In this blog, London Writers Awards alum Christina Caré shares with us about her experience on a retreat in Finland, and includes some great top tips for those thinking of applying for this, or other residencies.
A residency veteran warned me: ‘People might not get it, when you explain this place to them.’
It sounded ominous, but time would prove it to be true.
The premise of my residency was simple: for one whole month, I’d live in a rural Finnish former-farmhouse, alongside 11 other residents, with time and space to work on my art. The residency is remote, requiring a 45-minute drive from the nearest large city (Tampere), which is itself an hour and a half north of the capital (Helsinki) by train. Once there, your new home faces onto a beautiful lake (complete with a rowboat for residents’ use), a sauna hut, and the forest. My residency took place in the summer, which meant an endless supply of fresh berries, plenty of lake swimming, and almost constant daylight. By the end of the month, we averaged around 3-4 hours of night. This meant that you could, at least initially, walk in the forest at all hours and still expect to see your way. The forest floor is mossy and soft – I often walked the trail barefoot. It is idyllic; any other word falls short.
Against this dreamy backdrop, however, there were a few more practical matters. The residency programme was not generic – they offer several themed retreats, and mine was ‘Back to Basics’. This referred to the fact that, on day 2, our phones were collected up and placed in a box for safekeeping. The internet was switched off. We were going back to the basics of art-making – our own imagination, our own thoughts, our own feelings, within our natural setting. Many people I know responded with nervous laughter when I explained this premise. ‘Sounds like you’re going to join a cult,’ was a common reply. Perhaps. I really wasn’t sure what to expect.
And while I understand the nervousness my loved ones felt for me, I can safely say all of it was unfounded. I have never felt more at ease within my body, my emotions, or my creative practice, as I did in the middle of nowhere in Finland.
Why do this?
The real question is: ‘What do you need?’ For me, time has always been an issue – not having enough time was always a top tier obstacle preventing my draft from ticking over into completion. But there are numerous benefits to a residency like this one, not least time, space and a chance to heal and reset.
A big part of this stemmed from the diversity of participants living alongside me – I was the only writer resident in July, the rest working in a variety of other media, from all parts of the world and across age groups. The opportunity to expand my process, to learn from other disciplines, was irreplaceable. For me, the big takeaway question was: What else could my process be about? My eyes were opened to many new ways of thinking and working. Beyond finishing a draft (which was of course a huge achievement for me), I gained perspective on what it is I’m actually doing in my work, and what it is that keeps me going for the long haul. That is knowledge that you have to live. It can’t really be taught.
What are the challenges?
It wasn’t all sunshine and sauna. After all, when is the last time you went a whole day, let alone a whole month, with no mobile phone? Most people check their phone every few minutes. It is a challenge to get reacquainted with your own inner monologue without this distraction. It can be emotional. The ‘detox’ takes a few days, but rest assured, you’ll notice the benefits quickly.
Living with strangers can be a challenge too. But it’s important to note that the team at Arteles do some very clever ‘matchmaking’ between residents and rooms. I indicated a willingness to work communally, and yet, being highly introverted, a need for quiet privacy. As a result, my room featured a large window looking directly onto the forest and its many hummingbird nests, at the quietest end of the house (furthest from the kitchen). It was small, but I also had a desk in the studio. I could move from seat to seat depending on my mood, which suited me. For me, this perceived challenge turned out to be not really a challenge at all. I hope that reassures other introverts reading this.
And if you’re worried about ‘forced fun’, let me put you at ease: every activity is optional at Arteles, except for the very first check in. After that, you can participate (or not) as you see fit. The time is for you.
Any advice for applying?
Be honest about your preferences. The application form asks you about things like introversion and preferred working styles. Be true to yourself.
Articulate how this experience specifically would inform your work. It’s a unique residency, so highlight how this unique set of circumstances could play a role for you.
Consider what else you bring to the table. Any other special skills or interests could make you a more interesting candidate.
Ask for financial help if you need it. There are some supported places. Ask for one if you need it.
Don’t be afraid to ask the team questions. Be patient; they may take a little while to get back to you but they will happily answer your questions!
Finally, was it worth it?
Absolutely. There’s no nice way to say this: your phone is likely making you numb, anxious, or unhappy. Being without the device for a solid month rewired my brain. The environment at Arteles is safe, and so the body invariably softens, and thinking starts to become clearer as time goes on. Of course, boredom comes in too – alongside all the other feelings you’ve potentially been ignoring until now. I recommend bringing a blank journal and a willingness to face the music.
I learned a lot. In particular, I realised just how easy it is to start thinking that your process is somehow more important than your basic health – as if your creative life will save your actual life, and that as long as you keep on writing, you’re doing the right thing. This is upside down. My process will keep on growing and changing, as I keep doing this work. But only if I’m feeling healthy and well.
Every attempt to explain my residency at the Arteles Creative Center in Finland falls short of what it really was. And equally, what I say here should not limit what it could be for you. Coming home, several people commented that I was calmer, happier, and more zen than I’d been in a while. It probably still sounds like I joined a Finnish cult for a month, and to be honest, if so, I don’t care. It worked. I am indeed calmer and happier, and ready for the next draft.
Christina Carè is an Australian writer living in London. Overly curious, she studied Architecture, Art History and Philosophy before finally leaning into her passion for fiction. She interviewed actors for Spotlight, turned data into compelling stories at Google, and has edited for the F-Word feminist collective. She was selected for an Arteles Artistic Residency 2023 and was first runner up for the Evening Standard Short Story Competition 2022. Her short fiction was published in the Bedford Square Anthology 2023, City of Stories Anthology 2022, and the Mechanics Institute Review 2021. Previously, she was a London Writers Awardee 2019, and was mentored by author Kirsty Logan. She is working on her debut novel.
Published 12 September 2023