Saturday, March 08, 2014

I’ve got Three Hours to Write Next Thursday! What Am I Going to Do? Writing Residencies for the Rest of Us

If the title of this blog sounds less like a blog post for an inn and more like a panel for discussion at a writer’s conference, that’s because I just got back from Seattle, where I attended the 2014 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference and Bookfair. Though there were no panels directly discussing writing residencies, the big buzz after hours in the bar at the Sheraton Hotel revolved around Amtrak’s new writing residencies aboard their trains.

The idea came not from Amtrak (Surprise! Large entities fail to come up with creative alternatives--again!), but from Goddard College faculty member and novelist Alex Chee. In a recent interview with PEN American, Chee was asked where his favorite places to write are: “I still like a train best for this kind of thing. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.” Writer Jessica Gross moved this conversation to Twitter, where it gained enough life for Amtrak to offer Gross the very first writing residency--for free.

Thanks to social media, this thing snowballed, and by the time the AWP conference rolled into Seattle, it was all we writers could gush about through our sloshy, overpriced drinks. Think about it: 13,000 writers (well, five writers and 12,996 poets that I know about) all slathering to go on a free train ride across the country and write. What do you think the odds of that happening are? For now, Amtrak is trying to develop some kind of policy or program around this. My guess is that they’ll offer writers reduced fares on their empty trains in exchange for some free promotion.

So while we’re all waiting around for our invitations to Yaddo or the McDowell Colony, what’s a writer to do? Here are some ideas about how you writers can create your own writing residencies on a budget.

Option 1: Free

The Public Library. This is a great option to get you away from the mayhem and into a place that actually stimulates creative thought. Proximity to books is catnip for authors, plus you can research anything instantly--I’m talking about access to a research librarian, not Google. Not to mention the fact that you’ll be surrounded by other smarty-pants like you, all slightly disheveled, wearing Warby Parker frames and sheepish grins. Plus the bathrooms are always clean.

Cafes: Okay, so this is the cliche choice, but there’s a reason why cafes are such a good place to write. If you sit around a cafe long enough, all the great character archetypes of the world will walk by. You’ll capture snippets of conversation that you never could have invented. And you’ll get caffeinated, and caffeinated equals productive. Save your creative moments with a pencil for the pub later on; coffee houses and cafes are for productivity.

Local Attractions: I live at a ski resort, and the base lodge can be a great place to write, especially in the morning and early afternoon. You look like some miserable relative who was dragged up north with the family, so nobody bothers you. You get all the other benefits mentioned when writing in a cafe. And you get a beautiful view. If you don’t live in the mountains, consider pitching a tent in the woods for a couple of nights. Or how about the beach? Or one of those fancy rest areas off a major highway? Or the food court at a big mall? Look around: possibilities are everywhere.

Option 2: Cheap

Airbnb: Airbnb is a travel rental service that matches folks who want to rent out their home or apartment or room to people who are traveling. It’s much cheaper than hotels, and the spaces are usually great: welcoming and eclectic. For the writer looking to get away from a couple of days of writing, this option wouldn’t break the bank.

Writer’s Group Rental: If you’re a member of a local writer’s group, you might think of collectively renting a small studio apartment or single-room commercial space. Depending on where you live (I’m aiming this at people who don’t live in major cities), studio apartments can cost $500-1,000 per month. If there are ten people in your writing group, you could all rent the place and it would cost each person $50-100/month for access to your own writing place. You’d have to come up with a way of allowing access to the space--signing up for blocks of time, for example--but the result would be a great way to escape into your own writing world.

Rent a Room: Sort of like Airbnb, but more of a DIY option, writers have been renting rooms to write forever. Hemingway did this in Paris. The best thing to do is target someone with extra space--maybe a lawyer’s office, or the front parlor in a little old lady’s house. Then, make them an offer: Would you like some money, or no money? This has the benefit of proximity and flexibility.

Option 3: Pricey

Hotel Room: I have several friends who rent a hotel room for two or three days each month just to get their writing done. This can cost a couple of hundred dollars per month, and sometimes the distractions of the hotel can negate the benefits of the isolation. The sterile feeling of most hotel rooms can also be a turnoff to writers.

Shared Creative Space: I have a friend who belongs to a thing called Next Space, which is shared space for professionals. This is a idea if you want to be around other professional and creative types, but it can be expensive. Basic memberships with 3 days of access per month start at $79/month; the next level is $325/month. You better be selling plenty of writing to afford that.

The Train: And so we arrive back at the train option. Yes, the train is a great option for writing--if you live near a train station. But a round trip from New York to Chicago will run you close to $300, and that’s just for a seat--upgrading to a sleeper will cost much more.

It seems unlikely that Amtrak will grant all writers free access to its trains; if they look at their occupancy and see that it makes sense to offer us a discount in exchange for some promotion, that would be marvelous. But in the meantime, go out and create your own writing residencies, then tell the world about it. Let’s fill our lives and spaces with creativity.

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