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.