When people say that they’re jacking in the day job to write that book, in the same breath they usually tell you where this project is taking place. “I’m going to move to Paris/rent a shack in the woods/go to a monastery/live by the sea” they say, as if the locale will lend more credibility to their project.
It doesn’t. You can spend a year on a prestigious writers’ colony and come up with a heap of unpublishable, self-indulgent nonsense. Whereas, an amazing novel can be written in a council flat full of screaming kids, between the hours of 6-7pm every day – the important factor being “every day”.
Still, time and seclusion in an attractive environment do nurture creativity and attending a writers’ residency or retreat is not a bad idea – so long as you don’t think that the mere fact of being there is going to produce the goods. Personally, I’ve found the greatest benefit from such places to be the cross pollination of ideas via conversations with other artists. So, yes, I recommend residencies and retreats, so long as you’re prepared to put the work and craft in too.
I’m Irish, so I know most about the residencies and retreats in my country – and there are a disproportionately large number in Ireland, a land noted for its writers. Surprisingly, there are far fewer over in the UK, even though they have a much larger population. America is where the writers’ colony was born however, and it still provides the best, the most prestigious and the most difficult colonies to get into.
Yes, “get into”. Therein lies the difference between a “residency” and a “retreat”. Residencies are institutions to which you must apply and demonstrate your professionalism as an artist via a portfolio, and perhaps references and a CV that shows you are considered by your peers to be a practicing artist. Residencies are often funded by an arts and/or educational body and can mean you must also provide a service such as creative writing classes in the locality. Residencies can last from two weeks to a year. In Ireland, prestigious residencies include The Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Cill Rialaig and the Heinrich Boll Cottage, Even if accepted, you may have to pay for your stay. However, attending one of these establishments is an impressive addition to your C.V. and you may come into contact with some top tier “names” during a stay.
Then you get retreats. These are institutions that sometimes offer courses – the UK’s ‘Arvon Foundaction’ is a good example which has three properties around England and holds intensive writing courses throughout the year. Other retreats just offer room and board to writers for a fee, somewhat like a hotel but with an emphasis on creativity and productivity during your stay. Anam Cara and the Molly Keane house are Irish examples. They’re not as prestigious residencies, so you won’t find yourself having dinner with Seamus Heaney etc… but you might meet some interesting people and the surrounds are usually very picturesque and perhaps inspiring. Retreats are good for novice or emerging writers who are not yet at the stage in their career where they might gain acceptance on a “residency”.
Finally, if all you want is some peace and quiet, why not rent some respite a holiday cottage in the wilds of Connemara in autumn, or stay in a B&B on Dartmoor or a shack in the Catskills – you may be able to get a ‘low season deal’ and it may provide the inspiration you seek.
A sample (and by no means exhaustive) list:
If you know of more, please feel free to post!
September 23rd, 2011 at 12:34
Incredible list! It happens that I am looking for a residency in the US. You’ve found quite a few more than I did.
September 23rd, 2011 at 17:02
I’m glad it’s useful. Please let us know what you find out and if you discover any not listed!
September 25th, 2011 at 01:48
It’s nice to dream about a place where there is peace and quiet to just think and write. In the meantime, you’re right, writing every day is important. I’m not there yet.
September 25th, 2011 at 11:41
Don’t worry. Keep at it, you’ll get there. All writers have trouble writing. If you find it easy to write, you’re probably not any good.
September 25th, 2011 at 04:55
You’ve given me a new goal. I want would love to go to an Irish or English retreat and combine travel with writing. It sounds lovely all the way around! Thank you for giving me an idea to run with (or run away with)!
September 25th, 2011 at 11:39
You won’t regret it!
September 25th, 2011 at 16:56
Pretty picture… I just want to retreat to that dock lol.
September 25th, 2011 at 22:50
It’s even prettier in reality, Whitney. Go for it!
September 26th, 2011 at 09:21
I could never afford the luxury of a retreat so I shall continue to be grateful for my study. My study. Saying the word still gives me a shiver of satisfaction. Six years ago I moved into a flat where, for the first time in my life, there was a small room available for me to write in. (I came over terribly Virginia Woolf for a while.)
I feel privileged & try never to lose sight of the fact that I have this space; that it isn’t the end of the kitchen table or a desk squashed into a corner of the sitting-room.
September 26th, 2011 at 17:49
If your study is what does it for you, then you have no need of anything or anywhere else. Lucky you.
February 5th, 2012 at 14:45
I wonder what Irish lake frogs sound like.
May 28th, 2013 at 07:26
Reblogged this on suehealy and commented:
I’m currently organising my October residency in Ireland – which prompts me to reblog this piece I wrote on the same a couple of years ago. Apologies in advance if any links are now defunct – but do let me know.
June 6th, 2013 at 06:28
I find the idea of being stuck in a remote location with other writers and would-bes kind of offputting. I don’t know why. It’d be even more offputting if they were,for instance, hairdressers (although god knows I need a retreat full of hairdressers).
April 24th, 2016 at 15:16
Writers might also be interested in La Muse Writers & Artists Retreat in southern France, where I am now. This is a wonderful and affordable retreat set in a village in the mountains bordering Spain, where writers and artists gather for one, two or three week (or longer) retreats in an 11th Century, 10-bedroom house owned by writers John Fanning and his partner Kerry. It is self-catering and we have the freedom to work at will, but with guidelines for quiet times. I love it here: it keeps me focused, and is inspiring, beautiful and even magical, especially at night under the massive stars. #lamuseinn.com #retreats #France