Curses and Blessings, reprise

What can happen when you’re given time and space alone with your ideas? When you’re sent off to a little cabin and someone else is cooking your food and tending to the day-to-day management of your comfort and well-being? When you’re told that the only thing you have to do is whatever you want to do?

Well, any number of things can happen, I suppose. I’ve had very different experiences with writing residencies and retreats. The similarity across all of them — the DIY and the formal ones — is that I’ve come back to my “real life” changed in some way, come back with some new understanding of the writing I went away to work on, which is precisely what I go away for. So … excellent!

How that realization or understanding happens isn’t at all similar. My first DIY retreat, I spent all day every day writing out one character (I was mostly a fiction writer then). I wasn’t working on the story that character was part of. I was digging into his history, trying to understand how he became the man who showed up in the story I wanted so badly to finish but which I couldn’t finish if I didn’t understand that man.

In the end, I wrote so much about him that I realized he was the main character, that the story he’d stepped out of wasn’t the central story at all, as much as I love my original protagonist. That was definitely not the place I’d imagined finding myself at the end of the retreat. Not even close. But I learned a lot about how I feel my way into a story and how to work with story elements and more formal tools to shape a successful arc and land sure-footedly at a conclusion.

At my first formal residency, I’d planned to write scripts for my comics project. I started a script, and it was a solid start. But, but the end of the two weeks, what I’d done most was learn more about how comics work, how sequential art moves with and without words and that some of my ideas were feeling awkward and clunky because I was writing scripts that were at odds with the medium I’d chosen. I did a lot of drawing, which I hadn’t expected, and learned some things about my drawing and what I want from my artwork.

And now …

I came to Alaska with a plan. I decided a while ago that I want to turn my “Fat Talk” essays into a collection. I had an outline of what pieces were needed to complete the arc I’d imagined for the collection. All I needed was time to really sit and focus, time to start building those missing pieces.

Except that’s not what my time has been here at all. I’ve been writing, yes. I wrote a whole new essay that is at least a strong skeleton for what I want the finished version to be. I’ve done some bits of other, not-part-of-the-collection writing. I’ve read through all of the existing essays and made notes for things that need revision, places where I need to go deeper or where I need to steer back on course.

So … productive. But also … not. Everything has felt a little off, a little not quite what I needed to do.

And then Sunday happened. Sunday, I ran up hard against the wall of: what even is this project? what’s the point? what am I trying to say, anyway?

It’s not an unfamiliar wall, but slamming into it is never welcome. And, to be clear, this isn’t La Impostora creeping up on me. She’s always lurking, but this question, this wall, is different. It’s more the realization that I don’t have the clarity about the project that I thought I had. Similar to the realization during that first DIY retreat that I’d been focused on the wrong character, that I was supposed to be writing a very different story.

What do I do when I run into the wall? Well, this time I did some good and some annoying things. I slept. A lot. I hung out on social media. A lot. And then — finally — I started journaling, writing out the conversation I needed to have to get answers to the questions the wall was asking. I made notes. I made lists. I asked and answered the same questions a few times. I just kept writing.

Slowly, and then more quickly, an answer — the answer — began to come clear. I fought it a little, falling immediately into the control freak role that sometimes creeps into my writing, trying to force things to go the way I want them to rather than the way they actually need to. Because, if the answer that was taking shape was really the answer, most of the writing I’ve done has to be undone and then rebuilt in profound ways … if it’s usable at all.

So here I am, halfway through my residency, with a project that’s totally in shambles.

And this, this is what can happen when you strip away the distractions of work and daily life and spend oceans of time with your ideas. This right here. The curse and the blessing.

Time to pick up my pen and get the fuck to work.


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Undertow

Here’s the second of the poems I wrote while on my way to Homer. I had a L-O-N-G layover in Anchorage, more than seven hours (!!), which gave me a lot of time to do something to keep myself awake. I was ridiculously tired, up for almost 24 hours by the time I got in from Seattle, but I knew I couldn’t curl up and take a nap as I saw so many other people doing. I’d have slept right past my departure time! So I listened to music, listened to The Read, walked around … and wrote some sleepy-brained poetry.

Undertow 

The ocean decides: swim or drown? Water carries you.
She can wave you to safety or suck you down. Water carries you. 

You trust her with your breath, your fragile, breakable bones.
Your body is both lost and found. Water carries you.

In my heart, fear and love are coupled for the sea.
She smiles, swirling her gown – water carries you.

I could live in her, tell stories of her beauty –
cajole her out of her frown, water carries you.

And I, Stacie, hold my fascination for her --
stand ready to polish her crown. Water carries you.

This might be the last of the ghazals that I post. I have one more that was written during that layover in Anchorage, but it’s sooo rough, so clearly written with the most exhausted part of my brain. We’ll see.

Choices, Decisions … Defiance

I didn’t write 30 poems in April. Trying to get ready to leave my job for two weeks and then spending the last two days of the month traveling added to the fact that the ghazal was driving me crazy meant not hitting my mark. I did write more poems than I posted, however. I had over nine hours of layover time between my stops in Seattle and Anchorage, and I wrote a little. So here’s the first poem. I started this one in the Seattle airport and finished it on the flight to Anchorage.

Oscillation 

Indecision is my middle name, up in the air.
The road not taken calls my name, up in the air.

What's the secret to choosing a path, staying the course?
Choices delayed are a losing game, up in the air.

Today I felt my mind drain, blanked of every thought:
abject panic, time I can't reclaim. Up in the air.

Everything I'm doing feels wrong, leaves me rootless, at sea.
I need some kind of structure, a frame. Up in the air.

If I, Stacie, could break this code, find clarity, peace.
I'd be changed, never again the same up in the air 

Even after letting it marinate for a few days, I’m no closer to being enamored. The ghazal is really, really and truly, not the form for me. I was so sure we would click because I love a form with built-in repetition … but no. Running head-long into a form I can’t take in is when I feel it’s most evident that I’m not a poet. Which is silly, of course, because there’s no generally-accepted idea that all poets must be able to write all forms. I mean … of course. But there’s something about hitting that wall that feels like being told to stay in my lane.

But I like not doing what I’m told, so … I guess I’ll keep writing these bad poems. See if I don’t.

Gratitude

I’m in Alaska at my writing residency. It’s lovely here, and I feel extraordinarily lucky to be here. My tourist day in town — the day before I came up to the residency itself — was studded with random moments when I’d be walking around and suddenly “Thank you,” would just bubble out of me. Out loud. Literally just saying it aloud as I walked on the beach, as I stood in the museum, as I sipped mead, as I stared up at the mountains. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ve never had gratitude burst out of me before. It’s a curious feeling. I’d like to experience it some more!

I’m here to write. I’m here, most specifically, to work on “Fat Talk” essays. I am determined to shape that series into a collection. And, while I haven’t been away from the project for long, I kind of have, too. I did some writing in November, but never cleaned it up and posted it. I’ve been thinking about the project, but haven’t gotten any words on paper.

So these two weeks are time to pull this project back to the front of my brain and see what’s what.

And that’s hard and stressful because a lot of what I want to write about it hard and stressful. Having to put into words the ways in which I have been mistreated is hard. Having to put into words the ways in which I have mistreated myself is harder. It’s good to be here to do this. To have time and silence to push through the rough pieces. To have a group of writers to sit with at dinner and feel embraced and heard. This. THis is why “thank you” just kept bubbling out of me on Saturday. The understanding and anticipation of the gift of this

I came up a day early so that I could recover from a 20-hour travel day and play tourist in Homer for a minute. I wish I could have come up a full week early. I enjoyed my day of wandering in the cold and rain, however. I was exhausted — arrived at 7:30 in the morning but couldn’t check into the hotel until 5, so I had to stay awake and do something all day. And I did. Walked on the beach, stared at the mountains, had a really good omelet, went to the very excellent and inspiring Pratt Museum — if you’re going to be in Homer, for-sure visit the Pratt. It’s small and lovely. After the museum, I walked over to the Sweetgale Meadworks to try mead for the first time. I sampled all the meads ( 😉 ) and even got pics of a visiting moose before it was time to head to the hotel. On the drive to the hotel, we passed a coffee klatch of bald eagles — six of them just hanging out on the beach. And then I discovered that I’m not too early for late daylight! I thought I’d miss the whole midnight sun extravaganza … and I will, but the sun sets after 10pm right now, so daylight just goes on and on. It’s magical.

Here are some pics from the last few days:

My first good look at Kachemak Bay, taken from the back deck of the hotel where I stayed the first night.
The flights of meads I sampled. The flight on the left had my favorites: Sweetgale, Nagoonberry, and Wildflower.
One of the two moose who came by the meadery as I was sipping mead.
The view from my hotel room … at about 9pm. Crazypants that it was still this bright out!
Hanging out at the Salty Dawg Saloon before heading out to the residency. (That Stella Cidre was good stuff!)
A piece of the view from my cabin window here at the residency. That’s Cook Inlet.
Running away to write. 10/10 highly recommend
A mated pair of Sandhill Cranes who were hanging around outside the main house when I walked up for breakfast yesterday.

And now it’s time to get back to work! ❤


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Count Down to Fabulousness

I am in the countdown to my next writing residency. It’s still a bit of a lengthy countdown, but it’s closer and more exciting to me every day. I am thrilled to be part of the 2022 Storyknife cohort. Storyknife, a residency for women writers, is in Homer, Alaska, and I’ll have two weeks there. Two weeks to breathe, to dream, to test, to release. And yes, to write.

This will be my second formal writing retreat — the kind you have to apply for and be accepted into. I’ve given myself a few DIY retreats, and they have been wonderful, but there’s something different about a residency.

One of the best things about a residency is being around the other residents. Storyknife is for writers. My first residency was for artists of all types. There were five of us — two painters, a photographer, a poet, and me (I was there to work on my comics). There can, of course, be differences in genre among a group of writers. Working alone in my room while being surrounded by people focused on their work has a kind of magic. Coming together over meals and sharing whatever’s been swirling in our heads all day is another kind of magic. My DIY retreats have all been great, but I was alone for all but one of them, so that working-alone-but-in-creative-company aspect was missing.

So looking forward to my two weeks. I wish it could be longer, but two weeks is how long I can reasonably run away from my job. In the case of this particular residency, I wish I could take an additional week just to be in Homer, just to be in Alaska. I’ve never been and have always wanted to go. I’ve added a couple of days to the start of my trip so I can be a tourist (wildlife sightseeing boat tour, here I come!), and I’m hoping the temperature will be my friend and I’ll get to write outside a little during my stay.

Here’s a lovely video about the idea and experience of Storyknife. In it, Executive Director, Erin Coughlin Hollowell, says, “Women’s stories will change the way our society works.” Whew! The way that statement reverberated in my head and heart!

I’m receiving a lot of YES about my writing lately. That’s a good feeling … and a feeling akin to having a gauntlet thrown down in front of me: here it is, the thing I’ve said I wanted and needed. What am I going to do with it? I’ve written about how I can’t resist a challenge, and a residency is a kind of challenge I want to welcome again and again and again. What will I do with it? We’re all going to have to wait and see!


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