Friday, December 19, 2008

Guest Blogger Christine P. Wang on the Experience of a Residency Fellowship

I first met Christine P. Wang a few years ago at a meeting of a local writer's organization, where she read a few pages from her memoir-in-progress. Others read too that day, but I could focus only on Christine, whose clearly articulated writer's voice (both on and off the page), reached across the table and grabbed me. We kept in only sporadic touch, but when we ran into one another at a local reading this past summer, it did not surprise me a bit to learn she had been awarded a three-month residency fellowship to work on her memoir. I know one day I'll be doing an author Q&A with her, when she publishes that book, on growing up Chinese American in Tennessee. Meanwhile, I asked her to do a guest post for me, about being in the enviable position of having several months to concentrate completely on her project.

Please welcome , Christine P. Wang.

I started a memoir -- tentatively called The Game of While -- twenty years ago. I wanted to paint the mind of a psychiatric patient who takes off on a cross-country red-eye flight (because all flights to Africa are booked); who hitches rides on 18-wheelers across Tennessee, looking for a place to call home – before deciding that the closest thing is living homeless in New York City.

By 2006, I wanted to finish the book so I could think of other things. I took Mediabistro's course, Memoir Writing Basics, by Stephanie Elizondo Griest, author of Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana (Villard, 2004). I began dreaming of being “a residency whore” (as Stephanie called it): someone who jumps from one artist or writer residency to another, doing nothing but their art.

In December of 2007 I was laid off as a developmental book editor in northern New Jersey. I was freelancing for a local newspaper. Now was the time. I applied to five residencies. Three rejected me, one offered too little financial aid, and the third -- the Santa Fe Art Institute (SFAI) – sounded too great to be true: a three-month fellowship, stipend, backdrop of the College of Santa Fe. On October 1, 2008, I climbed aboard a flight to New Mexico, free to do nothing but finish my memoir during the next three months.

It took me nearly half of October to find my rhythm (not to mention adjust my lungs to the 7,000 ft. altitude here). I began writing and editing chapters pretty intensely: five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to noon, resuming again 6 to 9 p.m. In between writing sessions, I jogged or biked along a trail filled with local flora, went to dinner with my new friends or just piddled around in my room. I've discovered there is a reason for two-day weekends: It's crucial to rejuvenate.

My room is an incredible space with cathedral ceilings and a skylight in a bathroom I don’t have to share. It's comfortable, amply furnished, well-lit and equipped with answering machine and hair dryer, and the laundry room is free. A communal kitchen is stocked with staples (bread, cheese, eggs, milk, etc.), and although we do our own shopping for anything else and cook all meals, the center does provide monthly communal dinners. At first, food prep was a nuisance, but it’s a welcome break now – any chance for variation in the work routine. Can it get lonely? Sure, but the cure is hiking at gorgeous national monuments in the area and shopping and gabfests with other artists.

There are one or two lectures a month, but finding entertainment is otherwise up to us. Guest lecturers living among us have included MacArthur Fellows, photographer Fazal Sheikh and artist/architect/filmmaker Alfredo Jaar. Sheikh gave a slide show on his images of displaced women and children in the Middle East; Jaar played examples of the migration of sound with international recordings of a song his father used to sing. Both were part of SFAI’s current exhibition theme: “Outsider: Tourism, Migration and Exile.”

Living with 8 to 10 artists and writers can be as intense as the writing. We eat, sleep and work in the same area -- bedrooms, communal kitchen and living area, and studios (for visual artists). Writers who don’t want to work in their bedrooms head out for space in the library, common areas or around town. One of the best parts of my residency is being inspired by other artists committed to their craft.

Still, there have been clashes and close bonding in this microcosm of the world’s personality types. One resident left early because of issues with another resident. I’ve heard another left because she couldn’t handle a communal kitchen. I’ve found the best antidote to the tension – real or imagined -- is focusing on my work. Everything falls into place when I’m writing.

Work habits vary here as much as personality. I came expecting to find a group as obsessive as I was who wanted to do nothing but eat, sleep and dream about creating art. But I learned after the first month to head out each morning to a downtown Borders to write because I found it too hard to say “no" when residents come knocking, wanting to go hiking or take a road trip.
"Freedom" can be either cure or curse, even for the most committed artist or writer. But if "self-starter" is your strong suit, a residency may seem like heaven.

The only thing that really disappointed me about Santa Fe is the preponderance of strip malls and shortage of walkers and bicyclists that I’d envisioned in this southwestern town. That and not having a fiesta every other day.

My three month stay is winding down now. Our third and last open studio is in a week. In an open studio, we get to show the public what exactly we’ve been working on. I'll read chapters from my memoir; visual artists give a short talk and tour of their art studios. I’m only slightly nervous -- even though I’m the only writer, even though a Q&A is planned

I remember the intimidation I felt when I first arrived. I had published little; I imagined that all the others had such courage to do nothing but their art. The life of the artist is one I’d dreamed about, but never thought possible. Making friends with artists here, I see that dreams need the reality of hard work, and intimidation is really the need for a working plan. The most successful artists here are simply ones who committed to a dream, consistently worked hard at it – and always kept dreaming.

Some of us are wondering what to do next.

I came wanting to finish my memoir, not really believing I could. At the end of December, I’ll be leaving Santa Fe with a finished manuscript, an idea for a new project I've been thinking about, and a new conviction, set blazing by this residency and the encouragement of the artist-role-models around me. My art has a place in the world, too, I know now -- as well as the courage to believe: I am a writer.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the informative and inspiring post. (I know all about getting used to that altitude - I have a house in Taos.)

How much of your memoir had you written when you applied for the residencies?

Lisa Romeo said...

Thanks, Deonne.
I'm going to toss that question right on over to Christine....

Anonymous said...

Hi Deonne! Thanks for your post. I had pretty much of my ms written in rough form when I got here. I think I've written about 50 pages from scratch since October, edited the already written 25-plus chapters. Luckily, I recorded episodes of hospital stays, etc. immediately after they happened, so the journal developed on its own...taking 20 years! (Like a fine wine, I like to tell myself.)

Anonymous said...

So you mean you applied with your full manuscript draft? I'm trying to gauge when I should even begin considering applying to residencies.

And yes, I'm sure the work is just like a fine wine, but without the negative side effects (ha). Best of luck to you!

Anonymous said...

Most of the writers here came with only an idea of a project they wanted to start -- often a play or collection of short stories or poetry -- so I would say you can apply with nothing in hand. Previous publication can't hurt. I think judges look at the quality of the submission first (usually 20-30 sample pages of your writing); then they gauge your level of commitment to the art by looking over your resume, etc. If you're interested in the Santa Fe Art Institute, check out: I recommend it as a great place for "emerging or mid-career artists."

Anonymous said...

Christine, thanks so much for sharing your experience. Now I need to a) get that writing sample ready, and b) figure out how I'll take some time off!