Finding Time To Write: Reflections On My First Residency

I just spent the last month in a writer’s heaven.

 

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The Vermont Studio Center is the largest artist residency in the United States. Each month, 50 selected writers and visual artists from across the country and globe are offered unrestricted time for creative work.

I got to be one of them!

VSC provides private studios, room and board, conferencing with Visiting Artists, readings, craft talks, and presentation nights—all on its beautiful historic campus.

The first week, I was pinching myself.

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Maverick Writing Studios

Amazing things happen when you get the chance to step out of your everyday life and write in a calm environment designed to limit distractions and obligations.

I learned a lot about myself as a writer.

I tested my mental stamina. I had time to just sit with the mess of words and ideas and try to shape it into something coherent and interesting. I learned how long it can take to write one decent paragraph, only to delete it the next day.  I had the time and space to immerse myself in a fictional world. 

Sometimes it was magical.

Other times, anxiety-provoking…What if it’s no good? Am I wasting my time?

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My studio overlooking the river.

I met with Visiting Writing, Noy Holland, to discuss my short story in the revision stage. I got to spend time with other kindred spirits talking about the artistic process,  rejection, failure, inspiration, and epiphanies.  We shared stories, laughter, and tears.

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NIcholas

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Resident Photos by Howard H. Romera

 

 

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Reading a new essay, “The Geometry of Grief”, at Presentation Night.

 

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Image Source: Busy Building Things

Finding time to pursue your passion amidst the demands of your present life is likely your number one challenge…or complaint.

But sometimes it serves as an excuse.

Saying, “My dream is to write a novel, but I simply don’t have the time right now,” is likely untrue, although it may feel that way.

As E.B. White once said:   “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

While there are definitely periods in our lives when we feel especially stretched, finding time to write is possible if you make it so.

I’ve been writing and publishing since my late teens. That means I’ve written through college, graduate school, teaching career, raising 3 kids, homeschooling, and helping elderly parents.Developing Reading and Writing Through Author Awareness: Grades 4-8

There were times I was insanely busy, stressed out, or depressed. There were dry spells—sometimes long ones.  There were also stretches of times conducive to creativity that resulted in publishable work.

Still…I wish I had accomplished more. (That’s Miss Perfectionist talking, so you can just ignore her.)

We all have the same 24 hours in a day.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”  ~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Here are my tips for carving out time for writing:

Be a Time Sleuth

The first step to making time for writing is to scrutinize your daily/weekly schedule. 

Can you wake up earlier before work or getting the kids off to school?

If early morning doesn’t don’t work for you, try writing in the evenings or late night hours.

If you commute by public transportation, consider that time. Keep a notebook with you for ideas and brainstorming.

Can you make time on the weekends?

Look for time suckers you can give up (or cut back on): The biggest one is the Internet Blackhole. Scrolling Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Endless newsfeeds. YouTube pet videos. Binge watching TV. Really.

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Resit

Schedule your writing.

This next step is key. Once you find the times when you can write, mark it on your calendar.  That’s right: you’re making an appointment with your muse. Begin with 15-minute blocks. That’s not long enough, you say? Believe me, the minutes add up. Consistency, more than quantity, matters at this stage.

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Think of writing like exercise. You need to show up at the gym or class—whether you feel like it or not— in order to make progress. You can’t show up once a month and build muscle.  Consistency leads to making a habit. The writing habit will help you achieve your goals. Show up, or as Stephen King said, “Butt in the chair.”

Designate a Writing Place

The great thing about writing is that it’s portable. I write in my home office, on the family room couch, in libraries and coffee shops. I’ve written in airports and on long bus rides. The place depends on my mood, what I’m writing, time of day, and schedule. Having a designated place to write, however, can help you build the habit. By associating a specific place for writing, your train your brain to switch into writing mode. Doesn’t matter if your place is a closet, office, or shed. Claim your space. Make it look and feel nice.

                               Sunny corner table of library = novel writing.

 

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…Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed. All seeking an emptiness to imbue with words. The words that will penetrate virgin territory, crack unclaimed combinations, articulate the infinite. ~Patti Smith, Devotion

Set Goals & Deadlines

The process of trying to produce a piece of writing can be—no, make that will be—frustrating and discouraging.  To stay on track you need to:

Define goals

Making a plan

Tracking progress

Set deadlines

Reward yourself

Again, the exercise analogy.  If you just say, “I’m going to get in great shape”, you’ll likely to give up before you run the first race. You must make a plan with incremental milestones along the way. 

Same idea for writing a novel. You start with the end goal in mind, then work backward. Name the date you want to finish by (I know, that’s really scary). Then break down the big goal into several small steps. Approximate when you’ll reach each step. Anticipate obstacles. Reward yourself when you arrive. Yes, you’ll likely have to adjust the steps and deadlines. The important thing is having a roadmap. (Thank you Kendra Levin for this advice.)

“Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.” ~ Danie Shapiro, Still Writing

Plan a Writing Retreat

Once you’ve made time to write, limiting distraction is the key to producing. A writing retreat can be a great way to jumpstart, revive, or finish a project.  Some writers occasionally cloister themselves in a hotel room for a few days to binge write. I know two women who designed their own retreat by renting a cabin in New Hampshire. Poets & Writers Magazine has several classifieds ads for rentals in beautiful settings that cater to writers.

If you think you’re the right point in your life or career to pursue a writing residency, here’s a has a comprehensive listing.

How do you make time for writing or other creative pursuits?

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Nighttime at VSC

Pirouettes and Parachutes: Facing Your Fears From The Ground Up.

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Thrillspire.com

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

I asked this question to friends and readers ages 20-65.  Here are a few of the replies:

  • Write a memoir and not worry about what my family thinks.
  • Quit my job and find a better one.
  • Start online dating. Again.
  • Become a foster parent.
  • Ask him out on a date.
  • Learn ballroom dancing at age 65. 
  • Travel the world–all 4 corners
  • Overcome fear of water and scuba dive the Barrier Reef.
  • Be more adventurous outside my comfort zone.
  • Dial up my appetite for taking risks to say things that might upset others.

Interestingly, one responder wrote:  “My first thought is that I would make foolhardy mistakes that my justified fears keep me safe from making.” 

Good point. But fear and caution are not the same.  

And here’s a response from a middle-aged man that touched me most.

“If I wasn’t afraid, I would become the Me I was born to be.”

Notice the essential verbs in the above answers?  Start, become, go, ask, learn…

Fear can hold us back from achieving our goals, realizing our potential, and trying new things.  We know this in our hearts but have trouble moving past it.  

Fear of risk. 

Fear of discomfort.

Fear of failure. 

Fear of being judged.

Fear of looking like a fool. 

Fear of getting emotionally hurt. 

Fear of the unfamiliar.

Fear of the unknown. 

Fear of the Blank Page

Writers are no strangers to fear.    

Do I really have any talent? Will anyone care what I have to say? What if my writing is crap? What if I lose my creative spark? What if my book never gets published? 

Name your writing fear. Say hello. Shake hands. Then wrestle it to the ground. 

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You’ll probably have to do this on most days.

Know that wherever you are in your creative journey, you have plenty of company. Face the fear and write anyway.  

“Fear is felt by writers at every level. Anxiety accompanies the first word they put on paper and the last.”
― Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear

What would you do if you weren’t afraid

Here’s one of my answers.  Ride on a space shuttle.  

Surprised?

Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by people who do bold, physically demanding activities. Motorcycle stunt riders, platform divers, tightrope walkers. My mother tells me that while watching the Ringling Bros. circus I was drawn to the woman being shot out of a giant cannon. Astronauts were my heroes.

Lest you think, I was a kid daredevil—not a chance. The scariest thing I did was ride a bicycle down a hill while sitting backward.  Oh, here’s where I should mention my fear of heights. While I loved amusement park rides that spun me around, fear of heights kept me from the Ferris Wheel and giant roller coaster. 

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Me, age 11, on the high dive in Miami. Never jumped. Just wanted to impress my friends.

Then came claustrophobia. (Perhaps its origins can be traced to my brothers zipping me inside a sleeping bag. Or maybe getting forcibly held underwater in a swimming pool?)

Yet, I still wanted to be that girl who could blast into space.

Along with dreams of becoming a teacher, writer, and dancer, I harbored a secret desire to ride in a rocket ship one day.

Then, in my early twenties, I developed an extreme fear of flying.

So much for going to the moon.

Enter my fearless friend George who thrived on physical risk-taking. George tried to get me to go skydiving with him.

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Jumptown in Massachusetts

He showed me videos of his fantastic jumps. He broke down the mechanics, safety features, let me examine the parachute. He promised to hold on to me. I enjoyed this vicarious adventure but knew I’d never jump out of an airplane.

Performing a grand jete in ballet class would have to remain my “airborne” thrill.

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Learning from the Pros

In June 2017, Alex Hunnold, 31, became the first person to scale El Capitan in Yosemite–a 3,000-ft monstrous granite wall…without using ropes or other safety gear. Only his hands and feet. Alex’s incredible historic event is documented in a new National Geographic Film, Free Solo

Just watching a clip gave me vertigo.

In this crazy sport, there is no room for error. A mistake means death.

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National Geographic, Free Solo.

Most of us will never have what it takes to climb a rocky ledge or become an astronaut. Most of us probably wouldn’t even want to. What draws me to these fantastical feats is the question of how he or she overcame the Fear Factor.

Through years of intense training, Alex developed an astonishingly strong mental ability to control fear. So much so that neuroscientists are studying his brain. In an MRA scan experiment, Dr. Jane Joseph reported zero activation in Alex’s amygdala–the “fear center” of the brain. 

“A lot of people say I don’t feel fear, or that I don’t fear death, but that’s just not true!…I think I just have more of an acceptance that I will die at some point. I understand that, but I don’t want to baby myself along the way. I want to live in a certain way, which requires taking a higher degree of risk, and that’s acceptable to me.”   (National  Geographic)

There are lessons for us normal folks on the ground. 

Challenge your fears.

Set a goal.

Plan and Prepare.

Take baby steps.

Practice

Focus on the rewards

Repeat

This all takes courage.

Courage doesn’t mean fearlessness. Courage is facing your fear and doing it anyway. Courage is a muscle. 

I’m happy to report that I’ve worked through some of my long-time fears. Though I’ll never be a comfortable flyer, I still board the plane, anyway. I practice relaxation techniques.  I focus on where I’m traveling to and who I’ll get to see. The fear is no longer in charge.

I can now drive across major bridges without getting panicky.

But don’t ask me to go caving or enter a submarine!

The kind of risks I’m comfortable taking are mostly in the emotional realm. Relationships. New experiences. Adventures…as long as they take place on the ground.

Writing fiction gives you a chance to live other lives. The main character in my new story is an 11-year-old girl who plans to ride every roller coaster in the world and grow up to be an astronaut.

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CBS News

Sometimes when I feel discouraged by the limitations my fears bring, I remember the prolific writer Ray Bradbury, whose science fiction stories launched his readers into outer space.  

In real life, Mr. Bradbury was terrified to get on a plane. 

What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Have you faced a fear?