I decided to write this post because, heading off to my first writing residency at Saltonstall in Ithaca, NY a few months ago in May, I was terrified. I was leaving my kids for the first time ever, having never spent even a night away from them. I felt guilty and wondered what had I gotten my family and myself into. It helped to read some first hand accounts of other writing residencies online but I couldn’t really find anything written by a parent of relatively young children (mine are 4 and 7 years old). So hopefully the below will help some fellow parent writers out as they consider applying, or attending, their first writer’s retreat. In brief, despite the nervousness, anxiety, and guilty, my first writer’s residency was one of the best milestones in my writing life so far. My family survived and so did I.
Why should writers who are parents go on writing residencies?
To have uninterrupted time to focus on one’s writing.
To meet other artists and have sustained adult conversations about art.
To remember what it’s like to be a writer first (versus being a parent first).
To take the next step in one’s writing career.
In my case at least, being a mother is a constant buzzing distraction, one that bangs its fists against my writing room door begging for attention. I always think that being a mom makes me a better writer, but being a writer makes me a worse mom. A lot of times in the day, I’ll be honest, I want to be writing (or reading). My weekday schedule means I wake up ridiculously early to walk and then make breakfast for the family, and get the kids up, and get my husband up, and coordinate making lunches, and make sure the kids are stable enough for the day. I’m lucky enough to have time to write in the morning, but that time ends when the alarm on my phone goes off, which means I have exactly 11 minutes to get to school to pick them up. It’s a jarring transition. Fragments of my stories are always hovering around me, fighting for my attention. I haven’t been able to write on the weekends for about 7 years.
I wanted a break from that.
Also I wanted to meet other artists.
And it seemed the right time that I should be doing something in my writing life other than publishing short stories.
How old should your kids be before you go on a residency?
Mine were 4-½ and 7 years old when I went. I don’t think I could have left them any sooner. Even at 4 ½ years, Stella’s conception of time is fuzzy, and she would ask heartbreaking questions like, “Will you be home for my birthday?” (which was 3 months away). But it’s probably different for every family. I just felt like I couldn’t wait any longer. (That said, it’s true, when Saltonstall called to offer me the residency, part of me wanted to say: actually I’m not ready for this).
What writing residencies did you consider?
I figure I could escape for 2 weeks maximum. My ideal criteria was that residents would be fed, so I wouldn’t have to worry about cooking, which occupies way too much time in my ordinary life, and ideally I wouldn’t have to pay to go. If this is your first residency, I’d recommend trying to find one closer to home too. It was a great comfort to me that I might be only an hour away in case…my kids needed me. Or I wimped out.
I ended up applying to
- Yaddo (Saratoga Springs, NY): provides all meals, my long shot. I heard Jeffrey Eugenides wrote some of Middlesex while here. I love that book.
- Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts (Ithaca, NY): cooked meals M-F, stocked fridge for other meals, small stipend provided. For New York state residents only and just over an hour from where I live.
- The Virginia Center for the Arts (Amherst, VA): Provides all meals. Cost is subsidized but requests a daily contribution (though no one is turned away for inability to pay)
The long-list, all of which allow 2 week long residencies, included
- Macdowell (Peterborough, NH): my dream, along with Yaddo.
- Hambridge ($200 a week): Rabun Gap, Georgia. Sounds lovely. You have your own live/work cabin in the woods. Meals cooked for you Tuesday – Friday dinner.
- Ragdale ($35 a day, Lake Forest, Illinois): close to my parents, so the kids could attend Camp Grandma and Grandpa, a plus. Dinner cooked for you M-F. 18 day minimum.
- Anderson Center (Red Wing, Minnesota): Dinner cooked for you M-F. You are required to do a community project, which isn’t really my thing. Food provided for you to cook other meals yourself.
- Hedgebrook (Whidbey Island, Washington): Ursula LeGuin and Molly Gloss went here. Women only, ridiculously competitive, great vision. Another dream.
- UCross (Wyoming). Provide lunch and dinner M-F. Food provided for you to cook other meals yourself.
Are there such things as family-friendly residencies for writers?
I wish more residencies offered two weeks.
I wish more residencies offered stipends to help with childcare costs.
A mentorship program would be nice, where they pair you up with another artist mother so you can ask questions (like, am I insane?) before you go.
Saltonstall allowed visitors on Sundays which was great so the kids got to see where I stayed and ate (though see below: these visits were not uncomplicated). I’m not sure all places allow that.
There are a few rare residencies that allow your family to stay with you (like Santa Fe Art Institute). Part of me thinks awesome! But part of me thinks no! That would slip the writer back into the role of caregiver and make it difficult, yet again, to focus on one’s work.
In a fantasy world, I can see the family residency working if perhaps if a full time nanny was assigned to you upon arrival, or else there was a great summer camp program with extremely long hours running alongside you.
(By the way, The Alliance of Artist Communities is a great place to go to search for residencies that meet your criteria, whatever that might be. Also check out which organizations won grants by the Sustainable Arts Foundation — thanks to Milda De Voe from Pen Parentis for this idea).
Where did you end up going for your first writing residency?
Saltonstall. In addition, I have a 12 day residency at the Virginia Center for the Arts in September too which I still have some nervousness about (I will be hundreds of miles away from my kids this time!), but I bought the plane ticket already, so I can’t decide not to go.
How did you prepare your kids?
We called my residency “Mom’s writing camp” — and my husband kindly added that Mom had won an award to go there. So my kids were excited, as we were also talking about summer camps for them, and they found the idea that I had my own camp to be kind of wacky. Our school generously allowed Stella (age 4) to move to full day pre-school with after care for 2 weeks, so the kids were taken care of weekdays until 5:30. Friends generously offered to help out with rides if we needed it or invited Harold and the kids over to dinner. And we have a great baby sitter who was able to help Harold out a few nights too when he needed to work late or take a break.
Grandparents who lived locally would have come in helpful but no such luck for us.
We called the kids hanging out with Dad during those two weeks “Dad Camp” — and the talk of ice cream trips, mac & cheese, and lots of PB&J got the kids pretty excited.
What was it like leaving the kids?
It sucked. I’ll be honest, I cried all the drive down. Once I was in my room, I cried. I cried that night. When I forgot my glasses (I know) and my family had to drive down three days in to drop off my glasses, I cried when they left again. My mom wrote me some really nice texts when I wrote to her, the first night, that I wasn’t sure I could do it. There was such a disorientation for me about who I was (suddenly my kids are gone so I am what?!?!!) and where is home (suddenly not here!).
I’m sure you’re thinking why did I do it? But at least you are close to home with people that are also extended. Everyone’s in the same boat. It was hard for me to go to London and paris away from dad for 10 days and I’m glad I went. Just hang in there, you’ll be okay. You’ll be sending the kids away to camp at some point and you want to tell them it was hard for you but you did it and you are glad.
I gave myself a stern lecture that I needed to set a good example for my children and show them that I could do things that were difficult and a little scary to me.
Then, finally, I got used to it. Probably four days in.
From now on I will always ask the kids if I could borrow one of their stuffed animals, to keep me company, and ask them to give me some artwork that I could hang in my room.
How much did you stay in touch with the kids while at your residency?
Since this was the first time I was away from them, I didn’t want to totally drop out of touch. Stella liked me to text pictures of what I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I enjoyed getting a photo of the kids at breakfast and later in the day. Jasper and I were reading the same book on the Kindle (Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book), and we left each other little notes scattered throughout the chapters we were reading. I talked with the kids on the phone every few days as well, usually before dinner, which wasn’t the most satisfying time (often I was on speaker phone and the conversations consisted of “What did you say?” “What?” “What?”). While I think there would be something stunningly beautiful about totally disappearing into one’s own writing and work during a residency, it wasn’t something I felt comfortable doing, at least this time around.
What are some guilty pleasures about residencies?
Hand washing my own dishes and no one else’s.
Cooking lunches just for myself. Which means getting to eat really weird combinations of food and having no one complain.
Sustained adult conversation, sometimes about art, over dinner.
Taking two walks a day.
Writing in the evening.
Writing on the weekend.
Being totally self-centered.
Not having to set a good example by making my bed or closing my dresser drawers.
Being introduced as a fiction writer (!) instead of a mom (!). I can not put into words how amazing and weird this was.
Waking up and not having to talk to anyone before starting to write. And (confession) staying in my pajamas until 11 a.m. to write.
Reading in bed.
Should your kids come and visit you?
My family visited me twice. I’m glad I had at least one visit from them for my first time away. But during the visits, I really wanted to be writing! Especially knowing I had only X days left and I needed to be making the most of it.
The first visit was because I forgot my glasses, so after I took my contacts out at the end of the day, I had to go stumbling around my room wearing prescription sunglasses. Fashionable, yes. Functional, no. So two days in, my husband kindly drove the kids and my glasses down for a brief visit. Saltonstall allows guests to visit on Sundays, so I gave the kids the tour of my room and the house and introduced them to the other artists, and then we did a short walk in the woods together. Stella brought some drawings for me to hang up, and the kids each brought one of their stuffed animals to keep with me in bed. It was really awful saying goodbye to them again. I tried to put on a cheerful face, as that is what parents are supposed to do, right, but it didn’t work. Stella, ever the insightful observer of observations, asked when we were saying goodbye, “Why do you look happy and sad?”
It is somewhat tragic watching your family drive away in a car without you.
The second visit was planned. About one week in we decided to all meet up, grab a picnic lunch at the Greenstar Co-op in town, and go for a hike at Buttermilk Falls. I struggled with how needy my kids were that day. Honestly I think they’re always like that — I think kids are always like that. I had just forgotten and felt unequipped, or unwilling, to handle the arguments and negotiations. That was a tough day, though there were lovely moments of course, hearing my younger daughter laugh and laugh (I missed that!), and watching the kids make up their own imaginary world in the middle of a creek strewn with rocks (I missed that too!). The hike stretched on longer than I expected, as hikes with kids tend to do, and by the end I just wanted to get back. My family dropped me off (will leaving one’s children ever not be sad?), and it was additionally sad knowing they were still in Ithaca, eating dinner at a Thai restaurant, while I was eating alone in my room that night.
It’s hard to enter the world of a residency, and hard to be pulled out of it temporarily.
So visits may be necessary for a parent’s peace of mind (my kids are fine! they still know who I am!) but it may not be comfortable or pleasant.
Are writing residencies relaxing? Or at least more relaxing than parenting and trying to write at the same time?
My mom sweetly wrote to me during my residency something like, “Hope you are enjoying your vacation!” And I too had imagined long afternoons of relaxed reading, or at least getting long hours of reading in before bed.
Instead, I ended working really, really hard. For a few days, I kind of stopped sleeping, or at least sleeping well, waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning, writing for a few hours, then taking a nap after breakfast. (The great thing about a residency: you can take naps if you need them!). Honestly the amount I was working was probably unsustainable, but I knew I had to return home in two weeks, back to my life of distractions, so I needed to accomplish a lot.
I like lists, so I made a list of goals for the residency before I left. I had about 15 things on my list, and at the top were:
1. finish draft of novella
2. put together collection of short stories
I was determined to do at least these two. Both turned out to be way more time consuming than I thought so I never really got any further down the list.
That said, I was somehow less tired. Or tired in a different way. At the residency, my brain was not totally fried by the end of the day from the constant conversation of my kids and all the multi-tasking required when raising kids.
And because I was sitting most of the day, I allowed time to get out and take long walks / runs / hikes twice a day, once before lunch, and once before dinner. That was relaxing and wonderful. I’d spend the time listening to Middlemarch (36 hours long!), or if I were hiking in the woods behind Saltonstall, I’d bring some stories I wanted to read, or passages I wanted to work on, and edit while sitting on a fallen tree.
Two of the weekend dinners, when we were on our own and my residency mates got together for dinner, I decided to work through the meal to get some more writing done, though I gave myself a fun assignment: write a flash fiction science fiction story, 1,000 words or less, that I had to start and finish in an evening, as my usual work is lengthy and usually takes me months and months to complete. I really loved this time–it reminded me that writing can be fun, and I can actually finally pieces in a reasonable time. (The flash story I wrote is going to be published in Nature, I just found out, so the assignment worked!).
That said, if the residency was 4 weeks, I think I would have paced myself more, and allowed myself more time for reading, wandering, and staring out the window.
How was re-entry?
Re-entry was challenging on a lot of levels.
The kids missed Dad Camp in a lot of ways –no chores! no making lunches! ice cream!
My husband had enjoyed being a single parent in a lot of ways too — no negotiation! less clean up in the kitchen! more eating out!
I missed having adult conversation every night for dinner (it’s true, I cried the first family dinner I had, where the conversation was mainly about why Stella was kicking me under the table about every minute). I missed having entire days for writing and I felt dragged down by the amount of housework that my life requires.
Because the residency ended on Mother’s Day weekend, we decided to stay for a few more days down in Ithaca and hike. My son in particular has difficulty when traveling and getting used to the change, so perhaps we were too ambitious–there were some spectacularly unhappy scenes. But there was some nice moments too (like getting to read Pippi Longstocking with my kids again!). I think it would have been equally as shocking for me to suddenly appear and be thrust back into the everyday schedule of chores and tending to the kids.
It took maybe 3 weeks for us to work out the kinks. Maybe longer.
I’ll write more sometime in the next few weeks about Saltonstall’s residency specifically. In summary: it was perfect.