Getting In: Writing the Perfect Residency Application

June 13, 2017 § 4 Comments

They all rocked their Artist Statement

It’s residency application season!

Well, it’s always application season. Spring applications for fall residencies, fall for spring, summer whenever, and that really prestigious place we apply to a year in advance and just figure we’ll cancel everything else in our lives if we get in. The joy of looking at our calendars and trying to figure out whether we can legit send the kids to camp and get someone to watch the dog six months from now! Nothing says fun like summarizing one’s job history, publications and self-worth in a one-page statement, CV, and work sample!

Glendaliz Camacho understands, though–from the Other Side of the Desk, she describes jurying applications and the delicate balance of Writer-Needs-This-Time-to-Succeed vs Writer’s-Already-Good-Enough-to-Be-Here:

-All I look for from a resume or CV is continual involvement, effort, and learning. Not publication in The New Yorker.

-That’s not totally true. Maybe that’s all I look for but I do notice if there are honors and publications I recognize. Too many of them and it does give me the feeling that this person is swimming along just fine and will do so with or without this residency. Too few and I wonder if it’s due to the quality of the writing.

I’ve been accepted to a few residencies, and rejected from a few more, and literally the same application packet–same work sample, same artist statement, one paragraph revised to say why I want to study with that writer/at that place–has led to both those results. Once you’ve got a solid application you’re happy with, it really isn’t personal.

As a theatre professor, I told student actors they only needed one strong minute of monologue–the auditioners know right away if they want to work with you. That’s true about writing, too. Readers can tell from the first paragraph if they’re in good hands. I also taught that, as terrifying as it feels, auditioning is not an adversarial process. Jurors want you to be good. Each time someone opens a residency application and flips to the work sample, what they’re hoping for is “Yes! This is the person who is going to be perfect!” They are looking for reasons to accept you. And you can give them those reasons:

Send your best work. Check the guidelines carefully–if it says, send what you’re planning to work on, send the very best pages of that. Run those pages past a writer friend, even if the whole piece isn’t ready. If the application doesn’t require what you’re proposing to work on, send your very best pages in the genre of your application. Unless they specify unpublished, it’s often worth it to send something published, because that’s been polished under a stranger’s eye. It doesn’t matter if that’s not the project you’re working on–this where they want to see results. If you don’t have many (or any) publication credits, this is the time to show how your work is so good, it’s going to be published sooner or later.

Speaking of publication credits, know your level. Near the beginning of their writing career, a writer is unlikely to get in to Yaddo, Macdowell, Hedgebrook or the Millay Colony. Don’t waste your time and application fee; apply to a place that’s within your same general accomplishment level. Find this out by looking at profiles of past residents. If the website doesn’t list bios, search for Name of Residency + “author” and see who pops up. Do they all have Pulitzers? Maybe wait until your book deal. Are they publishing in the same literary magazines you are? Full steam ahead! If you’re still uncertain, ask your mentor/teacher/workshop leader. I was surprised to hear that my teacher thought it was a good idea to apply to a residency I’d assumed was beyond my reach; I would also have valued him saying, “Maybe wait until you have more publications.” If you’re worried about your qualifications and it’s within your financial reach, try a pay-to-play residency, where the odds of getting in are better and then you have one residency already on your CV. Some paid residencies are income-sensitive, too, and that’s worth looking for or asking about.

Be honest–within limits. A pure, direct statement of your need and ambition can be captivating on the page. But this is not the time for pipe dreams or raw discussion of the faults we all have. Don’t tell them you have a hard time finishing work at home. We all do. Focus on what that specific venue, geographic location, philosophy of work, or master teacher has to offer you. Tie in something unique to that residency to something unique about you. “I want to work with Writer Who Makes Collages A Lot because I’m eager to expand my work in collages and build a chapbook from my publications in Journal of Collage.” “I’m working in soundscapes and want to bring my equipment and use it in the music studio available at this residency site.”

Glendaliz Camacho’s blog post is full of brilliant, reassuring, enlightening information on reading and writing applications (and a wonderful digression into telling-vs-showing in describing setting). In particular, she points out “A great artist statement tells a story,” and “A great work plan is plain and direct.” Go read the whole thing.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her favorite residency venue is Atlantic Center for the Arts.



Who Do You Think You Are?

September 27, 2016 § 7 Comments

woman-looking-in-mirror-vintageIt’s residency application season. Again. So many cool places to go: A modernist treehouse in Switzerland! A quaint Arkansas village! Cabins for women in the Pacific Northwest!

Residency applications are usually pretty easy to start. Name, rank and serial number, give the CV a once-over to make sure my most current publications are listed, fret for an hour over what to include in the writing sample. Summarize a project I might have started/finished/still be working on nine months from now, figure out who to bother for references–again.

And then I get to the Artist Statement. What issues and ideas inform your working process? How will the residency positively impact you and your work?

Ummmm…I wanna hang out in the woods with other writers while someone else does the dishes?

Sadly, that’s probably not going to get me in, even if I could expand it to 500 words. Writing the Artist Statement feels huge. It feels opaque and pretentious. It feels like walking a tightrope between “Huh, kind of a boring artist…” and “Gosh, she brags a lot, doesn’t she?”

If you are experiencing the same pain, the Artist Statement Guidelines at Getting Your Sh*t Together may help. While aimed at visual artists, the basic principles definitely transfer. As a writer, I’d paraphrase their most important elements as:

  1. Write it in the first person, and in your own voice. This is another chance to introduce the community to who you are, and bring your resume and project alive in their minds.
  2. Ask yourself “What am I trying to say when I write, beyond the message of a single piece?” “What writers/genres/cultural movements/politics/periods in history influence my work?” “How do my methods of working (form, voice, deliberate creative decisions) support the content?” “What are specific examples of these elements in my work?”

GYST suggests this format for a general introduction to your work, a body of work, or a specific project:

  1. Open with the work’s basic ideas in an overview of two or three sentences or a short paragraph.
  2. The second paragraph should go into detail about how these issues or ideas are presented in the work.
  3. If writing a full-page statement, you can include some of the following points:
    • Why you have created the work and its history.
    • Your overall vision.
    • What you expect from your audience and how they will react.
    • How your current work relates to your previous work.
    • Where your work fits in with current contemporary art [for us, literature].
    • Sources and inspiration.
    • [Writers] you have been influenced by or how your work relates to other [writers’] work, other influences.
    • How this work fits into a series or longer body of work.
    • How a certain technique [form or presentation] is important to the work.
    • Your philosophy of art making or of the work’s origin [how did you come to be working on this, and how it fits your overall mission].
  4. The final paragraph should recapitulate the most important points in the statement.

GYST also suggests two technical elements we’d be well-advised to use in all our writing, whether applications, fiction or nonfiction:

  • Vary sentence structure and length. The length of a sentence should relate to the complexity of the idea.
  • Organization of detail is important. Significant ideas should be at the end of each sentence for emphasis.

Even if you aren’t applying for anything right now, writing an Artist Statement can be an exercise to help you consider your body of work, what you’ve accomplished so far, and where your ambitions lie. If you’re wavering between two projects, knowing your mission as an artist will help you pick. If you’re feeling stuck in your career, your artist statement could help you choose a new track, or recommit to the important elements of what you’re already doing.

Check out the GYST Artist Statement Guidelines, and get started–really, it’s not that bad.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines, now available on Amazon.

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