Finding Inspiration from (and Hope for) Writing Residencies

The COVID-19 pandemic grounded flights, canceled events, and hit budgets hard. Writers who’d planned to travel around the country to write in new locales feel the loss, too. Vanessa Blakeslee, author of the novel Juventud and the award-winning story collections Perfect Conditions and Train Shots, missed out on a residency in Alaska this summer, but she took some time to talk to Loft teaching artist Robin Rozanski about the importance of writing retreats.

RR: How did residencies figure into your writing routine pre-COVID? 

VB: Before 2020, I had shifted over the years to relying more and more on writing residencies to get the bulk of work done, certainly new work. In a shared house with increasingly hectic routines, co-inhabitants, responsibilities, and "gig" work, I have found it more and more challenging to find the solitude or headspace in which creation can occur. Fortunately, for the past few years, I was able to commit to going away for two weeks or a month about twice a year to a residency and, when there, recharge and work steadily on new projects: the manuscript of a second novel, a lot of exploration in my notebook, and inevitably the drafts of a couple of new essays or stories. So I'd say residencies became essential to my inner life and creative life. 

RR: And now?

VB: Post-pandemic, I'm not sure, and quite honestly I've been struggling with a good deal of depression about the loss of the arts. As with thousands of other professional writers and artists, I am finding myself rather unmoored right now. I've been fortunate in that one or two more commercial income opportunities have presented themselves, so I find myself saying yes to those and being grateful for them. But an increase in family responsibilities, pragmatic economic pressures, not to mention travel restrictions, have definitely put a damper on my creative life and projects for 2020–2021. 

RR: Writers crave these retreats, and organizations enthusiastically offer them. What’s so special, creatively, about being able to get away? 

VB: My writing truly soared in those conditions—at cabins and cottages, often close to wilderness or in a charming small town, I would find that I was able to, if not unplug entirely, grow quieter, eliminate distractions, and connect with my inner voice and vision. With that kind of solitude, calm, and focus, I was able to delve fully into projects, even if I'd been months away from them, and really eat, sleep, breathe my work. I don't know if I'll experience those conditions ever again, or perhaps not for a long time, with our new reality of contagion and contraction. Going forward, writers and artists may find a more feasible path in venturing outside the box of shrinking organization support and ask via family and friend circles for second homes or cabins to borrow, beach condos, etc., and fashion one's own writing retreat or more regional getaway.  

RR: What’s next for residencies, in general?

VB: I believe that with the collapse in revenue, many of these nonprofits and residency programs sadly won't be coming back. My advice is to keep an eye on when places will open for applications again, to hope for the best but prepare for the worst, as some of the largest and most lauded organizations may not be immune to extinction. Smaller, more nimble organizations may better survive—how the arts shape-shift in this new reality is going to surprise all of us, I expect.  

Vanessa Blakeslee teaches writing at Rollins College and serves on the Board of Directors for the Jack Kerouac Writers-in-Residence Project of Orlando, Florida. She is currently at work (from home) on a new novel.

Robin Rozanski will be teaching Away from the Desk: Residencies, Conferences, Fellowships, and More on Saturday, August 22, from 9 am to 1 pm (CDT), online via Zoom. Register here.