Friday Five-O: Bread Loaf? Yaddo? Huh?
Dear Friday 5-O,
In 2012 I’ve decided to take 2 weeks off from work and devote 100% of that time to my writing. What should I do? I’m not a newbie, but I’m not far enough along to go to fancy places like MacDowell or Yaddo, and I’m not even sure what Bread Loaf and Sewanee and such are all about.
Dear Name Withheld,
Are you by chance related to Jennifer Withheld? We went to high school together. Just curious.
I think it’s fantastic that you’re planning to take some time off just to focus on your writing. It’s an investment well worth making. Especially since, chances are, you’ll be inspired to stay more focused on your writing once you’re back in your regular routine.
So, what should you do? First, decide whether you want to use your two weeks for A.) Instruction and/or inspiration, in the form of workshops, readings, seminars, networking, etc., B.) Just writing or C.) A combination of both. (Hint, Hint: Choose C!)
If it’s A (or C), you’ll probably want to attend some sort of writing conference for all or part of your two weeks. There are tons of ‘em out there, and the Poets & Writers web site is a great place to start looking.
Bread Loaf and Sewanee, both of which happen over the summer, are two of the best known. You can apply for either as a paying participant even if you don’t have much (or anything) in the way of publications. They’re not cheap, though: Sewanee, which is just shy of two weeks, cost $1,700 to attend in 2011. Bread Loaf was a whopping $2,600 for the ten days.
I attended Bread Loaf back in 2001 as a contributor, and I had a great time; it was inspiring and informative and downright fun. But between the workshops and seminars and reading and networking and drinking—er, socializing, there was precious little time to actually write. I’ve heard there’s a bit more time for writing at Sewanee, but can’t speak from experience.
Of course, there’s always Grub Street’s own Muse & the Marketplace—a jam-packed, kickass, two-day conference that happens every spring, which could be the perfect kickoff to your writing intensive.
If it’s B (pure writing time) you’re after, then consider looking into a retreat or writer’s colony type thingamajoo. (I'm a writer; can you tell?) You named the two biggies, MacDowell and Yaddo, but you’re correct that if you haven’t published anything, or only have a couple of published pieces to your name, you’re probably not ready yet. (Yet!) Fortunately, there are lots of other options out there, with various levels of "selectiveness." Some are wildly expensive (Tuscany, anyone?) and some more reasonable. (Arkansas!) Again, the Poets & Writers website is a good place to start your search.
One such option here in New England is the Vermont Studio Center. I spent two weeks there back in 2004 with a work study fellowship, which meant that I helped out in the dish room a few hours each week to offset some of my tuition. (There are some full fellowships available, but only for residencies of a month or longer.)
The only structured elements of the experience were a manuscript consultation and (optional) seminar with the fiction writer-in-residence. There were a few readings in the evening. But other than that, it was just pure, unadulterated writing time, with opportunities to chat and share work with other writers and artists. I loved it. Even, strangely, the dish room part.
More recently, I did a (much more affordable), weeklong retreat at Wellspring House in the tiny village of Ashfield, Massachusetts. I’m headed there again in November. It’s basically a bed and breakfast without the breakfast, just a shared kitchen, that caters to writers and visual artists looking for a quiet place to work. As a busy mom of young children, I relished the opportunity to have so much time and space to myself (there were only two other people in residence while I was there) and I got tons of writing done. But if you’re a very social creature, you might find it too isolating.
Of course there’s another option, too: Stay home and spend your days writing. Whether it's at home or in coffee shops or the library. Maybe mix things up by going to some readings at your favorite local bookstore, reading some good books on craft, and attending a one-night seminar or workshop at Grub Street. Arrange to have lunch or coffee with other writer pals so you can “talk shop.” A do-it-yourself writing retreat, if you will.
This approach obviously takes a little more discipline. It's harder. And not nearly as exciting or romantic as the idea of going off to a literary oasis in the mountains and rubbing elbows with your fellow scribes. Then again, it’s more like what being a “real” writer is actually like.
Whatever route you choose, good luck—and congrats on giving yourself this time.