Writing Residency Don’ts

Writers, it’s still residency-application season! ICYMI, last month, I assembled some truly inspired must-do suggestions for tackling your packet, from people who have read them by the hundreds. If you missed it, catch up here.

This month, let’s go over a few of the most common residency-application mistakes.

No. 1? No Virginia Woolf.

“Whatever you do, don’t mention Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Her Own,” says poet Susan Rich, who read applications for the Hedgebrook residency a few years back.  

Continue reading “Writing Residency Don’ts”

Writing Residency Do’s

Last week, one of my students got accepted to a writers’ residency, and man, is she psyched.

She’s already started packing; she’s organizing the research she’ll take; and she’s daydreaming of the bucolic countryside where she will focus on nothing but her story for a month.

Even before she leaves, this residency has been a gift.

My friends, this is a joy I want for you all.

Now is the season when many residencies and labs open to applications, so if you’ve ever dreamed about going away to just write for a week, or two, or four, it’s time to get moving.

Residency applications are a genre of their own, so I’ve pulled together advice for you from writers who have both been accepted to residencies, and read applications to them.

There’s so much great wisdom out there, I’m breaking this into two parts. Next month, we’ll talk about the don’ts. Right now, let’s talk about the must-do’s.

Most importantly, prioritize your writing sample—usually 10 to 20 pages of your best work. You want to submit the most polished, most fluid, most compelling piece in your portfolio.

This is where many writers contract a terminal case of the “shoulds.”

I should include 10 pages from my novel in progress, even if my short story about cheese is finished and fabulous.

I should send in something with more gunfire and explosions, even though I’m writing a pilot about lovelorn booksellers.

I should send in unpublished work, even if I’m proudest of this essay I published last year.

When your brain says “I should,” ask yourself: What is my strongest piece, right now? That one. Use that one.

Another “Do” comes from Gotham teacher Shahnaz Habib, who recently told my memoir class to seize every opportunity to talk about your cultural identity in your personal or artist statement.

“Regardless of whether you think you have a culture, you do have a culture, you do have influences, you do have a certain paradigm within which you’re writing,” Shahnaz said. “So I really appreciated writers who gave really focused answers to those questions.”

Recently, after reading a few hundred residency applications, memoirist Emi Nietfeld published some suggestions, including:

  • It’s rewarding to discover an early-stage writer who’s put in the work…so apply before you feel ready.
  • Give a concrete goal for the residency that could not get done at home on the sofa.
  • Go ahead and send a video trailer for your book or link to a multimedia project. It was a welcome break!

Next month, we’ll dig into the common mistakes, misconceptions, and pitfalls in residency applications. Til then, I’ve got one last “do” for you: Start yours—now!


Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

How Teaching Writing for Gotham Helped Me to Stop Apologizing

On Wednesday, January 16th 2019, I walked into my first ever Gotham class. Well, technically it was my second—I’d been a Gotham student ten years earlier. This time, however, I would be the teacher.

I had never taught writing before. So facing this room of writers, some new to the craft, some not-so-new, the intimidation I felt was real.

But, I figured, I’d had a lot of other teachers over the years. So really, how hard could this be? Plus, I’d written a lot of books. Nine to be exact. I had most recently published a memoir. And anyway, If Snape from Harry Potter and Miss Minchin from The Little Princess could get away with it, so could I. Right? Right?!?

When I was a Gotham student, my instructor was author and teacher Alex Mindt. He offered up both wisdom and kindness in equal measure. His goal was to motivate us to write. He understood that writing more made better writers. I wanted to do that too.

One of the students in that first class was already my friend, Josie Rubio. On the subway ride home after the first class, Josie insisted I had done a good job. “Although, you might have apologized too much,” she said.

I measured her face to gauge how honest she was being. Josie wanted the class to be worth her time: She was dying of cancer, and every moment she had left mattered.

The truth was, I was already a fan of Gotham’s instructional method—positive reinforcement; building tools for reading critically; gentle guidance toward better practice; and most importantly building a writing community. Truth be told, I had been trying to get them to hire me for years.

Right then, I vowed internally to offer Josie, not just an opportunity to get better at writing, but ten three-hour classes that would not waste a single minute of the hours she had left.  

The first few weeks of class felt like a whirlwind. Then it was Josie’s turn to submit work for the Booth. She turned in a piece about her long-term relationship ending the same week she was given a terminal diagnosis.

“What kind of monster takes all the dental floss with him when he moves?!” Josie wrote, with her unparalleled ability to voice vibrant humor in the face of excruciating pain.

As we began Josie’s Booth, we all struggled to keep our emotions in check. The material was heartbreaking. We had all come face to face with the understanding that this vigorous, beautiful human, was dying. That’s when something magical happened: One of the students broke out a bag full of dental floss and passed it around the room. When it landed in Josie’s hands, her smile was genuine. Everyone laughed and clapped. In that moment, I knew that this class was going to exceed every one of my hopes and expectations. 

The essay Josie submitted for her first Booth, later became her piece Dating While Dying, published in the New York Times. It went viral. Several more writers from that class later also published in the Times, then after that, in one of their anthologies. 

After Josie’s death in December 2019, her Gotham classmates came together to organize twenty scholarships for Gotham Writers Workshop courses in Josie Rubio’s name.

This year, in 2022, they are planning to do it again.

The members of my first class at Gotham have achieved so much more than I could have hoped for them. But who could have guessed that I would have been the one to learn the most?

Please submit one paragraph of up to 100 words in a format similar to The New York Times Tiny Love Stories–by April 1st. Winners will be announced by May 15th.

Send submissions to the Josie Rubio Scholarship Committee at  josierubioscholarship@gmail.com