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Meghan Ward

I'm a freelance writer and book editor represented by Andy Ross of the Andy Ross Literary Agency. You can read an excerpt of my memoir, Paris On Less Than $10,000 A Day, and visit my website for more info about me.

Writing residencies and conferences

While I’ve attended a couple writing conferences, the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, my friend Christine over at 80,000 words is much more experienced in this department and has offered to write a guest post about writing residencies and conferences. Enjoy!

on the porch of Oak this morning

Finding space (psychic and physical) and time to write is half the battle of writing. Some of us are lucky enough to have room for an office inside our homes, and others find that home might be too cramped or holds too many distractions and find their way to a favorite cafe or pub. (For the record, I hold the dining room table hostage as my writing space).

Home, however, still has its pratfalls: you still get distracted, the phone still rings, other non-writers occupy the space and “remind” you of your other worldly obligations as a parent/spouse/housemate/normal-human-being-with-errands. And cafés have their drawbacks, too. So here is where writing residencies, aka “writing colonies,” come in.

A writing residency is a place that provides you with 24/7 focus on your writing, oftentimes providing you with prepared meals (with one meal, like dinner, eaten with other artists) and free room and board. It can be heaven for writers, with housing coming in the form of a room in a mansion, or darling little cottages, like at Hedgebrook.

It is *not* heaven if you do not go with a particular writing project in mind, or if you do not go with realistic expectations. (If you don’t normally write everyday at home, don’t expect to suddenly write everyday at the writing residency, for instance). So before applying, keep in mind what it is you wish to accomplish while at the residency—it is likely that this subject will have to be addressed in the application essay for residencies. Understand too, that a residency without a goal will not be a productive time.

Consider the geography—are you a city person? How will you fare in a writing residency in Maine with no running water in the cabin? If you’re a person used to being surrounded by people all the time, how will you fare at a writing residency like Soapstone, where you are on your own 24/7? Do you hate snow? Do you hate the heat? Consider all these factors as you apply to writing residencies, and their geography, and the season you select for residency.

And keep in mind the reference/recommendation letters; not all colonies require them, but many do—they want a third party opinion about your character, about your ability to stay sane and be productive at a writing residency, as well as get along with other writers. Many writing residencies require at least one reference letter. Give your recommender plenty of time to complete the reference letter, provide them with stamps, provide them with a copy of your statement of purpose (if it’s required), as well as the sample work you’re sending in along with your application.

Finally, what will you take with you once you get into a residency? (Congratulations!) Most residencies will give you a list of suggested items to bring … but it’s not unlike taking a vacation, because each of us has our own comfort levels whether “traveling light” or taking more than one backpack. Bring your favorite/useful books. If there is a particular food (like tea or coffee) that is part of your daily ritual, don’t expect the writing residency to carry it: bring your tin of Mariage Freres or Blue Bottle Coffee with you.

You may also want to bring a comfort item or two with you for those lonely moments when you miss home. Pack a DVD or two (or in my case, 12 DVDs because movies help me unwind). Bring comfy shoes—not only sneakers, but maybe some slip-ons if the writing residency doesn’t allow shoes indoors. Think about what it is you need to be comfortable. Of course: don’t forget your manuscript/laptop/writing tools.

The following are a few writing residencies in no particular order:

  • Hedgebrook: a writing residency for women writers on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound adjacent to Seattle, Washington. Six amaaaaazing little post-and-beam cottages (see picture above) on a secluded, wooded parcel of land that resembles Narnia, and a more than wonderful staff.
  • MacDowell: one of the best, most prestigious writing residencies in the nation, and thus one of the most competitive. The best writers, visual artists, and musicians convene to create, here. Friends who’ve gone to MacDowell either looooved it…or haaaaated their experience, there. I don’t think it’s for the lighthearted.
  • Yaddo: another prestigious writing residency, ranked up alongside MacDowell. Artists all stay under one roof in the main mansion located in Saratoga Springs, New York. Like MacDowell people either loooooove their time at Yaddo or…don’t.
  • Blue Mountain Center: very outdoorsy, beautiful. All my friends who’ve gone to Blue Mountain have loved it very much. They don’t allow cellphones (the reason I’ve never applied), and it is very rural.
  • There are other writing residencies, like Jentel and UCROSS, both located in Wyoming…as well as Vermont Studio Center, Millay and VCCA, all highly regarded. I have only listed a few here, there are many many more writing residencies out there, including some abroad in beautiful European locations. For more writing residencies, check out this list or the Alliance of Artists’ Communities.

But what to do if you don’t just want to write, but to learn and convene with other writers? Writing is lonely. You want feedback, you want a sense of community; writing conferences address many of these needs.

Especially (but not only) if you haven’t the time or money to apply or enroll in an MFA program, writing conferences fill a big void for writers, providing workshops and mentors and community over a short period of time. I have met writers who’ve literally told me, “I go to writing conferences and workshop throughout the summer instead of getting an MFA”! Additionally, I’ve met a good number of MFA students who attend writing conferences to expand their writing network, find new mentors, and do extra workshopping at writing conferences.

Squaw Valley Writers’ Conference, Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the newer but no less prestigious Tin House Summer Writing Workshops are some of the bigger names in writing conferences—and, if you’re a writer of color, VONA (Voices of Our Nation) is an amazing experience, too.

  • Attending Squaw Valley is like walking into an industry event. Squaw Valley Writers Conference is held at the Squaw Valley ski resort in the California Sierra Nevadas, which in the summer time is an idyllic high desert (read: warm, dry, high altitude) retreat. Attendees have the option of figuring out their own housing, but most opt to use housing arranged by the conference—which are single family homes in the area, within walking distance, and used as ski rentals in the wintertime. There are double rooms, triple rooms, and single rooms available—and many of the houses fit upwards of 10+ people, making for quite a party environment. Also, most of the houses have hot tubs…
  • Napa Valley Writers’ Conference is more craft-centric than Squaw: you get assigned to one workshop—with one workshop leader. The summer I went, I studied with Aimee Bender, who was amazing and started each workshop morning with a bit of yoga (I kid you not). The conference is much quieter than Squaw or Breadloaf because of its focus on craft and less on shmoozing and because writers have to procure their own housing—while I was at Napa, I stayed at a small inn, which gave me less of a feeling of community but also gave me more downtown. (There’s something about having writers sleeping under the same roof at Squaw and Breadloaf…) The down to earth nature of Napa Valley Writers Conference has many advantages. This is also the conference where workshop leaders (who are Famous Writers) mingle among the writers with great ease. There is no head table at which Famous Writers sit, like at Breadloaf and Squaw, because they sit alongside everyone else at dinner. In fact, when I was at Napa, a charismatic man full of quips sat down next to me and started a conversation. The man was so
    funny and quick, it was like sitting next to Stephen Colbert for dinner; I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and all I did was giggle, like Junot Díaz on Stephen Colbert (until he finally got in a word in edgewise—the now infamous mention of tribbles). I didn’t know who he was, until later: Jim Shepard. Eeeeee!
  • VONA presents an amazing roster of instructors, all Famous Writers of color, there to mentor writers of color. It was life-changing for me as a writer, to study with Junot Díaz and Chris Abani, who are generous beyond words with their mentorship at VONA. There is a bit of “kumbaya” ceremony at the conference when it comes to honoring our heritage and ancestry (and I am quite allergic to such ritual), but totally bearable, and at moments I was quite touched by others’ passion. The workshops are second to none (and there is no chanting, kumbaya ancestor-worship inside of workshop, just at the opening and closing ceremonies of the conference).
  • I’ve had friends attend Breadloaf; they earned waiterships and had the ironically prestigious position of being waiters at the writing conference (aka the lesser known term “work study scholar”). Waiters at Breadloaf are the darlings of the conference, given the competitive nature of procuring such a
    scholarship, and so to me it’s no wonder they enjoyed the conference.
    Breadloaf manages to attract a star-studded group of fantastic Famous Writer instructors each summer and I think it’s worth attendance for the opportunity to study with great writers.
  • Tin House Summer Writing Workshops is one of the newer writing conferences—and two of my friends have attended and loved their experience at Tin House. The instructors are all amazing and established writers. Unlike the other writing conferences listed, Tin House is neither in California nor the Northeast: it’s in Portland, Oregon.

The above are only a few writing conferences offered—but I listed the ones either I or my friends have attended. There are many more writing conferences out there. (You can search for more, here). If you haven’t yet applied for an MFA, this may give you a taste of the writing life, as it did for me when I attended Squaw. If you are getting your MFA or have already received your MFA, it is a great opportunity to get feedback from different voices, and to meet writers outside of your program.

Finally, I want to mention the annual AWP Conference. It is a mega-watt conference where writers and aspiring writers and professors convene—there are so many conference panels that it’s impossible to see/hear them all, and the pamphlet itself requires comprehensive perusal. I attended the one in New York City a couple years ago and it was amazing—I am pretty sure I was pooped out because I was still recovering from a health issue and couldn’t handle too much stimulation … but I’m also pretty sure it would have been overwhelming had I been in perfect health. The keynote speech by John Irving, one of my favorite living authors, changed the trajectory of my novel. There is no workshopping involved, no writing (unless you choose to do so in the comfort of your hotel room—but seriously, you’ll probably be pooped!), but there’s a ton of information being shared. For introverts like me, the social mixers will probably be frightening, but there are plenty of those, too.

Writing is lonely and arduous but also totally rewarding. It takes weeks and months to write a short story, let alone months and years to write a novel; in that amount of time, it is sometimes necessary to break out of our routine and seek out a writing colony or a conference where we can experience a change of scenery or bring different voices into our writing lives … and I hope this post helps you in that journey. :)

What about you? What experience have you had with writers’ conferences and residencies? Do you have a favorite?

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