This fall I went on my first-ever writing residency. I didn’t know what to expect. I packed up my laptop and filled my backpack with books that might have some bearing on the novel I was revising. I took Highway 101 north, and around Salinas I turned toward the coast until I reached Highway 1.
I was heading towards Soquel, which is east of the beach town Capitola. As I drove up Highway 1, I felt like I was moving into my past. I lived in the Bay Area my whole life until about two years ago, and the smell of the air, the sight of the exit signs--to the town where I used to stay in a friend’s beach house, to the Sunset and Seacliff beaches where I used to go as a kid—all brought memories.
The Wellstone Center is up a steep, crooked road with a redwood grove behind it. The smell of the air took me back to childhood camping trips. It’s a smell of heat hitting trees, of the sagey wild bushes, of the nearby ocean sending salt air up. September is one of the most beautiful months on the coast; summer is often foggy but fall tends to be clear. The Alaska ocean current is warmest in the fall, though the surfers still wear wetsuits.
The Wellstone Center’s main house is a whimsical, half-hippie, half Victorian affair, wood-shake sided and set with stones. Sarah Ringler and Steve Kettmann are the proprietors. I was there with two amazing writers, Karen Smyte and Erica Buist. On open mic night, their work blew me away.
I stayed in the Pool House. It was small for two people, but fortunately Karen, who shared it with me, was a great roommate.
I worked at the Pool House’s kitchen table, looking out at the water. It was an amazing luxury to be able to spend all my time on my writing. I had some comments from my novel's beta readers, and I was able to mull them over at my leisure. I read chapters out loud as I revised; there was no one to hear me (Karen was working in a different cabin). I gave myself permission to avoid all social media for the time I was there. I told myself not to worry about the latest political outrage, and the silence was lovely. I didn’t realize how much the continual noise of social media expanded into my life until I stopped it.
At Wellstone, the emerging writers all have jobs around the place. I was assigned watering the garden. My mother has always been an organic gardener, so watering the garden, picking zucchini, smelling the acrid tomato plants, listening to the splatter of water spray on giant pumpkin leaves, connected me with her. I found myself thinking about her, and my dad, a lot as I watered. The sense of endless time also contributed. Not having my usual responsibilities and distractions, I could spend time watch the hummingbirds lighting on the tree over the Pool House, or study the ant trails across the concrete. I had the strange feeling that time had moved backwards, and that I was still a girl.
However, time had clearly passed. The beach my family used to go to has a concrete ship at the end of the pier. When I was a girl, you could go out on it partway. Later, you could go to the end of the pier and look down on the orange starfish clinging to the ship’s remains. After I moved away, the boat broke apart during heavy winter storms. The pier is damaged too, so now you can only stand behind a fence and look at an empty pier and the remains of the boat. Birds have taken over that area, noisy seagulls and slow pelicans.
One day it rained at Wellstone, the first rain I’d seen in months of hot summer days. I danced in it, then stood watching the way the drops hit the pool, the way the ripples intersected, far from the original drop’s location.
Yes, in my time there, I got a lot of work done on my novel. I had great dinners and conversations with Karen and Erica, about writing and about life. But the biggest benefit was reconnecting with my past, with childhood’s sense of spacious time, where past and present meet and creativity begins.
Ann Hillesland writes fiction and essays. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Bayou, The Laurel Review, and Sou’wester.
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