Eight lucky Australian writers have recently been awarded overseas residencies by the Australia Council. But are writing residencies all they’re cracked up to be?

According to industry magazine Books+Publishing, Lisa Gorton, Robert Lukins, Fiona McGregor and Sandra Thibodeaux will each undertake a three-month residency at the BR Whiting Studio in Rome. Each writer also receives a $10,000 grant.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied was awarded a six-month residency at the Keesing Studio in Paris, along with a $20,000 grant (which predictably caused the Murdoch media to have an attack of the vapours). Eloise Grills and Kate Cole-Adams were awarded three-month residencies at the Keesing Studio, receiving $10,000 each. Anita Heiss was awarded a three-month residency at the at the Cité Internationale des Arts and receives $10,000.

Plenty of other international writing residencies are available, with a quick Google search bringing up hundreds.

From a 20,000-acre working cattle ranch in Wyoming, to a boutique hotel in Latvia, to residencies in Shanghai, Mexico, Iceland or India. Most residencies provide at free accommodation for a set period, some include meals as well, a few provide a nice little stipend for the duration.

Within Australia there are plenty of options too.

Some of the better known ones include Bundanoon, KSP Writers Centre and Varuna. I won a fortnight’s stay at Varuna (pictured) in 2013 and it was a wonderful experience for me. The ability to spend all that time concentrating solely on my manuscript was an absolute gift, and I gained a great deal from the experience.

So what’s not to love about writing residencies?

Well, quite a bit actually.

Because the only kind of writer who can access residencies are:

  • Writers without caring responsibilities. Unless they can find someone to take the kids/parents/whoever for weeks or months at a time. My husband and I both work full time. He used two weeks of his own annual leave while I was at Varuna, to look after our (then quite young) children.
  • Writers who can afford to travel. Very few residencies cover the cost of getting from home to the venue and back again.
  • Writers without a day job, or with a very flexible one. Sure, most people can probably take a few weeks off, but spending three or six months away is on another scale altogether. Again, I used my annual leave to attend Varuna, but then I had little leave remaining to cover school holidays that year. I got the residency, and my family got the work arounds.
  • Writers who are comfortable living alone for the duration. Some residencies have multiple writers staying at the one location, others offer accommodation to just one person. Either way, partners aren’t usually invited. I’ve heard of writers staying in isolated retreats who found it very hard to sleep at night, and who felt very much alone.

In short, writing residencies make a bunch of assumptions about the sort of person who writes. And a bunch of assumptions about the benefits of writing while staying at a residency. Is a Mexican junket really going to improve the quality of your memoir? Couldn’t you just rent a local AirBnB for a distraction-free week or so?

I wonder if part of the attraction of residencies is the ability to say you’ve won one. They add kudos to your literary CV, and can be an important validation of your writing efforts. But they certainly aren’t the be all and end all. Those of us who write when we can, in the cracks of our lives, are still real writers too.

The literary sector is certainly aware of the issues and is responding, I think, by offering a greater range of fellowships. Many awards these days allow the recipient to nominate how they would prefer to use the funds.

For the Kat Muscat Fellowship residencies are an option but so are mentorships and other professional development opportunities. The Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship offers funds for travel, in order to research a work in progress. The Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund offers financial for travel too, but travel for all sorts of reasons, including to attend professional development activities. The Charles Perkins Centre, at the University of Sydney, offers a $100,000 Writer in Residence opportunity – nice, if you live in Sydney.

Perhaps the best and most effective advice for financial fellowships is to not be prescriptive. Allow the recipient to choose how best to make the money work for them – be that child care, time out of the workforce, a new computer, or simply easing the financial pressure for a little while. Perhaps that’s what literary prizes allow, but by then the work is finished (and the prize money actually supports the next project).

The point is this: writers are a diverse group of people. And the methods applied to supporting and encouraging their work needs to be equally diverse and imaginative. Sometimes, despite what Virginia Woolf wrote, writers need more than a room of their own.