Category Archives: residency

Scaffolding my creativity

A residency lesson

sign in foreground of building reads "scaffolding incomplete"

CC image “Scaffolding incomplete” via Jonas Bengtsson on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Here I sit, seven weeks after the close of my residency, and not one word has escaped me to land on the blog about it. This is frustrating, as has also been the transition back to “real life.”

“Don’t incinerate on re-entry!” one of my new friends said, as we dispersed our separate ways at the end of August. But I don’t come equipped with a fire extinguisher: in many respects, I am nothing but cinders…

But even ash can be used for other purposes. What it needs, and what I need, is the proper structure—an intervention, if you will. Before the building goes up (or is renovated), the scaffold does.

Scaffold, a definition:
1a :  a temporary or movable platform for workers (as bricklayers, painters, or miners) to stand or sit on when working at a height above the floor or ground
2 :  a supporting framework

A schedule that wasn’t

The Vermont Studio Center, where I did my residency, doesn’t create a program or participation requirements for its residents. They provide readings: both resident and visiting artist; and slide nights: for residents and visual artists. You can take it or leave it; the selection is a la carte and completely up to you. If you like, you can sign up to spend time talking craft with one of the visiting artists or writers, but you don’t have to do that, either.

In fact, the closest VSC comes to creating a schedule are the daily meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner happen at the same (limited) time of day, Monday through Saturday (Sunday gets messy due to brunch). You can choose to skip these too; hunger is your own business. While I was there, people skipped breakfast all the time. Personally, I am highly motivated by food. I am also motivated by my slender wallet. The residency fee included all meals, and I didn’t want to pay for food twice.

Little though this was in terms of structure, the meal schedule put an anchor to my days. I knew I could bank on food being available at a certain time every day. I could set my watch by it. My only contribution to my schedule was to slot my creative time into the spaces around meals.

It might not sound like much, but in effect, this was a big deal.

Observation

Because I had no work to do at my residency other than my creative work, I could try out different habits and techniques, and observe what worked. That was the gift of the scaffold.

I found myself doing the same types of work at the same times of day. My night owl-ish nature also became obvious. We had a number of early birds in the writing crew while I was at VSC: people who showed up at their studio before breakfast, sometimes. I was not one of them.

Sure, I can be awake during the morning, but I never got long-form prose writing done during this time. I love the mornings for organization: making notes, analysis, research… editing. The morning is the best time for me to edit. Anything brainless — laundry, cleaning, sweeping, returning library books, photocopying — is great as well.

Since editing requires material to edit, I sometimes had to go to my backup plan. I’d research—preferably not online. I’d browse encyclopedias and dictionaries (dictionaries of biographical information, encyclopedias of proverbs, to name only two). If I wanted the sensation of pen in hand, I could sit by the river with my notebook and collect lyric fragments for use or expansion later: a thought here, a metaphor there, a brief description, a melody, a quirky bit of humor.

In the afternoon, the writing began. In truth, the dinner schedule proved to be an obstacle for me, because I usually got going in a flow in the hour before the meal was served. I would have loved to keep going with the writing, but I knew I’d pay for skipping the meal later with frustration and ill humor. Not to mention hunger pangs.

And the evening, following dinner, was my creative sweet spot.

Loss and rediscovery

Since I’ve come back to my regular life, I’ve lost that scaffold. I’ve learned I’m good at letting creativity slide. After all, there are bills to pay…

Unfortunately I’ve realized I pay in other ways, too. When I let the creativity go, frustration and resentment build up and fester. These nasties eventually manifest themselves in my professional, as well as persona life (I am, ironically, a much better business person when I’m being creative).

The better news is that, if I make up my mind to, I can create a new scaffold. I can set up a structure that allows me to honor both my work, and my work. This is perhaps the biggest gift of my residency.

What steps do you take to scaffold your creativity?

Faceoff: Creativity and goals don’t mix well

close face photo of a brown bear

Be creative…now! CC image Eye to Eye courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Being creative and being goal-oriented are two different things. This statement may sound like a resounding example of the obvious, but for me this has been the discovery of week.

I start my writing residency soon. Early on after being accepted, I had grand plans for what I would do in preparation for the residency. I would get the manuscript ready in myriad ways: writing first drafts of chapters and scenes; research; organization; the digitization of all my notes. In short, I have not met these goals. With the impending “deadline” of my departure on the near horizon, I have found myself in a state of agita about my failure to accomplish these tasks.

But really, who cares? I mean, this isn’t a homework assignment. No one at the residency is going to approach me with a checklist, before or after my residency begins, and ask, “Did you do X, Y, and Z before coming here? Have you completed A, B, and C while you were here?” The whole point of a writing residency is time and space. The work is the writer’s own.

The muse is a fickle flirt. Courting her is akin to courting a cat: you never know quite where you stand, or whether you will be met with purring affection and head butts, or raised hackles and a clawed swipe or bite. We receive contradictory recommendations on how to make the muse love us.

These include: Set a regular schedule for writing, and stick to it. Be ready for inspiration whenever it strikes you—carry a notebook, computer, or voice recording device wherever you go (this piece of advice is especially nefarious for overachievers like myself, who see bringing the notebook with them everywhere as a challenge to, you know, write in it. Accomplish something!). Keep a pen and paper by your bed. Allow yourself to go about your everyday routine without thinking of writing. But most of all, DON’T FRIGHTEN THE MUSE AWAY BY BEING TOO NEEDY.

Ah, goals. Goals to be ready for Optimum Creativity, goals to execute specific steps, goals for deadlines. Goals are great, and meeting them is fun and useful, of course. But to be an absolutist in the face of writing goals (they must all be done and they must ALL be done exactly right) is a recipe for muse disaster.

As @joannechocolat pointed out in a recent tweet and blog post, this is all-or-nothing thinking. If you do this in writing, you might also be absolutist in other areas of life. Take note. You won’t take well to not meeting your word count and you will be unhappy when your writing plan doesn’t go to plan. I speak from experience.

Let’s take a moment to visit that friend to all writers, the dictionary. Merriam-Webster has this to say about a goal:
:  the end toward which effort is directed :  aim

Notice the entry doesn’t say, “the achievement of that end.” The emphasis lies on the action or aim, not the result.

While checklists are great, don’t let them rule your life. Word counts are useful targets, but if you fall short by, say, 235 words today you don’t need to add exactly that many on to tomorrow’s count, to “make up the difference.” Deadlines are fine… when you have finished your draft and are talking to an editor or a book designer. Deadlines for your draft are not fine. Deadlines and creativity don’t mix well.

Set the stage as well as you can, but allow yourself to have fun improvising. If you lose sight of the joy in play, you’ll lose sight of why you started this endeavor in the first place. Note to self.

Know your story: A look at Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Honestly, there’s not much “new” news to add about preparing for my writer’s residency, other than, to quote Dory from Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…” At least, on the writing front. However, there is another side to writing, and that is reading.

While toiling away on what passes for my current manuscript, I’ve thundered through an increasing number of books. Recently, I completed Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel.
cover of novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven was a book I added to my “to-read” list near the end of last year, when everyone and their grandmother was coming out with end-of-the-year best-of lists. I’m not sure what list I found Station Eleven on. It was an early list, that much I know, because after a while List Exhaustion set in and I couldn’t care less who ranked what where.

I realized, after I received my copy (the wait list at the library was over 200 people when I added my name) that I’d previously read one of Mandel’s other books, and I didn’t like it. The characters annoyed me. Fortunately, Station Eleven was different.

Station Eleven displays a gift for the revealing detail. The story is also good at answering only those questions that require an answer. I liked this book a lot, and my inner Nerd Writer was pleased, also. My inner Nerd Writer is on high alert ever since the residency news came in, and I’m happy to appease her whenever possible.

Choosing what questions to answer

In Station Eleven, Mandel created a “post-apocalyptic” setting. This is a novel about a not-too-distant future in which society has collapsed after a global pandemic. Making assumptions about a theoretical future can be either inspired or a disaster. Fantasy and scifi books by definition permanently must run this gauntlet. Mandel keeps the premise probable by doing the opposite of what most writers want to do: she refrains from going into (too many) details (too early).

Because of her setting, she has a large territory to explore: what aspects of the collapse of civilization will we learn about? One of the failings of writers in this position is often the summary statement (“and then, Russia fell, and when the satellites stopped working there was a long period of confusion…”). Instead, Mandel avoids giving a third person omniscient perspective — what I think of as the “newscaster view,” in which you can imagine a network talking head getting us up to speed. Instead, we learn about aspects of the collapse and the aftermath while we are meeting the characters. Mandel answers only the questions directly relevant to these people, and this saves us from falling into an encyclopedia.

The relevant detail

I’ve thought a lot lately about what goes into a vivid, submersive description. How can we show what our written world looks like, and the people in it? How much is enough, and how much is too much information? We’ve all seen those books where character descriptions run like a police profile: height, weight, eye and hair color. Mandel almost falls into the opposite trap: we get few physical character details, and by the end of the book, I confess I still wasn’t sure what some of the main characters looked like.

Oddly, that was mostly not a problem. Information about characters, their flaws, their preferences, are sprinkled throughout Station Eleven. The effect is cumulative: as we move forward through the story, we get to know more about the characters, just as we do when we meet another person repeatedly in real life. By the end of the novel, we know a lot about who these characters are (which I think is more important), and the contours of the world they live in.

Mandel does this by choosing precise details, and leaving out the rest. The trick is, I think, to be specific. Instead of saying “flowers,” say “tulips.” Instead of writing about every aspect of scene composition, pick out a handful of details that can stand in for the rest, the way a stage set can be minimal and suggestive at the same time. Station Eleven is full of selective detail. True, Mandel doesn’t veer into botany, but she does use specific nouns for her scenes and constructs a suggestive, rather than exhaustive, set.

Know your story

In the end, I think these two strengths come back to the basic premise, “Know your story.” Mandel can do more with less because she knows what her story is about. Station Eleven is a quiet book. The action and confrontation that drive the plot are conspicuous by their absence from the page — characters are witnesses, but the reader is not. This is both good and less so. On the one hand, Mandel runs the risk of losing the reader. On the other hand, explosive action is not what the book is about. Station Eleven is about what happens to the human heart and the human condition in unusual circumstances. I think Mandel stays true to that bedrock foundation. A worthwhile read.

== ==

What do you nerd out about in the books you read?

A full moat versus a network of canals

The working (creative) writer: allocating resources for residency and beyond

The glories of a sand castle lie in its walls... and moat system. CC image Sandcastle Competition courtesy of Victoria Pickering on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The glories of a sand castle lie in its walls… and moat system. CC image Sandcastle Competition courtesy of Victoria Pickering on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I grew up near the coast, the child of two beach lovers. My childhood summer memories are filled with sand and salt, the smell of sunblock and the roaring sound of the surf as it crashed ashore. I was especially devoted to two activities at the beach: spending as much time in the water as possible, which included boogie-boarding, getting knocked on my butt, and general frolicking; and building sand castles. The number one feature of any good sand castle, in my view, aside from perfectly shaped towers that didn’t immediately crumble and collapse when I removed the bucket, was the moat.

The moat had to be filled with seawater to be truly special and worthwhile; the more of the moat we could fill with water, the better the moat and the more successful the sand castle. You could fill up the moat by hand, running back and forth from the surf with a bucket, but this method was time-consuming, tiring, and in the final analysis, futile. The water would always drain away, through the sand at the bottom of the moat (nicely porous) and/or via the front of the moat crumbling in the direction of the sea. Much more satisfying was building your sand castle and moat in such a way that the sea itself would fill the moat for you — via incoming waves.

Building a sand castle so that the ocean fills the moat for you is an exercise in basic planning and engineering. The castle needs to be close enough to a certain percentage of waves so that the moat can fill, but far enough from the pounding surf to last (every castle eventually succumbs to the sea; the question is only when, and in terms of Child Time, “long” is a flexible concept). To do this, you need to take into account whether the tide is going out, or coming in, and whether you have sibling helpers or obstructionists, or if everyone is going competitively solo. You have to plan your resources: for instance, there are a finite number of buckets and shovels for creating towers and moving sand. You have to accept that some parameters are beyond the builder’s control (the surf; your siblings; people who walk around not paying attention).

The same can be true of preparing for a writer’s residency: planning and preparation meet resource considerations and the reality of limitations on the writer’s ability to control all circumstances.

Why my residency is like a sand castle

When I first realized that my residency was real — not only had I been accepted, but I would be able to go — I immediately thought about how to best use the time I had to prepare. So many thoughts and ideas around the residency swirled through my head, I embarked on a weekly blog posting commitment to address my personal experience and share information that could be useful to other writers. I jumped in without much forward planning but a lot of ambition — the equivalent of pouncing on the first sand castle site available on the shoreline, without considering the number one rule of real estate: location, location, location.

I also didn’t count how many shovels and buckets I had available, and I ignored the reality of other life circumstances that place limits on my time.

As a result I can see a gap now of four weeks since my last blog post. Dear reader, in all this time, I have been writing… a lot. I have been writing every day. I have pages and pages full of notes, queries to myself, scenes and expository sequences. I meet and then exceed my word count. My story is starting to knit together and thrive under my devoted attention. I didn’t so much forget about my blog commitment, as realize that I had a bigger, more important commitment to attend to first.

Which brings me to the moat

When designing a moat for your sand castle, you can go for simple, a ditch that surrounds the outside perimeter, or you can opt for a complex network of canals and tributaries, feeding one another from the main moat. I’ve seen people with gorgeous sand castle canals, forking networks around complicated series of turrets, sometimes with an inner moat as well as an outer one. I’ve tried to build a few of these myself.

The trouble with fancy canal systems is that they require much more, and more regular, water. I’m sure an engineer and math enthusiast could calculate water volume, but in practice the relative amount of water is the key. You are dealing with a structure perched at the edge of the incoming or outgoing tide. The water will drain away unless replenished. If you have a big, deep moat, you can get by with more infrequent waves. Complicated networks of canals require more regular feeding, and are subject to increased decay because of the destructive force of the incoming water.

That’s how I currently feel about focusing on my residency manuscript at the expense of weekly blog posts. The blog posts are the complicated network of canals that require regular feeding; they siphon off water (creative energy and time) from the larger project. If I can pour more energy, in a concentrated amount of time, into my manuscript, I am better off than diverting all my resources into a network of shallow canals that require greater upkeep but produce less lasting results.

I think this is only natural. Larger projects demand larger amounts of our time. We have to engage with them in a different way from smaller, bite-sized responsibilities. Don’t be afraid to make a commitment.

== ==

When was the last time you gave yourself permission to focus on one big idea?

In defense of obstinacy

This post continues Week 3 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. Find other posts here and here. I am counting up towards the residency.

tree trunk bearing sign saying "there is a tree behind you and it will not move for you"

CC image “Mission San Miguel: Where the Trees are Obstinate” via J Maughn on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve been thinking about obstinacy. Obstinacy is a word with low approval ratings. Merriam-Webster defines it as the quality or state of being obstinate; stubbornness; the quality or state of being difficult to remedy, relieve, or subdue.

People in my family are obstinate. Sometimes they look like they are engaging in one-upmanship: I can be more obstinate than you! I know a lot about obstinacy on a personal level.

I’m working on acquiring obstinacy on an artistic level.

Obstinacy among artists isn’t always highly prized by their colleagues. Audiences are happy to consume the fruits of creative obstinacy, but that doesn’t make them want to hang out with obstinate artists.

What sets artists apart

According to a Norwegian study, the artistically inclined differentiate themselves from others by being less “sociable” and more emotionally “unstable,” among more virtuous descriptors, such as associative thinking, desiring originality, being inwardly motivated, and ambition (see a short article on this discussion here).

Emotionally unstable? I’d say this is where the legacy of famous “wild” or “tortured” artists has left its mark: Hemingway, Plath, Faulkner, Woolf, Van Gogh, and so on. Look up “tortured artist” and voila! — find lists and discussions of writers, poets, and painters who had known addictions and known or speculated mental illnesses.

Then we have the sociability issue (I’ll excuse you if you read this as anti-social). In fact, what the article defines as low sociability is a tendency to be “inconsiderate” and “obstinate.”

There’s that word again.

Why being obstinate is an advantage

Frankly, I think obstinacy is under-rated. When faced with a long and daunting task (like writing a book, or pursuing any kind of creative career, for example), it pays to be obstinate. When you need to finish a project, it pays to close the door behind you and keep other people out. The opposite of obstinate is “irresolute.” Yeah, that sounds like a bonus! Another word for irresolute is “indecisive.” Definitely my go-to person. Want to accomplish a goal? Talk to someone who’s obstinate.

Other antonyms for “obstinate,” according to thesaurus.com, include: obedient, pliant, soft, submissive, surrendering, and yielding.

Can you imagine a list of more passive adjectives? I have a hard time myself, and I’m an associative thinker (rimshot). None of these adjectives is an agent of their own destiny. They only want to sit around and be loved.

By contrast, synonyms for “obstinate” include: headstrong, steadfast, tenacious, dogged, indomitable, persistent, relentless, self-willed, strong-minded, and unflinching.

Yes, I am cherry-picking: if you look up “obstinate” you will find plenty of unsavory synonyms. My point is that we overlook the valuable aspects of obstinacy in favor of the more socially “acceptable” modes of being. Obstinate people aren’t perfect, but they DO stand a better chance of accomplishing their goals.

They are agents of their own narrative.

Obstinacy and getting past artistic adversity

Think of Stephen King and his spike. How many rejections did he accumulate before ever being published? Now he is a by-word for literary success. He didn’t get there by surrendering and being pliant.

I’ve wanted to do a writer’s residency for years, but I was always afraid to apply because I didn’t think I had the credentials. Here’s a secret, though (and I’m working on grasping its slippery tail every day): you get credentials by going out and getting credentials.

I’m going to finish this project by being obstinate. I might include some of those lovable adjectives in my book. When I’m done, they might even be me. For a while.

Join me — discover your own artistic obstinacy. Feel free to tell me about it. I’ll celebrate you.