Brand New Literary Event To Celebrate Chippewa Valley Writers

Write Here.png

By John Paluta

Get your creativity in gear, because Write Here, Write Now is just around the corner! On Saturday November 11th, Write Here, Write Now will takes place from 1:00 to 5:00 at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Library and from 5:30 to 7:00 at the Oxbow Hotel.

What is Write Here, Write Now? The event aims to celebrate writing and creativity through local writers and local writing opportunities. Many panels will be offered as well as readings, but the real attraction is going to be the attendees who are all interested and passionate about local writing. Every panel and reading brings something unique to the table, so make sure to check out each one! Every reader and writer will be able to take something away they learned from the panels.

See below for a brief preview of the panels:

  • 1PM: “Meet the Chippewa Valley Local Authors”
  • 2PM: “The ABC’s of Reading: A Practical Guide to the Art and Deadly Craft of the Literary Reading”
  • 3PM: “Publishing Near and Far: A Conversation on Finding the Right “Fit” for Your Work
  • 4PM: Writers Reception
  • 5:30PM: Writers Read (@The Lakely)

This is the first year for Write Here, Write Now! What started as an idea based off the print collection at the library featuring local writing has turned into a bigger community conversation designed to highlight local talent. Various organizations helped to put the event together, such as the Chippewa Valley Writer’s Guild, Chippewa Valley Local Authors, the Eau Claire Writer-in-residence Max Garland, and others. The hope for this culmination of efforts is to foster a greater love and appreciation of local writing.

See you there!

The Book Fest Is Here!

By John Paluta

 The 18th Annual Chippewa Valley Book Festival is nearly here! Running from October 16 – 26, Book Fest has a myriad of programs for readers and writers alike. Over the course of the ten days, there’s sure to be something that’ll strike your fancy.

One of the highlights of this year’s festival is the attendance of Pulitzer Prize winner Matthew Desmond. On October 19th he will be reading from his winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Desmond has taken his experience of poverty and the extensive research he completed, and turned it all into a very readable story. You’re not going to want to miss this!

Several new events are taking part in Book Fest this year as well. One of which is ecWIT, a reader’s theater comprised of six women. They will be taking texts from various festival writers and interpreting them. Another first for Book Fest is the partnership with the Chippewa Valley Technical College. Two events will be held at the college, one of which is Jillian Weise presenting her talk titled Permission and Provocation. The other presentation will be by Jim Walsh (Also at the Technical College) about Prince and Bar Yarns: Music from Minneapolis and Beyond. One of the focuses of the talk will be the artist Prince.

Perhaps you fancy yourself a writer and the thought of workshops piques your interest! Two workshops are being offered for adult writers, the first of which being Writing Your “Wisconsin Life”. Author Patti See is an award winning writer and a frequent contributor to ‘Wisconsin Life’ on Wisconsin Public Radio. Prepare to write about your own Wisconsin story! The second workshop focuses on poetry, the name of the workshop being Narrative Poetry: Storytelling in Verse. UW-Eau Claire creative writing teacher Katie Vagnino will lead the workshop and explore narrative poems to understand how they work. Participants will have time to draft and revise their own poems!

And if you want to get the most out of Book Fest, you’re not going to want to miss Saturday, October 21st. Five events are taking place throughout the day. Four of which are at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library. ecWIT is one of these events, but other presentations include Charles Baxter’s Starting a Novel , Hilma Wolitzer’s The Late Bloomer and Judith Claire Mitchell’s A Reunion of Ghosts: When Historical Truth Meets Literary Truth and last but not least, a program titled Prodigal Poets Back in Town featuring Memorial High School graduates Graham Foust, Nick Gulig and Betsy Wheeler. 

Finally, don’t forget the book release for Barstow & Grand’s inaugural issue on October 26 at 7PM at The Local Store.  Come support the many regional writers who brought this dream to fruition!

Mark your calendars! Book Festival goes from October 16 – 26. You won’t want to miss any of these events.

Finding My Writing Home



By Jackie McManus

In 2010, I was going through something—a transition, maybe—to see what the next chapter held for me. As I was browsing the internet I came across a site that read, Hike Mt. St. Helen’s on Mother’s Day in honor of your mom and call her from the top. Wear a dress. Because I was struggling through my own personal mountain at the time, I thought: This. Sounds. Perfect. 

Along with 199 other people—that’s what the permits would allow on the mountain that day—I hiked with men and women, every one of us in dresses with hiking boots and crampons and pick axes. I made the hike on about two hours of sleep in my tent at the base of the mountain. But I hiked off that mountain seven hours later, better.

When I moved to Wisconsin last year to help my mother, who just turned 86, it was difficult for me to leave my beloved Northwest. Again I researched…and found Cirenaica. Cirenaica means “siren of the sea” so this time it wasn't land, but water.  This time it wasn’t hiking boots and a pick axe but pen and paper. And because there was no mention online of bug spray or deerflies, I told myself "I'm in."

In Montana and Washington where I've lived, I couldn’t touch the quality of this type of writing retreat. They were all beyond my teacher’s budget. But because Cirenaica wasn’t, and because I was drawn to the quality of the people facilitating the retreat, I get to carry with me some wonderful moments: of walking in the door early in the morning to nothing but hot coffee, a jar of candy, and people silently writing in their spaces. I once taught Kindergarten so silence is no small thing. There's no feeling like walking in that door because the air in the early morning is nearly tangible, thick but not empty, the feeling something is happening that you want to be a part of, that you are instantly grateful you are.

At Cirenaica (Image: Justin Patchin)

At Cirenaica (Image: Justin Patchin)

This July Max Garland took us on a hike to Big Falls on the Eau Claire River, a spot I had never seen. There we found baby caterpillars, one of whom we named Cirne, our retreat mascot. I offered to carry Cirne back to the lodge and I was okay sitting in the back seat of Max’s car until Cirne woke up and began crawling around the edges of her leaf. I thought oh no. What if I lose our mascot or worse, she gets squished and then Max will never speak to me again and he will go home and write a poem of lament and on and on… But then I remembered that I was riding in Max Garland’s car. At a writing retreat. I could do anything. Even safely see Cirne through his transition to a Monarch butterfly.

Back in the Northwest, I’d belonged to two writing groups. Additionally, I’d helped facilitate a community read at an art center and attended open mics. But no matter how we marketed these events, attendance always remained pretty disappointing. I have been nothing but surprised to discover a really large writing community in Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire and not just that, but that there is room for me in it. In the Northwest, it felt like the spaces were all filled, but here, for me, somehow there's room.

Cirenaica has in some way become my Mt. St. Helen's. I came for four days and left, better. I left with better strategies, better poetry, a better spirit.

Mapping Memories with Max (A Preview of Max Garland’s Upcoming Collection: The Word We Used for It)

Credit: Justin Patchin

Credit: Justin Patchin

By Alex Zitzner

Before the upcoming release of The Word We Used for It from the University of Wisconsin Press, I was able to grab a coffee with the latest Brittingham Prize Winner, Max Garland, and discuss his third collection of poems. Following two previous prize-winning books (The Postal Confessions; University of Massachusetts Press and Hunger Wide as Heaven; Cleveland State University Poetry Center), this third installment lends a new ear to topics of memory, nature, and how we account for each as our eyes become critical of our words. 

My immediate reaction was to pose a question about the title’s vagueness. With the word “It” being somewhat open ended, Max explained the title, noting how, “...we use words all the time as if we understand what they mean, but more often when we get down to it, we’re meaning very different things. Some of the most important things we try to say aren’t adequately conveyed…” By admitting the rift between what we experience and how we share those experiences, “The Word We Used for It” serves as a reference point for each trail of memories traversed in trying to find the right words to describe the journey. 

Max explained how memories often “...become colored with all we’ve experienced,” and become lost, slightly skewed retellings of stories. This idea can be found running throughout each and every piece of the book in its own way, allowing the reader to reflect on the theme as they go.  The poem, “The Woman Who Waved From the River” perfectly illustrates this sentiment.

Besides memories of childhood, another pertinent theme running through the collection involves nature and the urgency to depict the present before the next moment vanishes. As Max puts it, “There is a lot to be learned from creatures. Think of those rabbits and squirrels and the grit they have during the Wisconsin winters, there is a lesson in that. Look how invested they are on a day to day basis...look how alive they are, even if their life is going to be short.” A telling epigraph from Nazim Hikmet appears at the beginning of Max’s book: “Living is no laughing matter: / You must live your life with great seriousness / like a squirrel…” Hikmet’s words set the stage for Max’s, helping readers better understand nature’s constant state of motion, even if we don’t quite see it. 

The Word We Used for It will challenge readers to think deeply about language and its abilities. Having read it myself, I am certain the newfound perspectives will long stick with me, even as my memories begins to fade. 

Max will be releasing, reading, and signing this book at The Local Store on Friday November 10th. To hear Max read more about memory and nature, he will be reading with current Wisconsin Poet Laureate, Karla Huston, on Friday, October 20th at 4PM at the Unitarian Universalist Church as part of the Chippewa Valley Book Festival.

Barstow & Grand’s Inaugural Issue Available Soon (Interview with editor Eric Rasmussen)

Eric Rasmussen

Eric Rasmussen

By BJ Hollars

In anticipation for Barstow & Grand’s inaugural issue, we recently sat down with B&G editor Eric Rasmussen.  Read below for some behind-the-scenes details from the first issue, as well as what’s coming next! 

BJ Hollars: So B&G's inaugural issue will be released October 26 at 7PM at The Local Store!  Congratulations!  Tell us a bit about what people can expect at the release party?

Eric Rasmussen: The release party will be a mash-up of two of our favorite things: traditional literary readings, and office birthday parties. We will have about ten of our issue one authors on hand to read their work, as well as the editors of the journal. Then, we will stand around, eat cake, and make small talk.

Tell us a bit about the editorial process.  Who submitted and how many submissions did you receive?

ER: We received submissions from a wide assortment of people connected to the Chippewa Valley. Some of our authors have lived in Eau Claire their entire lives, while one woman from whom we accepted a prose piece and a poem is connected to the Chippewa Valley through her love of Leinenkugel’s products (she lives on the west coast). Taking this approach created an intriguing argument for what constitutes a “literary community” in the 21st century. What binds us in modern times is much more than geographic location, although our geography is still the focus of our communities.

We received almost 300 submissions from over 100 writers, of which we were able to accept a little less than 10%.

What surprised you most about the work you received?

ER: We knew going in we’d see lots of pieces about the themes that surround us in the upper midwest - the landscape, the seasons, rural living - but we were surprised by how predominant those themes were in the submission pile. This is a good thing and a bad thing - we want to capture the character of our home, but it can also be challenging to stand out if a few dozen other submissions are talking about the same thing. The other thing that surprised us was how many submissions we received from “new” writers. It’s obvious there are many people (who haven’t yet done so) looking for an opportunity to share their words. It’s exciting to give some of those authors a chance to do so.


What excites you most about the first issue?

ER: Honestly, that it exists. This has been a tremendous learning experience in all regards, from forming an editorial team, to soliciting pieces, to accepting pieces, to producing a physical journal. Now that we’ve got one done, we can implement all of the grand plans that had to be shelved while we learned the basics! Onward to issue two!

How can writers best contribute to Barstow & Grand?

ER: Buying an issue, without a doubt, would be the number one way to contribute. If we can build this endeavor into something that can someday pays its writers and staff, then we will have accomplished something really significant. Sending work is another fantastic way to support the journal. Not only would we cease to exist without quality submissions, we charge a small submission fee, which allows us to host a website, hold release parties with cake, and print the journal, so by submitting, writers are participating in our writing community in a concrete and measurable way. The other way is to keep working. Publishing writing is hard, and for most, only comes after lots of rejections and hours (days? months? years?) of toil. Our mission has always to be support the “professionalization” of the Valley’s writing community. Everyone who shares work with a writing group or who plunges into yet another draft is helping us achieve our mission.

What's coming up next?  When should people prepare to submit again?

ER: Submissions for issue two will open in March of 2018. We once again are looking for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry

Any final thoughts?

ER: There is so much involved in “becoming a writer,” and one of the final steps is seeking publication for one’s work. If you’re at that point in your writing life, Barstow & Grand is here to help. We exist for you. We can’t wait to see your submissions!

Looking forward to seeing you all on October 26 at 7PM at The Local Store!

From The Mouths Of Writers 3: Is there a personal item or a space that gives you inspiration to write? 


By Jeana Conder

Several months ago I set out on the task of asking local writers to answer a series of eight questions I compiled.  The responses I received are now creating our newest series, “From the Mouth of Writers.”  We hope that this series allows upcoming writers to gain knowledge from others with the same passion.  This month’s question: Is there a personal item or a space that gives you inspiration to write? 

Allyson Loomis

Absolutely not.  My life is so busy with full-time work and full-time parenting and housekeeping, that if I get a stretch of free time to write, I just plop down wherever I am.  A lowered toilet lid in a quiet bathroom is a fine place to sit with a laptop and get a few sentences done.

Sandra Lindow

When I want to write something I usually go for a walk.  I sometimes take notes although I have found that some ballpoint pens don’t work in winter.  Now I know why poet Mary Oliver takes a pencil when she goes for a walk in the woods.  When I come home, I sit in my recliner and write on my laptop.  Our cat, Maisie, died last summer, but in the twenty years before that, Maisie added purrrpose to my writing by sitting on the arm of my chair.

Molly Patterson

I'm a strong believer in demystifying writing, so I don't have any talisman or any specific place that I need to write. I don't want to have to have a candle burning to inspire me, because what happens when I can't light that candle? For me, it's establishing the habit of writing that is important, not surrounding myself with objects that put me in the mood to write. The fact is, you're not always going to want to write. In fact, you'll probably very often feel like you'd better do anything else rather than write (I know I feel that way a lot), though usually, once you start writing you find that it's actually not so bad, after all. And then you get to feel glad that you have written today, which is much better than feeling guilty that you didn't write today, as you'd meant to do. If you're someone for whom an object or a space can be the thing that gets you to buckle down and open up that document, then that's great. For me, though, it's simply about a commitment: I will write most days, and I won't push it to the back burner as something to get to once I finish everything else. "Everything else" will never be done. You have to be selfish with your writing time.

Bruce Taylor

Inspiration is wonderful if and when it happens. But don’t rely on it. Inspiration is for amateurs.

Jon Loomis

Funny you should ask this, as I tell my advanced poetry classes to acquire a “mojo” item and keep it on hand while they’re working.  I’ve had a series of meaningful hats, and I seem to work pretty well these days at our cabin up north, although I don’t get up there as often as I’d like.  

Marsha Qualey

The main lecture hall we use at Hamline is known as GLC 100. So many times I have walked out of that lecture hall inspired by what I’ve heard, whether it’s about language or form or the writing life. My newest books, coming out later this year, are about Gracie LaRoo, a champion synchronized swimmer who happens to be a pig. They are a direct result of listening to other writers talk about writing in GLC 100.

Jay Gilbertson

Yes. I live on an 80-acre organic-certified farm in NW Wisconsin. I have an office that looks into the trees, up a hill and is filled with sky. I don’t buy into the muse deal and have never had writer’s block. Both rather odd excuses for not writing or writing poorly. When the flow is not there, we have wood to chop, chickens to chase and an unending chore list.

Nickolas Butler

Not really.  Personal spaces, totems, lucky-charms - all of those things seem like crutches to me, excuses.  I'm writing letters to a man right now in prison who wants to become a writer.  You think he's worried about such luxuries?

Sandra McKinney

Solitude & nature; finding segments of time without a schedule.


Brett Beach

The novel I am working on takes place in a fictionalized portion of Door County—where my wife and I honeymooned, and have returned to several times since. Sitting outside the Old Post Office Restaurant on a warm summer evening while eating the buttery, perfectly cooked plate from our fish boil, I looked out at the Peninsula Park Beech Forest State Natural Area, where the green hills rose above the softly moving waters of the bay, and I felt that magical moment in which the idea I had been toying with in my mind found a location in which to land.

Since my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country of Cape Verde, I have returned to those islands again and again in my fiction. I am also a Midwesterner by birth, and so Ohio and Wisconsin pop up in my stories. We write what we dream, I suppose, and my dreams are infused with the cornfield and suburbs and churches of my youth, of low dark clouds that signal tornados approaching and snow piled thick on the bird feeder outside my kitchen window, the deer in the backyard triggering the back porch light’s sensor, the unknowable blinking communication of lightening bugs in summer.

Cathy Sultan

I have two spaces that inspire me to write. One is my office which overlooks my gardens and the rolling hills beyond and Beirut a city full of untold stories, intrigue and skullduggery.

Dear Writer - October 2017

Dear Writer,.png

Dear Writer,

It seems many writers have 'writer's block.'  I have friends who are always staring at a blank screen, and they get more desperate when they fail to write what they are thinking. But that's not my problem. I love the writing, but I always have trouble knowing when to stop. I'm usually well over a word limit by the time that I'm done writing. Can you help me with this problem, or at least convince my editor that I need more space for my stories.

Whole Lot of Words

Dear Whole Lot of Words,

Congratulations on not suffering 'the block.' I know writers who would trade spell check for such a gift.

As to not being able to fit your 700-word masterpiece into a 500-word bag, you are not the Lone Writer. And there are assignments requiring more space, for example a topic requiring deep background. But the common problem is not the story but the storyteller. One way to sabotage a word limit is the Cinnamon Syndrome: If a recipe calls for a teaspoon of cinnamon, two teaspoons must be better.

No. A sports editor once supervised a reporter who wrote great feature stories filled with interesting detail and anecdotes. But that same writer's deadline stories given the same treatment were overwritten. Whole phrases and in some cases paragraphs could be wiped clean without touching the heart of the story. “The wet, gray sky hung low, the wind continually impacted the flight of the ball during pass plays and the field itself turned to soup, impacting the Raiders' vaulted ground attack” would find publication as “Blustery weather and a muddy track stalled the Raiders' offense.”

It's a game story requiring crisp, active prose. Every paragraph, every sentence, every word should be essential or be gone. Apply this test to everything you write, whether an article on landscaping or a short story. Does a detail or idea advance your story, or do they exist because you are in love with them? There are times when a detail or idea may have fit when you wrote it, but stories change. Revisit everything. If it doesn't move it, remove it.

When I edited magazines, more than half of my writers' stories came back racing well past the assigned word limit. And there was this note: “I think I wrote long. Feel free to edit,” illustrating both problem and solution. The writer wrote long and should own up to it and state it clearly, “I wrote long,” saving two words. And “Feel free to edit?” Well, yes, I WILL feel free to edit. I am the editor. It's what I do. You wasted another four words. You used nine words where three would serve. And going through the article, I find this problem repeated: Nine words where three would serve. The edited story was a leaner, cleaner piece.

Whole Lot of Words, you can solve your word-limit angst AND become a better writer. Hopefully you're familiar with Strunk & White's Elements of Style. Find your copy and read it again. This is the Bible of Composition, and the First Commandment is “Omit Needless Words.” Now exercise your new muscle. Retrieve a piece you've already written and get a word count. Edit out 20 percent of the words. Seek and destroy unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. How many times did you use the word “that?”

If 20 percent seems harsh, consider advice offered students in a freshman English class by the late Laurence Perrine, professor at Southern Methodist University and author of numerous books on literature. “How can you achieve this well-tuned, economical, smooth-operating style? The answer is simple. For every 300 words you write, cross 100 out. When assigned a 500-word theme, write a first draft of one thousand words; then cut out the fat without losing the meat. This apprenticeship is rigorous, but it brings results.”

Finally, Whole Lot of Words, let's revisit your letter. How's this?

Dear Writer,
My stories always go over the word limit. Can you help?

Good luck,

All the Nourishment We Could Handle: A Wobegon Recap

credit: Justin Patchin

B.J. Hollars

Coordinating and executing a dinner for 100 people is a humbling experience.  Did I say humbling?  I meant horrifying.  Or it might have been had any part of our plan shifted even a bit. 

At around 5:45, as the first groups of people began wading their way into Forage, it occurred to me that it was possible (probable even, given my bad luck), that our carefully planned evening might just end in disaster. 

My anxieties were heightened by the heat—which wasn’t too terrible for a guy who’d spent four years of “practice-sweating” in Alabama—though I knew it would feel uncomfortably warm for those with less practice in that department.

Then there were my concerns about the food: would there be enough of it, would it stay warm, and would the serving lines move fast enough to fill all those empty bellies?

I’ll spare you my other anxieties, which ranged from normal (“What if the sound system cuts out?”) to abnormal (“What if the sound system cuts out due to a flock of migrating birds caught in a crosswind and hurled through the third story windows of Banbury Place?”)

Spoiler alert: no wayward birds crashed our party.  Moreover, the food was fantastic and the temperature didn’t put a damper on our good time. 

credit: Justin Patchin

And in the aftermath of it all, I can say with certainty that I learned many valuable lessons.  Most of all, that the trick to organizing a successful dinner is to anticipate the “x-factors.”  But the thing about x-factors, of course, is that you can’t anticipate them entirely.  All you can do is be aware that something unexpected will happen, and likely to your detriment.

Which might’ve been how our story played out.  But it wasn’t. 

This time, the x-factor wasn’t what went wrong, it was what went right.  It was all the people who came out of nowhere to make the night a success.  Any impending disasters that I’d inadvertently put into motion were neutralized by these kind strangers, many of whom I’d never met and whose names I do not know.

Thank you to the bussers, the servers, the dishwashers, the table scrubbers, the sweepers, the moppers, the silverware-getters and the silverware putterawayers.  Thanks to the ukulele strummers, the picture snappers, the chair stackers, the food platers, the booksellers, the ticket takers, and most of all: our wondrous speaker, Holly Harden,  the best chef anyone could ask for, Brent Halverson, and the incredible Forage crew.    

As I chatted with people at the end of the night, I was surprised to learn they came from places as far away as Alabama, Minnesota and Illinois, and as close as two blocks away.  Some came because they wanted a great meal, and a great show, and a chance to support the Guild.  Others came because Holly was their former teacher, or because they were Holly’s former teacher.  That all of these people converged in a single place for such a myriad of purposes was perhaps the source of the evening’s magic.  Or at least one of its sources.   


That night, after the mopping was done, and the trash was trashed, and the plates were put away, I wheeled a cart full of odds and ends back toward the Banbury Place elevator.  It was late, I was alone, and the old converted tire factory was breathtakingly silent.  I tried imagining what this place was like back when it was the Uniroyal plant—a place that had done so much to build our community.  And I thought, too, how a quarter century after that last tire had rolled off the line, this place was doing it again: helping to build a community—this time, the arts community—in the very same hallowed halls.

I barely made it home that night.  And had it not been for a few concerned friends who bought me a burger after learning I hadn’t eaten that day, I mightn’t have made it at all.  I was tired, hungry and dehydrated, but most of all, overwhelmed by the generosity of strangers.  Sweat drenched, I stumbled into my front door, a wave of something close to catharsis washing through me.  I’d tried to do a good thing for the community, but once again, the community had done a good thing for me.  Our community had served as the x-factor I hadn’t known I needed. 

Just before bed, I reached my hand into my pocket to find an envelope I’d forgotten I’d received earlier that evening.  In it was the check I’d given Holly.  She’d given it back. 

“My contribution to the Guild,” she’d said.

Holding that check in my hands, I collapsed onto the couch.  

A guy can only take so much kindness.  And I had all that I could bear. 

Turning Moments to Memories: A Summer Now Gone, But A Wonderful Fall Ahead


By Guild Director B.J. Hollars

I’ve been putting off writing this for a while now.  Not due to a lack of enthusiasm, but due to too much of it.  When I think back on the summer residencies at Cirenaica, I immediately become so overwhelmed by my sugary-sweet sentimentality, that any attempt to write about it will surely test the readers’ gag reflexes.  (Yes, it was that great.)

The truth is, I often feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world.  Though I’m no longer in a life position that allows me to travel to partake in too many writing residencies (two kids have made that a challenge), I am in a position to help provide such opportunities for others.  And the benefit to me, of course, is that I get to enjoy the residencies in my own backyard at Cirenaica.  I come, I go, I learn, I eat.  Then, I repeat it all the following week.

This past summer taught me all sorts of writing-related lessons.  But of equal importance, the summer residencies also reaffirmed for me the power of community.  Whether we were singing camp songs around the flames, playing a “best out of 11” never-ending ping-pong tournament, or reuniting with our high schools principals in an entirely new setting (well, I guess that last one only applies to me), every moment at Cirenaica became a fond memory, something I never want to forget.  Some of the summer’s best moments occurred spontaneously: when writer-in-residence Max Garland helped us celebrate Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday with a birthday cake, or when participant Ken Szymanski found the perfect structure to his essay just an hour before the public reading.  And there were plenty of others, too: assistant arts administrator Geoff Carter belting out a new song to conclude the evening, or Brent Halverson sharing his latest ice cream recipes.  Every day when I drove to Cirenaica, I always knew I’d leave with a new friend, a new insight, and a renewed motivation to keep writing.  And this proved true every day.  

Looking ahead, the Guild’s got all kinds of equally exciting programming on the horizon.  From the release of Barstow & Grand on October 26 at 7PM at The Local Store (more on that next newsletter!) to our second annual Winter Writers Residency at The Oxbow Hotel (more on that later, too!), rest assured, we’ve got you covered.  Which is to say nothing of our amazing craft talks headed your way, including UWEC instructor and poet Katie Vagnino’s talk, “Pitch Perfect: Navigating the World of Freelance Writing” (The Local Store / Oct. 12 / 7PM) and Madison-based poet Matthew Guenette’s “The Poetics of Voice: Crafting the Persona Poem” (The Local Store / Nov. 9 / 7PM).  And let’s not forget our annual fundraiser, “Suppertime in Lake Wobegon” (featuring A Prairie Home Companion writer Holly Harden and the food of chef Brent Halverson!) which takes place on September 16 at 6PM at Forage.  Ticket sales end September 13. Purchase yours today by clicking here! 

Last but not least, I’m pleased to announce that the Guild now has an advisory board!  This board will do much to ensure that our diverse range of programs continues to flourish.  Already, the board’s many insights have proven invaluable.  Get ready for the Guild to grow!

Wishing you many wonderful words in the coming month.

Until next time, 
BJ Hollars

From the Mouths of Writers 2: Was there a specific book that led you to write?


Compiled by Jeana Conder

A couple of months ago I set out on the task of asking local writers to answer a series of eight questions I compiled.  The responses I received are now creating our newest series, “From the Mouth of Writers.”  We hope that this series allows upcoming writers to gain knowledge from others with the same passion.  This month’s question: Was there a specific book that led you to write?

Allyson Loomis

It will surprise you when I say that no, there wasn’t a specific book.  Honestly, my interest in writing evolved from a childhood obsession with song lyrics. I was a weirdo child of the 1970s who could not get enough of Cole Porter. This evolved into a love of theater and dramatic dialogue.  I first wrote plays.  I wrote many bad plays.  I wasn't really wasn’t electrified by fiction until quite late in the game, though I read fiction quite a bit.  

Sandra Lindow

I wanted to be a writer when I two and I saw my mother writing a letter.  I tried to copy her cursive but became frustrated because it didn’t look right, I loved the books and the idea of communicating ideas on paper.  By the time I was in second grade in a one room school house in Clark County, Wisconsin, I knew I wanted to be an English teacher and a writer.  Books that inspired me were primarily poetry like Dr. Seuss’s McElligot’s Pool, which I recognize now to be a Taoist classic about the connectedness of all things.

Molly Patterson

I'm not sure there was one book that led me into writing--I seem to remember from a very young age wanting to write stories. But I do know that I read Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I was in elementary school (not as a school assignment, of course! Probably not recommended reading for young children...) and it opened up a new world for me. I specifically remember reading a scene of the narrator as a young child wetting herself in her church clothes, and the mortification she felt was rendered so powerfully that I felt embarrassed for her. That sense of empathy between reader and character has stuck with me. It's still what I strive for. 

Bruce Taylor

It was reading more than any specific book. I read early, anything\everything I could get my hands on. I read fast but not very accurately, unless the situation requires it. Sometimes I think for a writer misreading can be as important as reading.

Jon Loomis

I don’t know about a single specific book, but I think it probably helped that my house was full of books when I was a kid.  I loved e.e. cummings and P.G. Wodehouse, for example.  So, guys with initials.  I still read Wodehouse, especially the Jeeves and Wooster stories.    

Marsha Qualey

A specific book that led me into writing young adult fiction, or more accurately, was a green light for me when I first considered writing YA: Homecoming, by Cynthia Voight. I had submitted a short story to Seventeen Magazine (it used to have a terrific fiction department; not sure about now) and it was rejected by an editor who encouraged me to turn the story into a young adult novel. I had no knowledge of YA novels at that time (late 80s) and the first one I then read was Homecoming. I knew right away I was in the right place.

Sandra McKinney

I loved reading biographies & auto-biographies as a child. I believe the power of "true story" was my inspiration for writing.

Jay Gilbertson

Yes. The really bad ones. The poorly written ones. YOU know the ones. Years ago, and I’ve been reading since electricity, I read one too many crappy published books and figured, dang, if this junk got published, what in the world have I got to worry about? Well, that started this whole crazy adventure and I haven’t stopped yet. And, hopefully, my writing has gotten better. Hopefully.

Nickolas Butler

I consider "Sometimes a Great Notion" by Ken Kesey to be my favorite literary masterpiece, but the work of Jim Harrison was very influential when I was first deciding to pursue writing as a craft, or vocation.  Also: Tony Earley's "Jim the Boy", Tom Franklin's "Poachers", and Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News".

Cathy Sultan

No, it was my personal experiences living in Beirut during its civil war that led me to start writing and to be more specific it was my son who asked me to write about our fifteen years in Lebanon from ’69 to ’84 that led me to learn to write.

Brett Beach

In college, I picked up Michael Byer’s short story collection The Coast of Good Intentions. Before, I had read short stories, probably the ones that everyone reads in high school: “A Rose For Miss Emily” and “Roman Fever” and “Hills Like White Elephants” and…well, others that didn’t stick. A thing that troubles me is the insistence that the “classics” must be appreciated, especially by seventeen year olds. I am a well-read, curious sort of fellow, and I promise, I just didn’t understand Faulkner or Welty or Wharton or Fitzgerald, and especially not Hemingway. Eventually, appreciation came, but at first?—nope.

Byer’s collection though, did what all good writing does: in each story, it was as if a hand were reaching out to guide me along. Here is the world, the book said. Here is a place. Do you see it? Do you smell it? Do you hear it?

In the collection’s first story, about a lonely, retired teacher slowly beginning a relationship with a woman he knew years before, Byer writes, “I was drunk but not drunk enough to say what I wanted, that we don’t live our lives so much as come to them, as different people and things collect around us.” The line struck me then, as it does now, as a perfect example of writing’s magic, which is to put into words the very thing I didn’t realize needed to be said.

Oh, I remember thinking as my heart broke, and I longed with impatience to know which people and which things would gather around me as I grew old: I want to do that.



Dear Writer - September 2017

The Guild is thrilled to feature a brand new monthly column!

Here’s how it works: each issue, a local writer will offer a question pertaining to the writing life.  Then, our anonymous columnist (who we affectionately call “Writer”!) will attempt to respond.  The answers won’t always be perfect, but they’ll always be heartfelt.  And they’ll always be meant to bring our community a bit closer.

Dear Writer,

I’ve been thinking about writing you for awhile now, but I was always afraid I’d never quite be able to briefly put my question into words.  You see, my problem’s pretty complicated, but it’s also one shared by a lot of us.  After some serious soul-searching, I think I’ve managed to boil it down to a single question.  Here goes: why does my writing suck?

Boohoo Me

Dear Boohoo,

Once upon a time, back when I was an undergraduate and the words were easy, I wrote a story about a boy who fell in love with a girl in chemistry class.  Upon reading my final product, I immediately knew one thing for sure: my story was awesome!  In fact, it was probably in the top ten best stories ever written in the English language.  It had everything: love, drama, and even a nice extended metaphor related to human “chemistry” and the scientific version.  Yes, it was one for the ages, and when it was picked up by a magazine a few months later, I was hardly surprised.

Fast forward a couple of months, whereupon rereading it, a few new facts came to light.  First, my story was not awesome.  In fact, I’d wager to guess it’s probably in the top ten worst stories ever written in the English language. Yes, on the surface it had everything—love, drama, and more!—but all that story had was surface.  Which is another way of saying: it had about as much depth as a puddle.  The characters were flat, the plot was contrived, and my extended metaphor couldn’t have been more transparent if I’d tacked on a title like, “Chemistry, like Love Chemistry, Get It?”

Anyway, I guess most of my readers got it—all four of them.  While that tenth-tier now-defunct online magazine had seen fit to publish the piece, I sleep easier knowing that story’s pretty well hidden in the bowels of the internet.  Though not hidden enough for my liking.

I won’t sit here and tell you that your writing doesn’t suck.  Not because I don’t want to (I do!), but because it would be disingenuous to make an assessment based solely on the caliber of the writing revealed in your question to me.  What I can tell you is that many writers worth their salt are stricken with similar bouts of self-doubt.  To my mind, that’s a good thing.  A “writer” who thinks he churns out pure gold is a “writer” who I can only refer to as a “writer” in quotation marks.  True writers (note the lack of quotation marks) understand that the struggle is part of the process.  And that the longest, hardest struggles often end with the greatest sense of accomplishment.

Which is to say: if you think your writing sucks, you’re in good company.  The best company.  

Now back to the keys, my friend,

Solving for ‘X’ and ‘Y’: Finding Identity at Cirenaica


By Erin Stevens

Two weeks before arriving at Cirenaica, I was having what I’d like to call an identity crisis. It had been two months or so since I’d been able to sit down at my laptop or notebook and write something of substance. Any ideas that had sounded promising in my head only seemed to fizzle out after a page or two一 or worse, after the first paragraph. 

If this sounds like your average bout of writer’s block, it’s a little more than that. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t get the words to come out—I wasn’t finding time to even try to write. I’d gotten out of my routine of getting up early and writing, instead found myself hitting the snooze button every morning (sometimes hitting it twice). When I’d get home from work, I’d opt for a book or Netflix, something that didn’t require the brainpower I’d already been using for the past eight hours. 

At the end of all this, I started having a recurring thought: what if I’m not a writer anymore? And considering that I started writing when I was in middle school, the next thought was, who am I if I’m not a writer anymore? 

When I got to Cirenaica for the Young Adult fiction writers residency, I was excited, but I also felt a little bit like a fraud. Do I even belong here right now? I wondered. 

About three hours later that first night, after reconnecting with old friends and eating my third plate of guacamole, Marsha Qualey, our fearless leader and writer-in-residence for the weekend, taught us the secret formula for writing a Young Adult novel or middle grade series: 

‘X’ + ‘Y’ = identity

In the equation, ‘x’ stands for power that either a character does or doesn’t have, while ‘y’ represents belonging. Both of these components contribute to a character’s identity. 

What struck me about this was that we were talking about fictional characters, but this equation could easily apply to me and my identity as a writer. While I had the power to write and to not hit the snooze button, I was choosing to give what power I had to the fatigue and laziness I feel after a long work day or week. Likewise, while the Twin Cities boasts many bookstores, publishing companies, and even a literary center, in the three years I’ve lived here, I haven’t been able to find a local writing community to help push me and keep me accountable; there was no sense of belonging. 

Should I have been allowing a lack of community to keep me from writing? Maybe not, but what the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild has taught me is that a writer is only as strong as the community that supports them. Without people to talk to about my writing, without learning from and being inspired by the creativity of others, it all felt a little pointless. 

As the weekend progressed, it turned out that Cirenaica was great for helping me solve this equation. Eager to make the most of my weekends and the four hours of quiet writing time each morning, I found myself setting my alarm much earlier than I normally would on a weekend一 and I didn’t hit the snooze button once! I’d enjoy my coffee and breakfast on the deck, and then tuck myself away in the library/loft area of the cabin to write. The writing time almost hit a reset button, and I felt myself regaining control (or power). Without even realizing it, I’d solved for x. 

As a Cirenaica returnee, I knew I could count on two things: gaining about twenty pounds because the food is so damn good, and finding belonging and community. Cirenaica reconnected me with old friends and connected me with new ones. We all came from different backgrounds, but our passion for writing was the common denominator that bonded all of us together. That bond led to positive, productive and constructive workshop sessions. It also led to friendships and commitment to keep one another accountable long after the weekend was over. And as if that wasn’t enough, on the final night of the residency, 11 of us read our work to a full house, with members of the community and Cirenaica alums coming out to show their support. 

If that doesn’t provide someone with a sense of belonging, then I don’t know what does, but for me this did the trick. This solved for y. 

Before I knew it, the weekend was over. We were packing our bags and loading up our cars, ready to head back to our regular lives. While I’d felt that I’d grown made a lot of progress as a writer, and I’d learned so much from Marsha and the other writers at the retreat, I worried if it would all be lost when I went back to work on that Tuesday, and when I had family and friends wanting to make plans. When the words wouldn’t flow, and I didn’t have four hours of dedicated writing time to wait for them. Would I slip back into my self-doubt as a writer?

Maybe at some point I will, but with only a few weeks passing since I last saw the YA writing crew, I’ve been more committed to my writing than I have been in the last year. And when I sense my confidence in my writing identity wavering, I’ll think about big paper writing exercises and positive, constructive workshops. I’ll think about sitting around a fire, sharing stories while the fireflies winked from within the woods. I’ll think about hot coffee enjoyed outside on a cool July morning, while talking with fellow writers about the endless possibilities for writers.

I’ll think of the community that always finds a way to reinforce my identity. 

Until next summer, Cirenaica. 

#Cirenaica2017 #MandatoryHashtag #Hashtag #RecoveringGuacamoleAddictThanksToBrent

Nourishing Souls and Stomachs: An Interview with Holly Harden

Janik_5 copy.jpg

At age nine, in the back seat of her grandmother's car on the way home from a funeral, Holly Harden began to write, and she's been writing ever since.

On Saturday, September 16 at 6:00PM at Forage, Holly will serve as the keynote speaker for the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild’s annual fundraiser.  What’s the best way to give to the Guild?  By treating you and your friends to an unforgettable evening with Holly—a cookbook author and writer for Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.  Holly’s words will be accompanied by The Ukulele Klub’s music, as well as Chef Brent Halverson’s creative spin on the “church social” meal.  (If you think you like Sweet Vidalia Cheese Dip, Our Lady of Lourdes Hamburger Pie, and Rum Truffles now, just wait until you savor Chef Brent’s variations; click here for the complete menu).

Holly Harden 2.jpg

Throughout the evening, Holly will share stories from the writing life; in particular, how growing up in Fall Creek, Wisconsin eventually led her to writing for Garrison Keillor.  She’ll share, too, insights on the creation of Mrs. Sundberg, the character popularized on A Prairie Home Companion, and the persona who narrates both of Holly’s cookbooks.

Who is Mrs. Sundberg?  According to Holly, “She's rather fussy about details.  And manages to maintain a positive outlook despite the challenges of a small town life.”  Moreover, “she is not interested in being famous, only heard when she talks, and she tends to go on.   She believes that the greatest gift is something homemade, and she has a large collection of aprons.  And never paints her nails except once,” Holly adds.  “And always falls asleep reading.”

“Pairing Holly’s words with Chef Brent’s cooking seemed like a perfect fit,” says Guild director B.J. Hollars.  “Together, they can nourish us in a number of ways.  And by attending and supporting the Guild, we’re able to nourish the entire community all year long by way of our many free programs.”

“It’s a way of loving, to cook for someone,” Holly says.  “It’s a way of loving to receive it, too. It’s a communion, a breaking of bread, of sharing life with each other while we’re here.”

Cooking, like writing, is about sharing.  “It’s a way of loving, to cook for someone,” Holly says.  “It’s a way of loving to receive it, too. It’s a communion, a breaking of bread, of sharing life with each other while we’re here.”

A Fall Creek Native, Holly drew heavily from her hometown while writing for A Prairie Home Companion.  “I grew up in Lake Wobegon.  We all did.  It is that imaginary place we spend our lives trying to return to. My Lake Wobegon had a creek running through it, a cafe, a nursing home, a park, a railroad bridge, a feed mill. People were hit by trains.  There was Hollickers Creek, where I smoked a cigarette I found and dangled my feet in the water with my best friend Karen.  I came of age in that town; I knew which steps creaked in the homes of my friends, and I stayed out late each summer night watching the sun go down into the trees to the west.”

On Saturday, September 16, let’s watch the sun go down together.  Support a year’s worth of Guild events by buying your tickets today. Space is limited.

Sponsors: Wisconsin Public Radio, the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center, and Chippewa Valley Restaurant Week.  For more on Chippewa Valley Restaurant Week, click here.

Writing in the Wild: A Cirenaica Participant Perspective


by Karissa Zastrow           

I parked my car half in the grass after driving up the dusty, dirt road, feeling the excitement swell. This was my first Cirenaica writer residency, and it was the last one of summer. As I grabbed my bags and walked up to the large, log cabin, B.J. Hollars stood on the porch, waving. He gave me a quick tour and showed me to my room before greeting the next participant who had just arrived. While I mingled with the other writers in the common area, I knew this was going to be an impactful weekend full of creating, collaborating, and celebrating.

The mornings were reserved for creating. Each writer would get up and get ready for the day at their own pace before getting to work on their writing. Some people worked on new pieces, some worked on editing their work, and others spent their morning planning what they were going to do next. With the exception of the sound of keyboards and scribbling pens, anyone visiting would have no idea that there were six to fourteen people in the cabin at any given time.


After a delicious lunch served by chef Brent Halverson, the participants spent the afternoons collaborating. During this time, the writers would workshop each others’ work by providing feedback, discussing what worked well, what we liked, what we could improve on, and answering any questions we had. Between each piece, Marsha Qualey, the resident writer, would have mini lessons, or bits of advice. We discussed everything from character development, to agency, to different books on writing that writers should read and so much more.

During one activity, we had to create a character as a group using 20 details, but the last 10 details had to build off of the first 10. This is a great technique to create depth and backstories for characters. Another activity involved using our own stories. We had to create a timeline for our characters or a map of our setting in order to fit in details, add more character depth, or help make more sense of the world our characters were living in.

In the evenings, we celebrated. To start things off, Brent made phenomenal dinners that I still crave. As we ate, we shared stories, discussed our projects, and found out more about each other’s lives. There was no shortage of conversation in the cabin. Despite a wide age range of writers, different backgrounds, and a variety of genres in writing, we all connected well. Many of these conversations continued into the night where most of us would crawl into bed, exhausted, but eager for the next day.

On the last night in the cabin, the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild hosted a reading for the attending writers to showcase their work. After a quick decision to hold the reading indoors, fellow attendee, Erin Stevens, kicked off the reading. A variety of stories ranging from middle grade to new adult fiction to magical worlds, to stories that made us think about our own lives filled the room, sparking emotions, ideas, and curiosity.

On our last day at Cirenaica, our morning started out as usual, with our own free writing time, and ended with another mini-lesson from Marsha Qualey. Every writer soaked in the final moments of the residency, and even once we were able to leave, everyone hung around, not ready to break the magic of the long weekend. After exchanging e-mail addresses and discussing writing groups, everyone trickled out, exhausted, yet inspired.

Being one of the last people to leave, I put my bags in my car and took one last look at the cabin. I said a silent good-bye until next year and started down the dirt road, preparing for my long drive home. The whole way, I reflected on what I learned, the friends I made, and started planning my next project. It’s safe to say after such a wonderful weekend, I will be returning to Cirenaica next year, and I hope to see you there!

Final Words from the Wilderness: Geoff Carter Reflects On His Summer At Cirenaica

by Geoff Carter

Photos by Brent Halverson / Justin Patchin

When I first entered the Cirenaica lodge, the woody smell of rough-cut lumber filled my senses. I gazed around at the smooth logs stacked upon one another, forged into strong walls. Walking around that handcrafted masterpiece made me feel right at home. All the while smelling that rustic air. That scent stole me back to my youth as a kid venturing north for a yearly family vacation at a cabin resting by a lake.

Retreating to the north woods filled my tiny heart with joy I could never duplicate. The days spent building relationships with my brothers, cousins, and family are cherished as some of my best. Though I had to retire from Cirenaica’s last writing residency early to embark on another family trip to that same cabin, I will cherish my summer at Cirenaica in a similar way to those old family memories. Meeting fellow writers from across the country, building relationships with strangers, educators, peers, professionals who are all now new friends. The stories we shared on the porch or the living room and around fires or Chef Brent’s food. How our goodbyes sometimes took hours.

Cirenaica was dubbed “Writing Camp,” and the name fits it well. For a weekend, we could retreat into the wilderness to disappear into our words. It was a place where anyone could go and feel a youthful spirit taking hold of their pens and minds. It’s where we feed the dreams of our younger selves. Marsha Qualey’s Young Adult Fiction Residency solidified this idea of jovial youth being achieved here. We can stay up late and play records and eat celebratory cake. Where we can embrace childlike innocence and train whistles. We never really grow up, Cirenaica just helps us realize it. I felt young every time I stepped inside that lodge, and I know I wasn’t alone.

When I first stepped into Cirenaica, I had no idea it would be so hard to leave.

Stay tuned for participant perspectives on Marsha Qualey's residency coming soon!

Words from the Wilderness: Max Garland's Poetry Residency

by Geoff Carter

We heard the river before we saw it. Max Garland took us on a trip to Big Falls County Park in Fall Creek the second day of his poetry residency at Cirenaica. In a line, we trekked down a dirt trail to the waterfalls. The river splintered upon boulders and fell, splashing down until it collected and continued downstream.

A few minutes earlier, the ten writers, Max, and I drove up the road to explore nature in its most powerful. The rust water raging over bedrock, green hills stretching on the water’s sides, and us on its shore. Pads and pens spread out as fingers captured words from the air. We breathed inspiration from the air. Poems that would be read the next day, and cherished for much longer.

“There is a unifying power in metaphor that moves through us like water,” Max said. Through metaphor we see how everything can be and is connected; we see how everything is related. While we sat out on the shore in the middle of a waterfall, we were connected to everything.

It’s the world that inspires our words, and our words that reveal the world.


The first night of the residency, Max brought a cake to celebrate Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday. Through the weekend, we found ourselves sauntering through the Wisconsin wilderness as Thoreau did all over the country. His work inspired our explorations, our conversations, and our writing. We found ourselves reveling in Thoreau’s words, finding them fresh like the outside air. The more we read his work, the more we wanted to join in his journey of capturing nature.

While the work brought us together, it’s our moments together we’ll remember most. How we sang to Thoreau’s ghost and enjoyed his cake. The glorious meals Chef Brent Halverson concocted for us. Our adventures in morning coffees and creamers. When Max and special guest Dr. Joel Pace strummed and sang around our fire. And Max’s newfound Monarch caterpillar plucked from Big Falls. Or the conversations in circles that continued till late because sleep or writing or the world could wait.

One of the best things about coming to Cirenaica is the ability to forget the world. We are alone out here with bird songs, emerald trees, wandering breezes, and endless orange embers still burning. Just how Thoreau escaped the world on his walks through the woods, we can escape our worlds here. Guild Director BJ revealed his plan to save the ashes from the season’s final fire for starting the first fire next summer. Every summer on these grounds can be connected, just like we can connect ourselves with the places that best shape our words.

On our final night together we read our new and old work aloud for an audience. We escaped the world for a while and stood outside, amid the steaming air and twilight sky. After a weekend of working and reshaping our thinking about the world, we came together to flow through Cirenaica like the Eau Claire River collecting itself after rolling over Big Falls.

Words from the Wilderness: June Melby's Memoir Residency

Photos courtesy of Justin Patchin

Photos courtesy of Justin Patchin

by Geoff Carter

We gathered outside to share stories on Cirenaica’s back porch last Saturday night, the final night of June Melby’s Memoir Residency. Guild Director BJ Hollars and I arranged chairs on the porch facing our fire-pit-stage. Within minutes, the week’s writers would take to this stage to read the stories they had worked on all weekend.

In between arranging chairs and sweeping the patio, I welcomed the guests, finding many were past Cirenaica participants who had come back to support these writers and Cirenaica itself. With a golden full moon rising beyond the green trees, the writers gifted us with their stories in the perfect setting. On the porch that evening, and every day that weekend, we came together to rejoice in everyone’s individual stories. These stories only got better when they were shared with others, out loud at a reading or workshopped through the weekend.

June Melby began the weekend’s work Friday afternoon with an insightful lesson: “When writing memoir, you are the main character.” The stories we write are moments from our lives that have transformed us as both people and protagonists. We don’t just write stories, we live them. Each of the ten writers from this weekend brought with them a personal story; some documented the hardest parts of life, others held the funniest. Through the weekend, these stories were transformed from past moments into recorded triumphs. 

Under Melby’s guidance, the writers met in the lodge’s living room each afternoon to workshop their stories. This time spent together delivered priceless feedback and knowledge that would improve their craft for years to come. Tireless work was split up by Chef Brent Halverson’s other-worldly delectable meals with names I have no chance to pronounce.

The silent, diligent hours of the morning brought everyone to their comfortable corners of the lodge to write. Coffees or other caffeine sat at their sides as they focused on their words. These long hours let the writers reveal the stories inside them. Evenings were met with music and long conversations on the porch. Whether we were around the fire or the dinner table, we grew common ground by discussing similar trips to far-away lands, favorite books, and the histories of our native towns.

Around all these places we found ourselves. We learned that everyone had a different story to tell. It was hard to believe that we were once strangers. The writers hailed from across the country; they journeyed here from faraway states and nearby cities. And these unique places came through in their stories. Even Brent, BJ, and I didn’t originally hail from the Chippewa Valley, but now it’s home, just like Cirenaica is a home to all the writers who venture there.

Cirenaica is the place that brings us together, making it easy to forget that we were once separated by miles. We stayed up late Saturday night around a quiet fire, while one participant serenaded the wilderness with a cello. No place on the grounds was safe from the joyous laughter that leapt from the ping-pong table in the basement. We worked together to find the best way to make a good cup of strong morning coffee. Writing could wait while we celebrated a birthday with continuous laughter as it was left to Brent to dispatch the trick candles. We take it upon ourselves to fix the doorknobs and water the hanging plants. We arrange chairs for a reading.

These stories stay with us. A reading on a porch is just the beginning. Because Cirenaica unites everyone around these words and brings us together; it turns memories into masterpieces. It’s the place that when we leave it, we have a great story to tell.

Words From the Wilderness: Nickolas Butler's Fiction Residency

photo courtesy Justin Patchin

photo courtesy Justin Patchin

by Geoff Carter

“You’re cheating! I smell lighter fluid.”

Guild Director BJ Hollars and I heard this from the Cirenaica lodge last Friday evening as we started the campfire…with a little help. In our defense it had rained the night before, so we could use a little help.

It was the second night of Nickolas Butler’s Fiction Residency at Cirenaica, and after a long day of tackling projects, workshopping, and gorging on succulent meals, a fire is just what we needed.

“Lighter fluid?” I lied. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Fiction is a lie; this was Nickolas Butler’s most important lesson for the group. A lie that, while holding emotional truths, is still fabricated from our minds. Butler used the analogy of a police interrogation: if a crime was committed and an alibi was needed, we give our stories to the police; they, like the reader, will spot holes in the story, and with too many holes the story will fall apart. As writers, we need to fill the holes to keep the lie intact, and the story fulfilling.

All weekend long, the ten participants worked in a circle with Butler, perfecting their lies. Each writer had previously submitted a story or excerpt earlier in the summer for the other writers, and by Friday afternoon, they hit the workshops hard, returning to a circle to discuss the pieces over the next days. It was hard, it was taxing, and it was rewarding. Under Butler’s guidance everyone was constantly engaged and learning, even when their piece wasn’t being discussed.

photo courtesy Geoff Carter

photo courtesy Geoff Carter

The purpose of the workshops was to give each writer in-depth, genuine, and meaningful feedback which they could incorporate into their work. No individual story was perfect, but the workshops helped pushed each story closer toward perfection.

When the workshops were not in session, we still found ourselves in circles. In the lodge living room, on the back porch, or around a roaring fire. Even a loud circle in the kitchen around a midnight hummus snack. Within the circles we conversed about our craft. We talked over House Chef Brent Halverson’s glorious meals, and we talked when we should have been writing. Wherever we wandered on the green grounds, we were always together in this writing world.

And we congregated around those early evening fires that turned into late-night embers, breaking the wilderness slumber with our boisterous laughter and personal stories. The smoke drew our eyes to the stars while I plucked away on the guitar.

Our stories and our time here drew us into tighter circles. There were never enough chairs.

Writing is often a lonely craft. Solitary on laptops and notebooks with a single pen. Here at Cirenaica, writing is never lonely. With plans already made to meet in the future, I feel like writing, from now on, will be solitary but never lonely.

We could all use some help sometimes. So, Saturday night, after a stirring and invigorating reading, Butler helped BJ and I start that night’s bonfire without using lighter fluid, just like he helped us all work together, write together, and create together.  

photo courtesy Justin Patchin

photo courtesy Justin Patchin




Words from the Wilderness: Allyson Loomis's Nonfiction Residency at Cirenaica

By Geoff Carter

Photos courtesy of Justin Patchin Photography

“There’s a lot of talent in the middle of nowhere.”

Early Friday morning I awoke while an old train whistle sounded from the Fall Creek tracks. It rolled over the waving greens and dead browns to the Cirenaica grounds. It was a sound not heard in cities, and it told me how special this would be. We were in the middle of nowhere, the perfect place for creativity to thrive.

Allyson Loomis grouped the writers  together Friday morning to begin the “hard work.” I joined in alongside eleven others as we gathered in a circle in the lodge’s living room. Steaming coffee cups in hand, generously shared donuts, and a calm through the log walls and outside wilderness. Allyson began by offering a lesson that would stay with us all: though nonfiction is often a story about us, it’s important that is speaks beyond us, too. We writers clung to this lesson, and over our three days together, wrote, crafted and, revised our stories with it in mind.

To be honest, I had no idea what to expect from my role as assistant arts administrator at Cirenaica. I was set to learn on the job, working alongside CVWG Director BJ Hollars and house chef Brent Halverson. Together we tag-teamed a number of tasks: from monkeying with the thermostat and arranging the rooms, to refilling the water pitcher (adding lemon slices for aesthetic purposes). In between these tasks, I worked with and observed these writers as they created their works and honed their craft while residing in this wilderness paradise.

The writers came from miles away, each with a story to tell, even if they hadn’t stumbled upon the idea yet. Some planned to write about their successes, others about their struggles. Through Allyson’s workshops, writing exercises, and thoughtful feedback, the writers allowed their creativity to thrive. They left Sunday morning with fond farewells and newfound friends, and each of them had created something to be proud of.

In between writing and revising sessions, the writers wandered the grounds. Walking among the trees or the gravel drive, gazing at a seamless wave of bright greens and dead dirt browns. I, like the others, marveled at the beauty of this place, a beauty that inspired us to hover over laptops with words spilling forth from fingers, taking occasional glances to the ceiling searching for words, meanings, or ideas. They frowned when words didn’t fit; they smiled when they did.

When the words ran dry after a successful day, we chatted in the kitchen and living room, sharing our work with one another while gathering around Chef Brent’s, anxious for permission to “dig in” and feast upon the delicacies he prepared for us. Laughter shattered silences. Records spun songs through the halls. The ping-pong table beckoned us to the basement. Then, we retreated to our chilled or stoic corners of the house for more writing

The upstairs library of Cirenaica was where I did most of my writing, mainly because my fingertips were within reach of century old books. Crumbling books yellowed with age that were older than the trees outside the window. Books that humbled me into the chair wondering how any words could ever survive for so long.

Will our words last that long? I wondered. Will they join this ancient collection or be forgotten?

Maybe, like the writers who came before, as we capture our successes and struggles and make sense of the wilderness of life, we can create something that might last a hundred years. It begins here with us writing word after word together.

As I shut up the lodge after a challenging but successful first residency, I heard, calling over the hills, a train whistle reminding me of the work that was done, and calling me forward to the work that has yet to be written.

Geoff Carter is the assistant arts administrator at Cirenaica this summer.