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