Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Create and Connect: Making the Most of Your Writing Residency

A reflection in light of the 2015 AWP Minneapolis panel discussion

Minneapolis, Minnesota
As a poet and writer, I try to get away for a devoted chunk of special writing time at a writer’s colony/writer’s residency/writing retreat every other year or so. When I learned that the AWP conference, held in Minneapolis this year, was hosting a panel on writing residencies, I made sure to be there. The following are highlights from the panel, interspersed with my own reflections and experiences when it comes to residencies.

“Create and Connect” panelists were either writers who’d done their own stints at writing residencies such as Yaddo, Ucross, Anderson Center, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center and others, or writers who also administered writing residencies at such places as Hedgebrook in Washington State or Firefly Farms in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

I don’t think I met one person at AWP who wasn’t a writer, no matter whether he or she were also a teacher, publisher or administrator. And last count, I think there were 16,000 people in attendance at the Minneapolis conference. That’s a lot of writers!

Panelist and writer Kathleen Ossip is also a mother, and getting away from an active family to a writing residency is no small feat. Juggling childcare, children’s schedules, clothes packing, each child’s eating habits, budgets and all the prep work that comes with organizing a two-week residency away from your kids most likely takes as much time and care as the residency itself, according to Ossip. Because of this, she stresses that working parent writers deserve the residency they so carefully plan and change their life for, and need to make the most of it.

As a writer, teacher and mother, Ossip has to have her act together to make each role happen and take place with a devoted heart, and she definitely seems to have heart, balance and nerve. She bemoans the fact that many residencies that offer longer-term stays don’t take into account that many writers have children, making it difficult to be away from home for more than two weeks.

At the Q and A, I brought up the My Time Fellowship for Writers with Children, an annual fellowship offered by The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, for writers with children at home under the age of 18. The fellowship includes a two-week residency with meals, and a $1,500 stipend to help pay for childcare while the writer is away from home. Many hadn't heard about it and were glad I mentioned it. Unfortunately, only one person per year is awarded this grant.

Kathleen Ossip also suggested alternatives to actual residencies for those who can't get away from home, such as one-night-a-week dinner take-out residency; one night at motel residency without the kids, who stay with grandma or dad; weekend mini-residencies organized ad hoc with fellow writers; month of July residency at home, trying to be a little more writing focused while doing everything else. Here are some other ideas for stay-at-home writers' retreats.

Other discussions among the panelists included what it’s like as an administrator to start up a new writing residency -- and the importance of taking time to have fun and enjoy your surroundings while at a residency. It shouldn’t be all work, work, work, according to writer Sally Franson. Go hike, make friends, do handstands, don’t necessarily take the Calvinist approach to your work. Franson said, "A residency is a place to face yourself and what you're into or are writing; a place to be the true you. You fill yourself back up." 

Ossip suggests honing in on your work during the day and at least earmarking your residency evenings for outside activities and socializing with other writers. She added that in the two- or three-week residencies she's experienced, she got more done than six months at home with kids around. She also added, "Don't be upset if you don't reach your goals. But you may also reach or exceed your goals." 

I tend to side with Ossip. With so many other distractions in my life in Chicago – work, family, friends, poetry readings, yoga classes, more, I find a residency away from the urban hub-bub as a time to really focus on my writing in an uninterrupted manner. During a week in a Wisconsin cabin at a retreat center, I fitfully completed forty pages of a first-draft play and several mandala colored-pencil drawings (unrelated to the play!), while also taking time to enjoy meals with other residents and opt for a few onsite yoga and meditation activities. It was an exhilarating week, a lot of effort, and a deeply satisfying start to a new work under my belt.

Panelist, writer and Hedgebrook alumni Allison Green outlined the process the women-only colony takes to whittle its 1,000 annual applicants down to 40 residents for the year. Thankfully, many residency programs are not as competitive. A special hint many panelists gave for aspiring applicants is to choose any other time of year than the summer months for one’s residency, as this is the prime time many educators and/or parents with children take time to leave home.

To my mind, residencies where a formal cost is involved are often less competitive to get into than those that either completely cover the cost of the residency or carry a nominal fee. As well, programs that accommodate only a smaller amount of residents at a time, such as the Millay Colony or Ragdale, as well as Hedgebrook, can be highly competitive. One’s state or local arts council may have grant programs that can help cover the costs of a residencies that come with a price tag. Funding can include travel expenses to and from, if such grants are available that particular year and an aspiring resident applies within a reasonable amount of time beforehand.

Someone in the audience asked how to go about choosing the right residency program. Poets & Writers Magazine maintains a Conferences & Residencies Database through which one can narrow down venues by state, type and cost, if any. AWP itself also maintains an online database called Directory of Conferences and Centers. And one of the panelists suggested the Alliance of Artists Communities http://www.artistcommunities.org

Other aspects I would personally consider in choosing a residency include how isolated the venue may be -- or not (in the wilderness, the city or near a quaint town?); how difficult or easy the colony may be to travel to (close to an airport or within driving distance from home?); how many other writers to expect in attendance (would you rather to be by yourself or a few others, or surrounded by a nurturing – or competitive – network of perhaps dozens of writers?), and the emphasis or culture of the particular colony.

At a place such as The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, I heard that residents can enjoy the best of many chosen worlds; to write all day in one’s assigned cabin with a delivered lunch basket, as well as interface with scores of other writers at the main house during dinner and after-hours activities – or not, according to one’s preferences. A poet I met at the AWP conference told me she’d been a resident at MacDowell 12 times(!!) and loved each one of her stays. Thus, she’s inspired me to apply some year soon.

I strongly feel (again, it’s a personal opinion) that the ideal way to select a residency is to pre-visit the venue itself, perhaps during a road trip to another place you’re going to anyway. When visiting friends in Burlington, Vermont, my writer husband and I made a short side trip to the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont. We called ahead and one of the administrators was kind enough to take us on a personal tour. In many unique ways, the colony is the town of Johnson itself, its various venues, studios, performance centers and lodging areas dotting the entire area. However, as beautiful as the place, the town, and the people were, we both felt the center placed overwhelming emphasis on artists rather than writers among its 700 annual residents.

On a different trip out west to visit a friend’s farm in Montana, we three poet travelers stopped for an hour at the Ucross Foundation in the Wyoming foothills, again calling ahead and getting a friendly reception. This peaceful, ranch-style, getting-away-from-it-all haven with an equal mix of writers, artists and musicians had a lot of appeal – and its own art gallery and library.

Where have I taken residencies myself? I started back in the 90s with my husband and young son at La Casita in Jemez Springs, New Mexico (our little family in a little casita in a sweet little mountain town; program no longer in existence), then jumping ahead 10 years -- two residencies at The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow, Eureka Springs, Arkansas (among five or six other residents at any given time; I was lucky to end up in its fantastic, fully-equipped Culinary Suite for food writers), Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point, Wisconsin (a solo residency, now for Wisconsin writers only), The Poetry Farm in Wisconsin (a work/writing program, no longer in existence), The Christine Center in Willard, Wisconsin (where I spent a week writing a play in a cabin thanks to an Illinois Arts Council Grant), and the Rivendell Writers' Colony in Sewanee, Tennessee, a newer venue in a vintage Old South mansion, where both my husband and I look forward to residencies this summer.

Want more details? If you comment below with questions or your own experiences at any of these wondrous places, I’ll be happy to answer or chat.


1 comment:

Tony Grant said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about not just the challenges of finding a residency program that's suitable, but some practical thoughts on how to make it happen.

I just wanted to also share: the Sustainable Arts Foundation is a non-profit whose mission is to support artists and writers with children. They offer grants to residency organizations that make their opportunities more available to parent artists. Their list of grantees highlights organizations that are explicitly thinking about hosting parents.