Inside the Writing Retreat: Part One

Maybe you’ve read articles about them—writing retreats. Perhaps a college professor or colleague went off to one for the summer, or you’ve come across a grateful mention made in the Acknowledgements section of your favorite book. For me, McDowell Colony is the one that first springs to mind, followed by other famous retreats like Yaddo, Caldera, Hedgebrook, Blue Mountain.

For years I found the prospect of applying to be too intimidating though—I hadn’t published enough, I didn’t have any major awards or a string of press quotes attesting to my worthiness. I just had big ideas, ambitious projects in process, dreams of how I might spend my time working at such a place.

Come to find out, residencies aren’t just for Pulitzer Prize nominees and writers with MFAs from Iowa or the Ivy League. In fact, I’d argue that they’re deeply important for writers at all points in their career because nothing allows for the kind of deep focus on the craft like a good residency. I’ve just returned from my second one, and thought I might collect up some thoughts in a series of blog posts here on SheWrites.

Your family, your friends, your “day job,” your household and community obligations all factor into your daily routine, and are all demands on your attention around which you must fit your writing schedule. A residency pulls you away from all that, gives you a space in which the only consideration is the blank page…or the first draft, or the idea itching to be planned out, or those revision notes you really need to finish. Where else but at a residency are you without the distractions of your life—sometimes welcome, other times not—with the opportunity to focus only on…what? Your book? Your script? Editing your collection of poems or essays or short stories?

So how do you become a resident writer?

I approached it the same way I’ve taken on past goals like applying to MFA programs, a new job search or finding a literary agent: analytically, systematically, strategically. So, while i’m sure there are those who just luck into the offer of a perfect residency, i’m going to talk about what worked for me.

My first step was to do some research and make a list of options to which I might apply. I figured, as an early-career writer with a modest publications list and few connections, I needed to find residency options that were a good fit for me.

That’s key: determining a good fit—if the guidelines say that you need to have published at least two books with traditional publishers but you have five self-published novels, that’s probably not a residency you’re going to be offered, in the same vein as a contest which asks for manuscripts in double-spaced 12-point type is going to throw out your single-spaced 10-point entry without reading it because you disregarded the guidelines.

So, some years ago I created a list—an Excel spreadsheet, in fact—of residencies and retreats which looked like good options for me someday. I started out by combing through the listing which Poets & Writers maintains, and i’ve since added to it with the help of several great listicles out there concerning residencies. There’s this one by the Alliance of Artists Communities and this one from The Write Life to get you started.

In compiling my spreadsheet, i thought about factors like cost, duration of time, and geographical location. For both of my residencies/retreats, i wanted to be within a day’s drive of my home--because i have close family members who are disabled and/or elderly, i didn’t want to be completely off the grid should some emergency arise in my absence. Because i teach during the academic year, ideally they would fall in the summer months when my schedule is more flexible. And, I wanted a one-week or two-week experience; its possible that some day i could swing a longer amount of time but financially-speaking, at present I need to work within allotted paid-vacation time limits.

What do you want from a residency?

Perhaps you need it to be close to home, or perhaps you would rather it be located somewhere exotic you’ve never been before. If your budget is tight, you won’t want to apply for residencies with hefty fees involved. Do you have a week’s vacation saved up to devote to this residency, or are you planning to invest a month or more to this endeavor? Will you require internet access for, say, research purposes or part-time telecommuting during your stay, or do you need complete isolation for a break from constant connectivity? And what do the guidelines say about applicants? All this can help you narrow the field of possibilities and determine a list of likely possibilities.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the application process and the experience itself. What do you need to apply for these residencies? And once you get accepted, how do you prepare for a writing retreat? What do you need to bring, and what happens when you’re there?

Read the next post here!

[Image at the top of this post is of the lobby in the main lodge at Wildacres, located in the mountains of western North Carolina off the Blue Ridge Parkway.]

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  • Jude Walsh Whelley

    Thanks Rachel, very helpful!

  • Go for it! The spreadsheet is really helpful and motivating.

    Mine has columns for the name of the residency, the cost (if any), the location, duration, how i would need to travel there, the application due date, and the notification date. I also have a column for any additional notes i want to attach ("Michelle went here in 2013"), and--optimistically--acceptance date. And sure, my acceptance date column has a lot of N/A listings, but that serves in and of itself as a record of where i've applied in the past, in case i want to reapply later and need to know (some applications ask, "have you ever applied to [Residency Name] before?").

    Good luck!

  • Thank you for this post, Rachel.  I am looking forward to reading more about what to expect from a writer's retreat.  I've applied twice to Hedgebrook without success, so I've concluded that there may be a certain type of writer they look for and I don't have that in or behind me at the moment. 

    Hedgebrook really is across the country from me, so I may just wait to re-apply and choose one or two that are closer to home.  I have a writing buddy who will be attending the Sewanee Writer's Conference this summer and she is great at doing extensive research.  I know I must take a page from her book, so to speak, and your post has lit a fire under me to do so....perhaps even resort to a spreadsheet. ~:0)

  • Glad you found it useful, Susie! Focus is certainly hard to come by in these days. Sometimes it feels like the demands on our attention become more and more splintered to the detriment of...well, getting much of anything actually done!

  • This was most helpful, thank you. What resonates the most with me, as a first time memoir writer, is how fragmented my attention is at home. I love the idea of a solid week away from all my responsibilities. It is definitely something i will consider and am going to save your posts for future reference. Thanks again.

  • Awesome, so glad you feel inspired to give it a shot! Good luck with the application process!