Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Martha's Vineyard Writers Residency: Overview & Review

Sunrise in Edgartown, Martha's Vineyard, the town where the residency was held.

I returned home on Halloween after spending three weeks at The Point Way Inn for the Martha’s Vineyard Writers Residency. Writing students often ask me to describe not only what a residency is, but also how to approach one and details about my experiences. I strongly recommend preparing for writing residencies, even if you still have paid work to do, by setting specific goals and using the time to take stock of your writing. With extra time and a new place to alert your senses, you can both look closely at your writing and step back to take an overview of your larger projects and progress.

In today's post, I describe my goals and accomplishments, as well as my experiences at this particular residency. 

Goals & Accomplishments
I am teaching writing and literature classes online this semester, so I couldn't give myself a true residency. While I would love to take time off from work and write full-time, that’s not economically feasible for me. My husband and I might be able to squeeze our budget to make it possible, but then I couldn’t do things like this residency (which is fairly inexpensive, but not free like some.) The good news is that I quite like teaching. Teaching online, instead of in-person, gives me the flexibility to do things, like this residency. In the end, it all works out.

I often find myself juggling a number of projects at once. This month was no different. My goals are in bold below, followed by what I accomplished at the residency:

Revise book proposal A (Not started.)
Write book proposal B and two sample chapters (I drafted the proposal and two chapters. It all needs more work. The ideas did turn into an article proposal; I haven’t heard back from the editor yet.)
Write new poems for Elsewhere, a poetry manuscript (I wrote and revised ten new definition poems which I had been thinking about and vaguely drafting in my mind for a few weeks. I’m very excited about them. For now, at least. These things take time.)
Revise earlier poems from Elsewhere and reorganize them into a manuscript (Done. Again, for now, at least. We’ll see how the manuscript fares after I give it some time to settle. As I wrote above…)
Submit individual poems from Elsewhere (I submitted a handful of poems and the entire manuscript to a first book publishing contest. Fingers crossed and air-kisses for the manuscript.)
Review and organize earlier work (poems, essays, articles and proposals) to see what can be re-submitted after earlier rejections (I’ve started to do this, but not as much as I’d like. While I try to keep drafts organized on my computer and in paper files, it gets messy at times. I have an earlier manuscript and two chapbooks that I’d like to continue to submit for publication.)
Write an assigned book review for The Literary Review (After carefully reading through a number of book reviews from published issues, re-reading the poetry anthology to be reviewed, writing a number of drafts and discussing about it with two other poet-residents, I submitted it.)
Read literature and keep up with the news. Of course, it is impossible to write without reading. (I brought a pile of literary magazines, New Yorker magazines and a book of Chinese poetry to read here. I try to keep up with a variety of news sites online. Frankly, I barely made a dent. I did read some work written by other residents, which was great.)
Work on spring Smith College Alumnae reading in D.C. (I coordinated some of the details, from “save the date” publicity to asking for help from other alums.)
Organize and submit panel proposal for a spring conference. (Done.)

So, while teaching online, blogging (x3) regularly and working on these writing and reading projects, I was busy with many projects. 

Martha's Vineyard Writers Residency
On top of this regular work, there was the residency itself, which took some time to settle into, as these things do. We were a group of nine (mostly female) writers – poets, fiction writers, creative non-fiction writers and a playwright. Some people stayed for the entire six weeks and others for two or more weeks, so there was some rotation in the group. I made some new friends with whom I look forward to sharing work and friendship for years to come. Of course there were also moments of strange interpersonal drama, but that's hard to avoid with a group of this size. The program included weekly resident readings at a local library and organized (sometimes potluck) dinners with invited local writers.

At times we discussed our writing, experiences and details about our projects, which is always helpful. I look forward to keeping in touch with these new friends and sharing ideas into the future. One resident, Lisa Blackwell recently guest blogged.

We were assigned individual rooms, intended to be both bedrooms and writing studios. The rooms varied greatly. Some of the larger rooms upstairs included private balconies and sitting rooms. My room was on the ground floor and didn't have an extra sitting space or balcony overlooking the meditation garden. It was a bedroom with a small folding desk. It wasn't a quiet room, since it was close to the front door, front porch and faced a main street close to a major intersection. The house itself isn't far from a church whose bells ring on the hour, every hour, throughout the night. Finally, the room, strangely, didn't have heat. The electric heater was busy most of the residency. Let's just say I'm exhausted from sleeping so poorly for three weeks. 

I never settled into a good writing space. I couldn't work in my room since the internet connection was very weak. I rely on the internet to teach online and I am in the habit of regularly looking up ideas as I write. Maybe it would be healthy to unplug, as they say, but it just isn’t how I work. There was a writing room upstairs, but, again, the internet connection was weak. Incidentally, that room was poorly lit, too. I usually sat in the dining room, which was filled with light during the day, but it was more of a social place (and wasn't available during dinner time), so it was hard to concentrate. It was also unfortunate to have to relocate regularly. I tried sitting in the coffee shop nearby, Espresso Love, but that became distracting, too (and meant I had to spend more money after having paid for a residency and a place to write.)

While I did do a lot in three weeks, I know I get more work done at home. I have a dedicated (and quiet) work space with light, internet and heat. 

All in all, there are some long-term advantages to doing something like this. I am a city person at heart, without doubt, but spending some time on an island was rejuvenating. There is revived sea-related imagery in my work.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of doing a residency is to reminded of what I learned  in graduate school: The importance of integrating and valuing regular writing and reading every day. It is easy to get distracted, rush through life, and do only the paid work and chores during the week. There can be a balance between the artistic, working (paid and household), social and physically active life. No one can be Superwoman, but we can each craft a schedule that works for us.

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