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The DIY Writing Residency
Creating the space necessary to do the work.
I have been writing a heavily-researched nonfiction book for the past six years. I have to finish it, and finishing it is within reach, but I have a problem: I am worn out. My focus is waterlogged. My discipline is shot. I am a puffy little animal. A loaf of day-old bread forgotten in the rain. A defeated sock.
I need a writing intervention, and I need it now.
The thing about writing is that eventually you just have to sit down and do it. But sitting down to write is hard, especially when life is constantly pulling you up and away from the desk, laptop, or notebook with its thousand and one crises and distractions. This is why writing residencies are so valuable. Who doesn’t want to escape to the woods with a bunch of other writers and hole up in a cottage to write? But official writing residencies can be expensive, incompatible with the reality of our lives, or simply unavailable when you need them the most. This is where the DIY writing residency comes in.
What makes a writing residency a writing residency? What is the difference between a self-led residency and, say, simply deciding to take some time out to work a whole lot?
I have decided to create a residency for myself, but I wanted to make sure that I was prepared, and to set myself up for success. I did a little googling and read a number of articles and blog posts about it. I asked Twitter if anyone had ever done one, and if so, what it entailed. I heard back from writers both emerging and well-established, and started to notice some patterns.
The way people carried out their self-led residencies varied. Some were solitary, some went with friends, some drove across town while others flew across oceans. One woman wrote a bestselling poetry collection from her minivan, her laptop propped on the steering wheel in the parking lot of a Panera Bread. However, all seemed to have three basic things in common. First, they created a container within which the writing process could be prioritized. Second, they minimized the responsibilities of daily life. And third, they eliminated or diminished outside distractions.
So, what is a “container?” The container for a residency can be a lot of things. It can be concrete, like a mountain lodge that you rent with your friends, or an AirBnB in Paris, but I think it is actually more about the intention than it is about the literal space. A set period of time, carefully guarded, can be as much of a container for writing as a hotel room (even if it’s not quite as luxurious or as much fun).
There is also a fourth element, which can be harder to pin down or justify, but which I think is just as important: the need to pamper yourself. Sure, a self-led residency doesn’t come with your lunch delivered in an adorable picnic basket (unless you can find a food delivery app to do that for you) but there are other options. It can be as simple as buying a fancy candle, a new pair of pajamas, or picking up your favorite snacks. Whatever you do, I think it’s important to do something to try and banish the scarcity mindset; to signal that this is serious, that you are special and deserving, and that your writing is worthy of support.
Oh, and I think there is also a fifth element too: preparation. A lot of people said it was important not to go in cold, or start when you’re completely exhausted. It seemed important to set some goals, do some writing warm-ups beforehand, or read something enjoyable to refocus the mind. Also, to set aside a day before you start to rest and catch up on sleep, otherwise you might find yourself sleeping more than writing.
I’m worried that all this might seem selfish, especially since I had to delay Essay Camp when I caught pneumonia, but I really need to do this before I can do anything else!
Creating My DIY Residency
To create a DIY writing residency, I need to do the following:
Create a container
Minimize outside responsibilities
I can’t afford to go stay in a rental property or a hotel right now, so I’m going to have to create the container for my residency using time and intention. My residency will take place at my apartment in Paris, and will be seven days long, starting tomorrow. There will be a daily schedule that includes times for reading, writing, exercise, meals, and taking breaks.
During my residency, I am only going to focus on my book. I don’t usually live alone, but for this week I am going to have the apartment to myself, so I won’t have to worry about anyone else’s schedule, Zoom meetings, moods, emotional needs, or dirty socks. Women especially are often expected to take care of the people around them in ways that those people do not even notice, so it can be especially difficult for women writers to carve out a space for their creative lives at home. Many if not most may find it actually impossible if a child or partner is physically sharing the space with them and will not respect their need for peace and quiet. I guess this is how a woman ended up writing a best-selling poetry collection in the parking lot of a Panera Bread! I know I am lucky that I will have the place to myself. As for my other responsibilities, I’ll only be checking my email inbox once a day for thirty minutes each evening. I’ll be doing a big grocery shop beforehand so that I have easy meals and snacks available, and have already cleaned the apartment. As for my other work, I plan to finish edits on an essay before I start, and will prepare a few Substack posts so readers won’t go too long without.
Having the apartment to myself will also go a long way towards curbing distractions. In addition, I’ll limit my social media usage and consumption of film and TV to after 7pm only.
I bought myself a new pair of pajamas at Monoprix (sort of like the French equivalent of Target). I might pick something else up today to help me feel taken care of, but I’m not sure.
Today I’m going to go through my book draft and research materials to get organized. I spent this weekend resting up, and slept in this morning, so hopefully I won’t be too exhausted when I start tomorrow.
I’m not setting myself any specific goals in terms of word counts or number of chapters revised, other than that I will work as much as I can every day. I’d like to finally finish Part Two, but I don’t know if that will be possible in just seven days. My real goal is just to get back into the swing of things, to wake up those writing muscles, and immerse myself once more in the world of the book. For me, book writing in particular is so much about momentum, and you have to start somewhere.
Thanks for reading. Wish me luck.
Have you ever done a self-led writing residency? If so, what worked? What didn’t? What would you recommend? Let me know in the comments below.
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