Writing Residency Programs: Is this what your writing needs now?

by Susan Bearman

Woman reading and writing in cottage

Today’s post is written by regular contributor Susan Bearman.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to write all day—no job, care-taking, or menial tasks to get in the way? For most of us, writing is something we are driven to do, but we usually have to do everything else (often first) to support our writing.

Squeezing writing into every spare minute is a time-honored tradition and many great writers have had non-writing day jobs. Other work affords financial support, of course, but can also provide inspiration. Author Tom McCarthy was a nude model for an art school. Standing stock still for 40-minute stretches, McCarthy said: “I’d run my writing through my head. Run the passages, edit them, think.”

All well and good. but what if you had a weekend, a week, a month, or even a year simply to write? Believe it or not, there are places that provide such sanctuary to writers, called residencies.

What is a Writing Residency?

A residency program provides time and space away from everyday activities to focus on writing. Each program has its own personality, requirements, and atmosphere. In some programs, you pay for your time. In others, you apply for a funded residency. Some offer an active community experience, others provide basic necessities and leave you alone to think and work.

The Gift of Time

“The gift of time and space in solitude cannot be overestimated. It is essential to a writer’s process and difficult to carve out in daily life. Having her own cottage, with meals provided, enables a writer to give full focus to her work and go deeper into her writing process.” — Hedgebrook website

Amy Wheeler, Hedgebrook executive director

I recently spoke with Amy Wheeler, executive director of Hedgebrook, a women-only residency located on 48 wooded acres on Whidby Island just north of Seattle, Washington. Before joining the staff, Amy herself was a Hedgebrook resident. Here is our discussion:

Why should a writer consider a residency?

AW: Residencies provide invaluable time away from the demands of daily life: a 9-to-5 job, the needs of others, and all of the activities and distractions that make it difficult to carve out time and brain-space to be creative. And, in Hedgebrook’s case, a chance to unplug from the Internet. (Our cottages are not wired, though it is a short walk to the communal areas where wi-fi is available.) There is also a mindfulness and intentionality about being in retreat: you have a set amount of time and quiet space to be in solitude (a far too rare opportunity these days), as well as time to be in community with other women writers. All residency programs are set up differently, but at Hedgebrook, only six to seven writers are in residence at a time, each housed in her own cottage in the woods. Their meals are prepared for them with organic produce harvested from our garden. The only requirement is that writers come together at 5:30 each evening, and 1:00 PM on Sundays, to share a meal. Other than that, their time is their own.

When should a writer consider a residency?

AW: When you have a clear sense of how you’ll use the time, and a clear idea of how much time you need and can feasibly take away from your other responsibilities. It’s good to apply for as long as you can stay (writers always wish they had more time once they are here), but also, to be realistic about how long you can be productive. We offer residencies from 2-6 weeks, and our average stay is 3 weeks. We’ve found that a writer really needs to know how she’ll use a month or more of retreat time without going stir crazy.

What are the dos and don’ts?

AW: Do come with a plan about how you will use your time, and be prepared to be flexible. It may well change once you find your flow, but it’s good to have a game plan. Do go easy on yourself, especially in the beginning. No one is watching over your shoulder to see how hard you’re working, how many pages you get done each day, if you meet your deadlines. In fact, it’s okay to take long walks and naps or a soak in the tub, and to read, and get a massage. We encourage it. All of it is part of the process of preparing yourself for the muse to show up. When she does, be ready, dive in and write like there’s no tomorrow.

Don’t expect your residency to be a social event. Writers at Hedgebrook are asked to not disturb each other during the day, unless plans have been made in advance. Don’t expect to be entertained by staff or the other writers in residence. Solitude can be a new thing, and for some of us being in solitude, having a lot of alone time, is uncomfortable at first. Stuff comes up! But stay with yourself, stay in it, and you’ll discover amazing, unexpected gifts. Writers say over and over that they go deeper into their writing than they expected to, take bigger risks than they’ve taken before, and accomplish more here than ever before.

What should one do to prepare for a residency?

AW: Do some research to be sure you are applying for the programs that fit your needs and expectations. If you know alumnae of the program, talk to them about what their experience was like.

Take your time with the application. Don’t try to do it the night before. Our process is competitive (last year 1000 writers applied for 40 slots), and we pay a lot of attention to how applicants answer the short “essay” questions, in addition to their writing sample. Be sure you’re giving the selection committee a real sense of who you are as a writer: what’s your vision, your voice? What do you want your work to do in the world? What impact do you want to have? Why Hedgebrook specifically? And why now? How will coming to Hedgebrook now impact your writing and career in significant ways?

Once accepted, set expectations of how you’ll use the time. What do you want to accomplish? Be sure you go over all of the paperwork so you know what to bring, including any books, files, etc., that you need for your research.

As much as possible, clear the decks of any other “work” so that you can focus solely on your creative writing. Writers who have a hard time unplugging from their jobs or other obligations while in residence end up regretting that their focus was split while they were here.

It’s best to come when you’re in good health. Again, it’s about taking full advantage of the experience. If an illness comes up after a writer is accepted, we’re willing to consider deferring her stay to a future date, if at all possible.

What goals and expectations should writers set for their residency?

AW: Every writer craves time to just write, and we can all use it! But it’s important to have an idea about how you might structure your time, or to have goals in mind, or deadlines … whatever works to keep you focused. For some writers, suddenly having an expanse of time without other obligations and distractions is daunting. We’re used to having obstacles to work around—time constraints, lack of privacy. Take those away, and who are you as a writer? What are your habits? What are your rituals? You don’t have to have all the answers and it’s good to be flexible. Take it easy on yourself as you discover who you are in retreat. We call it the “Hedgebrook glow”: about 48 hours after a writer has arrived, she shows up in the office, her face completely relaxed and open, all of the stress of leaving her daily life and routine, and travel, has melted away—and she’s literally beaming. It’s a beautiful thing to behold, and we see it with every writer.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

AW: One of the surprises that writers find at Hedgebrook is how much they enjoy—in fact, crave—being in community with other women writers. It’s a rare gift to be at the table with women, and to talk, commiserate, laugh, share stories, share work and get supportive feedback from each other. Gloria Steinem, who is working on her new book at Hedgebrook, says, “At Hedgebrook, it’s as if women have taken 5,000 years of nurturing experience and turned it on each other.” I call it Hedgebrook’s radical hospitality—nurturing the nurturer—and I believe it’s essential for the good of all and well-being of the planet that women learn to take care of ourselves and each other.

A Resident’s Perspective

Mary Anne Mohanraj, Chicago-area writer

Chicago-area writer Mary Anne Mohanraj participated in a two-week residency program at Ragdale in July 2012. Ragdale offers a variety of artist residency programs at the historic summer home of Arts and Crafts architect Howard Van Doren Shaw in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, adjacent to a 50-acre prairie preserve.

Mary Anne hoped to complete major revisions and a new draft of her manuscript. She chronicled her Ragdale residency in her “on-going, erratic diary”. Here are a few snippets of her experience. It’s interesting to note how Mary Anne’s observations echo Amy’s thoughts on residencies:

  • Day 1: “I feel very spoiled, having a chef cooking dinner for us six nights a week. There are thirteen artists here, in a variety of genres. … The bed is very inviting. Right now, I am tired tired tired. I brought several travel memoirs with me, for research and inspiration, but I knew that I probably wouldn’t be able to dive right into working, so I also packed a Terry Pratchett to re-read. Good call … the one thing that’s throwing me a little is how very quiet it is here. The quiet will be good, but right now, I can’t play music in my room because the walls are too thin, so it’s a very good thing I have my headphones. The quiet is getting to me.”
  • Day 2: “There is nothing to do here. There is nothing I need to do. I have showered and dressed, made my bed, made and eaten breakfast. … I have no other chores. There is nothing to clean, nothing to organize. Nothing except my thoughts. … I need to slow myself down. Stop and smell the roses. Try not to get stung.”
  • Day 5: “This place is such a gift to the artist … More progress today—two more chapters revised, up to 24,826 words in solid place. I know this pace seems frenetic, but keep in mind that most of these aren’t new words; they’re just moved around. A lot. Still, good work for the day.”
  • Day 12: “Time becomes strange at Ragdale. At first, there’s a bizarre freedom. You can stay up ’til 3 a.m. working on your book, and there’s no real penalty. At the same time that you have this overwhelming feeling of freedom, of endless hours, you have a concurrent awareness that the days are slipping away.”

During her two-week residency, Mary Anne met her goal of creating a new draft. She chose to have a modified retreat, keeping in frequent contact with her local family, with visits and via cell phone.

While having time as a writer is a true gift, taking time away from work and family responsibilities is not always easy or even possible. Finding the right program is also key to a successful residency. Poets&Writers and ResArtis both offer a searchable list of residency programs around the world.

When you’re ready, applying for a residency may be just what you need to put your writing into overdrive.

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