Any writer who has applied for a residency at a writer’s colony knows the process is expensive, time-consuming and competitive, not to mention fairly inflexible, schedully speaking.
So it might surprise some readers that I’ve had writing retreats in Mozambique, Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Hanoi, Osaka, Kuala Lumpur and Ajijic, Mexico.
How? I housesit! In exchange for caring for vacationing homeowners’ pets and houses, I live expense-free in a locale free from my daily distractions.
A part of the gig economy, housesitting is an exchange where petowners engage a housesitter to care for their home and pets while they are away. Typically, homeowners cover all the household and pet care expenses while the housesitter enjoys the home and surroundings for free. Although some housesitters are paid, usually it’s a quid pro quo and no money exchanges hands.
Housesitters come in all shapes and sizes: Singles, couples, families, young adults, retirees, fulltimers like me, others who sit periodically during their holidays. But homeowners love writers. We’re seen as homebodies who will consider sharing a credit with the kitty sauntering across our keyboards or who will take frequent ball-throwing breaks in the backyard.
Virginia Woolf’s famous “room of her own” advice to writers is realized exponentially by writers who housesit. There’s something about being in other people’s spaces that frees one’s mind from routine distractions. That overstuffed closet isn’t mine to cull. The freezer’s not mine to defrost. I didn’t bring my overdue thank-you notes and I can explore new coffee shops without the interruption of the chatter with my favorite barista.
But housesits do more than give me free digs, they inspire new story ideas from the community I’m “living” in. While housesitting in Berlin, for example, I spent a day interviewing newly arrived Syrian refugees. Two years later, at the same housesit, I took a Refugees Voices Tour that connected my initial encounters with the ongoing struggle refugees endure. Both of the (paid) columns I wrote about these experiences appeared in a west Los Angeles newspaper.
Housesitting also enables me to research stories in places I wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford. A housesit in Osaka, Japan, allowed me the freedom to travel to Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the 70th commemorations of the atomic bombings. I interviewed hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) and met expats who dedicated their art to raising awareness of the devastating legacy caused by the bombs… inspiring another couple of paid newspaper columns!
My advice to any writer hoping to create a perfect writing retreat? Pick a housesit where the routine of the household is unstructured. Part of the appeal of a writing retreat is to be free of schedules, so avoid the household where Fido needs to be walked at 7:00 am and 6:00 pm and Fluffy is the wake-up call for her 6:30 Fancy Feast feeding.
In fact, housesitting has been such a gift to my writing that I’ve recently published How to Become A Housesitter: Insider Tips from the HouseSit Diva, written, of course, while I was housesitting!
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When not creating her next “room of her own,” Kelly Hayes-Raitt writes about her experiences in the Middle East with refugees. She’s just published How to Become a Housesitter: Insider Tips from the HouseSit Diva and blogs at www.HouseSitDiva.com.