Lydia Conklin on Writing Residencies and the Priceless Gift of Permission ‹ Literary Hub
I never flew until I was seventeen, never traveled west from Wisconsin until my late twenties. But, thanks to the generosity of writing residencies, I lived for three to fourteen straight weeks in states I had never visited so many before: Oregon, New Mexico, Washington, Virginia. At each I made close friends, I wrote ten times more than I could have at home, I ate legions of food tastier than the clear broth with carrots floating in it that was my favorite ascetic meal for years, and I even walked where I wasn’t allowed. I’ve been scolded in Alaska and Wyoming for being too adventurous – in Alaska, swimming in the freezing ocean under looming volcanoes, I dodged an attack from a sea otter.
As a child, I spent a few weeks a year at a wilderness summer camp in Vermont. The camp was run by hippies and boasted a loose schedule. Children were allowed to choose the activities they wanted for four blocks of time, two in the morning and two in the afternoon. You could go to Arts and Crafts four times. You never had to indulge in a sport. You can even choose to do nothing. I often chose nothing, sitting in the peace of my empty cubicle, reading or thinking. The camp was a dreamscape for a kid who knew he was queer but hadn’t told anyone about it yet: the forest, no boys, no one watching you closely or subconsciously watching your gender.
Residences remind me of camp. You are in the woods, surrounded by strangers who become friends. There are no “rules”, here the rules being the drudgery of domestic life, which I hate: no shopping, no cooking, no cleaning. No races, no mandatory attendance at events. No watering plants or tempting to organize, because you’re in a whole new space, empty, like a hotel, but comfortable, with none of your possessions to threaten and distract. All you have is your job and the wild part of you that wakes up in the woods.
I was fortunate to have the privilege of attending residencies. Most writers can’t, if they have kids or other family obligations, in-person jobs, or if they can’t go through finicky jury processes or afford travel expenses. But because I teach and do freelance work, I was able to support myself financially while attending residencies.
Without my own traditional family, the residences have been an invaluable support system. I met some of my dearest friends during residencies, some of whom I still talk to every day. During my first residency, I met the writer who became my girlfriend of nine years. After our breakup, at each of the two residencies I attended as a single person, I began new romances.
The more people I meet at residencies, the more I know someone when I move to a new city for my next teaching gig or even just for a conference where I’m presenting a panel. The world is big and lonely when you move out every college year, but, with a network of friends everywhere, it starts to shrink. That’s one of the hidden gifts that residencies give writers: people. You might get to know people who will help you in your career, of course, or who you could help, but more importantly, you will find people who will be your friends and followers all over the world, who will practice solitary to write less lonely.
But beyond all the charming peripherals of the residences – all the animals I saw (a family of baby weasels, a bobcat, a herd of fifty elk), all the sunsets over the oceans and in the mountains , all the dances and the stories shared over vegetable bowls – the most important gift a residence can give is the ability to work. And not just because all the drudgery and distractions of everyday life are removed, and not just because of money and space – although those benefits are huge – but because of permission.
There are writers who retain the mandate to write no matter what gets in their way. Rejection after rejection, and they will continue, firmly convinced of their talent and worth. But for many other writers, especially those who don’t have a majority identity, it can sometimes be nearly impossible to muster the courage to write – to believe that you’re good enough to put in the time, that a someone will benefit from a few little days away from reading your work, that anyone should even be invited – by the shearing act of bringing a book into the world – to pass the time.
Beyond all the nice peripherals of residences, the most important gift that a residence has to offer is the ability to work.
During my very first residency, I was the youngest person there for most of my stay, the only person still in my twenties. I was in the middle of my MFA program, and it hadn’t yet occurred to me that I might one day become a writer. I felt like a student at best, an impostor at worst. I qualified my presence for everyone I met – it didn’t make sense that I had been accepted, it was a mistake, I didn’t belong here.
I was shy to silence at my first dinners, intimidated by the accolades of other residents: a famous experimental playwright, a novelist who had just sold a book for an untold sum, a journalist with an Oscar, a performance artist who organized a mystifying dance with a cheeseburger. I was a pet for artists who loved me, submissive and goofy, there to entertain and nothing more. I acted like a kid because I felt like one, among giants.
But during my weeks there, I began to give up the dumber activities designed to protect me from my fear of writing – playing the ukulele and wandering the gardens, dividing my lunch neatly over the day, throwing rocks at a wasp nest on my doorstep in hopes of dislodging it (it never occurred to me to complain about this nest, although I was stung nearly every day.) I worked harder and longer, strengthening my focus. I threw away half a novel, started over.
I had been amazed at the freedom of time the previous year, when moving from Manhattan to Madison, Wisconsin. Leaving behind my office job and two hour commute and insane social life in New York made time seem endless, each day opening up on an expansive plane that was new to me, without designing routes and websites and slam-free in underground tunnels. This residence was even more extreme.
In Madison, I taught and took workshops, I had colleagues and the responsibility of feeding myself. I rode a twenty mile bike ride through the countryside and little cousins who needed babysitting, friends who needed help with dogs, breakups and injuries . In New Hampshire, I had nothing else. Writing, for the first time, became my sole responsibility.
The last residency I attended was last summer in Alaska. I hadn’t flown or been away from home during the pandemic. I had had a brutal year – three pandemic breakups, the reduction on a Zoom screen of a scholarship I had worked for for years, the longest gap of my life – fifteen weeks – between a hug from a friend and a hug from another, with no one touching me in any way in between, two deaths of people in my life, one from Covid. Loneliness and desire to travel endlessly.
In Alaska, for the first time in years, I felt that magical, shimmering feeling of being far away. I plodded along, rewriting a novel based on feedback from my workshop group, facing sandhill cranes and moose outside my window, three looming volcanoes: Redoute, Augustine, and my favorite, Iliamna. I had always dreamed of visiting Alaska, and the residency gave me an experience I could never have afforded on my own: living in a small but beautiful cabin on the edge of arctic wilderness for a whole month.
The immaterial gift of residences is permission. If you are lucky enough to be accepted, someone has handed you a ticket stating that you are worth the investment.
Maybe it was partly in a weird new place after a year in the same hundred and fifty square feet with the same miserable couple and their trampoline by the window, the same smell of sautéed cabbage blowing in at lunchtime , the same few people who text at check-in, when they remembered me. Volcanoes and the sound of grizzlies in the trees, where was I?
Something unlocked in Alaska. I had been miserably stuck on comics for years, had done nothing but play around with a long-running graphic novel for years. My inability to start a new project had tormented me. I had told a story to a friend earlier that summer and he said, “You should write a comic about this. People tell me this all the time and I never listen, but in Alaska I started writing the comic he told me, my first new comic book project in nearly a decade. Sleepless nights helped, sunshine until midnight. The days have felt as long as I always wish the days were.
And then, one morning before dawn, in the dim light, standing before Iliamna – a detailed monster that appeared drawn in the sky by a giant celestial art student, my world opened up a second time when I started to write a new novel that felt urgent and captivating. I don’t know if this novel will work or even ever be finished – if it might ever join the heap of dead novels stored unnecessarily on my computer – but it helped me unlock issues in my other novel and helped deal with a fourth pandemic rupture. And more than that, even getting started opened me up to the possibility that whatever projects fail, there are others out there, even if I have to go to Alaska to find them.
I could not have learned concentration without the residence in New Hampshire, I could not have broken through on two fronts without that of Alaska. The immaterial gift of residences is permission. If you are lucky enough to be accepted, someone has handed you a ticket stating that you are worth the investment. I wish I didn’t need that kind of permission, and I’m jealous of writers who don’t seem to, but I always have. Especially during times when writing seemed hopeless – when rejections piled up one after another, when I banished another failed novel to the heap, when I lost my chance, once again, to a coveted opportunity or publication, when another academic year is coming to an end without the promise of health insurance, permission to attend a residency has helped keep me going.
Rainbow Rainbow by Lydia Conklin is now available through Catapult.