‘How Do I Give Myself a Residency?’

It's about coming home to your art.

As someone who likely won't be able to do the usual rotation of summer writer’s workshops and so on due to financial and work constraints, some guidance on how to carve out a week and structure it in favor of writing would be greatly helpful.

Marie Kondo has her method for a reason. In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she emphasizes that tidying should not be done in a slow, piecemeal way, but all at once. She explains that this is because being able to feel the immediate benefit of a tidied home—a home catered to your ideal life—creates the emotional benefit necessary to keep it that way.

Residencies, especially the ones that eliminate your usual household chores, do this with your writing practices. They eliminate the noise of usual life. If you’ve landed a fancy residency, you’re in a castle or your daily lunch appears stealthily in a wicker basket, so there’s also a waft of magic in the air.

Most likely, you’ll begin your journey for a self-given residency not in a castle. There are no lunches in wicker baskets. In fact, your house is a mess and your fridge has been empty for a while, leading you to scrounging around for lentils and eating pickles over the sink for the last few days.

For capitalism, we go into debt with our lived lives. The laundry chair piles high into the laundry pyramid; the slow-draining sink collects human and non-human debris; the sticky fridge holds only last night’s takeout and a stray beer. Residencies also temporarily relieve us from these realities—and the shame of being this way.

The operative term here is “give.” Isn’t it so much easier to receive those lunch baskets when your application was selected out of thousands? Achievements are the balloons a deflated ego holds onto for a little while. Thus, the hardest part about giving yourself a residency is neither time nor money: it’s believing, without external validation, that you are worthy of having it.

The self-given residency begins before the actual residency period you’ve planned. Here’s a familiar anecdote: you sit down to write and do so for a few minutes. Out of the corner of your eye, you notice the laundry pile at the other side of the room. You are overcome with the compulsion to clean it and, in fact, every chore you have put off until now comes into view. Rather than writing for that whole day, you end up cleaning your house.

I have heard (and lived) this story countless times. However, rather than seeing it as a moment of procrastination, I find it logical that we do this. It’s self-care; it’s acknowledgement that writing is an intensive activity that is easier with peace-of-mind. And doesn’t it feel good when the last of everything has been put away? To know that your next few days of meals are taken care of, so you can really get to work?

The self-given residency begins before the residency period because for at least two weeks prior, you’ll be doing these chores from your inner task list. Let writing be the motivator and be comforted that there’s no end of residency flashing ahead. You are going to start your self-given residency by taking care of yourself.

It’s only in this relaxed state of mind, as you are repairing the ways you’ve neglected your needs, that it becomes less overwhelming to imagine how you’ll meet your desires.

Visualize aspects of your ideal residency and create approximates at your self-given one. The writing-related ideals are easiest to capture. If you have a specific project in mind, I’ve had friends who excelled with rules around daily goals, such as reaching a word count or drafting just one poem, even a bad one. Without a project, I’ve given myself a lot of leeway to read for as long as I want. Giving myself the right intellectual environment creates the conditions for some writing to appear.

If you imagine yourself punctuating your days with stop-and-chats with fellow artists at a traditional residency, it may be enough for you to watch documentaries on other artists and to read others’ work. But it could also be beneficial to link up with friends who time their self-given residencies at the moment and meet up every day in-person or over video chat.

If you see yourself taking walks to clear your head in the moors, perhaps choose different routes you can take around your neighborhood or choose a library or working space you can go to outside your home.

Don’t cook your residency meals in the moment. Schedule delivery every night, if you’d like—or cook your own frozen meals the weekend before, but make sure to include the extra things—your favorite ice cream, a charcuterie board—you’d never usually spend on yourself. Make it as easy as possible for you to get lost in thought while sustaining your energy and delighting your senses.

It’s possible to do this at a smaller scale, too, and without as much preparation. Almost ten years ago, I would go to a library every Saturday with only the intention of reading poetry for a few hours. Some writing, of course, crept in unexpectedly. That was a residency. Five years ago, I started committing to no-plan Saturdays, which meant that I’d wake up at 6am those days and read and write for as long as physically possible, until usually around noon. By then, I’d clamber downstairs and take myself out to a nice solo brunch at the diner around the corner. That was also a residency.

Nowadays, I’ve written this letter to you broken up over several days and weeks sometime between 6am and 8am. I have a special chair and configuration of light; I write in a journal to dump all the “junk” in my mind about my daily life before I get started with other writing. Is this a residency? It feels more like my daily residence.

It has gotten easier, over time, to write badly. It turns out that giving myself permission to do so has given me access to different registers of my voice—for a more casual letter to be possible, for example, but also a more spiritual or silly one. If you give yourself the leeway to experiment with how and when you write, your self-given residency will also have many forms. It will be less about that specific pocket of time and more about picking a time, a place, a chair, a light—and coming home to your art, as often as you want.