What I Learned on Writer's Residency

While my summer writing residency feels like it happened ages ago, sometimes I can still grab onto the immediacy of the experience.

Doing a crossword puzzle in bed, I see myself curled on the loveseat in my cabin working a crossword. Reading through the books I picked up in Whitehorse, I remember the intense hues of those alpine lakes.

I'm not in Alaska, but the things I learned, they're still in me, and they've changed my writing process in a few fundamental ways. A couple months out from residency, here's what sticks with me most.

view of mountains from Homer, Alaska

view of mountains from Homer, Alaska

Center the Writing

Since I've been a freelance writer, I've had the unofficial schedule of getting my daily obligations done and then using the leftover time in my day to write.

I was starting to realize that what started as a practical, motivational thing—I needed to get paid—had come to hamper my creativity. More often than not, by the time I finished my work, I was mentally and emotionally drained. How could writing feel like anything other than a chore, with that mindset?

First and foremost, I identified as a writer, and yet the kind of writing that I valued most highly was getting my energetic dregs. Residency gave me a chance to shake up those patterns. To put my writing first and work around it.

And it was really transformative to spend hours of my day working on a novel or an essay, putting myself first.

I can't spend all day writing the way I could in residency. But what I can do is continue to center my writing so that it gets the best part of my day, the time when I am the most alert, aware, engaged, and fresh.

For me, this means doing client work first thing, while I have my coffee, and then shifting focus to work on my writing in the mid to late morning, just before lunch, or right after lunch until mid-afternoon.

To facilitate a mindset shift, I'll usually walk the dogs, do yoga, meditate, or journal. This helps me push aside the analytical mind and welcome in the creative spirit.

I'll set a writing goal for the day—which could be to reboot a scene or to write the first half of a personal essay. Once I complete it, I'll circle back to the professional obligations or do other things to further my writing career (like get submissions out). I then get back to work at the end of my day when my creative mind needs a break.

This shift has helped rebalance my days and my moods, while allowing me to make steady progress toward what's most important to me.

Always be Reading

I had no television and no streaming media in Alaska. I brought crossword puzzles, tarot cards, and books. I didn't miss television at all, which wasn't a surprise. For a long time I’d fallen into a pattern of watching tv at night because it was what my wife wanted to do to relax, and because after being alone all day I wanted companionship.

I knew that television wasn’t serving me. Sure, I could learn about plot points from well-executed shows. But more often than not I scrolled through my phone to catch up on the news, paying half-attention.

On residency, I remembered how much I enjoyed extended reading time. Having several hours a day to sit and read, uninterrupted, I could tap back into that sense of joy and wonder that's much harder to fall into when you're reading through a few pages in a day.

Before residency, I would have said I read often. I always have at least one book going on my nightstand, I read my book club's pick, and my wife and I read aloud to one another, so there'a a third book in the mix.

Since getting back from residency, I've been stricter about television watching. As often as not now, I'm likely to be propped up with a book while my wife watches something on Netflix. Or I'll watch one episode of something with her and then read.

Sure, there are those days when I want nothing more than to zone out in front of a silly show and go to sleep, but I'm finding balance and making space for activities that enrich me, challenge me, and prompt growth.

For me, television isn't one of those things.

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Trust in the Process, or Get Up When the Words Aren't Getting on the Page

The writing process is just that, a process—and every writer's process is different. Some swear by elaborate warm-up rituals, reading and exercises, or only writing when "in the mood."

In Alaska, I became more in-tune with my writing process because I had 20 hours of daylight and few distractions, aside from my fellow residents, a pack of dogs, and the wild Alaskan landscape.

I got to take what I already knew about my writing process (namely, I'm a zombie in the morning so can't think creatively until I've had coffee) and play with it. Stretch it. Get curious about it. 

Writing no longer had to be done in 45-minute chunks of time in between taking out the dogs and eating lunch. I could spend two hours getting together an outline or drafting a story. I could write until I got myself stuck, and I did.

Then a funny thing would happen. I would walk to the beach or ride my bike to the tidal flats. I'd put together a lunch salad or read a few pages of an anthology. I'd take the pressure off of coming up with a resolution to the problem and—inevitably, always—the answer would find me when I shifted focus. I'd return to the writing desk for another couple-hour session and the next time a creative block arose, I would not fight my way through it. Instead, I'd take a break and let my subconscious wrestle with things.

Each time I found the answer I needed by taking a rest from the work, I came to see that the struggle—the writer's block, the scene that wouldn't come together, the uncertainty about a character's motive—was part of the process. I could not proceed because some part of the idea was off, and when my unthinking mind had worked it out, the way forward would be clear.

Now, I don’t force the writing. I don't get mad at myself because the writing is "not working" during the time I have to give it. I understand that the obstacles are part of the process, and I trust that a scene that won't come together today will resolve itself.