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Jan Carson: a writer's tips for residencies

Author Jan Carson shares her insights and tips for making the most of a writer in residence position

Language: English
Age group: Adults
Audience: Professionals

Last updated: 06 June 2022

Over the years I’ve had quite a few, mostly positive, experiences of writing residencies. These included an Irish Writers’ Centre residency on the trains of Ireland, a month’s residency in Cove Park and a fantastic stint as Open Book’s Writer in Lockdown 2020.

Writing residencies have helped me to expand my portfolio, developing new skills in and building upon existing ones. They’ve inspired me to create new work in response to situations and resources I wouldn’t have accessed otherwise and allowed me to meet countless other artists. They’ve increased my presence as a working writer, often attracting further work.

I’ve also learnt enormous amounts about how to collaborate with community groups and umbrella organisations ensuring expectations are met, funders happy and all necessary paperwork completed without detracting from the creative experience. Residencies can often be a juggling act, attempting to meet a range of differing expectations whilst retaining artistic enthusiasm.

I’ve learnt that early and ongoing communication is the key to a residency’s success. As an artist, it’s useful to know from the start what the commissioning organisation hope to achieve from a residency. It must be clear from the outset how much of the residency will focus upon supporting the artist’s personal practice and how much meeting pre-established, immovable goals. I’ve been somewhat frustrated by residencies where there were so many fixed outcomes placed upon me, I had no room to experiment or develop my own ideas.

I’ve learnt it’s best to establish anticipated outcomes from the start (e.g. a pamphlet, exhibition or celebratory reading). Extremely open-ended residencies can lead to organisations feeling disappointed by the final product and artists frustrated by the experience. Outcomes should never be forced upon an artist, but rather decided upon in an early conversation so the artist’s ideas and previous experiences can help to shape a realistic and exciting outcome. When working with organisations which have limited experience of the arts its worth clarifying terms to ensure everyone understands what’s been agreed. A certain degree of flexibility is also necessary. It’s often impossible to tell how a project will need to morph and develop until it’s underway.

It’s important to know from the outset how hands on an organisation is intending to be. It’s encouraging to have someone make contact from time to time, and there should be a clear and ongoing channel of communication so the artist can raise concerns or ask questions, but they shouldn’t feel constantly monitored during a residency.

Organisations often forget to factor in PR and social media engagement around residencies. A discussion clarifying whether the artist is comfortable with PR etc. and how much time can reasonably be allocated to it should be conducted before the residency begins. Finally, most artists will appreciate some kind of lasting testament to their residency. This could be a residency profile on a website, a testimonial from the organisation or listing alongside other resident artists. Such accolades don’t just make an artist feel appreciated. They’re incredibly useful when applying for future bursaries and residencies.

This article was commissioned as part of our digital events training for authors(this link will open in a new window) Industy Lab. Find out more about our Industry Labs or check out the companion article from Open Book(this link will open in a new window) for tips for organisers.