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