for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations
I headed to my first writer’s residency at The Ragdale Foundation at the end of March with an imagined vision of open space, open time, and what I call “open expectations” – no finish line, no deadline, no shoulds or have tos about the challenging revision of my middle grade novel in verse or the small community of artists of which I’d be part.
I knew from experience that gentle, heartfelt, positive guidelines were my best bet for flourishing as a writer and a person. I told myself to:
- Trust my needs, my rhythm, what I and my story feel each step forward needs to be, and connect with others as I need and want to, but without pressure that I have to.
- Keep my brain open to surprises of all kinds and embrace, enjoy, tolerate, readjust as needed.
- Let the residency change me – openness to writing and human surprises has often had this lovely effect on me.
It worked. From a writing and a community perspective, the residency was extraordinary. Among the many meaningful incidents were these:
- When I’d inserted eighty new verses into my then-current draft, half-hoping for a wonderful and well-organized draft, I found instead an incoherent, fragmented story. At dinner, as we all casually talked about our first day, I said my next days would be dismantling my book, and was glad I had the floor space and time to do it. The luxury of seemingly endless hours was going to be a gift.
- As I went through the days, dismantling, reassembling, and readying myself for a deep and intense revision, I realized something all of us seemed to say in our end-of-residency summary: It’s not just the number of hours I have, it’s how the hours and the lack of distracting responsibilities allow my brain to open and blossom. I discovered, with this undistracted time, the capacity to work deeply and intensely, giving my unconscious mind the freedom to feed me creative solutions.
- Many days, I lost any sense of what time it was, whether or not my phone and computer were collecting texts and emails, and occasionally even whether or not I was hungry. My lovely little room, walks on the prairie (even in the snowstorms of a Chicago spring), and conversations with new colleagues fed a brain that seemed wonderfully open to the world, and to my own unconscious.
- One night early in the residency, instead of returning to work, I decided to join several colleagues to listen to another’s discussion of her volunteer work in a Michigan hospital, gathering bedside stories from in-patients. She played several of the stories for us. I was riveted. I heard an urgency in all the short, impromptu stories. The patients have to choose only one story to tell, my colleague said. I had a visceral response in my chest, home of where my feelings tell me things. One story. Only one story. I have to write Reeni’s story as if it is the only one she gets to tell. That’s where I will find the urgency. And maybe I will find her voice.
- The next day I began, sitting on my pillow on the floor with paper and pencil. If it was Reeni’s last day on earth, how would she tell the story? And then I found her voice.
It would have been enough to do the kind of deep writing I did from that day on. But going into the residency with my three guidelines enabled me to do and experience more than that.
I discovered that I am a writer who is able to spend many hours a day working if given the opportunity. That I am a writer who can find and stay in deep connection with my unconscious for more than a few moments at a time. And that I could also enjoy the deep pleasure of becoming part of a supportive, smart, funny, and all-around extraordinary, group of fellow artists.
In my life as writer, therapist, wife, mother, friend I’ve repeatedly found that while attitude is not everything, it is quite a bit. When I enter an experience with gentle and positive expectations, an open mind, and the ability to respond to surprises of any nature, I free myself again to grow, change, and continue the adventure of living.
It’s not necessarily easy. But it’s always worth the effort.
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She began writing for children in 1999, and her poetry and fiction have appeared in Highlights for Children, Ladybug, Cricket and Hunger Mountain. Her picture book manuscripts have won several awards, and her middle grade novel in verse manuscript, "Reeni’s Turn," was named a finalist in the 2014 Katherine Paterson Prize for YA and Children's Writing at Hunger Mountain.
Drawing from her skills and experience as a clinical social worker and consultant/educator, Carol also writes extensively about the psychological and emotional aspects of the writing journey, and the essential skills for creating and maintaining emotional resilience. Her column, “The Flourishing Writer,” is archived in the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.
Carol lives with her husband in Chicagoland and treasures her family, friends, and work at an extraordinary early childhood center.