The first time
You always remember your first time.
Mine happened in a grove of oak trees, in the middle of summer night, when the sky darkened and the air stilled and all around lingered the damp smell of clover. There was a beach, too, but it was far in the background, and I stood in front of a small fairy book cottage and almost cried because I was so happy.
I was also alone. Wonderfully and incredibly alone.
I was on my first writing residency, out at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle. For two weeks I stayed in a small cottage with a loft bedroom and a large desk that looked out over trees, and birds sang and branches swayed and I didn’t have to talk to anyone if I didn’t want to.
Each morning I ate oatmeal and walked around the trails through the farm, and when I passed other women residents, I’d nod and smile and sometimes I’d stop to chat and sometimes I’d keep walking, because we all understood that words were necessary, yes, but they were also a crutch to keep us from hearing our inner voices.
In the afternoons I wrote furiously, stopping only to eat the fat blackberries I picked from the side of the road. As the sun began to lower, we gathered at the farmhouse to eat huge homemade meals, and we shared writing miseries and successes, we laughed and ate too much and stumbled back to our cottages in the dark, lingering at each other’s doorsteps because it was hard to go back inside, hard to be alone with ourselves the way we knew we must in order to write.
Our cottages had no Internet, no television and little contact with the outside world beyond a small clock radio. There was no pretense, nowhere to hide. Each night I had to confront myself over and over again, and it was painful stripping away the distractions, the thousand small excuses that barricaded me from my soul.
I ended up writing almost 140 pages during that first residency. I wrote so long and so hard that the tips of my fingers calloused over and by the time I packed my small suitcase and caught the ferry back to the mainland, I felt cleansed and almost holy.
The second time
Two years later I was awarded a residency through Hidden River Arts and I stayed in a condo on Bethany Beach, spring storms hurling waves against the shore, and I sat on the balcony and wrote through the nights, and it was cold and damp but I didn’t care. I walked the beach each morning collecting shells and driftwood, and sometimes when I wrote I’d lick one of the shells, just to taste the salt.
I cried when I had to leave, cried because I’d miss the ocean and the waves, the salt smells and the solitude and clean spaces inside my head. I knew I’d never be back and I haven’t; the residency program closed a few years later. Still, I remember sitting on that balcony, the dark, fierce energy of the wind pressing around as I wrote.
The third and fourth time
A few years ago I returned to Hedgebrook, and I wrote and ran along the beach, and it was green outside my windows, even though it was February, and I sank down deep inside my head and stayed there for ten days. Ten glorious days.
Last October I spent a month in Nebraska City at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and nights I stayed up late writing, the crickets singing outside my window. One night it stormed, huge bolts of lightning filling the sky, and I stood on the deck and lifted my face to the rain and then I took off my shirt and danced around in my underwear, and my blood was warm and the rain was cold, and I was so happy I could barely stand it.
Upcoming residency deadlines
Norman Mailer Center, March 1
Atlantic Center for the Arts: March 24
Island Artist Residency at the Hill House, April 1
Prairie Center of the Arts, April 15
Andrews Forest Writers Residency, May 15
Ragdale, May 15
Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, May 15
Cinthia Ritchie is a former
journalist and Pushcart Prize nominee who lives and runs mountains in Alaska.
She’s a recipient of two Rasmuson Individual Artist Awards, a Connie Boocheever
Fellowship, residencies at Hedgebrook, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts
and Hidden River Arts, the Brenda Ueland Prose Award, Memoir Prose Award, Sport
Literate Essay Award, Northwest PEN Women Creative Nonfiction Award, Drexel
Magazine Creative Nonfiction Award and Once Written Grand Prize Award. Her work
can be found in New York Times Magazine, Sport Literate, Water-Stone
Review, Memoir, Under the Sun, Literary Mama, Slow Trains Literary Journal,
Sugar Mule, Breadcrumbs and Scabs, Third Wednesday, Writer’s Digest, Foliate Oak
Literary Magazine, Cactus Heart Press and over 30 other literary magazines
and small presses. Her debut novel, Dolls
Behaving Badly (click here for B&N,
here for IndieBound), was
released Feb. 5 from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group.