Amores, I just got back from a two-week writing residency at Ragdale. If you’ve never been to an artist colony before, here’s a basic rundown of how it works: you apply to the residency, usually by submitting work samples and an artist statement. While you’re there, the residency provides space to sleep and space to work (mine was the same space – a cute room with loads of books and a desk between two windows) as well as food, all for a nominal fee. Sometimes they’ll want you to present work in progress, sometimes they won’t. Usually, there are a handful of other artists around, which affords ample opportunity to share ideas, tips, and experiences – personally, I found this to be one of the most rewarding parts of my stay. Can you believe I actually made friends with a journalist/novelist who writes about war and violence against women and who grew up traveling all over the word because her parents were anthropologists? My soulmate!
Okay, the residency was great (if a little too quiet for my city-loving self) but realistically, I know that going away for 2-6 weeks isn’t an option for many of us here at Proyecto Latina. I mean – I have one of the MOST flexible jobs on the planet, and I still found it stressful to clear my calendar. So… I’ve spent the past few days thinking about residency “take-aways” – how to incorporate what was most useful about the residency into my everyday life. Here goes:
1.) Make time to write. Duh. EVERY book, every class, every inspirational series on how to be a writer tells you to make writing a daily practice. As Mary Heaton Vorse once said: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” And yet, this is hard to do! Life is so full of things that must be done – laundry, dishes, childcare, jobs, meetings, community organizing, status updates, watching True Blood – that unless you carve out a daily time to write, writing often won’t happen. My first few days at Ragdale were overwhelming. I felt so paralyzed by the pressure of having whole days to write that I spent hours staring at blank screens and blank paper. But then it happened. I started to write. And write. And write. I got into a pattern of writing. I started to speak in rhyme and meter, because the poems were flowing in my brain. I really believe that this happened because my brain knew it was finally time to write, and that a daily practice facilitates this process. The writing will come if you make space and time for it in your life. In my life, this means waking up at the bleeping crack of dawn, before my toddler realizes I’m awake and before my partner wants to talk about bills and calling plumbers. In your life, it might mean lunch hour, or 10pm. Figure it out and make it sacred.
2.) Believe in your work. It is easier to hold yourself to your sacred writing time when you decide that what you have to say – and how you want to say it- matters. This is EXTRA challenging for many of us here at Proyecto Latina because so many of us grew up surrounded by messages that our voices as women, as Latinas, as immigrants, as working-class, as queers, or as people-of-colour don’t matter. But those messages are exactly WHY we have to write, to create expanding narratives about who we are. After years of coming to Proyecto Latina, I know that even words scrawled on scraps of paper matter can help other people feel surprised or less alone (go’on Chisme Box!). So imagine what you can create when you give yourself permission to create it!
3.) Let it flow, and LATER you can let it go. Hey, when I said I started speaking in rhyme, I didn’t promise it was good! But that’s okay. While I was at Ragdale, I wrote all kinds of crap, whenever and however it came. I carried around a notebook and would literally stop in the middle of walking somewhere to write down a thought or phrase. Much of what I generated wasn’t very exciting but that’s what editing is for! Give yourself permission to write without worrying about whether or not it is “good.” Most of it won’t be! But here and there you’ll write down something that is pure genius. And that little bit will be the start of a piece you really love. You can throw the other other stuff away – AFTER you’ve written it!
4.) Read. Read. Read. And Listen. Listen. Listen. I don’t actually have much to say about this. I believe it is important to be a voracious reader, and to be an accomplished eavesdropper. Both help you expand your capacity for putting words to experience, and both offer worlds and characters beyond your own. So do it. I read everything I can get my hands on – novels, poems, brochures, packaging- but above all, I love to read dictionaries. Really. That is what I do in my spare time. At Ragdale, I found a dictionary of American Slang from the 1960′s and it blew my mind! Talk about evocative language! (Did I put any of it in a poem? Not yet… though it did inspire a series of seven poems based on Ecuadorian slang I remembered from my childhood. So there you go!)
5.) Find people to share your work with. One of the best gifts you can give yourself is to build a community of people who know your work and who are rooting for you to be the best writer you can be. This doesn’t mean that they only praise you – anyone who tells you that EVERYTHING you write is good is lying – and it doesn’t mean that they only tear you down. It means they can recognize when you are repeating yourself, when you’re being lazy, or when you’re on to something brilliant but haven’t quite made it there yet. They ask you questions about what you’re trying to do, and reflect what they’re hearing with love and honesty. Friends, collaborators, and teachers who can do this are invaluable. Find them, keep them, and strive to do the same for them! (Hint: we have a lot of people like this at Proyecto Latina!)
6.) Finally, it doesn’t hurt to have supplies. Keep your house stocked with pens, fresh paper, snacks, coffee, lip gloss – whatever you need to feel like you’re ready to get work done!
Those are my take-aways from my writing residency. What about you? What helps you commit to your writing? What keeps you from it? Let us know!