Friday, January 6, 2017

Is It Time You Tried a Residency for Writers? by Jean Alicia Elster

I don’t think there is a writer alive who has not, at one time or another, looked up from their computer screen, gazed wistfully out of a nearby window and sighed, “Oh, if I could only get away and just focus on my writing!”  Well, I’m here to tell you that you can—you can get away and do just that. And the vehicle that makes it all possible is what is known as a residency for writers or artists.

I was introduced to the benefits of a residency by my then-mentor at another writers organization. She was glowing in her effusive praise about her recent residency at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois. Armed with the conviction that if my mentor, who was actually at the same point in her fiction-writing career as I was, could make it into one of the coveted residency spots then so could I—as well as the fact that Lake Forest was only a five-hour drive from metro Detroit—I went to and downloaded the application materials. The rest is history: I was accepted into a residency for the following year, 2001, and then via subsequent applications for the years 2003 and 2005.

Because each residency program is different and offers its own perks and limitations, pick one that is right for you and your personality. Do you crave just a cabin in the woods where you prepare your own food and live off the grid? Do you want meals prepared by a chef and served on a dining room buffet?  Do you want to be close to home or is a plane ride away to one of the coasts no big deal for you? Do you want the company of writers only or are you interested in sharing time with creative types of other disciplines? Is cost a major factor? The cost at Ragdale is generously subsidized by the organization. Some residencies require writers to foot the entire bill. Go online and do your research. Also, Poets and Writers magazine periodically devotes a portion of an issue to various residencies and retreats.

As I reflect upon my three residencies at Ragdale, the following thoughts stand out and explain why those times were so helpful to my life as a writer and to my fiction-writing career:

·      The daily contact with other professionals pursuing creative endeavors was invigorating beyond words. To be able to have regular conversations and interactions, particularly during communal meals, with others who shared a similar commitment to an artistic or literary endeavor provided a validation of purpose that invigorated and confirmed my creative processes.

·      As a writer, to be freed from routine daily tasks (such as cooking, housekeeping, attendance at a day job and, yes, parenting) in order to concentrate exclusively on a creative task allowed me to focus my complete thought processes and the unencumbered will of my muse on my manuscript. Such single-minded devotion meant that I could complete more work in a two-week residency than I could have completed in six months at my desk at home. (I do not exaggerate—other writers-in-residence have concurred with that statement).

·      Preparing for the residency and actually leaving home (at the time of my first residency, my husband asked me, “Why are you abandoning us?”) helped the significant people in my life—namely my husband and children—understand how important my identity as a writer is to me and that I needed a span of time to give that part of my life the same level of devotion that I give to them.

Even though it has been over a decade since my last residency at Ragdale, I still cherish the benefits of those three sessions. And I heartily encourage you, at some point in your literary career, to seek your own time away to focus solely on your writing. If I can do it, so, indeed, can you!

Jean Alicia Elster is the author of several books of children’s, middle grade and young adult fiction. Her two most recent books—Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car (both published by Wayne State University Press)—were selected as Michigan Notable Books by the Library of Michigan. She recently submitted the trilogy’s third volume, Blood Journey, to her WSU Press editor and is eager to begin the process of editing the manuscript. Keep up with her at her website, on Facebook and on Twitter.

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Our blog banner changes every quarter thanks to our Featured Illustrators, and Nina Goebel is preparing to unveil our newest banner. Nina created our Happy Holidays banner and will introduce our new Featured Illustrator next Friday!

Happy New Year!
Kristin Lenz


  1. Great post. You've got me thinking about the value of residencies. I've looked at websites on residencies for years. Maybe I'll apply after all.

  2. Very informative. Thank you for sharing your experience!

  3. Sounds like a great way to focus on your writing--and do something really nice for yourself. Thanks for sharing your experiences at yours.

  4. Thanks, Jean! I've often thought of a long time residency.