Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Writers in Unexpected Places

"Our being in the world is subtly influenced by all the people, creatures, landscapes, climates, luxuries and deprivations that surround us."

-- From my writer's notebook, September 2011, while at a national park


At the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference last week, I had the pleasure of talking about non-traditional writers' residencies with two literary lights who deeply inspire me: Stephanie Elizondo Griest and Henry Reese. To read how a truly inspired writer finds her writing room, read this interview with Stephanie. To learn about a truly inspired residency program, read about Henry's City of Asylum / Pittsburgh. In fact, they both inspired me so much that I decided to bring my blog out of the deep-freeze that began with phase two of my No Word for Welcome book tour (a fifteen-state, five-month, thirty-event Atlantic-to-Pacific road trip) and seems to have continued into phase three (scattered events across the country).

Here's the short version of my presentation in Chicago last week:

Ragdale's garden, WLC, 2009
Traditional writers residencies (the perfection of the cottages at Hedgebrook, of the lake by Blue Mountain Center, of the sculpture garden at Anderson Center, of the  sleeping porches by the Prairie at Ragdale) have made my writing possible – especially beginning and ending huge projects. For that I'm eternally grateful. But these traditional retreats don’t necessarily feed my writing. My nonfiction is rooted in the real world, not in the cloister of an artist colony or retreat center. 

There are two kinds of writers’ residences: those that take you out of your daily world and those that immerse you in a different daily world. The latter is a form of “immersion journalism.” For a working immersion-writer like me, non-traditional residencies expand and deepen my understanding of my chosen topics.

American Antiquarian Society Reading Room, WLC, 2010
When I began writing about my experiences with grief and loss, after my mother died of cancer, I spent a month in residence at a historical archive in Massachusetts to learn about how our society dealt with death and loss early in our nation’s history. I learned about the role that the Civil War played in changing our death rituals. I also spent six weeks as Writer in Residence at Seattle’s public hospital, Harborview Medical Center, to spend time with people who were facing terminal illnesses. Harborview didn’t have a Writer in Residence program – I cajoled the hospital's art program manager for a year for the chance to spend time there

Though most of my writing about grief and loss is based on my family’s experience, my time at Harborview gave me a better sense of what was typical about my family’s story and what was atypical. I also found stories at Harborview that will become separate essays – stories more powerful than anything I could have imagined, than anything I've experienced in my own life. 

Writing in situ, WLC, Vermont, 2011
Right now, I’m in the midst of a new writing project that includes serving as Writer in Residence at national parks in all four corners of the United States.There are at least forty National Parks around the country that host Artists in Residence.

Going to a non-traditional residency is not the same as packing off for a month at Ragdale or Hedgebrook. Here are seven (for good luck) things to keep in mind as you consider a non-traditional residency:    

#1: When you apply (or propose – you can make up your own adventure), think very carefully about how the host organization will benefit.
If it’s an established program, they will probably want you to include an outreach project in your application. This is really important. If you are making up your own project, as I did with Harborview, think through what the host organization might find useful. I did a series of writing workshops for patients on the locked psychiatric ward. Those workshops were not connected to my writing project, but met a need at the hospital. 

#2: Plan on a lot of communication with the host organization before you begin your residency.
Your host may have little or no idea what you need to work effectively. There’s often an assumption that visual and performing artists have specific work needs, but a writer has none. Things I’ve had to specifically ask for include a desk (not a kitchen table or a dressing table), an office chair (not an easy chair), and an electrical outlet that won’t fry my computer (make sure to take a good surge protector). 

#3: If you are going someplace remote, be ready for anything.
I take a sponge, paper towels and some cleaning supplies in a small plastic container. I have a tiny laser printer that fits in a carry-on bag. Preparing my workspace has included removing dead mice, covering furnishings with Mylar,  washing windows, and wiping dead bugs out of the fridge. (And that was just at one residency!)  
Apothecary's notebook at the American Antiquarian Society, WLC, 2010

#4: Make sure your hosts understand how much time you will need in a particular space, or with a particular person, or using a particular document, artifact, etc.
I once spent a month convincing an art museum to let me see several items that were not on display. After finally getting the right person to pull the right string, I made the two-hour trip and showed up shortly after the museum opened in the morning. I planning to spend all day looking at and writing about the objects. I found a fabulous display of a dozen items -- prints, jewelry, items of clothing -- all carefully laid out in a gorgeous room. But it turned out the curator had scheduled a meeting in the space, so I had only had forty minutes with the items.

#5: Think
carefully about how you will talk about your work to everyone you meet during your residency. People sometimes have weird ideas about writers; this is your chance to dispel them. Take examples of your writing, but make sure not to promise anything. Make it clear that you might use anything you see / experience, but you might not use any of it – at least, not in a way that’s recognizable (or, perhaps, pleasing) to those involved. 

#6: Develop a short writing workshop that you can offer at the drop of a hat.
I have 15-minute, 30-minute and 60-minute series of free-writing exercises that I’m always ready to give, in case someone is curious. These exercises require only index cards and a pen, which I always carry with me. Many non-traditional artist residencies want the artist to share their process with the public. Watching someone paint or weave is far more interesting than watching someone write. Getting members of the public to write is usually far more effective than reading them some of your work.   

#7: Be thankful, thankful, thankful to your hosts.
My richest and my most frustrating writing experiences have been at non-traditional residencies. Regardless, I have thanked people profusely, for reasons both practical and political. When people you encounter at these residencies show up in your writing, you want them to approach that work with a positive mindset. In the current publishing environment, we must do everything possible to encourage reading – whether of hardcover books or on smart phones. Giving a non-reader a positive experience with a writer is one of the best ways we can nurture a culture of reading.