In Praise of Residencies

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A recent conversation with a friend prompted me to write this post. Conversations, for better or worse, can be inspirational that way. I’m sure most writers will agree when I say that chats – with friends, lovers, or perfect strangers – can spark off a story or a poem or an entire screenplay when you least expect it. But enough about conversations. This is not an ode to them.

Back to the chat with my friend: we got talking about writing residencies (in general), and the purpose they serve. I think that residencies are a vital part of the creative process. They give you the gift of uninterrupted time. During a residency, you have the freedom to retreat into solitude and give the story ideas that have been brewing inside your head the undivided attention they deserve. You also get to interact with fellow artists and enjoy the company of likeminded people. Friendships and creative collaborations thrive in this setting.

The best thing about residencies is that they manage to keep the chaos of the world at bay even if for a few weeks. This makes it so much easier for you to focus on your writing. Perspective dawns. The work is all that matters, you realize. The rest is noise.

“You don’t have to be holed up in a hut in the woods or fly away to a chalet to write,” my friend argued in response. “You are a writer, you write. You’re a painter, you paint. Makes no damn difference where you are”

This argument is perfectly valid. No one is denying that it is possible to work on a novel while you are commuting to work or to paint a picture while taking a break from cleaning the house or shopping for groceries. In fact, most of us get work done this way. No story or poem will get written if you wait till you can get away from it all. The world’s demands can’t stop you from writing or painting. But when a residency director sends you a letter of acceptance, do grab the chance with both hands. Remember it can do your art a world of good. Just pack your bags and get going!

Many residencies give writers a chance to travel and spend time outside their home countries. A residency is an immersive experience – an opportunity to meet new people, taste new cuisines, and take in sights and sounds that eventually weave their way into your stories. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you will be rewarded. Inspiration will strike. Story ideas will come flooding in. Residencies can work magic, literally. It’s hard to pinpoint the source of this creative churning. The magic springs from a combination of factors – freedom from the daily grind, a sharpened focus on your writing, and the comfort of feeling completely at ease with the people around you and your surroundings.

Travel, essential to the writing life as oxygen, is one of the many benefits a residency offers. The journey helps you get under the skin of a place and to gain a clear and more nuanced understanding of other ways of life. There is no substitute for this experience. No amount of research or google searches will give you the in-depth perspective a residency gives. Living in Paris for a month is not the same as reading about living in Paris and writing in Parisian cafés (even if there is an excellent selection of books – both fiction and non-fiction – that do justice to the city). Imagine Hemingway writing The Sun Also Rises without actually having made the journey to Paris. What a different book that would be!

Whether you are hoping to live and breathe a place and to capture its rhythms in your fiction or you are in search of a quiet haven that drowns out the din of the world and nurtures your creativity, a residency is what you are after. There are a number of residencies in different corners of the world to apply to. Submit your best work and the details of the project you plan to work on. Application requirements vary from residency to residency. Some ask for recommendation letters from people who know you and your work well. Others waive this requirement. Some are by invitation and cater only to nominated artists and writers.

Putting the application together is the hard part. Give it your best shot and you will be bound to enjoy some of the most rich, intense, and creatively rewarding experiences of your writing life.

Vineetha Mokkil

About Vineetha Mokkil

Vineetha Mokkil is a writer and reviewer currently based in New Delhi, India. She is the author of the short story collection, “A Happy Place and Other Stories" (HarperCollins, 2014). Her first novel is in the pipeline. Mokkil’s fiction has appeared in the Santa Fe Writers Project Journal, Cha: an Asian Literary Journal, The NorthEast Review, The Missing Slate and Sugar Mule Review.

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