With a long drive ahead of me to writing retreat at Hedgebrook, I sought a good listen. I chose Tommy Orange’s new novel, There There. What a mistake. No wait!!! It was so gorgeous, I needed to hold the book in my hands. I wanted to go back and fully absorb the voices of the characters, (Jacquie Red Feather particularly broke my heart), underline passages, write in the margins, use sections as samples for my writing students. Samples that reveal truth, tension, vivid settings. Samples that explore what it means to belong, how we suffer, how we pull through, what it means to be an outsider, what it means to have your land stolen from you. FYI, I plan on listening to the novel again as I drive home to Portland. And, as soon as I get there, I’ll run out to buy a copy. I heard today that Orange is longlisted for the National Book Award, and that does not surprise me at all.
For nearly three weeks I’ve been nestled in the woods on Whidbey Island, near Useless Bay. I’ve been in residency at Hedgebrook with a small group of women, all of us working away in our lovely, perfect cottages and coming together for dinner each night to discuss our work, pedagogy, the news, our lives, books we love, and the llamas across the street! (Check out my instagram @natalieserber, for some great llama footage.) The time and space unburdened from responsibility and social strain allowed me to fully inhabit my interior life—which, of course, is the raw material for art, and, let’s be real, super scary! I fretted about coming up dry, about being consumed by my own insecurities, and hating my work. Here are a couple books that saw me through the stuck moments. I highly recommend, Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit, by Corita Kent and Jan Steward. Those of you that don’t know Kent’s work are in for a treat. The book is full of exercises that encourage you to let go of outcome and embrace process. Kent says, “There is an energy in the creative process that belongs in the league of those energies which can uplift, unify and harmonize all of us.”
I also kept Grace Paley by my side. Something about her gossipy, smart voice makes me feel I’m at a beloved auntie’s kitchen table. Paley says, “The outside world will trivialize you for almost anything if it wants to. You may as well be who you are.” I brought along, Grace Paley, The Collected Stories to read before sleep each night. Paley also says, “But what’s a writer for? The whole point is to put yourself into other lives, other heads—writers have always done that. If you screw up, so someone will tell you, that’s all.” Unshackling screwing up from shame and failure is a great gift.
You would not believe how well they fed us at Hedgebrook. The meals were gorgeous, comforting, full of vegetables raised in their garden, eggs from the ducks, dairy from down the road. I wholeheartedly recommend their cookbook, a fund raiser full of amazing recipes, plus writing from Hedgebrook alumnae like Ruth Ozeki, Dorothy Allison, Karen Joy Fowler and others.
One night we were served meatloaf, mashed potatoes and roasted carrots. I know that doesn’t sound earth shattering, but after a day churning out a story, stick to my ribs nourishment was sublime. Who knew, meatloaf could practically bring tears to my eyes. I’d forgotten its humble delights. I don’t have Hedgebrook’s meatloaf recipe, but here’s a recipe for a meatloaf from Ruth Reichl that I used to regularly make for my family. Oh, man, reminiscing about my family around the table also bring tears to my eyes! (Autumn always makes me a little tender.) I hope you love it too. Bacon Prune Meatloaf.