All About Writers Colonies

Yaddo mansionAs many of you know, I’m weeks away from heading off to be a resident at a writers colony. This isn’t a conference or a workshop. I won’t be taking classes, as many people have asked me. I won’t be turning in a project at the end; no one will be looking over my shoulder to see how much work I’ve gotten done. (Though I’m sure my wonderful and supportive agent will be *extremely* curious to find out, once I get home!) Instead, I’ll be spending time on the grounds of a place called Yaddo—photo on the left. I’ll live on the grounds there, along with other writers and artists, and I’ll write there. And that’s it. It’s a month of great privilege. And I want to make the best use of this distraction-free block of time as I can.

So, to get myself ready for my four-week residency, I’ve asked a few writers I know what their colony experiences were like, and I’ve also asked for advice… How can I take the most advantage of this time? What should I do, and what should I avoid? These writers were kind enough to let me publish their comments here. And if you’ve been to a colony, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Yaddo is a well-known colony, as is the MacDowell Colony, where I was a resident in 2005. But these aren’t the only colonies—there are a great many all over the country (and outside the U.S.). You can stay often anywhere from two weeks to eight weeks. Some colonies don’t cost anything, and feed you once you arrive—all you need is a way to get there, and the time off from your life, which can be extremely difficult to arrange, I know. The comments below are on colonies including MacDowell (I seem to know a lot of people who’ve been there) to Hedgebrook to the Vermont Studio Center to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts to the Blue Mountain Center, and more. If you’re headed off to one of these places, or are considering applying, I hope you’ll find this interesting!

As you’ll see, sometimes colonies are magic… and interested agents, editors, and husbands should be assured that I’m getting some good advice on what to do while there:

From Alexander Chee, novelist, on the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire:

“The MacDowell Colony is beloved. I’ve only been twice but it feels like a second home to me in terms of how I feel about it. Both times I had a cabin with a room in the dorms, and I liked the separation of work and sleep spaces, and even lost about 8 lbs. the first time from the daily walks between them, and the regular meals.  I’ve also made enduring friendships.

“For me what summarizes how it is different than, say, staying home and working, is this story: It’s late November of 2005, there’s snow, it’s night, I’m in Colony Hall, the main building, sitting in front of the fire on a leather couch, writing to a friend on my laptop with a little bourbon on the rocks after dinner. In comes a Russian composer who used to be a circus performer, she sits down and she quietly plays Erik Satie’s Gymnopaedie from memory, beautifully, on the piano there. It was unforgettable.

“You’re around artists from different mediums working at the top of their fields. There’s nothing like it in the world. And the inspirations that provides are incredible.

“Advice: You are there to work. Do your work. And watch out for the person who takes it personally that you won’t eat the cookie they offer at dinner or hang out instead of going off to work—the friendships you can make are important, but you went there to work. Not to help whoever that is procrastinate (and there’s always at least one). Don’t be afraid to enforce your professional boundaries.”

—Alexander Chee

From Tayari Jones, novelist, on Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, NY, and other colonies:

“I’ve been to Yaddo, MacDowell, Blue Mountain, VCCA, Ledig House, Chateau de Lavigny and Gibraltar Point.  My advice for all of them is the same—remember that you are there to work.  Go to bed early.  I know that the parties are legendary and that at Yaddo there is a room set aside only for drinking, but really, you can drink at home.  Also, in my experience, if there is going to be drama, it’s going to be after 9:00 at night. If you are in bed, you miss the drama so you will be clearheaded and ready to work the next day.

“One other thing I noticed at colonies is how much time there is to do all the things you need to do.  There is plenty of time to read, nap, exercise and get your work done too.  Going to a colony made me see how much time I squander in my real life taking care of other people.  When I only have to see after myself, there are more than enough daylight hours in the day.”

—Tayari Jones

From Timothy Braun, playwright and nonfiction writer, on the Anderson Center in Minnesota, the Santa Fe Art Institute, and more (he’s been to about ten colonies so far!):

“They were all good, but I want to highlight a few. I loved the Anderson Center (MN). I received just the right amount of attention without the administration getting in the way of my work. I usually get up at 4:30am; have breakfast, then work until noon. I need administrators to understand that I can’t be bugged until lunch and Anderson gave me space until then. In the afternoon, I often did stuff with the administration. I also liked the Santa Fe Art Institute for similar reasons.

“I’m heading to Djerassi this June. Then back to the Santa Fe Art Institute in July and I’ll tell you what I’m bringing. Books by Eduardo Galeando, Halldor Laxness, John Koethe, Chris Bachelder, and Louis Menand. However, the most important things I’m bringing are football magazines. You can not ‘make’ art all day long. Bring something with you for downtime.

“That, and get to know the other artists, there is so much to learn from them. Every time I go to a colony it is like going to graduate school again. Swap reading lists, names of favorite artists, inspiring movies, salad dressing recipes. And get to know the region. I purposely use colonies as a conduit to travel the globe. Djerassi is bringing me to San Francisco for the first time and I plan to eat all the sourdough I can get my paws on.”

—Timothy Braun

More impressions on writers colonies—the good and inspiring, plus the bad and uncomfortable—after the jump.

From Susan Ito, fiction writer, on Blue Mountain Center in Blue Mountain Lake, NY, and Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island, WA:

On Blue Mountain Center: “Blissed out summer camp for progressive artists! This place is so stunningly beautiful. The staff goes to great lengths to provide ample but OPTIONAL activities like gorgeous hikes, canoe rides (AWESOME boathouse with kayaks & canoes), museum visits, etc. They help form a real community. The feeling is truly one of Family. I love this place SO MUCH.

“They have a strict no-cell-phone policy. They really believe in the gift of isolation. Don’t fight it. There is a pay phone, and dialup internet downstairs. Believe me, your work will benefit.”

On Hedgebook: “Heaven on earth. Made some longlasting friendships. Lifechanging. Sooo supportive of women. It’s very small (6 women at a time) but the rotation changes. I was so so lucky to be surrounded by amazing inspiring women but I know it’s not the case for everyone, in which case just wait it out. ENJOY. It’s a once in a lifetime gift.”

—Susan Ito

From Tiffany Trent, fiction and nonfiction writer, on VCCA (Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst, VA), awarded the Goldfarb Fellowship in Nonfiction:

“I spent a week in December of 2002 reading, writing, and communing with other artists at VCCA.  It was one of the most glorious writing times I’ve ever had.

“It’s good to have a clear goal regarding what you want to accomplish, but also be flexible if inspiration comes knocking. I think the trick is just to be open to whatever comes and whomever you might meet.  VCCA is very cool in that it’s also a colony for visual artists and composers, so it was great to mix with them and walk into their studios and see what they were up to.  Be ready to be inspired by your fellow colonists! 😉 ”

—Tiffany Trent

From Christine Lee Zilka, fiction writer, on Hedgebrook:

“Hedgebrook is an intimate writers colony located on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, reachable by ferry—only six women writers are there at any one time, and a small community of six makes for the best of times and the loneliest of times. You can stay as little as one week, and as long as two months. I was staying for three weeks. I arrived to a group of women who had coincidentally all bonded, the majority of them in the midst of longer residencies. I was the odd man, I mean, woman, out. A little lonely. Okay, a lot lonely.

“I began to envy co-ed, larger writing colonies with thirty artists in residence at a time. I wanted the familiarity of male voices, the easy co-ed banter I have with men, and the greater odds of connecting with someone in a milieu of thirty versus five women. I wasn’t the only one who missed men; much of dinner conversation revolved around sexual longing for men. One evening, a man rode by on the road in front of the farmhouse where we would have dinner each evening. Half the table shrieked and ran to the window to stare.

“Over the next few days, I began to benefit from the exclusive and elusive female voice—a voice that often needs to be coaxed. There’s a different tempo. I couldn’t hide in the banter to which I had become familiar in my day to day life. I couldn’t hide from my feelings and thoughts and gave in to them, and in turn, informed my writing.
I loved the staff at Hedgebrook—incredibly supportive staff who offered perfectly timed gentle words of encouragement to me.

“And most importantly, at Hedgebrook, I met Randa. She arrived halfway through my stay and if the first half of my time at Hedgebrook was miserably lonely, the second half of my stay was filled with the kind of bliss that only female companionship can bring. I remember the first night she arrived, Randa cracked a joke at the dinner table, and no one laughed; we’d only been having very serious intense dinner conversations for over a week. I stifled a giggle, and realized I had missed laughter. She noticed my hidden glee. We became instant friends, close friends to this day.

“The surroundings are pastoral—the grounds are right out of a fairytale; so much so that I expected nymphs and fairies to appear in the trees around ponds. Rabbits abound. On my walks around the property, I wondered that if I kept on walking if I would end up in Narnia. The perfect setting for what I now see as a three week long meditation on writing. Seriously—in my day to day life, I am NOT this Zen, but at Hedgebrook, I learned to be focused, calm.

“It was only inevitable that my surroundings would seep into my writing as they had previous residents. I borrowed a copy of Monique Truong’s “The Book of Salt” from the Hedgebrook library, knowing that she had once stayed in my cottage to write said novel. On a rainy morning, I sat in a comfy sofa chair, next to the warm fire in Oak cottage and read Monique Truong’s book, until I came upon a passage describing the drops of rain on the roof of the protagonist’s bedroom. The description of the rain, and the tempo of the writing—so eerily in sync with the rain falling on the roof of Oak cottage. It was a magical moment for me; the words reached out to me through time. Now, years later, as I write my novel, I still remember those raindrops and walks in the woods, walks on the beach in Puget Sound, and my protagonist walks them too.”

Advice? “Bring creature comforts: a particular kind of tea, your fuzzy slippers, your favorite pair of pajama bottoms, a stack of DVDs, or a robe. Bring necessities: towels (oftentimes residencies don’t provide towels), particular shampoo/conditioner/toiletries. If you need certain music played while writing, bring it. You may not have internet, so don’t depend on 😉 Bring your novel research, your novel outline, all you need to WRITE. When I went to Hedgebrook, I brought all my necessities but I didn’t bring enough creature comforts. Next time I’m off to a colony, I’m making sure to bring all the things that offset homesickness, and…I’m also not going to forget to have fun. When I first got to Hedgebrook, I didn’t give myself permission to acclimate and instead pressured myself to get started with my writing immediately. I had a real rough start. I won’t be forcing that upon myself again.”

—Christine Lee Zilka

From Ramiza S. Koya, fiction writer, on the MacDowell Colony:

“I spent just two weeks at MacDowell, called in as an alternate in the middle of my teaching semester. I cancelled some classes and used my spring break so I could go. I was assigned a beautiful studio, called Wood, that had an exterior made of whole bark. The inside was spare, with a desk, rocking chair, single bed, and bathroom. The view was of the woods. When I first walked in, I burst into tears; I knew I was in heaven. The first words I wrote, at the start of the second part of my novel, were the words ‘Omar was happy.’ That was written because of the context, and it helped me to shape the rest of the book.”

“At MacDowell, I learned something I didn’t know and never would have suspected: I like to write in the morning. I have always hated mornings and think of myself as a night owl. But at the colony I spent most nights in the studio, forsaking my assigned room near the main house, and woke up at dawn. I was usually writing by 7. I would break for coffee and breakfast, usually long after the formal meal was over, and then write until about 3 or 4 in the afternoon. I was enormously productive, I adored the lunch that arrived in the picnic basket every day, and best of all, by the time I finished writing, there was still plenty of day left for long walks, meditation, and socializing with an amazing group of fellows. I look back on this as one of the most treasured—and certainly most privileged—times of my life.”

Advice? “See as much as you can of other people’s work; learn your own rhythm; try to give as much as you get.”

—Ramiza S. Koya

From some of the experiences above, colonies may sound to be magic. They can be. But they aren’t always.

From an anonymous writer on the MacDowell Colony:

“Junior high. Lots of rankism. Cliquish. Socially painful. Definitely had a ‘Cool Kids’ group. In fact, ridiculous at times. Brimming with Attitude. But the place is gorgeous.  The staff is wonderful. The environment is sublime. I’d give it another try but not in the summer. I’ve heard that winter/fall is much better there.

“If you are in one of the further studios, you _must_ have a car because it took me two hours RT per day to commute for meals. In the rain, this sucked.”


Then again (told you I know a lot of writers who’ve been to MacDowell!)…

From Andrea Kleine, writer and performance artist, five-time (wow!) resident at the MacDowell Colony:

Short description of your time there: “2 novels, 1 screenplay, 2 performance pieces, 1 husband (I met my husband, musician Bobby Previte there in 2005).”

Advice? “Stare at wall. Stare out window. Go through internet withdrawal. Cry. Repeat. Forget how to talk to people because you spend all day alone. Think that everyone hates you. Be intimidated by the fact that everyone there has a Pulitzer/Guggenheim/or other certificate of genius and you are still a poor, starving, unknown artist. Realize that people with certificates of genius are intimidated by you. Realize that everyone is working on their art all day long. Realize that you are among your people. Do something.”

—Andrea Kleine

From an anonymous fiction writer, on the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT:

“Vermont Studio Center is located in Johnson, VT— a small town near the Canadian Border. The campus is comprised of charming, restored historic buildings.  The Maverick Writing Studio is one of the few new structures. Each writing resident is provided a small room, a desk, wireless access, and a view of the Gihon River. Most writers like Maverick. I didn’t. It was sterile and felt like an office. I preferred to work in the house where I lived. Each month there are about ten writers and forty visual artists. I enjoyed this ratio. I like meeting people in fields other than my own. However, the disparity might be difficult for those hoping to mingle with exclusively with fellow writers. VSC hosts the many international artists. It was fun to talk to the foreign visitors and learn about their countries. VSC is also starting a residency for translators. One of the highlights of my stay was a translation reading. Poets read their work in English and the translation resident read their work in Italian.

“The facilities at VSC are ideal. However I was unhappy there. My experience should be a warning to anyone considering applying to an artist colony. Not everyone is suited to such an environment. I am a solitary person. I can deal with one maybe two social functions a week. If you go to all the meals and the evening events, there are four communal activities a day at VSC. To me, the residency felt like an endless dinner party.  VSC doesn’t make you share your work or socialize. Still I felt odd that I didn’t want to do so. I’m inspired by walking city streets, riding the subway, and hearing classical music performed live. I missed New York terribly. If you are happy where you live and are satisfied with the amount of time you have to work, I would suggest not applying to a colony. My time there made me realize that I need a lot of stimulation—the kind I get by living in NYC.  Another problem is the amount of planning it takes to go to a colony. Preparing to go ate away at my writing time.

“However, if a colony is for you, I would recommend VSC. Here’s some advice for those planning a residency there:

“Bring a car. I don’t drive, so this wasn’t an option for me. I think I would have been happier if I could have escaped VSC and visited the nearby skiing areas, or Montreal (two hours away), or Burlington (one hour away). A car is also useful for errands like going to the Laundromat or going to a pharmacy (the closest is eight miles from the campus).

“Be prepared for cold. I was there during the winter when temperatures can drop far below zero. Nevertheless northern New England can be snowy from fall to spring. Bring lots of warm clothing.

“Go to the visual artists’ open studio events. They’re wonderful. So are the artist talks and the poetry and prose readings. Carefully chose what month you wish to attend. Each session offers two different visiting authors. If there is a writer you wish to work with, pick that month. If you are uncertain whether a colony is right for you, opt to spend two weeks rather than four at VSC.”


From Shanna Mahin, memoir writer, on the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, FL, the Norman Mailer Colony in Provincetown, MA, and more:

“I’ve been to MacDowell, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and Norman Mailer Colony during their inaugural summer, last year.  All very different experiences, all great in their own ways.  MacDowell was my first, so it will always have a special place in my heart.  Atlantic Center and Norman Mailer (I was there for a week-long workshop, not the month-long fellowship) are different, in that you work with a master artist (for me, Honor Moore and Veronica Windholz, respectively), whereas at MacDowell, you’re on your own for endless vistas of time.  I like both.  And I definitely get more work done at writer’s colonies than I’m able to in the real world, which is as much a function of feeling like I need to live up to the faith that the selection committee placed in me as it is a function of having all that time.”

—Shanna Mahin (taken from a comment on this blog)

From Jennifer Sears, fiction writer, on the Millay Colony for the Arts:

“The Millay Colony is set in upstate New York. The colony is surrounded by dense woods, hiking trails, a “gin cemetery,” and of course, the home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. The area is remote enough to be unfriendly to wireless connections and cell phones, which I considered a plus. The best connection was on Edna’s abandoned tennis court, which has grown over with fragrant wild thyme. In August, the walk between the large, accommodating studios and the dining room was filled with goldenrod. The ghost of Edna is rumored to haunt the grounds, and though I never saw her, we made several midnight hikes through the woods to her grave.

“The staff at the Millay Colony are supportive and friendly. Residents are free to be as social or unsocial as you wish to be. They love their artists and offer ongoing support through publications, readings, and art events.”

Advice? “Plan to walk and hike frequently. Take an in-progress project to work on even if you plan to be creating new work.  The free time can be daunting at Millay as there is no where to escape to unless you have a car.  I ended up working on an entirely different project than what I’d planned.”

—Jennifer Sears

Now that I’ve given other writers’ impressions… if you’ve read this far, maybe you’re wondering, what was my own experience?

I went to my very first colony, MacDowell, five years ago, before I had a book under contract or an agent who was willing to make an investment in my career. I was struggling, and on my own, and getting that residency was pretty much the biggest thing that had happened in my writing life so far. I was in awe, shocked that they’d let me in. And I was deathly nervous to go.

My own time at MacDowell was a blur. On my application, I said I was writing one thing, but when I got there I spent most of the time working on something else, a revision of a novel I was planning to send to an agent who ultimately ended up passing.

So my memories of MacDowell may be tinged with the failure of that novel and some regret over what I chose to work on. I can’t deny that. But also, there was that freedom, permission to write. Someone thought I was worthy. Also, the banana-coconut muffins. The best scrambled eggs + strawberries in the world. Junior-high-cafeteria jitters upon entering the dining room every single night. Mind-blowing readings before the fire. Sleeping with the radio static on to avoid the absolute quiet of the woods. Stupidly seeing Ringu before leaving. The darkness, astoundingly vast. The conversations over dinner. The chapters I wrote. The connection. The lack of internet in my studio. The picnic baskets delivered every day for lunch. The time. Endless time. Time like I’ve never had before.

And, yes, the magic.

Here I am standing outside my live-in studio (yes, NYC friends, it was probably three times the size of my apartment):

Outside Watson

And here I am inside the studio, the view taken from my desk:

Inside Watson

My advice? If this sounds of interest to you, apply. Apply even if you think it’s a longshot. Apply, though you’re intimidated. Apply, even if you’re at the start of your career. Apply, though you think it’s impossible. I did, and both times somehow I got in.


Thank you so much to the writers who emailed me with their comments and let me include them here. For more information about colonies, check out Christine Lee Zilka’s post, with helpful links, on Writerland and Allison Amend’s article on Yaddo for Mediabistro.

But, from all the advice generously given above, I love how simply Andrea Kleine said it: “Do something.”

I have big plans for Yaddo, and that’s top of the list.

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