How to be old—we're all learning

What I gained from being writer in residence at Seoul Art Space Yeonhui

One of four buildings at Seoul Art Space Yeonhui.

It’s time to sum up my experience in Seoul in one small report. My last day in Yeonhui as writer-in-residence was 27 September 2018, and I will always remember my time there with gratitude and affection.

For almost four weeks I lived alongside other writers. Our accommodation was simple, comfortable, quiet, and self-contained, apart from a shared kitchen and laundry, a small gym and a library where people could gather. Four brick buildings, each containing four or five small apartments, stand on a landscaped slope studded with dramatic pine trees. We were responsible for finding our own food, and what fun that was: in this quaint and classy suburb are many cafes and restaurants within walking distance, plus takeaway outlets and a splendid supermarket.

The situation was ideal for sustained work. I had enough solitude to write plenty, and enough company to feel human. We didn’t have any obligations to teach or even do a reading. I made friends with a few of the other writers, which was wonderful, but most of us just hid away and worked.

How is it possible to concentrate and be productive while staying in an exciting foreign city with endless attractions on our doorstep? Well, writers write, that’s what we do, and so we relish this opportunity.

As for me, I wrote a good bunch of poems, mostly in early drafts but a few that I’m quietly pleased with already. I also did some sightseeing, some socialising, and lots of walking around the neighbourhood. Most valuable of all, I got a clear plan for my next few years as a writer.

Many people assume that such an appointment inspires a writer directly with new sights, sounds, and experiences, which then become subject matter, things that we will write about. However, for me the chief benefit lay in temporarily extracting myself from my normal life. I carried on with the same work as before, but everything else was new — place, people, language, routine, tasks, obligations, weather, food — everything. My personal slate was wiped clean for a few weeks, and that enabled me to see the bigger picture. That was exceptionally useful. So for once I had a ready answer when a reporter asked me, “What are your goals and your life plans?”

In short, I left Seoul with renewed energy, excited by my plans for the coming years.

An artist’s residency that is both founded and fully funded by government is rare. This residency is one of (at least) nine managed by The Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture (SFAC). SFAC is a non-profit public organization established and funded by the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG). The success of the Yeonhui residency alone shows how highly the government of this vibrant city values the arts.

You can see that I have multiple reasons for thanking the staff of Seoul Art Space Yeonhui. They were warm and efficient, and I often had a companion for lunch. (Missing you, Junghee!) Because of their support, my stay went smoothly and I felt safe at all times.

For any writer contemplating this particular adventure, I recommend it without reservation.

Entrance to the library and social area at Seoul Art Space Yeonhui