Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Conundrum: Preparing for the Writer’s Residency

(week 1)

This piece is the first in a series of what will be weekly (I hope!) posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. I am starting this post at Week 1, and counting up. Find Week 2 and Week 3 also on the blog.

cover of a book: How to Solve Conundrums

CC image How to solve conundrums courtesy of Villanova University Digital Library on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ever been confronted with too many ways to achieve your goal, thereby paralyzing yourself as your choice swings from one, to the other, to the next possibility…?

That’s where I am right now.

I was awarded a four-week writer’s residency this summer. Short statement of fact: I am over the moon! Short statement of conundrum: I have a ton of work to do before signing in on the first day. I thought I had the next few months figured out, but now I’m not so sure. Because writing is, well, not always writing.

When I told one of the staffers at my writer’s workshop, a friend of mine, about my residency, he described what he did at his (shorter) residency last year. His approach was almost the complete inverse to what I’ve been planning.

I was planning to do my research first, and at the residency all I would do was write. The first draft.

He brought his completed first draft to the residency along with his research materials, and instead did the research and revision component to the first draft.

Both approaches have advantages. Under my plan, I’d have lots of information to work with — and then plenty of time to write. Using my friend’s strategy, I’d have the time to go over what I’d written, improve it, see where the gaps are, and then choose only that research which suits my needs.

Conundrum.

Why this is a big deal

Residencies are prized in the writing world. We get to spend uninterrupted time working on our projects! Hurrah! No need to go food shopping, or to work, or in fact to leave the house/building for any reason. Work in the middle of the night. Spread your notes out with abandon in your private studio. Hang out in said studio in your PJs. Nobody else comes in. That’s one REALLY big reason.

Residencies are a recognition of your work. Space is limited. I had to send a work sample with my application and jurors read it to decide whether it/me was worthwhile. Most applications are not accepted. Residencies are not publication, but a nod in that direction — yes, this work shows promise. My soul drinks this up, believe me.

A residency is not cheap. Consider that while in one sense you are taking a vacation from your regular life, your regular life (read: bills) doesn’t go away from you. It lies in wait. Plus, the residency program charges a fee, unless you receive a fellowship which covers your expenses. The fee is the second biggest hurdle to residencies after the application process (which is why I’ve set up a fundraising page).

Given that a) I was awarded a spot, b) I have a project to work on, and c) potential fundraising help… I really, really, REALLY want to make sure that my time there is well-spent. Which brings me to my conundrum.

Do I write during my writer’s residency?

It may seem obvious that a writer’s residency would be occupied with, you know, WRITING. However, Writing is more than just writing. Let me explain.

One part of Writing is the first draft. Most people are familiar with this process, which does, in fact, involve writing. The first draft is one of my options.

Another part of Writing is research. Both fiction and non-fiction may require this. Maybe you are writing about a botanist, as Liz Gilbert did in her recent novel, The Signature of All Things (note: on my to-read list). Liz Gilbert is not a botanist. She did a LOT of research in order to write that book. Liz wrote a book of fiction. You could also write a nonfiction book about a botanist. Research isn’t writing, though research is often necessary, and research takes time, organization, and at least a starting point for what information you need. I do need to do research at some point (my work is fiction).

Reviewing is a part of writing. For example, that first draft will need to be re-read. I’ll be taking notes on what is missing, wrong, inconsistent, or needs work. Also, what more research I probably need to do.

Overlapping with the review and extending onward is the long, wide prairie of Editing, often wracked by mysterious and destructive storms that reduce the work to rubble. Editing is quite a distance away from where I currently stand.

Then there is Re-writing, which might ally itself with Editing, or decide to rule on its own. Good-bye, first draft.

Bottom line: if you’re me, you have several months before four weeks of uninterrupted time to work on your project. What part of Writing is happening at the residency? What are you doing in those months beforehand?

Where to find your next story

Answer: everywhere

small person near the front wheel of a classic automobile

This won’t take a minute… CC image “The Mechanic…” courtesy of Kool Kats Photography on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

From the back, all I could see of her was a wild head of long, grayish-white curls.

“He died there, you know? So they didn’t want to treat him,” she was saying. “They were worried.”

Sitting in my chair further back in the room, I frowned. What?

The phone started ringing, and the mechanic behind the desk took a moment to put the call on hold. The woman barely let this slow her rate of conversation. “I can’t blame them,” she continued. “They would be after what happened last time.”

I was confused. A moment ago, they’d been talking about a $750 bill. Now someone was dead. Or he wasn’t? He was dead in the past… The verb tenses threw me.

“I’ve never been a religious person,” the woman said. “I didn’t know how to pray or anything. Never. But that’s how I learned that I had a gift. It was the accident that did it.”

I tried sneaking a glance at her out of the corner of my eye. Not for one moment did I want to risk being pulled into her conversational orbit. Nonetheless, my curiosity got the better of me. I might end up with a head of hair like that as I got older, if I didn’t cut it short. The woman was small and fine-boned, wearing a narrow, charcoal-gray coat. She kept her back to me, all her attention focused on the mechanic, who probably had been expecting the discussion to take a different tack.

I had breezed in a few minutes earlier, ready to pick up my car after an oil change. My transaction should have taken no longer than five minutes, but I had to wait my turn, since they were taking care of another customer when I arrived. I stifled my irritation. I too appreciated when the shop took time to explain a $750 bill to me.

Ever been there?

A perfect stranger feels the need to share, well, everything. At the time, this is less than ideal. However, if you’re a stuck creative, there are fringe benefits.

“I told him, you know, they’re concerned about your heart,” the woman was saying. “After all, you’d been dead for forty minutes. They had asked him to make a follow-up appointment to get his heart checked out,” she confided. “He’d never done that. I told him they need to put you under anesthesia for your tooth appointment, and that depresses your heart. You never got the tests. They’re worried you’re going to die again.”

By sheer willpower, I refused to meet the mechanic’s eye while this monologue unfolded. My ears, on the other hand, grew like Pinocchio’s nose. Now she was talking about the time she broke her neck… or was it nearly busted her artery?… they thought she wouldn’t live… or she’d be brain damaged. “And that’s how I learned I had the power of prayer,” she said.

The phone started ringing again. “Excuse me,” said the mechanic.

“Sure,” she said. He put two more calls on hold.

The woman wasn’t done.

“I was praying for him, praying for him, and finally I said, you know what? Just give this man a young man’s heart. That’s it. That’s all I could do.”

Another customer emerged from the back of the shop, exchanged greetings with the mechanic, and offered the woman a few chocolates from the bowl on the desk. I wondered whether he was her husband, but they seemed to be there on separate errands. I was trying to place pronouns… was she praying for the same friend who died? Was that before he died, or after?

“They made him take all these tests,” she continued. The mechanic, I could see in my peripheral vision, was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “They made him run, they hooked him up to all these machines, they kept on running tests over and over. You know? They couldn’t figure it out. Finally they had a specialist come in and tell him, ‘Sir, you have the heart of a young man’! That’s how I found out I had a gift.”

The woman’s thematic and tense switching was making me dizzy. I wanted her to keep talking, so I could figure out what she was talking about, while at the same time, I wanted her to wrap up, so I could get home. My fingers started to itch for a pen.

Life hands us people and situations like this all time. We’re actually on the way to do something else, or we want to talk to someone else, or we want an experience to end so that we can get on with our original plans. How unlucky, if we stay stuck in this mindset and let pig-headedness stomp all over our creativity. There are a million million different ways we can use our life experiences, ways our experiences can shape our stories, our visions, our music, our dance. Every creative act comes from somewhere, and sometimes, if we are stubborn, the universe needs to hold us hostage to get our attention. As with me at the mechanic’s shop.

Recognize opportunity

Sometimes, opportunity has a secret knock. The knock can be annoying. It’s interrupting us. But if we start paying attention, some of those knocks like to repeat themselves, like Morse code. They have meaning.

The ringing began again. “I’m sure you need to get that,” the other customer said, pointing to the phone.

The mechanic leaned back in gratitude to pick up the receiver. Meanwhile the woman turned to the other customer and started telling him about her son who rides BMX. He had called her up before doing a trick on a thirty-foot vertical ramp, to tell her what kind of injuries he could get from the jump. At this point, I was sure of only one thing: I wanted a tape recorder in my hand.

I knew I was losing glorious detail every moment I failed to capture what was happening around me.

Last year, I attended a meeting in which the keynote speaker told us, “I’m a professional speaker. I never have a bad day. I only have new material.”

I leaned over to my friend who sat next to me and whispered, “That works for writers, too.”

Even at the mechanic’s shop.

Recognize opportunity. It’ll feed your story or project idea like a king if you let it.

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What is the most unlikely place you’ve ever picked up inspiration?