A Week At The Clearing


Monday, June 26, 2017

I am sitting on a half-circle rock outcropping at the top of a cliff. The waves below make a deep pelunking sound; the tide has come in already, changing the white noise of the water rushing between the rocks on the shore. I’m facing west, watching the sun sink lower toward the horizon line of Lake Michigan, which from here isn’t even recognizable as the lake I know and love. To see the green cliffs of Ellison Bluff State Natural Area across the bay instead of Chicago makes my lake foreign. The breeze is cool for late June, trying to work its way inside my jeans and hoodie, but at least it keeps the mosquitoes at bay. It’s been cloudy and rainy since I arrived.

I’m at Ellison Bay, Wisconsin, taking a week-long writing class at The Clearing. The folk school was founded by a famous landscape architect by the name of Jens Jensen. I had studied his work at Purdue, learning about his noble conservation endeavors and his love for council rings, and it’s beyond amazing to be sitting in one of his lookouts right now, knowing that he no doubt sat here himself many times. I am here because The Clearing director granted me a scholarship, and I couldn’t be more grateful. I take a deep breath and let the serenity of the cedar wood on the bluff fill me.

I would like to do a blog post on my experience here, which is why it’s so important to write everything down. I arrived yesterday after an exciting-turned-tedious six-hour drive from La Porte, the first real road trip I’ve done by myself.

Yesterday started with settling into the dorm. When I heard “dorm,” my mind leapt to the only other dorm experience I’d ever had in college. I was pleasantly surprised to find something quite different. Five beds, all covered with quilts, awaited being claimed. There’s a lovely stone fireplace with a wooden mantle, into which Jensen himself carved, “Nature ne’er betrays the heart that loves her.”

One roommate is taking the class on pastel landscapes. The other four, including myself, are all in Roger Kuhn’s writing class “Tell Your Story: Writing About Experiences In Your Life (And Other Stories).”

We met the other students in the Lodge for dinner. The Clearing’s capacity is only about 30 students on campus, 40 including a handful of commuters, much smaller than I’d expected. Dinner was served family-style, and afterward we went to the Schoolhouse for a presentation on Jens Jensen followed by a meeting with our instructor.

I’ve been sitting here for a while now, listening to the lull of the waves, and not a single person has passed by. Just the breeze through the leaves and the water below me. I swear I can feel the spirit of Jens Jensen.

Today was our first day of class. Breakfast at 7:30 is a bit early for my taste, but it was a delicious helping of scrambled eggs, bacon, and oatmeal. The oatmeal, I was told, is served every breakfast because Jensen religiously kept a pot of oatmeal on the stove at all times in case a weary traveler knocked on the door.

Writing nonfiction about my personal life is difficult in the context of this class. I’m a genre fiction writer, usually fantasy and science fiction but sometimes dabbling in dystopian and post-apocalyptic shorter works. (Why I Write Fantasy). Compared to the stories I usually write, my real life feels boring. I had to decide on a “quest” and elected to document my journey as a writer, something I’ve considered doing but haven’t set aside time while busy with the novels. It will be difficult to dredge up memories of my former “mentor” J-, but I’m hoping that in facing them, I might have better success finally moving on. He doesn’t plague me like he used to, but that’s because I closed him inside a wall, and if one of those bricks falls out for a moment, I’m quick to mortar it back in and seal him away.

I have homework to do tonight, but I needed to record all of this first before I forget the experience. Knowing my love of fantasy and how I’m struggling to record my personal life, Roger said he’d love to see me weave fantasy elements into my story. His example was a voice in my mind during the passage where I first met with J-, sort of like the devil on my shoulder only I could hear. At first, I wanted to give him an incredulous look and ask, “Really?” But as he spoke, I slowly started to tune him out and envisioned my early protagonist Jade making an appearance instead. And why not? She was created to be my alter-ego. I’ll see what I can do with that idea tonight.

I wanted to stay here and watch the sun set, but the breeze is getting chillier. A pelican disturbed my writing a moment ago. He was drifting by on the waves, so close, and in my scramble to set down the laptop and snatch my camera, I startled him. I captured a few shots, although they aren’t as clear as I’d hoped. Photography is all about the moment.

Ah, well. I suppose I should head back to the campus before dark anyway so I’m not wandering in pitch black.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

I visited the Cliffhouse today and wrote in the journal on the desk inside:

“Nestled into the rock slab of the bluff is a secret hideaway invisible from the trail above, known only to those who know where to look. Wood-paneled sides complement the cedar trees, a pitched roof directing sheets of rain back to the lake below when a tempest rolls off the choppy waters.

The sun has shown its face for the first time in gloomy weeks, casting dappled patches of light and shadow on the flat rocks. The cliff face is textured with nature’s sharp edges, angled as if a giant chisel sculpted the weather-beaten wall.

The waves beat the rocky shore below with grasping fingers, driven in by the crisp breeze, unseasonably chilly for late June. Butter-yellow flowers wave back at Lake Michigan on tall stems.

A pillbug, ancient in design, traverses the lichen-spotted face of an ancient block of stone that witnessed the most ancient forms of life. Some things continue on with little change.

The cedars persevere. Soft strips of red bark peel easily, rolled between curious fingers, releasing a pungent scent. Warped roots bend and twist through crannies and across rock, weaving a tapestry forged of wood and stone, their slow, millennium dance finishing with a skyward solute. The conifers bear silent witness to passersby, evergreen and ever-seeing those who come and go: the writer penning thoughts to ink on lined paper, the artist sketching upright contours and blocky edges, the observer sitting peacefully with her back to the cool rock, eyes closed, breathing in cedar and letting the rhythm of the waves carry her to mediation. Even the gulls are silent in appreciation.

This is the Cliffhouse, where the spirit of Jens Jensen sits beside those who come to ponder and release, to absorb nature’s wholesomeness, to appreciate our roots by remembering the ones entwined beneath our feet. Here, on the bank of Lake Michigan, is peace.”


After lunch, we met back in the Schoolhouse to map out our “quests.” This I found particularly difficult. I knew I wanted to document my journey as a writer, but I had to decide on “the point of no return.” Was it J-’s rejection? My decision to abandon landscape architecture after graduation? Roger pressured me to decide an ending—every story has to have an ending, after all—but I couldn’t say what the ending would be since I was writing an in-progress story. I haven’t reached my ending yet.

I half-heartedly started putting sticky notes, or “stick-ems” as Roger calls them, on my storyboard. He came over in the beginning and asked how I was doing. I admitted I wasn’t really sure where to start the story; it seemed like it wanted to be chronological, but as an author, I knew I had to start with action, not an eighth-grader writing a chapter book called Flight of Faith. Roger agreed and suggested I start with the scene I’d already written of my first meeting with J-. “So…you’re thinking of making that scene frame the story,” I said. “With flashbacks to explain how I reached that point?”

“Yes,” he answered. “It starts with some mystery and two characters who are already clashing.”

He left me on my own, but the ideas still weren’t flowing. When he returned after meeting with other students, we went through what I’d posted when he suddenly gasped under the force of an epiphany. “What if,” he said, “Jade fights J-?”

“That could work,” I said. I’d already written a passage yesterday for one of our character exercises where the voice in the back of my head saying I wasn’t good enough was my “anti-muse” and I named it J-. Roger (the whole class, actually) loved the term “anti-muse” and encouraged me to go with it.

“So,” he said, “I’m thinking Jade goes to battle with the Anti-Muse, and she wins.”

“What if she doesn’t win?” I said, pointing to a sticky note that read: CATO* LAB RAT. “After the incident, Jade and Cato competed for my attention, and Jade became quiet while I focused on Cato’s story. So, what if she fights the Anti-Muse and loses, and that’s why she’s quiet? Then she and Cato have to team up if there’s any hope of defeating him.”

Roger loved it and rewarded me with a high-five. “This is right up your alley, isn’t it?” he said.

He’s absolutely right. My primary struggle with this project has been trying to set up my own life, with real events that already happened, into a neat graph with an exposition, point of no return, climax, and resolution, complete with a true antagonist and a defined quest. I never had a problem with that when I was making up the story as I went, but to do this with my real life…it just wasn’t working. Now I’m back at home in my own realm. I didn’t really think I had a story when I started, but now I can see this taking form. Roger seems excited that it might introduce my characters and make people want to read about Jade and Cato in Shadow Rider and A Fallen Hero, but I doubt this project will be my first publication.

I finished my day with another hike back to the Cliffhouse, camera in hand. I worked on the puzzle in the Lodge for a while, and here I am, sitting on the couch, hot chocolate on the armrest, laptop on my thighs. Time to battle my anti-muse with Jade.



Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Roger and I sat at the table long after lunch ended, talking about publishing. My compass had been spinning endlessly, and he was finally guiding it in a direction that made sense with sound advice and first-hand experience. My plan had been to find an agent first, then a publisher, with self-publishing an absolute last resort if all else failed. But now, I’m seriously looking at self-publishing as an option.

Maybe, just maybe, in coming here to The Clearing and finally confronting my unresolved issues with my first “mentor,” I may have accidentally stumbled upon a new one. But Jade is standing behind my shoulder, whispering into my ear, “I see the hope in your eyes. We’ve learned this lesson already. We know how dangerous it is to take praise and promises to heart and hope for more.”

Cato is on my other side, nodding solemnly.  “She’s not wrong. But…I have a good feeling about this one.”

It was rainy today, so I didn’t hike the trails. I took a nap after class and woke up for a light dinner. Afterward, Roger performed a monologue from his book Didn’t See That Coming while we sipped on cider. He’s so entertaining. I can’t fathom how he performs his writing so casually with voices and accents and gestures with minimal props, but he says someday I’ll be able to do it. We’ll see. I’m an introvert, but then again, he claims to be, too. I don’t believe him.

I spent the rest of the night working on the puzzle with a few other students. We finally called it a night, but it’s now 12:49 in the morning, and I’m still up. I had an idea in the shower (of course). I’ve been thinking about the final battle for my story and how I should go about it. Roger thinks I need to be a part of it with Cato and Jade, and I should have a superpower, too, but I can’t envision myself with one. Instead, I imagined that when Cato makes his appearance, he seals the Anti-Muse behind a wall of ice so I can write his story while Jade recovers from her injuries. As I’m starting to query agents and receive rejections, the Anti-Muse breaches the wall and returns. Jade is ready to fight, and she will team up with Cato to take down the shape-shifting Anti-Muse. Jade will arm me with a sword, bow, and arrows, and Cato will craft me armor and a shield made of ice. My power—I’m the only one who can touch and therefore hurt the Anti-Muse. My characters can protect me, but they can’t fight the battle for me.

I don’t know where this story will go or if it will ever be published. Roger seems to believe it will be.



Thursday, June 29, 2017

It’s hard to believe the week is almost over. Something strange happens here in the woods. Time slows down, and yet it still passes by seamlessly, an illusion of slowness but really just as fast as ever.

We held part of class in the council ring, perched on top of the damp, mossy rocks with laptops and journals. Roger is pushing me hard, and I like it. He’s openly admitted that he’s being particularly nit-picky with me because of the caliber I’m writing, and it’s just the right kind of push I need. One of the other students told me, “We took the class because we want to write. But you were born to write.” That gives me such pride, such hope that maybe my “someday” isn’t as far away as it seems.

Lunch today was served picnic-style on trays. I sat with the other writers, artists, and nature-lovers in the wooden lounge chairs outside Mertha’s Cabin. The afternoon was spent exploring the local art galleries in Sister Bay and Egg Harbor with friends. At Edgewood Orchard Gallery, we discovered Kay Brathol-Hostvet, the pastel instructor at The Clearing, had a couple of stunning pieces displayed.

Although a gift for our instructor isn’t required, it is a tradition. Three of the students picked up a nice basket of wine and cheese for Roger on their outing. I was asked if we would be reading parts of our stories for the Friday night presentation. The artists in the other classes have paintings, pottery, bonsai, pastels, and stained glass to show, but we don’t have anything. Roger told us a class in the past had tried to read, but ten minutes apiece times seven students made for a presentation that lasted over an hour, which wasn’t well received. As far as I understand, the other classes can look at the doodles and storyboards we’ve sketched on the walls and ask us questions about the writing process.

A friend suggested we write something for Roger, maybe something about him or The Clearing. It was short notice, but I ran it past my roommates. At first, they met the idea with blank looks, but soon we were passing ideas around and laughing at the comedic possibilities of a short skit/reading. Two classmates weren’t available to run the idea past them, but we’re hoping they’ll take part tomorrow. If it’s successful, it should be quite entertaining.



Friday, June 30, 2017

It was.

But I’ll get to that later. We started breakfast with oatmeal and quiche, then went to class. Roger talked with us about publishing and elevator speeches. Writing a one-line synopsis of this project was easy. Trying to do it for A Fallen Hero…why is it so hard?

Lunch was followed by chocolate sauce to dip strawberries—The Clearing’s famous dessert. After the second part of class, Roger sat with me and help me work on character webs. I was really struggling; I knew what each of the characters meant to me, how Jade was strong and confident, meant to fight and prevail, and Cato was powerful but felt powerless, someone who coped and survived. But what was I to them?

Roger helped me work that out. Jade is strong, but she needs guidance; I am her compass. Cato still questions who he is and where he belongs; he thinks I can answer those questions. To both of them, I am a chronicler. I told Roger he had become my Anti-J-, and he laughed with his genuine, contagious laugh.

After dinner, we all went down to the Workshop to see the stained glass, bonsai, and clay pots, then we walked to the Schoolhouse on the other side to see the pastel artwork. Our performance was a success. Late last night in the shower (again…pattern here?), I’d remembered that I still had my TMNT mask in my laptop case, so the Anti-Muse had Leo’s blue mask on. It was quite comedic.

After the performance, everyone returned to the Lodge for punch and cookies. People trickled out in small groups until I was the last one. As I was roaming around flicking switches, Roger walked in and said, “Oh, I missed it. Just a party of one now.” He had been interviewing someone for his upcoming Jens Jensen monologue. It’s hard to find people to interview, as Jensen died in 1951 and most of the people around here who knew him had met him when they were just kids.

We talked until after midnight. I was admittedly procrastinating. The heaviness of my impending departure was weighing down on me. Roger and I talked about everything from Star Trek to religion until we were both yawning.

I’m really going to miss The Clearing. In such a short time, it became home. More than once, my roommates and I caught ourselves saying “I went home” instead of “I went to the dorm.” In this magical place, time slowed and the trees caught the woes of the outside like a dreamcatcher snatches nightmares. I’m not ready to go home yet.



Sunday, July 01, 2017

I fought tears standing in the dorm all alone with my bags packed on the bed. I procrastinated until the last minute when housekeeping entered before I finally walked out the door. The narrow path wove through the trees, quickly concealing The Clearing from sight.

The drive home was long, and I felt like a piece of me had been left behind in the cedar trees on the bluff. I found my quest at The Clearing, in more ways than one.







5 thoughts on “A Week At The Clearing

  1. I loved it Sara! I couldn’t stop reading once I’d started! You are unbelievably talented! I have never been more proud of anyone that I am of you!

  2. Sara, a wonderful story of a Clearing week. Thank you for being so open about writing, and so willing to explore the edges of story telling. Great Fun! And, wow – didn’t we hear great stories all week. I really like your Blog.


  3. Sara, my dear,
    Thank you for this story and the great pictures. I love your Blog. You are a gifted in many ways. Keep writing.

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