I spent the first two weeks of December at Ragdale, a renowned artist residency in Lake Forest, Illinois. If you're an artist or writer, treat yo' self with a residency. You don't just get to travel somewhere cool and meet other artists (like the artist Anne Kingsbury, who I shared a bathroom with), there’s no better way to get your sh*t DONE. Residencies take a mix of experienced and emerging artists, so no matter your experience level, YOU can get into one!
WHAT HAPPENS THERE
At a typical artists’ residency, your time is your own. There’s no check-ins, workshops, meetings, or final report: you are only accountable to yourself. Sometimes there's an informal reading night or open studio. Sometimes the group bonds and spends a lot of time together, sometimes everyone’s working hard and only coming together occasionally. It’s a good idea not to invest too heavily in the prospect of a highly social residency as you can’t control that: what you can control is the work you get done.
HOW TO APPLY
Search for residencies based on location, type, cost (etc) on sites such as Res Artis, PW, and Artist Community. There’s a pecking order: the ones that are free and feed you are the hardest to get into, rolling down to the ones where you cover all your own costs, including food. Residencies like big dogs MacDowell, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, U-cross, Millay are highly competitive—I’ve applied to all of these and not gotten in. Applying for one residency isn’t really worth the time putting the application together: apply for ten and you might get into one.
Be as human and engaging in your project pitch as possible: explain why the work matters to you and what you’re about, really. Don’t be too formal. You’re usually applying months in advance and TBH, I’ve never applied with the project I actually do at the residency. I apply with my newest, unpublished work that is the strongest representation of me, right now.
Try not to let your inevitable residency rejections get you down (I have dozens). Directors aren’t looking to disclude you, they’re just looking to include other people. Rejections are part of an artistic life: consider each one a sign that you're committed and know that you won't give up.
WHAT TO DO THERE
Residencies are amazing because you have nothing but time and no distractions. That’s what can also makes them extremely challenging, soul-searching experiences.
At a residency in rural Portugal, I made the mistake of assuming I was there to polish what I thought was an almost-completed novel, only to hear back from my editor on Day 1 that is was an “okay” first draft. I wasn’t prepared for that and spent a lot of time crying into large glasses of admittedly excellent port. Being an artist of any kind requires discipline, especially when it comes to your mental health. A small melt-down about the validity of your work is all but standard; it just can’t poison or halt your creativity.
At Ragdale, I planned and executed the completion of my fourth novel’s outline. To prepare, I’d done 1 – 2 months of research, note-taking and brainstorming. I bought index cards, some butcher’s paper, and a few other tools. The hardest part of any project is starting. So I always just start. It doesn't matter if it's bad! You can fix bad work, you can't fix no work. Also, I mentally committed to the work before I came. For me, this is essential. Knowing that I am working tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that helps make writing into my job, rather than a fun thing I won’t do if it's not fun (which it often isn’t).
An outline the way I do them is a big task, and it took me 12 straight days of work to pull something together that’s good enough to get feedback on. I worked in the day and at night I watched The O.C on Hulu, drank a little wine, and only come back to the project if I got a good idea. Yes, I had a little meltdown, but I managed it (the key was adding a villain: ah! the power of the villain!), and finished. I am a finisher. They’ll put it on my gravestone: Here lies Georgia. Yet again, she finished. Choose to be a finisher.
TIPS 'N' TRICKS!
- Exercise daily. I always sleep badly at residencies because the mind is over stimulated and the body is under stimulated. I try to do a daily yoga practice and/or walk, and I bring a fun array of powerful sleep aids.
- Resist the urge to judge other peoples’ over or underachievement.Some people come to residencies to relax, ideate, talk long walks and chat in the kitchen. Others will finish a whole damn book. Who cares? Do you.
- Avoid self-destructive impulses. These include drinking too much, indulging in distractions or deciding you are terrible and everything you do is dumb. It’s worth repeating that if you want to be an artist, you need to manage your inner critic: this is not optional, it is part of the job.
While residencies are great, they’re not the only way to work. Most professional writers write at home, at their studio, in cafés, cars, bars etc. It can be tempting to decide you can ONLY do your project at a residency, because then if you don’t get in, you don't have to do it. Set a goal—two application periods a year—but plan to create your work regardless of the outcome.