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Changing Light

A writer reflects on the precious gift of time spent at artists’ residencies.

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WHEN I ARRIVED at my very first artists’ residency, perched on a mountaintop in Northern California, I faced an expanse of fog meandering across rolling hills, redwood groves, and the Pacific Ocean in the distance. This hard-fought gift of time was preceded by several months of planning: arranging my work schedule to take a month off, declining the invitation to a best friend’s wedding, and managing the big, fat weight of both the impostor syndrome and self-doubt I toted with me every time I sat down to write. These spots were coveted, awarded after a lengthy application process. I wanted to feel deserving, but I felt like an intruder within these 600 acres of private hiking trails dotted with past residents’ sculptures. Where would I start? I was overwhelmed, so I took a nap.

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I brought things I thought would keep me grounded and remind me of the Dominican Republic and New York, where I come from: a jewel (in my eyes), a shell, and rose quartz. At 5 years old, thinking I’d found a rare jewel at a flea market in New York City, I pleaded with my grandmother until she paid a single coin. The shell — from a Costa Rican beach where I went surfing my first and only time — was brought to remind me of my bravery … or stupidity? (I can barely swim.) And the rose quartz is from a Reiki practitioner who told me I must resist all judgment — most of all from myself.

Instead of writing, I hiked deep into the redwood forest, followed bunnies and deer on their peripatetic paths, deciphered natural sounds this city girl didn’t recognize, and scanned the ocean for whales, even though I was far from shore. Then I wrote, and wrote, while remembering that my grandmother had never learned to read; that the oversized, counterfeit jewel of a glass cube she bought me now held down the marked-up pages for my novel in progress. When my family immigrated to the U.S. for a better life, they forged a new path for me. Innovation can come from dreaming. My first language is Spanish, I write in English, and I dream in both.

But there is the matter of my process: spitting everything up on the page very quickly and then moving it around until I make something. Even this short essay was cobbled together from a 3,000-word document, scribblings on Post-its, the backs of envelopes from several days’ mail, a dog grooming receipt, voice memos on my phone, and one word written in Sharpie on a brown paper bag from take-out Indian that simply said “Saturn!” This is all manageable for a short essay, but maddening and tear inducing if we’re talking about a novel.

Residencies give me the time to focus on my creative chaos, and I’ve learned from each one beyond the very first. At multidisciplinary residencies, I’ve asked visual artists about process. They’ve talked of how their eyes move around the painting and the decisions they make in composition, and how the properties of their materials dictate their forms of experimentation. Is there an equivalent for writing? A stroke of the brush can be a sentence. Moving ideas around might make me a collagist of words in search of a structure.

During a communal dinner in a storied mansion in Upstate New York, the artists talked about the Oulipo collective, whose founders were 1960s French-speaking writers and mathematicians who sought to create works using techniques of constraint such as lipograms (texts with a particular letter omitted), or by employing equations to determine word placement, a means of triggering ideas and inspiration. I think about how I can use these techniques to break through my writing obstacles. Somewhere in there must be a form for my work. Invariably, I skip ahead and think about how I can apply these techniques to my entire life. There is not enough time to send all the emails, work all the jobs, spend all the time with all the people. I feel motivated to set boundaries, somehow craft an artist’s life that feels sustainable.

Not every residency has the perfect writing chair or the perfect desk. I am short in stature, so I’ve mastered piling and stacking like a toddler with oversized blocks, though every residency manager has certainly done their best to accommodate me, even swapping out furniture when needed. But I always do some rearranging, pushing imperfections aside in a new space to make it what I need it to be, maximize its effect. It’s like falling in love with someone you’ve just met while traveling because you know you only have one weekend to live a whole lifetime together.

At a residency in the Adirondacks, I would leave my studio in the early morning hours to write in a boathouse that opened onto a lake, the mist hovering over the water. I was often joined by a prominent naturalist whose books are about healing and connection. We worked in silence, pierced occasionally by the urgent cries of loons bobbing in and out of the water in a mating dance. The pages I wrote there are suffused with creeping and crawling, the ebbs and flows of nature, living things encroaching on and disappearing from each other’s lives.


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There is not enough time to send all the emails, work all the jobs, spend all the time with all the people. I feel motivated to set boundaries, somehow craft an artist’s life that feels sustainable.

The food I am fed at residencies is often delicious and multicourse. The Zen of eating what you are offered is another path to freedom. Yes, I enjoy cooking, but for me, meal planning kills more than a few brain cells. I just don’t want to think about it, yet eating badly reminds me of the government cheese and canned beets of my youth. Scrounging. I want my art to be generous and expansive. I want the words to flow. I put on pounds after every residency. But I fold my regrets into the number of words written, and all is forgiven.

I have learned throughout my stays that mornings are best, my most productive writing time. My inner critic hasn’t woken up yet; she is still in the haze of dreamland. But residency granola is definitely a thing; every place has its own deliciously homemade mix. At one place, risking the dreaded morning pleasantries was worth the sweet nutty goodness. At a residency in the plains of northeast Wyoming, I woke up before sunrise and watched as deer turned their heads toward the rising sun. We all stood there welcoming the day. Then the deer pronked away from me and disappeared into the brush.

There was a composer who drove from Ohio to one residency in Upstate New York, his trunk full of not only instruments and sheet music, but also telescopic equipment. He set up his telescope on a night clear enough to see the Milky Way. I had not expected to well up with tears at seeing the rings of Saturn in the viewfinder, small but fully formed. The next day at dinner, I couldn’t contain my excitement, explaining to anyone who would listen how I’d seen a whole planet! There was something in the experience of seeing Saturn contained in that place, at that time, that made me think about connections to my work — the worlds I could capture. Distilling experiences into something we could all share. How narratives bring us closer to the truth.

I have learned to let go of rigid plans and allow intrusions from my surroundings into my work, seeing where that could lead me. I’ve figured out a weird time equation: One month of writing at a residency equals about six months of writing at home. It takes extra time to plan for a residency, but time expands once I’m there.

I feel inspired by the artists who arrive with an openness to experimenting with materials in the current environment and using them in their work, allowing the interaction with the place to dictate the direction of their art. Artists gather pinecones, leaves, moss, feathers, stones, even animal bones. I’ve used the quality of the breeze, shifting ocean currents. And in California, I’ve used the brown grass–covered hillsides, tinder for some of the catastrophic wildfires to come. At every residency, I take note of how the changing light hits my workspace, how it influences my work. How might shedding a different kind of light on any one area of my life make a difference? When the light hits my grandmother’s paperweight, I think about how its shade of turquoise blue is still my favorite color.

After several residencies, I can say that I am always changed by the end of each. I tend to the parts of my life and art that I don’t have the time to tend to in the outside world. Listening, watching, taking the world in, unfiltered by the quotidian. Residencies give me time to integrate how I’ve grown as an artist, to meet how I’ve changed as an older, hopefully wiser person.

At my last residency, I picked out a poetry book from a bookshelf in my studio, a memoir in sonnets by the poet Diane Seuss, which she’d started writing in the very same cabin I was sitting in. I read her beautiful dedication to the place and the artists to come, and in the first poem she wrote of her journey to the residency at the mouth of Cape Disappointment. She wrote: “Forget all the way back to where you were before you were born.”

Where to begin the work? First, with remembering.

Artist Residencies to Know About

Writer Yalitza Ferreras shares the best getaways to hone your craft.

  • Blue Mountain Center

    This multidisciplinary Adirondack refuge for artists in Blue Mountain Lake, New York, offers month-long residency sessions and hosts 8–10 weekend conferences per year.

  • Willapa Bay AiR

    Set on 16 acres in coastal southwest Washington state, Willapa Bay AiR offers month-long, self-directed residencies to emerging and established artists, writers, scholars, singer-songwriters, and musical composers.

  • Yaddo

    A famous artist retreat located on a 400-acre estate in Saratoga Springs, New York. Residencies last from two weeks to two months and include room, board, and a studio.

  • Ucross Foundation

    A multidisciplinary artist residency set on a working Wyoming ranch, “its purpose is to bring deeply committed artists into the heart of an unparalleled landscape.”

  • Djerassi

    A one-month residency on a 583-acre ranch in Northern California’s Santa Cruz Mountains.

  • Art Omi

    Art Omi has five distinct residency programs: Dance, Music, Artists, Architecture, and Writers. Room and board are provided in a scenic location in Columbia County, New York.

  • Blue Mountain Center

    This multidisciplinary Adirondack refuge for artists in Blue Mountain Lake, New York, offers month-long residency sessions and hosts 8–10 weekend conferences per year.

  • Ucross Foundation

    A multidisciplinary artist residency set on a working Wyoming ranch, “its purpose is to bring deeply committed artists into the heart of an unparalleled landscape.”

  • Willapa Bay AiR

    Set on 16 acres in coastal southwest Washington state, Willapa Bay AiR offers month-long, self-directed residencies to emerging and established artists, writers, scholars, singer-songwriters, and musical composers.

  • Djerassi

    A one-month residency on a 583-acre ranch in Northern California’s Santa Cruz Mountains.

  • Yaddo

    A famous artist retreat located on a 400-acre estate in Saratoga Springs, New York. Residencies last from two weeks to two months and include room, board, and a studio.

  • Art Omi

    Art Omi has five distinct residency programs: Dance, Music, Artists, Architecture, and Writers. Room and board are provided in a scenic location in Columbia County, New York.

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Our Contributors

Yalitza Ferreras Writer

Yalitza Ferreras is a writer based in California. She is a recent Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, and her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere.

Joanne Ho Illustrator

Joanne Ho is a self-taught artist and illustrator from Auckland, New Zealand. She loves to paint colorful and fun scenes that depict places where she would want to be right now.

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