Writing Residencies: Five Weeks on the Side of a Mountain (Part 2)

Read Part 1 HERE.


My sojourn at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony started on Saturday, August 30th. From that vantage, 36 uninterrupted days stretched out before me.

Encouraging Breakfast at Dorland
Encouraging Breakfast at Dorland

Earlier in the summer, I’d kicked off my sabbatical with a shorter writing retreat in Sante Fe, and it had been fantastic. I’m as taken with my daily word count as any beginning writer, and what I accomplished in Santa Fe led me to develop some overly optimistic projections of how much I could get down on paper in a given timeframe. In some ways, then, those 36 uninterrupted days seemed a vast expanse divided neatly into word-count benchmarks that Scrivener would track for me.

I’m never as productive as when I can focus on a single task. I have several friends who claim that multitasking is their forte, and I can juggle multiple responsibilities with the best of them, but I never feel as comfortable doing that as I do when I’m working on one thing. Though I thoroughly love my current job, one aspect that I miss from my previous job at Fermilab is the ability to concentrate on a single task for long stretches of time.

Santa Fe had been like that for my writing. I had one thing to do: work on the novel. Each day was centered on that simple premise. I wanted Dorland to work like that as well.

The Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence once said,

When I say ‘work’ I only mean writing. Everything else is odd jobs.

I don’t think of being a librarian and a professor as odd jobs, but when I am able to dedicate my days to writing, I get a sense of what she was talking about.

So, when I headed to Dorland, the goal was simple: complete the first draft of my novel.

Porch Companion at Dorland
Porch Companion at Dorland

At first, this goal seemed a daunting task. If I measured my progress on the novel by word count and finished scenes (checked-off against my outline), I was already roughly one-third of the way through the novel when I sat myself down on the side of a mountain. If I was going to meet my goal, I’d have to keep in mind last week’s admonition about perfection from Anne Lamott.

A complete draft would require steady forward progress. No editing. No revising. No looking back. In the beginning, I allowed myself to go back to clean up things if I made a character or plot change that altered an earlier part of the story. A couple of weeks into my Dorland stay, I no longer gave myself that loophole.

Sunset at Dorland
Sunset at Dorland

I left Dorland on Sunday, October 5th. I finished the first draft during my five weeks on the mountain. I even had a few days to spare, and I did let myself go back to do some revising during the last couple of days.

I wrote 76,000 words in that time. And all the novel’s parts are there. It’s complete. Of course, even though the draft is in need of thorough revision now, I’m thrilled with that creative output.

However, I think that the things that I learned about myself and how I work are just as important as that word count. Every writer works somewhat differently and must find his or her own way through a book project. That said, we can learn—and steal—strategies from each other. Here at Lofty Ambitions, we’ve written before about some practices and attitudes that have helped us stick with large tasks (HERE and HERE, for instance). In the next post, I’ll write about some of the things that I took away from my five weeks on the mountain.

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