Writing on Water

As a twenty-four-year resident of Lopez Island (one of Washington State’s San Juan Islands) and a five-year commuter from Lopez to Orcas Island, I’ve spent considerable hours on ferries. 

During a ferry ride on the “Interisland” with a friend in the spring of 2017, conversation turned to the joys of traveling among four islands in the San Juans (this route doesn’t stop on the mainland or any of the other fifteen or so inhabited islands and hundreds that are uninhabited). I recalled the writing I’d done on that vessel during my twice-weekly commute to neighboring Orcas Island for the five years I worked there as the school nurse. 

“One of my favorite blog posts of yours,” my friend volunteered, “was about riding and writing on the Interisland.” While I have a comfortable, private, writing space at my home on Lopez, I’m often pulled from my desk by pressing commitments and the household “to do” list. That day, the idea to someday create my own residency aboard the state ferry took hold. 

In the fall of that year, my third book, the memoir Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance (Homebound Publications), was published. As I offered readings and events to promote my book, someone in the audience nearly always asked, “What are you working on now?” 

After publication of my first two books (Hands at Work in 2009 and BOUNTY: Lopez Island Farms, Food, and Community in 2016), I could easily answer the question of what was next as I’d been toiling on my memoir for nearly twenty years and always had it to return to. Now that it was completed, I was at a loss. I was clearer about what I didn’t want to write (a sequel or anything else about myself) than what I did

At the same time, my concerns about climate change were growing. Along with many people in the islands and around the world, I was troubled (and remain so) about the health of the Salish Sea and Southern Resident Killer Whales (orcas) in particular. I felt compelled to focus my writing in part on protecting and preserving this ecology. The idea of a writing residency on the Interisland surfaced again.

Writers’ residencies take place all over the world. For many writers, a break from usual routines inspires creativity and contributes to productivity.  Well-known residencies such as Bread Loaf, Hedgebrook, and the MacDowell Colony to name a few, offer stipends to cover expenses, but they’re highly competitive and require relocating for weeks, months, or even an entire year.  Others have less stringent admission requirements but are costly for participants (hundreds to thousands of dollars to cover lodging, housing, and transportation).

In recent years, some unique residencies have drawn much interest among writers.  In 2011, Amtrak offered writers’ residencies on trains, particularly long-distance routes. Writers were 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, journalist Knute Berger became writer-in-residence on the landmark’s Observation Deck. There he researched and gathered stories for the book Space Needle: The Spirit of Seattle

Elissa Washuta “in residence” on the Fremont Bridge

And when the City of Seattle advertised its first writer-in-residence at the iconic Fremont Bridge, they were overwhelmed by applications from screenwriters, lyricists, novelists, poets, and comic writers. The three-month appointment coincided with the bridge’s 100th birthday in 2017. Author Elissa Washuta, a member of the Cowlitz Indian tribe, was selected to “undertake an in-depth exploration of the bridge.” 

It seemed to me the Washington State Ferries (WSF), the largest ferry system in the nation and third largest in the world, was due to have its own writer-in-residence.

I “floated” the idea with Ken Burtness—a neighbor, retired ferry boat captain, and member of the Ferry Advisory Committee. He encouraged me to develop a proposal and to submit it to a contact in the WSF system. In it, I described my goal to create a book-length prose manuscript consisting of personal essays. Some of the themes and content I’d explore included history and details about the Interisland route and the MV Tillikum (the vessel for the route), description of the Salish Sea and effects of climate change on it, and other essays on environmental themes. 

The project struck me as an offer the WSF couldn’t refuse. The structure of the residency was simple. I planned to walk on to the ferry on Lopez Island with my laptop, journal, and research materials and then ride, write, and read along the route. It was no-cost to me or the ferry system as it’s the only WSF route that doesn’t charge walk-on passengers to ride. Although I hoped to interview crew members and passengers, I expected most of my time would be devoted to solitary writing and reading. And there would be plenty of time for that writing and reading; another anomaly of this route is that walk-on passengers can ride from around six in the morning until eight at night (or later depending on the season) without ever disembarking until the vessel docks for the night at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.

Passing on the Writer-in-Residence role to Liz Smith

August 1, 2018 was my first official day as the Writer-in-Residence on the Interisland. A crisp, white, table tent with my name in black lettering and the WSF logo in blue identified me and my role. I continued in this capacity until August 30, 2019 Aand began the search for a successor. I reviewed the twenty applications I received and then recruited a small committee of writers to read the five I considered the strongest (they were all high quality, so it wasn’t an easy task). We all agreed, however, that Liz Smith from San Juan Island was our top choice to serve as the 2020 writer-in-residence. Hopefully, many more will follow her.

At the end of my one-year writer-in-residence term, I hadn’t completed my book, nor had I expected to. But many pieces had their beginnings at a table on the MV Tillikum, floating (sometimes with wild lurches port to starboard) past rocky shorelines; snowy, mountain ridges; forests of cedars, firs, and madrones; mansions and mobile homes. Seagull and eagle calls, briny wind currents, and tingling sea breezes stimulated my senses. 

I’ve just completed another time of “writing on water” at Friday Harbor Labs’ Whiteley Center on San Juan Island. My two-and-a-half-week residency there offered solitude, quiet, and an inspiring seaside setting to continue work on the essay collection manuscript that Homebound Publications has agreed to publish in 2022. 

In my view, this project lends itself to a different form of non-fiction essays. I’m blending facts and figures about the climate crisis with stories to touch hearts and inspire action. I expect most of the pieces will be in a style sometimes referred to as lyricbraided, or hermit crab. Some of my drafts are more poems than prose, and others might qualify as prose poems. I’m writing conversations, real and imagined, and using structures such as lists, want ads, and how-tos. A few follow the more traditional style of personal essays (like the one you’re reading). 

Why theses hybrid styles? I see them as metaphors for the new thinking I believe we must do to respond to the threats we face. They’re my offering of symbols of resilience, innovation, and hope. 

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