How a Writing Residency Helped This Woman Return to Her Craft

How a Writing Residency Helped This Woman Return to Her Craft

I arrived at Rivendell Writers’ Colony for the first time one November weekend just as the sun was setting.

Signs along the long, winding gravel drive warned of a seven mile-per-hour speed limit. Apparently, I was on Rivendell time now. From the final bend in the driveway, a 7,000-square-foot, three-story sandstone manor appeared. Set on the edge of a cliff, views of southeast Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau extended in almost every direction.

I’d never heard of a writer’s residency before 2014.

The literary world was foreign to me at that time, abandoned as soon as I’d graduated college. I was working in healthcare marketing, promoting outpatient surgical solutions for incontinence. Based in Nashville, I traveled the country meeting with urologists, OBGYNs and colorectal surgeons touting the benefits of an implant (“the size of a Peppermint Patty!”) proven to eliminate certain kinds of incontinence. I was 28 and at a professional crossroads.

Returning to the writing life

In the years I worked in marketing and public relations, I wrote a lot. Press releases, social media posts, email campaigns and oh my, the project status updates. But an essay? A poem? Absolutely not.

The only thing creative about my writing was trying to make something I’d said a thousand times before sound like something I was saying for the first time.

Motivated to expand my creative writing horizons, I reconnected with my high school creative writing teacher the summer of my 29th birthday. I told him I would sign up for the poetry workshop he was leading the following weekend. I didn’t end up writing anything worth remembering, but I wrote. I didn’t die. I didn’t even leave at the break.

St. Louis, Chicago, all of Florida — I was racking up miles and spreading the incontinence solution gospel. I’d hammer out a blog post once a week on a blog I’d started that September, but that was about the extent of my writing. I knew how to write to sell, but could I move from incontinence into introspection? Bladder control into a body of work?

When an email arrived later that summer from The Porch Writers’ Collective, the non-profit writing organization in Nashville that hosted the poetry workshop, I opened it, hopeful some new class or workshop would speak to me.

They were holding a weekend writing retreat at Rivendell in November. Unfamiliar with writers’ residencies and curious to learn more, I checked out the website. Best I could tell it was a place where writers far beyond my skill level went to write in peace.

It seemed at once both overly self-indulgent and like something I had to try. Nervous, but bolstered by my commitment to try something new, I signed up.

Coming home to a place I’d never been

I was easily the most novice writer in our group of ten. One attendee was an accomplished young adult fiction author working on her latest manuscript, another a prolific poet writing a memoir.

I felt like I’d snuck in with my blog posts and journal entries.

That first night, the then-managing editor of the Sewanee Review, Leigh Anne Couch, stopped in to read from her latest collection of poetry. A fire blazed and I sipped hot tea while marveling that an entire world I knew nothing about — Sewanee, residencies, literary quarterlies — existed just an hour and a half from my home in Nashville. I went to bed that night in the Flannery O’Connor room, two twin beds pressed against opposite walls (the way I think O’Connor would have liked it), intimidated but grateful.

If I’d snuck in, I was going to enjoy it.

In the morning I flipped through the Sewanee Review and read Wendell Berry for the first time. His words — and this place — felt familiar, like a home I was returning to after a long time away.

I joined in the craft talks, even shared a short piece I’d never allow to see the light of day today. I walked around the expansive property enjoying the company of my fellow retreaters and the sound of my boots on dry leaves.

Rivendell had a way of pulling you in, as if the house and grounds were rising up to meet you, were making space for you to join in its history and its magic.

I certainly had nothing to compare it to but Rivendell did feel different. That intimidation of the first night was replaced with the feeling that not only was it okay for me to be here but that I was actually supposed to be here.

Driving down the mountain the next day, headed towards home, I knew my incontinence marketing days were numbered.

writing residencies

Leaving the corporate world

Over the next few months, I doubled down on the writing life.

Nights in hotel rooms and layovers in airports were spent reading, writing and preparing my application for an MFA program at the University of the South in Sewanee. The company I worked for was sold and while my job wasn’t in jeopardy, I didn’t see myself as part of the new company’s future. During a work dinner in Florida I received an email that I’d been accepted to the MFA program. I stepped outside, called my best friend, then emailed Rivendell begging for a room.

Just before classes started in June 2015, I quit my job. What would come next, I had no idea, but it was time to go.

I stayed at Rivendell for eight weeks that summer. In the mornings I read by the pond while herons, patient and stoic, waited for breakfast to swim by. I wrote on the back porch at dusk and observed a mother skunk and her babies trot across the lawn. Deer grazed along the cliff’s edge and bullfrogs trumpeted their virility with deafening urgency. I breathed differently here. I heard differently here. I wrote differently here. I didn’t want it to end.

As the eight weeks came to a close and with only a rough outline for beginning my new life writing, I hammered out a plan for me to also put my skills to use for Rivendell. I needed to pay my bills, but I also wanted to share the Rivendell experience with others. I’d experienced something life changing. How could I keep that to myself?

In 10 months I had gone from unlikely retreat attendee, to student and writer-in-residence, to part-time something-or-other (we’ve never landed on a title).

Today, now over two years since my first visit to Rivendell, I get to be part of a place that values potential as much as publication, that offers community but never forces it. A place that insists on honoring the vocational nature of the writing life.

A place where people feel like they are returning home.

Have you ever attended a writing residency? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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16 comments

  • Very inspiring piece, Kate. “Coming home to a place you’ve never been,” puts it so well about the inspiration of forging new paths in a new arena, one of the best benefits of finding yourself in the right place, at the right time.

    Being a part of a community is always great for both emerging and established writers. Genius germinates in groups – and fortunately there’s an abundance of Writers Retreats & Residences for every taste and budget. http://www.WriteAwayEurope.com offers Creative Writing Retreats in Captivating Locales in Europe (Greece, Italy, France, Spain & Czech Republic), led by published writers and publishing professionals, ranging from 1-3 weeks and regularly also offers regular merit-based Fellowship Awards. Writing is a journey – enjoy the scenery!

  • I have been privileged, honored to be the writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac Project in Orlando, living and working in his home, a small cottage in College Park, for three months. It was the most important time in the writing life. It was totally devoted to my writing for 90 days –what a blessing. A few years later I was named the WIR at the Hemingway House in Oak Park, Illinois — his birthplace — working in his home. I’ve been so honored by these appointments, allowing me to start, rework, and finish manuscripts in inspiring atmospheres and with focus. This weekend I’m giving a presentation at a writers group about residencies and the great possibilities they afford — the appointed ones, the paid for ones, or the ones a writer can create on their own. Apply, go, savor them. They can rebalance, refocus, and start anew.

  • When I left church ministry and started putting my Master of Divinity to work as an editor of spiritual books, I found that almost any subject matter has the potential to be spiritual (yes, even “spreading the incontinence solution gospel”), in part because writing is in itself a spiritual exercise, the writing life is a spirituality, and the discovery of an identity as a writer is a spiritual journey worthy of a lifetime. The subject matter that for one person is mere copy, churned out for a paycheck, for another is an expression of ultimate meaning, the very substance of a writer’s soul.

    I would encourage anyone who feels inspired by Kate’s story to take some step on his or her own spiritual journey into the writing life. For some, it may take the form of a degree, a career change, or a writing residency. For others, perhaps the step will be smaller but no less important: starting a blog or a private journal, or setting aside time to write for a few minutes every day.

    Remember, even the longest journey begins with a single step. Why not take that step today?

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Freelance Editorial Services, Retreats, and Writer’s Resources
    epiclesisconsulting.com

  • William Laws says:

    Beautifully written, Kate. Like your pre-retreat self, I survive by writing marketing and PR blather. There are not many days when I feel proud of what I’ve written. My ambition to write fiction is constantly sidelined by family and work responsibilities – but if I’m honest, I’m more constrained by procrastination and fear of failure.

    • Kate Parrish says:

      Thank you for reading, William. Keep going, keep going, don’t stop!!

    • Halina says:

      Hi William, I wonder if there would be a good online resource for “online writers in residence?” Like a Facebook group, or an online forum? It’s not quite like sitting down in an isolated location to just write uninterrupted for 30, 60 or 90 days…but it’s a start.

      • One good choice might be joining an online accountability group. I have a group that starts on the first of every month at LearningBinge.com. The enrollment fee is very budget-friendly (basically the price of a latte a month), and the required introductory course is free, so you can get a sense of whether it’s the kind of discipline you would find helpful before you commit for a whole month.

        Trish O’Connor
        Epiclesis Consulting LLC
        Editorial Services and Writers’ Resources
        epiclesisconsulting.com

        • Halina says:

          Hello back Trish! Thank you for this recommendation! Full disclosure here: I am currently writing my novel and actually have no issue with accountability. Rather, I am hoping to meet group members who can read and critique my tome-in-the-making. I thought that signing up with Inkitt, Wattpad and certain FB groups would do the trick…but it’s been fairly lonely. Would this accountability group offer feedback?

          • Mutual feedback is a big part of what this group would offer, but that sharing and feedback would mostly be focused on short timed passages or “sketches” written in response to a creative prompt, with all group members writing on the same prompt each day.

            You might find it more useful between projects, or during stages when you decide to put aside the novel for a while to let it “incubate” and want to keep in the habit of writing every day in the meantime. One advantage is that the commitment is one month at a time rather than long-term; there’s nothing wrong with joining when it fits into your writing schedule and dropping out for a month or two when you need to spend that energy on a project. You may want to take the free introductory course so that you would be ready to register in the next group whenever you decide to be involved.

            Down the road, I might consider offering a separate group for people who are continuously active with specific projects during the month and prefer to share their current projects rather than daily sketches, if eventually there is a critical mass of students requesting it.

            I wish you success with the novel!

            Trish

  • Wow. Great, inspiring post.

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