Cuttyhunk and DIY "Residencies"

Just a quick post this week, mostly a recommendation—I just came back from the first annual Cuttyhunk Island Writers' Residency, a nine-day program coordinated by Ben Shattuck and Tamalin Baumgarten on the outermost of New England’s Elizabeth Islands.

I had a profoundly lovely experience at the residency—making more progress on my novel draft than I’d hoped for; learning a huge amount from co-participants, locals and directors, and (this year’s) workshop leader Paul Harding; and taking in some gorgeous scenery and a very lucky stretch of beautiful weather. I encourage anyone interested to apply in future years—and to take a look at its program and other residencies’ to see what might be best for you. One big thing to think about is whether you're looking for solitary retreat/writing time, or something that’s mostly about workshopping and other learning/networking opportunities. CIWR was a mix, and a largely customizable one—workshops were optional, as was almost everything else, so we were free to make the time what we needed.

CIWR was the first dedicated residency I’ve been a part of, but I’ve experimented what feels like extensively with the best ways to jury-rig a “program” of motivation and intensive work to finish a project or reach a pre-chosen milestone. For the overwhelming majority of the year, especially if you have a full-time job and/or personal life you don't want to abandon, these are of course way more realistic than residencies. I’ve tried NaNoWriMo and various self-designed cousins of the same idea; when my girlfriend left for six weeks last summer to take part in the Clarion West Writers Workshop, I tried to take advantage of (distract myself from?) the alone time to go through a sort of mirror-residency in my apartment, trying to match the drafting pace she was being held to in Seattle. 

Those kinds of macro-goals don’t tend to work well for me—the most motivational part of my writing life post-MFA has been my weekly check-in emails with “accountabilibuddy” friends from school, a minimal but (it turns out) hugely effective exercise in holding each other (ourselves, mostly) to our goals week by week. Recalibrating every week gives us the chance to make sure we're always challenging ourselves but being realistic, and prioritizing the right projects.

I guess this was the most useful long-term takeaway from CIWR—a booster shot to my general writing life. my commitment to weekly goals. Short-term residencies are a way to remember what you’re capable of when you have the time and focus—it’s been good for me to remind myself, in the days since I’ve gotten back to the city, that an hour of writing time is the same here as it was on Cuttyhunk. If your writing productivity needs a shot in the arm, I recommend CIWR or something like it—whether external or self-directed! (Maybe this summer you’ll have better luck with a shadow-Clarion West than I did last year?)