Writing Residencies: What Are They, And Is it For You?
You may have seen them advertised in magazines such as Ploughshares, Poets and Writers, and The Writer’s Chronicle. The ads show images of poets holding pens and journals, writing near a serene lake or a remote location like a cottage or castle. They are a poet’s dream and a booming trend in the publishing world. But what makes them so popular?
Writing residencies offer what every poet wants: an escape from daily responsibilities and uninterrupted time to work on your poetry. When you enter a residency, you make a commitment to yourself that you will focus on your work without allowing distractions to monopolize your time. By spending money on a writing residency, you also send a message to friends and family—but most importantly to yourself—that you are serious about your writing.
As writing residencies are usually located in pastoral and peaceful locations, you literally get away from the noise of the city and from your everyday routine. The beautiful, lush scenery can bring you inspiration and provide privacy. It can also offer a mental escape from your job and house chores. As most poets know, writing is a solitary experience, and the more you make time for yourself and for your work, the more you will accomplish. As Virginia Woolf famously wrote, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.”
Many residencies are created by universities and writing centers and are led by established authors who understand the demands of everyday life. The Author Learning Center, an online education community for poets and writers, describes the writing journey in four stages: writing, editing, publishing, and marketing. Residencies are for poets who are in the writing and editing part of their journey. They are for poets and writers who “want to get away and generate their work and maybe be among a handful of other people like them and be in a community that’s around the production of work.” As residencies can last between a week and a month, they are structured spaces to “power through large amounts of work in a compressed time frame.”
WRITING RESIDENCIES VERSUS MFA PROGRAMS
Residencies are for poets and writers who want to focus exclusively on their work but without the commitment of a two or three-year MFA program. They are also for poets who want more than just a weekend writing retreat. Writing residencies don’t carry the burden of thesis paperwork and academic requirements. They are also more economical than an MFA program, so you can see them as a chance to truly grow as a writer without the huge time and financial commitment of a formal program.
However, there are also low-residency MFA programs that offer a support system of professors and mentors and are similar to traditional MFA programs but are tailored to working adults who’d rather spend less time on campus and in classrooms. Traditional MFA programs are academically structured, and while you’ll get a book completed, you’ll also deal with coursework and presentations. They are ideal for students looking to become professors and immerse themselves in the world of academia.
The world of residencies and MFA programs is vast, intricate, and diverse, but a great way to understand the distinction between the two is to ask yourself what you want from your writing time. MFA programs are best suited for students who love deadlines and classes. If you’re just looking to get away and finish your book then you’ll want a writing residency and not an MFA degree or even a low-residency program.
COST OF A RESIDENCY
There are different kinds of residencies, and they vary in price. Some residencies include meals and housing with the tuition while others don’t. And if you don’t have the money, some residencies offer scholarships and fellowships as well as a stipend for meals and expenses. While there aren’t usually many scholarships available per residency, there are many residencies in the United States and in other countries, so there are lots of different options to explore.
IS IT FOR YOU?
Writing residencies are sanctuaries for poets. Your meals and lodging are usually provided, and all you have to think about is your work. At a residency, you don’t have to worry about balancing your time with friends and family, and you don’t have to stop writing because you have a work meeting. A residency is like a vacation for you and your writing.
When deciding whether to apply for a residency, you have to make an honest assessment of your life. For most, the biggest consideration is money. Once you’ve decided if you can afford it, you can then make the necessary arrangements with your loved ones and with your employer. Remember that family and friends who love you will always support your decision to take time for your writing.
You also have to be honest about your writing journey: Are you ready to work exclusively on your writing and put in the time and commitment necessary to finish your book or create new poems? Remember that you are there to write, so you have to train your mind to be disciplined. The application process varies, so finding the right residency is all dependent on your personality, lifestyle, financial status, and time constraints. While you won’t be able to party or go out as much as before, the reward of a residency will be worth it when you have your finished book in your hands.