Living Like I’m at an Artists’ Residency

During my last artists’ residency, I had what I thought was a breakthrough realization: I wanted to live like I was at an artists’ residency all the time.

Well, who wouldn’t? At an artists’ residency, my primary responsibility is to write. I leave my home and my daily grind and travel to a place where the focus of each day is to be creative. Some responsibilities never stop, of course, but I place those into a secondary space in my mind, and turn my attention to my work. At my most recent residency, at the Djerassi Resident Artists’ Program, a couple of years ago, every day I got up, made coffee, stationed myself in my rumination chair (I have two writing stations: ruminative and practical – more on those in another post), and set my mind to task. Very quickly, I fell into my writing routine: a few hours of ruminative writing and brainstorming, a short break for lunch, then moving to the desk and getting down to brass tacks. Later in the afternoon I would do a little exercise, go for a hike or do a little painting, and then have dinner with the other artists. In the evenings, I would either get in a few more hours of work, read, or take care of details at home from a distance. It was kind of a perfect lifestyle.

I realized that, in effect, I was in the bizarro world of my own life: everything was backwards.

In my normal life, I had all the stuff of my life around me, and it consumed the majority of my day: housekeeping, going to work, running errands, grocery shopping, meal-planning, cooking, cleaning, dealing with family issues, answering emails. Then, with whatever energy and time I had left, I would try to sneak in a sliver of writing time. Because these slivers came only between much larger chunks of time, they weren’t frequent, they weren’t regular, and they weren’t long, so I never felt the power of momentum in my work.

Now, I was doing the complete opposite. When I woke up, the ball was already rolling. All I had to do was pick up where I had left off the day before. The first and majority of my time was for writing, and if I had anything left over of myself, time or energy, I fit in any of those other pesky things. Of course, somebody else was cooking dinner, and somebody else was doing the housekeeping, but I still did laundry and answered emails and so forth, but only in my spare time, and I got tremendously more amount of creative work done there than I normally did at home in my everyday life. Also, I realized that my world at home did not fall apart because I wasn’t engaged with it on a daily basis.

I became fixated on the idea that there should be a way to make everyday life like this. For example, instead of living with all our stuff and traveling to, for instance, a studio, to do work, maybe we should live at the studio and just travel to the place of our stuff when we had to deal with it. You’ve had this sensation when you travel, right? When you’re on vacation or away from home, you don’t miss anything in your house at all, and when you get home, there’s all this stuff to deal with that takes up so much time, and then you get used to it, and then soon enough that’s what you focus on again.

So maybe reversing everything isn’t entirely practical, but this time when I got home, I determined that I would somehow keep that feeling of being at an artist’s residency in my everyday life.

Obviously, daily responsibilities never end, but I think what’s really different about being at an artists’ residency isn’t just dedicating the extra time to work, but also the mental expansiveness that comes with allowing yourself to actually do that, and that can be cultivated at home.

I’ve come up with a series of practices that have contributed to the feeling of living like I’m at an artists’ residency all the time. Here are:

Five Ways to Live Like You’re at an Artist Residency

1. Don’t let your home become a storage unit.

Every time I come home from a trip, not just an artists’ residency, I question why I have all these things in the house. When I travel to a residency, I take with me just the tools I need for my work, and the clothing and supplies I’ll need while I’m there. There’s a beauty to having just what you need and what brings you joy around you, and paring down means less cleaning time, less dusting, less tidying up, and less organizing. While this is an ongoing process for me, in the past couple of years, I’ve found Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up very helpful in clearing unneeded items out of the household, leaving my environment clearer and more focused.

Here’s my example. As a reader and writer, I love books, and for a long time I made my home like a library:


While I loved this, over time, I wanted a cleaner “interface” and I wanted my space to feel more like a museum. When my mom gifted me some of my grandfather’s paintings, I made the decision to make space for them. Any book I’ve donated to the library that I want back, I can always read later on Kindle:


I finally got a piano, but arrangement of my home didn’t represent the permanence I wanted the piano to represent. At first, I had to stage it in the living room on a mobile stand that made it feel cluttered and temporary:

Piano 1
The piano of a transient.

When I redid the living room (by getting rid of stuff), I gave it a restful place that more clearly defined how I wanted the room to be used:

Piano 2
The piano of a music lover.

Alternative: If you can’t have an entire living space optimized as a reminder that creative work is paramount, do it for a specific area.

2. Think of your work first every day

I’ve talked about scheduling before (stand by – article returning soon), and in particular about putting the creative work first on the To Do list, but this can’t be repeated too many times. Get up early. Close yourself in the bathroom for 10 minutes. Take a little solitary time at lunch. Even if there isn’t time to have an hours-long creative session, carving out a dedicated time to think about your work keeps your mind in the game.

3. Don’t prioritize drudgery over creativity.

We don’t usually have to do as much cleaning and cooking at an artists’ residency, and there are ways to approach this at home, as well. I once had a boyfriend who wanted to change his life and career, but he didn’t have the time to study for his systems administrator credentials. He did a cost/benefit analysis and decided that the cost of eating out every single night while studying his material would ultimately bring a greater reward in time savings than the monetary savings that meal planning, shopping, and cooking would provide. One year after taking up this plan, he passed his credentialing exam, secured a new position, and paid back the loans that bought him the time to do the study. This was an eye-opening idea for me, and I have been inspired by it ever since.

Last year during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I figured out that in order to make my word count ever day (1,667/day in order to reach 50,000 for the month), I couldn’t do any cooking, so for one month I ordered takeout, which, ultimately, didn’t cost that much more than shopping and cooking.

Whether you do like I did and engage in this kind of strategy for a finite period of time, or something longer, it’s liberating to let go of this daily responsibility in favor of increased creative work time.

These are some good alternative to cooking options I’ve explored:

  • Yelp Eat 24 – always discounts available in their twitter feed for ordering delivery from local restaurants
  • Munchery – delivery of complete meals
  • Blue Apron, Green Chef, Sun Basket, Plated, etc.  – cut out the planning and shopping and just do the cooking. So far I’ve tried Blue Apron, Green Chef, and Sun Basket, and each is great in their own way. Sun Basket is next for me.

Same goes for cleaning. If you can swing it, get a cleaning person to do  your house once a week or once a month, and put that time into your work. My sister does this once a month, and I’m totally jealous. If I can get my place presentable enough, I’m going to do the same! (I know, that’s silly – I just get them now…)

4. Take time to explore every day.

At the residency I’m describing above, I went out for hikes in the afternoon. At another, I got up and went for a hike every morning before I settled down to my desk. But in both instances, I was inspired by the landscape around me to get out and engage with the natural world and discover what was around me. An unknown wilderness landscape is a lot more tempting than my everyday suburban neighborhood in Burbank, but I’ve made a commitment to go out for a walk every day even if it’s just around the block.

The truth is, even on a short walk, my imagination and sense of curiosity fire off even though I’m not on a trail about to see a baby bobcat or something. There are still the weird things in the neighbors’ yards, unfamiliar dogs and cats and birds, different flowering plants depending on the season, changing construction projects, and all manner of discoveries to be made. Just adding a minor sense of discovery to every day contributes to the freedom in the mind that traveling often brings. I think one of the reasons days seem so long when we are kids is that every moment was new, and that’s why days seem so full and long when we’re traveling. Bringing time for discovery into each day creates opportunity for the curious mind to become spacious.

5. Cool thing of the day

Along with the feeling of exploration and discovery as part of one’s life comes the satisfaction of reflection. At Djerassi, at dinner, it was with great pleasure that some of us would reflect on what animals we saw that day (lizards, mice, hawks, vultures, owls, deer, horses, baby badgers, banana slugs…) Every night, we had animal report. On a trip to Greece several years ago, my sister and her husband and I would sit together and report to each other what was our favorite moment of the day.

Banana Slug!
Banana Slug!
Baby Badgers!
Baby Badgers! Transfixed by Cat’s Eye Reflective Device.
Yes, that IS a mouse in the silverware drawer!

I find that asking myself this periodically is a good check-in to make sure I am still living with a sense of spaciousness and exploration.  Some good things to ask yourself:

  • Best interaction today
  • Best sentence today
  • Most absurd sight today
  • Best animal sighting

When you’re on the lookout for these things, the day automatically becomes richer.

Even a spider can be the cool thing of the day
Simon with lizard
Even an everyday moment can become magic.

Let me know if you had a cool thing of the day.

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