A Writing Residency: Five Tips (Part 4)


Prepare for the kind of lodging you’ll have.

Our Cabin (and View) at Dorland
Our Cabin (and View) at Dorland

Read the information on the website, and ask questions before you get there. We knew that we’d have to buy our own groceries and cook for ourselves, that we’d have to clean the cabin before we left, but we didn’t have to bring towels and sheets unless we wanted to have our own with us. If your residency or conference puts you up in a dorm (Dorland has two great cabins), you’ll probably want your own sheets instead of the white top sheets that don’t quite tuck under the slippery plastic mattress, but dorm mattresses are often longer than the standard size so we advise a couple of big top sheets.

It gets hot in the California desert, so we were glad to know ahead of time that there was a window AC unit. But the breeze was usually so lovely that we used the AC on only some afternoons. In the winter, the cabins here are heated by a wood-burning stove, so writers and artists need to know how to build and stoke a fire. Fifteen years ago, Dorland didn’t have electricity. While that may have worked for Alice Sebold writing Lucky and poet Mari L’Esperance, we probably wouldn’t have embarked on that kind of residency.

Know, at least roughly but probably somewhat specifically, what you want to accomplish.

LaptopOf course, plans evolve and goals can be more or less specific. Some writing conferences allow for no actual writing time, and some residencies include a workshop. Many residencies, though, leave goals and accomplishment completely up to the individual.

For us, it seemed crucial to show up at this residency with a specific project—a book called Generation Space—and know which chapters we planned to work on during the two weeks. Importantly, on the first day, we discussed the chapters we would not work on—ones that were already drafted; tempting as it is to tinker endlessly, we can do that once we’re back home. We didn’t set daily page- or word-count goals, but that might work for some writers. We did keep rough track of pages and words generated day to day. Mostly, we hoped that, if everything went well, we’d leave Dorland with a nearly complete book manuscript. And everything went well.

Beware of the internet. Bring music and a few books.

Maybe you need the internet for research, for quick fact checking that might otherwise hold you up. Maybe streaming a Netflix movie every evening is the perfect way to shift gears and recharge. Most people, though, have difficulty setting boundaries and time limits online, and more insidious effects may loom. Here’s Nicholas Carr in the first chapter of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains:

It wasn’t just that I was spending so much time staring into a computer screen. It wasn’t just that so many of my habits and routines were changing as I became more accustomed to and dependent on sites and services of the Net. The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing. It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. […] But my brain was just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it—and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became. Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check email, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected.

If there’s one common goal of a writing residency, it’s to pay attention to one thing for hours on end, day after day. That’s a goal we’d like to bring home with us. Of course, the pace and amazing quiet and calm of the writing residency can’t be replicated at home, but we can adapt some of our approaches from Dorland—especially limits on internet use—to the day to day in order to make steady a more possible description of our writing lives.

Build in some breaks. But don’t take a big break every day.

Wine Country!
Wine Country!

Our so-called big breaks were planned, purposeful, and limited to partial days every third day. Pretty much. Sort of. Mostly. We set aside time for a combination of checking work email and buying groceries. We had lunch with friends and briefly checked out Old Town Temecula. We made our way to Palomar Observatory because we’re writing about space exploration. We had one purely frivolous outing because Dorland is in the midst of wine country.

The important thing for us was to get comfortable in our surroundings, to get working in our cabin right away and stick with it. That way, short breaks—the rigorous walks down and up the hill, the half-hours on the porch looking at the mountains to relieve our computer-screened vision—feed the writing time.

Thank the people who made the residency possible.

TemeculaSunsetWe’re glad Dorland Mountain Arts Colony exists and supports writers. We’re grateful to the others at Dorland, those who run the colony day to day. We might have liked to get to know Robert and Janice—the resident artists—and Laura, who answered all the questions we emailed before we arrived, but they knew to leave us alone to work.

“Like” the residency’s Facebook page, and share the link. Let the residency know when something you wrote while there is published. If you can afford it, send an end-of-year contribution. When your book is published, include the residency’s name in your acknowledgments.

Also, thank those who wrote letters of recommendation. Drop them an email message as soon as you hear that you’ve been awarded a residency. Send a card or even a small gift after you return home. Yes, recommenders—you know who you are—the gifts made in Temecula (though not by us while there) are on their way.


A Writing Residency (Part 1)

A Writing Residency (Part 2)

A Writing Residency (Part 3)

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