Inside the Writing Retreat: Part Two

Having recently returned from my second writing residency, I’m posting a series of articles on the experience in hopes that it’s of use to the SheWrites community. The first post concerned how I went about finding writing retreats to which I might apply, for which I thought I had a good shot at being chosen. This post concerns application advice and some information on how to prepare for such a thing, once you’ve been offered a residency. A third, forthcoming post will discuss what it's like to be there, in residence.

So, how do you go about applying to a residency or retreat?

Unlike with, say, MFA programs, there’s no consistency among requirements. Some of them want a resume, some don’t. Some want a work sample, some don’t. Some want letters of reference, or contact info for references, or require you to find an alumnus to nominate you, or want a detailed overview of the project you intend to work on while you’re there, or want an artist’s statement on your work’s meaning or mission…etc., etc., etc.

In general, because I often send my short work out on submission to journals and contests, because I apply for grants and conference scholarships and such, and because I never discard anything if I can just file it away, I always had something to start from in assembling an application. If you haven’t written up an artist’s statement or statement of purpose regarding your work and a residency application wants one, it’s a good opportunity to generate that because you might need it for any number of things down the line.

The only thing most all the residencies I looked at consistently wanted? An application fee, which mostly fell in the range of $20 to $50. So, my best advice to you on the application part of the process is to follow the instructions to the letter and provide them with well-copyedited submissions of whatever they ask for, and plan to shell out some cash. Consider it an investment in your work, same as contest entry fee.

Once you’ve been awarded a residency or offered a place at the retreat, how do you prepare? How do you plan and what do you pack?

On a practical level, you’ll probably get a list from the hosts. In fact, there’s likely a FAQ on their website which covers this sort of thing—what the weather is like, whether you need any dressier clothes for something like a public reading or a dinner with benefactors. Read the recommendations of what to bring, and follow them. If they say you might want insect repellent or hiking boots, you’ll need them whether you “want” them or not. If they say it gets cold at night even in June, take a sweater. Hell, take two.

A couple suggestions which probably won’t be on a provided packing list or FAQ but which I took at the recommendation of a colleague who had been a prior resident:

  1. Scarves of various materials and sizes. If you bring them to wear for warmth or fashion, great, but they serve another purpose, too. Of the scarves i packed, i used an oblong silk scarf as a runner on top the dresser and draped a large square one over a chair back. It might sound cheesy or silly, but I was living in this strange place for a week or more, and I felt more easily settled in the space with my scarves’ familiar decorative presence.
  2. A Swiss Army knife. Seriously! I took one to my most recent residency and used it to gather fresh flowers for a vase on my desk, to cut wayward vines encroaching on the trail which led from my cabin to the main dining hall, and let’s be honest: in a group of writers, there’s always going to be someone who needs a corkscrew. There’s no better networking coup than being the person who’s got one.

But what about preparing for the writing itself?

Chances are, you had to present some kind of plan in your application—a brief description of the project you intend to work on, perhaps even provide a work sample. But these places understand that the creative process is not easily corralled and codified.

For my most recent residency, I’d put forth the proposal in my application that i’d use the residency for rewrites on a draft I’d sent to my agent for revision notes, but when the residency week rolled around, what I wound up doing instead was moving forward on the first draft of an entirely new novel! They didn’t kick me out as a misrepresentative liar; the staff and my fellow residents were enthusiastic about my progress on a new work.

So, my point is, you can only plan so much in advance, and your best-laid plans might still veer off into uncharted territory. Rather than making myself some kind of schedule to stick to, I decided to let the experience direct where my work wound up going. I knew I would either be motivated to revise the draft I’d mentioned in my application, or want to maintain momentum on the new story i’d begun telling, so I took a box of reference books and research materials pertaining to both works. I also took my paper journal and a selection of pens, highlighters, and pencils.

For study abroad in Edinburgh while i was in graduate school, I needed to take a whole stack of research books. But weight limits and baggage allowances on international travel put the kibosh on bringing an entire suitcase of heavy books, so in that case i loaded my iPad with ebook versions of my research volumes and used a bluetooth keyboard and the Pages app to write my drafts. Pages exports a document file i could then edit with Microsoft Word or import into Scrivener once I returned to “the real world.” This could be an option if you wind up with a residency abroad or just don’t have the packing space which auto travel affords.

So, ask yourself: what will you be doing there? Drafting? Revising? Researching? Maybe some of all three? Take what you think you’ll need, but be zen about it. You might serendipitously find something at the retreat that you didn’t even know you needed.

In the third and final post of this series, I’ll talk specifics about my two residencies—where they are, what they’re like, and what I did while I was there.

[Image at the top of this post is the view from The Porches, a writing retreat in the Shenandoahs near Charlottesville, VA.]

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