I’m writing this blog post from a hotel room in Maine. Through my window, there’s a triangle of white-shingled roof with a seabird perched on it, staring at me as if to say, “Why are you inside? It’s sunny out. Look at the ocean!”
And I am looking at the ocean. It’s bright blue and white-capped and my friends are on the beach playing frisbee and reading and napping. Part of me wants to join them, but in truth right now I’m happier inside writing. All my vacations also include—by choice—working.
This is why some of my best vacations over the past few years have been artists’ residencies. The first and most obvious thing residencies have going for them is that they’re often free or at least partially-funded; frequently they also give you a stipend. And residencies also take care of the logistics of daily life for you. They house you. They feed you. And for the compulsively social (among whom I count myself), you have a whole new group of people to befriend.
The social atmosphere is my downfall. I embark on each residency determined to be a writing machine. I imagine myself suddenly turned medieval monk: staying up all night writing until the inkwell I dip my quill in runs dry and the candle gutters out. I vow to write for at least 10 hours each day, returning home with hundreds of new pages.
This vow generally lasts less than a day.
While I observe with wonder those who get up before dawn to clock hours in the studio, I’m more prone to sleeping in and then wandering into the common space for coffee and hours of conversation. If there’s an event, I’ll go to it. Then I’ll see who wants to have lunch. It’s usually not until the post-prandial hours when I finally sit down to write.
Despite how much I fetishize the immersive work experience of residencies, what I’ve found is that they have taught me much more about the barriers I erect between myself and my writing than they’ve been havens of productivity. Whether I’m in New York or cloistered away in some far-flung region, I easily find reasons to wander away from my desk.
On my last residency, the BAU Institute’s fellowship in Otranto, I revised two nonfiction pieces, wrote a poem, and took notes for an new essay project—for two weeks with limited Internet access and few outside commitments, this is a pretty meager output. On the other hand, I made friends with some wonderful people, learned about the sorcery tradition in Puglia (to curse someone, pierce a lemon with needles and hide it in a cistern), marveled at frescos and mosaics, and swam in the Adriatic almost every day.
Near the end of the residency I texted my friend Diana, bewailing how little I’d gotten done.
Diana’s response? “Does anyone ever get any work done at residencies?”
It was comforting since she’d just spent a month at a residency in Mexico and so hopefully was speaking from personal experience, but her words were probably more for rhetorical effect than accurate since she still kept up with writing her regular New York Times column while she was gone. And our friend Shelly remains deeply grateful for her time at MacDowell, crediting it for giving her the space she needed to complete her first book. The truth is: my failure with residencies shows the same flaw I have in my daily life in New York—a text pings and I’m lured out the door by friends or an email shows up from one of the co-editors at my press or a student, and I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of responding rather then focusing on my manuscript.
Being in a new environment without previously-engrained procrastination patterns can help you recognize your excuses: how often we might use other work or people as evasion. Most of us are juggling at least one other job (often two or three) in addition to writing, so it’s easy to prioritize the ones with the guaranteed paychecks over sitting down at your desk in hopes you’ll type out something some editor somewhere will write you a check for. And we all want to spend time with our loved ones. In many ways, residencies are similar to the rest of your life: it’s hard to find the right balance between engaging with the world and hiding away in productive solitude as you try to wrestle with the inchoate images and ideas in your head.
Some residencies make this easier than others. The Betsy Hotel hosts only one writer at a time in its Writer’s Room, allowing you to still feel cloistered while sitting on a roof deck in the middle of South Beach. Residencies at schools such as Interlochen Arts Academy enforce a sort of scheduled discipline since you are also teaching—it’s hard to slack off on your own work when you’re also trying to elicit new poems and stories from talented young students. And, of course, residencies like Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, Jentel, and PLAYA give their artists private workspaces where, since no one ventures over to disturb or distract you, it’s much easier to block out the world and write.
But residencies are also productive in ways that reverberate far beyond how many pages finish while you’re there. Although it’s easy to think productivity is gauged by word count: it’s also just as important to have space to read, to think, to talk to like-minded strangers, to see things you otherwise wouldn’t. Last summer, I went on a two week hiking trip in the remote Westfjords in Iceland as part of a mobile artists residency. Because we were backpacking and camping (no Internet! no electricity!), I didn’t bring my laptop and barely wrote a word while I was there, but I clambered over cliffs and slept on lava rocks and moss and heard Arctic foxes chittering near our campsite in Iceland’s bright midnight. These experiences have stayed with me and their memories continue to generate new work. The same is likely to be true of my time at BAU. The clear blue Adriatic, the bright white sea cliffs with their caves, the silver olive groves and the wild fennel growing by the side of the road—all of that rests somewhere inside me now and eventually I’ll find a way to write about it. I wasn’t confessing any real shame about not writing enough to Diana—I just wanted her to offer reassurance, the same way when I’ve asked boyfriends how I look in a certain dress, the only answer I want to hear is “You look fantastic!”
It’s important to carve out time for yourself to write—whether at residencies or at home. But you can’t hide away too long from the world. After all, the world is what we’re writing about.
I’m telling myself this now as I sit here in my hotel room writing a blog post while I’m on vacation. I’m saying it because I believe it. And because I’ve been fielding texts and visits to my hotel room all afternoon from my friends who want to know when I’m coming out to join them. It’s late enough in the day that the tide’s starting to roll back now. The ocean is a perfect denim blue. Seagulls soar and swoop in the distance, their wings like little arches inscribed against the sky. I’ve enjoyed the hours I’ve spent inside thinking about what I want to say to you, but it’s time to turn off the computer and go walk in the sand.