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.
Jessica White (author most recently of Hearing Maud) has just begun a residency in Munich, and these issues are on her mind too, especially the loneliness of a long distance writer.. I’ll forward this to her and maybe she’ll let us know what she thinks.
Her thoughts would be super interesting, thanks.
I think that one of the reasons for the residency being the primary benefit is that the house involved is the house that a writer lived in and has bequeathed for that purpose. And sometimes money raised to support that residence goes towards its upkeep, rates and taxes…
I think that’s true – but I should think that few if any residencies state ‘upkeep of the house’ as their primary objective. Fundraising is always an ongoing challenge for a not-for-profit organisation.
It certainly is…
This is really interesting Michelle. I have mixed feelings about residencies. My first was at Varuna, with three other supportive, clever writers. I finished off a first draft and the others there encouraged me to seek out a publisher — all incredibly helpful. Then I was writer-in-residence at a residential library in Wales (Gladstone’s LIbrary) for a month. Ideal, really — surrounded by books and other, lovely writers and readers. I loved the affirmation, but I put so much pressure on myself to make use of the time that I did very little writing at all, and then became lonely and miserable. Sometimes I think I’m a hermit crab, more content at my own desk in my own space.
Isn’t that fascinating? Perhaps it’s less about the space, and more about the writer’s attitude? I’m sorry about your Welsh library experience. I’ve also known the reverse to be true – writers who were offered a residency were reluctant to go but then wanted to stay longer. Maybe there’s no pleasing us!
I was awarded a publisher’s fellowship at Varuna a few years ago but in the time between being awarded it and taking it up I actually moved to Katoomba. I was finishing a biography and really needed my filing cabinet and books around me (I think this may often be an issue for non-fiction writers) so I did not take it up. There was also a fee to stay there even though I had won a competitive fellowship and I was asked to pay quite a bit extra because I have coeliac disease and needed gluten-free meals. So all in all not a happy experience. I know others have loved their time there. Thanks Michelle for your article. Very interesting.
Hi Sylvie, and welcome. I know what you mean about needing your references around you – I took a huge amount of reference material with me to Varuna! And what a shame that you had to turn down your Varuna opportunity. Super interesting to hear about your experience, thanks for sharing.
I won a three-week fellowship to Varuna, and loved it – I was editing a non-fiction book I’d written and it was exactly the kind of non-creative, fact checking work that suited (for me) a situation like that. But the best thing about it was my rationalising that three weeks was so much longer than I’d ever had to work full-time on a project, it would be fine to waste about one-third of it. So I stopped working mid-afternoon every day and went for a walk in the bush, or went to a nearby town to look in the shops, or went for a beer and read a book. Also, it was lovely to be cooked for. BUT i still think the main benefit of these things is validation – to have someone tell you you’re a real writer, worthy of reward. I don’t feel like I need that any more, so instead of applying for residencies, myself and three writer friends book a few days away regularly in an air bnb that’s close enough to be affordable but far enough that we can’t sneak home. We cook for each other and spend the evenings talking about our work or whatever we want, and during the day we write. Overall, I reckon it’s better than a residency. But it doesn’t solve any of the problems you mention above (other than being short enough that we don’t need to take scads of leave from work, and short enough that those of us with caring responsibilities can fob them off for a short time). We can only do it because we all do work, and all have spare money (and too little writing time) as a result.
Thanks for these insights Jane, and I think you’ve absolutely nailed the ambiguity that surrounds any residency. I agree that validation is really important, particularly for emerging writers, but I love the Air BnB solution that your and your friends enjoy.
I agree completely about the validation aspect — a Varuna residency is on my checklist of things that will mean I am a real writer, just as Jane said. It feels like I am the only one at writer meet-ups who can’t casually drop “when I was at Varuna” into a conversation. All in my head, I know, but significant to my identity and confidence.
I feel that residencies, mentorships, grants, etc help get you more residencies, mentorships, grants, etc.
Go for it Kali, Varuna is lovely and the validation is important. But did you know you can just pay to go there? So maybe at least some of the writers who casually drop “when I was at Varuna” weren’t there because they won a fellowship… ;-)
Michelle, my biography was published but not by the publisher I was placed with at Varuna for the fellowship. (I did in fact accept the fellowship but gave away my residency to another full fee-paying writer). The funny story was that they placed me with the trade publisher who had published my previous biography, which, although it won an award and was shortlisted for others, hadn’t sold enough copies for them to take up my next book. Eventually, the completed manuscript was taken up by the wonderful Terri-ann White at UWA Publishing four years ago and she is just about to publish my new book. I am sure many writers have equally complex journeys towards publication but that is my only (non) experience of a writers’ residency.
What a tangle! So glad it all worked out in the end. And thank goodness for the excellent Terri-Ann. The woman is a national treasure.
Hi Michelle – thanks for this post. Some very important and interesting points raised. I just received one of the AusCo 3 month residencies in Rome that you mention above so thought I would jot down a couple of things about how I’m going to be able to (with any luck) make it work. In short, I’m incredibly lucky in a few respects: this residency will just happen to line up exactly with when I am due long service leave from my fulltime job. That is just a fluke and is the only reason I will be able to take the time away from work to attend and to be able to afford to go (and I have a very understanding employer). $10K would never cover the shortfall from a person’s fulltime work especially if they have a family to provide for. My partner works fulltime as well and we have a 4-year-old child, so the family-related stuff is going to be the trickiest. To be honest, we thought that my chances of getting the residency were so slim that we would just work it out in the very unlikely event that it happened. My partner is going to be taking on a huge load with work and solo parenting while I’m away, so again, I’m just incredibly fortunate to be in that situation. I would only have applied for this thing if my partner fully supported it and in the end they decided that it was such an amazing, once in a lifetime type, opportunity that we would just make it work (and they are going to be trying to go away for a similar work-related adventure in the future to even things up!).
As an aside – this Rome residency was always just offered as a 6 month stay. AusCo said they had received a lot of feedback that people weren’t able to apply because it was too long, so this latest round (it’s offered every 2 years) was the first time they offered 3 month residencies (it was going to be one 6-month placement, and two 3-month ones). They said they were totally inundated with applications for the 3 month residencies and hardly any for the 6 month so they decided to offer four 3-months residencies in this round. So it shows how limiting the longer residencies can be. Thanks again.
Thanks Robert, and huge congratulations to you. Lucky, yes, but also definitely well deserved. If there’s anywhere I’d love to spend three months, it’s definitely Rome. And thanks for sharing these ‘behind the scenes’ insights. Your own hesitations and constraints are super interesting, but also it is terrific to see how the Australia Council is flexible enough to respond to demand (and writers’ concerns).
Fascinating post Michelle, thanks. Your discussion of the pros and cons of residencies made great sense to me. I have often wondered about those very issues – to do with family and job responsibilities. As you say, the best help is flexible help that different writers can tailor to their circumstances. How make the “residences” (like Varuna) part of these flexible options is a challenge but I’m sure it can be done.
It was great reading the comments of writers here – they all confirm in one way or another the issues you raise, and that flexibility is the key.
That was not anonymous, but from me, Whispering Gums. WordPress seemed to have trouble connecting my login to your comment system. (Do you realise your site is “not secure” which I think means it doesn’t have an SSL Certificate?
Thanks for the heads up Sue. Weird that the site acknowledges Lisa, but not you! I’ll follow up with my tech people (I kind of miss my old site – at least I knew exactly how it worked…) And yes, I know it’s ‘not secure’ but until now have been loathe to fork out the extra $$ to make it so. Given that I don’t require passwords or credit card details, the need for it to be secure has not been a priority.
Quick tip: often the reason why your site is insecure is because you’ve linked to other sites as http not https. You don’t need to understand HTML to fix this, if it’s the problem, all you need to do is view your posts in HTML, look for the links that begin with https:// instead of https://, and add the ‘s’ if it’s missing.
Aren’t the comments from other writers interesting? Really fabulous to get those insights.
So interesting Michelle, thank you for writing about this. I have to say that Varuna has been priceless to me not just for the time and space I’ve gotten there but for the other writers (like you!) I’ve met there. But I also can’t get away for more than two weeks at a time because of children and work, and for this reason I’ve never even applied for any residency longer than two weeks. I think there will be time for this, later in life, but at that stage I don’t know if I’ll need it any more because I imagine the caring responsibilities will be fewer and I won’t need to get away to have the quiet space. I agree that it would be lovely to see more of these opportunities which are more flexible in how they are used.
Thanks Eleanor, for sharing your thoughts, and I agree that meeting other writers (like you!) was one of the best things about my Varuna stay. My kids are a little older than yours and you’re right about the caring responsibilities easing off (although now I’m in the ‘driving them around’ phase). These days the main constraint on my writing time is paid work, rather than small children. So finding time for a residency remains tricky.
Hi Michelle, thanks for such an interesting post which has sparked great responses from other writers. You provide a very balanced perspective on the pros and cons. The IDEA of a residency is heaven but the REALITY of juggling family and work commitments is often fraught. I too have been seduced by the siren song of the validation of an invitation to Varuna and have applied many times, unsuccessfully, despite being ‘shortlisted’. (It’s almost funny now. I’m determined to keep applying until they give in and let me in just to shut me up. And yes, I do have a philosophical objection to just paying to go rather than being offered a place…). Anyway, great thread! And huge congratulations to all the recent residency recipients – they are all so deserving of these fantastic opportunities and I can’t wait to read the work that results.
Thanks Cass, and welcome. I think you’ve perfectly captured the ambiguity with your idea vs reality concept. Love it! Keep applying to Varuna – they’d be lucky to have you.
Just to clarify my previous comment: I’m completely supportive of writers paying to attend Varuna subsequently as alumni…I would just like my INITIAL visit to be by invitation!
Awesome post! Keep up the great work! :)