Writer’s Residencies: Where to Bring a Book to Life

Posted by on October 16, 2013 in Culture, Reading & Writing, Women in Fishing | 11 comments

You know when you have news to share, and maybe it’s noth­ing huge, but still you decide just to sit on it until a bet­ter time and place? And as you’re wait­ing, your orig­i­nally not-such-a-big-deal news unfolds to reveal a new layer, and another, until you find your­self perched atop this thing that’s now blos­somed into some­thing you really should have just men­tioned as it was happening?

There are some things I haven’t told you.

Last spring, a few weeks after River­head bought Hooked, I made a trip out to North Car­olina to visit my dad and step­mom. Being in the right time zone seemed a golden oppor­tu­nity to finally meet Pamela, my agent, and Sarah, my edi­tor, so I got up early one Wednes­day, hopped a com­muter flight, and spent the day in New York City.

(I’m aware of how this sounds, sweet­ies, but you know bet­ter. Lest you imag­ine a glam­orous, jet-setting scene, let me break down “spend­ing the day.” An hour’s drive to the Myr­tle Beach Air­port. Two hours in flight. Another 50 min­utes in the cab from LaGuardia to Pamela’s tenth floor office in Mid­town, hostage to the back­seat TV par­rot­ing a tourism infomer­cial the whole way because I was too unso­phis­ti­cated to know I could mute it. Three hours in the com­pany of two remark­able women. A hus­tle to Grand Cen­tral to catch a shut­tle back to the air­port, repeat­ing the morning’s jour­ney in reverse. You should know that I hit Madi­son Avenue in the same bat­tered Romeos that have trod miles of Alaskan docks, nerves fer­ment­ing a Ray Troll hoody, a flip phone stuffed into my Carhartts, bat­tery held in place with black electrician’s tape. To thine own self be true, and all that.)

Pamela, Sarah and I met for lunch, where we talked about the year I’d have to fin­ish Hooked, and the near-impossibility of doing any writ­ing dur­ing the fish­ing sea­son. Cock­ing her head, Sarah asked, “Have you thought about apply­ing for any residencies?”

I hadn’t – and won­dered why not, as she described pro­grams of rad­i­cal hos­pi­tal­ity, pro­vid­ing free room and board, even meals, in their sup­port of writ­ers and artists.

I started research­ing res­i­den­cies that night, guided by Nancy Lord’s post on 49 Writ­ers. Some didn’t sound like my kind of place. Too exclu­sive, too invested in a Cap­i­tal A Artiste scene for me and my taped-together flip phone. But I swooned over hum­ble retreat cen­ters nes­tled in remote set­tings, imag­in­ing Hooked’s birth among waters and moun­tains that mir­rored its nar­ra­tive. In these sanc­tu­ar­ies, my book would be mid­wifed by aun­ties and uncles whose hearts beat with the urgency of expe­ri­enc­ing, peo­ple who under­stood the neces­sity of con­nect­ing with the wild places around us, as surely as the wild places within us.

Wait, I real­ized. This place exists in Bellingham’s own backyard.

I’d long heard friends rave about the North Cas­cades Insti­tute. Perched between Sour­dough Moun­tain and Dia­blo Lake, NCI’s Envi­ron­men­tal Learn­ing Cen­ter is located two hours from Belling­ham, the last stop before High­way 20 closes for the win­ter. Com­mit­ted to con­serv­ing and restor­ing North­west envi­ron­ments through edu­ca­tion, they offer year-round courses on the nat­ural and cul­tural his­tory of the North Cas­cades. Moun­tain School and Youth Lead­er­ship Adven­tures to inspire future gen­er­a­tions. Sem­i­nars and field excur­sions for adults. Even a Mas­ter of Edu­ca­tion grad­u­ate program.

The one thing I didn’t see, scour­ing NCI’s web­site? A writer’s residency.

Even if that’s not some­thing they do, maybe they’d be will­ing to con­sider it.

That was my cre­ative, problem-solving self speak­ing. She ratio­nal­ized that I might as well ask; the worst they could do was say no. Surely their rejec­tion would be kinder than my inner critic, a beast cur­rently shriek­ing with derision.

Who do you think you are, ask­ing for some­thing spe­cial, entry into a pro­gram that doesn’t even exist?

What is it that makes ask­ing for help so hard? As an Amer­i­can and an Aad­sen, I’m dou­bly dosed with the stigma against admit­ting I can’t do every­thing myself. When peo­ple talk about the power and beauty of being vul­ner­a­ble, I nod along, fully on board with the con­cept of voic­ing what I need, while silently hop­ing the guilty eye flicker doesn’t reveal my hypocrisy. Ask­ing for a sanc­tu­ary to write my book felt like plead­ing for an inter­ven­tion. My self-discipline is so weak, my fears and self-doubt so strong, that I actu­ally need to hide in the moun­tains to write this book I love, the story I’m here to tell. Oh, Christ on toast… This was ridicu­lous, even to me. I would ask – and in this instance, I would ask from the priv­i­leged cush­ion of connections.

I tapped a quick email to my friend Betsy. She’d know if this was an impos­si­ble idea; Betsy had spent three years work­ing as a cook at the Envi­ron­men­tal Learn­ing Cen­ter. (Con­nec­tion #1.) Before we met, she’d known me through my salmon: NCI’s Food­shed Ini­tia­tive shows their com­mit­ment to local farm­ers and fish­er­men, includ­ing Nerka Sea Frozen Salmon. (Con­nec­tion #2.) Then Betsy for­warded my query on to her mom, Anne, who’s worked at NCI for the past five years. (Yahtzee.)

Anne proved the most enthu­si­as­tic ally a per­son could have. We exchanged a flurry of emails, explor­ing Hooked and NCI’s shared val­ues. Anne’s excite­ment fueled my own. I real­ized this wasn’t just one person’s spe­cial request, but a prospec­tive trail to blaze for future writ­ers. If NCI said yes, we had the oppor­tu­nity to turn an exper­i­ment into some­thing lasting.

Anne sub­mit­ted our pro­posal to NCI’s board. As the weeks slipped by, self-doubt crept in. I applied to another writer’s colony (one that actu­ally invited appli­cants), went fish­ing, and waited.


When Joel hurt his knee last April, I stopped writ­ing. Care­giv­ing became a full-time posi­tion right up to the day I went fish­ing. Once in Alaska, it became appar­ent that this would be a dif­fer­ent sort of sea­son than I’d grown accus­tomed to, fish­ing with my part­ner. Despite crew­ing for friends, peo­ple I love, I was on their boats as crew. I didn’t write any­thing “good” all summer.

Instead I stud­ied our sur­round­ings more inten­tion­ally, exam­in­ing details so ingrained in my life that I rarely see them. What’s the sound of salt water beads flick­ing from the incom­ing trolling wire? How far off-shore do you have to go before the Ton­gass green coast­line fades to Joe Upton’s Alaska blues? Weeks at sea loos­ened my mind, a free-ranging drift of con­scious­ness that nosed into inner truths and pat­terns I’d never rec­og­nized. With only the briefest moments to steal, I took notes on any sur­face I could find.


Tele, Writing and Fishing

A dif­fer­ent sort of inked… Tran­scrib­ing flesh onto paper.


Hooked will be a bet­ter, more insight­ful book because of those real­iza­tions, and I couldn’t have had them any­where else. Know­ing this, my chest still tight­ened every time I glanced at the cal­en­dar hang­ing on the cabin wall. As our family’s lone bread­win­ner, I had to be fish­ing… But every day fish­ing was another word­less day closer to Hooked’s May 27 dead­line. Every time I felt panic ris­ing, I thought of the North Cas­cades Insti­tute, grasp­ing hope in the as-yet-undashed pos­si­bil­ity. Star­ing at the rugged South­east Alaskan coast that’s been my life’s most con­sis­tent image of home, I won­dered if my book might live among moun­tains like these in Washington.


The colony rejected my appli­ca­tion. Six days later, I got an email from NCI’s Kristofer Gilje. “We are excited about the prospect of you spend­ing some time at the ELC next win­ter writ­ing your book.” He described an offer stag­ger­ing in its gen­eros­ity – pri­vate hous­ing for three months, mid-November to mid-February, meals in their din­ing hall – then asked, “Are you still interested?”

And with that, the North Cas­cades Insti­tute and I said yes to each other.


John Scurlock, Diablo Lake

If you cen­ter your cur­sor in the mid­dle of this photo, then slide down to Dia­blo Lake’s top shore­line meet­ing that tiny thread of High­way 20, that’s where you’ll find me this win­ter. Thanks, NCI. (Photo by John Scur­lock.)


That’s the “before,” friends. Stand by for Part Two, the story of what hap­pened when Joel and I actu­ally wemt up to the ELC cam­pus last week. If the writers/artists among you have res­i­dency sto­ries of your own, I’d love to hear them. What worked for you? What didn’t? I wel­come your advice.


  1. For those of you inter­ested in learn­ing more about exist­ing pro­grams, here’s a great post by author Cinthia Ritchie (“Dolls Behav­ing Badly”) on her expe­ri­ences with residencies:


  2. I am thrilled for you, Tele! That ‘s a per­fect set­ting. Can’t imag­ine a bet­ter arrange­ment for your project. Now, behave, so oth­ers can follow!

  3. I pic­ture you mas­sag­ing and shap­ing the world with good inten­tions and those inten­tions being mir­rored back.

  4. Tele, I *can’t* imag­ine you at any other res­i­dency! I feel like you’re a trail blazer. So to me it made per­fect sense for you to ask for some­thing that doesn’t even exist :)


  5. Way to go Tele! I have been study­ing poetry and writ­ing at the Writ­ers’ Work­shop in Port Townsend…I find the classes stim­u­lat­ing and intim­i­dat­ing simul­ta­ne­ously. I hope your expe­ri­ence at NCI will be as invig­o­rat­ing for you as the Writ­ers’ Work­shop has been for me.…See you in February!

  6. Kudos to you for man­i­fest­ing your awe­some dreams. Am excited for your expe­ri­ence and look for­ward to the fruits of your labors. Peace, Tele.

  7. All the bet­ter for mak­ing us wait too to hear about this, well done on find­ing and cre­atign a sit­u­a­tion that matches your instinct and I just love how your obser­va­tions this last sea­son have become enriched by keep­ing your head up and just watch­ing your sur­round­ings and describ­ing. Bril­liant news, can’t wait to hear how the visit went!

  8. Good for you Tele! I’m glad you are back and glad Hooked is back from hia­tus because I feel like I get to “see” you again. Enjoy the Cas­cades. I am hop­ing for a ren­dezvous with you in Belling­ham at some time in the near future when we are both in town. LOVE the photo of you tran­scrib­ing from your arm :)
    Hugs and encour­age­ment,

  9. Tele, you are a remark­able woman and such an inspi­ra­tion! No one deserves this oppor­tu­nity more than you. Enjoy every sec­ond. Bravissimo!

  10. Oh Tele, this is so excit­ing! I’m thrilled for you. It sounds like the per­fect plan. Look­ing for­ward to read­ing what comes next. You’re on the right path!

  11. What an amaz­ing oppor­tu­nity — look­ing for­ward to see­ing the fin­ished prod­uct! Kudos to you for your inge­nu­ity, and thanks for shar­ing your expe­ri­ence and pro­vid­ing inspi­ra­tion for future artists :-)


  1. Writer, Meet the North Cascades Institute - Hooked | Hooked - […] the North Cas­cades Insti­tute, ask­ing if I could be their first writer-in-residence. They’d said yes. Now Joel and I are on …

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