What I Learned at Hedgebrook

The last week of June, I attended a Master Class at Hedgebrook. For seven whole days this was my home:

Hedgebrook_Cabin

An adorable little cottage under the cedar and maple trees, all to my own.

When I returned to the real world, everyone asked, “How was it??” And I replied, “Amazing!” Which was the truth–but not the whole truth. Being there WAS amazing. It was also surreal and difficult and kind of like being on another planet. No matter how hard I try, I can’t wrap up the experience with a single word, one wise thought, one feeling.

It seems easier instead to make a list. Things I learned at Hedgebrook.

  • I need structure. I arrived at Hedgebrook ready to WORK, to WRITE, to get down ALL THE WORDS…and whoa that did not happen the first few days. I wrote a bit, but mostly I kind of flopped around, trying to find my footing. By the end of Day 2 I realized what was missing: a routine. Every day I woke up, started a fire in my wood stove, drank coffee while writing morning pages. Then it was time for a meandering walk in the woods. After that I was able to settle down and get to business. Creating my own structure gave meaning to the day and made it easier to focus.
  • Fawn are really loud when they’re crashing through the brush. Like, “I’m maybe about to be eaten by a cougar” loud.
  • I start losing syntax VERY quickly after several days of solitude. My thoughts start floating, drifting. I focused on the sounds of words, repeating them over and over in my head. I had to consciously pull it back together before class, before interacting with other people, to ensure that I could form normal human sentences. Re-reading my journal from that week is like some trippy day trip into another dimension.
  • I can’t write for eight hours straight. Supposedly some writers do this? They probably have elfin blood in them.
  • I got surprisingly lonely. I’m an introvert by nature, so I definitely don’t mind solitude. But the first few evenings alone in my cabin were rough. I missed my routines, I missed my people. This got easier as the days went on.
  • Some scenes really do need to be handwritten. One chapter of my book was not working. I stared and stared at the laptop, trying to fix it, before finally picking up my notebook, heading to the cozy overstuffed chair and rewriting the scene by hand. And YES. That did it. That broke the spell. The chapter went in a totally different direction — what it had needed all along. That connection of pen to paper fires up some different synapses in the brain.
  • Writing makes me HUNGRY. Dear lord I ate so much food. Raspberries and pot pies and cherry-cornmeal cakes and mounds and mounds of homegrown vegetables. The brain is a big ol’ organ, and I apparently had to sustain it.
  • Left to its own devices, my mind turns toward the fantastic. Every time I wandered through the woods, my thoughts drifted to Narnia, to Hansel and Gretel, to the Sidhe, to children and young maidens being flitted away, never to be seen again. Maybe these seem like scary thoughts, but they weren’t. They were comforting.
  • On Day 3 I started saying good morning to the banana slugs. So there’s that.
  • Writing? It’s a process. Some days I racked up the word count, knocking it out of the park. Some days I stared out the window for hours, doodling and noodling. Those days seemed frustrating at the time…but in hindsight, they were necessary. There’s ebbs and flows and that’s ok.

That’s the biggest thing I’m trying to keep with me post-Hedgebrook: focusing on the process rather than the product. Because if not for the process…why do this? Why write at all?

I no longer feel ragey when I think of my 2nd draft. I’m working it out, smoothing out the kinks. It’ll get there. I’ve broken through the block and that’s what matters.

(PS: Women writers! Hedgebrook is currently open for residency applications. DO IT.)

Summer, Summer, Glorious Summer

High hot days and cool windy nights. Twilights that never end. Bats zig-zagging in the dusk, feasting on flying termites. Blueberries. Huckleberries. Blackberries, still warm from the sun. One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me. Fingers stained a permanent purple.

Sticking your head into a dinner-plate-sized rose and breathing in the pear scent. Crunching toes in dry grass. Listening to the bumblebees lumber from salvia, hyssop, lavender, collecting bright yellow pollen on fat black legs.

Sitting on the edge of a mountain-fed river, strong and tired and hungry from swimming. Hot rocks warming wet swimsuit, the sun dry on your back. Listening to nothing but the water catch and fall on rock. Remembering this warm summer moment for the winter ahead, storing it as an insect for the dark months to come.

Mint picked and pressed into lemonade. Five o’clock and the smell of charcoal filling a neighborhood. No reason, no reason at all to go inside and go to bed. There is no work, there is no tomorrow. There is only summer.

Pinch Me

About a month ago I got some exciting news that I keep meaning to share on ye ol’ blog. And then…I didn’t share it. And didn’t again. And then I realized I kind of didn’t want to share it, lest it actually be a fragile thing that would dissolve under the harsh daylight of reality. It’s not even that big of a thing–but to me, it feels impossible. I’ve confirmed dates and exchanged emails and sent in paperwork so apparently the impossible is happening and I don’t need to worry about frightening it away.

You remember Hedgebrook? I was accepted to one of their Master Classes. I applied back in February thinking I probably wouldn’t get in–but hey, no harm in applying, right? (My general philosophy for life: “Might as well give it a shot!” Success rate is mixed.) In April I was told I was on the waitlist…and a day later, I was in. This particular Master Class requires a work-in-progress, so I’ll be focusing on the Never-Ending 2nd Draft. In June it’ll be 10 days on an island in the midsummer woods, with my own little cabin, sharing the time with five other writers and an instructor to guide us all along.

I’m excited and nervous. This’ll be the first time in almost 10 years that I’ve devoted a large chunk of time solely to writing. And even the last time I did that–in college–my time wasn’t 100% devoted to writing. There were other classes to attend and papers to write and jobs to sit through and card games to play and Grey’s Anatomy to binge watch.

At Hedgebrook, it will just be me and my writing. No cooking, no dog walking. No internet, no TV. Nothing to distract from the words on the page. Which is TERRIFYING. Nothing to distract from “this is working” or “this is all garbage burn it now quickly burn it all down.”

I said I’m a writer. Now I’m putting those words to the test.

Winter Reading Recap

It feels weird to even THINK the word “winter” when Seattle hit 80 degrees last week. Part of me thought, “Screw it, I’m too late, I’ll skip this recap.” But then again… how can I pass up on talking about the books that kept me company during the 4pm dusks, the crazy windstorms, the rainiest winter on record? The books that you cozy up with next to a fire–those are the books worth talking about.

I’m continuing the trend of 2015 and reading ALL THE BOOKS. Ok, maybe not all. But a LOT. I read five books in March alone. Which I realize for some would probably not be defined as “a lot,” but for slow-poke me is something to brag about.

So I’m not going to tell you about ALL the books I read this winter, because we’d be here for ten years. Instead, you get the highlight reel.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Bernadette

I sometimes do this thing where everyone and their mom recommends a movie/TV show/book, and I say “Ok cool!” and never actually get around to viewing/reading it. That happened with this book. So many people told me how fun it was, and I said “Ok cool!” and never got around to reading it.

Why do I do these things??

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is written in the form of emails, school newsletters, classified correspondence, and random interjections by Bernadette’s 15-year-old daughter. Which COULD make for a terribly annoying book, but Semple pulls it off. This is fun. It’s a quick read with characters who seem at once outlandish and totally relatable. The book is set in Seattle, and man, does Semple nail this city. Or at least, a certain population of the city. Having grown up in Seattle, in a similar community to what Semple describes, the descriptions hit close to home.

There was one thing people hadn’t mentioned about this book–one thing that surprised me. At its heart, Bernadette has a message about creativity and success and what it means to be an “artist”–which is always going to involve some amount of failure. It’s about letting go of the past, picking up where you left off and starting over. Which can be a terrifying thing–until you realize that everyone does it, all the time, and most of the time things turn out alright.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

StationEleven

See story above re: everyone recommending a book and me ignoring it. You’d think I’d learn. Right after finishing this book, I dispatched this tweet to the universe:

This was a beautiful, haunting book about the end of the world—or rather, the end of humanity as we know it. The two are NOT the same, and I’m always struck by books that make that distinction. (Oryx and Crake has a similar theme.) Civilization may end, but the world itself is gonna keep on truckin’, altered and 100% fine without us.

This book explores so many themes it’s difficult to sum up, but I finished with one distinct impressions: it’s a book that really gets it, that gets what it is to be human and see everything that’s broken in the world and also see the tremendous, almost-so-big-it’s-painful beauty of the world.

I was lucky to hear Emily St. John Mandel speak at Seattle Town Hall shortly after reading this book. She is obviously an insanely smart woman. It was interesting to hear all the different sources she pulled from to create Station Eleven, from the history of pandemics to Elizabethan England to Star Trek to Calvin and Hobbes. Like Austin Kleon says–steal like an artist.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

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I don’t read much fantasy these days–which is odd, because thinking back on my childhood reading habits, I almost exclusively read fantasy. My grandparents introduced me to Redwall and I proceeded to read every single book in that series. I wanted to be Cimorene in Dealing with Dragons. And Harry Potter? What would summer have been without counting down the days to the next Harry Potter release? (Late apologies to my parents for insisting that they pre-order two hardback copies so that my sister and I could both devour it immediately.)

The Fifth Season made me realize that I need to read more “grown-up” fantasy. It winds together three separate-yet-connected stories set in a world beset by seismic and volcanic activity. Every few hundred years or go, a “fifth season” arrives–basically, a new “season” trigged by an earthquake or volcanic eruption that kills off most of the population. However, there are people called “orogenes” that can both trigger and control these earthly activities. Can you guess who our hero is?

Jemisin creates an enthralling, complex world full of political intrigue. The Fifth Season is heart-wrenching in parts, but it was so beautifully written that I couldn’t put it down. Apparently there is going to be a second book in this series…I’ll be first on the waiting list.

What have you been reading lately? Now that the weather’s warming up, I’m starting to take the books outside…if there’s anything dreamier than reading in a hammock, I don’t know what it is.

Rage Against the 2nd Draft

Last week I attended a talk by Daniel Handler at Hugo House. Handler was witty and intelligent and generous (and the topic, “bewilderment,” fascinating). During the Q&A, someone asked how many drafts he typically writes. If memory serves, he said three or four. What stuck out was his quip about second drafts:

You think, I’m just going to fix this crown molding. And then you step back and realize you have to burn the house down. –Daniel Handler

I laughed at the truth of those words; simultaneously, I wanted to cry and rage and despair at the truth of them.

I usually try and maintain a “glass half full” outlook, but here’s the truth: writing a second draft is really effing hard. At least, writing MY second draft has been really effing hard, and if that’s not a universal truth I don’t want it acknowledged because it’ll make me feel like shit.

I am actively angry at the words that blink back at me from the computer screen. I tweak them and move them and delete them and add them back in. Every once in a while there’s an “ah ha” moment of pieces clicking into place–that one chapter, that one scene, that one sentence finally doing what I want it to do.

More often than not, the words spit back, “That’s all you got?”

I have not met any of my deadlines for this draft. First I was going to have it done by the end of December. Then January. Now here we are with daffodils pushing dirt and the final chapters remain in their untouched state.

At this point I just want to be done. Every cell in my body craves to be done, to no longer have to think about narrative arc and character development and scenery description. And of course the irony is that it won’t be done until I sit down and finish the damn thing. Until I wrestle this untamable, obtrusive, offensive second draft into submission.

I could make excuses about being busy or sick or bored but really it’s just every time I open the project I am angry at the lack of progress, the lack of perfection. I am angry just thinking about it. “Burn it all down,” the back of my mind says. Burn it all down.

But for better or worse, five years of metaphorical sweat and (some) literal tears are not something to just throw away.

Sometimes we just need to acknowledge that this is really hard, what we do. It’s also a blessing and a lark and a joy, but writing is also really damn hard.

No glass half full–that’s just the truth. And like so many writers before me, I will shut up and push on and someday, somehow, finish the second draft.

Then I can move on to the third.

I Know We’re On a Road Trip But Please Let Me Read My Book

What’s that? Oh, that picture-perfect sunlit butte ahead of us? Yes, I see that. That’s really beautiful.

Yeah, sorry, I know my nose has been in my book for the past 100 miles. I know I’m missing out on a lot of things outside the car windows.

Ok. I’m going to go back to my book for a bit.

What? Yes, that’s a cool rock. Really nice rock. Back to the book now.

…no, you’re totally right–this is a part of the country I haven’t seen. I’m glad to see it! America the Beautiful, here we come.

Here’s the thing though: when else do you get hours of quiet and seclusion where there are no demands on your time? When literally all you can do is sit? Especially when you’re driving on rural highways — bye bye, cell service. No Instagram here. Since we don’t have one of those fancy newfangled cars with built-in TVs, I can’t binge-watch Parks and Recreation for the fourth time. The only thing you can do besides stare out the window is read a book.

Yes yes, I do like staring out the window. I love road trips. I love seeing the country change; I love pairing music to the passing landscape. I love the opportunity to talk, to take detours and pitstops and be open to adventure.

But this book is getting really good right now.

Yes, I see that waterfall.

Look, the protagonist just found out some key information and is about to–sorry, no time to explain. We have two hours of drive time left and I can totally finish.

Me and books and road trips will forever be a thing. I promise to look up every once in a while. But now I’m going to read.

Addendum: If there are any foals or alpaca farms or cool birds of prey I require immediate notification. I brake for cute animals.

(Written with a loving wink to my husband, who loves to point out basalt, and my father, who loves to point out Spanish moss.)

These Stories Run Deep

If Ireland is a thin place, Greece is a deep one. Walking through the labyrinthine streets of the Plaka neighborhood in Athens, you don’t have to know that people have walked here for 7,000 years–you can feel it. Cobblestones worn by millennia of footsteps, the smell of roasting meat, the hot fecund air sticking to your neck. That citadel looming above the city, the Acropolis, icon of Western civilization that millions flock to every year–that was once new. The people who lived here watched that being built.

In fifth grade we studied Greek mythology–and by “studied” I mean we colored pictures from D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths while our teacher read us the stories. The birth of Athena, the tragedy of Orpheus, the downfall of Persephone…I devoured each and every one like pomegranate seeds. When we moved on to the saga of the Iliad (a toned-down, child-friendly version, of course), I couldn’t get enough of the drama, the wit. My parents bought me a copy of D’Aularies’. I read it over and over until the spine cracked and the pages started falling out.

On Santorini, I sat on the black-sand beach and looked out towards the distant island of Anafi, imagined living here thousands of years ago, seeing Athenian sails billowing on the seas. In Crete I swam into the brilliant blue waves, remembering the sirens and Odysseus and his journey through these islands. At the Palace of Knossos I walked the kingdom of Minos, touched the stones, saw how such a place could inspire the Minotaur. I walked a city that saw the fall of Troy, that held contemporaries of Achilles and Helen and Agamemnon.

These stories run through me and here are their roots. You can hear it in the crash of the waves, what these places have heard. A murmur of something unbroken, unchanged–stories that bind us through space and time. If I’m ever able to tell stories with a tenth of that impact, with an infinitesimal fraction of that power, it will just be a continuation of a tradition that started long before me.

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