Get Outta Town! A Guide to Writing Residencies, Retreats, and Conferences

autumn tree with sun shining through leaves

by Jenna Kalinsky.

If your living room/bedroom/garden shed has lost its allure as a writing space, and you’re itching to:

– write somewhere new
— take a vacation from your “real” life to focus your writing
— enjoy a hefty dose of lectures, workshops, and ideas from the greats, meet with agents and publishers, and talk some serious shop with other writers,

then you’re ready to get outta town and into a writing residency, retreat, or conference.

Writing residencies, retreats, and conferences are all somewhat different, so this guide will speak to what each is good for, how to prepare to apply, and what research you can conduct to make sure you head for the most wonderful opportunity a writer can have: time to yourself, away from the hustle of your normal life, to bask in your writing.

A residency is an opportunity for you to step away from the rigours of your life and enjoy a dedicated space and time in which to write. Lasting anywhere from a week to a few months (or longer), you are housed and fed so your only obligation (and pleasure!) is your work.

You may gather at mealtimes with your fellow writing residents or artists (or most of the mealtimes; Yaddo and Ucross famously deliver each writer a basket lunch on your writing studio doorstep, so you can carry on uninterrupted) and may or may take part in evening programming such as readings from fellow residents or visiting artists, master classes with faculty, and/or engaging with the people of the community.

typewriter

Many known writers credit their time at residencies for their completing book projects, finding their creative centers, or simply rejuvenating as artists in creative company.

Some famous residencies in the U.S. include Vermont Studio Center, Djeressi, Jentel Arts Center, Yaddo, Squaw Valley, Ragdale, Millay Colony, and MacDowell. This blog lists 34 U.S. residencies’ details, application criteria and dates, and testimonials from writers who went there.

In Canada, there’s Banff Centre, Artscape Gibraltar, and Berton House in Yukon. This blog lists many known residencies and retreats in Canada: Dreamers Writing Canadian Residencies

While the words “residency” and “retreat” are often used interchangeably, the industry tends to use “residency” for a more formalized type of stay geared toward writers whereas “retreat” is a little more elastic, ranging from as formalized as a residency to informal or even self-guided.

Where some official writers’ organizations will use the word retreat alongside residency, retreats may be slightly less regulated such that you’ll also see individuals who own an Inn or an Airbnb offering “writing retreats” if they have a particular penchant or fondness for literary types and prefer to gear their space to such clientele.

These places may offer a package including meals or they are simply targeting a niche with their marketing to fill rooms by the night.

small white cabin in summer woods with red chair

The benefit to this more relaxed but still geared-toward-writers situation is that the application process is typically less rigorous, the stays more flexible, and conversation with anyone else present will likely be writing-friendly or arts-welcome, and being in amongst that energy is always generative and warming to the creative soul.

On the far informal end of the spectrum, some writers create their own retreats merely by getting out of town and going somewhere else with the specific purpose of writing. A hotel, B&B, VRBO, or AirB&B can do, or you can create or borrow on an existing retreat framework such as the one artist and writer Lenka Clayton created called, “Artist Residency in Motherhood.”

This brilliant kit of resources is designed to anchor a mother’s taking time for herself to “make.” Clayton created the residency in 2012 when she became a mother and realized “if you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em.” She created both a working framework for herself and for her child, whom she incorporated into her art.

storefront window

photo credit: Lenka Clayton

In addition to putting a sign on her window as if it were a writing center storefront and writing a manifesto, she created business cards for both her and her infant to show herself and the world she meant to use that time as a valuable and purposeful retreat in order to make art.

She has since extended the retreat to other mother writers, inviting them to register their own residency on her website and giving a host of tools and supports to help these writers carve out their time to write. A new mother is not getting “outta town” (she’s lucky if she can get outta her front door), so this residency is a fantastic way to make lemonade out of being a parent writer.

Retreats: Poets & Writers 22 of the Most Inspiring Writing Retreats

A conference is the most structured of the three, bringing together people in the field to learn and discuss aspects of a particular type of writing (Academic, literary/educator, or fantasy writers, for example, all have their own conferences). Typically lasting anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, a conference is marked by a rigorous schedule of talks, panel discussions, readings, and private events (with some including cocktail hours and karaoke).

These events provide participants with a hefty dose of learning, networking, and intellectual engagement in a short span of time. You’re kept so busy, there’s rarely an opportunity to write (though taking copious notes during the sessions counts!)

AWP (Associated Writers and Writing Programs) for writers and pedagogues, for example, begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 8:15 p.m., but then keynote speaker comes on at 8:30–10:00 p.m. and after that, there’s the poetry slam!

In addition to AWP, other famous conferences in the U.S. are Breadloaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vermont, Sewanee, Tin House, Cave Canem for Black poets, and Fine Arts Work Center; in Canada, there’s Banff Centre, International Festival of Authors and Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop in Toronto, and numerous regional conferences.

woman with black hair and shoulder bag hugging woman with brown hair and glasses

Jenna Kalinsky and Carrianne Leung, author of That Time I Loved You and The Wonderous Woo at AWP, Los Angeles, 2012

The application deadlines for residencies and retreats are typically quite a bit in advance, particularly those that provide funding or scholarships. Retreats are variable, but coveted ones with few spots will be competitive. Conferences may be the easiest to attend on the fly, but bear in mind the larger/more prominent the conference, the faster the nearby hotels fill up.

You’ll want to go to each organization’s website to get their application, submission guidelines, and deadlines.

If you are interested in attending an out-of-town residency, retreat, or conference, follow these steps:

  • start, work on, or finish a manuscript or book project?
  • give yourself time and space to create to invite or get your mojo back?
  • collaborate and matriculate with other writers, learn, and network?
  • check out the reference links for the type of experience you want
  • chat with other writers (in our One Lit Place Writers’ Lounge on Facebook or in other writing groups) to get a sense of where people have gone and what their experiences were

To stay organized and on top of the various deadlines, make spreadsheet including columns for:

  • the organization’s name
  • type of experience (residency, retreat, or conference)
  • application deadlines
  • submission* deadlines and type/length/criteria of submission materials.

*Submissions can make or break your admission and/or getting funding, so take your time, and get beta readers and/or an editor to look them over (we would be very happy to help you there!). Those conferences and residencies with a workshop element, such as Tin House and Breadloaf, not only accept participants based on the strength of their submitted manuscripts, but that’s also how they dole out funding and/or work placement.

Then add columns for:

  • time/duration
  • location (ease of travel)
  • budget
  • funding
  • the entity’s reputation

and rank the residencies, retreats, or conferences based on those important criteria.

Regardless where you go to get outta town to write, you’ll find — as do most writers who take part in writing residencies, retreats, and conferences — that they’re addictive. They’re restorative, collegial, and energetic in all the right ways; lasting friendships are a common result; and the chance to get to listen to your writer’s heartbeat away from your daily grind is invaluable.

Check out this list of Fall/Winter 2022/2023 Residencies and submission opportunities!

Any time you want to talk to us about how you can create an opportunity for yourself to write, whether it’s during your normal life or during a time away, need a second set of eyes on your submissions or application, or simply wish to chat about your work, please reach out!

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Jenna Kalinsky

Jenna is a writer, writing coach and editor, and Founding Director of One Lit Place: a full-service writers’ center. onelitplace.com