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Applying to a Writers Residency: An Expert Breakdown of the Requirements

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. Although I’ve worked as a journalist and an editor, I wondered how an accountant or a bartender or a masseuse might fare against those employed by MFA programs or publishing houses. For better or worse, I sent in my professional résumé and hoped that the jargon of various jobs wouldn’t bias jurors against me.

“There is value in a monthlong residency no matter what type of job or career one has,” says Djerassi’s Freeland. “The fact that an applicant has a day job and a résumé that reflects this does not hinder his chances in any way.”

It seems that residencies generally ask for résumés not to evaluate your place in the writing world or reward professional accomplishments, but simply to get a better idea of who you are and how you might fit with other groups of candidates. “Jentel staff look at the résumé for insight into experience, expertise, and skills that may be helpful in scheduling groups of candidates for each session,” says Edwards.

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. “We need to feel comfortable that the writer will be comfortable and competent living in the relatively rustic conditions of the East Fork cabin for ten days, can deal with potential encounters with grizzly bears and other large mammals in their natural habitat, and that she will respect the environment and the animals,” says Timothy Raines, park ranger and media specialist at Denali.

While it’s obvious that a writer must have the right temperament to be successful at Denali, other residencies don’t search for artistic personalities that are a good match. “With a few remarkable exceptions, it is very difficult to predict, based on an artist’s work and profile, what would make a good fit and what wouldn’t,” says Caroline Crumpacker, executive director at Millay. “Our aim is to fit ourselves, as much as possible, to the artists who come here rather than to ask them to accommodate us or adhere to a specific idea of what makes a ‘good’ resident artist.”

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. I graduated from my creative writing program at San Francisco State University fifteen years ago and haven’t been on campus since, and even though I’m Facebook friends with a few of my former professors, I wondered how well they’d remember me after teaching hundreds of students in the intervening years. Would it be better to ask my boss for a recommendation? Friends who are published authors?

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. “Since the opportunity for unfettered time and space to create and community are key factors in the experience at Jentel, testimony of a writer’s work ethic and congenial spirit rank highly compared to a third-party endorsement of the writer’s ability,” says Edwards.

In short, recommendations need to offer a window into who you are—and perhaps offer assurance that you’re not dangerous or disruptive. “Staff just want to avoid ax murderers, drug dealers, and bandits, who might put undue pressure on the dynamics of the group in residence,” Edwards says.

“Because letters of reference tend to sound the same, all with the expected glowing comments,” says Anderson’s director, Robert Hedin, “they rarely play a significant role in the process.”

Reader Comments

  • melanie11 says...

    This was really comprehensive and debunked a lot of myths residing in my mind about these progams. I, too, have a novel going on years at about 85% completion, and two young boys, 4 and 5. Can I--am I allowed a few selfish, cherished weeks to finish up? Ah, the fantasy...I'm inspired. Thanks again. 

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Applying to a Writers Residency: An Expert Breakdown of the Requirements (March/April 2012)
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