Post MFA: Covering Residencies on November 20, 2:35-3:35 at Saint Mary’s College of CA

On Wednesday, November 20, 2:35-3:35 at Hagerty Lounge, Saint Mary’s College of California, yours truly will be part of an afternoon panel discussion on life after the MFA. Tapped to speak on residencies and colonies for 7-8 minutes, here’s some musings on what might be covered that afternoon, which we hope you can join.

Applying to Residencies

Why residencies? How does it sound to live, work, dine, and stroll with writers, artists, composers, dancers, choreographers for weeks or months? How about having food delivered to your door. Meeting for supper and a cocktail or two to talk shop about books, paintings, photography, and film? What of days and hours devoted solely to reading and reflecting on your work? Residencies in essence are a chance to hole away in some remote and often rural setting and remember what it means to read and create for the sake of reading and creating.

Hawthornden from the Lady Walk
Retreat for Writers, Hawthornden Castle, Scotland, UK.

There’s no magic formula I know of but years of practice, revision, and navigating rejection. I’ve been applying to residencies and colonies since grad school, so I’ve had almost seven years honing my artistic statement and project description(s), which have seen many incarnations. I’ve been through countless drafts and am constantly revising every artifact I send out to apply.

Maintain contact with professors from graduate school since they are the community who will support you through this creative journey, and be sure to make the recommendation letter process as easy as possible by giving at least two months advance notice with all the supplies already stamped and addressed, ready to post. Keep a short sample, CV, and statement handy if they request it to refresh their memory about you and your work.

344 Questions: The Creative Person's Do-It-Yourself Guide to Insight, Survival, and Artistic FulfillmentKeep refining both your artist statement/letter of intent and the writing sample. These are the two legs you’ll stand on when you face the faceless committee. Keep a list of questions and journal freewrites in response to keep the artist statement/letter of intent urgent and relevant. It should change as you evolve as a writer. I love this little gem of a book 344 Questions?: The Creative Person’s Do-It Yourself Guide to Insight, Survival, and Finding Artistic Fulfillment which I crack open every now and again just to exercise and play with portrayals of self. These musings come handy when piecing together and updating the artist statement.

  • Literature Summary Description (MacDowell Colony)

In two to five words, please describe the work you are proposing to do at the Colony. You will have an opportunity to describe the project in greater detail in the next step of the application. Examples: memoir, historical novel, short fiction, prose poetry.

In the space below, please provide a detailed description of the project you intend to work on at the Colony. If you have already begun the project, tell us where you are in the work process and what you hope to accomplish with your residency. The text field is limited to 2,500 characters including spaces.

  • Intended Project (MacDowell Colony)

Please provide a brief synopsis of the creative work you propose to write if offered a Residential Fellowship at Hawthornden. This may be work already in progress or work still in its infancy. You should be sure to mention any necessary research that you may need to undertake while in residence. Please limit your description to this sheet only.

While in Residence

Before I left for MacDowell, I got the best piece of advice from novelist and dear friend Mary Volmer who warned me not to place too much expectation or pressure on myself. “You’re not going to get everything you want done, but you will get what you need,” she urged, and she was right.

An hour feels like three in our studios. It’s amazing how much work you get done when you sit down to it, and let your mind settle with the tasks in front of you.

Some of the highlights are not just spending evenings talking with fellow artists but having a real

Mansfield Studio at MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.
Mansfield Studio at MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.

dialogue with your project. I found that once I was tucked into my cabin and allowed myself to reacquaint and essentially renew my vows to the craft and to the piece I’ve dedicated years of my life to, the project started speaking to me and telling me what needed to happen to it. I learned how to read and write all over again.

One of the many traditions practiced at the Colony is for fellows to give presentations of their work, whether it be a reading or an open studio, you’re encouraged to share your artistic endeavors. The idea wasn’t that appealing, really, until a fellow explained that its best to present earlier rather than later during residency so that other fellows will have much needed context in terms of why you’re here and what you’re doing. This context cements a substantive foundation to conversations at dinner, breakfast, random encounters on the hallway or on the way to the studio. The whole purpose of the colony is not just for individual, solitary work but to be a part of the community, and being a part of a community means sharing.

Mansfield Studio in the mist at MacDowell Colony
Mansfield Studio in the mist at MacDowell Colony

What to Bring

All your favorite creature comforts: chai tea, scented candles, warm socks, an eye mask, if you have trouble sleeping in strange places, blank pads of paper and post-its, permanent markers, push pins, chocolate, nice stationary and stamps to write to loved ones, a wall calendar to keep on task, a hard drive to back up regularly, a pocketknife, and gin, lots of gin or your personal choice of poison because you deserve it after a long day’s worth of reading and writing.

These websites are chock-a-block with listings of residencies and colonies:

For more insight on MacDowell click here, here and here and for Hawthorden click here.

Where I learned of the badgering hour: June 2013 at Hawthornden Castle, Part I

Hawthornden from the Lady Walk
Hawthornden Castle from the Lady Walk

Forty five minutes outside of Edinburgh, tucked in a hidden pocket of Midlothian, sits a 15th century castle where I spent my June at the Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers. Not even the bus drivers knew of the castle. Kept a secret, deep in a Scottish glen, the ruins, renovated in Victorian-era, were tipped on a crag overlooking the River Esk, and here I continued my ongoing education of reading and writing for a summer month.

But the story doesn’t start here.

If we were to go all the way back, it would have opened two years ago when at a faculty gathering poet and friend Raina León prodded me to apply. Get thee to a writing residency was her imperative, and she clued me in on this gem of a fellowship with a low profile at Hawthornden Castle. Thank you, Raina.

This fellowship is sponsored and run by the great patronage of Drue Heinz of the Heinz company. Publisher of The Paris Review, she established the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the Drue Heinz Lectures in Pennsylvania. Deepest gratitude goes to Ms. Heinz and her staff.

There is no magic I know of that got me to Scotland for a month of committed writing. Persistence and focus is what I brought to the table. Applications to these residencies are something like gearing up for grad school. Long and involved forms that demand you know who you are, letters of recc to prove you are who you say you are, and a writing sample that speaks to enough people on the committees that matter. I’ve been applying to residencies off and on since grad school, which means I’ve lived in hope for over six years. Let me say again, persistence and focus.

The Pentland Hills and sun
The Pentland Hills in the distance

The plane trip from San Francisco to Edinburgh was another test of patience: ten hours trying to sleep upright, a three hour layover in Charles de Gaulle, where splurging on Lauderée French macaroons was worth every euro, and a final two hours that seemed like forever before touching down in Scotland.

The sun still had a good hour to set when I finally arrived around 10pm, which I would later learn was the badgering hour. Jet-lagged and frazzled, I met two of the writers who I would live with for the next four weeks, one of whom was an East Coaster turned Bay Area based. She happened to know many of my colleagues and writer friends back in California and thankfully made me feel that much closer to home despite being a continent and ocean away.


property of the Abernethy family from the 13th century
The castle garden

Born to John Drummond, the first laird at Hawthornden Castle, William Drummond (1585-1649) turned laird of the castle himself at 24 when his father died. A poet and historian, William Drummond read well and widely, tackling the History of Scotland during the Reigns of the Five Jameses as one of his many literary works. Over 400 years later, in his study, a room where he was known to pace between tackling quill to paper, I stared out the window that overlooked the gravel driveway, pulled my hair out rearranging scenes and crossing out swathes of paragraphs, and dragged myself to bed, willing myself to sleep at midnight even as the last sun rays still poked their way through the west-facing window.

Flowers in the sun
On the walk to the bus stop

On the first full day since my arrival, still adjusting to UK time, I woke at 5:30am to metallic squabbling and screeching of what I thought to be baby dinosaurs nesting right outside my western window. One bird would start up and then her siblings, would follow in discordant chorus. Almost every morning, afternoon, and early evening was graced with their shrill choir, and not only did I viscerally experience the scientific fact of how birds are cousin to pterodactyls and triceratops, but I understood how quickly and deeply I’d been thrust into nature. The castle was immersed in all things wondrous.

Evenings made the badgering hour when the lawn in front of the castle became a buffet table for a family of five hungry badgers. Stags, doe, and their fawns were frequently spotted on the road that led to the castle. Peregrines learned to fly just across the river, and we watched them from the castle garden at lunch time as they tested their wings. Spiders insisted rather persistently to claim the sinks and bathtubs as their resting spots. They were known to creep up cozy into our beds on more than one occasion.


I never knew I could be so jealous of poets.

The town of Roslin
The town of Roslin

These daily and nightly encounters with all things feathered, eight-legged, doe-eyed, antlered, and winged charged the poets, and they wrote with a sense of immediacy that doesn’t really jibe with long form fiction. One evening, a bat flew into the drawing room, circling over our heads for a good seven minutes. We tried to guide it out the window, but s/he seemed to enjoy our company more. Eventually, tiring of us, s/he took to an open casement and was gone. The next day, all three poets reported writing poems of our vespertine encounter. I hadn’t ever felt so keenly envious of poesie writers up until then. What I would have given to slip out of time for a day or two, to step away from my projekt and write in attendance to the here and now with such urgency? Fictions writers, particularly those noveling are stuck in another time zone and geography that rarely meshes with the present moment. We are caught in a loop of our own making.


We were there to write.

And we did. Everyday,  at least six days a week, from eight in the morning to at least five in the evening. Oh, there were mid-day strolls along the castle grounds listening to the songbird soundtrack that ran from sun up to sun down, late afternoon jogs on the Old Railway to Dalkeith, and jaunts to Lasswade’s The Laird & Dog pub, which was the closest and easiest access to Wi-Fi. All sworn to an informal oath of silence while in the castle, Hawthornden’s motto was “Requiescat in Pace,” and from nine in the morning to six in the evening, we maintained relative quiet, so all writers could work in peace and decent ease.

River Esk
The River Esk

With no internet access, limited mobile service, and a vow to abstain from talking, the task of writing wasn’t necessarily easier but the setting secured focus and commitment to both the projekt at hand and the vital art in which all writing thrives, the act of reading. In a recent Guardian article “publicising a novel – the problems,” (Thursday 25 July 2013) Anakana Scholfield speaks to an issue close to this heart:

…why is there so much fuss in the media about how to write a novel – “everyone can become an author” – when the more important thing is how to read one?

There seems to have been a shift from a reading culture to a writing culture, a diminishment of critical space for the contemplation of literature. Writing needs to be discussed and interrogated through reading. If you wish to write well, you need to read well, or at least widely. You certainly need to contemplate reading a book in translation, unlikely to be widely reviewed in newspapers, many of which are too busy wasting space on “how to write” tips and asking about an author’s personal fripperies. It’s a great deal more fulfilling to read and think about a fine book than to attempt to write one.

Six years into the projekt, reading is the through line that keeps this writer grounded as the shape and meaning of the story collapses, condenses, and often over complicates itself, constantly morphing like land shifting under volatile forces. To write is to read. There’s no way around it. But how to keep up the art? How to maintain the necessary strength and focus for such a vital skill? You’d think that as one grows older, reading would become easier, but it doesn’t. Its just as much of a challenge as it ever was. Technology and the ten million distractions aren’t just to blame. The old adage the more I learn, the less I know seems to confound the reading eye. The mind skitters, won’t settle but jumps with expectations, preconceived notions, rather than sitting with words, images, sentences. Slowing down to savor syllables seems a fleeting wish. The reading mind must be taught and re-taught, and taught again. Its a muscle that can easily atrophy.

Reading at Hawthornden was s-l-o-w. As it should be.

Decades into becoming a “professional” reader, its hard to come to literature with an open mind. The more one reads, the more layered the lenses the reading eye gains and cannot shake away. So we must learn to read through prisms, knowing these prisms can be switched, combined, simplified, or complicated.

Prismatic. Requiring constant practice. The conjoined arts of reading and writing remained the main focus, but not the only activities at Hawthornden. There were encounters with Crusties, treks to the Pentland Peaks, and day trips to Edinburgh. But that’s all to come next…

For another a peek at the Hawthornden experience, check out poet and professor Gregory Leadbetter’s post “After Hawthornden” on his site.

Midlothian wheat
Roslin Glen Park in the distance

Save the Date: “Life After the MFA Panel” @ SMC 11/20/13

Interested in writing fellowships and residencies? Yours truly has been booked in advance to talk about recent fellowships at The MacDowell Colony and the International Retreat for Writers at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland UK for Saint Mary’s College of California’s MFA Creative Writing Program Panel: “Life After the MFA” Wednesday, 20 November, 2:35pm, location on campus TBA.

Hope to see you there!

1928 Saint Mary’s Road, Moraga, CA 94556 (925) 631-4000

Made the College’s Weekly Bulletin

Blushing profusely since yours truly was trying to keep this under the hat, but a dear friend and writer, who earlier this year encouraged applying to residencies and fellowships, insisted on sharing the good news. Who knew the news would spread to Saint Mary’s weekly bulletin?