What's the value of going to a writers' colony?
Published: April 20, 2011
Q: I’ve never been to a writers’ colony but it seems like they come with a lot of hassle—the application, the lengthy wait to hear back, the high rejection rates and sometimes even fees—for what amounts to a quiet vacation. I’m sure I’m missing something. So, what’s the point?
A: Indeed, the most sought after features of writers’ colonies (also called communities, retreats, and residencies) are the time and quiet space that are so important to writers. The image of the writer scribbling away at a new novel in a serene setting isn’t far from the truth at some colonies. Yaddo, a artists’ working community in Sarasota Springs, N.Y., is located on a four-hundred acre estate with winding roads, walking paths through the woods and a grand garden. Certainly many writers take these kinds of retreats on their own by finding and booking a quiet haven, taking some time away from other responsibilities and simply making it happen—without an application or an arts organization.
Still, time and a quiet location are of little value if your mind is cluttered with thoughts of the errands that need to be done later in the afternoon or the sink full of dirty dishes waiting to be cleaned. A writers’ colony can offer an environment that eliminates some of this clutter by taking care of routine daily concerns. At the MacDowell colony in the Monadnock region of New Hampshire, breakfast and dinner are served family style in a dining room and lunches, packed in picnic baskets, are left on the doorstep of your studio, so you can worry about your character’s next choice, not how you’re going to track down an egg salad sandwich to make it through to dinner. Colonies are designed for the work of creating and this is apparent in the details. Not all locations have the same amenities, but it’s not uncommon to find well-stocked libraries, separate living and working areas, and designated quiet hours.
While the bulk of the writer’s work is done in solitude, colonies also offer the opportunity for community. You might share dinner with a table of fiction writers and poets or you might chat with a composer, a painter and a sculptor in the common area when taking a break from your work. Colonies serve all kinds of artists and come in a variety of sizes, from the Vermont Studio Center, in Johnson, Vt., which has fifty artists and writers in residence at a time, to the Edward F. Albee Foundation in Montauk, N.Y., which has up to five writers in residence at a time. This interaction with others who are as deeply immersed in their work as you are in your own can be invigorating, inspiring and instructive. Some writers find the intimacy and intensity of a colony experience results in strong connections that last well beyond the residency period.
Some colonies are even specialized by area of interest or genre. Andrews Forest Writers’ Residency invites writers-in-residence to visit, reflect on and write about specific study sites in this forest in the central Cascade Range of Oregon. Sea Change Residencies in Provincetown, Mass., is a retreat for artists, including writers, whose work promotes social change. The Thurber House Residency in Children’s Literature includes a month-long retreat in James Thurber’s home in Columbus, Ohio.
Many colonies offer all this at little or no cost to the writer. The financial burdens that come with such an experience can be significant—time away from paying employment, travel, lodging, meals and other services. Waiving or subsidizing all or some of that expense makes this important experience possible for more writers. Some colonies do charge more substantial fees and financial aid may be available for accepted residents. Some colonies arrange trades with artists. The Ant Farm in Marquette, Neb., offers accommodations and studio space in exchange for twelve hours of labor per week to help renovate and maintain the buildings and grounds.
Every colony is different. You want to find the one that best suits you, so make sure you understand the philosophy and expectations of those you’re considering. After all, the writing process will always be the wild card. When you’re hoping to be productive, you might as well limit how many of those cards end up in the deck you’re playing.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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