You Can Go Home Again: On Returning to the Midwest and Finding A Community At Cirenaica

credit: Justin Patchin Photography

credit: Justin Patchin Photography

by Ty Phelps

I grew up in Wisconsin: Summers meant farmer’s market cheese curds on the Capitol Square in Madison, swatting mosquitoes around the campfire at night, the smell of cow manure from the farms, the temperature drop after a thunderstorm. I became moderately comfortable with my adolescent body through the forced nakedness of tick checks and skinny dipping at summer camp. I was a Midwesterner through and through, attending Carleton College in Minnesota, canoeing in the north woods each summer, and even smugly muttering to myself when I traveled in France, yeah, France, you may have the Louvre, and Haute Cuisine, and vineyards up the yang, but where I come from, we’ve got Leinenkugel’s Creamy Dark, the Boundary Waters, Walleye on Fridays, and Bob Dylan.

And then I left. I lived on the West Coast for over a decade.

The idea of moving back to Wisconsin had just started percolating in my mind when my mother mailed me an article cut out of a magazine. A review for a book called Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler. Soon I had read it. I’m not sure I’ve ever read any fiction that more perfectly captured the overall feeling of my homeland. I cried after the first few pages, read the rest in a couple of days, and spent the next weeks scratching phantom mosquito bites, craving the North Woods sky and the tepid taste of bad Milwaukee beer.

Soon, I decided to move back. And just before returning, I applied for and was invited to Nick Butler’s weekend fiction workshop at Cirenaica through the Chippewa Valley Writers’ Guild. I couldn’t believe my luck: I was going to meet a Midwestern writing hero of mine.

The weekend was phenomenal. The mixture of writers was delightful: young, old, in-between, teachers and journalists and mothers and fathers. Camaraderie was quickly established among the group as we dove into critique under Nick’s focused but gentle guidance.

Cirenaica itself was lovely, nestled in woodsy farmland, with a beautiful kitchen, comfortable rooms, and ample nooks for writing, thinking, or sipping coffee. It was a productive weekend: I left with multiple friends, excellent feedback, and a complete first draft of a new story.

Also, we ate like kings.