Guest Post, T.A. Noonan: How to Be “in Residence”

Photo by Erin Elizabeth Smith

One of my first poetry publications was in the February 2006 issue of Stirring. I was, of course, ecstatic, but I had no idea where that poem would lead me. Never in a million years could I have imagined that, nine years later, I would find myself in the middle of an icy pasture, frantically Googling “what does sheep placenta look like”—all because of this one poem.

I should probably explain.

Stirring is the flagship journal of Sundress Publications, and since then, I’ve been involved with them in one capacity or another. At first, it was little stuff, like reading for Best of the Net. Some time later, Sundress published my second full-length collection to kick of their new print series. Then, I was invited to join their editorial board.

In February 2013, I got a phone call from our founder, Erin Elizabeth Smith, that changed my life.

“I bought a farm,” she said. “I’m starting a residency, and I want you to come here and help me build it.”

What do you say to an offer like that?

If you’re me, the answer is “no.”

When it comes to Sundress, though, Erin is not very good at taking no for an answer. By the end of the year, she’d convinced me to quit my adjunct job, move to Knoxville, Tennessee, and serve as one of the first long-term residents at the newly formed Sundress Academy for the Arts at Firefly Farms. And when I stepped onto those forty-five acres, there was one question on my mind.

Now what?

The vast majority of residency advice out there pertains to the application process. People will tell you to know the reasons why you’ve chosen a particular residency (as opposed to various other options out there), to have a clear vision for the project you wish to work on, to express your reasons and vision in your narrative statement, and to workshop your application to make sure it’s strong and cohesive.

But what about once you get that acceptance and arrive at your residency? There isn’t much out there addressing that question. When I asked other writers what I should do, most of them talked about time management. “Use your time wisely,” they said. “You’re there to write, so spend every free minute drafting and revising.” A few suggested that I network in my spare moments, connect with as many editors, writers, artists, and community organizers as possible.

That’s good advice. So is all that stuff about the application process. Still, a good deal of it didn’t apply—no pun intended—to me. I wasn’t there to retreat from my day-to-day responsibilities, focus on my craft, or meet new people; I was helping my colleagues transform a slice of Tennessee “holler” into an artist’s residency. And I still had no real answers.

Photo by Mary Ellen Knight

Eventually, I got them.

Some were easy. Animals had to be fed and watered, common areas cleaned, eggs gathered, plants tended, bills paid. When Sundress staff and community members convened on the farm to work on a project, I’d be handed a crowbar or drill. Pointed to a pile of wood or scrap metal that needed hauling. Shown how to build and repair, salvage and forage.

Others required research. Remember that frantic Googling? Well, I’d never taken raised livestock before, so when I watched our sheep have their lambs in February 2015—what is it about February, anyway? —I was distraught. What should I do? Oh no, what is that? Is it a prolapsed uterus or just afterbirth? Do I need to call a vet? Wash the lambs? Wash the sheep? Put on gloves and do something unmentionable?*

A few were the result of trial and error. I’d also never built bookcases, poured custom concrete countertops, catered a film shoot, run a reading series, or any of the other myriad things I did while at Firefly. During my sixteen-month tenure, I probably failed as often as I succeeded, but experience became my favorite teacher.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to what one should do during a residency, and there are no MFA workshops or BuzzFeed articles that reveal the secrets of being productive while “in residence.” The fact is, a residency is just lots and lots of time. So much time, the sheer amount of it can be overwhelming.

Some residents deal with this by sticking to or creating routines.

Some fill the hours with reading and researching.

Some socialize with everyone they meet.

Some leave their desks and do something—anything—other than whatever project they came to work on.

I’ve even heard of residents sleeping, chasing ducks, or binge-watching Netflix until their eyes throbbed. (Okay, maybe that was all me.)

Your answer to the now what? question might be any or none of these, but no matter what, it has to be your answer. No one can tell you what to do or how to do it—not even me. I may have (literally) written the book on “holler life” at Firefly Farms, but it’s always up for revision. You may come up with something more amazing than I ever did.


* In case you’re wondering, the answers are nothing, placenta, just afterbirth, no, no, no, and no, but it’s February in Tennessee, so you should probably wear gloves anyway. The sheep had it all under control, even if I didn’t.

Guest Blog Post, T. A. Noonan: 3 = 2,964

T.A. NoonanI’m a big fan of constrained writing—the trickier, the better—because it forces me to confront certain limitations and learn to either deal with or break through them. There’s pleasure in that, I think, that goes beyond self-congratulation. Sure, I’ll do a fist pump, but once I get past the initial satisfaction, a question arises: is what I’ve written any good? That’s when the fun begins.

There’s a saying in the NaNoWriMo community: Don’t treat your November novel like a book. Completing a novel is an achievement in and of itself, and the time constraint makes it doubly so. Still, one should not expect the product of a single month’s worth of steady writing to be ready for publication. Said manuscript is, at best, a first draft. The real work starts on December 1st.

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo, but in 2005, I entered the International 3-Day Novel Contest. Here’s a brief summary of how it works: participants write a novel over Labor Day weekend and submit it to the judges, who then select a winner to publish. Think of it as NaNoWriMo on amphetamines.

Why did I do this? There were practical motivations; I was working on a book that was going nowhere and thought a new project composed under pressure might shove me out of my rut. You’ve probably already guessed the major reason why, though. I did it to see if I could. And I did. The end result was more like a novelette than a novel, but I was proud of myself and felt like I had written a winner.

I didn’t. The note that the judges sent months later was very kind, but I wasn’t even a finalist.

By the time I received that note, however, I’d reread what I’d written and recalled this tidbit from the contest’s FAQ: “No writer of sound mind wants an unedited piece of work to go to print and haunt him or her for all time.” They’re right, just like those NaNoWriMo advice-givers are. No matter what, I would have had to revise. The manuscript had good moments, but as a whole, it was a hot mess.

So, I let others read it and collected feedback. I spent months rewriting chapters, fleshing out characters, and adding details. Even with all that work, though, it still wasn’t done. A little over a year later, I abandoned the project. Once in a while, I’d reopen the file and make changes, but for the most part, it just languished on my hard drive.

Strictly speaking, time-based writing projects like the 3-Day Novel Contest, NaNoWriMo, NaPoWriMo, and the now-defunct Script Frenzy, are not constrained writing. There are no requirements for or limitations on content, form, or style. Most writers know, however, that time is itself a constraint because so many things compete for our attention. It’s one thing for writers to set up a writing regimen; it’s another thing entirely for them to actually follow through.

That’s not to say that there aren’t those who keep regular writing schedules and use their time wisely, but if the popularity of time-based writing projects is any indication, there are a lot of writers who don’t. I think such endeavors “work” because they force us to write with equal parts consistency and irregularity, consideration and recklessness.

One hopes that successful completion of a time-based project will translate into something more profound than a fist pump. Many, of course, hope for publication, but there are other victories to be had: developing a routine, learning to push past writer’s block, and building a community of fellow writers. I didn’t do any of that.

I think that’s why my novel manuscript was such a disappointment. I’d succeeded in conforming to a set of rules, but I’d failed in learning anything from them. Instead, I spent several years priding myself in my ability to rise above any writing challenge, largely because I’d written a novel in three days. After all, what else could be more difficult?

The funny thing is, the more constrained writing I did, the more I understood the trick to it. I had to consider form and function, process and result—what kind of text the rules would produce and what objectives such a text could fulfill. Following the rules of a sonnet will indeed generate a sonnet, but that’s no guarantee of the poem’s quality or its suitability to the form. The same is true of any text, really.

About two years ago, I finally dusted off that manuscript. I spent a long time working on it—an hour here, an afternoon there. It was probably the most regular writing I’d ever done outside of a time-based project. I thought about what I wanted to accomplish. I was focused.

This past October, that manuscript was published by the Chicago Center for Literature and Publishing.

Date started: September 3, 2005

Original draft completed: September 5, 2005

Time of completion: 3 days

Length: ~16,000 words

Words per day: ~5,333

Date of publication: October 14, 2013

Final book length: ~25,000 words

Number of revisions (excluding copyediting): 10

Total time of completion: 2,964 days

Words per day: ~8

The above statistics might suggest that I think time-based and constrained writing projects are silly. Nothing could be further from the truth. But sometimes, you hit a wall. The end words to your sestina don’t work. Your flash fictions run a couple hundred words too long. You don’t meet your daily NaNoWriMo goal.

It happens. Learn. Move forward. Keep your objectives in sight. If you hit lots of walls, reevaluate. Find what’s working and what isn’t. Consider your purpose. Don’t be afraid to try something different. If you succeed, congratulate yourself; you’ve earned it. But, in the immortal words of Han Solo, “Don’t get cocky, kid.” Be critical. Be reflective.

Remember, every day is December 1st. The easy part is following the rules. The hard part is turning what you’ve written into something greater than the sum of those rules.


T.A. Noonan’s latest book is four sparks fall: a novella; she promises that the published version is much better than the one she completed on September 5, 2005. Her current project is a procedural translation/reformulation of Horace’s Epodes.