Writing and Waffles

People often looked bewildered when they saw the sign on the table. “What’s a writer-in-residence?” they’d ask, stopping mid-stride as they passed my writing spot on the Washington State Ferries’ interisland route.  I imagine Liz Smith, the 2020 WIR, will field the same question during her yearlong tenure. You can follow her progress at Writer-in-Residence on the Interisland Ferry Facebook page.

I’d explain that positions like this occur in a variety of places, attracting writers to unique locations. Amtrak was among the first I learned about. In 2011, it offered writers’ residencies on trains, particularly long-distance routes. Hundreds of writers applied, drawn to the gentle movement of the train, the distractions of the ever-changing scenery and passenger conversations, and feeling freed from timelines and expectations. 

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Seattle’s Space Needle in 2012, Knute Berger became writer-in-residence on the landmark’s Observation Deck. Every Thursday throughout the spring and summer, Berger researched and gathered stories there for his history book of the structure, Space Needle: The Spirit of Seattle.

Five years later, when the City of Seattle advertised its first writer-in-residence at the iconic Fremont Bridge, a couple hundred screenwriters, lyricists, novelists, nonfiction writers, poets, and comic writers applied. The Seattle Office of Arts and Culture and Seattle Department of Transportation offered essayist Elissa Washuta a three-month appointment that coincided with the bridge’s 100th birthday. Washuta received $10,000 to “undertake an in-depth exploration of the bridge.” She spent her writing time in the bridge’s northwest tower (by the neon Rapunzel), writing about the impact

of the Lake Washington Ship Canal on the Black River and the Duwamish tribe. Listen to her read some of that writing here.

The following year, the City of Seattle sought a musician or composer to serve as the bridge’s Artist-in-Residence and selected Paurl Walsh. The piece reflects on the Fremont Bridge and the neighborhood during a difficult time in Walsh’s life.

So what do these residencies have to do with waffles? More than you might imagine unless you know that Waffle House has its own poet laureate—Georgia Tech poetry professor, Karen Head.

Professor Head sometimes writes at Waffle House #1885, the Georgia Tech Waffle House (click this link to read one of her poems—“Always Open”). But her role is more similar to that of the Washington State Poet Laureate, with its focus on building awareness and appreciation of poetry education. In an Atlanta Magazine interview with Andrew Alexander, Head explains how the position came about and her goals.

All heads of Waffle House have been Georgia Tech graduates… the former CEO Bert Thornton was a Tech graduate. Bert and I got to know each other through some alumni events.

Many students just don’t have any examples of someone who has gone to college in their lives. I didn’t. I’m a first-gen college student. Neither of my parents graduated from high school.  I told Bert I wanted to go out to the most rural schools in the most far-flung counties and talk about arts and poetry. Bert suggested I write a proposal for the [Waffle House] foundation.

I asked for a modest grant to cover travel to 12 schools and a poetry competition, which would pay the winner’s tuition to the state’s online college core program. They agreed to fund my idea and mailed me a Waffle House nametag…

It turns out the WSF Writer-in-Residence program isn’t so unusual after all. When my one-year inaugural term ended, there were a dozen writers eager to fill the position. I hope interest and support will grow and that goals will expand. I’d be especially delighted if WSF sought writers-in-residence on all routes. 

For now, I’m at work in my office on the essay manuscript inspired by the ferry, the Salish Sea, and climate change. Next month I’ll write at another Salish Sea location during a two-week writing residency at the Whiteley Center at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island.  There probably won’t be waffles there to inspire me, but the setting undoubtedly will.


  1. Fascinating, Iris! Fun to read about the unusual writing residencies in our area. Looking forward to hearing about your next stint : )

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