Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Elizabeth Austen, Guest Blogger, Poet Extraordinaire





Today I have the pleasure of welcoming Elizabeth Austen as a guest blogger for The Alchemist's Kitchen. Elizabeth is the first poet I met when I moved to Seattle almost twelve years ago. Her first full length collection, Every Dress A Decision is just out from Blue Begonia Press. The book is gorgeous and is garnering well deserved attention; here is a review by Kathleen Kirk that will give you a strong sense of why this is a book to read this summer -- and then again and again. In the meantime, here are 4 tips on creating your own residency at home. I'm tempted.






Four Tips for a Virtual Residency

I admit it. I’m addicted to writing residencies. Over the past several years, I’ve become dependent on leaving home and going somewhere beautiful, away from the fray of daily life, in order to get any real work done on poems. I’ve written at friends’ cabins, B&Bs, Hedgebrook <http://www.hedgebrook.org/> , and the Whiteley Center <http://depts.washington.edu/fhl/Whiteley/index.html> . What these places have in common—besides the fact that they are all on islands in the Pacific Northwest, but that’s a topic for another time—is that they offer me a time-limited respite from the distractions I fail to resist at home. When I leave home for a residency, I put an “out of office” message on my four email accounts, and psychically pack only one of my many “hats”: writer.

But the truth is I’m happier when I’m writing more regularly, and I can’t always get away for a residency. So when Hedgebrook hosted a virtual residency called “Hedgebrook Writes” over Memorial Day weekend, I decided to give it a try, sort of at the last minute. Hedgebrook alumna all over the world became “writers in residence” in their own homes, and blog posts from several different writers, including Ruth Ozeki <http://www.ruthozeki.com/> , simulated the crucial “farmhouse table” experience of gathering for dinner at the end of the writing day.

I was surprised at how effective this was, and realized this is something any group of writers could replicate. Based on what worked for me, here are four tips for your own virtual residency:

1.       Set boundaries on the time that are realistic, given that you are not, sadly, off on an island (unless you live on an island).  I designated 6am to noon, three days in a row, for my virtual retreat (yes, I’m an early riser.) Nothing but “writer mind” for those six hours—no email, laundry, blogging, chit-chatting with my sweetheart, etc. If I had planned to participate earlier, I probably could have devoted the whole day, but as it was, this was a realistic set-up, given my lack of advance planning.

2.       Ask the people you live with to pretend you’re away on an island during your retreat time. I thought the hardest part of this in-home residency was going to be getting my lovely husband to pretend I wasn’t at home, and not to ask if we have any butter in the house or where the tape-measure is. But because he knew when I would be available, it was pretty easy for him to keep his distance. (If this sounds like a no-brainer, you have a different kind of living arrangement than I do…)

3.       Arrange for virtual company.  OK, I realize this sounds contradictory, given #2 above. What I mean is that somehow it was helpful to know that other women were creating virtual residencies in their own homes at the same time. It intensified and focused my energy in a way that felt similar to “real” residencies. Though I only checked in with the Hedgebrook Writes blog once (after my residency hours were complete on the first day), it was still helpful to read how it was going for others, how they were structuring (or deliberately de-structuring) their time. Your writing group could designate a weekend to do a virtual residency together.

4.       Slow down and listen to what your creative process is asking of you right now. One of the best things about writing residencies is getting a chance to work in a deep, sustained way. For me, this has often meant working in a slightly different way—in terms how I approach the generative process as well as what I’m drawn to write about in the first place. This is a deeply pleasurable and renewing experience, but if I’m too caught up in expectations for myself, I might miss the opportunity for something new to present itself.


Much to my surprise, the experience of the virtual retreat changed my relationship to writing at home. It somehow renewed my ability to focus despite being physically surrounded by roles and tasks that call out to be completed. I hope you’ll give it a try, and if so, that it will be useful to you, too.



5 comments:

  1. Thanks, Susan! Thanks, Elizabeth! I do love this idea of a virtual residency...and that special communing of knowing others are doing it virtually, too! (I must remember the don't-do-laundry part.)

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  2. Hi Kathleen,
    I think the idea of doing this with other writer friends is crucial. I would love to try it sometime. No checking email would be the trick for me - although my writing garage has no wi-fi. No washing machines either.

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  3. My copy of "Every Dress a Decision" just came and I'm looking forward to diving into it.

    Great tips. I know some people, not writers, who have tried virtual residencies; their experience was mostly positive. My Westies might be my biggest problem.

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  4. Thanks for hosting me here, Susan. I do think that the crucial element is knowing others are also "in residence" at their own homes, and finding a way to unplug from all things Internet.

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  5. Maureen, thanks for buying the book! I hope you enjoy it.

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