May 31, 2018

residency re-imagined

I recently returned from round two of my four-week residency at the Carey Institute for Global Good. I was a Logan Non-fiction Fellow, working in the company of journalists, documentary filmmakers, and photojournalists on our respective longform projects addressing socio-political topics. It was a fantastic time, socially and for my book, and I was only able to do it because I asked the Carey folks to flex their structure for me. Normally stays there last between 4 and 10 weeks, and my life with three children doesn’t allow for that. So I asked Tom Jennings, the director, if he could help me create a structure that would work, and together, we did. Two weeks at the start of the session, the better to cement my relationships with others who would just be arriving, and then two weeks near the end of the session.

I’m reporting this in part to remind people who 1) do creative work and 2) have life ties and other constraints that—sometimes, more often than you think—you can ask for what you want. Having small children is just one of many situations that can keep us from getting some key support for our work: aging parents or other relatives in need of care; day job constraints; temporary or longterm health conditions among ourselves or loved ones. Each of these is a reality for many, many people. I am often easily inclined to forego applications for opportunities like this because they don’t on the surface seem to accommodate my life. But asking is always worth the effort.

It’s also worth reminding residency organizers of what may seem counterintuitive: that people like me can get a lot of work done in two weeks’ time. I think the inherited idea of a residency is that protracted, uninterrupted time is key for quality creative work—like, who can really get stuff done in two weeks?

Well—it depends on whose life we’re talking about. If you’re regularly a primary parent and have been so for years on end, then suddenly waking up to unscripted days, with someone else making the meals and cleaning them up? I’m telling you, two weeks is a luxurious amount of time. For those of us deep in the active parenting stage, the silence of a residency alone makes for mental space for ideas to weave themselves together, for unlikely connections to be made—the quality of that time is just invaluable for the process. Two weeks can be an enormously productive amount of energy and space. As Tom said to me in an exit interview: “It seems like your relationship to time is just—well—fundamentally different.” Right.

Not only that, but having parents and others with substantial work-life ties creates a positive heterogeneity among residencies as cultures. In my two sets of two weeks at the Carey, and over two weeks as a fellow at Yaddo, I had many conversations with younger artists about managing life and family, about choices and timing and finances. Those artists without significant ties need to see creative work being carried on in various stages of life. They have to see people making it happen even with constraints—perhaps even because of constraints. Both the residencies I attended were clearly doing the important work of diversifying their fellows across gender, sexuality, and race; this is as it should be, and the entire community is edified by those measures. But diversifying across age and stage is a relatively new concern—and I hardly need say that this is likely because the life ties at later ages and in busy stages most often affect creators who are women.

Happily, residencies finally seem to be coming around to this insight! In addition to Yaddo, the residency programs at MacDowell, Vermont Studio Center, Hedgebrook, and others now have two week minimums. The very exciting Sustainable Arts Foundation supports individual artists and co-sponsors specific residency programs for parents. And take a look at this Family Residency at Marble House in Vermont! What a beautiful innovation.

But there are other ways to think about short-term engagements inside standard structures that are longer. One is like what I just did, breaking up the time. Bringing a bit of attention and care to the design and a solid trust for the process made the whole engagement with the Carey Institute a successful one.

I’d like to see that creative approach brought to more extended engagements, not least because I’m the Principal Investigator for a series of programs on my campus that includes a residency. Our first application cycle included a strong signal that we would work with the right candidate on a creative solution about the timing, and we heard from a good number of people how grateful they were for that provision. There are lots of ways to think about altering the time of encounter over the course of an academic year, say, without a requirement to relocate: short, intensive bursts of time buffeted by virtual meetings; “flipped classroom” techniques where advanced students do more self-led work in between engagements; January courses, summer sessions, and more. There’s no substitute for what real-time engagements make possible, but actively designing the look and feel of time in a non-traditional residency is work that has hardly begun.

Coda: I’ll just add that my husband also works full time; we have no family in the area where we live. We depend so powerfully on our city subsidizing quality after-school programs that run all school year. They’re priced on a sliding scale that’s tied to income, and they’re available to all students. We couldn’t do our life without living in a community that assumes working parents as a default, and not just rich working parents. But this structural rarity in our country would take many more words to argue for here. Carry on, comrades.