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.