There’s no way around it. In the end, your writing is what matters most. “The writing sample is the most important piece in the application. We look for quality and originality,” says Djerassi’s Freeland.
But what are quality and originality? Isn’t this the age-old question about literature? One person thinks Kerouac is a genius while another considers him little more than a typist. All the residencies I researched said they don’t look for a specific aesthetic, but each has a rigorous and specific approach to evaluating manuscripts.
Millay’s process, which includes a jury for each genre or art form—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, visual art, composing, and playwriting—aims to ensure that the colony will host a broad range of artists at any given time. “Each jury is deliberately composed of artists and critics with different approaches to and ideas about contemporary art-making,” says Millay’s Crumpacker. “We ask that jurors not judge applications solely on an affinity with their own ideas, but take each application on its own terms. That said, if jurists feel the terms an applicant chooses are objectively outmoded, limited, or banal, they should judge the application accordingly.”
Most residencies have a rotating panel of jurors, but they tend not to announce the names of the jurors until after they’ve made their selections, so you’re unlikely to be able to choose residencies based on jurors who might prefer your writing style over others. Perhaps that doesn’t matter so much, though. Scibona emphasizes jurors’ “rigorous thoroughness” and stresses that their selections are informed by their love of the work.
“The juror who comes to the table and says, ‘this work is wonderful,’ knows something more than the equally sincere and deliberate juror who says, ‘this work is no good.’ The whole jury procedure is organized to exploit the special genius inherent in admiration,” he says.
As with most residencies, manuscripts are sent to Jentel jurors with no information about the writers. Jentel jurors use a ten-point rating system to level the playing field based on the following categories: Originality/Creativity, Significance/Importance of Work, Developed Personal Voice/Vision, and Technique/Craft.
“Applicants should send in what they believe to be their best work. It does not need to be published. They may also send in more than one sample and include some work-in-progress. It does not always have to relate to the project proposal,” says Djerassi’s Freeland. It’s worth noting, however, that a published story doesn’t necessarily give one writer an edge over another, whose piece might be unpublished. “Neither publishing nor degrees matter to us, except by way of giving the jurors a little context for the work itself,” says Scibona. “I can’t think of a case in which we liked the writing more or less once we learned where the writer went to school or where she had published.”
That said, for the Fine Arts Work Center the notion of “emerging” is important. “Because the fellowship is expressly for emerging writers, a publishing record does matter,” Scibona says. “For our purposes, once an applicant has published a full-length book of creative work, he is no longer eligible.”
Other residencies, however, do privilege writers’ successes. “Though emerging artists and writers are accepted into the residency program each year, an established track record of accomplishments is most preferable,” says Anderson’s Hedin. “For poets and writers, work samples published in a book or a reputable national journal tend to trump unpublished work.”
Millay is interested in new and established authors. “We ask jurors to look at both accomplishment and promise—some work samples will be more polished than others, but polish should not be the only criterion,” Crumpacker says. “We hope that jurors will also consider the ambition and relevance of an artist’s work and proposed project.”
A residency such as the Atlantic Center for the Arts, in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, offers a different method for evaluating applications—a rotating artist-in-residence who sets up her selection criteria and chooses residents. “We schedule a master artist-in-residence to lead a three-week residency—to be an instructor, mentor, colleague to those wishing to attend. We ask each master artist to make a ‘residency statement’—suggesting the type of format, topic of the residency, as well as the type of applicant they are interested in working with,” says codirector Jim Frost.
As with all things a writer seeks, the competition for a residency is steep. Consider that the Fine Arts Work Center received six hundred fifty applications for eight first-year fellowship slots in 2011, and Djerassi receives approximately two hundred fifty applicants each year for twenty residencies.
Getting the proverbial room of one’s own is never easy, but it could easily be a turning point in a writer’s life, providing crucial time to finish an important piece of work. Carefully research each residency that interests you and be sure you understand what each requires in terms of application materials and guidelines by visiting the website and calling or sending an e-mail to clarify if necessary.
Grant Faulkner is the executive director of the Office of Letters and Light, which organizes National Novel Writing Month and other creative writing events.