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!