Making art can’t happen without living life. But often, life gets in the way. Residencies offer the gift of time apart, time for focusing on craft, for enjoying the company of other creative souls, and for letting go – for a time – of other obligations.
And yet the first residency experience can be terrifying. And there are many things I wish I’d known before walking in.
A few years ago I was honored and humbled to be accepted into my first artist’s residency. Elated and intimidated, I packed my suitcase and bundled up my laptop and notes and drove off deep into the countryside to a fittingly lovely and rustic retreat set amongst hills and farmland.
The space of those hours was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I spent my days writing, writing, writing. Occasionally I would walk in the woods, using the autumn quiet to incubate ideas. In the evenings I mixed with writers, artists, and composers from across the country and around the world: a sculptor from Germany who crafted exquisite figurines, a young modernist composer from Chile, an installation artist from Denmark. Writers from everywhere: poets, novelists, essayists. We were a veritable jungle of talent from all tribes.
Where was I in all this? I was working on my first book. I had publication credits in a few national magazines. (None of them literary.) I didn’t have an agent. I didn’t have an MFA.
I was thrilled when one writer expressed interest in doing a co-reading and asked me if I would share some of my manuscript with her. I pored over the pages and eventually gave her an extract. Then I waited. I wanted to read – the thought of putting my work out publicly frightened me but I also desperately wanted to walk over that bridge. And I didn’t want to go alone.
That night after dinner she invited me up to her room to talk. She spoke a lot but the word I never heard from her mouth was “Yes.” She handed me back the pages and gave me some advice – I can’t remember what. And though she never verbalized it, it was clear that she was retracting her invitation to read together. I took the pages. I didn’t touch that manuscript for two and a half years.
Our work is our deepest, most sacred, most intimate thing. To expose it is to put our naked heart into the world. We want honest responses. But we hope that the honesty is gentle.
The first residency is an opportunity to screw courage to the sticking point. Emotions surfaced. In the long hours with only me and my silence and my work, I found myself ambushed by a mix of feelings I neither expected or welcomed. Eventually I found a way to manage them: by journaling, by going for long runs in the afternoons, by the occasional phone call home to my husband. But it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t anything anyone had told me to prepare myself for.
And I kept writing. By temporarily putting aside my nonfiction manuscript, I produced my first draft of a new novel in less than a year. (For me, I am an achingly slow writer so that is a record!) It poured out in the weeks and months following my residency. I even managed a research trip to Scotland and started an e-mail pen pal exchange with a Brit that has blossomed into a lovely, real-world friendship. I attended conferences and made new writing contacts. And I launched both this website and my monthly e-newsletter.
Confidence can be a hard thing to hold onto. The writing life is rewarding but rarely easy. And every day for my first residency I had to push myself to believe in my right to be there. Over dinner one night I spoke with a novelist about his work and his path to becoming a writer. He talked about his MFA program – he was only a few years older than I – and we spoke of the fact that I hadn’t attended one. The he looked at me and said, “At your age it’s a bit late to go and do one.” (NB I was – and still am – in my 30s. And Ta’nehisi Coates has said it interviews it took him 18 years to build his writing career.)
My fellow author didn’t mean to say I was old that night, that I’d missed the boat. He didn’t intend to make a cut. But cut it did, for here was something I lacked, and now I was being told that the door to get it had already closed.
The world gives us plenty of reasons to doubt ourselves. I’m convinced that one of the most important things that writers must do is cultivate belief. Belief that what we are doing is valuable. Belief that we are saying something that is worth saying. Belief that the hours, days, weeks, months, years spent working on our material, practicing our craft, building our platforms are worth it.
Don’t let emotion determine your conviction.
A couple days later I was in the residency program’s shared kitchen. A very well-known author (multiple New York Times bestsellers) stood next to me by the sink as we rinsed our coffee mugs. Without preamble, he turned to me and asked, “What do you think of epilogues?”
With that question, he launched a lively discussion that covered not only epilogues, but his current book project and how he researched it.
That 10-minute conversation did more to make me feel like a peer than anything else I experienced during my first residency. And what I took away from it was this: Even when you feel like an imposter, show up. Show up, because serendipitous moments happen. Show up, because you never know who you might meet. Just keep showing up.
The final thing I wish someone had told me was the importance of creature comforts. New places, however welcome or exciting, aren’t home. The very first trip I took away from my writer’s studio was to get snacks, warm socks, and waterproof boots. (It was a rainy October and the shoes I’d brought with me were no match for the weather.) I had brought a Keurig coffeemaker with me and that was a lifesaver on chill and damp afternoons.
This summer I’m headed to another writer’s residency program. The pages that my fellow writer passed over were submitted to a national memoir contest this spring. And I’m working towards seeking representation for The Admiral’s Wife, the novel that sprang out like a tidal wave post-residency.
Writing is a long and winding road. But each step is part of a journey, and every part of the journey is yours to own.