What I did during my writing residency

In February, I spent 25 days at the Vermont Studio Center, an artist residency in northern Vermont. As expected, it was cold, icy, and beautiful. What I didn’t expect was … well, everything.

Maverick Studios building at Vermont Studio Center on a sunny day.

This was my first writing residency. Writing residencies (and artist residencies—VSC offers both, with about 38 visual artists and 12 writers there at any given time) are a time away from the world. They empower these artists to immerse themselves in their art. They provide the support of daily necessities such as food and shelter while removing artists from the daily distractions of partners, housekeeping, pets, children, day jobs, etc.

Most residencies are anywhere from a week or two up to two months. Most residents at VSC stay for one month, and that’s what I did—stayed for four weeks in February.

What was the writing residency like? 

It was everything I’d expected, and more, and less. As promised in the VSC resident handbook, and through my frantic information-gathering on Facebook (I was a third-generation Girl Scout (“Be prepared!”), and I’m also a Virgo with high anxiety), I had a room of my own to sleep in, a shared bathroom that was not especially pleasant but clean and perfectly functional, a small studio to write in, and all meals provided.

My room in Kowalsky House the first evening I arrived.

The meals were hearty and basic, like (good) camp fare. I’m not vegetarian or vegan, and I have very few food issues, so I found something to eat at almost every meal, not to mention dessert every night after dinner. There was a decent salad bar. There was delicious fresh-baked bread at every meal, and cheese at lunch.

“They didn’t have the hot sauce I liked.” —my biggest complaint about the included food

What I didn’t expect was the extent of activities and socializing. VSC is a large residency and quite activity-laden. There are three meals a day, at 7:30-9 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. Four nights a week or so, there are artist readings or resident presentations (7-minute presentations by about 10 writers and artists). Twice during the month are open studio nights. Visiting writers each do a craft talk open to all resident writers. The (one and only) local bar hosts karaoke on Saturday nights, which is a must-attend event, or feels like it (I went twice, and no, I didn’t sing). It’s BUSY and distracting. The activities were all great—especially the “res pres” or resident presentations and open studio—and I met lots of nice people, but for an introvert like me, the activities, conversations, travel time, and decompressing ate away more time than I’d anticipated.

My writing studio, early in the residency, in Maverick at VSC.

My writing residency goals 

First, I went to VSC in something of a unique situation—or if not unique, in the minority. Among my fellow writing residents, I’d say a number went with a concrete goal, such as to finish writing a draft or to revise a draft. Most of these folks reported success. (Yay!) A couple said they wanted to write X but kept being pulled back to Y—some other project they were working on. (Yay!)

In my case, I’d been away from writing for a long time because of personal and family needs that have been preoccupying me for a year or two. I hoped VSC would help me begin writing again. With that vague intention, I left my personal goals quite flexible. I hoped to revise my manuscript in progress. Ideally, I’d have liked to complete a full revision, but I knew that was unreasonable because I’m rewriting the entire book and trimming its length.

So I set a low bar: Write something. I figured if my memoir manuscript didn’t speak to me, I might revise my prose-poem chapbook collection (a chapbook is a short-book-length group of poems, about 40 pages or less) so I could send it out. In fact, I thought revising the chapbook was the most likely outcome of my residency.

What I achieved at the writing residency

First, I’ll admit right away that I didn’t revise my whole manuscript. Not even close.

And the chapbook? I printed it out and looked at the first poem once. That’s it.

BUT. I did SO much.

As a compulsive data-tracker, I’ll share the data I tallied at the end of the month to track my progress. In my 25 full days at Vermont Studio Center residency, I did the following:

On my memoir:

  • Integrated notes I’ve written on my phone over the past 18 months (about 3,000 words’ worth, not all of which I kept and some of which were repetitive)
  • Plotted the entire book’s trajectory on a map on my wall and reacquainted myself with its structure—including the new directions I hope to take a revised draft
  • Cut 14,600 words (the manuscript stood at about 148,000 words when I arrived, and I’d like it to be closer to 80,000)
  • Wrote 7,000 new words
  • Revised and rewrote 6 sections/chapters of the manuscript and submitted one to several journals for possible publication
  • Wrote 10 or so new sections, some very short, sometimes including graphics I dug up or created

In other writing:

  • Wrote 3 poems
  • Wrote 3,000 words on another book manuscript I’m playing with
  • Revised 7 short essays that I’ve been fiddling with for years
  • Submitted one of those short essays for publication

In supporting my artist life:

  • Read a short published essay for my artist presentation
  • Wrote an artist statement, inspired by the visual artists at the residency
  • Had my headshot taken twice
  • Updated my website
  • Wrote a new essay and cover letter and revised my CV
  • Applied for other opportunities using those new materials

Other factoids:

  • Spent 104 hours writing 
  • Walked 85 miles, with elevation increases amounting to 414 floors (125 more floors than a good month at home)
  • Worked on client work 4+ days of the month, including presenting my first solo training webinar (thank you, clients, for your flexibility and understanding while I was away!)
  • Attended 8 yoga classes
  • Took two trips to the laundromat
  • Took 332 photos
  • Knitted one sweater sleeve
  • Read 6 books
  • Bought my first ice cleats

Oh, and I broke my butt … On Valentine’s Day, I slipped on some ice and bruised my tailbone. Amazon came to the rescue with a tailbone pillow. Because I didn’t dare fall again, I wasn’t able to try cross-country skiing, which was one of my wishes for February, but you can’t win ’em all. (And four weeks later, I’m starting to feel better!)

Panoramic view along a road I walked on a beautiful Saturday afternoon to hike a half-mile through the snow to the Journey’s End waterfall.

Would I do it again?

Definitely! I would love to do a writing residency every year. In the meantime, I may pursue something many writers do (and I’ve tried as well), taking mini-breaks of a couple days at a local hotel or housesitting for a friend where I dive deeply into writing again.

I also learned that I was right to think I would love taking long walks in the country. I tried to get out for a walk every day, and I relished the solitude, the wind, the ice, the sighing trees, and the signs of the deer and rabbits who had been through the snow before me. My time at VSC enriched my world, with all the exciting artists and writers I met. I would also love to experience a quieter residency with more stillness.

People have asked if the residency changed my life. I’m the same person, living the same life. But in some ways, this first residency will be a landmark in my creative life. It was an astonishing gift to take four weeks to immerse myself in my own thoughts, my imagination, seeing the world outside myself with fresh eyes (all that snow and ice and sky), and looking within, at what I want to write about and how I want to say what I have to say.

The challenge is to bring home what I developed in Vermont. Stay tuned to see that work come to fruition in the future—I’m not yet ready to share it.

Above all, I am grateful beyond words to those who contributed to help make the residency possible. Knowing that people believe in me—from well-wishers to GoFundMe donors to the artists who chose my work as a contribution worthy of a residency and a financial award to attend VSC—has given me a vote of confidence that humbles and affirms me.

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2 Comments

  1. March 19
    Reply

    So good to share February with you at VSC. Great wrap up.

  2. March 25
    Reply

    Wow, cool! Congratulations!

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