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Run away to a writers colony!
Life too busy to accommodate your writing? Too many distractions? No one shares your particular obsession for losing yourself in voices and under scraps of paper?
You need to run away to a writers colony!
As an alum of 14 different writers or artists colonies over the last fifteen years, I have defined my personal heaven as those places where my busy home life is left behind, my imaginative writing life is given over to a compact and cozy room of its own, and some kind person brings a sumptuous lunch to my door. Heaven is also the place where everyone loves what you do and talks with you (when it's talking you want) about those things that most matter to you.
The concept is easy, and yet I find I'm always having to explain it to people: Artist colonies and residency programs are places (usually in very attractive settings) where, when you go there, they take you in and do everything possible to let you do your best work. These are not workshops, where anyone teaches anything, and they are not conferences, where you're too busy listening to reflect or do. You don’t have to turn anything in (except maybe your key) when you leave. At the best ones, you pay nothing in exchange for simply doing the best work you can do while you're there.
But it's not all solitude either. Colonies and residencies are the best, for me, of both quiet time and community. Typically, everyone gathers for dinner (prepared by a chef who is as good with food as you hope you are with words) and whatever other socializing is desired. Residents share their work, inspire and console one another, take hikes or go bargain hunting together, and, very often, form solid, long-term friendships.
At residencies, I have read the two-volume Nabokov biography in front of my own crackling fireplace in the New Hampshire woods, picked oranges outside my room in Spain, discovered tipi rings and avoided charging bulls in the Wyoming mountains, gone looking for alligators in Florida (in January), and spent way too much time blissfully canoeing on a chain of Adirondack lakes. I've done the best writing of my life in these places and made fast and forever friends.
Not everyone can (or needs to) tear themselves away from family, work, and home obligations to write, but for those who can, I say?try it. You might be very happily surprised by what can happen when you change your environment and a few new ideas fly into your head.
How to start? There are numerous colonies and residencies to choose from, from the famous (MacDowell and Yaddo to new ones popping up all the time: both large (30 or more people) to small (one); from those reserved for narrow constituencies (women writers only, or social-justice writers only) to those broadly devoted to the arts; from those where you’re mainly on your own, to those with a more social culture and those that might ask for some community service.
You will sometimes find listings or articles detailing particular colonies or programs in writers publications like Poets & Writers and The Writer's Chronicle, but the best and easiest one-stop research tool is the Web site of the Alliance of Artists Communities.Most places require an application, which generally includes a work sample, a plan or project description (although you are not held to this once you arrive and the muse takes a new grip on you), as well as references.
One secret: These places don’t receive many applications from Alaskans, and since they like diversity and hope to hear you tell stories of your extreme dogsledding adventures, you may have an edge over the competition.
Image courtesy of Nancy Lord: “From a residency at my favorite place, the Blue Mountain Center in New York Adirondacks (Oct. when it snowed). I am in back right, wearing a Seattle Mariners cap.”
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Photos of Sonya Senkowsky © 2004 David Jensen / David Jensen Photography.