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!