Postcard from NCI: A Writer’s Residency, Week One
Hi friends –
Some of you know my Thanksgiving falls at the end of September. Fishermen’s Thanksgiving, where we celebrate a safe and successful season. The fourth Thursday of November doesn’t ring true to me in the same way. This year is different. This Thanksgiving finds me nestled up here at the North Cascades Institute, reflecting on my first full week of a three month writer’s residency, feeling quite swathed in gratitude, indeed.
Leaving the house last Wednesday was harder than I’d expected it would be. It was cold that day – would drop to 8 degrees that night – but the roads were mostly good. No snow, just some slick spots on the twistier, shaded sections. A sheriff waved me around a Jeep recently crumpled against the rocky shoulder.
Having dallied so long, I reached the Environmental Learning Center later than I’d planned, but still before dark. Transplanted the carload of bags and backpacks to all the corners of my little house – food, kitchen stuff, books, bedding, warm clothes, more books – and started the first list of things forgotten. (How did I miss Joel’s homemade s’ghetti sauce? Not that remembering would’ve mattered; I couldn’t wedge another thing into the Subaru.)
With a wilderness EMT program on campus for a week-long training, the dining hall was open. I felt shy going down to dinner, even after all the kindness Joel and I had encountered here in our October visit. Just a bit off-kilter, like I was about to step into something big. Which, really, was not such an unreasonable feeling to have.
Dinner was delicious (vegetarian lasagna for me, with a fancy green salad on the side and crème brulee for dessert), but I excused myself early. Headlamp lighting my way, I trudged up the trail to start getting settled in Dogwood 2.
Only two things mattered to me that night: a bed to fall into, and a writing space to wake up to. The first was easy, while the second took much more time and planning. Butcher paper lining the walls to chart Hooked’s narrative, photos and post-its and scribbled notes on napkins taped throughout. A bulletin board rich with inspiration – reminders to stay on track with my themes, photos of supporters, quotes that guide my work. (In purple ink, Pema Chodron advises, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”) By the end of the night, Dogwood 2 had become Hooked’s womb.
As my own work surrounds me, so does many other folks’. Books stacked lovingly, a tad compulsively, edges lining up just-so. Favorite memoirs on the west end of the kitchen bar. Writing prompts and books on craft, all on the east end. On the bedroom desk, nonfiction resources like charts and guidebooks of the fish, birds, plants of Southeast Alaska.
My friend Tom chided me about bringing so many books, reminding me that I’m here to write, not read a library. I knew how to hear his fatherly caution. He, like my own dad, sees the monumental nature of this task and frets for time. He’s not wrong. Neither am I. These books are here as part talisman, part inspiration. Their authors are my mentors. Some I’ve been lucky enough to study with in person. Others I study sentence by sentence, pausing there in wonder (How did s/he do that?), here in admiration (Damn, look what s/he did there!) Stroking soft covers, flipping to random pages, they all reassure me. Their pages filled one word at a time, they say. Mine will, too.
My November goal was to write 1000 words a day. In Bellingham, that was a sputtering, stop-and-go sort of effort. The entire week before I came up here? Nothing.
It was important to me to embrace a routine as soon as I got here. I’ll tell you what that looks like another time, but for now, let’s just say it’s working.
With 10,688 new words in the past week, it’s working really well. That’s nothing for my more prolific friends, but as a slow writer, this is monumental for me. It’s working – I’m working, and I have to tell you, sweeties, it feels wonderful.
I know there’ll be a crash. Just as you can anchor up high on a great day’s fishing only to wake up and find the school vanished overnight, the words won’t always be here. NCI isn’t magic. I’m finally learning the truth that countless mentors have tried to impress upon me: there isn’t magic, there’s only work. As I put in the consistent time and effort, the words respond. The more devotion with which I sit down, the more agreeably the words show up. Why did it take me so long to accept this truism?
Today, on November’s Thanksgiving, the midday sun is streaming bright and warm onto my shoulder. In a moment, I’ll walk down to the office, using one of NCI’s computers to break my internet silence and share this time with you. A mosey on one of the many surrounding trails, pausing to celebrate fresh air and wild places. There’s a piece of salmon – a coho tailpiece – defrosting in the fridge, and two of Joel’s chocolate chip coconut cookies waiting to reward me. It’s another good day to write.
With love and gratitude,
PO Box 429