Have I Got a Residency for You
November 1, 2016 § 10 Comments
by Kathy Stevenson
Most writers I know harbor an inner belief (or maybe it’s a fantasy) that if they could just get away for a week, or preferably a month, and ensconce themselves at a writers’ retreat or residency, it would make all the difference in their writing lives. The scattered notes for a novel would miraculously assemble themselves into a coherent narrative; the poems written in spiral notebooks over a period of years would take on the emotional heft they have been lacking; the deep thinking required for your memoir’s narrative would result in a new breakthrough.
We writers have bought into the notion that “a room of one’s own” is critical to our mental health and literary success. After all, what could be more appealing? Take kids, spouses, dirty dishes, dust balls, and family pets out of the equation, and what comes to your mind first? Perhaps blissful silence, meditative calm, the space to create. It worked pretty well for Virginia Woolf.
Have no fear. What you need is a residency at a writers’ retreat. Browse through the listings in any magazine or website that provides information and inspiration to writers. You’ll read descriptions of secluded wooded glens, private studios, farm-to-table meals delivered right to your door in cute little picnic baskets.
But lately I have noticed a disconcerting trend in several of these offers of space and quiet for writers and artists. As the three excerpts below (from actual residency programs) illustrate, you ain’t gettin’ something for nothing:
Two-week to five month residencies for emerging or established writers. Private room provided in exchange for twelve hours of work per week to help renovate and maintain grounds.
Private studio space for writers. An hour a day of routine caretaking of the property is required.
Residents will assist with fieldwork, research, and other light ranger duties.
But, routine caretaking? Maintaining the grounds? Caretaking and “maintaining the grounds” (such as they are) are the main reasons I sometimes find it difficult to write at my own home.
Nearly every residency program does require some exchange of “labor” as part of a mutually agreed upon quid pro quo. A writer-in-residence is most often called upon to read from his or her work during the residency, usually a way of involving the local community with the residency program. Community involvement with resident artists and writers is critical for the overall financial support these places rely upon, as well as being part of an overall mission of bringing the arts to a wider audience. Often, in addition to a community reading, the resident writer is asked to present a program at a local school.
And I realize that for some residencies, “light ranger duties” or “caretaking of the property” might fit in with the overall mission of the program itself. For a writer whose focus is writing about the environment or ecology, or fly fishing, these might seem like normal and attractive benefits of a potential retreat.
Part of me thinks it might be kind of cool to experience one of these outdoorsy residencies. But then the sane part of me realizes that I don’t want to go to a writers’ retreat in order to bale hay or clear the North Forty or assist with “light housekeeping duties.” I do like to picture my fellow scribes, though – usually wan, fragile creatures, not accustomed to much sunlight – sunburned and itchy and blistered in their flannel shirts and thick-soled boots.
So, check the fine print before you fly off to one of these fantasy camps. You might be better off at one of the old-fashioned kinds of writers’ residencies, where the main activities revolve around drinking, complaining about how hard the writing life is, and gossiping about the other residents and teachers.
Kathy Stevenson‘s essays have appeared in a wide variety of magazines, newspapers, and online publications including The New York Times, Newsweek, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, Tishman Review, and (recently) the Brevity Nonfiction blog. She has had short stories published in Clapboard House, Red Rock Review, South Boston Literary Gazette, and Pioneer Press, and has an MFA from Bennington College.