I’m thinking ahead to my March visit to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) and decided to share my advice for people who might be attending a residency and don’t know what to expect. All this is subjective, of course—what works for me might not work for you; and I’m coming from a fiction writing perspective—and I must also admit that I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to drive to every residency I’ve been on, which means, “if in doubt, throw it in the car.” Airplanes are less forgiving.
1. Bring something specific to work on. It doesn’t mean that you have to work on this while you’re there, but just as there’s something both exhilarating and terrifying about the blank screen, so too at the colony. Having something ready to go will help ease you in to your work.
2. Bring several types of specific work: a new idea, something half-finished, something to revise. It’s hard to predict how this interesting new environment may inspire you, so have several options. Surprisingly, I’ve found that I prefer generating new, rough material at a colony, though revising is typically my favorite part of the process. Even so, at a certain point, I start to feel tapped out and need a switch—that’s when the revising starts. And I tend to bring far more than I could ever possibly accomplish, just to ensure that I have a choice of what to work on.
3. I like to have an achievable—though rigorous—goal in mind, though others may not feel this way. Often it’s a daily page goal, especially if I’m writing new stuff. I can think in terms of 10 pages per day whereas I can’t quite get on board with something more vague like “finish novel.”
4. Be open to going where the muse may take you, even if it takes you into post-lunch naps, even if you’re not working on anything you brought, and even if your achievable goal has been shot to hell. Be good to your creative self—you’re not at boot camp!
5. Research counts! Bring those books that relate to your project—even if only tangentially—and bring some books on writing and craft. Bring all the scraps of scribbled notes about your novel. I often start the residency by reading through all of those and pulling some aside to ponder.
6. In fact, bring a variety of books, too. There are usually a bunch of books around most colonies, and it’s probably fun to let serendipity take over and read something unexpected that you come across, but I’ve never done that. I typically bring some poetry, some meaty book/s I’ve been wanting to read, a short story writer I’d like to study, and some lighter books for reading at night. (No, I don’t read them all!)
7. Bring some copies of your own books/stories in case you’d like to trade work with another writer, or give/lend/sell a copy to people you meet. You might think about bringing something to read publicly, as most colonies offer those sorts of opportunities.
8. Bring a pillow and a blanket. There will never be enough pillows—or the right kind—and somewhere, even in summer, you will be cold. It’s helpful if you have the kind of garish pillowcase that the housekeeping folks will not mistake as the colony’s and take to wash with the bed linen.
9. Bring a big fluffy towel. I have to confess that I would find a way to squeeze this in even if I were flying. I just can’t stand a single, skimpy towel after a shower. (I believe Chekhov shared this same quirk.)
10. I like office supplies, so I must have several fun or pretty pads for scribbling ideas and my favorite pens. I bring some pictures and desk talismans (stretchy horses anyone?) for inspiration, comfort, and distraction.
11. Flash drives will mean you can obsessively back up your work every night in several places. I don’t bring a printer, and plan my work accordingly. Usually someone has a printer—or there’s access to one—that you could use in a pinch, but if you need a lot of printed pages regularly, you probably should bring your own printer.
12. I know there’s food—and there are grocery stores—but I still bring along some snacks (that I keep in plastic bins, just in case there might be bugs or worse hanging around). Once I get going in my mode, going to the grocery store feels disruptive to the flow of my days. By “food,” I also mean “wine,” and by “snacks,” I also mean “scotch.”
13. A power strip and a small desk lamp are also helpful. Probably they’ll be provided, and adequate, but I’ve used each of these items on a number of occasions.
14. I’m sure there are more great ideas out there. Let me know what should be added to this list.