Apologia for Being a Colony Addict
By Alison Balaskovits
This is the question most often lobbed back when I mention that I’m thinking of apply to such-and-such colony for the upcoming year, or when I declare that I’ve been invited somewhere as a “resident” or “fellow.” Perhaps most peculiar is that unlike most questions fired at artists with the challenging tone of prove to me and the rest of us working 9-to-5 what it is you exactly do, this question is usually asked by working creatives who have never been; I have to shrug off a bristle and breathe before I can evenly reply. As with non-artists skeptics I have to remind myself that such questions aren’t meant to come across as hostile; they are just born out of a lack of knowledge and genuine doubt—why do you, or I, or anyone who makes art, need to leave your desk or studio and go someplace else to do it?
The question is a fair one, and the concept of “colony” worth defining. When I was in my teens and early twenties I had a vague sense that such places existed—I pictured rural properties with cottages among trees, and hippy-looking older folk waltzing about. I supposed these places existed in the U.S. but especially in Europe; probably I’d watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty one too many times. That kind of anything-goes commune-living didn’t appeal to me, so I didn’t think any more about it. When I did finally subscribe to Poets & Writers and the AWP Writer’s Chronicle and studied calls for applications and guidelines, I gained a clearer understanding of what such colonies were and what they provided – not a hippy commune but a tranquil workspace among other serious-minded writers and artists, where meals or a stipend for travel expenses were often provided. Some of these residencies were indeed rustic barns, cottages and cabins; others offered rooms in Victorian mansions or converted B&Bs. A select few are considered a prestigious rite-of-passage, where legends composed masterpieces by day and enacted hijinks at night: Yaddo, MacDowell, and a host of others that kept cropping up in the bios of the paperbacks I flipped over at Barnes & Noble. Ragdale, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Hedgebrook—so many writers giving thanks to these places that indeed they must find their stays useful.
But I was twenty-six, and hadn’t published yet. Surely they wouldn’t want me, an MFA student; surely I needed to be well-established like Ann Patchett or Donna Tartt to go anywhere as lofty as a writers’ colony where a kitchen staff prepared your meals and maids cleaned your room and changed your linens once a week. Forget about applying to those places until you’re in your forties at least, I remember telling myself. Until you’re absolutely sure you can get in. Otherwise it’ll just be a waste of time.
A pang of sadness grips me as I write down those words now, for how earnestly I believed them. I wish I could remember who, if anyone, suggested that I apply to a few of the colonies on my wish-list a few years later. Or perhaps no one did and the hankering to take my chances was born from my thirtieth birthday looming, coupled with seeing colonies listed in the bios of recent MFA alums in my Vermont College newsletter. I applied to a handful of what I considered to be mid-list colonies and promptly forgot about it—so completely, in fact, that when I got the acceptance email that August referring to the fellowship I’d be awarded from “the VCCA” I had to write back and ask who was contacting me.
“This is the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts,” the administrator replied rather crisply. “You’ve been awarded a residency this fall, if you can still come.”
A formal letter arrived a few days later. Meanwhile I was issued hearty congratulations from former professors and writer-friends in the know that the Virginia Center was indeed well-regarded on the “colony circuit.” I felt very much like a kid about to go off to college, bound for adventures and worlds others know about—on the brink of something big, but what? How could that something life-altering be, of all things, a writers’ colony?
As luck would have it, a few days later I received the good news that I’d won a fellowship, fully-funded, to another, smaller colony that fall: the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, to begin immediately after I left the Virginia Center. Two colonies in one season—and I’d waited so long to apply to a single one!
And so my colony stint began in that fall of 2009. Immediately the obvious accoutrements of the residency won me over, for what writer wouldn’t love to spend all day in the continuous fictional dream right up until dinner, without a thought of needing to stop by the grocery store or hunt through the pantry for a meal? Then go to that meal and engage with all sorts of lively personalities, everyone understanding of one another’s trials and doubts. Even after losing an entire week to the swine flu, miserably shut up in my room, I emerged from my month at the VCCA and then Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow having completed the first draft of my novel—a goal I’m not sure I would have met while juggling the distractions of car problems, doctors’ checkups, housecleaning, and the lovely though constant pull of community.
The following year I applied and got into Yaddo; there my affinity for colony life officially swelled into full-blown addiction. Able to sink deeply into research and write in my cozy studio/bedroom, I turned out ninety of the highest quality pages I have ever produced—all in just five weeks. It was at Yaddo that I experienced how deeply bonds formed on afternoon walks and late-night chats: insider information on publishing, agents, editors exchanged in between the long stretches of creative output, as well as vulnerable recounting from the older residents on the trials of artistic life. These writers, famous and not, weren’t beaded and hippy-haired but smart and steady souls immersed deeply in their own work and whose presence alone served as a kind of mentorship. I began to see how spending time at colonies and residencies hardly amounted to a frivolous working vacation, but an essential step in furthering one’s development as a artist—a sanctuary where one might carve out chunks of seclusion in order to most deeply serve the work. What might appear on the outside as selfish, a utopia where daily chores are removed, was a sacrifice of one’s participation in the greater world. A fellowship to a colony was hardly a free ride but a time of service dedicated to creating lasting literature.
Since then I’ve kept a close eye on upcoming deadlines. I throw my creative work into the competitive ring whenever my calendar allows, adding new residency opportunities to my list and dropping others based largely on word-of-mouth. Those of us who hop from one residency to another, or “colony rats” as we’re sometimes dubbed, love nothing more than to pass along “the real scoop” about residencies we’ve attended and are curious about.
A few rules-of-thumb prevail in successfully landing one of these coveted spots. Especially when you’re first seeking an invitation or award—because colonies and residencies are indeed fellowships, ones you’ll proudly list on CVs and bios—you’ll increase your chances if you apply to the mid-list first. Renowned, fully-funded colonies like MacDowell and Yaddo receive huge numbers of applicants from the U.S. and overseas; they are the Ivy Leagues of the colony world, but there are numerous other well-regarded places where you’ll get the supportive environment you seek to further your project. You’ll also establish your reputation as a congenial resident—someone with a colony one or two listed per year on their application is likely to stand out to selection committees, i.e., “She’s been invited to the Anderson Center and twice to Ragdale. Since then she’s landed her first book contract, so evidently she’s a diligent worker who uses her time well. Her recommender assures us she’s of high character. Let’s invite her to come.”
It’s also worth noting that if you get wait-listed, as frustrating as that may be, still remains a cause for celebration. For this means your application and your work made the final cut, but the selection committee was faced with only so many time slots and limited funding. So the hard discussions ensue, subjective ones based on aesthetics, the balance of age, genders, where fellows are coming from—in short, your “rejection” at this stage has almost nothing to do with you. I was rejected and waitlisted from the Ragdale Foundation five times before they finally invited me for a residency. Now, I silently curse the pile-up of application fees when this happens, but the bottom line is: keep applying, and definitely apply again when you’re wait-listed. It’s been my experience that places remember who they waitlist and who reapplies, and they make an effort and reward those who circumstances prevented them from inviting years prior. Keep in mind that Selection Committees change as well, so if a panelist doesn’t take to your work one year in the final selection round, another panelist very well might.
When is it too soon to apply to a colony, and how do you know your work is good enough? I’ve been asked this recently by students and budding writers at book fairs and conferences. Just as you would get feedback before submitting your work to literary journals, you may want to reach out to a trusted reader, mentor or writing peer before you invest your time and application fees in a submission round (I say “round” because you should plan on applying to a handful of colonies if you’re hoping to land a space in one, and if you’re applying for summer, you should apply to as many as possible—it’s that competitive. If circumstances allow you to apply in the off-season, i.e., fall-winter-spring, your chances will be much higher). Imagine the kick I gave myself upon arriving at the VCCA and discovering I was hardly the youngest resident there—a twenty-five-year old poet who had recently completed undergrad took that honor. Nor had he published anything yet; as an emerging writer, his work showed promise. So much for my fantasy of residencies abounding with the seasoned and famous—they are, but Selection Committees are very much looking to support writers who are serious and just starting out, in the hard early years before teaching jobs and prizes can foot the bills.
While you should send your best and most current work, I usually have two different proposals that I send out at a time if only to “test” a project’s appeal. I also continually tinker and hone the project proposal to each application’s specifications. But once you have a core set of documents and your list of target residencies, the amount of time you spend applying is greatly reduced—especially since most colonies now use Slideroom and you can send your letters of recommendation instantly either by email or post via Interfolio (if you don’t have an Interfolio account, you should set one up immediately).
Above all, no writer’s list of idyllic sanctuaries in which to write will be the same. If you live alone, you might thrive at a bigger colony with many artists arriving and departing, and plenty of people to share a glass of wine with after dinner—places like the Vermont Studio Center or Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. If you’re not the ultra-independent type who thrives in a rustic, rural setting, you may prefer something less bustling and close to town, such as Ragdale or the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Perhaps you’d prefer a more solitary residency in the wilderness; I highly recommend downloading the Artist-in-Residence Programs of the National Park Service. Or if you’re seeking a long stretch of seclusion but a rustic cabin and wildlife isn’t your style, you might look into the James Merrill House Writer-in-Residence Program, the Jack Kerouac Writers-in-Residence Project, or the Carson McCullers Center, all of which are situated in a town environment. If, like me, you love traveling but time and money prevent you from seeing as much of the world as you wish, a stint at a colony or residency offers a built-in plus—last year at the Banff Centre in glorious Alberta, Canada, I hiked and rode horses in between revising stories for my second collection. Why go is replaced by why did I wait so long to go, squelched by the rewards too numerous to count—the headway measured by pages in inch-high chunks, the email from an esteemed editor that a fellow colonist put me in touch with, the thunk of an acceptance packet promising treasures in a far-flung corner of the world.
Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut short story collection, Train Shots, was released in March, 2014 by Burrow Press. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily,The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. Winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and most recently the Edward F, Albee Foundation. In 2013 she received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. For more information please visit www.vanessablakeslee.com.