How To Refine Your Residency Application (+ September opps)
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Hope you're taking care! This month, I've got a really special interview with author Emi Nietfield. I saw Emi's thread on Twitter about reading applications for residencies, and the tips she recommends based on that experience. I really wanted to chat with her about the thread and her own writing journey. I will say that these tips also apply to mediums outside of writing!
Emi's memoir "Acceptance" follows her journey as a homeless teenager "convinced that the Ivy League was the only escape from her dysfunctional childhood." From the book summary: "Both a chronicle of the American Dream and an indictment of it, this searing debut exposes the price of trading a troubled past for the promise of a bright future."
In 2019, she quit her job at Google, then got accepted to Hedgebrook. In 2021, she headed to the Blue Mountain Center residency to do final edits on "Acceptance." Here's our chat!
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
ER: One thing you mentioned in your Twitter thread was to really try and capture someone’s attention in your application quickly because they’re going through so much material.
EN: Exactly. For some of the applications, it would’ve been great for me to read just a short, self-contained piece rather than the first 20 pages of the a novel that’s still very much in progress. I had project descriptions of what people wanted to work on, and I had writing samples. For the writing samples I was really curious about things like, “What is this person like as a writer? What is their voice like? How do they tell stories?”
Having polished first pages for a novel or a book — that’s so hard, right? It’s only at the end that people really have that super polished. It definitely changed the way that I will be crafting my residency applications in the future.
ER: Your Twitter thread also mentions that, when possible, you should really hone in on explaining why you're applying to THIS residency specifically.
EN: Every organization is trying to maximize their impact. Part of that is picking out the people that they can specifically help the most. If it’s just a random residency to you as an artist, you’re probably going to be less engaged in the future, less likely to give back and connect with alums, than if you’re like, “This was the residency that gave me a new outlook on my work.”
ER: It’s a long-term thing, too.
EN: Yeah, definitely. I’ve done two residencies and connecting with people there and staying in touch after has been one of the biggest gifts — that community.
Emi at Hedgebrook!
ER: Can I ask if you don’t mind: When you did the second residency, were you working at that time as well? Or were you in between jobs?
EN: I had been working full-time and I saved up all of my vacation days to try to go the residency. But I ended up quitting that job before the residency. I wish I’d taken those vacation days! Honestly, I think that if I had saved up all the vacation days, it would’ve been worth it. But it definitely added a ton of stress to my life… I don’t recommend that part. But luckily a lot of residencies have options of one week or two weeks.
ER: With memoir writing, it’s often a lot of intense themes and self-reflection. Did the space of the residency help you do that?
EN: The residency last summer at the Blue Mountain Center, where I was doing the final edits of the book, was extremely helpful for me to be in that different environment in terms of letting go. I was in this completely different space than I had written the book in, and it made it possible to be like, “Okay, this is it.”
ER: I’m thinking about different mediums and how you always have to be submitting and applying to things as a visual artist, too.
EN: The Blue Mountain Center is writing, visual artists and activists. Some of the people there have been on committees for visual arts and they said what was really important was that the work people submitted looked good being projected on a projector for like, ten seconds.
ER: Wow, interesting.
EN: Yeah, they were like “this is not the time for subtlety.” And for writing, I would totally agree with that.
ER: I like to be transparent about rejections. Can you share some of yours?
EN: I’ve been rejected by the Andersen Center, Yaddo, The Vermont Studio Center, MacDowell. My thing was “I’m going to submit to 5 or 10 residencies, hoping to get one.” That was my strategy and it worked for me.
ER: Anything else you’d like to share with subscribers?
EN: I started writing this memoir, “Acceptance,” in 2015, shortly after I graduated from college. I studied computer science; I took one creative writing class but I didn’t have a writing network at all. In the process of trying to edit the book and get it published, finding community was a really cool thing. I wish I’d applied to residencies sooner — both to have time and space to work on it, but also as a way to build community.
I also was really afraid of the recommendation part. A lot of residencies ask for a recommender and I’m like “I don’t have a grad school advisor, I don’t have a network of writing people.” Once, I wrote a recommendation letter for somebody in my writing group — and she got in. I’ve also occasionally given out my manager at work to be like, “Emi, is a team player and she’s good in community.”
I don’t know about MacDowell or Yaddo or the really prestigious ones, but from what I’ve heard and seen, those references are really more to make sure there’s not red flags with that person.
I would hate to see people not apply because they don’t have those connections. And I hope that the places running residencies can update their applications and their materials to make it more accessible — to clarify what you need or don’t need.
Thank you for your time, Emi!
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