Have I Got a Residency for You

November 1, 2016 § 10 Comments


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Scenes from a Writers Retreat

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.
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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.

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§ 10 Responses to Have I Got a Residency for You

  • davidwberner2 says:

    I’m had two residencies, and neither involved a shovel, a backhoe, or a dust rag. The Jack Kerouac Project in Orlando was superb. Stay in his house, live, and work, write in the space where Jack wrote The Dharma Bums. The only thing that might be required to “fit with the mission” was to hitchhike or frequent a local tavern. Kidding! Only requirement: a reading and a one-day workshop. Three months in Jack’s place. Three months in heaven.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    This is a helpful essay. It is wise to think through what is asked in return for “free” time. Not everyone is comfortable pulling weeds or washing dishes, even if for only brief and scheduled periods of time. Not everyone is willing to read their work to strangers.

    My perspective is somewhat different. I have attended two residency/writing programs. One was The Flight of the Mind where I enjoyed the company of 80 other women and all we thought about was writing for a week. Those weeks made me a writer. I wrote thousands of words and I felt I had no obligation to do a thing other than be the best writer I could be. There were no chores, but my days were scheduled. I shared meals, class time, evening readings, runs and walks and day trips with other attendees and I still managed to write and feel like a writer.

    The other was a weeklong retreat that required absolutely nothing but that I share the kitchen and bathroom with one other writer. She told me immediately that did not want to talk or share meals or commune. She wanted private time. Some of the time she made beaded bracelets and I watched reruns of Grey’s Anatomy. It was a miserable week and I accomplished less than I should have—it should have been wonderful but it was merely lonely.

    The difference was not that one experience provided meals and the other did not. The difference was the one provided community and the other did not. One provided me with a schedule focused on writing. One demanded more of me in terms of time spent with others talking about writing, listening to others’ voices, and sharing.

    Some might find such requirements to “give back” to a program an inconvenience, while others might recognize an opportunity.

    Tension is a great provoker of creativity. I would suggest that an hour a day of required work is not remotely equivalent to the 24/7 demands of being “at home.” That hour or those hours spent doing something else while “in retreat” are the rub that might build fire, the tension that sustains effort and frames a day of hard work writing. Human beings require, in fact, physical release to be healthy. Actual movement making the mind move. Perhaps, for someone like me, such program might provide necessary physical accompaniment to the other, harder, work.

    • I wish I could “like” this a hundred times. My life-changing experience was with the Feminist Women’s Writing Workshops in the mid-1980s. That’s where I learned that I really was a writer, where I learned critique skills that have stood me in good stead ever since (I’m an editor by trade, a writer by avocation), and where I became part of a community of dedicated women writers with whom I could share work and encouragement in the years following. FW3 is no longer, but I’m still connected to it through some of its other alumnae.

      • Jan Priddy says:

        Thank you! I continue to be in contact with women from my first writing residency too. I was fortunate to attend The Flight of the Mind for several years, but that first year as I drove away I had to pull off the highway and cry. It was not sadness but an overwhelming feeling that my life had changed. It was a willingness—eagerness!—to embrace my experiences of the previous week. I had already written a novel, but still had not been able to think of myself as “a writer” until then.

  • I’ve been on four residencies and none required outside work or community involvement.
    While I can understand how some writers might shy away from participating in what amounts to manual labor, I’m also aware, as a long-distance runner, how physical work and movement benefits writing and the creative mind. Since I come up with my best ideas while running or doing yard work, I’d be more apt to apply for a residency that leans toward physical work than writing related activities such as readings/school participation, etc.
    I can’t imagine sitting and writing all day without getting up and moving for a few hours, without some time of movement-related work or activity. Maybe some writers can do this. Me, I need to get outside and clear my mind. Baling hay or raking leaves after six, eight or ten hours of writing sounds like a small slice of heaven.

    • Jan Priddy says:

      Exactly. 😉 I woke at 5am, wrote a thousand words, and then went for a long walk between rain showers, made breakfast and now I am back to the real work.

    • Same here. Writing snags untangle and ideas surface in my head when I’m out walking with my dog, or when I’m kneading bread. As an editor, I spend a lot of time sitting. Over the years I’ve figured out that I work better if I’m out of my chair for 10 minutes out of every billable hour, and if I take a longer (unpaid) break every three hours or so. I also do my first-drafting in longhand, with fountain pen and ink. My body seems more engaged that way than when it’s just fingers on keyboard, and the channel to my subconscious is more open.

  • cinephile says:

    Great piece of writing this.It does reflect some of my own thoughts and I could really resonate with this .Keep it up!!

    Btw I write a blog as well.It’s about Movie reviews .Please drop by and feedback is always welcome.Thanks.

  • Emily Nato says:

    Very true,this program is good and easy to work with.

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