Writing Residencies: Five Weeks on the Side of a Mountain


Sunset at Dorland
Sunset at Dorland

Warning—this post uses a bit of profanity. It’s so commonplace in the adult world that most of us take in for granted. That said, Lofty Ambitions has some younger readers. In fact, Anna and I have received email from some parents indicating that they read our blog with their children. We love that part of our audience, and it’s garnered some of our favorite anecdotes over the years.

Just before I went to Dorland Mountain Arts Colony at the end of the summer, I saw the following quote in my Twitter stream:

Novelist’s prime rule: Shitty first drafts. The need for perfection has killed more novels than N.Y. editors.

I’ve left the name of the Twitter user off of the tweet because that person didn’t acknowledge the origin of the quote. It comes from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

Besides the beautiful serendipity of being reminded of Bird by Bird in a tweet (rimshot!), Lamott’s book often comes up when writers discussed their favorite books on writing. In fact, I’ve heard more than one writer express that it’s their absolute favorite book on craft. Here’s the full quote, which I find to be very instructive.

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Storm Approaching
Storm Approaching

Although I had never been completely paralyzed by an abject pursuit of perfection, I have on occasion hindered my own progress through attempts to get everything just right before being able to move on. This quote and the intention behind it had arrived at just the right moment. I adopted it as a mantra for my recent stay at Dorland. I vowed that I would move continuously forward on my novel project and that I would worry about making things better—less shitty—in revision.

Some of this was a practical necessity. My sabbatical (or, in the parlance of the library where I work, a professional development leave) was extensive but not endless. The deadline imposed by the end of my leave was looming six weeks in the future, and if I was going to get a complete draft of my novel, something was going to have to fall by the wayside. The pursuit of perfection—a doomed folly in the first place—seemed a perfectly logical thing to give up.

Anna and I are starting to feel a significant connection to Dorland. Like most of us, I grow attached to places. In a midlife discovery that continues to surprise me, the desert has become an important place for me. Years ago, I took a sunrise horseback ride in the desert near Wickenburg, Arizona. For me, during that first desert foray on the back of the horse, it was the colors and the clarity of the light. I later tried to describe the experience to Anna in a phone call. She laughed at me then. Now, Anna and I have both grown fond of the landscape of New Mexico’s high desert near Los Alamos and Santa Fe as well as at Dorland. It’s quiet, hot, dry, removed somehow from the world with which we’re more familiar. The desert reminds us that only certain types of plants and creatures survive in certain environments.

Praying Mantis
Praying Mantis

Our stays at Dorland have often included surprises. During my recent stay, an enormous thunderstorm swept over the Palomar Mountains, and it rained. Hard. The hard rain was followed by an even harder hailstorm. Did I mention that it hit 107 F that day? Two of my lizard friends took shelter on the porch of my cabin during the storm. Growing up in Illinois didn’t prepare me to write those words in a single sentence: desert, hailstorm, lizard.

Even though it happened little more than a year ago, one of our Dorland surprises has made into my family lore. This is, of course, the story of the tarantula who came to dinner. My father particularly likes this story. He’s asked me to retell it each time I’ve seen him over the past year. He likes it best of all when Anna is there to add the part that I’ve been accused of leaving out. It seems that my version doesn’t include a supposed squeal that I purportedly emitted upon seeing the tarantula. I have no memory of this scream. I don’t normally doubt the veracity of my wife’s claims, but hers is the only testimony of this event. When Anna chimes in with her bit, my father chuckles loudly. It’s almost a guffaw. I think he likes it that someone is able to keep my ego in check.

If you can’t already tell, I thoroughly enjoyed my most recent stay at Dorland. With five weeks on the side of Palomar Mountain at my disposal, I even managed to learn a few things about my self and about writing. I’ll cover those things in next week’s post.

If you want to read Anna’s different approach to and takeaways from this iteration of Dorland, check HERE and HERE. For more info about our recent Santa Fe getaway, check HERE

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