Facing Loss and the Page:
My First Year as Writer-in-Residence
As summer began to cast long shadows toward fall, I spent two weeks writing at the top of a water tower. I worked at a circular desk in a circular room, pausing often to look out the windows that curved around me, at the Cannon River wrapping around prairie and cornfields. The ghosts of my mother’s Midwestern youth surrounded me: signs for restaurants selling lutefisk, the white spires of Lutheran churches, the red tendrils of September’s slow dusk. The water tower was built nearly a century ago by a Minnesota corn farmer who had become a millionaire by inventing puffed rice. The millionaire’s grandson turned the grain puffing laboratory and family mansion into a creative laboratory for artists and writers.
On break from my Hugo House residency, working in that tower, I found myself thinking mostly about my mother, who had died at the beginning of 2007. As I sat in that high, round room and wrote, I loved the tower, grieved my mother, and wanted to come home to Seattle. Home to Hugo House.
A year earlier, when program director Alix Wilber called to invite me to be writer-in-residence, I blurted something along the lines of, “This is a great thing that I probably can’t do.” My mother had recently been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. Which is to say, I’d just quit my Seattle job and headed cross-country to my parents’ house, for what we understood would be the last months of Mom’s life. I wasn’t moving away from Seattle, exactly, but I wasn’t sure when I’d be back, either.
Alix listened to my tortured explanation; I could feel her empathy through the phone line. When I paused to gasp for air, she said, “No, Wendy, this is something you can do. You need to take this position. We’ll work out the logistics; don’t worry.” I had met Alix only once before, at the residency interview. Her cheerful straightforwardness overcame my surprise as she told me I would need something to tether me to Seattle as my planet lost its gravity.
Alix was absolutely right, though there were moments in the following year when I would doubt her. When I found myself rushing through long manuscripts on plane rides back to Seattle, for meetings to be held scant hours after I landed. When the panicked tangle of my life made it almost impossible to enter the worlds of the memoirs-in-progess I was reading. When my very first appointment was with someone writing about the loss of a loved one to—guess what?—pancreatic cancer.
My writer-in-residence office hours, crammed into just a few days each month that first year, did offer a center of gravity as I accompanied my mother through the moonscape of terminal cancer. The residency also provided moments of bright hope: when an attorney writing about Yakima Valley farmworkers and health told me that my 10-minute lesson on the “Ladder of Abstraction” (write to me for an e-version of the lesson) was the single most useful thing she’d ever learned. When a visual artist reported that my feedback on her essays had helped her get into graduate school, to study art therapy. When a memoir writer talked happily about her rejection letters from literary magazines—mustering the gumption to submit had been her short-term goal.
Over the past year, I’ve worked with more than 50 writers as they’ve explored life (real, imagined or somewhere in between) on the page: violent relationships, messy divorces, the loss of only children and best friends, fast food and fast cars, childhoods bad and good, spiritual conversions and disillusionments, the grind of poverty and the poverty of affluence. I’ve never been a fan of writing as therapy, but I’ve come to appreciate the importance of writing as transcendence.
The main characters of my nonfiction book-in-progress, about southern Mexico, include a bilingual elementary school teacher, a market vendor and a fisherman. I write about them because I want to understand how they make their way in a difficult world, how they live their values (or don’t), and—most of all—how they build community. I’m not an artist, nor even an especially creative person, but someone who observes the world and then labors mightily to transform it into words. As a nonfiction writer, my work follows the laws of the physical world: matter can be neither created nor destroyed. I want to write well not to create art, but to do justice to life—in all its heartbreaking ephemerality.
A few weeks after I started as writer-in-residence, my mother made her final plane trip. She wanted to visit my Seattle home one more time, to do three things: ride a Puget Sound ferry, go to the top of the Space Needle and visit Richard Hugo House. She wanted to see the imposing looking, gray and green house where her daughter held a rather obscure job title. My mother had been a middle-school teacher, so I explained my work as “teaching”—though that’s not quite right. Not that it mattered. I knew from Mom’s wide smile, as she looked at Dick Hugo’s notes and typewriter in the Hugo House Library, that what I was doing made sense to her.
I will always look back on my first year at Hugo House as one infused with deep loss. During this year, our wider community of writers suffered significant losses as well. Bebe Moore Campbell, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Madeline L’Engle, Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, Kurt Vonnegut—to mention only a few. Some of what I’ve learned about facing both loss and the page came from those very writers—Campbell and Kapuscinski in particular. Vonnegut’s wry existentialism carries me through the moments of self-doubt that seem to plague the writing life. The long-dead narrator of his novel “Galápagos,” Leon Trout, writes from the blue tunnel of the afterlife:
I have written these words in air – with the tip of the index finger of my left hand, which is also air… Does it trouble me to write so insubstantially, with air on air? Well—my words will be as enduring as anything my father wrote, or Shakespeare wrote, or Beethoven wrote, or Darwin wrote. It turns out they all wrote with air on air…
In the end, we’re all doing the same thing, turning ephemeral life into slightly less ephemeral words.