Amanda Petrusich is a writer I greatly admire, and her latest piece for The New Yorker, “Why Artists Need Oddball Residencies,” is timely and most welcome. Petrusich’s thesis is clear: no matter how outlandish these residencies have become, they’re important.
Perhaps inevitably, there’s a very American discrepancy between the existing paradigms for writers residencies: the well-known (and justly venerated) programs, such as the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, are supremely competitive; these so-called oddball residencies, while ostensibly less prohibitive in terms of cost and accessibility, are anything but easy to attend. It’s not that there aren’t enough residencies, ranging from the good, bad, and ugly, but rather, there aren’t enough of the right kind.
And how does one define the right kind? Well…
The first complication involves the inevitable profit motive: only those wealthy or credentialed enough need apply. And as for these pop-up and one-off curios, there’s something discomfortingly sadistic about the idea of “sponsoring” writers in reality-show scenarios, which at once devalues them and their work. Worst of all, it feeds the myth that writers are desperate (by design), and authentic art only emerges from deprivation.
It seems to me the more paramount issue is what—besides money (and time—not to mention discipline and the whole “vision thing”)—a writer requires or at least craves. Petrusich gets to the crux of the matter, here:
The proliferation of oddball residencies simply reiterates how hysterically difficult it is for contemporary artists who are not born rich to nurture or sustain any sort of creative practice. In the midst of this, a silent room with your name on the door—wherever it is, and regardless of whether it has plumbing or not—becomes a kind of life preserver.
What she said.
In fact, it’s this very conundrum that inspired me to create the Virginia Center for Literary Arts (@VALitArts). This, from VCLA’s mission statement, is—if I may be so bold—the slam dunk for Petrusich’s rhetorical alley-oop:
…beyond having time and space to work, so many writers are derailed by a lack of funds and solidarity. A community that advocates (and, on a more basic but crucial level, understands) creativity—how it happens, what it requires, who seeks to cultivate it more as calling than hobby—is essential. Each individual must ascertain and walk their unique path, but what all writers share is the need for support, in all its forms, and reassurance they’re not alone.
As a recovering grad student (MA, Lit) who passed up the opportunity of further studies, in part because I wanted to really figure out how to write (hint: by doing a lot of it and failing, a lot), I nevertheless came to miss the unique vibe of a graduate seminar (or writing workshop). The one-word concept I kept trying to come up with, year after year, was community.
Aside from academia, book clubs, and the camaraderie available via the internet, where can a writer find their community (or better still, communities)? Until a better model emerges, writer residencies—where one can focus and create for a sustained period, be it two weeks or several months—serve as arguably the best forum for combining kinship and creativity. That’s the answer. The question is: how to build a better writing residency?
This is the motivation—and aspiration—for VCLA, which aims to provide a world class environment featuring collaboration, imagination, and inspiration, boasting a business model that’s inclusive by design and won’t cost you an entire tax return to attend. A thriving literary arts center ideally becomes a destination, a prolific alliance where diverse but compatible artisans come to create. And, as is appropriate—and essential—in 2018, there must be a robust, interactive, accommodating web presence: an electronic safe space where writers can come to get tips, advice, read interviews with prominent authors, agents, and editors, and not least, network. This is possible, and we’re working to make it happen. We welcome your input and support. Join us!