Our Alaska State Writer on Getting Away: How to find and enjoy writers’ residencies

by Nancy Lord

I enjoyed Andromeda’s post of 1/28 regarding Alaska writing retreats, and the comments that followed. It happens that I’m at a writing retreat — colony, residency, whatever name you want to give it — right now. It also happens that (I’m quite sure of this) I’ve been to more writing retreats (15 different ones, some more than once) than any other Alaska writer, which must make me an expert on this subject.

A few years ago I wrote something for alaskawriters.com about my general experience with writers colonies, an assessment and “tip” that offers solid advice.

My concept of the ideal retreat is a little different than Andromeda’s. I want not only a private place to hunker down and write, but I want other people to take care of me, and yet other people to inspire me with their own art and to share scintillating (or just amusing) dinner conversation. Hence, colony.

How do you find these places? They exist all over the country and the world. Some are for writers only, while most host a mix of artists. Many of them belong to an organization called The Alliance of Artists Communities, which has a helpful website. Go there, click on “residencies,” and start dreaming—or filling out applications. (Note — there is a $25 annual subscription fee for detailed listings.)

You’ll find that some colonies charge large fees, some small, some charge you nothing (except you have to get yourself there), and some offer scholarships that include travel costs and stipends. Of course, the “free” ones are the most selective, so when you apply you will want to impress them with your very best work! (The admission panels base acceptances mostly on work sample quality, though they also look to see that you have a well-thought-out plan for using your time, and for diversity—which is where being from Alaska can help!)

There is (at least) one Alaska retreat program—a small one operated by the Island Institute in Sitka (which also hosts the summer Sitka Symposium.) This is not a colony but an opportunity for one writer at a time to be in residence and do his/her work. I had the privilege once, for a winter month, and loved getting to know Sitka and some of its people as well as taking advantage of the two libraries there.

So, where am I now? Ragdale Foundation, in Lake Forest, Illinois. I’m starting the last of my four weeks with eleven other artists (writers, visual artists, performance artists, and one composer) in a complex of buildings surrounding what was once the summer home of famous Chicago architect Howard Shaw. I didn’t bring my camera (my habit is to bring nothing with me except what I need for whatever writing project I’m focused on) so I can’t include any photos here—of my charming room in the old house, or the (snow-covered) gardens and prairie out back, or the group of us celebrating on Inaugural Day. You will have to imagine—or look at photos on the Ragdale website.

Typical day? Wake up slowly, help myself to breakfast (and the New York Times) in kitchen, go to desk and work without interruption. When the hunger pains start, head for kitchen again—the other one, the one with last night’s steak and mashed potato left-overs in the fridge. Back to work. Mid-afternoon, walk on the prairie, look at the remains of a rabbit and try to figure out who (fox, hawk, owl?) ate it. (Another day I might walk the mile to the library in town.) Then, sit at desk, write two pages and delete three. Resist checking e-mail. Dinner at 6:30 (created by Linda, our marvelous chef), with wine we take turns buying. Evening: reading in a comfy chair in my well-lit room, journal writing, trying to solve the writing problem I was having all day. Tonight, a break from that: fellow resident Marianne Boruch, a fabulous poet, and I, feeling much less than fabulous but with some new pages that give me a certain satisfaction, will present short readings in the Ragdale living room. No one has to come, but everyone will. The conversations may go on long afterwards, there by the fire, the next day, years after.

Not everyone, I know, can leave family and work responsibilities to go off and write in a retreat setting. Not every writer even wants to. But if you want and you can, I’m here to attest that it can be very, very nice—so very affirming of yourself as a writer—to accept such a gift.

3 thoughts on “Our Alaska State Writer on Getting Away: How to find and enjoy writers’ residencies”

  1. Great post! You really summed up the balance of retreat and community that residency programs strive for, each in their own way. Also in Alaska: a residency at Denali National Park.

    Caitlin Strokosch
    Executive Director
    Alliance of Artists Communities

  2. Thanks, Nancy, for taking time away from what sounds like a lovely residency experience to share these opportunities with us. I’m used to thinking about conferences for professional growth. But with their emphasis on commujnity and craft, residencies sound so much nicer for the soul. BTW, I believe Wrangell-St. Elias National Park offers a summer residency as well…at least they used to.

  3. Thanks Nancy, the contributions here to the discussion of retreats has led me to continue the discussion from a historical perspective, coming soon…

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