Incognito Press

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On nourishing the best minds of our generation

Posted by E on July 22, 2010

Writer colonies, retreats, artist centres, whatever you call it, are intended to provide that all-too-elusive sense of belonging and recognition to writers who otherwise labour away in the seclusion of their own abodes and their own idiosyncracies and particular neuroticisms.
Coming up for a breath of fresh air, as in attending a colony and being able to create while at the same time surrounded by a whole bunch of other creative minds is invaluable. The colonies are more than just a place to eat, sleep and write — they might just lead to new friendships and new perspectives that can enhance our otherwise solitary work.

Luckily for US artists, the United States provides an abundance of colonies and fellowships one can apply for. Places that have been frequented by artists like Sylvia Plath, Truman Capote, Saul Bellow, Patricia Highsmith, Toni Morrison, etc. I could start rattling off the names of a whole lot of places, but that’s not the point of this post. The point is, for something like 30-50 bucks and the cost of mailing in a portfolio, you can apply to attend artistic residences where all your accommodations, meals and board, etc, are completely covered up to 8 weeks.

We in Canada are not so lucky. Although arts councils are there to provide much-needed support to artists as they work on their projects, they don’t fund colonies or retreats, at least none that I know of. And all the ones I’ve checked, including the famous Banff Centre for the Arts, charge a hefty thousand bucks for five days of accommodations and meals….which, to be frank, who can afford unless they already have a day job, and therefore not exactly a full-time writer to begin with?
I witnessed something odd at the Humber Summer Workshop I attended (on a scholarship, thankfully!) two Julys ago: most of the participants were made up of middle-aged professionals, otherwise-known-as weekend warriors. Not to generalize, but what I’ve observed is that often those who can afford those expensive workshops are the same people who hardly have the time necessary to complete a full-length work, quality notwithstanding.

It’s a damn shame that we can’t offer as many possibilities as the US and other European nations provide their artists. People here bitch and moan every time funding gets cut at the individual level, but sometimes I think that perhaps if there was a place we could escape to for just a little while, where we wouldn’t have to worry about distractions, finances, etc — that it might be as useful as a big-ass cheque. And equally inspiring. Not that I’d be willing to trade my OAC and CAC funding, thank you very much 🙂 but still…. wouldn’t it be wonderful if such a place existed?

I know, going to a writers’ colony for a month is no guarantee that you can produce something substantial, but then again, neither does getting a huge chunk of money insure that a writer is able to commit to the page. But having said all that, the only place that I’ve found which subsidizes Canadian writers is Berton House in the Yukon, but you have to already have published at least one book to go there. And, well, it’s quite desolate and not exactly large enough to accommodate more than one or two persons at a time.

Sadly, even though financial assistance might be provided to one or two people per program, overall it seems that Canadian writing centres seem more geared toward weekend-type writers with large bank accounts than toward the younger or less affluent people who could most benefit from an opportunity to allow their brilliance to shine through. And in the end, through this insidious practice of cultural and financial elitism, everyone suffers.

Oh, I know — writing programs are basically lucrative cash cows that keep MFA grads and other senior writers employed, but at what cost? By excluding the talented in favour of the rich (though if you’re both, you’ve hit the jackpot!), how exactly does our culture advance?

One of my biggest dreams is to someday own a place where people can come and work on their projects, a place where all costs would be absorbed, and the artist is free only to create. But until I sell a crapload of books and maybe close a movie deal or two, this will remain a wishful dream.

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3 Responses to “On nourishing the best minds of our generation”

  1. Abby said

    This is awesome. I think this is why us musicians have music festivals we can go stay at for 4 weeks just to compose/practice/learn new music and hang out with our fellow musicians.

  2. Elisa said

    Totally true. But music and performing arts are by nature such an extroverted meeting of minds, isn’t it? You guys are comfortable singing or playing around others because that’s the nature of your field. You can’t just work in a studio and call it a day.
    And being around other musicians can only enhance your creativity – either through sharing ideas or simply tapping into that sense of competition that pushes you to do your best…. I wish writers were less introverted and neurotic, but alas…. 😀

    • Abby said

      Except for pianists. Being a pianist is a lonely job… most of the time one actually does have to stay in a studio for hours and call it a day. We’re different from other musicians in that while we can accompany other musicians and play in orchestras, the majority of our practice times (8 hours?) is solitary and we work by ourselves. Probably why a lot of us pianists do tend to be introverted and neurotic, hehe.

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