Gotta Get Away

Last week, we wrote about weekend workshops in Iowa, but sometimes 48 hours away from everyday life isn’t enough to become immersed in your writing life. A weekend workshop is great for learning a single technique or addressing a specific issue in a particular project. Don’t know how to begin? Stuck in the middle? Wondering how to generate dialogue? A weekend is enough time to give you some guidance. If you really need to reconnect with your work for the long haul, a longer writing residency can open up the mental space that’s hemmed in by everyday life.

Celia Ko in Chicago

Ten years ago, Anna spent a month at the Vermont Studio Center (VSC), where she studied poetry with Robert Creeley and Arthur Sze. There, writers and visual artists commingle in the billboard-free rolling hills. The interaction with painters, photographers, and three-dimensional artists—at meals in the shared dining lodge, in each other’s studios, at readings and lectures—was an opportunity to think not just about her emerging poetry manuscript and about language, but also about the creative process more broadly. Talking with visual artists like Celia Ko, a painter and mixed-media artist from Hong Kong, and Mary Robinson, a printmaker from South Carolina, pushed Anna to think seriously about what she was doing as a poet—as an artist using words—and to articulate how and why she wrote. The artists even nudged all residents to make hats for a communal dinner, so that writers became mixed-media artists, too, for a day. Being a writer requires isolated work, but we’re also part of a large community of smart, thoughtful, vibrant people. We can nourish and inform each other’s endeavors.

Of course, at any month-long residency, there’s plenty of the necessary isolation, too. At VSC, each resident has a private room with a desk (though bathrooms are shared) and has a separate studio. For Anna, unused to being alone for long stretches—away from family, friends, and even the voices on television—the first few days, with the month stretching ahead, were off-putting, even uncomfortably quiet. But becoming uncomfortable may well be part of reacquainting yourself with your writing. It forces focus, or refocusing. Ten years ago, VSC had one shared computer available for sending e-mail, and a common phone was located near the administrative offices, though you needed to purchase a phone card to place calls. In other words, Anna was cut off and had to choose whether to communicate with the outside world. And that was a very good thing for her writing, because as useful as conveniences like the internet are, they can be distractions. Inconvenience creates realignment, and writing becomes the only thing of import in the list of things to do today.

But a residency isn’t really inconvenient, for someone cooks and cleans for you (Anna’s fondness for smoked Gouda stems from VSC). And now the VSC studios are wireless, and we all have cell phones. In fact, a writing residency helped Anna understand how that necessary tasks like housecleaning may be inconvenient for the writer. And it was a reminder of how fruitful unnecessary excursions can be: to see moose drinking from a stream at dusk, to eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream where it’s made, to visit the Trapp Family Lodge. Even the local post office and resale shop become destinations to reward a productive writing day. The writing residency allows a writer to recalibrate, accelerate, and become newly fascinated.

Situated at the easternmost end of Cape Cod is one of America’s great artist enclaves, Provincetown, Massachusetts. Provincetown—or just P-town, the verbiage seemingly favored by locals and visitors alike—has been home to John Dos Passos, Eugene O’Neill, and Norman Mailer. It was a scholarship for a weeklong workshop at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony that brought Doug to P-town in early August this year.

View of Provincetown by John Phelan

A week is an in-between timeframe. The workshop group can cover more than in a weekend, and there’s just enough time to have the opportunity for the group to feel like a group. But it’s intense; it’s hard work. There’s not a lot of time for meandering about town, though there are numerous restaurants within walking distance, as you fend for your meals.

In the workshop itself, the group took some time to review the implements in the writer’s toolbox: narrative, plot, character, dialogue, atmosphere, and so on. Quickly, it became evident that narrative would be the overriding focus of the week’s discussions, workshop sessions, and exercises. As the residents dissected each other’s novels and stories during the week, Doug could imagine a firm, but quiet, authorial voice perched somewhere behind him, intoning over and over again: narrative, plot, character, dialogue, atmosphere, but the greatest among these is narrative. At least for this week.

In any workshop situation, the workshop leader sets the agenda. In “Fiction: The Protagonists,” Marita Golden knew what she wanted to accomplish with the emerging writers, each of whom had submitted roughly 30 pages and, therefore, were in the midst of writing projects. Narrative was Marita’s agenda. For the purposes of the week, Doug thought of narrative as different from authorial exposition. Instead, narrative became defined as those moments in a novel or story when the author intervenes to commingle with the character, allowing the character to reveal something. Marita said, “Narrative tells the reader the weight and meaning of things.” Doug is deep into a character-driven spy novel manuscript, and is working to convey the weight and meaning of things. Because he’s working with an action-driven plot, Marita’s statement about the relationship of narrative to character especially resonates: “The beauty of narrative is that when I don’t know my character, it helps me to find out.” Focusing on narrative casts novel writing as creative problem solving. Narrative helps the writer answer the most pressing questions, and those answers move the project forward.

Weekend, weeklong, and month-long residencies aren’t necessary. Writers can write without the structure they provide and can complete projects without getting away. And a writing get-away may not work well for every writer, every writing project, or every stage of a given project. Sometimes, a writer just can’t get away from his or her job or family, and some writers don’t need a respite in order to jumpstart or complete a poetry collection or a novel. Some writers are able to recalibrate as needed, all the while going about their day-to-day lives. Thus far, our participation in residencies has been rare for all these reasons at different times. Still, the writing residencies we have done have created spaces in our lives that we could not have traversed by any other means.

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