Getting away with it — your book, that is

Last time, I extolled the virtues of the writing retreat, that time-honored institution where a writer in the throes of creation tells everyone she knows (politely, I would hope, but that’s not strictly necessary) that she needs to get away from them and all familiar influences for a bit in order to go on a honeymoon with her book-in-progress. Since I was fresh from a lovely not-quite-long-enough writing retreat when I wrote that post, I might have over-rhapsodized a bit, but the fact remains, getting away from it all can be a positive boon for birthing that manuscript.

And no, I’m not going to provide any graphic metaphor here about the female critter of your choice’s wandering off into the middle of the woods to give birth in private. I’m quite confident that each and every one of you is perfectly capable of thinking up your own.

Amongst serious writers, aspiring and published alike, the mere mention of the term writing retreat brings a far-away, wistful look to the eye. “Ah, sanctuary,” they seem to be thinking. Yet nine times out of ten, when they awake from their fantasy-induced stupor sufficiently to discuss retreating, they describe something very formal, well-organized, and perhaps most importantly run by someone else.

Basically, what they have in mind seems to be an artists’ colony, a sort of year-round summer camp where the creatively-inclined seclude themselves in luxuriously-appointed cabins to work, emerging only to eat, perhaps sleep, and socialize with the other artistes. If there were also a gourmet chef and a truly gifted massage therapist on staff, well, who would quibble?

If this sounds a bit familiar, I shouldn’t wonder: minus the massage therapists and plus a medieval castle, it’s more or less the destination in Elizabeth von Arnim’s THE ENCHANTED APRIL. A terrific novel to read on a rainy midwinter day, especially if you’re longing for a writing retreat, but let’s face it, renting a medieval castle in Italy with hot-and-cold running servants is beyond most of our reaches.

Truth compels me to say — hold onto your wallet, Maude — that such retreats actually do exist in the real world. If you like, I could tell you of three three-star vegetarian meals per day served in an eagle sanctuary, or of centuries-old chateau in the south of France where winds waft the scents of nearby lavender fields through well-scrubbed windows.

But presumably, if you could afford an extended sojourn in such places whenever you felt the need to lock yourself up with your book, you would be consulting a travel agent, not yours truly.

Sometimes writers’ descriptions of retreats involve even less interaction with the rest of the human race than the tourists delights mentioned above: in some descriptions, the writer envisions himself in a comfy-yet-well-funded bungalow intelligently designed to promote both creative endeavor and sleep; a shoeless staff of well-trained minions might rap softly against the windowsill before depositing the writer’s meals on the doorstep and tip-toeing away, but otherwise, blissful solitude.

Again, I’m not going to lie to you: such artists’ retreats do in fact exist. Let the fantasy-construction begin immediately.

The problem is, most of the deluxe retreats are either quite expensive (think four-star hotel) or require several levels of stiff competition (think admittance to an Ivy League school, then cut those chances in half) in order to win fellowships to attend them. Then, too, most of these colonies are set up to accommodate other kinds of artist; many artist colonies don’t set aside space for writers at all.

Which is not to say that there aren’t some excellent writer-only retreats out there — certainly, they exist. Poets and Writers magazine regularly lists the application and fellowship deadlines for them, in fact.

So if you already have a few solid literary credentials under your belt — contest semifinalist, anyone? — it can be well worth your while to apply. Believe me, being able to say, “I was an XYZ writing fellow” makes for some pretty fancy ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy). Do be aware, however, that the application process is often lengthy and sometimes application fees are expensive.

And, while we’re facing things, here’s a word to the wise: if you are planning to apply for a residency at one of these retreats, set aside as much time and as many resources to enter as you would a literary contest. Then double it.

Why? Well, it’s not at all unusual for a residency application to be as long or longer than the average college application. It’s not even unheard-of for them to ask for references. (In answer to that great unspoken question hanging in the air: ask other writers, usually, teachers, agents, and so forth. Yet another great reason to join an excellent critique group, eh?)

Pop quiz, class, to see who has been paying attention in recent months: if a market-savvy querier knows that every syllable in his query packet is in fact a writing sample by which Millicent is likely to judge his mettle, and if a knowledgeable submitter is aware that every sentence in her submission packet is also a writing sample, should a clever residency applicant regard every word in his/her/gender neutral application packet as:

(a) a mere formality to be written in the half-hour before the packet must be postmarked?

(b) something to be scrawled in pencil on the application form, because what matters is the content of the answers?

(c) indelible evidence that the jury of application-readers will use to determine whether to bother to read the requested formal writing sample at all after they’ve laughingly cashed the check for the application fee?

(d) a writing sample that will be judged with a harshness that would make the proverbial East German gymnastics judges of Olympics past wince, murmur, “Ooh, that was harsh,” and turn away in horror?

If you said (c) or (d) — or, better still, both — congratulations: you are emotionally prepared to pull together a potentially winning residency application. If you said (b), make sure to walk into the nearest available writers’ conference and tell the established authors; they’ll want to pat you on the head and call you adorable.

If you said (a), of course, you’re like 95% of writers who enter literary contests — and about 90% of those who apply for residencies at artists’ retreats. The organizers of those contests and fellowships would encourage you to apply early and often; they depend upon your application fees to keep their programs running.

In case I’m being too subtle here: don’t bother to apply if you’re not willing to put in the time to make your application syllable-perfect — and as when considering whether to enter a contest, be realistic about the fact that any hours you invest in filling out those forms is almost certainly going to be coming out of your possibly scant writing time.

When figuring out just how big a bite applying for a residency is likely to take, bear in mind that virtually any application will ask for a 5-25 page writing sample — much like the aforementioned literary contest, right? Obviously, this renders the application process substantially less time-consuming for those with already-polished pieces in hand to complete.

Pay close attention to the length restrictions: virtually any competition will disqualify applicants who exceed them. This can lead to rather thorny problems for novelists and other writers of book-length works.

Why? Well, short story writers and poets can often just whip out their best work and hand tuck it into the application packet, but again, as with contest entries, length restrictions often mean sending in a fragment, rather than an entire chapter.

Also, often (but not always, natch; read and re-read the rules until you’re blue in the face to be sure), writers of longer works will be expected to fit a synopsis of the book in question into the few pages specified by the rules, as part of the writing sample.

Aren’t you glad that I suggested last month that you construct BOTH a 1-page and a 5-page synopsis of your work to have on hand, for occasions like this.

Whatever you send, make absolutely certain that it is your best work. Assume, if anything, that your pages will be judged MORE harshly than by Millicent the agency screener or her aunt, Mehitabel the contest judge; after all, you’re asking the folks reading it to feed and house you, not merely to hang a ribbon on your chest.

Proofread your application within an inch of its life — long-time readers, chant it with me now — IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD.

I sense some nervous shifting in chairs out there. “Um, Anne?” I hear some anxious would-be applicants quaver. “I understand that applying for a residency in an artists’ retreat is likely to be time-consuming, exacting, and no great fun. I didn’t expect it to be any of those things. But you mentioned in passing — almost as a throw-away line, really — that you recommended applying to those ‘who already have a few solid literary credentials under (their collective) belt,’ and have since maintained an ominous silence about those of us who have, to put it politely, not yet attained literary recognition. How should the latter handle the application process?”

Ooh, good question, nervous quaverers. The short answer: extremely carefully or not at all. Take a realistic look at what ECQLC you have to offer, and do your homework about how likely it is to impress the people deciding who is going to occupy the tiptoed-to bungalows.

I know, I know: after my lengthy series on querying this summer, you are probably good and sick of my telling you to do some research about those to whom you would like to send your work for evaluation, but think about it: the more prestigious the retreat center is, the pickier those who select residents will necessarily be — and the more likely to favor applications that boast NEA fellowships, moderately successful previous publications and well-reviewed gallery shows. There’s no point in wasting an application fee on a retreat center that doesn’t look twice at an applicant until she’s been on the National Book Award short list a couple of times.

In fact, before deciding to apply for any competitive residency — and, more importantly, before investing hours in the application and/or signing the application fee check — I would strenuously advise doing a bit of research about who won that fellowship the previous year, and the year before that. Check the organization’s website; if they tend to smile the already-published, they’ll often want to boast about their fellowship recipients’ achievements.

Lest those of you treading the earlier steps of the path to publication despair, there are a few — a very few — fellowship-granting artists’ retreats that specifically look to provide opportunities to good writers with relatively few credentials. (But if you’re looking to boost your ECQLC quotient for occasions like this, please see the BUILDING YOUR WRITING RESUME category on the list at right.) And, as I can tell you from personal experience, once a writer has won one writing residency, it’s usually easier to win the next.

Credentials, you see. They snowball over time.

But generally speaking, the scantily-published do tend to pay for their writing retreats themselves. Which is — dare I say it? — yet another reason that an aspiring writer seeking a retreat situation, even an informal one, might want to devote a few hours to surfing the various fellowship-granting institutions’ websites.

Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? But how else are you going to figure out what draws writers to these retreats in the first place other than time and space to write?

More importantly, what about a gussied-up artists’ colony seems to you as though it would help you make serious progress on your book project? What amenities do you think you would absolutely need in a retreat situation, and which would merely be nice?

You’re seeing where I’m going with this, aren’t you?

Here’s the last thing I shall ask all of us to face today: while pretty much every serious writer dreams of being able to — and even paid to! — squirrel herself away and write for some concentrated stretch of time, there just aren’t as many paid residencies as there are gifted people to fill them. I’m rooting for those of you who want to take your chances to win the few slots, of course, but realistically, if you want to take a retreat, it’s not your only option.

Come closer, and I’ll whisper something pretty much every professional author learns at some point: you can set up your own writing retreat, and it needn’t cost an arm, a leg, or two weeks of work on a fellowship application to win a month of unfettered writing time. It will, however, require your figuring out what precisely you would need to have available to you in order to do literally nothing but write productively for, say, a week.

Seriously, what would the necessary conditions be for you, specifically? Time, space, 24-hour room service, a clerk-typist, a dog-friendly environment so you could bring your pet?

I’m talking practicalities here, my friends — not a one-size-fits-all laundry list for what a generic writer might need, but a thoughtfully put-together list of YOUR absolute necessities. For now, don’t worry about how difficult it would be to attain the conditions on your list — just go ahead and include whatever you think would make you a happy, wildly productive writer.

See why I talked about the fancy retreats first today? They were to get your place-imagining muscles warmed up. Feel free to use the Enchanted April castle or prestigious artists’ colony’s drool-inducing list of amenities to fantasize about what you would like, but only so you may clear the fantasies out of your head in order to consider the bare bones with which you could work.

Give it some thought; if possible, jot down some notes.

Why should you do that, in the midst of your probably already-packed schedule? Because in the days to come, we’re going to be using that personalized must-have list of yours to design a writing retreat that you can afford on every level.

Don’t stress out about this; trust me, it’s going to be fun. Keep up the good work!

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