| Don’t Write Alone
Shop Talk A Person of Color’s Guide to Navigating Writing Residencies
For our Application Week series, Hannah Bae writes about applying to and attending writing residencies as a person of color—along with tips from about ten other writers who identify as BIPOC.
I’ve tried my best to hide it, but I’ve arrived at every artists’ residency I’ve attended knotted with fear and desperation. The past few years have been an especially fraught time to pursue the writing life as a person of color. Or perhaps it’s always been a fraught time for us—it just took a global pandemic and multiple scourges of racial violence to underscore that point for my particular, broken millennial brain. The stakes were—have always been—high.
By the time I checked into my very first writing residency in July 2021, at The Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, the anticipation had been building for nearly two years, hence the desperation. I’d applied in mid-2019, been awarded the fellowship that funded my stay that November, and planned my residency for May 2020, and then had it deferred, month after month, as I felt the Covid-19 pandemic and waves of anti-Asian hate decimate my sense of well-being, to say nothing of any creative impulse or inspiration.
I was afraid of contracting Covid-19 before, during, after, and on the way to or from the residency. I was afraid of racists, who could come in any number of forms, in any number of settings. I was also afraid that I might never write anything of substance again, because for most of 2020, I failed to complete much of anything, and certainly not a coherent manuscript of creative nonfiction. I was desperate to see if any writing could possibly unfurl, finally, with time outside of my apartment, free of domestic demands.
All this was coming from me, a usually confident, extroverted person who exudes positivity online. I barely recognized myself.
I didn’t know this when I had applied, way back in 2019, but by the time I arrived in Eureka Springs, I was in search of refuge that would remind me of who I am.
I’m writing this piece now after spending a total of two and a half months of the past year at three different artists’ residencies, each of which transformed me as a writer, renewed my emotional health, and introduced me to dozens of new, dear friends. But as a writer of color, preparing for each residency (which also entailed applying to more than a dozen) required a unique approach, and I want to share the wisdom that I gained, plus tips from about ten other writers who identify as BIPOC and whom I consulted about their own residency experiences.
What is a residency?
If you’re not familiar, artists’ residencies come in a number of forms. More often than not, they’re essentially retreat centers where artists get a break from their everyday lives to focus intensely on their work for an extended period of time. Some are for writers only; others are for artists of any number of disciplines. Some are incredibly selective; others are essentially open-invite. Some employ staff who take care of all the cooking and cleaning; others just offer a place to stay, while you clean up after yourself. Some charge money for room, board, and/or meals; others are free, or even offer accepted artists a stipend.
In the United States, because of the ways that wealth is structured, residencies are often the product of white people’s philanthropy in the form of real estate, an endowment, and/or fundraising. Many residencies tout their idyllic settings, but because of this country’s history of stolen land, they are often located in areas where Black, Indigenous, and people of color are in a significant minority. This means, as residents, we need to take great care to protect our bodies, minds, hearts, and sacred time for our work in these spaces, as should the residency’s staff and community.
“When I am at a residency, I am focused on myself and my work and self-care. I am open and tender, extra vulnerable to the microaggressions I encounter in daily life,” fiction writer and essayist Yalitza Ferreras—who wrote a beautiful, moving ode to artist residencies recently—told me. “I don’t want to think the double take of a passerby in a small town could escalate into something more, and even just an overly friendly greeting reminds me that I’ve been noticed and marked as an outsider.”
For this very reason, I’ve prioritized applying to residencies where I have a local connection, especially during the pandemic, to keep emotional and medical support systems close. My in-laws, for example, live in Arkansas, which meant that my time at The Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow was a blessed chance to see them for the first time since the pandemic’s onset. This proximity to my in-laws also served my work: My community ties meant that the public reading I planned during my residency, which also spotlighted an Arkansan writer friend, was very well attended. (It went so well, I cried!) I wouldn’t be surprised if highlighting my regional connection in my application made me a more compelling candidate too.
For an early 2022 residency, at Ragdale in Lake Forest, Illinois, I took the opportunity of returning to my birth state to revisit an old family home (thanks to an extremely gracious local writer friend who housed me beforehand and drove me!) and to conduct research. Unexpectedly, for the first time in twenty years, I was also able to reconnect with a beloved family member who lives nearby. That heart-affirming reunion—invaluable to my writing project—was only possible during the pandemic because of the incredible support of my Ragdale cohort and residency staff. It meant a lot to be surrounded by comfort and care—a literal shoulder to cry on—before and after that reunion.
The company you keep
Before each residency, I hoped dearly that there would be other BIPOC artists there. Each time, I lucked out, but it really did come down to luck (and thoughtful decisions by a residency’s selection committee; if any arts admins out there are reading this: Please never create a group residency that only has room for one BIPOC artist).
At the Peter Bullough Foundation in Winchester, Virginia, where I lived alongside just one other artist, I was delighted to have a coresident of Asian descent, plus an Asian American friend who lived within walking distance. It meant a lot to live alongside those who knew exactly why it was important to prioritize our physical safety, no questions asked, even in a quaint, picturesque town.
Nur Nasreen Ibrahim, a journalist, TV producer, and writer of fiction and nonfiction, told me that she also felt fortunate to find herself in a diverse and generous cohort recently at Millay Arts in upstate New York. “Be mindful that you cannot choose your cohort,” she advised. “I told myself beforehand that I had to go in with an open mind and hope that others would be the same.”
Arvin Ramgoolam, a fiction writer, bookseller, and recent fellow at MacDowell in New Hampshire, came in bracing himself to feel out of place, only to find himself in a supportive, BIPOC-heavy artistic community.
As I was reporting out this piece, several 2022 MacDowell fellows told me that their cohorts were majority BIPOC and queer, and that selection appeared to have prioritized artists who were new to the organization. “I had never applied to a residency like MacDowell before because (a) I was concerned it would be mostly white people, and (b) I had never wanted to be away from my children for more than a few days,” said poet, writer, and educator Sun Yung Shin.
For Ramgoolam, conveying his own generosity of spirit toward his cohort was key, even when it came to the little details. For instance, while he doesn’t drink himself, he came to MacDowell with four bottles of wine to share with coresidents over dinner.
Starting with an open mind and heart were key to my own positive residency experiences. At Ragdale, where residencies are planned around a cohort (around ten artists during mine; much larger in non-Covid times), prosecco, negative Covid tests, and sheer gratitude for the opportunity to gather contributed to the remarkably good chemistry in my group. (And it goes without saying to respect and include residents who do not imbibe in social gatherings!)
But even when all participants are interacting in good faith, cohesive bonds are not a given. While residencies can be a great networking opportunity, especially for beginner writers, “don’t be offended if more established residents aren’t as eager to socialize,” said memoirist and essayist Grace Loh Prasad, who had the good fortune of attending Ragdale and Hedgebrook, a Washington State–based residency for women writers, early in her own career. “Be friendly, but keep in mind that they are there to work and they don’t owe you anything.”
Other residency veterans had outright horror stories to tell about uncomfortable dynamics that they’d witnessed. When the vibe sours, self-preservation is essential.
Novelist, essayist, and memoirist Amna Ahmad once said about a peer’s MacDowell experience, “A wise woman I know said that the racism happens in the evenings.” This was before the residency’s apparent efforts to diversify their seasonal residency cohorts. Ahmad went on to say, “Instead of gathering with other residents in the common spaces to chat after dinner, she would go back to her room. Others take this a step further and even take their meals back to their private spaces.”
There is still so much work to be done to make artistic residencies truly hospitable to BIPOC artists, and it’s important to remember that this is not work that we should burden ourselves with.
“We don’t have any obligation or responsibility to ‘correct’ or ‘educate’ other folks who may be at these workshops or residencies (primarily white folks who may be wealthy or retired and have the time, flexibility, and funds to attend),” said essayist and Georgetown law professor Janel George, whom I met at Dairy Hollow. At one dinner during her stay, when white residents began discussing police killings of unarmed Black people, then turned to victim-blaming, George remembered the advice of a friend and previous resident who, like her, is a Black woman: Don’t feel the need to engage. You are there to write. Save your energy to do that. Instead, George and another BIPOC resident left the room together. “That gave me so much peace,” she said.
Before a residency, take time to consider what exactly you need from the experience: Rest? Solitude? Community? Sustained work time? And check in with yourself periodically to make sure you’re getting it. Don’t be afraid to revise your goals. Don’t worry if you have to recommit to them. And most of all, don’t feel guilty about taking the time to put yourself and your writing practice first. You deserve it.
“Many writers of color carry a sense of guilt or the misperception that writing residencies are ‘luxuries’ that we shouldn’t indulge in,” George said. “The reality is that, by taking the time and availing ourselves of opportunities like writing workshops, residencies, and fellowships, we are able to grow into the writers we are meant to be.”