Three ways to… be a writer in residence

Neil Baker shares three tips for making the most of a stint as a writer in residence.

I’ve always fancied the idea of being a writer in residence. It just sounds such a lovely idea. Writing, while residing. Recently, I was offered the chance to give it a go. Would I like to occupy a shed at a music festival, writing about…well, who knows?

The brief was alarmingly open and the accommodation was hardly luxurious – tiny tent, stinky portaloos. But I thought, hey, a residing writer has to start somewhere. So I packed my wellies, bought a trolley-load of wet wipes and set off for the Lounge on the Farm music festival, just outside Canterbury. Here are three things I learned from the experience:

1. Let the residence influence the writing
I envisaged being some kind of roaming digital storyteller. I would wander the festival site using my iPhone to write flash fiction and to shoot, edit and publish short videos. I had my apps installed and tested. I was going to be sooo social media. But when I arrived, I noticed – duh! – that a festival is full of walking, talking, partying flesh-people. It’s much more fun interacting with a real audience than a virtual one. My careful plans were dumped. I let the place I was residing in influence what and how I wrote, and how I shared it with the world.

2. Interact, but have a quiet space of your own
My writing and publishing tools became sharp pencils, paperclips, 3×5 index cards and string. I accosted passers-by and asked them to reveal their most and least favourite words. I strung these together, hung them in the breeze, and made a story out of them. I wrote flash stories and gave them to people as they queued for burgers or sipped their tea. I pinned stories to the walls of my shed. For a home-working freelancer, all this interaction was fantastic. But I was often exhausted, and needed to go to my beautiful writing shed for some downtime. It was a quiet corner of my own.

3. Be open to simple, unexpected benefits
People enjoyed the work I was producing, but they seemed to find the simple fact that I was there, doing my thing, just as interesting. Are you, like, a real writer? What are you doing? Why? Good questions. This was an experimental residency with no measurable outcomes. But I saw how easy it can be to slip a little literature into someone’s life, and how varied, surprising and pleasant the effects can be. Ten words in the right order can make someone laugh, call over their mates, stop, laugh again, then go away “for a bit of a think”. Seeing my words do that, right in front of me, was wonderful.

Writer for business and short story author Neil Baker was at Lounge on the Farm as part of a writing team organised by the ReAuthoring project. For his next residency, he is taking over a bookshop in Whitstable for a day.

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