Craft 101: Writers' Colonies, Residencies, and Workshops
A look at the value of everything from writers’ retreats to M.F.A. programs.The question is, can creative writing be taught? The answer seems to be: yes and no.
Take this statement from the website of the acclaimed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, for example: “Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed... If one can ‘learn’ to play the violin or to paint, one can ‘learn’ to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well.... We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country, in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged.”
In other words, yes and no—but it is comforting to be reminded that all writers can and should, in my opinion, be encouraged. For a witty, thorough, and thought-provoking examination of this question, check out Louis Menand's piece "Show or Tell" in the June 8, 2009, issue of the New Yorker.
If you are a novelist, poet, or short story writer and you’re ready for a little encouragement, you’re tired of working alone, or feel like you’ve gone about as far as you can go on your own, maybe it’s time seek a little advice from the pros, as well as from some of your peers. If you have time and can afford it, a residency at a writers’ colony, a workshop specializing in your genre, a conference, online help, or even a master of fine arts in creative writing could be just what you’re looking for. Here are some of your options.
A Writers’ Colony: Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and several others provide accepted applicants with a quiet place to live, write, and get to know other serious writers. They are often referred to as retreats or residencies and offer no instruction—just room and board and a community atmosphere for dedicated writers. “My two residencies at Yaddo were an incredible gift, allowing me to unplug from the world and fully immerse myself in a long stretch of reading and writing," says John Searles, the author of Help for the Haunted. "In fact, certain aspects of my recent novel were inspired by the gothic atmosphere of Yaddo.”
A Writers’ Workshop: Workshops usually offer both guidance from the leader, who is often a published author, and feedback from fellow writers who are in the workshop. Workshops typically last from six to 10 weeks and require that you attend in person, though you can find some online. There are hundreds of fine workshops all around the country, so you’ll have to do a little research to figure out which ones best suit your needs. You can often find a workshop or two that focuses on your genre. Do a general online search and check out writing.shawguides.com and newpages.com/writers-resources.A Writers’ Conference: If you are ready to try to find an agent; learn more about self-publishing, book distribution, and promotion; and meet other writers, bloggers, and editors from the Big Five publishers and independent presses, then try a writers’ conference or two. They often start off with a talk from a bestselling author and wrap up with an address from a major publishing executive. You can find a list of some of the most popular conferences at thewritelife.com.
A Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing: Hundreds of colleges and universities now offer this terminal graduate degree. Terminal sounds ominous, but it simply means that this is the highest degree awarded in the field of creative writing. These programs usually require a commitment of two to three years. Often, talented writers are able to get funding to help with costs. When checking out M.F.A. programs, consider the location, the cost and funding options, and the credentials and experience of the faculty. And, if you don’t have two or three years to invest full time in your writing, check out the many low-residency M.F.A. programs available online. They are often less expensive and usually require little to no time spent on campus. You can find lots of up-to-date information on M.F.A. programs at pw.org/toolsforwriters and awpwriter.org/guide, as well as in The Creative Writing M.F.A. Handbook by Tom Kealey and The Low-Residency M.F.A. Handbook by Lori A. May.
Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder of BookWorks.