How to Apply for a Writers Residency

20 Mar

Atlantic Center for the Arts, New Smyrna, FL

Last week I found a great post from Clark Hope on Twitter. She linked to an interesting article by Grant Faulkner of Poets & Writers, where Grant describes the application process for a Writers Residency – you know, these rent-free, beautiful places in tranquil surroundings, maybe in the Wyoming Rockies or on a wild part of shore in Maine, where you can stay for a month or three, and write 24/7 without interruption, no real cooking chores and nagging children and grumpy husbands …sorry, or wives.  Here are some snippets of her useful and enjoyable article:

Every writer I know, craves one thing: a peaceful period of uninterrupted time, dedicated to writing.  A room of one’s own, in other words, with maybe some meals thrown in and a little pocket money. Or even just the room.  Such a thing exists, of course, in the form of a writers residency.  While some residencies charge money, many are located in idyllic, pastoral places and actually give you a room in a mansion or a cottage, a stipend, and most important, time to let your thoughts and pen wander with unfettered glee.

I decided I needed to know more about how to apply if I was going to wager approximately $30 a crack for a chance to experience these otherworldly idylls.

The Work Plan
Many residencies ask you to present a work plan. Usually no more than a page or so is required, but even that seemed long for the plan I had in mind. “I want to write, take the occasional walk, read, and then write some more. I want to forget my life, to immerse myself in my novel as if my novel is the world, to dream my novel throughout each night’s sleep.”

And that’s the long version. So what are residencies looking for in a work plan – beyond the obvious?
“We used to get hundreds of proposals that amounted to ‘I need time and space to work on this book,’ so we made the statement optional and changed it to “a brief sketch of your life as a writer,” and we still don’t look at it carefully, if at all,” says Salvatore Scibona, writing coordinator at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He adds that some applicants have even interpreted “sketch” as an invitation to draw amusing little pictures or diagrams of their lives.

But then why is a work plan required?  “We are most interested in people who have a clear vision of what they will do with the time, such as revise a manuscript in progress or finish a book of poems,” says Bob Kealing, who oversees the Kerouac Project, one of the more unique residencies available: a three-month stay in the Orlando, Florida, cottage where Jack Kerouac wrote his novel Dharma Bums.

The real purpose of a work plan might be to simply prove that you have one. Show that you’re planning to get some serious writing done.

The Résumé
I was surprised to see that several residencies asked for a résumé, a word that has made me shiver ever since I decided to become a writer. I’m not a writing teacher, I haven’t published any books, and, until recently, I had never had a job at a literary organization.  Who you are can be especially important in some cases. Take the artist-in-residence program at Denali National Park, which offers a cabin in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness—peaceful to some, but nervous making to others.

The Letter of Recommendation
Most of the residencies I researched don’t require letters of recommendation, but some do, such as the Anderson Center, an artist retreat in Red Wing, Minnesota, and Jentel.

The directors I spoke with say they prefer recommendations that focus on a writer’s work ethic and creative spirit rather than the quality of work, and therefore it doesn’t matter who writes the letter as long as those points are addressed. In short, recommendations need to offer a window into who you are.

The Manuscript
There’s no way around it. In the end, your writing is what matters most. “The writing sample is the most important piece in the application. We look for quality and originality,” says Djerassi’s Freeland.

But what are quality and originality? Isn’t this the age-old question about literature? One person thinks Kerouac is a genius while another considers him little more than a typist. All the residencies I researched said they don’t look for a specific aesthetic, but each has a rigorous and specific approach to evaluating manuscripts.  Applicants should send in what they believe to be their best work. It does not need to be published. They may also send in more than one sample and include some work-in-progress.

As with all things a writer seeks, the competition for a residency is steep. Consider that the Fine Arts Work Center received 650 applications for 8 first-year fellowship slots in 2011, and others received 250 applicants each year for 20 residencies.

Carefully research each residency that interests you and be sure you understand what each requires in terms of application materials and guidelines by visiting the website and calling or sending an e-mail to clarify if necessary.

Hyper Smash


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One response to “How to Apply for a Writers Residency

  1. charlie nitric

    August 14, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    Hi Doris –

    I absolutely love this idea and totally dislike any application process, lol. What to do – what to do! Thank you for a wonderful post. 🙂


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