Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The DIY Writing Residency

I’ve just returned to Ohio from wonderful Austin, Texas, where I completed a five-day “writing residency” at the house of friends. While there, I managed to draft the first chapter of my new novel, as well as spend much quality time with old buddies, eat empanadas from a food truck, buy a local author’s book from the fabulous BookPeople and soak up some desperately needed vitamin D.

I was in “residence” at a place other than my own home. I did “writing” (lots of it, and it’s not half bad). And so, by my estimation, I completed a “writing residency.” Unlike more traditional residencies, there was no application fee, no recommendation letters to procure, no statement to write about my “artistic vision,” no writing samples at all. And perhaps most importantly, no WAIT for a decision (for six months or even longer) from the esteemed panel of judges. There was also, thankfully, no form rejection letter explaining that there were thousands of entries for a handful of spots.

My residency came about with the realization that I had a hot-off-the-laptop novel outline and could really use some time to get myself immersed in the book, figure out the proper tone, and get the thing off the ground, so that, once home, I could just pick up with the next scene and be on my way. My prep work involved an email to friends I’d been wanting to see, followed by the purchase of a plane ticket. Total cost, approximately $300. Time wasted with applications? Zero.

Now before you think I’m all sour grapes about residencies, let me offer some background. I once completed a traditional residency, at the Vermont Studio Center. It was pre-kids so I was able to get away for a full month, and it was indeed transformative, in that it came at a time when I really needed to reaffirm my goals and status as a writer with other like-minded folks. But I didn’t have a good plan for my work while there, and so, although I ended up producing a lot of pages, in the end it was just a hundred page writing exercise. VSC offered me a fellowship to attend, not a full ride but enough to make it worth my while.

That was a decade ago. Today, I’m in a different place, with my life in general and my writing life in particular. I don’t like wasting time. I’m not interested in resume building, at least not in terms of listing residencies on a CV. I’d much rather impress people with my published work. As a busy parent and very part-time writer, what I most need is time. I know the precise moments during a project when I could use concentrated hours away from home. That’s one of the problems with applying for residencies that won’t happen until far in the future.

And that’s where the DIY residency comes in. Sidenote: Consider the odds of receiving a more traditional residency. The current talk in the writers’ Twitterverse is the “Amtrak Residency.” For those who haven’t heard, Amtrak recently decided to offer 24 writers a ticket for a multi-day trip in a private cabin. The small print explains that Amtrak will choose writers who already have a large social media presence, and those writers will then blog about the fabulosity of train travel. It’s basically free advertising for Amtrak and kudos to them, I guess, for seeing an opportunity, but what amazes me most is the number of writers who have applied (more than 9,000 as of this writing). It’s a train ticket, people.

Some writers might choose to buy their own train, or plane, or boat, or buggy (I live in Amish country) tickets, but that’s often difficult for writers strapped for cash, and most of us are. The DIY Residency doesn’t have to cost you anything. I’ve completed many of them over the years. It’s so, so easy. Just tell all your friends that you are available to house sit or water plants or give Mr. Fluffernutters his thyroid medication…for the use of their dining room table to set your laptop on. You can put a call out right when you’re getting to a critical juncture in a writing project, right when the work hours would most benefit you. Assuming these are local friends, you can spend a few hours, maybe a whole day if you can swing it. Maybe you can even spend a night.

Your friends? They will love that you are taking care of whatever they need taken care of. They will also like feeling they are “supporting the arts” without even opening their checkbooks. A long time ago, artists had wealthy patrons. Now, we have nice friends who give us spare keys. I have three such keys in my possession, and am always open to receiving more. In the past, I have worked in 24- to 48-hour marathon stretches at a house right around the corner from my own. If my family needed me, I could run home in under a minute. But they didn’t need me. And I got tons of distraction-free work done.

If this appeals to you, and you haven’t tried it, don’t wait! If, however, you feel you cannot write unless you have a cabin in the woods, at which, approximately noon-ish, someone will arrive at your door with a recycled paper sack containing your gluten-free, sustainably harvested lunch items, knock quietly, then disappear into the forest so as not to disturb your genius, then you need to apply for a traditional residency (writers…you know which one I’m talking about). If you can make do with much less, you are in luck. Your DIY residency awaits.



  1. Someone will bring gluten-free food to my door? Heck, If I'd known that, I would have been applying all along.

    Or can I just write from home, and hire someone to bring gluten-free food to my door? Now there's a thought!

    Great post.

    1. Thanks, Diane. I think if this writing thing doesn't pan out, I'm going to start another career bringing these lunch sacks to writers who stay at home.

  2. I intend to do a writing 'residency' this summer. I'm going to take my parents' camper up to Glacier National park, settle into a camping spot beside Two Medicine Lake for $20.00 a day and alternate long stretches of computer time with long stretches of my legs up mountain trails. Ahhhhh.....