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. 

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