Writing Residencies and Retreats

Writing residencies and retreats are essential for maintaining and deepening my writing and creative life. If you have never taken one or you are planning to take time away to write, I’ll share my experience and advice for making the most of a residency or retreat.

First, finding and applying for your first writing residency can be a daunting endeavor. Word-of-mouth advice from other writers and artists you know is an excellent place to start. Many wonderful writing residencies welcome beginner, middling, and more established writers, so it is good to read their descriptions before deciding to apply. As with submissions of work to literary magazines, most writing residency programs require an application fee, although more places will waive the fee if you write and make your case. Look at any scholarships they may have available and see if you and your work are a good fit. Another effective way I go about learning about potential writing residency programs is to read the acknowledgment section of your favorite books/authors, especially if they relate to your own work.

Try not to despair if you aren’t accepted to your dream residency program the first (or second, or third) time you apply. When I became a serious writer, my dream writing residency was Hedgebrook on Whidby Island off the coast, where I live in Seattle. I applied four times before being accepted for a month-long residency in October 2014. It was an amazing and acutely difficult experience. Amazing in their being true to their practice of radical hospitality, difficult in that I had to commute there and back weekly to teach (not recommended). Plus, my elderly father died in the middle of my residency. I loved the combination of having my own cottage (Owl) and gathering each evening in the farmhouse to have delicious dinners with the other four to five writers in residence. Here is a photograph of me (taken by a writer/photographer in my cohort) from the bedroom window of my cabin.

This past year I had a three-week residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. VCCA is for artists of all kinds, so I was there with twenty or so writers, composers, sculptors, and visual artists. We each had our own room and a separate studio space in an old dairy barn. My studio, which is where I ended up writing and sleeping, was in the old milk room. One writing space feature was one wall of corkboard with pushpins. I used it to play around with the structure of my current book project. I loved being in community with a wide variety of artists, with a mixture of established, well-known ones and people just starting out. Here is a photograph of the VCCA barn/studio space. My milkbarn writing studio is in the left foreground.

I ended 2022 with another three-week writing residency closer to home at Centrum, in Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula. For this residency, I had a three-bedroom cabin at Fort Worden and quickly established one bedroom for reading/sleep, one for writing, and one for messy creative art projects: bliss. A deer slept outside my door every night. Beaches nearby for long walks and thinking through the chapter I was writing extended the bliss. The setting, combined with December Pacific Northwest darkness and snow, made for a more introspective experience which is what I needed.

Even before I ventured out into the writing residency waters, I took annual fall or winter week-long solo writing retreats at a rented cabin on the Salish Sea one Orcas Island north of Seattle. I continue that practice in an old log cabin with no internet or cellphone connection/reception. This setting is more conducive to deep-dive, generative writing or to immersing myself in a book manuscript for edits. The photo at the very top of this post is the view from my writing desk there.

Next up for me is one of these solo writing retreats on Orca Island, followed in late spring with a group writing retreat at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico.

Here is some advice I have (and what I remind myself of before my next residency or retreat):

  1. If at all possible, try to ease into and back out of your residency or retreat time. If you can add a buffer day before and after when you aren’t frantically working or writing (or taking care of loved ones, young and old) and try to make the travel to/from as pleasant as possible, that can enhance your overall experience.
  2. Grant yourself grace by following your body’s needs in terms of sleep, exercise, and food. Entering a writing residency or retreat space often requires some decompression time, at least a day, so don’t expect to accomplish a lot of writing that first day.
  3. Take and use a writing journal (separate from a personal journal) and write about your writing. For instance, I’ll write about a particular difficulty or decision-making I’m facing in my current writing project. Oftentimes, just by the act of writing, ideas and solutions occur to me.
  4. Formulate a basic intention for your residency or retreat ahead of time but try to avoid drafting overly ambitious, anxiety (and guilt) producing to-do lists.
  5. Get to know your surroundings by taking long walks and exploring new places. My own rhythm on residencies and retreats is to write all morning, pack a light lunch and go for a hike (oftentimes thinking through what I’ve written and what to write next), and return to some ‘light writing’ or editing or scribbling out ideas before bed.

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