Writing Fellowships at Conferences, Colonies, & Centers
Katherine Perry | February 2002
You’re tired of writerly solitude-what now? You remember the days when you thought you’d never, ever want to take part in another workshop, but now you have enough time and space-in addition to the thesis, perhaps dusty, which still needs another round of revisions before you send it out to publishers-to consider enrolling in a writing course of some type. Or perhaps you’re considering entering a graduate program, but aren’t quite ready, just yet, to commit yourself to a full-time program. For whatever the reason and for whatever your level and goals-and for those with either full-time, year-round occupations providing vacation time or those with teaching positions which often afford summers or long breaks free-spending time at a conference, colony, or center offers valuable opportunities to begin or continue writing.
A Program from A to Z
Writing programs at conferences, colonies, and centers do, of course, vary widely. When choosing a conference, be sure to do your research, keeping your particular needs in mind, whether it be the location, price, course offerings, faculty, or duration of the program. In addition to the resources listed in this article, visit the website of Writers’ Conferences and Centers (WC&C), a division of AWP, at http://www.awpwriter.org/wcc or consult The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs (10th edition), which also contains a section on conferences, colonies, and centers. The best conferences, colonies, and centers are members of WC&C, which was "founded to promote these important programs among writers who seek friendly communities and professional advice on the art of writing." Also, ask conference administrators if there are past attendees with whom you can talk about their experiences.
The question of which conference to attend is, finally, an individual preference, and can only be met with more questions. Things to consider when choosing a conference, colony, or center include the location: Are you willing to pay airfare for a conference across the country, or would you prefer something closer to home, a conference within driving distance? Is geographic location a primary factor-part of the experience of attending the conference? Would your writing benefit from a stay in the country, city, near the ocean? For some attendees, spending a week in the hills and valleys at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, or strolling through the Old Town Square at the Prague Summer Seminars, is an essential part of the conference experience, an inspiration in itself. Do you want to spend a month or more immersed in writing, or would you prefer to reinvigorate your writing over an intense weekend session? Are you seeking a workshop-intensive community of artists and fellow spirits, or is it more your style to spend time independently, creating in solitude? In terms of size, would you feel more comfortable in a workshop of five or in a conference of a hundred? Is there a particular writer whose work you admire with whom you’d like to study, or perhaps a particular topic of a panel or discussion-say, literary research needed for your novel-in-progress-that catches your eye? Is receiving college credit a priority?
Just as the programs themselves vary, so do the types of funding or fellowships they offer conference attendees. Some programs, like the Arts&Letters Workshops in Milledgeville, Georgia, offer discounts to attendees who are members of AWP. WC&C conducts an annual competition to provide scholarships to emerging writers who wish to attend a writers’ conference. The $500 scholarship is applied to fees to attend any of the member conferences of WC&C. Many other programs offer some type of funding, whether it is full or partial, financial aid or scholarships, need- or merit-based, or for emerging or established writers; for the most current information, contact the individual programs directly. The intent here is to focus on some of the fellowship opportunities at several established conferences, colonies, and centers that offer lengthier residencies.
Program Requirements & Funding for Attendees
If you’re a writer in the early stages of your career, looking for an extended, independent residency program, the Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC) in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the tip of Cape Cod, might be the choice for you. "The most important thing someone should know about FAWC is that is an amazing experience, and it will change and reshape your psyche," says Mark Wunderlich, a past FAWC fellowship recipient. "The place is beautiful, the community is strange and marvelous, and the sense of freedom is completely exhilarating."
The FAWC offers seven-month residencies, from October to May, to 20 fellows each year; residencies include living and working space and a monthly stipend for expenses. For those who can’t find the time for a seven-month residency, the FAWC also offers a selection of fall and summer weekend courses; past courses included Tony Hoagland’s "Fast and Loose: Poetry Workshop" and Cynthia Huntington’s "Inventing Memory: Experiments in Memoir."
The FAWC has a history of supporting creative work and the artistic community. Founded in 1968 by a group of eminent artists, writers, and patrons-Stanley Kunitz, Robert Motherwell, Fritz Bultman, and Alan Dugan among them-the FAWC has dedicated itself to the founders’ goal of achieving the "freedom to pursue creative work within a community of peers (as] the best catalyst for artistic growth." This mission is reflected in the FAWC today. Wunderlich states that "before a writer has published a first book, they are in a kind of limbo. The Work Center legitimizes that time period by investing in the futures of young writers, and that’s really rare among institutions of any kind. Being part the lineage of former fellows in Provincetown really means a lot to me. Writers I had admired and read and who had influenced me had been resident fellows there, and to become part of that was a tremendous gift."
According to the FAWC’s website, fellows are "in no way directed or supervised during their stay; both solitude and a diverse cultural community are available." This independence can be both exhilarating and challenging for some. Wunderlich says, "The greatest gift and the biggest challenge at the Work Center is the amount of freedom you have. At times during the seven-month fellowship, that is the perfect situation for producing new work. At other times it can be a bit maddening. The thing that happened to me at the Work Center, however, is that I learned what it was to be a real writer-how to shape and organize your day around your work."
Fellowships are open to fiction writers and poets in the emerging stages of their careers. A jury of professionals reviews the applications, due December 1st; past jurors for writing include Michael Harper, Mark Strand, and Grace Paley. Selection, according to the website, is based solely on the quality of the work and the "emerging artists" criteria. Writing Program Coordinator Justin Tussing advises applicants to "be sure to follow the posted guidelines. Our jury changes every year." Competition for a fellowship is high; Tussing says that they receive "around 600 applicants divided between poetry and fiction writers. We select four new fellows in each genre and select one former fellow from each genre to have a second-year fellowship. All fellows receive the same stipend (currently $650 a month) and are given a place to live rent free." Recent fellowship recipients in writing include Major Jackson, Jhumpa Lahiri, Heather McGowan, and Peter Ho Davies.
Another unique residency option is the Vermont Studio Center (VSC), founded in 1984 to support the "making of art as the communication of spirit through form… dedicated to serving artists and writers in an open, nurturing, supportive work environment." A program such as VSC combines literary production with social interaction, and some writers may find the interdisciplinary nature of FAWC or VSU stimulating in itself-painters, sculptors, and other visual artists are also in attendance.
Twelve writers are accepted to the VSC each month; residents receive studio space, private rooms, and food. In addition to the residents, two visiting writers-both of whom work in the same genre-join VSC for one week apiece each month to give a reading of their own work, a literary craft talk, and to offer individual writing conferences to those who have applied and been accepted. Past visiting writers have included Charles Baxter, Robin Becker, Marvin Bell, Mark Doty, Cornelius Eady, Heather McHugh, Antonya Nelson, Grace Paley, Howard Norman, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and many others.
VSC offers full, restricted, and partial fellowship awards to applicants. Full fellowships, for the four-week stay, are awarded on the basis of merit without regard to financial considerations. Jury reviews to consider applications are held three times a year; the three full fellowship application deadlines are February 15, June 15, and October 1. The Admissions office suggests that applications be submitted six months prior to the desired residency start date; keep in mind that the summer and fall residencies are the most popular and, therefore, the most competitive. Restricted fellowships are for those who meet specific eligibility requirements; consult VSC for the award list of foundations or individuals who support specific populations, whether based on financial need, ethnic background, country of citizenship, or other requirements. These deadlines vary according to the award. Finally, partial fellowships combine grants-based on merit-and work exchange-based on need-to reduce fees up to 35% for summer/fall and up to 60% for winter/spring.
For those writers who are seeking more than solitude, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, held for 11 days in August at Middlebury College, offers a community designed, according to Director Michael Collier’s letter on the website, to "test our own assumptions regarding literature and (to] seek advice about our progress as writers." The oldest writers’ conference in America-founded in 1926 in the Green Mountains of Vermont-Bread Loaf focuses on writing workshops in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. "Bring a journal or a diary, but leave your other work at home," advises Robin Allnutt, a two-year Bread Loaf attendee. "Bread Loaf is not a residence. It is a place to talk to your fellow writers, exchange ideas, and listen to the music of words."
While daily schedules vary, days at Bread Loaf are full, often beginning with an early morning breakfast, followed by a faculty lecture-2001 faculty included Toi Derricotte, Ursula Hegi, Alan Shapiro, Terry Tempest Williams, Carl Phillips, and others-and then workshop prep time, lunch, class, a reading or guest speaker, and dinner followed by an evening reading and reception. In addition, magazine editors, publicists, and agents meet with "Bread Loafers," as conference attendees are known, to give presentations and to offer guidelines. As the website warns, "With so many tempting options, Bread Loafers sometimes take a few days to realize they have to pace themselves." Allnut concurs, advising Bread Loafers to "remember that you can’t do everything. Sleep when you can, but never pass up an opportunity to gather with your fellow writers after hours."
Bread Loaf offers three types of financial aid, all awarded in recognition of published work or literary promise rather than financial need. If the busy conference schedule doesn’t seem taxing, one option for heading to the Green Mountains is to work as a waiter. Work-study scholarships are awarded to applicants whose writing shows exceptional promise. "While being a waiter made participating in Bread Loaf financially possible for me, it also offered an immediate peer group," says Annie Kantar, who attended Bread Loaf in 2000. For those who haven’t waited tables before, no worry: the website states "food preparation is not involved, and previous experience is not required. The work is physically quite demanding, however, so candidates should be in very good physical condition." As Kantar expresses, for many working as a waiter at Bread Loaf is a memorable experience and one that is essential in building a sense of community among attendees of all different backgrounds. "What competition that might have arisen among (the waiters) in a regular workshop was pushed aside by our work in the kitchen and dining hall," says Allnutt, whose work-study waiter scholarship allowed him to attend Bread Loaf in 2000. "There, we were a team, and that spirit carried through to every other aspect of the conference. The waiters I have spoken to from other years confirmed that my experience was no aberration."
Work-study waiters earn their room, board, and full tuition, as do fellowship recipients. Bread Loaf Fellows must have published one book-but not more than two-in the past four years. Fellows give a reading from their own work and may also offer a one-hour class on an aspect of craft; in addition, they are assigned to a workshop and could be asked to assist the faculty member. 2001 Fellows included Thisbe Nissen, Natasha Trethewey, Spencer Short, and Manuel Luis Martinez, among others. Finally, tuition scholarships are awarded to writers who are actively publishing their work in magazines and literary journals or who have received previous award recognition. Financial aid applications must be postmarked by March 15.
Again, competition for these fellowships is fierce. According to Collier, Bread Loaf received 700 scholarship applications in 2001; about 400 of those were for one of the 25 waiterships. When considering applications, Collier states that "the writing sample is the first thing the admissions board reads-everything else is secondary to that. In the last few years, we’ve moved away from the importance of an applicant being nominated and considering the letter of recommendation. We still solicit nominations, but we also invite people to apply for fellowships and scholarships without nominations." If you don’t gain admission for the first year in which you apply, consider reapplying, but do remember that the writing sample is of the utmost importance. "My experience with the admissions board has been that it rewards people who are persistent," Collier says. "But persistence alone doesn’t do it."
Other conferences, colonies, and centers do not offer "traditional" fellowships but still offer some sort of aid to attendees. One such example is the Ragdale Foundation, an artists’ retreat in Lake Forest, IIllinois, which offers residencies from a minimum of two weeks to a maximum of months. Ragdale does offer the Frances Shaw Writing Fellowship, which is open to women writers who have begun writing seriously after age 55; recipients receive airfare and a two-month residency. But for those who do not meet such application requirements, Ragdale subsidizes fees for attendees. Although the actual cost is over $120 per day, the Foundation works to cover the balance, leaving residents with a $15 per day fee. Full and partial fee waivers are also available as funds permit. Another artists’ community that does not charge residency fees is The MacDowell Colony, founded in 1907 in Peterborough, New Hampshire to provide a place where creative artists could find freedom to concentrate on their work. "At its founding," the website states, "the Colony was an experiment for which there was no precedent." The experiment worked, indeed: celebrated writers such as James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Willa Cather, and Thorton Wilder-who composed Our Town while there-all thrived at the colony; today, both emerging and established writers can enjoy the environment at MacDowell. Through fundraising, the Board of Directors has taken care of the colony’s operating deficit, which means colonists do not pay to attend (the cost of operating MacDowell is approximately $180 per colonist per day). Full or partial travel reimbursement grants and monetary grants based on financial need, through a program named Writers Aid, are also available.
Attending a writer’s conference can provide you with a sense of connection and help build a community of writers to tide you through another season of solitude. As there is fierce competition for scholarships to attend these programs, apply early and be sure to send your best work, a first-rate writing sample. It is, after all, the work and the work alone that matters, and with any luck, time spent at a conference, colony, or center will provide you with enough writing nourishment to get you through the year spent alone, word after word, until the next time you meet.
- Writers’ Conferences & Centers http://www.awpwriter.org/wcc
- Fine Arts Work Center http://www.fawc.org
- Vermont Studio Center http://www.vermontstudiocenter.org
- Bread Loafhttp://www.middlebury.edu/~blwc/
- Yaddo http://www.yaddo.org/Yaddo/index6.shtml
- The Ragdale Foundation http://www.ragdale.org/
- The MacDowell Colony http://www.macdowellcolony.org/
- The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs, available through AWP (AWP & Dustbooks, 10th edition available Feb. 2002)
- Artist’s Communities: A Directory of Residencies in the United States That Offer Time and Space for Creativity, ed. Tricia Snell (Allworth Press)
- Artists & Writers Colonies: Retreats, Residencies, and Respites for the Creative Mind, ed. Robyn Middleton, Mindy Seale, and Martha Ruttle (Blue Heron Publishing)Grants and Awards Available to American Writers, 2000–2001 edition, available from PEN American Center, 568 Broadway, New York, NY 10012-3225. http://www.pen.org/grants.html
Katherine Perry is the former Publications Manager of AWP and now works as a writer and editor for the University of Missouri System.