Wood smoke and birdsong drift through the open windows of our home, and I’m transported a short jaunt back in time to a cabin on the outskirts of Fall Creek, WI.
For three days and three nights, I had the opportunity to work with nine other writers in a workshop setting, lead by author/Firestarter, Nickolas Butler (Shotgun Lovesongs, Beneath the Bonfire, The Hearts of Men), organized by Chippewa Valley Writer’s Guild, and facilitated by director/all-around-good-guy, BJ Hollars, and assistant/resident troubadour Geoff Carter.
We shared rooms. We ate together, and we ate well thanks to the culinary wizardry of on-site chef, Brent Halverson. We wrote, spending four to five hours every morning drafting, editing, and revising. We worked together from the late morning to the early evening, discussing each other’s work, supporting and encouraging one another, striving to make everyone’s story better. We got to know one another around the campfire, sharing our personal stories, our backgrounds, our families, our jobs, our beliefs. We drank beer together (apparently our group set the record for the most beer consumed in a weekend). We clapped and cheered for each other as we shared our writing at an open reading. And as the weekend drew to a close, we made plans to keep in touch, to meet up down the road, to keep the newly formed friendships alive and well despite the miles between.
Essentially we had a summer camp experience.
I didn’t attend very many summer camps growing up, but here’s what I remember based on a handful of excursions with my boy scout troop:
A surplus of bug bites as traceable as the constellations in the night sky; mess hall food, passable and palatable; stubbed toes and cracked nails from hidden yet not completely hammered tent stakes; the breath of stinking hot death with every opening of the porta potty; bb guns and axe throwing; hand crafted items like wallets, picture frames, and god’s eyes, which your parents would accept with a smile while already strategizing which storage box they might fit them into; spreading out trading post funds to ensure pop and candy throughout the week, then dumping the rest into acquisitions of pocket knives, hand saws, and/or spark-its; greasy, unwashed, slept-on hair, managing to both lie flat and stick up in porcupine tufts; dirt clinging to sweaty extremities until the skin takes on a greyish hue; neglected teeth, only brushed when they began to bear fur; campfire stories about rampaging bears, homicidal mountain dwelling hermits, and the elusive “Hide Behinds”; flashlights clicked on and off at the sound of every snapping twig or creaking branch; waking on the last day to cram every article of clothing, both clean and dirty, into a rough, blue canvas duffle.
And I remember at the end of the week entering into this weird state of mind knowing that I was returning to the real world, doing my best to enjoy the time I had left while mentally preparing to leave it behind.
Vacations capture the same feelings to a certain extent, but cannot compare to the camp experience, because when you go on vacation, you tend to travel with a pre-established community–either parents, friends, or significant others–and you understand how this community works. What makes camp different is that you build your community from the ground up. You create something new in a short amount of time, and this can make saying goodbye challenging. Can make leaving all the more weird.
When Sunday morning of the residency rolled around, and we settled into our final workshops, that weird in-between state of mind settled over me. I was soaking up as much as I could, but also thinking about and possibly lamenting having to leave a few hours later.
The residency at Cirenaica surpassed all my expectations, and I am forever grateful I got the opportunity to attend. I had the chance to work with one of my favorite authors (if you have not read any of Nickolas Butler’s work yet, get on it post haste), become friends with cool writers from Minnesota and Wisconsin, and through workshops get better at writing and storytelling. It’s easily one of the best experiences of my life.
If you’re a writer, and a residency pops up in your neck of the woods, go for it. I encourage you to check out the Chippewa Valley Writer’s Guild, and the community they’re building, including their new literary magazine, Barstow and Grand Good stuff and good people.
Huzzah for the summer camp experience.