Beyond Productivity: What to Expect From Your First Writing Residency

by | Jan 20, 2016

Everyone knows the benefits of writers’ residencies.

The greatest of all might be your manuscript rapidly expanding in a frictionless work environment — one free of a job or of friends texting to meet up.

You find pockets in the writing day that you never knew existed: The hours after dinner when you can hammer out another page; the early morning hour when you turn a sentence over in your mind without worrying about being late for anything.

Productivity. It’s what we all want, and what most residencies promise. Tell your friends at home that you’ll be gone, compose a vacation reply, turn off your phone, and experience the true size of an afternoon.

But even though it’s what we most crave out of residencies, productivity is not why we go. If it were, you’d just rent a cottage on an island in Maine or a cabin upstate. Better yet, you could save money by staying home and spending your vacation days in the basement of your local library.

The real reason we go to residencies is that they jolt us out of routine and familiarity, which often frees the mind to perform more creatively and sharply on the page.

What happens when we step away from the computer is the reason we spend our time camped out with a bunch of creative strangers. The unexpected benefits — the stuff beyond page count — is the good stuff.

One residency doesn’t fit all writers

Those unexpected benefits vary from residency to residency.

Choosing the right residency is mostly about the experience you want. There’s the rural, the urban, the large, the small, the ones with three sit-down meals a day, the ones with readings, with workshops and without, the ones with no required events, the ones with a lecture series, the ones with visual artists and musicians, the ones with only writers, the ones abroad, and the ones two towns away.  

You might find yourself nearly alone for a month in the mountains, or holed up for a week in a fancy apartment in a city. You could lose yourself in a new country.

If you go to the large Vermont Studio Center, for instance, way up in northern Vermont, you have the opportunity to ponder a plotline or character while walking on a mountain trail. You might listen to a fellow resident’s reading in a historic performance hall and discover a new way of thinking about your own work. You might make friends with a painter or sculptor over after-dinner tea. You might take up figure drawing in the mornings or begin meditation.

At the tiny Lighthouse Works residency on Fishers Island, you’ll fill the hours when you’re not writing with fishing and swimming at the beach, or spending the night shooting pool down in the local pub. At Hewnoaks residency, in a lakeside town in northern Maine, you might cure writer’s block while canoeing, paddling along miles of lakeshore, listening to the echo of loons’ calls.

You create a day that scaffolds your writing hours, rejuvenates you and productively repositions your thoughts.

Offline time is key to a successful stay

This year, when the owner of a 105-year-old hotel on Cuttyhunk Island — an island off of Cape Cod with a year-round population of 18 — asked if I wanted organize a writers’ residency, I knew I had the chance to offer people an experience with a high premium of those unexpected benefits.

The island is all salt-stunted trees and windswept fields, with an oyster pond on its western side. The town that exists there today looks not unlike it did in the 19th Century: that fishing-town feel towns farther up the Cape used to embody.

It’s the type of place I imagined writers could wander and think. There’d be evening swims at the beaches, bad cell-phone service to snuff out Facebook and Instagram, and 360 degrees of ocean.  Any writer who’s spent time on an island will know that it catalyzes a potent brand of focus.

As I welcome the first residents this summer, I’ll encourage them to work hard on their writing projects, but, more importantly, to shut the computer every once and a while for a long walk, to sit on the porch and read for the afternoon, or to spend an extra hour at the dinner table, engaged in conversation over a few cups of tea before bed.

You know—the stuff that you can’t do in the basement of your town library.

Making the most of your residency

Ready to pack your bags and attend your first residency? Before you dig out your suitcase, here are a few tips for making the most of your journey.

Research the residency and area before you go

Write up a list of things you want to do besides writing. Check them off during your visit. Depending on the huge range of residencies (from New York City to Wyoming wilderness to coastal New England to Estonian countryside), activities could include:

  • Canoe for a day
  • Spend a day hiking through the hills
  • Go to one morning of life drawing
  • Go to yoga every morning
  • Go swimming every evening after writing
  • Go snowshoeing at least once

The list, really, is endless, depending on season and location. Try to write down at least five activities to try.

Don’t burn out

You’ll be facing hours upon hours of free writing time. Don’t feel guilty for taking a “day off.” Don’t burn yourself out — doing so will kill your creative drive.

Be spontaneous

When another resident asks you to join him on a walk, or bike ride, or swim, or a drink at the pub, do it.

Unless you’re in the middle of a brilliant paragraph, you’ll be happier, ultimately, for taking advantage of spontaneous adventures.

Set reasonable goals

Have a project in mind, and focus on that project. Don’t work on a thousand things — you’ll only get frustrated, and you’ll squash any chance for exciting stuff to happen beyond your writing desk.

There’s always more to work on, and more to write. Accept that, and then let it go.

Know the residency

Is it a retreat, a workshop, or a conference? Some programs listed as “residencies” don’t actually give you much time to write. Take a look at the schedule, and adjust your expectations accordingly.

Is this a time to listen to lectures, to absorb, or a time to increase page count? Surprisingly important: Do you have to cook your own food? Having meals provided for you frees up much time and mental space.

Have you attended a writing residency? What other tips would you give to first-time attendees?