Tag Archives: planning

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?

Going resolution-less and unscripted in 2015

it's a great way to start the year

lego man sweating while lifting barbell

Ahh, one of the perennial favorites… CC image Resolution 2105: exercise more? courtesy of clement127 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ah, the dreaded “R” word. Tradition and bane of many at the start of every new calendar year.

Well, screw it.

This year, I’m thumbing my nose at detailed advance planning. Because that’s what sucked out my soul, last year.

At the start of 2014, I had sat down with a friend to discuss the loooong list I held in my hand — not bulleted, but indented and almost like a bulleted list in that I had grouped goals and plans by theme. I had plenty of goals relating to my freelance business, creative life, travel and finances. I’m an associative thinker — once I get going I can keep up a long stream of related words. The list, therefore, was not brief.

I had made one concession to being orderly in preparation for our meeting. I had taken my handwritten list (complete with arrows and different colored ink, where I had to add an idea to an earlier section that I had missed on the first pass, thereby messing with the overall organization and layout) and typed it into a word document that I printed out from the computer. At least the printed copy was more legible than my handwriting.

As 2014 wound to a close, I thought about that list with some frustration.

Year of the List

2014 was the Year of the List. I had my annual “big picture” list, just discussed. I’m also a fan of Dan Miller’s work in 48 Days to the Work You Love, and was using his monthly goal sheets as a tool to keep my focus throughout the year. Miller breaks down goals into seven broad categories: finances, personal development, social, physical, family, and career. All year (and before 2014 too), I printed out the sheets and considered my 1-year and 5-year goals, and what I could do today to get myself closer to achieving them. By October this time around, my relationship with these tools was clearly on rocky footing. I think I growled at them once or twice, with my pen hovering over the page like a dagger.

Some categories were easy for me to fill out; for others, every month was like pulling teeth. Most of us have heard about the aspects of a goal we should keep in mind, if we really want to be successful: goals should be SMART:
Specific
Measurable
Achievable
Results-focused (outcomes, not activities)
Time-sensitive (have a deadline)

Finances? That was easy. That’s all about numbers. Personal development? Again, slam dunk. I have way more cool ideas and plans and projects than I could ever hope to get done in a finite amount of time. But social? Family? As an introvert, it’s kind of horrifying to have to set goals about how often to make a big social splash. As someone without kids, yet great relationships to her relatives, the family category made no sense to me whatsoever.

The listing didn’t stop at the monthly level though. Oh, no. In trying to keep on top of my monthly goals, I was putting together a weekly list, which then informed my daily list.

All in all, I was surrounded by an accumulating assortment of slips of paper, some with words crossed out, sporting different dates. I felt like I was becoming obsessive.*

Listing vs doing

I didn’t feel like I was getting much done; I felt like the time I was an office temp doing straight numeric data entry for eight hours a day. The numbers came in, I typed them all with my right hand, the numbers went out, I went home and never knew what happened to the numbers before or after they swept through my brain. I even dreamed about those number combinations. Fortunately that assignment lasted less than a week. I haven’t started dreaming about lists yet. Though I feel like if I tried, I might remember some of those number combinations…

Now I’m supposed to come up with a list for 2015??? Roll me in a mound of porcupine quills!

I need a new framework. I’m not reviling Dan Miller — the man’s work is an inspiration and I highly recommend reading him if you have not already — I’ve just come to understand this framework isn’t working for me anymore.

I do have tangible goals and events in 2015 that I don’t need to construct a list to know about. I don’t need any “R” words to keep them top of mind. They are specific and measurable, they have a deadline and depend on results.

At this point, that’s good enough for me. Unless a more useful frame of reference springs to mind, I’m going to let the year go unscripted.

*Dear reader, if all was as self-evident to the characters as it is to you, what then would happen to the story? I ask you.

== == ==

What do you think about the usefulness of resolutions (new year’s or otherwise)?

housing development

Why I don’t like story outlines

(or planned communities, for that matter)

I lived in Colorado Springs for a few months when I first arrived in Colorado. I didn’t know anyone when I arrived. I had orchestrated my place to live through email and Skype, and had a few names of friends of friends that I could contact. But I was On My Own.

housing development

like a giant cornfield… image courtesy of GeekPhilosopher.com

I arrived a little over two weeks prior to the Super Bowl. Despite being a total newcomer to the area, I found myself partaking in the festive American ritual of The Party, courtesy of one of these friends of friends. It was located in the far-flung northeastern corner of the Springs, north of the Air Force Base, in one of the many housing developments that characterize most of the Springs’ residential arrangement.

For those who have never been, Colorado Springs roads are characterized by quite a few large, north-south routes on either side of I-25, and only a few good connections east-west, topography creating a bit of a road building challenge which results in bottlenecks. There is a compact downtown, and a small historic district called Old Colorado City (which was once a separate town), but most of the rest of it looks like a template for Suburbia.

Heading out to the party, making my awkward west-east connections, I drove past housing developments and strip malls. These followed a steady rhythm internally as well as externally. Neighborhoods often had limited entry and exit points via main roads; the web of streets within the neighborhood featured houses that were in many ways very similar to each other; sometimes there was a walking path nearby; sometimes there was a park in the area; in order to visit this park (if applicable) or any kind of store, residents needed to get in the car and drive to a parking lot or one of the strip malls or store groupings concentrated around a big-box mega-center such as Target. Each neighborhood functioned as an entirely discrete unit, which, however, was strangely isolated from practical things like corner stores, gas stations, and parks.

My Super Bowl party hosts lived in a development situated on a bit of a rise. Coming in from the main road, I was granted a vista to the west, where the sun was slowly setting, glinting over a sea of roofs which looked, from this distance, like the interchangeable pieces of a Monopoly set. Indeed, despite the red twinkle indicating storefronts for various malls, it looked like one enormous, homogeneous neighborhood. I was reminded of the overhead shots during the opening credits of the series Weeds.

It got me thinking. About planning and an adherence to logic and order. About variations on a theme (think music, the visual arts), and what makes some variations more pleasing than others. About organic growth (not like in your garden), and checklists.

I don’t want to get into a discussion on the relative merits and drawbacks of planned living communities, since that’s not the focus of this blog, but I do see a connection between this type of reliance on planning in the physical world of infrastructure, and in fact within companies, and planned art.

Almost everyone that has set out to tell (write) a story, whether short or long, at one point probably considers the question: would it be wise/profitable/advantageous/required/etc to have an outline, a sort of blueprint, so that I have a basic idea of where I’m going and can make sense of the act of getting there?

And in fact there can be many pros. The more complex the subject is, or the greater the number of characters, or the longer the story is, the more helpful it can be to have a kind of cheat sheet for organizing our thoughts. But in my experience, the difficulty is then in keeping this cheat sheet in its proper place. Because it can become very tyrannical. No, so-and-so is supposed to be here at this particular time, and he has to feel this way about this, otherwise we’ll lose the whole plot…

And then it seems to be inevitable that just a little farther down the road, the story gets really hard. It’s like a three-year-old in the supermarket, throwing a tantrum.  It doesn’t like anything I’m suggesting, the characters are in a torpor (“Hey, you tell me where we’re going!”), and, despite the fact that there’s a Plan in place, nothing makes any sense anymore.

Know the feeling?

Every time I try to plan something, it doesn’t work out. The story withers on the vine and calcifies. I can water it as much as I want; it’s not going to bloom. But the outline was so logical! It was meant to help me out. What’s going on here?

Good stories, in my experience, have a life of their own (this is what I mean by organic). The problem with outlines is that they often act like the bait on a spring-loaded trap, which when I reach for it, drops an iron cage over the lush garden of the story with a sign mounted on it: Caution! Agenda at Work! And then I can’t get at any of the plants. I can’t prune what needs pruning, and uproot the weeds. And I sure can’t plant anything new.

I think in the Springs they were mostly overtaken by the growth in the population and the need to provide housing. I surmise there was an army of planners requiring X type of services for Y number of people, and that there was a budget. But I couldn’t help regretting the loss of an actual neighborhood. With a corner store that I can walk to, to buy a sandwich and a newspaper.

That’s the dangerous thing about having story outline, in my view. It becomes the budget; it becomes a checklist of requirements. Blueprints are great for many things. But they don’t leave a lot of room for new stuff.