes, many residencies accept artists working in various media (visual, literary, dance, musical, and so on).
I can’t emphasize enough how invaluable artist residencies can be for they offer Uninterrupted Time and a Separate Space to work on your art. Aside from possessing some sort of creative talent and a unique perspective, perhaps, uninterrupted time and a separate space might just be the most essential ingredients when it comes to creating art. After all, they’re typically quite difficult to find in our everyday lives.
Every residency is different in a variety of ways, but they all seem to hold the artists’ time in high regard.
Although some encourage different methods of community building (from making dinner together to cleaning up after dinner together to organizing readings and other public events), they tend to strongly urge you to pursue any cross-pollination (i.e. mingling) during small blocks of time set aside for socializing. They get that many of us already have plenty of friends and family to interact with on a daily basis (one of the reasons we’re there in the first place).
In a response, of sorts, to the idea behind Henry David Thoreau’s act of building a cabin at Walden Pond, journalist Noel C. Paul writes that the first step for many writers in freeing their imagination is the act of retreating “to the confines of a tiny shed.” For writing, as with most art, is typically a solitary endeavor, it is the act of creating in isolation and, Paul writes, even “structures standing no more than 10 feet from the writer’s house offer the precious gift of a separate space.”
He cites a number of writers who have commented here and there about the importance of their respective “sheds,” writers like Annie Dillard whom Paul quotes from The Writing Life: “one wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”
Hey, every time I drive through town I see Mark Twain’s Octagonal Study and I can’t NOT crave a space like that too. But very few of us have our own writing shed. Even if we do, chances are other people know where it’s located or how to find it.
That’s the paradox of the artist: the need to be part of the world (for art is our participation in the greater conversation), yet apart from it as well (so as to retreat into the dark, as Dillard suggests, where the magic takes place).
And that’s one thing an artist residency provides – a real, genuine, honest-to-goodness separate space to create. We get to be hermits . . . with other hermits. And the fact that residencies tend to be far enough away from your daily life (geographically and emotionally) that they give you the incomparable opportunity to unplug from the myriad tasks and responsibilities and obstacles (real and imagined) that can keep you from the page.
Of course, having your own separate space and having time to write are only two ingredients.
If you can’t let go of the mental and the emotional connections to the daily grind (i.e. the entanglements of your everyday routine) and immerse yourself into the writing, then the time you get at the page can still be unproductive.
If you get a chance, however, to sequester yourself for a significant amount of time, and to do so without the incessant chatter of the rest of your life pushing in, allowing your writing routine (i.e. the act of actual writing) to take over, well that is an experience you have to have for yourself to truly appreciate. That can be life-changing.
Many residencies, though providing the isolation needed for creating, also make sure the artists do have a chance to interact. Engaging with other people who share a similar passion for creating can be intoxicating, inspiring, and flat out magical. Look back through history at the groups of artists who gathered together, who socialized (just watch Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris for a brief and entertaining hint), and you’ll realize this is not some new idea.
Get a group of artists together (whether they’re all writers or, if you’re lucky like I was, painters and musicians and poets and novelists – mainstream and experimental artists – people who live to create) and feel the creative energy surge throughout the room, throughout yourself.
It’s hard to be in such an environment and to not be motivated to create.
Of course, if you prefer solitude, some residencies assure you of that. It’s all about finding the right fit for your tastes, your personality, your specific needs, and your wallet.
The cost of artist residencies range, it seems, from nothing to quite a bit.
Some charge large fees for those two weeks, or those few months, of artistic freedom (for room and board and that sacred creative space). Always be sure to consider what you’re getting and how it fits with your needs. You may want to also consider some alternatives. For example, I’ve had a few writer friends who have rented homes for a couple weeks while the owners were on vacation (you can find homes, apartments, condos, cabins to sublet on Craig’s List and other websites).
Doing so has provided my writer friends with a new environment, and all that separate time and space mentioned above, at a fraction of the cost. Meals, however, aren’t usually included when you borrow someone else’s place while they’re away and that may be a major factor for you.
Everyone has their own objectives and their own aspirations.
Some residencies offer partial and even full scholarships based on need (i.e. financial challenges that might prevent you from attending) or based on the quality of the submitted work. For those residencies that don’t require sample work, that just admit based on your ability to pay, the option of subletting someone’s place for a week or for a month might be more apt – just remember, not all “residencies” are created equal.
Some suggest an amount to be paid by the artist daily or weekly, a donation of sorts. Others have a sliding scale based on what you can afford. Some are located in obscure settings, others in quite elaborate locales.
Some residencies offer fellowships (as long as you can find a way to get there, the other costs – such as overnight accommodations, foods, and the precious, sacred space – are all covered by generous benefactors).
Let’s face it, most of us artists (okay, most of us people) are “struggling” after all, so a fellowship can be especially appealing and often the difference between imagining a creative getaway and it actually happening. These residencies tend to be quite competitive, but also offer a wide range of opportunities.
You may notice Artist-in-Residence programs out there as well. Those are different. They tend to be opportunities for an artist to immerse herself or himself in a specific residential arts center for a specific duration of time (like a year). The artist gets to work on her art “elsewhere” (i.e. not at home) and usually teaches a class or offers some sort of community arts service in trade. Some of these programs even offer stipends (so you might get away for a year, work on your art, and make a little change in the process). Again, these tend to be quite competitive and may be a bit more difficult to pull off for artists with families.
Last week, I also alluded to Retreats and Conferences as useful to writers and I’ll just touch upon them here.
Retreats tend to be guided or unguided (or a combination of the two) and can also offer that uninterrupted time and space.
Guided retreats provide writers with learning opportunities, as there are usually workshops or lectures (by teachers, established writers, even editors and other people working in the literary arts).
Some aspiring writers who might want to continue to develop their craft may find guided retreats very helpful and less expensive and/or a better fit with their lifestyle than an MFA program.
Unguided retreats range from the writer simply finding a secluded spot on his own and spending some time there (a writer’s getaway, so to speak). The first retreat I ever went on was in New Harmony, Indiana as was set up for writers in the MFA program I was attending. It was mostly a room at a wonderful Inn in a charming, out of the way, small town. The room had a writing desk (so that was the separate space).
What it afforded me, though, was a chance to unplug from my day-to-day life and hunker down in an entirely new place. Again, I can’t stress enough just how liberating and empowering such an opportunity can be.
For the first time in my life, I sat in parks and in other wonderful outdoor environments with a notepad and a pencil and I wrote. And writing by hand FEELS completely different from the tap-tap-tappity-tap of fingers on keyboards. Writing by hand, bringing more of your body into the writing, while being outside, that is something very special and also probably needs to be experienced to be appreciated for just how powerful it can be.
Writer’s Conferences aren’t about providing the writer with a separate time and space to write. They’re more for someone who has a finished manuscript or a work-in-progress that’s at a particular stage of development.
Conferences can be a great way to network, to meet people who share common interests, and to get feedback, though I’d caution you to be wary of those that require exorbitant fees for that feedback.
Networking seems to be important, however, for being a writer these days (and perhaps always) requires a lot more from the writer than writing. It’s also about marketing and promoting and making the right connections so that once you have that finished manuscript you can get it into “the right hands.”
That’s assuming publication is one of your goals. You might just be writing for yourself and, in that case, aside from panel discussions and possible feedback, you might not benefit as much from a conference.
It’s all subjective after all.
“To learn to read is to light a fire;
every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.” — Victor Hugo
The third best thing I ever did for myself as a writer, aside from attending Ucross and aside from going on a writer’s retreat in New Harmony (twice), was to READ.
In particular, to read the work of a certain writer. This was the first best thing I ever did for myself as a writer, really, long before I even knew I wanted to write.
In a way, you can blame R.A. Salvatore for my becoming a writer.
That’s right, he of the bestseller and of comic-con fame. He of the dark elf, Drizzt, and the black panther, Guenhywvar.
I was twenty-six-years-old and up until then I had managed, quite happily I might add, to avoid reading any novel (or play, chapbook, or any kind of book for crying out loud) outside a classroom setting. Then R.A. Salvatore went and wrote The Crystal Shard and ruined everything.
Keats and Shelly and Wordsworth played a part, sure, but they just ended up being the first literature I read on my own. It was either that or fail the Major English Authors course I was forced to take (the universe appears to have conspired against me, thank goodness). I fell in love with the potency of words thanks to those Brits, but it was R.A. Salvatore who showed me that potency wasn’t just found in poetry and that I didn’t have to read “literary fiction” to feel something from a book.
I read his first series of novels (Icewind Dale Trilogy). Then the next series. Then the next. And so on and so forth . . . for the past twenty-five years.
I couldn’t get enough of Salvatore’s work (still can’t).
He’s probably known best for his deft handling of action scenes, for the way he crafts fight scenes full of action and imagery. But for me, his characters are what resonated most. They were, after all, different. A dark elf shunned by his own people because there was good in him. A human girl, a barbarian, adopted by a surly dwarf with a tender heart.
He wrote about characters who were anomalies. Characters who had many of the traits they were expected to have, sure, but the traits that set them apart from the rest of their collective people (and stereotypes), also made them so special. Those were the people I’ve always been drawn to in life, the people who have been drawn to me. Those were the characters I wanted, I needed to create.
Of course, it would take me another decade before I realized that I even had that desire, that need. The one that fills me every day with a different kind of fire (a fire I hope to pass on through my own words, my own books, one syllable at a time).
So, you could say that my journey to becoming a writer started with the first book I ever read, at age 26, a novel by R.A. Salvatore that is still one of my favorites. I’ve introduced former students, friends, and colleagues to Salvatore’s characters over the years.
I may have mentioned, I had been a hyperdrive teenager and a hyperdrive adolescent and, although I had a vast amount of patience when dealing with other people, I had virtually no patience when it came to being still within myself, when it came to slowing down and being mindful and turning inward.
Inward was the last place I wanted to go.
I could write a rather long post detailing each of Salvatore’s novels (and characters) that I’ve loved, but I’ll just say this – if you haven’t read his work and you like action, if you know a hyperdrive teen, a reluctant reader – check him out.
His novels were a lot like yoga. I went for the workout, for the intensity, for the movement and the action. What hooked me though was the depth, the turning inward, the way I settled into myself and explored myself without ever setting out to do so. And that journey, in many ways, is what led to this one, my pursuit of this dream, of this thing called writing.
Some of my favorite Sci-Fi & Fantasy novels (not written by Salvatore or Tolkien)
Nancy Farmer The House of the Scorpion
Kathleen Duey Skin Hunger
Isaac Asimov “Nightfall” (short story), I, Robot, and The Foundation series
Piers Anthony On a Pale Horse (and the rest of the Incarnations of Immortality series)
Orson Scott Card Ender’s Game (and the other Ender books)
Ursula LeGuin The Wizard of Earth Sea (and other Earthsea books)
Terry Brooks The Shannara books
Tracy Hickman & Margaret Weis The many Dragonlance books