Apply for a residency or make your own

Summer seems the perfect season to consider a residency – a time to indulge for an extended period, in a special place, just for your art.

Sometimes, a residency deadline is even more important than the next grant deadline. A residency can help you find your new direction or deepen the work you’ve already started. Building a body of work, no matter the stage of your career, is often the best next step.

Some websites list residencies all over the world – where you could be the only artist or one among many. Some residencies even provide stipends to cover some expenses. As many of you have heard me say in my workshops, you could secure a prestigious residency and then apply for a professional development grant to pay for the costs of attending like travel, childcare, and so on.

For free information on international residencies visit:

http://www.transartists.org/ or

http://www.resartis.org/en/

For residency information for a fee, visit

http://www.artistcommunities.org/

But what if you feel like a residency tomorrow or next week? Then make one for yourself!

Remember that a residency consists of two parts: time and space. So, find a time and block it out on your calendar. It could be a morning or a day. The space could be your office or your studio with the wi-fi turned off and a candle burning to remind you that this day is special.

Or you could host a day for a couple of artists to meet in your home or studio – with all your phones turned off and some guidelines for when you’ll work, when you’ll share and when you’ll eat lunch.

When I need a residency, I block out a day in my office. I don’t need to announce it to anyone. I prepare the night before so I know exactly what I’ll work on. When I arrive, I unplug wi-fi so I have fewer temptations to escape. I might buy lunch that day (so it feels more special than my usual brown bag lunch). I might use my timer and plan time for stretching so I can keep my body lose between the stillness of writing.

Find a residency by looking at these websites or make your own even if the best you can do is a mini-residency – it can make all the difference in your work.

Then, write me and tell me how it all worked out. I’d love to hear.

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Let Yourself Arrive

After you walk to the podium or step onto the stage to read or give a talk “let yourself arrive,” said Elizabeth Austen, at the performance workshop I attended last Sunday at Jack Straw Productions in Seattle.

Don’t rush, especially at the beginning, she said, because “it takes the audience a few moments to tune its ears to your voice.”

Austen is a poet, trained actress, Washington State Poet Laureate, and an inspiring, insightful performance coach. She has a knack for bringing out the best in the poets, memoirists and novelists among us – twelve writers reading in different genres, with different presentation styles, and different needs for each piece of writing. She helped us identify our natural gifts as performers and our challenges with many tips for how to “best serve the work.”

If you live in Seattle and want to see how this year’s Jack Straw Writers applied Austen’s coaching to our work, please join us on May 2, 9, or 16 at 7 pm at Jack Straw Productions. (I’m reading May 9 and would love to see you there.)

I want to share three more tips with you from Austen’s workshop that may help you when you rehearse for a talk or a reading:

  1. “You are not the work,” she said. The performer you is different than the writer you (or the artist you). The way I think about this is when I’m reading a work or giving a talk, it’s as if I’m playing me in a movie. But it’s not “me.”
  2. You’re performing (or presenting) “in service of the work,” she said. Think about what style will best serve your audience and your work. For example, you may be a shy person but your work may be large and loud. Can you stretch yourself as a performer so you can be as big as your words need you to be?
  3. “Don’t let the word ‘perform’ scare you,” she said. “To perform is to activate, to bring something to life.” That’s all and that’s everything.

What else do you know to be true for you when you perform or talk in front of an audience? What questions do you have about how to apply this wisdom to your own performances? I’d like to know. Comment here.

Elizabeth Austen (right) coaches Loreen Lilyn Lee

Elizabeth Austen (right) coaches Loreen Lilyn Lee.

Kristen Millares Young rehearses at our performance workshop.

Kristen Millares Young rehearses at our performance workshop.

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The gold to be found in rejection

Another rejection letter landed in my mailbox recently and I didn’t toss it in the recycling bin as quickly as I used to. Instead, I read it carefully. Because I’ve learned that you never know what gold you may find.

It used to be that to rid myself of the sting of “no” I would scan the letter and throw it away almost in one motion. I wanted to rid myself of that rejected feeling asap.

Then, once, as I was skimming, I read this sentence: “We encourage you to apply again next year.”

Hmmm. I thought. “I bet they say that to everyone.”

I decided to find out if they did in fact write that to everyone so I called the organization. After thanking them for reviewing my application, I  said, “I’m just wondering but did everyone receive the same rejection letter? Because mine encouraged me to apply again next year.”

“We had two rejection letters we sent,” the woman said. “So you received the better one.”

This wasn’t the acceptance I wanted but this meant a lot: it was encouragement to keep going. It was an invitation to look at my work again. It was what all artists want: an audience.

Here’s a few sentences from that last rejection I received:

We received more than 1,500 applications and can offer 40 residencies. Though your application did not advance into the final round this year, we want you to know that your work resonated with our reviewers. Sending work into the world is an act of bravery, and we appreciate the opportunity to experience your voice.

I didn’t need to call them this time.

Of course I was sorry to lose but this letter provided some gold. First, it showed me just how stiff the competition was this year. Second, it complemented my work and acknowledged my bravery. That took the sting out, and even better, propelled me back to the writing desk.

Also, I made a mental note for the next time I need to write a rejection letter: What I write can either open up a relationship or shut it down. Because of this organization’s nice letter, even though they rejected me, I still feel warmly toward them. Perhaps I’ll take a workshop with them or, when I’m feeling generous, give them a donation. In other words, they haven’t lost me.

Have you ever encountered some gold in a rejection? I’d love to hear. Comment here.

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The bus is my new editing suite

Every morning I board the number 10 bus with a chapter of my memoir, still warm from my printer. For the 25-minute ride downtown, I edit furiously; some days it’s my most productive 25 minutes all day.

When a paragraph doesn’t work, I don’t try to fix it, I just circle it and write “FIX” in the margin.

If a couple of paragraphs are repetitive, I circle and write “COMBINE.”

As I read, if I get a twitch in my stomach that something is missing, I don’t worry about what’s missing because that would slow me down, I just write “ADD” in the margin with an arrow.

By the time I arrive at my office, my writer brain is fully warmed and this big-picture editing has created my roadmap for the finer editing and re-writes. I’m set for my work of the day.

This process works I realized because it gives me three (or four) things:

  1. A space and a deadline: The bus provides a physical container and the length of my journey provides a deadline. This makes procrastination impossible.
  2. An assignment: The pages have been printed ahead of time so I’m clear on my job: Read it and mark it up.
  3. The instruction to mark up without fixing: Because I don’t worry about minutiae, I just label what needs to be fixed later. This keeps my momentum.

Now this rewrite is not overwhelming because everything that needs to be fixed and re-written is already labeled – it feels like it’s already half done.

The key ingredients are: a space, a deadline, a clear assignment, and the instruction to label the problem without fixing it.

Do you have a similar process or ways to trick yourself to make “small work” out of what can seem overwhelming? I’d love to hear what’s working for you. Comment here.

The view across the Hawthorne Bridge from my editing suite on wheels.

The view across the Hawthorne Bridge from my editing suite on wheels.

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Where’s Your Sword?

I came up for air this week after an intense month of memoir writing.

Although creativity can be fun and rewarding I’ve noticed that it can sometimes feel terrifying and exhausting.

As I launched into this latest stretch of art-making, I realized that I needed something physical at my writing desk that would help me muster the courage to keep writing. I wanted something that would scare away the nasty voices not only of doubt but of fear that I would die if I told some family secrets.

One day, I realized what I needed at my computer was: a sword! So, I ran to Finnegan’s Toy Store and for less than $5 I acquired my own King Arthur-era sword that even comes with its own sheath.

Its presence reminds me to take the plunge, run towards the enemy, dive into the truth, keep writing into every nook and cranny. Ridiculously, this plastic, made-in-China sword has helped me.

Now, I wouldn’t write without it!

What physical object, totem, rabbit’s foot, or ??? do you take with you into the studio or to the writing desk to scare away not only the demons of doubt but the real pressures we feel sometimes to hold back?

I’d love to hear about your lucky charms! Comment here.

photo-1

Sword (above) in situ. (I move it to reach the keyboard!)

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The Tomato That Saved My Creative Life

I’ve been spending so much time at the computer these days writing for hours and hours, I had to find a strategy for preventing a sore neck and a dampened creative spirit from so much sitting.

A friend told me about “The Pomodoro Technique” which includes working in 25-minute chunks with 5-minute breaks. The technique may have other aspects to it also, but as soon as I heard about this timed working and timed breaks, I decided to try it.

I set a timer for 25 minutes and work uninterrupted. Then I take an enforced 5-minute break where I walk around my office, look out the window, do a few yoga stretches and before I know it, it’s time to work uninterrupted for 25 minutes.

What I love about this system is: 25 minutes feels like a very short time so when I set the timer I feel the pressure to not dawdle but to get moving. By the time the timer rings, I’m in the flow and hate to stop but I seem to be able to hold onto that creative energy while I’m stretching and I still have it when I sit down again.

It’s also raised my consciousness about how long things take. When I keep pressing the 25-minute timer over and over again, I realize that something I thought would take 10 minutes really took 2 hours.

The huge benefit is that I’m no longer a physical wreck when I’m done writing. That 10 minutes of moving and stretching for every 60 minutes of writing keeps me limber and pain-free.

Why is this technique called “pomodoro” which means tomato in Italian? Beats me. The website sells a cool tomato-shaped timer which is cute but unnecessary.

I’d love to hear what happens to you when you try this! Or tell me about another technique you use. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that nothing works forever. I seem to require changing things up as I grow and my work grows. Comment here.

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Persistence Pays Off

When I saw the call to apply to the Jack Straw Writers Program last fall, I almost didn’t apply.

Why?

Because I’d applied every year for the last six years and I was tired of getting rejected. The closest I’d come was being wait-listed a few years back.

Then, I reminded myself what I tell my coaching clients: If you don’t apply, it’s a 100% guarantee you won’t be accepted. If you do apply, your chances are better.

I opted for slightly better chances. Then, I rewrote my artist statement, edited the strongest writing sample from the memoir I’m currently writing and like every year, I mailed it by the deadline.

The twelve Jack Straw Writers receive voice/microphone training, recorded studio interviews, do a series of public readings in Seattle all year long, publish an anthology and are featured in SoundPages, the Jack Straw Literary Podcast series.

When the skinny letter from Jack Straw Productions arrived in my mailbox, I sighed. Everyone knows that if you win, it’s usually an email and that if it’s a letter, it’s usually a fat letter.

I opened it.

The first word after “Dear Gigi” was “Congratulations!” I’m now one of 12 writers chosen out of a pool of 93 applicants who will be in the Jack Straw Writers Program this year. This win was especially sweet because I’d included an excerpt from the memoir I’m now writing.

What did I learn? I learned what I teach my students: If you know an opportunity is the right match for you and the curator changes every year, it’s a numbers game. Chances are that one year, it’s all going to line up: The right curator for the right work sample out of the right pool of applicants.

This win also reminded me how important it is to receive recognition. I’ve had mostly rejections this year and this one acceptance has already fueled my writing. It’s also softened the rejections I’ve received since.

The next day, I received a rejection from the Hedgebrook Residency, one I’d love to attend. Their odds are even worse. They received 1500 applications for 40 slots. The silver lining: My rejection letter stated that my work “resonated with our reviewers.” They didn’t have to say that and I so appreciate they did.

You can bet I’ll apply to Hedgebrook every year from now on and one of these years, you never know. I might be one of those 40 writers.

So, I ask you: What’s an opportunity you know is the right match for you that you could “show up for”? It’s hard to keep showing up if they’ve already said “no.” But if you really want it, can you humble yourself and throw your name in the hat again and again? This year, it might be you.

I’d love to hear from you. Comment here.

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Four keys to making creative progress

This past year, I embarked on writing a memoir and I learned how much more challenging it is to work on a big, multi-faceted project than something short. To write an essay, I just need to sprint. I have the whole essay in my head as I’m working on the beginning, middle and end.

But a memoir with its many chapters and multiple re-writes is a full-length project that requires the stamina of the long distance runner. I can use my sprinting talent for individual chapters but to keep the whole project going, I must pace myself.

These four lifesaving actions have helped me this past year stay on task and on schedule. They’ve been:

  • Name “it”
  • Put “it” on a calendar
  • Hire a midwife/coach/mentor
  • Schedule weekly check-ins for creative support

Name “It”

In my 20 years as a writer, I’d written stories, essays, vignettes, monologues, poems, plays, solo performances, and then one day, the clouds parted, the shaft of sun descended and I knew I needed to write a memoir in book form. This realization was life changing. I re-arranged my work schedule to fit in 2-3 hours a day of writing and added other support. But naming it first was key.

Put “It” on a Calendar

Once I’d written for a couple of months, and collected all I’d created over the past 20 years I felt overwhelmed. I didn’t know which stories fit where or even how many stories there were. So, I sat down with a production manager, counted the number of stories I had or could write, and gave myself a goal of finishing a certain number each week. I put a reminder in my calendar every day. Then I gave myself a deadline for delivering this rough, unfinished draft to my next key support: my literary midwife.

The calendar turned out to be magical. Committing the project to paper made it happen. Even when I couldn’t quite keep up with my weekly schedule, the rough draft was done by the time the deadline arrived, as if a force greater than me was pushing it forward once I committed it to paper.

Hire a Midwife/Coach/Mentor

My literary coach is not a friend, although I like her and admire her writing. Her not being a friend is important for me because it makes our working relationship feel more professional and therefore less possible for me to wiggle out of my commitment. Also, I’m paying her which makes me take it seriously. I won’t pay for something and then not use it. It forces me to deliver the goods. I know she believes in me but I know she has high standards. So her voice in my ear as I write, keeps me writing and striving to do my best. Which is why after all this sustained effort I need something cuddly. This is where my two colleagues come in.

Schedule weekly check-ins

I scheduled short weekly check-ins with two artist friends. With these cohorts I can complain, stomp my feet, share my successes and burn off a lot of neurotic ramblings that I don’t want to submit my literary midwife to. My friends cheer me on, no matter what. Their cheering gets me back to the writing desk every day.

Are you working on a project right now where you could use any one of these supports? If so, I’d love to hear what’s working and what needs works. Comment here.

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Now I understand you (and myself)

After I read this list of the 9 traits of creative people I finally understood myself and every artist and friend I know, so much better.

For example, I could never understand why I wasn’t able to clearly tell if I was an introvert or an extrovert. At times I am wildly social and at other times reclusive and shy. This post by Matthew Schuler is his “insightful shuffle” through Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: The Work and Lives of 91 Eminent People.

I won’t ever see myself or my creative friends and colleagues quite the same way — in a good way!

matthewschuler.co/why-creative-people-sometimes-make-no-sense

Can you relate? If so, I’d be interested to hear how. Comment here.

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No Half Measures

The last episode of “Breaking Bad” that I watched before I quit for good was entitled “No Half Measures.” The character Mike warned Walter White about the sometimes fatal results of only going half way.

“No half measures” is good advice for artists too, especially those of us who are skilled at the art of self-sabotage. We say we’re working on a creative project but are we really making the tough decisions that enable us to go “full out” in the career we want to have?

Going “full out” doesn’t necessarily entail all-nighters and chronic exhaustion. What would you do differently if you supported your ambition all the way and not only halfway?

For example, I realized that if I’m going to get my next book finished I’m going to have to block out at least three hours every day to write and if I can’t squeeze that time in during the day, I’m going to have to get up at five am to write before I go to work.

To do this and be happy and well-rested, I need to say “no” to other commitments and time-wasters like “research” that can suck hours at a clip.

So, my new rules are: three-hour writing blocks, no “research” unless it’s quick and focused, and no social plans during the week that deplete my energy for writing.

I also had to give up binge-watching “Breaking Bad.” The show became so scary and violent and not conducive to the headspace I need to be in to write IF I’m going to go all out.

Most importantly, I’m saying “no” and disappointing some people. But I’d rather live with their disappointment than my own.

What would you do differently if you took your own ambition seriously? What if Mike from “Breaking Bad” scowled at you with his x-cop tough face and said: “No Half Measures. I mean it.”

What do you need in your life to support your ambition so your current project doesn’t die? What will you drop? What will you do to make the time to do the creative work that only you can do? What would today look like if you went all out? This week? This month? This year?

“No Half Measures” might mean you take a complete rest day today so that you’re freshened for tomorrow’s work.

Let me know. I want to hear. Your ambition spurs me on in my own creative work. Comment here.

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