Monday, November 14, 2011

Why a Writers Residency is a Good Idea

The studios at VCCA are housed in the former barn
complex. During my second time there, we had
a terrific blizzard. This pictures shows the brilliant
day after the storm with more than a foot
of snow on the ground.
A student recently asked me whether I had ever done a residency, and if so, whether I found it useful, so I figured this would make a good blog post. I was fortunate enough to be awarded two residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), one in 2008, and one in 2010. Both residencies were magical experiences for me, certainly aided by the VCCA's idyllic setting in an old farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where the residence hall, studios and grounds are well kept, and the gardens and forests surprise you with all kinds of sculptures and installations.

One of my favorite installations at VCCA is this
glass labyrinth in the garden, which was
even more fun to engage with in the snow.
Please note that I cannot speak for residencies at other institutions, although I have heard many good things, for instance, about Ragdale. My writer’s residencies at the VCCA exceeded my expectations, and here’s why:

A residency affords you uninterrupted time to write, or pursue your art. The biggest benefit for me at VCCA was not having to cook, and not having to shop for food, and not having to clean up. The only “household” thing I had to do was my laundry. It is amazing how much brain space frees up when you don’t have to tend to everyday life! I anticipated this and had specifically applied to a place that feeds you. Luckily, the VCCA feeds you well; they even have their own kitchen garden. Uninterrupted time is, of course, the main reason for seeking out a residency, and you will get that, unless you party all the time, which some people do, but the fellows at the VCCA were all dedicated to their work when I was there, and that was inspiring. I didn’t want to show up to dinner, and not have a good answer to: “So what did you do today?” This brings me to my next point:

My footsteps to my studio, which was actually a
composer's studio, and thus a freestanding hut
with a piano I had to water.
The Camaraderie of Other Artists Spurns You On. When I first inspected my studio, on the afternoon I arrived, I was intimidated: A whole big room just for me to write? A board hung by the door, bearing all the signatures of writers who’d been there before me. I recognized several names, former professors of mine among them, and I was even more intimidated. Then, the next morning, as I wandered over to my studio with all my equipment to move in (really just my laptop, and backup materials for my book), I saw others working away in their studios, especially the painter whose studio was across the walkway from mine, so I thought: “If these people can do it, work away, self-propelled, on whatever artistic project they are pursuing, then I can, too.” And so I did. I decided to follow Hemingsway’s example, and set a goal of 500 words for myself every day, and I made it.

You Make Amazing Connections. While I anticipated the bliss of having whole days free to write, I did not anticipate what a fruitful experience it would be to be in the community of other artists, not only writers, but visual artists, i.e. painters, printers, photographers, and also composers. Almost every evening, after dinner, fellows would organize a reading or two, someone would present his or her music, a visual artist would give a presentation, or occasionally, several artists would host an open studio night. At both residencies, I made great friends, not only in fellow writers, and those friendships have enriched my life ever since. Two or more weeks at the same place really afford you the time to make friends, and to connect with people with similar interests and sensitivities.

In my opinion, the community aspect is the real benefit of a residency. You can arrange for uninterrupted writing time in other ways (rent a hotel room with room service, for instance, or hide in a remote cabin somewhere), but you can hardly arrange to bond with other writers and artists.


  1. This does sound wonderful- I find 'life' often does push its way in between my words and getting them on paper.

    loved this post- and will keep it for future reference.

  2. You're so right about how much brain space gets eaten by just taking care of mundane life chores. When I finally reach a place in my writing to qualify for a residency, I will definitely remember to choose a place that feeds me. Good advice. The comraderie (sp?) of a varied group of artists is on thing I miss not being in an academic setting anymore. You can easily be carried on a wave of other people's passions.

  3. I have gone back and forth about the residency thing, but it seems like I'm the only one I know who hasn't gone. I am not really a co-op kind of person, so the idea of participating in a group living situation frankly kind of scares me a little! My studio is 90 miles from the Loop so I escape most weekends - and that provides the kind of reloading my brain seems to crave without buying into the whole "group" thing. I do want to do one, though. I have my eye on Kimmel Harding as well as UCross; have heard both of them provide great opportunities. Thanks for sharing, Annette! I didn't realize that VCCA offered artist residencies as well as writer residencies. I like the idea of cross-media participation. Way cool.

  4. I'd love to do a writers' residency! I love the idea of having nothing to do but write, and the camaraderie and accountability of having other writers to 'report' to at the end of the day (that would help me stop procrastinating). On the other hand, have you seen the movie Tamara Drewe, set on an idyllic writers' residency in the English countryside? The portrayal of the writers there made me both roar with laughter and cringe with embarrassment.

  5. Residencies are not for everyone. Granted, some people have great experiences. On the other hand, I fail to see what you can accomplish at a residency versus working from home. I did a residency at Ragdale. It was fine, but eerily quiet. It was like a nunnery. Lots of hushed whispers and tiptoeing around. The silence actually made me nervous. I met a lot of middle aged female artists who like the break from kids and husbands residencies afford them. I can see their point. I only did it for a line on my CV. I prolly would have gotten as much work done at home. But the food was nice.