Every writer I know craves one thing: a peaceful period of uninterrupted time dedicated to writing. A room of one’s own, in other words, with maybe some meals thrown in and a little pocket money. Or even just the room.
Such a thing exists, of course, in the form of a writers residency. While some residencies charge money, many are located in idyllic, pastoral places and actually give you a room in a mansion or a cottage, a stipend, and most important, time to let your thoughts and pen wander with unfettered glee.
I’ve been working on a novel for an embarrassing number of years. I’ve finished two and a half drafts of the book, but with kids and work and work and kids (did I mention kids?) I’m writing during stray fragments of time desperately squeezed into an increasingly frenetic life. Lately I’ve felt as if I’ve lost the necessary writing momentum, not to mention the stimulating percolations of imaginative thought, to push the novel into a publishable state, and while I briefly considered buying a van and abandoning my family and my work, I decided the more morally acceptable thing to do is apply to writers residencies.
When I began doing the research, however, several parts of the application process flummoxed me. What were residency directors looking for in a résumé? How detailed did they want the work plan to be? Did letters of recommendation have to be from an applicant’s former writing instructors? What were they looking for in a writing sample?
I decided I needed to know more about how to apply if I was going to wager approximately thirty dollars a crack for a chance to experience these otherworldly idylls.
The Work Plan
Many residencies ask you to present a work plan. Usually no more than a page or so is required, but even that seemed long for the plan I had in mind. “I want to write, take the occasional walk, read, and then write some more. I want to forget my life, to immerse myself in my novel as if my novel is the world, to dream my novel throughout each night’s sleep.”
And that’s the long version. So what are residencies looking for in a work plan—beyond the obvious?
“We used to get hundreds of proposals that amounted to ‘I need time and space to work on this book,’ so we made the statement optional and changed it to ‘a brief sketch of your life as a writer,’ and we still don’t look at it carefully, if at all,” says Salvatore Scibona, author of The End (Graywolf Press, 2008) and writing coordinator at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He adds that some applicants have even interpreted “sketch” as an invitation to draw amusing little pictures or diagrams of their lives.
Likewise, the Jentel Artist Residency Program, located on a working cattle ranch twenty miles southeast of Sheridan, Wyoming, views the work plan loosely. It’s an overview, not a contract. “Once candidates are in a drop-dead gorgeous, mountain-view landscape with glorious light and amazing blue skies and pastures dotted with black angus and mule deer, sharing their time and space with five other creative spirits, candidates…are welcome to make changes to their proposals,” says Jentel executive director Mary Jane Edwards.
The point of a residency, after all, is for a writer to have time that isn’t stifling or regimented. “The residency program is designed as a retreat experience to pursue personal creative growth,” says Judy Freeland, residency coordinator of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, California. Writers’ project proposals aren’t even rated by Djerassi jurors, and the proposal doesn’t affect an applicant’s ranking order.
But then why is a work plan required?
“We are most interested in people who have a clear vision of what they will do with the time, such as revise a manuscript in progress or finish a book of poems,” says Bob Kealing, who oversees the Kerouac Project, one of the more unique residencies available: a three-month stay in the Orlando, Florida, cottage where Jack Kerouac wrote his novel Dharma Bums.
The real purpose of a work plan might be to simply prove that you have one. Show that you’re planning to get some serious writing done. And keep in mind that some residencies expect more than an amusing drawing—the work plan might just tip the scales on a final decision.
Kara Corthron, a jurist in playwriting at the Millay Colony in Austerlitz, New York, says, “In our decision making, because there were so many strong playwrights who applied, we went back and really discussed the goals outlined by each candidate, and these were instrumental in the final outcome. So, the essay is definitely not a formality. Give it as much care and attention as you give your work sample.”