It’s that time of the year when a lot of deadlines are coming up for applications to summer writers’ retreats, residencies, fellowships, workshops and conferences. I’ve had students ask about the Indiana University Writers’ Conference, which opens for early registration this month, and many of my colleagues are applying for residencies and workshops at excellent places like the Vermont Studio Center, the New School Summer Writers Colony, the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, and endless others. Even beyond the problem of that ambivalent apostrophe (is it writers’, writer’s, or simply writers?) these programs can pose a problem for writers who aren’t funded by grants, universities, or their families. If we saved all we spend on application fees, contest entry fees, reading fees, and so on, many of us could probably afford to pay rent thirteen months a year.
In 2010 I attended the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College, two fabulous weeks of workshops, readings and talks. I had the opportunity to work with a couple of writers I deeply admire, and I made some great friends. I couldn’t have done it without the generous scholarship I received. Virginia Woolf’s famous assertion, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” is especially well taken when the former is necessary in spades to afford the former. (The A Room Of Her Own Foundation, an organization that took Woolf at her word, offers a writers retreat for women in New Mexico.)
The writers retreat can be very inspiring. It can wake up a writer who feels she is in a rut, and help to affirm her writerly identity. It can foster intellectual dialogue, and ignite lasting friendships. It can help fend off that ailment peculiar to writers, loneliness. It can be an adventure! There are retreats in the mountains, on lakes, and in cities, in Gambier and Saratoga Springs, in Greece and Spain. When space tourism really takes off, there’ll probably be a writers retreat on Mars. If the question is why to go, the answers are innumerable.
If the question is how, though, I’m not sure. Trolling the Internet the other day I found the site of an idyllic-looking retreat on the coast of Ireland, and was instantly swept into a sea of reveries (most of which involved walking barefoot on long rocky cliffs, salt spray on my face and wind in my hair, like some extra in The Lord of the Rings) before finding that it cost over seven thousand dollars. Not going to happen. I closed my browser. I rearranged the framed photos I keep on my desk: seagulls on a white rock in the ocean, a sunset over a lake I know. All this hoopla about writers retreats suddenly seemed like nothing more than an attractive distraction.