Fully Immersed in Writing
Later this month I have a residential week at Varuna Writers’ House. My aim is to finish off a biographical piece about Varuna’s original owners, famed Australian novelist Eleanor Dark and her husband, Eric.
What I appreciate most about a residency is the uninterrupted time for writing, editing, re-reading. The bliss of no household chores intruding—no shopping, cleaning, washing, gardening, and cooking. Varuna does not have a TV, and although I could watch shows online, the small screen is easy to resist. During the day, Varuna’s rule is that no writer is to be disturbed—how good is that! Because I’m a local, I am tempted to keep up my regular commitments but I leave my car at home so that I will stay in my room at Varuna and write.
Besides the writing time, a residency can give you insights into your writing habits. Focusing so much on your writing invariably shows how you are helping or sabotaging your writing. The experience may help you identify exactly how to improve your writing habits.
A writing retreat is also about connections and friendships. At Varuna, the writers come together at the end of each day to share the evening meals. It is fun swapping ideas and information.
Award-winning author, Michael Chabon, has recently been appointed Board Chair of the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, an artistic retreat with 32 studios on 450 acres. He understands the benefits of a residency, having been to MacDowell many times. In an interview with Catherine Richardson, he describes his residency experience. Within a day after arriving, he finds he can lose himself in his writing— falling ‘into my work . . . deep, deep, deep’—and keep this focus until his last day there. This ‘falling into’ experience is valuable:
To do your very best work as an artist . . . takes complete immersion in the work. You need to get caught in the slipstream, to drift along behind it as it carries you forward. You get into a state where, even when you’re not writing, everything you see, read, hear; every place you go; every newspaper you pick up; every conversation you chance to overhear feeds the work, because you are so saturated in it. . . .
Chabon also suggests that artists remember their part of the contract when they attend McDowell:
[H]onor the beautiful intention of the place, and all the incredible effort and energy and imagination and enthusiasm that goes, every day, into making it function so well, by working your ass off.
This last time I was a resident at Varuna, most of the writers were hard at work, similarly honouring Varuna’s goal to support their writing. Several said their retreat time, where they could immerse themselves in their work, meant they were productive, could find solutions for writing problems, and evaluate what they were doing. The experience gave them a sense of what to work on once they left Varuna and slipped back into their normal life.
If you have never been a resident of a writing or artistic retreat, it’s worthwhile checking out residency programs and picking one to try.
Richardson’s article is published in Poets’ & Writers’ Magazine.