Chippewa Valley Writers Guild

Words From the Wilderness: Nickolas Butler's Fiction Residency

photo courtesy  Justin Patchin

photo courtesy Justin Patchin

by Geoff Carter

“You’re cheating! I smell lighter fluid.”

Guild Director BJ Hollars and I heard this from the Cirenaica lodge last Friday evening as we started the campfire…with a little help. In our defense it had rained the night before, so we could use a little help.

It was the second night of Nickolas Butler’s Fiction Residency at Cirenaica, and after a long day of tackling projects, workshopping, and gorging on succulent meals, a fire is just what we needed.

“Lighter fluid?” I lied. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Fiction is a lie; this was Nickolas Butler’s most important lesson for the group. A lie that, while holding emotional truths, is still fabricated from our minds. Butler used the analogy of a police interrogation: if a crime was committed and an alibi was needed, we give our stories to the police; they, like the reader, will spot holes in the story, and with too many holes the story will fall apart. As writers, we need to fill the holes to keep the lie intact, and the story fulfilling.

All weekend long, the ten participants worked in a circle with Butler, perfecting their lies. Each writer had previously submitted a story or excerpt earlier in the summer for the other writers, and by Friday afternoon, they hit the workshops hard, returning to a circle to discuss the pieces over the next days. It was hard, it was taxing, and it was rewarding. Under Butler’s guidance everyone was constantly engaged and learning, even when their piece wasn’t being discussed.

photo courtesy Geoff Carter

photo courtesy Geoff Carter

The purpose of the workshops was to give each writer in-depth, genuine, and meaningful feedback which they could incorporate into their work. No individual story was perfect, but the workshops helped pushed each story closer toward perfection.

When the workshops were not in session, we still found ourselves in circles. In the lodge living room, on the back porch, or around a roaring fire. Even a loud circle in the kitchen around a midnight hummus snack. Within the circles we conversed about our craft. We talked over House Chef Brent Halverson’s glorious meals, and we talked when we should have been writing. Wherever we wandered on the green grounds, we were always together in this writing world.

And we congregated around those early evening fires that turned into late-night embers, breaking the wilderness slumber with our boisterous laughter and personal stories. The smoke drew our eyes to the stars while I plucked away on the guitar.

Our stories and our time here drew us into tighter circles. There were never enough chairs.

Writing is often a lonely craft. Solitary on laptops and notebooks with a single pen. Here at Cirenaica, writing is never lonely. With plans already made to meet in the future, I feel like writing, from now on, will be solitary but never lonely.

We could all use some help sometimes. So, Saturday night, after a stirring and invigorating reading, Butler helped BJ and I start that night’s bonfire without using lighter fluid, just like he helped us all work together, write together, and create together.  

photo courtesy  Justin Patchin

photo courtesy Justin Patchin




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.

Spotlight: Andy Patrie on Half-Life

By B.J. Hollars

We meet at Sacred Heart Church in the early evening—a place I’ve never been, but one Andy Patrie returned to daily for five years as a child.

            “I went to school next door here to the church,” 40-year-old Patrie tells me as we slip inside the propped wooden door leading us into the foyer.  “I spent a lot of time in this church, and probably a great deal of my 20s trying to figure out what that meant.”

            For Patrie, poems became the perfect vehicle for untangling his oft-fraught relationship with his faith, a “messy divorce” of sorts that ultimately inspired a series of poems on God, guilt and growing up, all of which inhabit the center of his soon-to-be released second collection, Half-Life

            Yet faith is but one of many themes Patrie tackles in its pages, the most prominent theme, perhaps, explores his candid assessment of his own mortality.        

            “I was doing dishes and the name ‘half-life’ came to me,” Patrie says, “and I thought, ‘There it is!  Now I have sort of a focus for this collection.’”

            While many of his poems explore the realities of reaching mid-life, for Patrie, this milestone is hardly a crisis.  His poems are more celebratory than elegiac, more filled with wide-eyed-wonder than a dirge-like lament for the past.  Whether recounting male-pattern baldness (“Black hole / swallowing strands of light”) or a kayaking trip with his wife (“The lake assures / it will flip / these kayaks / and dip us / as we slip inside”), Patrie always manages to excavate the beauty in the mundane.

            Tied to the subject of mortality is legacy, and I ask Patrie what he hopes his nine-year-old child, Simon, might one day take from his father’s work. 

            “That’s a great question,” Patrie says, leaving it to linger for a moment as the church returns to silence.  “I often think of [my wife] Adrienne as the person I’m writing for, but I would say oftentimes I’m thinking about Simon, too, and these little mementoes, I guess, for him, as he approaches these milestones, and what that will mean for him.”

            Patrie explains that the collection’s most personal poem is its last—one simply titled, “Simon.”

            “Simon is just really different,” Patrie says, “and I know every kid’s different, but in that sense of how he approaches what it means to be a boy.  There’s some gender nonconformity going on…so that poem really became just a way to say to him that it’s okay, it’s cool, with me, with us.”

            I smile though the night’s grown so dark he can’t see it.  By the glow of my computer screen, Patrie reads a poem, and then, at our interview’s conclusion, we leave that place, exiting through the same propped door we’d entered.

            Outside, an elderly man awaits us, and, in the kindest way possible, makes clear he’s curious about what we were up to in the church.

            “Not to worry!  There’s a simple explanation,” I explain, “we’re just two grown men reading poems in the dark.”

            Thankfully, before those words leave my mouth, Patrie offers a simpler explanation, explaining to the man that he’d attended the school many years prior, and that he’d just completed some poems on that experience.

            The answer seems to satisfy the man, and after a bit more conversation, he promises to see to it that the church door gets locked before the hour grows too late.

            We thank him, and then, after Patrie and I say our farewells, we get into our cars and drive off.

            In the rearview I spot the church’s twin towers, and between them, the circular stained glass peering out.

            Call it what you will—a marvel, a miracle, a mistake—but for me, our time in the church was nothing short of revelatory.

            How curious, I think, that for a man exploring life on the outside of faith, on this night, the doors remained open.


Half-Life will be available for purchase at Red's Mercantile and The Local Store in mid-March. 

The book release will take place at The Plus on March 19.

Interview music courtesy of Lee Rosevere