The Do’s and Don’ts of Applying for a Writing Residency
September 23, 2021 § 10 Comments
By M. Betsy Smith
In 2017 I applied for a writing residency held on an island. I had retired as an insurance professional the year before, and only then declared my second career would be as a writer—a long-held dream. I was a hot mess at the time, and my application was a train wreck.
My application didn’t focus on the writing; it was more about my personal struggles with a homeless alcoholic son and a depressed husband. I wanted to write creative nonfiction essays about my journey as the mother of a brilliant but tortured adult child. I was at the beginning of my writing efforts with one published essay, high aspirations and little to back them up. I was desperate for some time off the grid and saw the residency as my escape. And it was free. I had things I wanted to write, but what I wanted more was time alone. Not exactly what the decision makers wanted to hear.
My application was too personal. I was too needy. I was too green.
Although I didn’t see the letters from the women who were my references, I can assume they too addressed my mental health more than my writing ability, especially my Al-Anon sponsor who knew very little about me or my writing goals. What the hell was I thinking?
I did not get the residency; I was crestfallen and took the rejection personally. Four years later, with some solid writing success and a large dose of humility, I reapplied for the same residency. I got this response from the Executive Director:
OMG, this is the most beautiful application I’ve ever seen. Listing your references, separate supporting documents…I’d like you to do a training session for all our applicants!”
Her enthusiasm prompted me to share some Do’s and Don’ts of Applying for a Writing Residency
First, make sure the residency is a good match. Do your research and create a list. Do your objectives and the residency’s align? Is your project specific enough to match the criteria? Is the location accessible? What are the costs, if any? What is the duration, and can you be away for the time offered? You get the gist.
For example, Jental is a fabulous residency offering in Wyoming. Jentel offers a generous stipend for weekly expenses, wonderful accommodations, and inspiring vistas. I would love to apply…but the location and the duration are deterrents at this time in my life. The need to fly, rent a car, plan my meals, and be gone from home for a month put this one in the future-possibility pile. Jentel, like several others, is a prestigious and competitive residency, so be sure you have the chops to do it before applying. Explore the bios and projects of prior recipients. Can you compete? Is your work of the same artistic caliber? Or, could your work grow to be the same caliber if given a chance?
Note that 2022-2023 is especially competitive, because many programs are planning to honor residencies offered for 2020-2021, but canceled due to the pandemic. Watch the dates as part of your research.
Once you have identified a potential residency or retreat, checked all of the boxes on your logistics list, and are ready to apply, do the following:
1. Be thorough. A sloppy or incomplete application does not impress no matter how good your writing is. The gatekeeper initially reviewing your application is not likely the same person who will evaluate your project and/or your creative work for residency consideration. Don’t let your app be put on the bottom of the pile.
2. Know your purpose for applying. Don’t waffle. If you pass the initial application review, you may be interviewed and asked for more information. Provide concrete details about what you hope to do with the time you are allotted. Share your commitment to your work. Will you pursue your goals with or without the residency?
3. Your project should represent full-time work plus. Let the judges know the residency will be well utilized to accomplish the stated goal(s). That doesn’t mean you can’t take time to explore new and unfamiliar surroundings, and in fact most residencies never check your actual output, but a productive plan is important to residency sponsors.
4. Select appropriate and objective references who can knowledgeably speak to your work and your work ethic. They should like you, but it’s not a requirement.
5. Demonstrate your passion! If you are blasé about your project, don’t bother submitting an application. Believe in what you are doing and it will show in how you present yourself.
6. Be patient, grasshopper. Success, like art, takes time. If a residency will help you to achieve or propel an idea, don’t give up.
I know if I am not awarded the applied-for residency in any given round it is not because of me or my application; it’s because the competition is stiff. Just like submitting pieces of my writing, rejection is a part of the process. I won’t stop trying; nor should you.
M. Betsy embarked on a career as a writer five years ago after retiring from her job as an insurance underwriter. Her work has been published by Refinery29, The Write Launch, Entropy, Brevity, and the WriteAngles Journal. When she’s not writing she enjoys reading, a hot cup of British tea, and petting all the neighborhood dogs.
June 3, 2015 § 14 Comments
When I’m at a residency, I get up very early, usually around four. I don’t go on social media, or argue in comments sections. I lie in bed and think about what I’m working on for a little while, then get up and brush my teeth in silence instead of with podcasts. I go to whatever place I’ve made “my” place (at Atlantic Center for the Arts it is this small and beautiful library, pictured right), and write until the sun comes up. Then I have coffee and cereal, then write some more.
Around noon it’s naptime. Sometimes there’s a class in the afternoon, or I meet with another writer to discuss our work, or there’s lunch with other writers around a big table. Dinner is cooked by someone else–in fact, I do not have to plan a meal or think about groceries or make a list. That’s always the most surprising freedom–how much mental space is opened up by not spending any time thinking about food, by sitting down to a meal I know will be delicious and healthy and taken care of by someone else.
In the evening I watch the sun set and write some more, enjoying the dusk turning into darkness and the sounds outside becoming nighttime sounds. I walk back to my room, passing studios with lights on as other writers work through the night.
It’s like camp for grownups.
Artist residencies are one of the great gifts we can give ourselves, and one of the greatest things that foundations and organizations do for writers. It’s lack of responsibility, mild-to-medium structure, very mild networking, and open time. It’s where we can discover what our process is like when we’re not squeezing our process into the all-too-small spaces in our lives.
Generally, residencies fit into one or two of four broad categories:
Pay-to-Play: If you’ve got money, you can go. Residencies like Wellspring House and Cambridge Writers Workshop ask for a resume and work sample to demonstrate seriousness of purpose, but they are open to writers of varying skill and experience levels. It’s often possible to apply for a grant from your own local arts council to cover the expenses.
Juried: There’s a serious and sometimes highly competitive screening process. Writers submit some combination of work samples, project proposals, resumes and recommendation letters. Usually these residencies–like Headlands and Atlantic Center for the Arts are free or the cost is low. Some, like Jentel, even offer a stipend, or have fellowships available to defray the cost of travel or childcare.
Workshop-based: The teacher is frequently the draw for residencies like Omega Institute (where Brevity’s Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore will be teaching Mindfulness and Writing July 10-12) and Dani Shapiro’s Sirenland workshop.
Wide Open Space: The writer is on their own–it’s your project time to use as you wish, and “productivity” might mean pages or it might mean long walks, deep thought, and a new understanding of your own process. Residency big dogs like the venerable Yaddo and The Macdowell Colony are structure-free but provide meals; Writing Between The Vines is free of even other artists.
Many residencies are a mix. For example, Ragdale provides meals and fellow artists, has a moderate fee, and is highly competitive. The Kenyon Writers Workshop is a juried pay-to-play that’s focused on workshops and generating assignment-based work.
If you can, you should. It’s astonishing how much we are responsible for in our daily lives, and how little falls apart when we step away from our ‘duties.’ Not all of us can take two months, or even three weeks, but residencies like Omega’s Mindfulness and Writing and Hedgebrook’s Vortext are three-day weekends that can refocus your work, re-energize your process, and reassure your writer self that yes, you’re doing it right.
There’s a great list of writing residencies at The Write Life, and I’ve found the directories at ResArtis and the Alliance of Artist Communities to be terrific resources. If you’ve had a residency you found transformative, please tell us about it in the comments–one of the best ways to find a residency is from another writer’s willingness to share a place they love.
Visit RebirthYourBook.com for information on upcoming retreats, intensives and special events. Coming in 2023: Rebirth Your Book in Costa Rica, plus Rebirth Your Writing virtual retreats in January and May.