Writers Residency Myths and Tips - How to Apply for Writing Residencies

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I've headed out for a one-month writers residency in Alaska, where I'll have my own cabin and uninterrupted time to write. It's an honor to be chosen, and a longterm dream of mine — one I only recently gave myself permission to pursue. Residencies sound very mystical—something for the privileged few who can afford application fees—but that's a myth. There are thousands of writers residencies all over the world, and many have no application fee. Learn why I thought a residency was out of reach, what changed my mind, and my best tips on how to apply for writing residencies.

Writers Residencies Misconceptions

Once I found out writers residencies existed, I longed to go to one. Who wouldn't? Time to hobnob with other artists, getting a room of one's own to write, feeling free from the pressures of the outside world with no obligation but to the muse? Pure romance, and I wanted in.

But I only let myself apply this year.

Why?

Fear of not being good enough

It's common with those socialized female to hold themselves back out of fear of not being perfect. There's data that women won't apply for a promotion unless they meet 100 percent of the job requirements whereas male candidates apply as long as they meet 60 percent of what's required for the promotion. I wasn't sure I was "good enough" and without 100 percent proof, I hesitated.

Fear of not having the right experience

Cultural conditioning aside, I bought into myths about residencies, privilege, and permission. I wasn't sure I was ready, which is shorthand for I wasn't sure I deserved this. I told myself I would apply for residencies when I was "established" .... yet never defined for myself what established would look like. I had an MFA. I had publication clips. I'd worked for a lit mag. I had a manuscript. I mean, what was I waiting for, an agent to tell me to apply?

Poverty fears

Let's be real, time in a writers residency means time you're not getting paid to work. And many have application fees, so you're paying $25 or more to even be considered. Even if you only apply to four residencies, you've spent $100 bucks toward a dream. For many writers that alone is prohibitive. BUT.... there are residencies with no fee to apply, residencies with sliding scale fees, and residencies and writing retreats with scholarships.

If you have a day job and two weeks vacation, you can find plenty of residencies that are two weeks, use your vacation time, and suffer no loss of income. But you probably have other time off needs, and some residencies are longer, so even if you've got a day job you might need to take unpaid time off.

I have no day job and no safety net of paid time off, so for years I worried about the very real fear of loss of income while pursuing my dream of residencies. I still worry about loss of income while I'm away, but I decided I wasn't going to let poverty fears hold me back.

It's the modern age, and there's internet connectivity even in Alaska, which means I can still do client work while I'm away...although it's last priority.

My job flexibility is a privilege and one that makes it easier for me to do this, but there are ways around this. If you really want to get away and write—so long as time off doesn't mean you'll loss your job (i.e., I would never have been able to do this when I worked as a cook)—you can sacrifice and plan and find a way to make it work. It might mean you live on rice and beans for three months to save extra cash, or you hold a mega yard sale, or you take an extra job. It doesn't need to be easy. But it also doesn't need to be the one thing that holds you back from your dreams.

Social anxiety about asking for references

I let worry about finding references hold me back from applying. I wasn't in touch with MFA professors and too far out of college to ask my favorite writing professors. I had no writers group and didn't want to burden my writing friends. When I decided to apply, I pushed out of my comfort zone to ask four people to act as references (one CP, one local writing teacher, and two writers I'd met at conferences, one who taught my workshop and one who organized the event). While one of these people turned me down the other three were glad to offer a reference. My regret here was not asking sooner, because who knows what opportunities I missed by taking myself out of the running?

Lack of knowledge about finding opportunities

I wasn't really sure how to find writers residency opportunities aside from the big-name ones that floated across the radar screen, to which I was sure I wouldn't get in. A quick Google search (well, I'm a ninja librarian so YMMV) fixed this knowledge gap and I've curated my go-to sources for you below.

How to Apply for a Writers Residency

While the most competitive residencies may be well-publicized, there are thousands of residencies. If you've never applied before, I'd recommend avoiding the big-name residencies where you'll be competing with established writers and search out either opportunities that are geared toward emerging writers (i.e., writers who haven't put a book out) or new residencies. I've read somewhere that international residencies are less competitive than U.S. residencies so that's worth considering, too.

I've found residencies advertised through:

While a couple of these resources only list writers residencies, others include residencies open to other types of artists so just read the guidelines carefully.

Whenever I find out about an opportunity after the deadline, I make a note in my calendar so I'll know about it for the following year.

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Application Materials Required for a Writers Residency

Residencies vary in their required materials. You'll typically need to provide some sort of artist's statement, send a work sample, and write a letter of intent, which explains why you want that particular residency and what you'll work on in the residency.

You may sometimes be asked for publication credits or an artists resume.

References are sometimes required, but not as often as you'd think

Artist's statement

This is your chance to talk about you. What turns you on? What defines your style? What are you immersed in right now, and how does it connect to the larger world and to the specific residency you're applying for?

You can reuse the artist's statement across applications, maybe tweaking it to highlight characteristics that might appeal to the particular residency.

Work sample

With the work sample, page requirements vary by residency (ALWAYS read the guidelines since sending too much will get you declined automatically). You should always send your best work. Even if your best work is not what you will work on in the residency. It can feel wrong to send 25 pages of the novel you're querying when your application says you'll be working on a book of essays, but trust me.... they want to see your best work that represents you at your highest and more creative brilliance.

For all the writing awards I've won, I've sent pages from a work I've been querying and discussed a work-in-progress in my application statement. It's totally not a problem at all.

Letter of intent

The letter of intent should cover why you, why now, and what you'll do. Rather than write something you think they'll want to hear, just be honest. Write from your gut. If you need time to brainstorm a new work or want to finally pursue that passion project of diner poems, just talk about it clearly and so your passion shows through. Sure, you will feel vulnerable writing about why you're desperate to get away and write, but it will lead to a better application.

While you may be able to reuse snippets of the letter of intent, this should first and foremost be tailored to the residency in question. I recommend you read over their call for submissions and pick out words or phrases that seem important to them. Go over their website. What do they highlight? How does that resonate with your work?

Review the guidelines after you've got a draft to make sure you've addressed everything they ask for.

Publication credits

You are often asked to send a list of publications. I've got a list of all my clips from the last two years put together from a writing retreat application, so I can copy and paste that in where it's required. Yes, it's a pain to pull this together but once you've got it, you can reuse it and make minor edits year over year. It's also something you should have for your website or online portfolio.

Don't be scared off from applying if you have few or no publications. The work is top consideration, not your publication history. Just double-down on making sure the opportunities you're consider are geared toward emerging writers.

Artist resume

Artists resumes are totally different from your day job resume. Rather than list your skills, objective, work experience etc. the artists resume covers:

  • Your education

  • Conferences or workshops you've attended

  • Awards you've won

  • Selected publications

  • Press (i.e. if you've been interviewed or had articles written about you)

  • Related professional experience (i.e. day job stuff that's germane to your writing)

It's not hard and fast, so pick the categories that reflect your experience and omit the others. This is just a handy way for the committee to see your experience, dedication to craft, and publication history. Here's the artists resume sample I based my writers resume on.

References

A writing teacher once told me the purpose of references are just to show them you're not crazy.  Critique partners, college professors, writing teachers, and other people who can speak to your work all make good references. Don't overthink this one, but do line up people when you're thinking of applying so you have the information you need. I missed out on a residency because the call for applications and website didn't say references were needed and I hadn't lined up references in advance, so I missed the deadline.

If you've ever dreamed of getting a residency but don't know how to make it happen, I hope these tips can help you take action. If there's anything else you'd like to know about residencies, let me know!

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