A Writer’s Residency: What is the Why?

Poe: Solitary Genius. Productive. Unhappy. Lonely. Dead.

I was happy to come across this excellent essay, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Writing Group” by Kaethe Schwehn (courtesy of the indispensable Lit Hub, a handful of sites that I read daily, without fail).

A firsthand account of her experience at first disdaining, then craving the community she discovered, Schwehn deconstructs, or at least complicates the #2 Myth of writers: that of the solitary genius (the #1 Myth, of course, is that all writers are depressed, or worse, that one needs to suffer — often in spectacularly self-inflicted fashion — in order to produce art; the #3 Myth, incidentally, involves everything everyone wrongly believes about writers, including the wealth we don’t accrue, the way we look when we write, e.g., not the way it’s ever depicted in films, and that one is either born a writer or not — which directly feeds Myth #2).

“I believed in the solitary genius myth, but believing in it had made me sad and lonely and depressed,” Schwehn admits. Of course, the only thing more pitiful — and unnecessary — than the solitary genius myth is the solitary so-so writer myth. In either case, being alone, or at least minimally distracted, is important for productivity, but what about the need for feedback, for camaraderie, for sanity?

Nah, I’m good. The country air inspires me.

Let me stand up and be counted: I do not and have never belonged to any writing groups. I’m certain there are myriad ways my writing (and, sigh, networking) would benefit from regular interaction with fellow writers. However, I’ve been productive, stubborn, and successful (in my modest, quiet, and non-remunerative fashion) enough to plod on, alone and mostly content. So, I’m not one to advocate writing groups, per se. But I endorse them, and have never doubted why they’re so useful for so many people. Like any endeavor, alone or in an ensemble, there seems to be only one immutable rule: you tend to get out what you put in.

Not one to join any group that might have me as a member, I have nevertheless come to understand that going solo is all-advised. Indeed, when it comes to writing — and what happens before, during, and after a writer writes — the more involved, the merrier. For me, this revelation was facilitated by my first experience at a writing residency. I spent two weeks in early 2015 at the Noepe Center for Literary Arts, and it was, in almost every sense of the cliché, a game changer. In addition to being every bit as industrious as I’d hoped, I met fellow scribblers, all of whom I learned from (and laughed with) and more than a handful I count as dear friends, three years later.

This experience was super-sized when I accepted the generous offer to spend 2016 as the writer-in-residence at Noepe. What I experienced, every single day, was transformative.

Yes, validation is essential, and often in short supply. But serious writers (or writers who take their writing as seriously as their lives) need and, more importantly, want feedback: constructive criticism, ideally within an intimate environment wherein they can test-drive their prose and poems in progress, to see if it passes the “reading” test. There’s no quantifiable formula for this, but anyone who has read anything in front of other writers understands what does (or doesn’t) happen. (Hint: applause, cocktail-assisted approbation, and even the author’s own instincts are mostly unreliable. It’s in everyone’s eyes; it’s always in the eyes.)

And let’s not undersell the value of solidarity. What I felt, and heard expressed by visiting residents, was a type of energy, that distinctive vibe typically otherwise available only within academia. For those of us not surrounded by students and faculty on a regular basis (and, interestingly, even for those who are), opportunities to interact and learn from others are to be cherished.

VCLA: Build it and they will come?

So, what happens, exactly, at a writing residency?

Predictably, people who are intense about an unfettered opportunity to create are diligent and focused. This, above all, is its own reward — and more than justifies the time and money residencies require. As important, writers can dialog, network, and commiserate in ways accessible only in online forums or, at best, one-off workshops. A cynic might suggest a residency becomes a camp for adults, and that’s not half-wrong. But for writers inured to the sacrifice and seclusion involved in the craft, just being around a mutually compulsive clique becomes at once affirmative and addicting.

A thriving literary arts center ideally becomes a destination, a prolific alliance where diverse but likeminded artisans come to create. Efficiency is augmented by expertise and creates an entirely positive ambiance. It sustains itself by never being static: each day new works are being shaped and revised, and the world is rewarded, accordingly. And then, the idea of works in progress aptly describes what’s written, and what’s being lived.

To be cont’d…

Below: footage from our beloved Vineyard haven, Noepe Center for Literary Arts.

Executive Director, 1455, @1455LitArts. Avoiding quiet desperation by any means necessary http://seanmurphy.net

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