Fishtrap: On Being A Writer

While planning our summer activities, I originally thought maybe my daughter could come with me to the Fishtrap Writing Conference at Wallowa Lake in Oregon. They have youth workshops and scholarships available.  She applied for one.  We waited.

In the meantime?  That same daughter's National History Day essay placed second in the Idaho state contest, giving her a chance to compete at the national competition in Washington, D.C.  The only catch?  Considerable travel expenses.  Our priorities shifted:  we absolutely had to get this kid to D.C.

We assumed Fishtrap wasn't in the cards for us this year.

Then my sweet kiddo received a scholarship to Fishtrap and somehow things flipped.  She was no longer going to Fishtrap with me; I was now going with her.

The funds for my workshop were well-spent on that D.C. trip and I would make the same decision again with no hesitation, so there was no point spending time with my face pressed up against the window.  I was going as a chaperone and, for me, this would be a writing retreat rather than a conference.  And really, as a retreat, it was pretty darn idyllic.

We stayed in a tent, my daughter and I---and it was the first time the two of us had been camping without the rest of our family.

We paid for meals at camp and they fed us very well (something I've learned from other conferences not to take for granted).

Each morning, bird song increased in volume as the dawn approached.  (This original form of tweeting held me accountable to the page, even without an internet connection.)

Each morning I rolled out of my sleeping bag and, with no one to greet or tweet, I fell right into my writing warm-up.

By the time my daughter rose to make her way to early-morning yoga, I was 2,500 words in.

After breakfast, while everyone else disappeared into workshops, I slipped into my writing spot (the top photo was taken from that spot)---and I hit the keyboard.

After 5,000 words, I'd break for a shower---probably talking to myself and appearing utterly-nutty by then.

By lunchtime, I was half-glazed over, lost between a fantastic world of my own making and a surreal world of well-known authors and their kids.

Did I mention the authors?  David James Duncan. Jamie Ford. Luis Alberto Urrea. Hal Cannon. Teresa Jordan. Luci Tapahonso. Marjorie Sandor. Ellen Waterston. Myrlin Hepworth. Kirsten Rian. Listing the names feels less like name-dropping and more like name-lifting,  each spoken with thanks.

In the afternoons, we'd go hiking and exploring. The short hike to Iwetemlaykin was breath-taking.

Red Horse Coffee Traders was another of our favorite destinations---a place where we enjoyed house-roasted beans and a wi-fi connection.  The people there were so welcoming and hospitable.  I can't say enough good about them.

In the evenings we'd return to camp for dinner, readings, performances, campfires. I'm a crazy introvert, I made little effort to put myself out there and talk to people, and I had a wonderful time.

This conference was unlike any other I've attended.  There were no agents invited. There were no hour-long workshops to and from which attendees ran back and forth all day.

Participants chose one well-respected author and learned from that author in a small-group setting every morning for a week.  In the evenings, the entire group (including kids, chaperones, community members)---all met together for presentations, readings, and discussions. The sense of community and belonging--the feeling that we were there as a family of writers---it overwhelmed me.

The self-proclaimed goal of Fishtrap is, "promoting clear thinking and good writing in and about the West."  Our theme for this year was, "Catch and Release: What we hold on to, what we let go, and the one that got away." Cars in the lot had bumper stickers that read, "Keep it Rural."
The fact that we raise sheep on our tiny parcel of land, the fact that we homeschool, the fact that we think independently and respectfully about ours and others' religious and spiritual perspectives, the fact that we help each other without keeping score, even the fact that we willingly (even willfully) chose to stay in a tent---none of these things seemed unusual in this setting.  No one gave us that look---the one that says our eccentricity might be crossing the line into inappropriate rural proclivities. (Yes, we did keep and milk goats for a time. Who hasn't?)

Even my starry eyes, half-focused on another world, seemed more than welcome here.

"I wrote all morning. I'm a little out of it," I'd say.

"Good for you!" would come the answer.

"Keep going," someone else would say.

"You'll get it done," says another. "People with your determination always do."

No one asked me for my prepared novel pitch, although more than one listener smiled at my book's setting: an Idaho of the future where citizens are expected to live in cities and rural life is outlawed.

"Show them why we matter," one woman told me.

It's a tall order.

So what did I learn this week?  I guess I learned things I already knew, but had nearly forgotten.

I learned that being a writer requires staying in the moment---being in the moment.

I learned that, without the internet, I cannot flip to another screen every time the going gets tough.  I can't check just one email or just one tweet.  I can't look up a word to make sure it has the connotation I'm seeking.  I can't do just a spot of research on the internet. I can't check to see if tomorrow's #amwriting blog post is on the schedule.

When I'm in the middle of a tough scene, sometimes the only thing to do is sit with it, in stillness.

Sometimes letting the discomfort wash over me is the only right thing to do.

I learned that I spend too much time running away from myself in one-minute intervals.

I learned that, if I want the tapping of keys again, sometimes I have to be satisfied with too-painful silence.

I learned that being a writer is all you need to be welcome in the presence of other writers.

I learned that I can run to the most remote of writing conferences and still someone will recognize me from #amwriting.

I learned that the kids at Fishtrap are creative and fearless.  While adults are worrying about publishing options and the price of ebooks, those kids are honing their skills.  If we don't pay attention, they're going to pass us by.  It might already be too late.

Ooh---and I learned I like wild salmon---at least the way it's prepared by Joe McCormack.  Not since my father fed me pan-seared trout, fresh from the lake, have I eaten any fish I liked.  One bite from the grill of Joe McCormack becomes a stronger argument for saving salmon than a pound of words---or at least it makes a damn fine introduction.

I learned that sometimes we have to supplement our words with shared experience.  Walking together, camping together, sharing a meal together, clearing each others' plates and dishes---these things build community.  They create a place where even David James Duncan felt moved to trash his polished speech and take some risks on a brand new talk---a place where anything can happen.


  1. Sounds like a wonderful time. The River Why(David James Duncan) is one of those "Pass Around" books in my family. I'm on my second or third copy now because sometimes it's gets passed a little far-a-field (Hmm, interesting phrase, that)

    Back to your trip, it's sounds like not only a good time for you and your daughter, but one I suspect will become the stuff of both fond and important memories - something that will build over time.

    I suspect it won't be too long before I'll be whining about when am I going to get to read "more of her stuff".

    Thanks for this, Johanna

    ps now yer making wish I was back in the country. Someday, perhaps.

  2. Great post and great time. I loved the serendipity that got you there.

  3. Somehow it doesn't surprise me that The River Why is one of your family favorites, John. There's a rightness to that. That's David in the center of the bottom picture. He was drawn to the cooking of the salmon shortly after my daughter and I got there. It's funny because he gave his keynote to a packed house and I listened to him from out on the lawn, never knowing what he looked like. People kept seeking him out without success, but he kept appearing in the same places that drew me to their stillness.

  4. Thanks, Liz. It's been a summer full of those kind of opportunities.

  5. How terrific your schedule and all the pieces fit together! You're having a great summer, as a mother and as a writer. You opened yourself up here and I felt as though I walked the path you did at Fishtrap, gathering up lessons that open my eyes. Thank you for giving us this post. The photos are the stuff of smiles and memories, only a small part of which I'm sure you took from the week.

    Take care,

  6. What an inspiring piece. It's these moments that can lift us up for long periods of time, even when things get rough. So important to cultivate them in life.

  7. Another significant post, Johanna. It's fascinating to me how significance has so many layers. Certainly, this was content-driven in terms of the conference and strategies. But significance is always so much more on your posts . . . . timing for each of us in facing personal battles . . . inspiration when we need it most . . . and validation in recognizing a kindred spirit. I, too, have milked goats. ;-)

  8. A great experience for both you and your daughter. Thanks for putting the smile on my face this morning.

  9. Thanks, Jess. The stuff of smiles and memories--yes. That's it exactly.

  10. Yes. Cultivating--that's a good word for it.

  11. It makes me smile to know you've milked goats, Liz! Thanks for your kind words. I so wish I'd been able to meet you and Jenna yesterday.

  12. Thank you, Janis. So good to know it made you smile.

  13. You and your daughter will always have the summer of 2012. I know you've been putting a book together about these experiences. It will be a cherished reminder.

  14. That's awesome, Johanna! What a great retreat, I would love that. Caught my attention because my daughter won first place at Regionals with her National History Day essay as well. LOL! She went to State but didn't place there. She's a writer as well, and so we think waaayyyy too much alike. That is a great experience you had with yours. Congrats to both of you!

  15. The retreat sounds like the perfect place to be if you're a writer. Having the time with your daughter is priceless. Thank you for an inspiring blog.

  16. I've always wondered about Fishtrap. Now I know a little more. I feared that I wouldn't fit in with some of the authors, poets, etc., but maybe so. So glad you got to go and then share with us. Thanks!!

  17. Great write-up Johanna. You really convey the heart of Fishtrap! Hope to see you back as a workshop participant some day!

  18. Since I attended Aspen this summer and work-shopped with Luis Urrea, I couldn't stop thinking about Fishtrap. The way he described it made me want to go there next year, so badly. Now, you have got me drooling! Well done. Lovely post. Thank you so much for sharing.

  19. Yes! You get it! My daughter has gone to state other years, but this was her first chance to go to nationals. We had to get her there.

  20. Thanks, Stephanie. It really was a great place to be--so glad my experience could inspire others.

  21. I think there is a place for everyone at Fishtrap. The focus is so much on the individual, that I never felt it necessary to fit a mold.

  22. Thanks so much, Ann. You do great work there and your son brought down the house with his poetry. So talented!

  23. I keep hearing about Aspen and how wonderful it was. I'm so glad you were able to participate there. Luis is amazing.

  24. [...] Fishtrap: On Being a Writer by Johanna Harness at Gem State Writers [...]

  25. I loved your writeup! Wish you had been in the workshop with Luis--I'm still floating!
    Hope all of you will attend Fishtrap next summer and I'll make more new writing friends!


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