5 Lessons I Learned at My First Writing Residency

5 Lessons I Learned at My First Writing Residency

In January, I packed my car and drove 12 hours alone from Florida to North Carolina. This was not a typical road trip, but I had plenty of soul-searching planned: I was headed to the Penland School of Crafts, a bustling art school nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

As I embarked on my first writing residency, I knew I’d be joined by artists from all over the country seeking a focused period of independent work. I was ready — or so I thought.

I had packed and repacked the car. I had checked out helpful library books for research. I had acquired plenty of snacks. I had obtained not one, but two new notebooks waiting to be filled with the fresh inspiration that was sure to come.

What I didn’t expect was to feel like a fish out of water, as the only writer attending during my two-week session. Being a lone ranger wasn’t a big deal. But I had no other writers to turn to for perspective, or for a boost of encouragement. It was up to me to forge my own writing path.

I made the most of my time at Penland and returned feeling accomplished. But I also learned important lessons about planning for writing productivity while you’re away from home.

1. The first few days will probably be a wash

Anyone who’s sat down at their desk and waited (and waited…and waited) for words to come knows the anxiety of not being productive enough during a writing session. This gave me some anxiety as I embarked upon my first residency.

A friend advised me to give myself a few days to settle in, both to my surroundings and my temporary writing routine. Of course, someone doing a shorter retreat or residency may not have the luxury of spending a half day importing their chapters to Scrivener, or avoiding writing by reading a book on Cold War-era bunkers, as I did. But I was grateful to have the first few days of my stay to putter around and get comfortable, not only with my space but with myself, and no other tasks to complete but writing.

Tip: Plan a few low-energy tasks to get you started in the first few hours or days of your residency. A valuable way to start your stay may be to read over the work you’ve already done, to remind you why you’re here — and what needs work.

2. It’s good to have goals

Here’s where my strategy of “ease into the residency!” has its drawbacks.

Working in a residency for primarily visual artists meant it was easy to say, “Hey, what did you make today?” to a fellow resident, and be shown beautiful works-in-progress at a moment’s notice.

When they turned that question back to me, asking, “What did you write today?” I would chuckle half-heartedly and give them a big toothy grin. Then I would change the subject.

I didn’t always have something to show for my day of work.

In my first week of my residency, my major accomplishment was figuring out the emotional catalyst for my entire story, and summarizing it in a paragraph. It was a huge accomplishment for me, but on paper, it didn’t look so massive.

My colleagues were still excited for my progress. But because I didn’t set any goals before I started my work, I couldn’t truly gauge my progress during this valuable time.

Tip: Make a work plan, however minimal. Whether it’s a set of chapters, a character development arc, or research for technical aspects of worldbuilding, you’ll want to be able to look back on your time and say, “Yes, I did (at least part of) what I set out to do.”

3. Distractions are everywhere

It’s natural for others to be curious about your work at a residency, and it’s natural to be curious about theirs.

But it’s easy to let those side conversations about your work, your life back home, your pets, and that one city you visited once derail your productivity.

An artist at my residency referred to procrastinating as “chasing squirrels.” Everyone did it. Some of us more than others. If you let distractions like conversations, social media, and fiddling with the coffee pot take over, and you’ll wonder where your day — or entire residency — has gone.

Tip: Set a writing schedule, even if it’s as simple as working two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. That way, you can protect those hours — and let distractions run rampant outside those limits without feeling bad.

4. You will hit a wall

Right when you think you’ve hit your stride and it’s going to be nothing but multi-thousand-word writing sessions from there, you’ll hit the wall. Stuck. Burned out.

It happened to me: I started my second week of residency with a super-productive day where I wrote several pivotal scenes in my work in progress. I felt like I was on top of the world.

Until the next morning, when I sat back down at my desk and…nothing.

The cure? A 90-minute hike on a cold, but sunny day fixed me right up. I knew I needed to clear my head, and when a fellow resident volunteered to keep me company along the path, I happily took her offer. Leaning into this opportunity for distraction helped me reset my brain and sit down at my laptop with clarity and confidence the next day.

Tip: Accept that even in a special environment, some days will be more productive than others. Embrace the ebb and flow of your residency and listen to your body, mind and surroundings along the way.

5. Make a work plan before you depart

Your residency might feel like a rush of creativity and uninterrupted writing. But you can’t take it with you — at least, not in the same form.

When I returned from my residency, I chatted with my mother on the phone, who asked if I had a productive trip. Then she said, “Now you’ll have to keep up the momentum.”

Again with the half-hearted chuckling and toothy grin she couldn’t see through the phone.

I didn’t have a plan. In fact, in the month after my return home, I wrote zero additional words. I did zero additional plotting. I felt inert, sluggish back in my surroundings, with a day job to attend to and errands to run.

The momentum of a residency is hard to replicate for writers who don’t typically get time and space to write.

Tip: Before you depart, make a plan for how you’ll continue writing when you return home. Sure, maybe life will require you to tone it down from 2,000 words each day to 500 three days a week. But setting expectations for yourself will help you feel motivated to follow up on your residency-facilitated burst of creativity.

My lessons might seem obvious to someone who has taken writing trips before. But for a newcomer who loves planning and reviewing agendas, I felt overwhelmed with lightbulb moments. Of course it takes planning and preparation to make the most of your time — just like writing at home.

Now, it’s a matter of applying those lessons as I daydream about my next residency.

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Filed Under: Craft
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