By Vannessa Barnier
After working 9-5 for six months, I was itching to get into the woods and wash my hair with dirt.
I organize poetry readings in Toronto and do my own writing, and once my job contract ended, I needed to move from capitalism to a sort of expressionism. I found that spending 40 hours working meant that it was difficult to dedicate the rest of my time to writing, so the latter had gone on the back burner for a while. Nearing the end of my contract, the opportunity to participate in a residency for two weeks on an island, in a cabin, presented itself. I opted for this residency because the timing was right, it was financially viable, and–most importantly–I needed the outlet.
I had some projects in mind, but I didn’t settle on anything before reaching the island.
The residency was self-directed, so the pressure was off. I would be able to go about my own projects at my leisure. Often residencies are project-based, with supervision, but this one was loose and I felt the same way. It allowed me to meet the island first, get a feel for my surroundings, take it in, and let my work naturally come out.
Arriving on the island was jarring. After a day dedicated to acclimatization, I got to work. I spent my days thinking, mostly. I thought through ideas standing with my feet in the water, sitting in the middle of the lake in a kayak, on a dock, on circular spots of moss, in a cabin, in bed when I woke up, and at night, in bed in my dreams, in front of the fire, under the moon—which was full, and in Pisces. When ideas came to me, I wrote them down and set them aside. Those whole plot lines, as well as standalone fragments, went into poems and short stories. Then I’d go back out and think some more, returning only to jot another line, keep track of another thought.
I ran out of cellular data after the second night, so, despite the overwhelming urge to check Instagram, I was literally, technologically, unable to. Marooned, my only options were to read, write, draw, exist. This allowed for a heavy outpouring. I was fixated without the negative connotation. There’s a difference between no other options and other options foregone. Given the latter, there was a gentle relationship between me and the writing.
The work I produced is better for the experience. The environment provided me with a mental clarity and freshness that I could not have otherwise achieved elsewhere. Cut-off from my daily life and immersed in completely new surroundings, I had infinitely more to draw from, and more room to write it down. I came away with pages of notes, short stories, and poems to be sorted through, reorganized, and massaged. The raw material I was working with came exclusively from my experience on the island. Feeling uninhibited allowed for an uninhibited output—less reservation, more risks.
My typical practice is spending hours in cafés with the chatter and movement as white noise; writing in a sort of secluded place that is somehow more breathable than an office or bedroom. If the island was my café, then the new version of chatter was silence, and interruptions came not from asking if the seat beside me was taken, but by a breeze. With the finite time, each moment was precious, production was more urgent but not in an anxious way. I’ve written in many different places, but a secluded island was another experience entirely: one that I’d love to experience again.
Writer in Residence Opportunities
I found this opportunity through my Facebook connections—it’s often about who you know. After returning home, I made a list of other residencies for writers (often with other artistic media welcome), some more affordable than others:
Vannessa Barnier is a writer based in Toronto’s west end. During summer months, she hosts the open mic poetry in the park reading series, Legible Intelligibles. Off season, she writes short prose about singular experiences, stretching them out beyond their capacity in a way that is still copacetic. Vannessa has a passion for experiencing writing, both outwardly and inwardly.
You can find her on Twitter as @vjbarnier.
What a wonderful post. I’ve been to some self-directed retreats, but there were always other writers there. They were all productive, but a getaway all on my own sounds heavenly! Thanks for sharing your experience and the referrals.
good narrative 🙂 I have never been to one , definitely share