September 30, 2019KR BlogBlog

If You’re Reading This


This is my seventh year at the island writing retreat. It’s my seventh time riding the ferry across the lake to stay in the ramshackle house by the quarry—the house with a multitude of beds and a cluttered kitchen and the couch I sink into for afternoon naps. On the ferry, I watch the mainland sweep itself into the distance as I float farther into the lake, until I touch down on a tiny island the shape of a fist with its pinkie flung out into the water.


Only ten of us are in attendance this year. I’m staying in the bunk room as usual, sleeping on the bottom bunk in the corner, the room where one year a bird flew inside and fluttered, panicked, against the windows. I shake out the sheets I brought from home, teal with white polka dots, and make my bed. Through the open windows I hear cicadas, crickets, the hum of the golf carts that are used here for transportation. My phone does not have service. I’m cut off, made to feel small. A dot floating in the saltless lake.


This Home Is Built on Love & Shenanigans, a sign reads in the kitchen. It’s new this year, one more bewildering addition to an already confused jumble of décor choices. Outside, a set of plastic patriotic streamers are jammed into the ground, and a pirate flag drifts in the breeze. Inside, a plastic giraffe, Velociraptor, and T. rex parade across the top of the old tube TV. Dusty metal sculptures in the shape of lizards and fish adorn the bunk room. A “Made in Scotland” calendar featuring shirtless men in kilts dangles cockeyed on the mudroom wall. It’s the house that keeps giving, and most everything it gives is hideous, but this is our island home, our place to retreat and be our literary selves.


The water is so high this year that our regular beach has almost disappeared. I tread water in the cold smooth lake, avoiding the seaweed that tries to wrap around my ankles. One writer searches for sea glass on the shore while others chat on the sand. Afterward, we return to the house to prepare dinner. We’ve each brought one dish to share for the weekend. Every year I wonder if we’ll have enough to eat, and every year we have more food than we could ever consume. This first dinner is no exception as our table floods with casseroles, pasta, corn, beans, salads, breads. It’s a miracle, it’s downright biblical. We provide for each other and it bubbles up into so much more than we even imagined.


Over the course of the weekend, we’ll have three critique sessions to discuss one another’s work. My manuscript is scheduled for the final time slot on the last night, which is fine by me. This year I submitted an essay so personal and revealing that I debated for days whether to bring it at all. In the end, I decided the island was the best place to share something like this. There’s no email, no electronic documents—instead, I brought a stack of paper copies to a house that butts up against a quarry and doesn’t feel part of the regular world. I’m confident that whatever we discuss here will remain cut off from regular life by this barrier of roiling lake and sky.


During our first night of critiques, we settle into the living room with our printouts of poems and novel chapters, the side tables crowded with wine and snacks. I open a piece of chocolate and discover a message on the inside of the foil wrapper. “If you’re reading this,” the chocolate tells me, “you are beautiful and worth it.” Empty words. Words suggesting that my mere act of reading somehow holds significance. Words touched, nonetheless, by sweetness.


The next morning, I walk alone to the nature trail that cuts to the lake. I wander through the woods and cross a narrow wooden footbridge, and then the soil turns to white shell and sand and I’ve made it to the beach. Every year, I take a photo from the same spot. There’s the lone bench facing the lake, the expanse of sand, a scattering of clouds reflected in the water. The sun is so bright it’s hard to see, but I hunt for shells anyway. I shade my eyes and scan the ground, searching for glint and sparkle. I spend so long crouched down that I’m dizzy when I finally rise. In my pocket: an iridescent shell shaped like a feather.


I return to the house to find one of the writers is baking bread as she does every year, filling the house with a rich yeasty scent. Meanwhile, the time creeps closer to my critique, to the moment I’ll be compelled to discuss the essay that has so far only lived in secret in my mind. I think of all the people will who never read that essay, including the person it’s about. I think of how carefully I crafted it even though I can’t imagine submitting it anywhere. Perhaps, I tell myself, I just need more time. I’ll let the essay ripen in the coming months, to create the distance I need to share it with a world wider than this island.


One writer notices I keep making little notes in my notebook, not only during the critiques but throughout the weekend. She asks what I’m writing. This, I don’t tell her. What is happening right now and what already happened in the past and what I imagine might happen in the future or in some otherworld. Everything.


My critique goes well, but then this group is thoughtful and gently constructive, especially with writing that’s new or raw. It’s our last night, our final hours before going to bed and waking to leave. A poet pulls out a guitar while a prose writer starts to sing. I sit curled on the couch with a glass of wine, thinking of the writer who couldn’t make it to the island with us that year. Her absence reminds me how temporary this experience is, how eventually a time will come when none of us will be here anymore. We won’t be able to cross the ferry and stay in this house that we complain about but are fond of regardless. We won’t cook dinner together or assign critique spots or read one another’s writing. We won’t go to the beach and dip into the lake, or walk in the quarry, or hold beer tastings on the porch. In this moment, at least, the wine is dark and my friend is singing in a sweet voice. I tell myself to soak it up before it’s all over and before those guitar strings stop vibrating, which could happen at any moment, even before I have the time to pull out my notebook and write it all down.