Opening Letters

Feeling Write at Home

the Chippewa Valley’s strong, supportive literary community draws one young writer back

Katy Hackworthy, photos by Justin Patchin |

Writers at the Cirenaica retreat
Writers at the Cirenaica retreat

On a Sunday afternoon in July 2017, I drove down a spindly driveway away from one of the most special weekends of my life and toward what I believed then to be a new phase of my young adulthood. I had spent the previous four days at Cirenaica, a writing residency in the woods of Fall Creek put on by the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild. The residency, lead by fiction author Nickolas Butler and comprised of 10 writers, was a lesson in the strength of community and the power of words.

There is something so affirming about the positive reception of your work from people who know the place to which  your declarations of love are sent.

After chatting, workshopping, and more than a few local brews, the connections we created became the most lasting impact of the weekend. Sharing art is an effective bridge to sharing other, more intimate parts of ourselves, and build bridges we did. With a variety of ages, experiences, and perspectives, we counseled each other about new directions for our writing and our lives. On our last night, after much laughter, storytelling, and a midnight snack of homemade hummus, I truly felt like I was a part of something meaningful. This felt revelatory to someone who was entering her final semester of college with the “real world” on her tail. I not only felt like I was on the right path with my art, but that I would also be able to move forward as a writer because of our community, which rallies around its members to make that possible.

After a tumultuous few months full of uncertainty and change, I spent my last night before moving across the country in January lounging at The Lakely, Old Fashioned in hand and surrounded by a group of people I admire and respect. I didn’t know what to expect with the coming months, but I did know I couldn’t leave Eau Claire without immersing myself once again in our creative community.

The Oxbow Retreat, a full day of instruction and fellowship, commenced with a reading open to the community. I usually dread open reads, preferring to listen instead of profess, but that night felt different. I stood in front of strangers, friends, and teachers, all supportive and eager to celebrate each other’s accomplishments, and read a love poem for my home and all its Wisconsin warmth.

There is something so affirming about the positive reception of your work from people who know the place to which your declarations of love are sent. This residency experience further highlighted how wonderful it is to live in a community where artists support other artists wholeheartedly, and there are opportunities for growth such as these available to writers from all walks of life.

As I sat on the plane the day after the last retreat, I felt a heaviness that never fully disappeared the whole time I spent in the desert. I felt more sure than ever that Eau Claire was my home, no matter how confusing or difficult the months leading up to the move had been. Acknowledging that pain, I also knew that our river town, along with its community of kindhearted creatives, would be there waiting for me, open-armed and grinning, if and when I came back.

It didn’t take long to determine that I belong here, with a community I believe in and one that believes in me. A large part of my decision to come back had to do with the impact I have experienced through my involvement with the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild, and my time at Cirenaica. Not only have I gradually found my voice through what I have learned from my peers and mentors, I have also discovered a group of people who truly believe in me and are invested in my success. There’s something to be said for that. I truly feel it comes from being in a place small enough to understand the impact of that support.

Almost five months to the day after I left Wisconsin for Phoenix, I finally returned to our sacred spot in the trees and hills of Fall Creek. The next four days were the best sort of homecoming, and they affirmed that coming back was the right – and only – decision I could’ve made. I took walks with old friends and new, the heat and humidity a small price to pay for surrounding myself with the smell of the trees, one of the things I missed most in the desert. I got to know new people through their work, through conversations in the moonlight, and through the very specific way that art brings people together. This, to me, is the true meaning of belonging, and boy, it has never felt better or more true to call this place home.