For years, like many writers, Chelsea Werner-Jatzke applied for writing residencies, hoping to be able to finally work on her fiction.
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But then she had a realization: "Even if I got [the residencies], I couldn't go. How are people supposed to take a month off?" she said. "It's not feasible for the large majority of people who have jobs. I thought that there had to be another way."
So in 2013, Werner-Jatzke and writer Arne Pihl joined together to create Till, a local residency for writers that isn't for the wealthy and the academic elite.
A majority of writer's residencies charge hefty fees for room and board, which can be difficult to pay without a big scholarship or fellowship. (Vermont Studio Center costs $3,950 for four weeks of room and board.) And writers often have to pay for travel expenses. Many programs last for several weeks or even months. So unless the writer is already wildly successful, or holds an academic job that pays enough to live on, it's almost impossible to find the time (and money!) to actually write that Really Excellent Book.
Till Residency at Smoke Farm, an annual four-day stay in Arlington, serves as the organization's centerpiece. Then there's the Till chapbook, which is a collection of work from each year's resident writers. And every month, they host Till Tonight, a gathering open to writers of all genres, which like the residency, accepts everyone from slam poets to fiction writers, people just starting out to established folks.
The residency at Smoke Farm is situated on a 365-acre piece of land abutting the Stillaguamish River. There are five buildings on the premises and a small print studio called the Abdactors' Hideout, where artist Kate Fernandez designs the chapbooks each year.
For $140, writers get dinner in the evenings, leftovers for lunch, rustic accommodations, four workshops led by good local writers such as Karen Finneyfrock and Anastacia Tolbert, miles of river beach, bonfires at night, and an amazing sounding semi-outdoor shower.
And towels. "Everyone forgets towels," Werner-Jatzke said.
At the farm, "people shut up and get down to business for the most part," Werner-Jatzke said. "But on a nice summer day, it can just turn into writers starting to drink at 2 p.m."
What "business" looks like is different for each writer. Werner-Jatzke told me that Drew Dillhunt, who runs Hummingbird Press, came this year and just kind of got lost on the farm, which is a thing that can happen on 365 acres. "He didn't get much writing done," she said. "But when he got home, he told me he'd never been more productive in his writing. I guess getting lost can be helpful."
The workshops are by no means mandatory, and they're designed to be generative. "So much of writing a project is burnout and getting stuck in a bad relationship with it," Pihl said. "To create an easy space to shake it up is the ideal" of the workshops.
Both Pihl and Werner-Jatzke swooned over the food. They said there's always a vegetarian option, but the chefs do up dishes like smoked duck and pulled pork, the kind of stuff you want to eat outside at a long wooden table lit with candles.
The residency happens in the middle of June, so it's too late to go this year, but Till Tonight keeps the spirit of the farm going throughout the year. Basically, writers just show up, write, and maybe have a beer or three.
Writer Matthew Spencer has attended every Till Tonight since they began back in February. He feeds off the convivial atmosphere. "When I hit a difficult spot in my writing," he said, "I can have a conversation or order a beer instead of pacing about the room hopelessly."
Another local writer, Rachel Hug, said she's been to most of the Till Tonight events, and she thinks they're "useful in providing a dedicated space away from the distractions of home." If her attention ever lags, all she needs to do is glance up and see the focused faces around her. "The collective concentration sort of serves to crystallize mine," she said.
The writers mostly gather at Speckled & Drake, but this month Till Tonight is trading the bar for the beach and heading to Denny Blaine on July 26. Though they won't be providing the towels this time, they will set up a little blanket island on the lawn as a home base. "Everybody should bring inflatables," Werner-Jatzke said. "And a notebook with waterproof pages."