Three Things About My Fellowship at Ragdale

I stayed here!

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was recently awarded a Creative Access Fellowship. This meant that I would take part in a monthlong residency at Ragdale House, located in gorgeous Lake Forest, Illinois.

I chose to go in January, because I am dumb.

Due to a family emergency, I needed to cut my trip shorter than expected. (Everything’s fine now.) I was sorry to leave, but at least my departure allowed me to be in New Jersey for the second half of the month—thereby avoiding a liquid nitrogen-like cold front that gripped the Midwest by its nether regions.

Here are three things I took away from my truncated residency.


Ragdale is Quiet

The great people who run Ragdale are singularly focused on making sure that the artists in residence can concentrate in silence. (Their efforts begin in the parking lot, where a sign admonishes anyone who might dare to speak above a whisper.) Ragdale is such a silent place, a writer can’t help but notice how loud he is.

I am a loud writer.

I have a habit of pounding the laptop keyboard as if it’s a manual typewriter.

I also talk to myself when I write.

I also tap on tabletops.

And sing.

And bounce in my chair.

And walk around.

And dance around.

I am a living, breathing fidget spinner—and the tomblike silence of Ragdale made me notice each and every of my writer tics for the first time. It was quite a wake up call.

I did my best to wrestle my many noises under control. I succeeded mostly. Except for the typing. I ardently believe that typing should always be noisy—and you will never convince me otherwise.


Residency Living is a Lifestyle

This was my very first residency. This made me unique. Almost all of the residents at Ragdale had done residencies before.

A few of them had been at Ragdale before.

One had been at Ragdale three times.

Another resident had been living the life of a nomad since August—hopping from one residency program to another without once stopping off at her permanent address.

People discussed common residency friends whom they met at different times in different residency programs in different states and (on occasion) different countries. It was a little surreal. I think this was the way hoboes conversed back in the 1930s:

Hobo 1: Oh, sure, I know Hobo Joe Junkpan! Last I saw ’em, he was in Seattle or thereabouts.

Hobo 2: Have you come across Fred ‘Bean Can’ Abernathy?

Hobo 1: Yep. He was restin’ his bindle in Santa Fe jes’ last week.

Hobo 2: Santa Fe! At the Old Promenade near Miss Mary’s?

Hobo 1 & Hobo 2: Where else?

[Hobo 1 and Hobo 2 share a long hearty, boozy laugh.]

This did not make any of the residents stuck up or cliquey. Not at all. Everyone was friendly and nice and funny and we all had a fantastic time trading stories over dinner. But the shared bonds of the residency lifestyle made me want to invent a phony residency, just to see if I could get away with it.

“I just finished up a residency in North Korea,” I’d say. “It was really secluded. Food wasn’t so great. Beatings were common. Come to think of it, I’ve might have been in prison.”


Lake Forest is Wealthy

I have never been to Lake Forest before. That means I had never seen Real Wealth before. I’m not talking about McMansion Wealth. I’m also not talking about I’m-A-Dentist-And-My-Wife-Is-A-Lawyer-And-We-Renovated-This-Charming-Old-Victorian Wealth.

No sir. I’m talking Charles Foster Kane Wealth.

Windsor Castle Wealth.

God-Almighty-Is-In-A-Lower-Tax-Bracket Wealth.

The wealth was stunning—and it took me a while to not feel like I should kneel down and start shining everyone’s shoes.

Even the Lake Forest public library oozed prosperity. The periodicals room—the Skid Row of most every library—had a fireplace as tall as me. And it had an actual fire merrily burning away! As I sat there in a wingback chair watching the fire and admiring the 18th century art on the walls, I thought: My library’s periodical room is peopled by old men in saggy sweatpants reading The New York Post.

In short, you should totally go to Lake Forest just to sit in the library. Every library in the country should be just like it. Let’s get on that, America!


There’s about a jillion more things I can say about Ragdale—all of them great. The food? Great! The comfy rooms? Great! The residents? Great! The incredible staff? Super great!

So if you can find a way to stay at Ragdale, do it!

Just not in January. Because that would be dumb.

60 Replies to “Three Things About My Fellowship at Ragdale”

  1. The startling contrast between Joe Junkpan and Charles Foster Kane seems like fabulous story fodder! What an interesting experience.

  2. Thanks for the laugh, Mike. My town library doesn’t even have a periodical’s room. I don’t think we even rate having periodicals at all. And I always figured you for a fidgeter. 🙂 Happy noisy writing.

  3. Sounds like culture shock. I’m a fidgety writer, too. And editor. Often work in a dozen increments of 15 minutes apiece, with intermittent pacing, letting animals in and out, doing dishes, feeding the birds, and running the vacuum cleaner. Not at all sure Ragdale would like my creative process! Did they, by chance, have birds to feed? At least a resident cat?

  4. Sounds like a fabulous place, Mike! And that library. Whoa! We do have a few Carnegie libraries in SF, but a fire??? OMG. Makes me think of the GRAND LODGES sprinkled about the West, the ones with walk-in fireplaces, carved wood beams, and stone everything. I, too, would feel self-conscious, listening to my fingers pound my MacAir keyboard as if there were cockroaches under the keys that needed killing. Especially when I whack the the delete key repeatedly with emPHAsis. I’m sorry you had to leave early, but I’m glad everything is now OK at home. Cheers to writing lotsa new books!

  5. Wow. Sounds like quite the experience. I’m glad you managed to miss the freezing cold there, but at least you could keep warm by the library fire. I think I would’ve felt too uncomfortable and out of place there. The fellowship would be fun, but I’d prefer a secluded cabin in the woods. Also, did you see Finding Forrester? Sean Connery insisted his young protege pound on the keys, so you’re all good there. 🙂

    1. I didn’t see Finding Forrester, but I just might have to now.

      My habit of pounding keys goes way back to my days as a manual typewriter fanatic.

      If the writing ain’t noisy, it just doesn’t feel like work!

  6. I like what you learned about yourself. Sounded like an interesting and exceptional experience! Sorry you had to leave, but the weather did get brutal. Yes, I want to hear the story about the escape from North Korea, which by the way doesn’t permit freedom of speech. You must have gotten very bored writing propaganda. 🙂

  7. Ragdale sounds amazing. I’m sorry that your trip was cut short.
    I’m not sure how I would handle the quiet. It would either make me or break me. There is never no sound where I live and sometimes I think it is going to drive me mad. Although, that ship may have already sailed. Thanks for sharing Ragdale with us.

  8. I will add Ragdale to my future list. Right now I am applying for a scholarship to study Shakespeare for two weeks in New York this summer. For now, I will continue to enjoy our local library which features a working fireplace in the periodicals corner, which also features great window light and lots of comfy chairs.

      1. Umm, yes. Momentary snits and snarks don’t count in the long run. BtW—we have been corresponding since 2012! I found an old blog post and there you were in comments.

      2. I’m goggled at how many followers you’ve accrued in the same amount of time. Green stamps are passé. What’s the secret—besides your stellar storytelling?

  9. It feels like it is STILL January! We had a teaser of warm weather a couple of times already and it was enough to fool thw flowers and trees.. all in bloom now. But we are “getting clobbered” again this ween with icy temps. Our pastor used that phrase yesterday and I thought it fit. I pray you see the end of winter soon…so sorry you will get clobbered again this week also 🥶😵

    1. Yep. we got hammered with some of the heaviest snow I ever had to shovel. I’m shot. (Once upon a time, I wrote a blog post about how much I enjoyed shoveling snow. I don’t know what I was thinking!)

  10. How in the world did you get a gig like that?

    In my younger years I applied for a cleaning position…it turned out to be an estate. We met in a library that was twice the size of the house I grew up in…carved paneling, etc. I passed on the job.

    1. How did I get it? Well, I subscribe to a lot of email lists that announce contests, grants, and fellowships. When I came across the Creative Access Fellowship, I thought I had a good shot. I was given a free fellowship and a pretty generous stipend.

      One can apply to Ragdale directly, but I believe that those who are accepted have to pay a (not unreasonable) fee to stay there.

  11. On my way to Ragdale on Monday–not January, but December! Just for four days, though–I wasn’t sure how I’d cope. Thanks for the blog post. I’ll remember not to sing in the parking lot.

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