Friday, September 25, 2015

Your Stay at a Writer’s Colony Is a Fabulous and Frugal Choice

I’m a poet and a playwright, and as many writers like me, I find myself ever needing more dedicated time to write.  Even though I am now fortunate enough to work my day job from home, scheduling my own hours to complete assignments and attend conference calls, you’ll find me in-between those hours keeping keen watch on my computer and phone for incoming messages and requests.

By midday I may be off to teach yoga for a few hours at a time, and just when I return home to send off more tweets and Facebook posts on behalf of my employer, and maybe even then try to squeeze in writing a poem, another scene or a blog post such as this, I'll look at the clock and suddenly see it’s time to make dinner for my husband who’s spent another wall-to-wall weekday pounding that challenging turf called teaching English at a Chicago public high school.

Yes, like many writers who juggle life and work schedules, I yearn for more time to write. My writer husband definitely does as well.  Beyond that, simply as people and as a couple, we need a scheduled vacation every once in a while. Here’s the question: Why not combine both vacation and dedicated time to write, and apply for a stay at a writer’s colony? My answer to that question is, yes, I have done so a number of times, and stays at colonies have been among the most interesting, satisfying and creatively prolific vacations yet. 

I have gone solo, as well as with my husband, one time even bringing our small son along to a private writer’s casita in the New Mexican mountains for two weeks, where we mixed writing with side excursions to Albuquerque, Taos and Santa Fe. I have spent two weeks at a working organic fruit and vegetable farm, pitching in with farm chores in the mornings and writing in the afternoons and evenings in an off-grid cabin. I have served as a writer-in-residence in a circa 1835 townhouse in the rolling hills of southwest Wisconsin, and stirred up recipes that inspired food poems in the culinary suite of a writer’s colony in Arkansas.

Most recently, my husband and I were both accepted for a two-week residency at Rivendell Writers’ Colony in Sewanee, Tennessee, (pronounced swan’-knee) situated about four miles from the heart of town, in a grand old stone manor overlooking spectacular Lost Cove, an area where writer Walker Percy spent many a summer sojourn.  I chose to apply to Rivendell as it’s a day’s drive from our home in Chicago, while at the same time knowing the breathtaking Cumberland Plateau terrain would offer a total change from our urban life in the Midwest flatlands.

I chose Rivendell because while it’s part of an estate with a long history, it has been transformed into a writers’ colony only over the past few years. Not too many people know yet about this gem. The time to apply was now!

I also chose Rivendell because of its emphasis on food writers.  The Southern Foodways Alliance holds periodic workshops at Rivendell, and one of its directors serves as an advising editor to Rivendell. The colony director Carmen and her husband Michael nurture a lush garden of raised beds near the manor house, where residents can sometimes pick lettuce, tomatoes, herbs and other seasonal offerings to add to their meals.  

That brings me to mention Rivendell’s two kitchens, one country style and the other commercial grade, where residents can prepare and cook their own meals.

And lastly, I chose Rivendell because it is a short drive from the University of the South, home to Sewanee School of Letters, Sewanee Review and the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. Sewanee Review is one of the oldest literary magazines in the U.S., started in 1892. And the Sewanee Writers’ Conference has been an annual event for more than 20 years, gathering poets, playwrights and fiction writers from across the country. What a literary atmosphere in such a magnificent corner of Tennessee.

So what’s so frugal about a stay at Rivendell, which requires a fee for your residency, and where you need to supply your own food and cook your own meals? Firstly, the subsidized cost of a two-week stay is far less, perhaps one third or even a quarter of what you’d pay for a comparable hotel stay, if you are accepted as a writing resident. And, just as an aside, how many spots where you've stayed offers an open-air deck where you can practice yoga on a cool morning?

I don’t know about you, but the more I learn about food, the harder it seems to find restaurants where I’d care to dine.  When establishments serve Grade A eggs or meats, it does not mean that the animals weren’t factory farmed or fed GMO grains.  I eat more organic food than ever, and sometimes the only way to make sure I’m getting the caliber of meals using the wholesome foods I prefer is to cook them myself. 

As a food poet, of course, cooking (and even drinking) are surely part of my research! Even making different popcorn recipes that I shared with other residents in the evenings helped inspire a new poem. What could be more frugal and fantastic than passing around a bowl of buttery popcorn, chatting on the outdoor patio overlooking the cove, and checking out Rivendell’s vivid sky full of stars.

Of course, frugality-wise, it didn’t hurt that I also applied for and received an Illinois Arts Council Professional Development Grant to help fund my stay, food purchases and road trip expenses. 

Check your local arts council and see what type of help they can extend for writing retreat stays to help you complete your latest writing project. At Rivendell, I did just that, writing a number of new poem drafts (sometimes two a day) to add to my current manuscript, “Botanical Bandwidth: More Poems About Food, Drink, Herbs and Spices.”

In addition, it just so happened that the first week of our summer residency at Rivendell also coincided with the last week of the Sewanee Writers Conference taking place in town.  Besides the paid workshops and meetings the conference participants attended (of which we weren’t part of and costs upwards of $3,000), there was a sizable schedule of daily lectures and readings open to the public, free of charge. 

Not only did we enjoy two lectures on fiction writing and one on playwriting, we personally met some of our favorite writers who were on hand, including poet A.E. Stallings and fiction writer Tim O’Brien. What frugal serendipity!

Noteworthy to any working vacation, the town of Sewanee is surrounded by a spectacular network of hiking trails, with views that are priceless. What writing experience isn’t enhanced by an inspirational hike through the woods?

Find out more about Rivendell.

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