Eight lucky Australian writers have recently been awarded overseas residencies by the Australia Council. But are writing residencies all they’re cracked up to be?
According to industry magazine Books+Publishing, Lisa Gorton, Robert Lukins, Fiona McGregor and Sandra Thibodeaux will each undertake a three-month residency at the BR Whiting Studio in Rome. Each writer also receives a $10,000 grant.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied was awarded a six-month residency at the Keesing Studio in Paris, along with a $20,000 grant (which, very predictably, caused the Murdoch media to have an attack of the vapours). Eloise Grills and Kate Cole-Adams were awarded three-month residencies at the Keesing Studio, receiving $10,000 each. Anita Heiss was awarded a three-month residency at the at the Cité Internationale des Arts and receives $10,000.
Plenty of other international writing residencies are available, with a quick Google search bringing up hundreds. From a 20,000-acre working cattle ranch in Wyoming, to a boutique hotel in Latvia, to residencies in Shanghai, Mexico, Iceland or India. Most residencies provide free accommodation for a set period, some include meals as well, a few provide a small stipend for the duration.
Within Australia there are plenty of options too. Some of the better known ones include Bundanoon, KSP Writers Centre and Varuna. I won a fortnight’s stay at Varuna a few years ago and it was a wonderful experience for me. The ability to spend a couple of weeks concentrating solely on my manuscript was an absolute gift, and I gained a great deal from the experience. Since then, I’ve met many writers who found the experience equally helpful.
So what’s not to love about writing residencies?
Well, quite a bit actually. Mainly because only certain kinds of writers can access them.
Writers with caring responsibilities often don’t even apply, unless they can find someone to take the kids/parents/whoever for weeks or months at a time. My husband and I both work full time. He used two weeks of his own annual leave while I was at Varuna, to look after our (then quite young) children.
Robert Lukins, who as mentioned above has just been awarded a three-month residency in Rome, agrees that accepting residencies can be tricky. ‘This residency will just happen to line up exactly with when I am due long service leave from my fulltime job,’ said Lukins. ‘That is just a fluke and is the only reason I will be able to take the time away from work to attend and to be able to afford to go. $10K would never cover the shortfall from a person’s fulltime work especially if they have a family to provide for.’
Lukins’ partner works full time as well, and together they have a four-year-old child. ‘The family-related stuff is going to be the trickiest,’ said Lukins. ‘My partner is going to be taking on a huge load with work and solo parenting while I’m away, so again, I’m just incredibly fortunate to be in that situation. I would only have applied for this thing if my partner fully supported it and in the end they decided that it was such an amazing, once in a lifetime type opportunity that we would just make it work … and they are going to be trying to go away for a similar work-related adventure in the future to even things up!’
Three months is a long time to be away from family, or a day job, or a freelancing career. Sure, most people can probably take a few weeks off, but spending three or six months away is on another scale altogether. Again, I used my annual leave to attend Varuna, but subsequently I had little leave remaining to cover the school holidays that year. I got the residency, and my long-suffering family got the work-arounds.
Author Eleanor Limprecht is another member of the Varuna alumni who describes her residency experience as priceless. ‘But I also can’t get away for more than two weeks at a time because of children and work,’ said Limprecht, ‘and for this reason I’ve never even applied for any residency longer than two weeks. I think there will be time for this, later in life, but at that stage I don’t know if I’ll need it any more because I imagine the caring responsibilities will be fewer and I won’t need to get away to have the quiet space.’
Some writers organise (and pay) for their own ‘residencies’. Stumping up for a night or two to write in a hotel works for some while others, like author Jane Rawson, organise a writing retreat with friends. ‘We book a few days away regularly in an Air BnB that’s close enough to be affordable but far enough that we can’t sneak home,’ said Rawson. ‘We cook for each other and spend the evenings talking about our work or whatever we want, and during the day we write.’ But Rawson noted that her DIY residency still needs to fit around the demands of everyday life. According to Rawson, it must be ‘short enough that we don’t need to take scads of leave from work, and short enough that those of us with caring responsibilities can fob them off for a short time. We can only do it because we all do work, and all have spare money (and too little writing time) as a result.’
Money is, of course, an issue for many writers. Very few residencies cover the cost of getting from home to the venue and back again. A residency at a prestigious overseas or interstate venue is going to look great on your literary CV, but only if you can afford to get there. And only if you can continue to afford to continue to pay the rent, or mortgage, while you are away.
Getting there—and sometimes even staying there—can also be difficult for writers living with a disability or illness. For these writers, says author Anna Spargo Ryan, ‘accessibility sometimes means allowing disabled people to create in their existing optimised spaces’. Staying there can be difficult for other writers too. Not everyone is comfortable living alone for the duration. Some residencies have multiple writers staying at the one location, others offer accommodation to just one person. Either way, partners aren’t usually invited. I’ve heard of writers staying in isolated retreats who found it very hard to sleep at night, and who felt very much alone.
Others continue to have mixed feelings about residencies. Novellist Robyn Cadwallader was writer-in-residence at a residential library in Wales (Gladstone’s Library) for a month. She found her friendly hosts to be hospitable and supportive. It was, said Cadwallader, ‘ideal, really—surrounded by books and other, lovely writers and readers. I loved the affirmation, but I put so much pressure on myself to make use of the time that I did very little writing at all, and then became lonely and miserable. Sometimes I think I’m a hermit crab, more content at my own desk in my own space.’
In short, writing residencies make a bunch of assumptions about the sort of person who writes. And a bunch of assumptions about the benefits of writing while staying at a residency. Is a Mexican junket really going to improve the quality of your memoir? Couldn’t you just stay at a friend’s house for a distraction-free week or so?
I wonder if part of the attraction of residencies is the ability to say you’ve won one. They certainly add kudos to your literary CV, and can be an important validation of your writing efforts. In fact the validation aspect is more important, to some writers, than the actual residency. Either way, residencies certainly aren’t the be all and end all. Those of us who write when we can, in the cracks of our lives, are still real writers too.
The literary sector is certainly aware of the issues and is responding, I think, by offering a greater range of fellowships. Many awards these days allow the recipient to nominate how they would prefer to use the funds.
For the Kat Muscat Fellowship residencies are an option but so are mentorships and other professional development opportunities. The Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship offers funds for travel, in order to research a work in progress. The Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund offers financial support for travel too, but travel for all sorts of reasons, including to attend professional development activities. The Charles Perkins Centre, at the University of Sydney, offers a flexible $100,000 Writer in Residence opportunity—nice, if you live in Sydney.
Interestingly, the Rome residencies recently awarded by the Australia Council was, in the past, only ever offered as a six-month stay. But the Australia Council received a great deal of feedback from people saying that they weren’t able to apply because six months was too long. So in this latest round (it’s open every two years) they offered three-month Rome residencies for the first time. Initially the Australia Council was going to offer one six-month placement, and two three-month placements but, according to recipient Robert Lukins, ‘they were totally inundated with applications for the three-month residencies and hardly any for the six-month so they decided to offer four three-months residencies in this round. It shows how limiting the longer residencies can be.’
No one has a problem with residencies as a concept. Nor with the writers who successfully apply for and attend them. All power to their pens. But wouldn’t it be fascinating to see the data; to see an overview of all available residencies and fellowships, and the characteristics of the writers who were awarded them? It might be tricky to achieve—this sort of data is not centrally collated, and no-one has their hand up to collect it—yet it may illuminate issues in the same way the fabulous Stella Count provides evidence of gender-based bias in book reviewing.
Perhaps the best and most effective advice for financial fellowships is to not be prescriptive. Allow the recipient to choose how best to make the money work for them—be that child-care, time out of the workforce, a new computer, or simply easing the financial pressure for a little while. Maybe that’s already what literary prizes allow, but by then the work is finished and the prize money actually supports the next project.
It’s harder, though, for residencies to change. Their operating model is necessarily constrained by the practical considerations surrounding the venue itself. But the Australia Council has shown that flexibility is possible, and the literary sector can surely apply its collective intelligence to the task of ensuring that more writers, and more kinds of writers, can enjoy the many benefits that residencies bestow. The point is this: writers are a diverse group of people. And the methods applied to supporting and encouraging their work needs to be equally diverse and imaginative.
Sometimes, despite what Virginia Woolf wrote, writers need more than a room of their own.
Michelle Scott Tucker is the author of Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World which was a finalist for the 2019 NSW State Library Ashurst Business Literature Prize and for the 2019 CHASS Australia Book Prize.