The daily drudgery of making a living and keeping house can definitely get in the way of writing the next great novel. Going off to a quiet cottage or urban space for full immersion in one’s characters and plot predicaments might seem like a dream, but the truth is a fantasy retreat may be more possible than you think.
Writers’ residencies abound throughout the U.S. and around the world. You can stay in a remote cabin in a national park, settle into a bustling city or immerse yourself in a rural community with a group of artists working in various media.
What exactly are residency jurors and directors looking for when they read through application packages? How can you outshine the competition and earn the chance to focus on your work in an inspiring setting far away from home and deep into your imagination? We spoke with staff members at five residencies in the U.S. and overseas to explore their thoughts on what you should – and shouldn’t – include in your application.
The Cover Letter
D.W. Gibson describes Ledig House at the Omi International Arts Center in upstate New York as “a dreamy, American farmhouse.” Surrounded by views of the Catskills, the historic arts colony has hosted writers, translators and other artists from around the world, as befits its mandate of internationalism. It is the only residency described in this story that requires a cover letter, but the advice can be applied to any writers’ retreat that considers hundreds of applications. Make your point, says Gibson, who is the director of the program, and move on.
“Be direct. Leave out superfluous information and color that isn’t needed,” he says.
It is important, however, to be mindful of the particular focus of the residency when describing why you want to go there and what you expect to get out of the experience.
“Writers should show that they have curiosities beyond American interests,” says Gibson about applying to Omi.
Located in northern Georgia, the Hambidge Creative Residency Program is spread over 600 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“We’re out in the woods and secluded,” says director Jamie Badoud, who advises applicants to clearly explain in their statements exactly why they have chosen to apply to a specific residency. “We want to feel that our particular place will leave a mark on them and their work.”
This advice is echoed by writer and juror Tom Walker, who helped found the Denali artist-in-residence program at Denali National Park in Alaska. Attending artists live in a historic mountain cabin for 10 days and must donate a piece that informs or inspires visitors to the park.
“We’ve rejected applications because the writer says he or she intends to work on a novel about New York City, London, fill in the blank,” says Walker.
In other words, apart from explaining the direction and concept of your work, be clear in answering the question “Why here?”
The Baltic Writing Residency offers its winning writer a one-month stay in a five-star hotel in Riga, Latvia, with a $1,000 stipend. For that big pay off, its application requirements are lean compared to other programs. The residency asks for only a writing sample, references and a resume, but director Adam Day stresses that he is primarily looking for one thing: “the best writing we can find.”
The resume, a requirement of nearly all residency applications, mainly serves to shine a spotlight on the writer.
“We look at the CV after we’ve read the work as a way to get to know the applicant better,” says Day, citing the example of one writer who submitted a fantastic sample and turned out to be a college freshman. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should skimp on this essential step. Just be sure to follow the instructions.
Hambidge and Omi, for example, ask for resumes of only one and two pages, respectively, so include only your most impressive publication credits, honors, awards and related employment – or whatever is specifically requested.
Writers accepted to the Ucross Foundation Residency will follow in the footsteps of Annie Proulx, Elizabeth Gilbert and others who’ve engaged in creative work on the 20,000-acre ranch in Wyoming. Jurors sift through nearly a hundred applications looking for the best work.
“The [writing] sample is the most important element, so it needs to be the best example of their writing,” says residency manager Ruth Salvatore.
Artistic excellence is, of course, at the top of the list for all residencies, but each has unique criteria for how that submission should be handled. While Ucross asks for writing samples of up to 20 pages (for prose), the Denali Artist-in-Residency program wants only a single page. So don’t send a page and a half, pleads Denali’s Walker.
Salvatore echoes the advice to rigorously follow the guidelines.
“Fill out each section carefully, submit all the required materials and honor the deadline. Don’t wait until the last minute to apply. Give yourself plenty of time and don’t rush the process.”
At Omi, communal dinners bring together writers and translators from around the world. As such, the selection committee is looking for those writers who “have something to bring to the table, both literally and figuratively,” says Gibson. While your application will shed light on the unique individual that you are, consider what an editor, teacher or fellow writer would say about you before asking them to give you a reference. Scour the guidelines for the kinds of insights they are looking for – or pick up the phone if it isn’t clear.
Ucross, a multi-disciplinary center that has writers, composers and visual artists all living together, requires three letters of references.
“Our guidelines are pretty specific about what we’re looking for: perspectives on the writer’s work as well as their potential congeniality within a community of artists,” says Salvatore.
Lauren Carter is a freelance writer, novelist and poet in northern Manitoba, Canada.
More writers’ residency can be found through the Alliance of Artist Communities (artistcommunities.org).
Hambidge Creative Residency Program
Where: Rabun Gap, Georgia
Deadline: September 15 (February-April session)
Denali National Park Artist-in-Residence Program
Where: Denali National Park, Alaska
Deadline: September 30
Ucross Foundation Residency
Where: Ucross, Wyoming
Deadline: October 1 (spring session)
Writers Omi at Ledig House
Where: Ghent, New York
Deadline: October 20
The Baltic Writing Residency in Latvia
Where: Riga, Latvia
Deadline: December 15