The mathematicians are giving me funny looks. It’s dinner time at the Banff Centre for the Arts, and though there are forty of them at their assigned tables, there’s only one of me. Just me, at the arts table. It’s early in the evening, and most of the writers and musicians don’t roll in until seven, but I’m too hungry to wait for them. I’m eating alone, and it’s making the mathematicians nervous. But it’s okay, I want to say. Don’t worry, math guys. I’m a writer. I’m an artist. I’m supposed to be here.
The first rule of the Banff Centre is that it’s okay to call yourself an artist. Really. When you arrive, you head down to the basement of the Sally Borden building. You hand in a small yellow chit and sit down to have your picture taken. Then you’re handed a card with your name and a picture of you with a goofy, nervous smile, And, in capital letters? ARTIST. That’s you. You: the writer, now a Banff Centre artist. A writer in residence. Yup, you.
The Banff Centre for the Arts has been around since 1933, and their mission is single-minded and determined when it comes to you: inspiring creativity. It is home to programs in music, visual arts, dance, new media, and theatre. And literary arts. And while there are any number of workshops and programs for writers, one of the true jewels is the self-directed writing residency. It’s a writing residency where you—the artist—define the goals, the length of the program, and make it happen. No deadlines to meet, except your own. No editors to answer to. No workshop pieces to read and critique. It’s just you, a gigantic desk, and the mountains.
And sometimes a bunch of mathematicians.
The Banff Centre plays host to a number of conferences through the year as well as the Banff International Research Station (aka: the mathematicians). You’ll find that the non-arts people tend to look at the arts dinner table with interest. Sometimes a bit of fear. They’re not sure what to make of writers. Suddenly, you’ve become exotic and mysterious. Maybe for the first time in your life. And it’s a good, good feeling. Oh, yeah. I’m a writer, baby.
There’s something oddly familiar about the Banff Centre. You feel it the first time you arrive: a feeling that it’s okay if you dress a little differently or walk around with your nose in a book. There’s the sense that you’re where you should be—a welcome that says it’s okay. You’re all artists here. Go ahead and write something nice. That’s the second rule of the Banff Centre: you never have to explain why you write. You don’t need to justify why you’re there. Self-directed writers are assigned accommodation that includes their workspace. And when you answer the door in the morning, housekeeping will peer in, see the mess of papers and open laptop on the desk and then ask you if you’d like them to come back later.
This year marks my ninth self-directed writing experience, and I’m already booked for number ten. Each residency has been different from the last, and over time, I’ve come to see that the experiences of one aren’t necessarily to be duplicated in another. Some residencies have been incredibly productive. Some have yielded just a few, painful pages. But through them all has been that sense of belonging, of being in the right place. That you’re where you’re supposed to be.
You know that feeling?
I have a theory: that writers are often drawn from the gawky, quiet masses… the kids in high school who, like me, never were very good at track and field, and couldn’t throw a basketball to save their lives. They’re the kind of people who would rather sit and read a book on a sunny day, who carry notebook and pen around just in case. Who struggle to try to tell a story in the truest way possible, to craft a sentence in just the right way, and who submit short stories and poems with the air of an anxious parent watching a child crossing a ditch filled with alligators and then a busy highway. Writers are like that.
And that’s why, I think, it’s so important for writers to look to residency programs as an important part of a creative education—no matter how they approach the craft. There is something very special about having time to focus on something you love and need to do. Something great about talking to people who feel the same way you do about your writing. Something wonderful about going to a place where you don’t have to convince anybody—least of all yourself—that you are entitled to call yourself a writer. And if a residency program just happens to land in you on the side of a mountain in the Rockies, well, so much the better… even if it means a lot of steep hills to climb.
That’s the third rule about the Banff Centre: everything is uphill.
Everything. The campus sits on the side of Tunnel Mountain, just above the town of Banff, and there’s a clear view of Sulphur Mountain, Mount Rundle, Cascade Mountain, Mount Bourgeau in the Massive Range, and Mount Norquay—you never seem to be more than five steps away from a great picture-taking opportunity. The paths that wind through the campus tend to make everything a bit of a hike, and until you adjust to the altitude, you’ll find yourself a bit out of breath.
Artists stay in Lloyd Hall—a residence building that sits squarely in the middle of campus like an aging matron, watching all that’s going on around her. It’s attached to the Sally Borden building (great swimming pool and gym) and the Vistas Dining Centre. The meals? Oh, god, the meals. Breakfast: never-ending plates of bacon and waffles, cereals, bagels, fresh fruit. Lunch: the homemade ice cream. And dinner: fish, pasta, chocolate mousse. Meals are taken buffet style, with artists sitting together at communal tables. It can be a bit daunting to plunk yourself down with a bunch of strangers, but despite the initial awkwardness, it works. If you can convince the mathematicians to come over to the table—or if you just eavesdrop and listen in to their conversations—you might learn a thing or two about vertices and epsilons. If you sit with musicians, you’ll learn about compositions and instruments. Dancers talk a lot about their feet. Conceptual artists…well, nobody’s really sure what they’re talking about, but it’s bound to be interesting.
Self-directed residencies vary in length—minimum three days, though. Ideally, you’ll give yourself at least a week or two… time enough to settle in to a routine and really get down to work. You can spend all of that time in your studio space, working, or you can pack up and walk to the Paul D. Fleck Library, where the reading room can secretly double as a writing room. The Maclab Bistro is just downstairs from the library, and there you can offer up your artist card and get coffee and a snack.
The trick to a successful writing residency is to strike a balance between the buffet dinners and the inevitable trips to the town site for a little R&R. Turn off the cell phone, close down your email. Pull out the ID card and look at the ARTIST just above your name, and nod to yourself. Tell yourself that you don’t need to worry about whether you’re working on your first short story or a third novel. Settle in to your writing and enjoy it. Go for long walks and stop to listen to the sound of the wind in the trees. Decide that you’ve earned your place, that you’re where you’re supposed to be. Write, and write, and write… and then write some more. Write until your fingers hurt, and then go for another walk and look at the mountains.
Just watch out for the elk. And the mathematicians.
How to Get There: The Banff Centre for the Arts is located in Banff, Alberta. Out of towners fly into Calgary International Airport; airport shuttles depart regularly and offer direct service for about $50 (Canadian dollars) each way.
The Cost: Self-Directed Residencies run $56.70 (CAN) for private accommodation, which includes a work space. The meal plan is about $21 per day for the purchase of two full meals from the Vistas Dining Centre. Artists are offered a substantial discount on food; meal plans can be used to purchase snacks and coffee, too (though no booze—you’re on your own for that). Plan to add extra to your account if you eat three meals a day and like snacks (like me!). If you don’t, you’ll end up making the walk of shame to the Registrar’s Office to top up your meal plan (also like me!)
How to Apply: Applications are accepted year-round, with more details on their website, here. Fill out a form and then mail or email samples of your writing. Adjudication generally takes 4-6 weeks.
What to Bring: Your favourite pen, your laptop, a warm sweater, and a sense of conviction.
Best Times to Go: Late August/early September if you like it quiet, or March and February if you want to meet lots of writers and musicians…but there’s plenty of people to meet year-round!
Why You Should Go: Because the Banff Centre loves writers. A lot. And they’ll love you, too.
Heather Clitheroe works in a cubicle by day and writes by night. You can find her work at www.lectio.ca, and in such fine publications as Hobart, Awkward Two, and Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead. She dreams of returning to the Banff Centre for the writing. And for the waffles. Oh, yes. For the waffles…