Get Thee to a Writers Colony
Summary: Edward Gauthier discusses the benefits of writers colonies. He shares his journey from wondering how to apply, researching the many alternatives available, getting accepted, and attending. He advocates that for a serious writer, there's nothing better than a writers colony.
Writing has always been one of my favorite things to do. It's a wonderfully creative outlet, highly expressive and fulfilling. But raising a family is also satisfying, and then there are the demands of work and other, not always exhilarating, responsibilities. Often at the end of the day, I am so tired I don't even turn on the word processor. But, in autumn 2001, while taking the Ernest Gaines Fiction Writing Workshop at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL), a fellow writer, Rosary O'Neil, made a suggestion that helped me find a balance between my writing and the other demands of my life.
"Why not apply to a writers colony?" she asked.
When I told her that writing retreats, workshops, and seminars had been part of my life for quite a while, Rosary explained that a writers colony was not like any of these. "Those all have teachers, writing gurus, and group leaders that give you exercises to follow. They lead you. At a writers colony, you lead yourself. You are free to write when, how, and what you want. There's no schedule except for maybe when meals will be served. You have your own room and all the personal space and private time you could dream of to write." The idea snagged me at once.
"There's only one drawback. There is a competitive application and submission entrance process," she said, adding quickly. "But, Ed, you write well. You could do this."
I couldn't get the idea out of my mind. How does one get accepted to a writers colony? I shifted into research mode and went at the process with a certain stubbornness that my wife recognizes.
First, accepting my status of rank beginner, I dove into the Internet. Luckily, there's a lot of information there. Using various search engines, the term "writers colonies" yielded sites such as PoeWar.com, Creighton University's writers colonies Web page, and Yahoo's Art Organizations listings of Artists' Retreats and Colonies. My favorite became the Alliance of Artist Communities website, where I pored over a list of nearly 40 locations. The site provided all kinds of information—from the locations of the colonies to living arrangements and expenses.
Deadlines caught my eye. Most colonies require writers to apply three to six months in advance and have submission deadlines between October and December for those who are hoping to attend the following summer. It's much easier to gain acceptance during autumn, winter, or spring, but, for me, as a schoolteacher, those sessions were out. I'd just have to compete with the heaviest crowd for a summer spot. Here it was late October, and I was just starting the process.
I obviously couldn't apply to all of these colonies, so I had to pare down the list. Rosary had praised The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts as "the best." She loved the center's 450 acres of foothills in the Blue Ridge Mountains where she took refreshing walks when her eyes tired of writing. However, other places began to also catch my eye: the 93-year-old MacDowell Colony with its 450 acres of woodlands and fields in southern New Hampshire; 76-year-old Yaddo with its sprawling 400 acres of lakes, woodlands, and gardens in Saratoga Springs, New York; and the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts with its Franciscan monastery setting on 400 acres of rolling woodlands and wildlife sanctuary near Louisville, Kentucky. In the end, I applied to MacDowell Colony, The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Ragdale Foundation, 30 miles outside Chicago near Lake Michigan. I chose these three because all of them reported having many writers present at the colony at any one time, and I figured meeting other writers could be an extra benefit.
I began filling out the application forms I'd downloaded, updating my résumé, typing up a publication list that I wished was much longer, and contacting my sponsors. I was fortunate in that I could call upon two of my professors, Ernest J. Gaines (author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman) and Ann Dobie, former director of the National Writing Project site at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, and now coordinator of the Louisiana Writing Project Network. Within a week, I was mailing out the three manila envelopes and the waiting process began. I had it all done before December 15.
Spring came, and with it I received, one by one, three rejection letters. Though two of the centers said I came close to making the cut and had been placed on alternate lists, I had not succeeded. For a while, I was bummed out, but then I got curious. I wanted to know why I had been rejected. I phoned the Ragdale Foundation and spoke with one of the writing program directors. She assured me that my writing was strong, but the competition had been overwhelming. She suggested that other writing colonies still had openings.
"Whoa. How would you know that?"
"We compete, but we cooperate a lot too. We're an association. When one is full, we sometimes recommend other places." She recommended I call the Mary Anderson Foundation and the Writer's Colony at Dairy Hollow in Arkansas.
As I hung up the phone, I began thinking. I reread the website of the colonies I'd applied to and discovered listings of writers who had studied at MacDowell, Yaddo, and the Virginia Center. Names like Eudora Welty, Katherine Ann Porter, Flannery O'Connor, Thornton Wilder, Arna Bontemps, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, and Joseph Campbell jumped out at me. Then I realized the mistake I'd made. I, a virtual unknown, had been shooting for the top. I should have applied to colonies that were more of a match to my writing ability and to my reputation as a writer.
Now I realized that the statistic to examine carefully is how many years the colony has been established. MacDowell and Yaddo, having been around for over 70 years, obviously can be most selective about who they invite. However, some colonies out there have been around for only a few years. One colony in Oregon was being constructed even as it advertised for its first batch of writers. These colonies are much more willing to accept unknown artists. So, if you're an emerging writer, like me, try to determine which of the less-established houses are available and if their conditions and requirements are applicable to your needs. Applying to younger colonies means you have a better chance of being accepted. Then later, after you're a more established writer, apply to the more renowned colonies.
The other mistake I made was not using the phone enough. Make a call to the colony to which you're going to apply. Sometimes, the websites haven't been updated in a while and situations may have changed. And no matter how good the information on the Internet, you'll learn much more speaking to a human.
The only other advice I'd give is expect to be rejected at least by some colonies, and of course, don't quit trying.
So what was Writer's Colony at Dairy Hollow like? Great! Located on the edge of Eureka Springs in the heart of the Arkansas Appalachian Mountains, the town is quaint, full of small streets that wind and curve over the hills and mountains. It's a community almost overstuffed with trees and vines and gray rock buildings built with the natural stone of the mountains. When I arrived, I met Sandy, the director, and two of her cohorts, Mike and Cindy. I was immediately given the key to the Rose Room and was informed that there was absolutely no schedule. I was my own boss. If I needed food, it was in their industrial strength kitchen in the main house, and I could help myself to breakfast and lunch. Cindy, our cook, would have supper cooked and ready by 6:00 p.m. Monday through Friday (and she prepared great meals).
The Rose Room, located in the Dairy Hollow house about a quarter of a mile from the main house, was an average-size bedroom, with microwave, coffeemaker, small refrigerator, phone line, fireplace, and a bathroom with a skylight and a huge, old-time claw-foot bathtub. I set up shop at the large writing table next to the fireplace and was quietly typing away on my laptop an hour after arriving. After finishing a plot outline on a short story that had been buzzing around my head, I suddenly noticed that four hours had zipped by and it was time for supper.
Back at the main house, I met four other writers from Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. As we ate supper together, we of course discussed writing. Two were fiction fanatics like me, one was writing freelance articles for various magazines and was well published, and the fourth was as much of a science fiction junkie as I've ever met.
Two weeks sounds like a long time to write, but I figured it would pass quickly. I set up a disciplined schedule for myself: rise early, eat a light breakfast, write for three to four hours, break for lunch (and a short nap), and return to writing. The schedule worked for a few days; I had two nearly-complete short stories in quick fashion. (They were good stories that ended up gaining me admission to the Ernest Gaines Fiction Writing Workshop at ULL once again.)
On about the fifth day, the heavy writing schedule began to wear on me. I could feel my body resisting the sedentary work of writing. I adjusted by breaking my writing into two-hour stretches and taking walks or drives for 30 minutes between writing sessions. It was during this time that I started back into a novel on which I'd completed 7 chapters. I was able to generate 4 new chapters by the end of eight days. With 11 chapters completed, I could see a need to revise and tighten them. That took another four days.
Being at a writer's colony had an effect on my writing that was very interesting. I didn't watch television the whole time I was there, so I was suddenly unaware of any national news or worldwide problems. I didn't have phones going off or chores to take care of around the house. The only thing I had to concentrate on was plot, character development, theme, setting, phrasing, and dialogue. I was able to turn the full focus of my mind onto the writing at hand. The colony gave me a new perspective on what was possible. I was even able to relax in the evenings by reading or listening to music. Now and then, I'd get a beer at a local tavern and seek out the company of the locals, who were friendly and easygoing. Overall, I could feel myself adjusting into the work of writing, and it felt good. I was feeling what Rosary had originally described months before.
Before I knew it, it was time to go home. I packed, visited during the morning with Sandy and Mike, and got good news. I was now considered a member of the Dairy Hollow Writers Colony and, as such, I wouldn't have to reapply to come back. I'd only have to call and negotiate a time. (A nice perk, this policy is true of a number of colonies.) I've already decided to go back next summer and have arranged to stay three weeks next time.
If you like writing and have an idea for a story or article that's just itching to get onto paper, I'd suggest a writers colony. For a serious writer, there's nothing better!