A Writing Residency

DorlandCabinLast time either of us was at a writing residency, we spent two weeks at Ragdale together. Those two weeks in February of last year were the most productive writing time we’ve ever had, separately or together. As if that accomplishment weren’t enough, fellow resident Emily Gray Tedrowe suggested we contact her agent, Alice Tasman. Alice was thrilled to represent us and our project about the end of the space shuttle program and what’s next. She just sold the novel Emily was working on at Ragdale.

We’ve been looking for another residency opportunity, but it’s tough to sync up our work schedules with extended time away at the same time. From a writing colony’s perspective, we take up two spaces for one project, and our availability isn’t very flexible. Earlier this year, we started poking around the internet for residencies in California, in the hopes that proximity would make it more do-able. We found the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony just outside Temecula. They said, Yes, we want you. Yes, we can accommodate your dates.

We didn’t know anyone who’d had a residency at Dorland, and so we were a little bit up in the air regarding our expectations. Ragdale brings a group of artists and writers together in a renovated mansion in a swanky suburb of Chicago; the artists and writers share meals and bathrooms; a staff member is in an office downstairs most days; it’s really comfortable.

DorlandDesk1Dorland’s living space is comprised of cabins on a mountainside. Though there’s a caretaker living on the property and staff in the office, you’re pretty much on your own. The cabins are new—Dorland suffered a terrible fire in 2004—and perfectly appointed for a writing retreat. The space manages to be focused—desks, table, bed—and inviting—rocking chair and wood burning stove—at the same time. And the view out of the front door—the cabin is high enough on the mountainside to take in much of the Temecula valley below—is, breathtaking.

For Ragdale, we planned ahead; we mapped out a basic daily schedule, including writing times and discussion times, and which chapters we’d tackle in what order and when to exchange drafts. To prepare for Dorland, we scrambled to get enough other tasks accomplished that we wouldn’t be bogged down with non-writing work every day. We over-packed the car because that was quicker than deciding what we’d need most. We didn’t discuss a plan or specific goals.

DAY 1: GETTING THERE

DorlandDesk2Mapquest told us that the trip would take roughly 75 minutes. Mapquest cannot accurately predict Southern California traffic. The 91 is notoriously backed up, and an informational sign indicated an accident ahead with the two left lanes blocked. We called Dorland from the road to say that we’d be later than expected. The trip took us roughly three hours.

The caretaker and resident artist showed us around our cabin and gave us their contact information. Then, they left. The quiet was palpable.

The cabin is rectangular, with an open kitchen, dining room, and living room. At one end, there’s a bathroom and a small bedroom with a full-size bed and a big closet. At the other end, a door opens to a porch with that magnificent view overlooking Temecula, farms,  and the area’s rolling mountains.

We unpacked the car and headed back into town for some essentials, namely things we’d forgotten to pack or hadn’t had time to pick-up on our way out of town: groceries, a cheap CD player, and a meal

DAY 2: GETTING SETTLED

We slept late, groggy with the cool mountain air, perhaps tired from extra work packed into the last few weeks.

Doug wrote notes, plans for the chapter about the last shuttle launch, and pages of new material in longhand. In the late afternoon, he drove down into Temecula for more groceries and replacements for forgotten running shoes. He’s been planning to replace them for weeks anyway.

Rationalized as a way to make the mental transition back into our book project, Anna finished reading The Astronaut’s Wives Club, a book focused on individual wives of astronauts in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. We’d seen the author at the last shuttle launch. She’d already had the book contract at the time. In the current market, the success of other writers is validation. This other book is proof of people’s interest in space exploration generally and in our own narrative approach to conveying the history and possibilities.

We were so exhausted that dinner was quick, a salad and half a frozen pizza. We went to bed early.

DAY 3: GETTING GOING

Doug got up relatively early, exercised, and ate. Anna got up not too much later, ate, jotted down a few notes for a chapter about the juxtaposition of nature and technology on the Space Coast. Then, she exercised.

We got to work writing. We wrote for hours.

DorlandPorchWe took a lunch break together and discussed which chapters might include which items we want in the book. We asked each other questions, made suggestions. Then, we got back to work writing. We wrote for hours.

At about 8:00pm, we went out to the porch and caught sight of a deer on a nearby hill. Less than twenty minutes later, we watched the longest, clearest, least obstructed pass of the International Space Station in our experience. For six minutes, we stared from horizon to horizon, from SSW to NE, as the bright space station zipped overhead at 17,500 miles per hour.

Just over ninety minutes later, just before 10:00pm and after a repeat of last night’s dinner, we returned to the porch for another pass, this one a short arc from NNW to N but still a long, bright minute. Tonight was the first time we’d seen a two passes in a single evening. This residency, we thought, is working out pretty darn well thus far.

DAY 4: ESTABLISHING MOMENTUM

We ate breakfast and started writing.

We took a lunch break, then spent a few hours reading new pages aloud, revising and brainstorming as we went.

In the evening, we took a walk, down and up the steep road of the arts colony, to clear our heads. Then, we wrote some more, ate dinner, and slept.

DAY 5: CHECKING IN WITH OUR LIVES

There’s no internet access at the cabin for our laptops. We’re grateful for this imposed separation from the grid. Today, after some writing, exercising, and watching an F-16 aircraft fly maneuvers in our sky, we traipsed into Temecula for some connection.

If it’s Wednesday, there’s a new post here at Lofty Ambitions. In addition, as much as we’d like to step out of our regular lives for the entire two weeks, we both have obligations at work we couldn’t completely shirk. Specific people expected us to check in today, and we’ll face a busy week of meetings as soon as we return home, so we won’t have wiggle room to catch up easily. We touched base with our house-sitter and family too.

In some ways, this jaunt from our cabin was an interruption, and we didn’t want to shift gears to job mode and then back again. But the last few days have been intensely focused. We hope that getting out of the cabin and off the quiet mountain will give our thoughts a few hours to bounce around freely without our fingers trying to catch them.

For Part 2 of “A Writing Residency,” click HERE.

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