Monday, March 31, 2008

Writers Residency: VSC or VCCA?

VSC: The Red Mill

As a writer, at some point of your writing career, you may find yourself tired of workshops, instead looking for a residency where you can write without distraction.

I am at Vermont Studio Center (VSC) right now. And I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) last summer. According to Jon Gregg, director of VSC, these two are the largest artist residencies in the US. At any given time, the average number of residents is 55 in VSC, twice as many as in VCCA, compared to the national average of 9.

There are some differences between the two residencies. VCCA, located in a ranch-like area of Virginia deep in the country, with horses and cows nibbling around, seems to operate in a more informal manner. There are no (advisory) visiting writers or artists, which helps to keep the overhead costs lower. In the application form, the suggested fee is $30 per day. Voluntary higher contributions are very welcome, of course, but you can also request a lower fee based on your financial situation. (I was awarded the Goldfarb nonfiction fellowship by VCCA last year, thus paid only a $50 deposit for a full two weeks of wonderful productive time.)

In comparison, VSC is an in-town site in northern Vermont, and its operation is

VCCA: on the path to studios
well organized and programmatic. Each month there are several visiting artists and writers, who give talks and one-to-one conferences with the residents. Thus, when applying, you have the choice of a month when your favorite authors visit. This is nice, however there is a catch. Except for the lucky few who receive full fellowships, for most residents the cost it a lot higher than VCCA. I received a partial scholarship and am paying for the balance, which amounts to $70 per day. The normal stay is one month, but because of the high cost I opted for two weeks instead.

Here at VSC writers are a minority compared with visual artists, with a ratio of 17:38 in the first two weeks of April. To my delight, our studios, in a new building named Maverick, are the envy of the visual artists. The building is only one year old and still smells of fresh paint, with windows facing the running Gihon River (I wonder why it isn't frozen). I like that we writers are all together in one office building, as it makes it much easier to have a writerly chat.

Both VCCA and VSC are open to international applicants. While I saw quite a few European artists but no Asians at VCCA, VSC seems to be the opposite in this respect.

One important thing to mention: both residencies provide great food. Again VSC is more programmatic in organizing meals. Last night when we lined up for our first dinner, the plates were filled by the kitchen staff instead of ourselves, and we were told "no seconds." In comparison, at VCCA, you get your meal in a buffet manner. This is easy on the residents, but might be harder for the chef to do quantity management. Last summer a change of chef at VCCA resulted in a few days of uneven food supply. On the other hand, to be as well-organized as VSC requires more kitchen staff and again increases overhead costs. There are pros and cons either way.

In conclusion, both VSC and VCCA are wonderful residencies where you can get writing done, yet you have a choice of organization style. Other things being equal, if you'd like an opportunity of exchange with established authors, and don't mind paying a bit more, go for VSC. If you just want to have your own time to write, and prefer an informal, self-governing rural setting, you'll probably enjoy the lower-cost residency (plus a nice trail in the woods) at VCCA more.

A friend once asked me what else I get from a residency. I find meal times a wonderful opportunity to network with other writers and artists. You sit with different people each meal, and you often can have fun and stimulating conversations. It is a real plus that you get out a writer's isolation once in a while.

Apart from VSC and VCCA, there are a number of no-cost and highly reputed residencies in New York State, such as Yaddo and MacDowell, for which you pay a small application fee but nothing else. However because of their limited capacity and high demand, those are much harder to get in. And you are only allowed to apply once per year. Those are my targets for next year.


Anonymous said...

This is interesting and helpful, Xujun. Thanks.

Pamela (alas, Blogger STILL isn't working for me!)

Xujun Eberlein said...

Blogger still doesn't work for you? Pamela, could you please email me the error message?

Maryanne Stahl said...

I am glad you're at VSC! What are you working on?

I dream of going to a retreat but never apply. You inspire me!

Xujun Eberlein said...

Thanks Maryanne! I'm working on a short story and also my memoir.

You should go to a residency. You'll enjoy it!