I have written in the city and in the country, in kayaks, buses, bars, restaurants, cafes, bookstores, art galleries and museums, next to rivers – so many rivers – basically anywhere I can find a muse.
Once, a woodchuck, pursued by a young child, jumped over my head into a tree while I was writing a haiku about fish next to a creek.
I shook off my shock and finished the haiku because I am a writer.
I started writing out in the world after completing my first writing marathon with the NeWP Summer Institute in 2003. Since then, I have attended countless marathons, always thrilled by the possibility of my pen and others’. Almost inevitably, when I invite people to their first writing marathons, I hear, “Why would I do that?” from those who don’t consider themselves writers, and incredulity from those who do. To say they don’t know what they’re missing might sound dismissive, but really… they don’t know what they’re missing.
On my most recent marathon, I fell in love with the page anew after a bit of a 2020-induced writing hiatus, all because we visited a ballroom.
Choosing a writing marathon group from a larger group is always a leap of faith. This particular day, I lucked into a group with an old writing friend, Diana, and a new writing friend, Mark. Someone recommended the ballroom in Schuyler, Nebraska as a great place to write, so our group chose it as our first stop.
When I heard the word “ballroom,” I had no expectation, really, except muted elegance, possibly some crystal chandeliers. I like dimly lit places that contain echoes of humanity, especially during writing marathons. The vibrations of joy and heartache and love remain there for us to receive when we sit still, pen poised, and listen.
When I looked at the Oak Ballroom for the first time, I felt an ecstatic jolt. My mind would never have conjured the low-slung, sprawling, yellow-stuccoed, and half-timbered building, Old Scandinavian meets Tudor.
Diana, Mark, and I circled the building, looking for a way in, hopeful despite the empty parking lot. Finding one unlocked door, we entered a cavernous room, populated only by an elderly woman walking laps in the air conditioning. We could have dismissed the space as kitschy, but we didn’t, and this is one reason it’s a good idea to travel the world with writers. We gazed around in amazement after answering a few questions from the speed walker, and then we picked a return time and set off on our own to explore.
I didn’t have an idea of what to write when I first sat on the stairs to the stage. I was overwhelmed by the details, but I was there to write, so I wrote my way into the space: What a spectacular unexpected artifact – is it like Munich? I think the vibe is Beowulf meets Munich – are we the scops? I didn’t bring my harp today and the stories I have memorized – told and retold – can rest right now. I am just completely smitten with the tree trunks pieced together to hold up the ceiling. It looks like they peeled their bark and shellacked them, no other processing or smoothing.
It didn’t take long for the decorations and the purpose of the ballroom to surface a thought that I wasn’t quite ready to tackle. I continued, I wonder how many shy young dancers have gently leaned against these poles, tentatively touched the knots of lopped branches as a talisman to ward off rejection? It piqued memories of my own youthful trepidations, a topic for later writing.
I returned to the structure: I wonder if the workers who left these poles so – au naturel – thought they were so clever – hearkening back to the mead halls and beer halls of their Germanic ancestors and if those Germanic ancestors left their lodge poles in such an UN-uniform state? Or were they like, ‘C’mon Wulfric! It’s the year 900! Let’s have a more modern look! Sleek!’ I just cannot get over the potbellied pole and the gently curved pole that reminds us that even the mighty oak tree can be permanently swayed by the wind.
Though this might seem like some purposeless writing, the act of writing in that place buoyed me after a draining summer and led me to questions that I can further explore in future writing, some of the many benefits of writing out in the world.
At the end of each stop of a marathon, the writers share what they have written and the others, without judgment or accolades, thank them. Our sharing reminded me of one of the best facets of marathon writing; we opened each other’s eyes to the space. Diana considered the signs prohibiting drinks on the dance floor. Mark mused about the cornerstone we saw on our outside tour of the building that stated, “Achievement 1936,” and the fact that this ballroom was a WPA project. We couldn’t help but laugh and nod along as each person shared because the building was a treasure trove. We all felt it.
When you have the chance to attend a writing marathon, do it, even if you don’t consider yourself a writer. The moment you put pen to paper, you are. I firmly believe we stretch further and grow more when we write in the company of writers, and we’re all nervous to share, even those who’ve done this for years. Don’t let anyone tell you that writing is a waste of your time or that you’ll never do anything with it. Writing IS what you do with it. Even if you keep it to yourself or never share beyond your marathon group, you are a writer.
*Feature image curtesy of Glenn Čada. Read more about the Oak Ballroom here and here.