Making the Most Out of an Artist Residency

IMG_3568For my summer writing retreat, I was granted an artist residency at The Sou’Wester in Seaview, Washington. My time spent at Sou’Wester proved to be a productive and revelatory experience.

Sou’Wester is a “hodgepodge of private cabins, vintage travel trailers, suites, and campsites.” They host music on the weekends and artist residencies during the week. The artist residency at Sou’Wester offers reduced rates for writers, musicians, and visual artists who are committed to working on their creative pursuits.

I arrived at Sou’Wester at 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 19th and stayed until 11 a.m. on Friday, June 25. I knew that my time was limited, so I made a commitment to getting the most out of the residency. In the process, I learned a lot about how best to use my time.

My Goal. For this residency, I wanted to write 6-8 new short stories to add to a collection-in-progress. After my proposal to Sou’Wester was accepted, I decided it would be a good idea to set a word count goal because I wanted to push myself to create a bulk of new work. For this reason, I thought 20,000 words (roughly 80 pages—or 20 pages a day for a four-day residency) would be a reasonable challenge. I’m a big advocate for setting artistic constraints—projects like NaNoWriMo, The 24-hour Comic, 20 Song Game (which Nick Jaina did at Sou’Wester), all come to mind. Setting these kinds of constraints help me to push past the inner critic and just create. It was also important for me to find a way to hold myself accountable, so, at the end of each day, I posted my word count on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

From top left: Sou'Wester; Zines; Writing Desk (inside); Writing Desk (outside); Desk Friends (flowers, stones, shells, frog, eraser, Altoids, pencil, and drafts).

From top left: Sou’Wester; Zines; Writing Desk (inside); Writing Desk (outside); Desk Friends (flowers, stones, shells, frog, eraser, Altoids, pencil, and drafts).

My Work Schedule & Breaks. I had some extra time before check-in at the Sou’Wester, so I stopped at a cafe in Astoria and sketched out 12 ideas for short stories. Then, after getting settled in my cabin, I started to flesh these ideas out more (this depended on the story, but often consisted of writing more about the characters, where the story takes place, the central dilemma, motivations, etc.). I began drafting my first two stories that night on a laptop. Throughout my time, I varied writing methods—stopping to sketch out ideas on a legal pad, and then going back to the computer. If I got tired at the desk, I’d try writing longhand at the kitchen table or outside. I didn’t sleep much because I was in this hyper-creative state, so I was up with the sun at 5:30 a.m. and writing until dark. I took about four separate hour-long breaks everyday. These usually consisted of eating, reading, listening to records, and walking on the beach.

On Meeting Other Artists. I spent half a day taking part in a writing and zinecraft workshop led by A.M. O’Malley and Melissa Favara. This couldn’t come at a better time. The workshop allowed me to step outside of writing in solitude, and challenge myself by writing in a different forms (it was the first time I wrote an American Sentence and a Word Loop). This also gave me a chance to discuss and share writing with others. It was inspiring and I had an art object that I could walk away with (though I left this zine in the my cabin as an offering to the next resident).

Making Art from My Mistakes. In my first high school arts class, I had a wonderfully eccentric, vibrant art teacher named Katherine. One day, after getting frustrated with an oil pastel I was working on, I ripped up the pages and threw it out. The next day, I found that the pieces were taken from the garbage and placed in a pile at my work station with a note from Katherine: “Make art from you mistakes!” I ended up finding a home for those scraps in a collage I’d been working on. I was reminded of Katherine’s words when participating in the in the writing and zinecraft workshop. I was working on a typewriter that kept having issues with random spacing in between letters. I ended up switching typewriters for a while, but in the process of compiling the zine I decided to keep some of the errors because the spaces created some interesting new/weird phrasing. I kept the spirit of making art from my mistakes in mind when I went back to my desk to continue writing and this yielded great results.

My Journal and Log. I ended each day by briefly writing about the experience in a journal. This was usually the time when I posted my word count for the day and any photos on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I also kept track of the work I had completed in a log (see completed log below).

Sou’Wester Residency Log

Title Genre Word Count Page Count
“Staring Back” short story 4,348 words 15 pages
“The Charlie Incident” short story 3,683 words 13 pages
“Complications of the Body” short story (unfinished) 1,993 words 7 pages
“Happy Holidays from Six Rivers Correctional Facility” flash fiction 661 words 2 pages
“Other Uses for the Hunter Orange Vest After All the Guns Have Been Banned” american sentence 26 words 0
A Scene zine 258 words 12 pages
“The Story of a Lie” poem 46 words 0
“Persona” poem 37 words 0
“Chemical Warfare & the Narrative Voice” word loop flash fiction 225 words 0
“Second Nature” short story (unfinished) 1,359 words 5 pages
“B.S. Forever” short story 3,070 words 10 pages
“Ability One” short story 2,353 words 8 pages
“Unsettled” prose poem 388 words 1 page
“Daughters of the Revolution” short story 1,640 words 6 pages

IMG_3625

FINAL COUNT:

20,087 words;
81 pages;
7 short stories (5 finished drafts);
2 flash fiction;
1 zine;
1 american sentence;
3 poems.

Thank You! Thanks so much to Sou’Wester, to my wonderful supportive friends, and to those of you reading this right now. It was an unforgettable experience.

Fall Apart: Winter Revisions

Undone Weaving

Greetings friends,

Today concludes another writing retreat. I arrived with thirteen short stories to revise and have successfully completed that task.

Jessica's studio: view of the little window near the writing nook, the hobbit entrance, J's many books, the lovely porch, and an old photo of a woman writing.

Jessica’s studio: view of the little window near the writing nook, the hobbit entrance, J’s many books, the lovely porch, and an old photo of a woman writing.

My dear friend Jessica Henkle offered me her quiet little flat for four days. This is the third writing retreat that has come to fruition solely because I have some very generous friends. [Note to writers, artists, or PhD students seeking a silent space to focus: friends often leave town during winter or summer holiday and are usually looking for house-sitters, plant-sitters, or pet-sitters. Take them up on it! Unless they have a houseful of rabbits or ululating neighbors, you will likely get work done.] This time has been very productive. I loved waking up in Jessica’s studio, the writing nook awaiting. Also, a great boon to staying in the home of a bibliophile: all the books, quotes, broadside poems, and old photos displayed provided no shortage for inspiration.

As I mentioned, the focus of this retreat was to revise a manuscript of short stories. The concept for this collection—what I’m currently calling Fall Apart—came when I was driving to Eugene for a writing retreat last winter. Actually, it started with an image similar to the photo at the beginning of this post. Years ago, I saw an exhibit of textiles, and one piece—a weaving of a sunset, partially finished, with many colors of string dangling at the bottom—resurfaced in my memory during this drive. My idea was to write stories about people who are unraveling and to pay close mind to the beauty of both form (their organized lives) and chaos (the moments when they let go and fall apart). In keeping with this theme, I wanted to experiment with allowing the form of the writing itself to “fall apart”—in some stories this is subtle; in others it’s overt. Anyhow, now that it’s nearly complete, I’m excited to share the concept, and, with any hope, see it to print someday.

The writing nook, a view on a walk, and me with broadside poem and photos.

The writing nook, a view on a walk, and me with broadside poem and photos.

So much about writing process is about creating restraint and then breaking free of those restraints, but these past four days of revision have been an exercise in restraint and restraint only. I should have known that this retreat would be all work, no play. My time was spent reviewing feedback, revising paragraphs, rewriting introductions and conclusions, and meticulously editing each sentence and word to the best of my ability. The only “breaking free” I was able to manage was a glass of wine after dinner (Ha! A glass. The bottle I brought for the weekend was finished after the first evening). Despite all this complaining, today I am feeling at ease. I am glad I took some time to struggle through it all, and, ultimately, I am thankful for the privilege.

This privilege is largely due to having a wonderful full-time job and supportive fiancé—which brings me to my next update. Fall was a whirlwind for me with the new job and the engagement, so I have very little else to report except: Hey, I have health insurance! and Check it out, I’m getting married! That being said, I did spend the bulk of yesterday writing cover letters and submitting stories to literary journals. So, don’t worry. I’m sure my summer update will include lots of shameless self-promotion.

In the meantime, I will conclude with some of my favorite quotes on writing that best reflect my current mood:

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
 ―Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings 
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” 
―Ernest Hemingway 
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” 
―Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” 
―Robert Frost 
“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.” 
―Franz Kafka 
“The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.” 
―William Gass, A Temple of Texts
“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”

 ―William Wordsworth 

Summer Retreat

Hello, friends:

drafts

I am delighted to report that I have returned from a brief summer writing retreat rejuvenated and inspired! A dear friend of mine, Tai Carmen, offered her beautiful home and office space (see above) for a two-person weekend writing intensive. The retreat proved to be wholly restorative and helped remind me that creative immersion and dialogue are necessary parts of the writing process. Whereas my winter retreat was generative in the amount of new work I produced, this summer retreat was regenerative. After working all winter and spring on writing/revising (as well as teaching, editing, and the daily work of life), I noticed my creative drive had depleted. It wasn’t until this retreat that I realized I hadn’t had an intensive, sustained creative exchange with another artist since graduating from Pacific University’s MFA program in 2009. Being able to spend a weekend engaging in meaningful conversations about writing/art/philosophy/life, sharing delicious meals, listening to music, and walking through the woods with a kindred writer did wonders to stimulate my creative mind. Understanding this, I will now make it a goal to book two retreats a year: one solitary, one collective.

Overall, it has been a summer full of writing, reading, music, and conversation. I was honored to discuss writing with Wayne Potter and fellow author and friend Neva Cavataio on Wayne’s radio program, Keeping Kurrent. You can listen to that interview here. I have been glad to have a little extra time to attend art events in Portland recently as well; I was wowed by the performances of Orquestra Pacifico Tropical and Gulls at PDX Pop Now!, and I also had the chance to attend two stunning readings/performances: (1.) Poetry Press Week, which showcased the wonderful work of Albert Goldbarth, Zachary Schomburg, Carl Adamshick, Julia Claire Tillinghast, KMA Sullivan, Chrys Tobey, Zubair Ahmed, and Veronica Martin; (2.) PURE SURFACE, a performance series that combines movement, text, and film, which highlighted excerpts from the beautiful and heartbreaking poem “Verso” by Brandi Katherine Herrera.

For fall, I plan to continue working on my new story collection, currently titled Fall Apart, which I started last winter and have been revising this summer. In addition, I will be starting my first term as a full-time writing instructor and faculty member at Chemeketa Community College and look forward to continuing to work with students and faculty.

And, with any luck, I will be able to take another writing retreat this winter!

Warm wishes and happy writing,

Alissa

Fruit in the Days of Darkness

winterorange

Fruit in the Days of Darkness

Greetings everyone,

Now that fall is over, and my teaching load has lightened, I am excited to get back to work on my own creative projects. In December, a friend generously lent me her tiny house for a three-day writing retreat.unnamed [If you are interested in this sweet little place, or the tiny house movement, visit aatinyhouse blog (a wonderfully written archive of April’s tiny house undertaking, complete with the nut-and-bolts practicality of the project, as well as philosophical, environmental, and literary insights into creating “new” from old).] The retreat prompted a whole new collection of short stories, which I will be working on in the coming months.

As always, Portland’s literary, music, and art communities are booming, and I feel fortunate to be surrounded by so many creative people. Specifically, I have been frequenting two reading series this past summer/fall: (1.) Bad Blood, an excellent poetry series that convenes in a wood/metal workshop, where word-craft mingles with the distant grinding of saws and the clanging of metal lathes, and (2.) Gridlords, a monthly comics performance and reading series which always offers fascinating, entertaining, and experimental works of image and text. I also remain a big PDX music fan, and recently downloaded a mass of awesome FREE local albums off Wants to Give You.  Deer or the Doe, Point Juncture, WA, Team Evil, Jana Osta, Swim Swam Swum, Pluvial. Check ’em out. It’s free! In addition, I was honored to help with some final edits on a script for the local musical, Aika & Rose: A Supernatural Star-crossed Teen Lesbian Love Story, which will be performed at Headwaters Theater January 16th – January 25th.

I was such a Gridlords follower that they kindly offered me a slot to read last summer. In addition to the reading, I had this wonderful conversation with Gridlordian Lillie Craw, where we discussed constraint and freedom in the creative process, superfluous writing rituals, and Foucault.

For this winter, I am excited to announce that I will continue teaching writing classes at Chemeketa Community College, while also working on this new collection of short stories that emerged during my short retreat. I even have a reading scheduled for soft show, on February 4th at the Blue Monk. If you are in Portland, I would love to see you there!

Take care, everyone, and let me know about the news in your world!

Best wishes,

Alissa