Windbreak House Writing Retreats
But First . . .
For the practical details on attending a retreat at Windbreak House--
how to apply, the cost, a typical retreat schedule, and a list of available dates--
click here to be taken to the "Retreats Page."
What's New at Windbreak House?
A few notes about what's going on.
What The Heck Is Homestead House?
Now that Linda lives full-time in Windbreak House, retreat guests reside in the nearby Homestead House.
Special Group Writing Retreats Available
Bring a friend, save some money, expand your retreat experience.
Commendations from previous retreat participants
Here's what others say about writing at Windbreak House Retreat.
What Are They Up To Now?
Learn about some writers who have attended Windbreak House retreats.
"How My Ranch Home Became Windbreak House"
An essay by Linda.
Rapid City Journal article about Windbreak House
The local newspaper did a story some years ago.
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What's New at Windbreak House?
2010 -- Creature Comforts
Though Homestead House is a writing retreat, not a spa, we've added some amenities: each bedroom now sports a large swiveling padded office chair to ease your time spent writing at the desk, and comfy recliners so you can kick back while reading or lap-topping.
2008 -- Linda Has Returned
Linda, Jerry and the dogs moved back to Windbreak House to live full-time after many years in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Writing retreat participants stayed at the newly-refurbished Homestead House, the nearby house where Linda lived as a child.
2007 -- New Website and Other Changes
Our Windbreak House website, first online in 1999, has a new look this year. Now that Linda's assistant, Tam, knows more about the internet, we've created our own website, hosted by The Author's Guild.
Another big change is coming in 2007: the writing retreats are changing their location. As we prepare for Linda's return to Windbreak House in 2008, we will be moving the residential retreats down the hill to Homestead House-- the original ranch house location. Click here to read more about it.
2006 -- Ten Year Anniversary
Although no public celebration was held, 2006 marked the tenth year of writing retreats at Windbreak House. Since 1996 Linda has hosted-- hmm. I need to look up some statistics and put them here. Check back in a month or so.
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What the Heck Is Homestead House?
Linda, Jerry and the dogs moved back to Windbreak House to live full-time in 2008.
After completing some cleaning and repairs to the house, Linda moved the residential writing retreats from Linda's home up on the hill (Windbreak House) down to the original ranch house in the trees (Homestead House).
For more information, including a House history and an expanded photo tour, click here to go to the Homestead House article on the Books & More Page.
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Special Group Writing Retreats Available
Linda has conducted several retreats for women who come to Windbreak House to work as a group. Linda suggests reading and writing projects to help such groups think deeply and write about a particular topic. The women work together and separately, and with Linda, to inspire and encourage one another's writing.
For example, three women who lived in the same rural area came to Windbreak House to learn how to form and sustain a writing group. Four years later, they are still meeting to work on their writing together, and have accepted one new member.
Another group of women met with Linda to soak in a Wyoming hot spring, hike, read, discuss, and write on the theme "By Water and The Word."
Another trio concentrated on observing and writing about the flora and fauna of Windbreak House, including a preliminary survey of a possible archaeological site. Their reading included observations on nature, and how it heals and informs us.
One group wrote about and discussed mothers and motherhood, while another included mothers and daughters working on their relationships as well as writing about it.
During the summer of 2002, two women turned their attention to the ideas of house and home, focusing not only on practical matters like how to design an inexpensive but efficient house, but what home means to each of us.
Several groups have come to Windbreak House expressly to study a particular portion of the house library, such as Linda's collection of materials on self-publishing.
If you would like to work on a specific topic with your group, ask us how we can make your group retreat a reality.
Two writers coming together each receive a discount of 5% off the retreat fee. Three or more writers will each receive 10% off.
For information on how to apply for a small group retreat, see the Retreats Page.
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Commendations from Writers Who Have Worked at Windbreak House
“Your retreat is at once a sanctuary and a place of creative invention. You are user-friendly!”
“The most important and empowering thing for me is to be in a house with a working writer. Together we generate energy which pushes each on, saying yes, this is important to do– if not for the world, at least for you, here, now. Be here now.”
“Every time I sit down to write, I’m back on retreat!”
“Attending your retreat is the best thing I’ve done since marrying my rancher. I wish everyone could have the opportunity you have afforded this old ranchwife.”
“You intuitively know what is needed for each group of women. You are blessed with a ‘knowing.’”
“I never thought one or two people could think of everything for everyone and make it work. The retreat is perfect.”
“Practical concrete help. I leave with no regrets, only satisfaction – money well spent.”
“I like the way you let participants help create the agenda and mood. I appreciate your keeping us focused on our writing, and all your ideas for improving, for new projects. Sometimes it was overwhelming when you kept giving handouts and books, yet I really appreciate your sharing them with us.”
“The vastness, the openness of the landscape requires the same in me.”
“I feel like I have been home for the last few days. I came here feeling stressed, angry and depressed, ready to quit writing. I leave here renewed, centered, and excited about new writing projects.”
“Love the solitude and lack of distractions such as TV, telephone.”
“The place-mats and personal napkins add personality. I like that.”
“Gushing thanks for the most valuable, in-depth critique of my writing thus far in this life.”
“Thanks for the peace and wild winds of Dragonfly, for the quiet and outward vision of the south deck, for the prism of Windbreak House and its open invitation to absorb, focus, and define. Your piece of the prairie reflects the love of Life, its abundance and individuality, in an underlying and all-embracing respect for land, critter, and human – a humbling and awe-inspiring accomplishment.”
“The copy machine is great. Everything is well organized, from the closets to the copy machine booklet to note copies made.”
“The deck is awesome; the cushions are heavenly; the birds, cows, Lake Linda, rocks, the soft carpet in Eagle, the nice bed with lots of pillows, the interesting artifacts in and around the house...”
“I think if you have never seen a thunderstorm this way, you’ve missed the best – the blue-white cracks across the sky, the bolt that quivers in the ridgetop while the drummer rocks the concrete floor, the sweet cool rain carrying the scents of drying grass.”
“Thank you for sharing your land and your wisdom.”
“The magazine basket: I see what gets published, potential sites for my own work. More pleasurable than the Periodical Room of the Library.”
“Thanks for the challenges, the assignments which will benefit not only us as individual writers but our entire family.”
“I so enjoyed waking to the sun in Eagle that I’m going to paint my house in outside colors – sage green for the living room/kitchen, apricot sun for the bedroom. I’ve always wanted to live inside the landscape; this is a step toward my own retreat.”
“You made us feel right at home.”
“No TV, no phony conversation with other writers.”
“Love the birds, the country, the conversation.”
“I liked best having a generous resident mentor who lives a productive literary life.”
“Personal attention and suggestions are probably the most helpful thing anyone has ever done for me and my writing.”
“What an incredible amount of resources you have gathered here, and how generous you are with all of it.”
“Thanks for your direction, critiques, books, articles and everything else. A weekend I’ll always treasure.”
“Thanks for offering me a chance. I’ve never had to be critiqued. Windbreak House has been a soothing balm for my frazzled mind. Thanks for keeping my city mind in retreat mode.”
“I enjoyed the bluets, nighthawks, killdeer and cowslips – all of the surroundings of the house. I was pleased to produce a poem and hope that this will serve as the beginning of my keeping a steady journal and writing poetry.”
“How many writers get the opportunity to live and work with an esteemed author?”
“June 27, 1999: the day the clouds turned up a snipe nest and a few words blew into the heart of a woman and gusted out her hand.”
“I am changed.”
“Thank you for making time flow so slowly and fully my own.”
“Grass, peace, sun, wind, friends, pleasures – what a wonderful home place.”
“Within the house I can also see, feel and learn from all of the other people who have visited here in the past. I learned so much about writing, me, my environment and the world in the past three days that I’m sure I will need new shocks on my car by the time I get to North Dakota!”
“Thank you for helping me collect my thoughts into poems, into essays, artfully. You are my feminist teacher, editor, writer, activist model. Your generosity is not a myth; it’s journalistic fact!”
“I loved living in Dragonfly with a firefly! You have all given me a renewed enthusiasm for writing.”
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What Are They Up To Now?
Here are a few notes on some retreat participants-- books published, websites, events of notice. Please send us any other news notes to include here (use the click-on e-mail link in the left-hand column).
"Denial," a poem by Pat Frolander (Sundance, WY) who attended a Windbreak House retreat in 2007, has appeared in American Life in Poetry, former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser's national column on poetry, June 2010. Congratulations, Pat!
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How My Ranch Home Became Windbreak House
By Linda M. Hasselstrom
I think of our lives as circular: our work is dedicated not just to profit-making but literally to feeding ourselves. We are sometimes able to choose work that sustains us mentally. . . . and to plan our own days rather than working to a schedule set up by someone else. But the steady rhythm of night turning to day, spring to summer, birth to death, the progress of the moon and sun, the sweep of wind and rain-- those natural cycles determine how we arrange our lives. What does not fit into the smooth circle of our days, into the repeating cycle of the seasons, does not belong here.
-- Going Over East
At the age of thirty-five, in love and married for the second time, I felt pretty smug. I’d earned an MA in American Literature, then abandoned academic and city life. Divorced, I returned to my father’s ranch on the Western South Dakota plains, studied my strengths and weakness, and created a comprehensive plan for the next fifty years. Five years later, I was a published writer, learning to preserve the land I worked as a rancher, along with its native flora and fauna, and the cattle we raised. An only child, I expected to inherit my father’s ranch, work it with my second husband, George, and write in my spare time.
After surviving our first marriages, George and I thought our union would last the rest of our lives. Naturally, we wanted a house. Crammed into an apartment in my parents’ house, we visualized our ideal home, appraising every aspect of the way we wanted to live. We pored over floor plans, including space for George’s camping and shooting gear, and for my writing and books; for his woodworking tools and my sewing. We wanted our home to accommodate our avocations, our friends and neighbors, our dogs and cats.
We laughed as we listed the best and worst features of past residences, compared and combined our visions, estimated costs and began again-- and again, and again. We erased my dormers and window seats, omitted George’s lookout tower, postponed the sauna and greenhouse. We enlarged the living room to fit the nine-foot couch I’d bought at a yard sale because it persuaded intoxicated friends to stay overnight. Sensible of the future, we sketched doors wide enough to admit a wheelchair.
Once we started building, we balanced desire against practicality, tackling some of the work instead of hiring professionals. Help came from friends skilled at carpentry, plumbing, and electricity. I proudly announced, too often, that we were the sole support of a local concrete company. Anyone who has built a house would find the details painfully familiar.
During a long winter of shoveling snow and pitching hay to cows, we considered minutiae woven into an enormous question: What makes a house a home? With cattle prices down and our savings dwindling, we spent most of our time figuring out how many 2 x 4's we could afford, but some of the principles we articulated then have guided my thinking about “home” ever since.
I take great pleasure in how we made the house fit into the landscape. . . . dug into the shoulder of a hill and tilted ...to present one corner to the prevailing northwest winds. Nothing obscures the view from any window --there are no trees.
Each choice we made was appropriate for the climate, and for conservation of energy. The modest rectangular house is tucked into the south slope of a hill for protection from the prevailing northwest winds. Twenty-six windows, many on the south, furnish light and solar energy, with woven shades to block summer sun and retain winter heat. I liked to keep an eye on the weather and the cattle, watch light and shade move across the grass beneath cruising hawks. George, raised in the trees of Michigan, once said “It’s not paranoia if they really are after you,” and added that the open hilltop offered “a good field of fire.”
We painted inside walls in colors natural to the plains; daybreak flared in peach and gold in our bedroom. Everywhere, comfortable chairs sat under wall-mounted reading lights. My sewing room doubled as an extra bedroom. I’d observed many ranch women isolated from conversations in the kitchen, so only a low wall divides the kitchen from the dining room and living room. Guests usually leaned on it, visiting and peering into my pans while I prepared meals.
Because George enjoyed cutting and splitting wood, and a nearby cottonwood grove was dying, we installed a wood furnace with propane ignition. A wide deck offered shelter to the basement door, and cooled my study. We left the basement ceiling open so we could access pipes and wiring, and stored snowshoes, rifles, and other gear in the rafters. We tucked a half-bath behind my study, and stashed an old iron bathtub in an adjacent pasture as a horse-watering trough until we could install it. Some day, after feeding cows, we’d be able to come in the basement door and leave our filthy clothes by the washer on our way to soaking in the tub.
The prairie is smoothly rolling, with bulges and crevices, like the skin of a plump old woman. Occasionally chunks of limestone outcrop, making miniature canyons covered with lime-green lichen. After a heavy rain pools of water appear, lying on limestone close to the surface, furnishing brief watering places for frogs, antelope, cattle.
We fitted the house as naturally as possible into the landscape and conditions. To break the wind, keep snow out of our driveway, and provide shelter and food for wildlife and songbirds, we planted native trees and shrubs, mulched with mail order catalogs and carpet, and watered frugally by drip hoses. Rather than use chemical sprays, I pulled thistles. Instead of planting a lawn, we transplanted plugs of short native grass to the scarred ground around the house. While our neighbors installed lights that automatically come on at dusk, we used spotlights on individual switches, aiming them down to minimize light pollution.
At the dining room table, we could look down over my father’s house, barn, and corrals, and see our future. I was content to fit writing into the corners of my life-- before and after ranch work, and during blizzards.
I was adopted by the land, and began developing a personal land ethic the first time I looked out on the empty, rolling prairie around my home.
-- Land Circle
Nine years later, when George died at age 42, I wrapped the house around me like a blanket. My father began behaving erratically. I was 49 years old when he ordered me to give up my writing or permanently leave the ranch. I took refuge with a friend in Cheyenne, Wyoming, three hundred miles away, renting my house for an income. In my locked basement study, I left books and furniture, keepsakes of my life with George. The renters wanted to paint the living room walls black; they ripped up the hoses that fed the windbreak.
When friends called or wrote to ask when I was moving back home, I gave evasive answers. I’d found a new companion, and I was enjoying my experiment with city life, where I couldn’t be reached by telephone, where I wasn’t responsible for the ranch. The renters told me about friends who’d stayed overnight with a sick son. The child awakened in the morning feeling better, and said with a smile, “This is a healing house.”
Eventually, my father died; my mother moved to a nursing home; the renters left. Back in South Dakota for negotiations with lawyers and accountants, I’d camp a night or two in the house, overflowing with the renters’ filth and unpaid bills. One morning, I was awakened by the furnace exploding; the renters had destroyed the firebox by burning propane instead of wood. For two years, each time I visited the house, I spent most of my time cleaning and weeping. On the drive home, I entertained fantasies of setting the house on fire; burning it would have been easier than cleaning it. Only lifelong fears of prairie fire and prison stopped me.
Although I have left the ranch where I grew up several times....I have always returned.
-- Land Circle
In Cheyenne, I’d joined a writers’ group, but failed to find a like-minded community of friends; I’d planted a garden and native wildflowers, as though I could recreate the prairie around a city house. Two women who’d read my first book and wanted to see its setting accompanied me on a visit to my South Dakota house in June of 1995. They helped me clean, giggled at photographs in my high school yearbooks, and drank coffee on the deck, watching ducks cruise the pond below my house.
Then Diane said, “You should make this a writing retreat for women.” Instantly, I grabbed the camera and took a picture of us, knowing that moment was important. “A healing house,” the boy had said. Perhaps the house could heal me.
A door has opened. I never expected to write poetry.
-- Mary Ethel, in the Windbreak House journal
For years, working with students of various ages, I’ve explained that “revision” means more than correcting errors in spelling and grammar. Each time I revise, I examine my original inspiration again. “Revision” means to me “re-envisioning,” seeing again, pretending one has not yet written a word. Each version of the writing adds layers of meaning as the poem or essay matures. I applied the same method to the idea of making my home a writing retreat.
Each time I worked in the house, I’d felt a mood of depression, almost evil. In order to banish it, I turned to spiritual beliefs and practices centered in the prairie, borrowing a cleansing ritual from the Lakota people native to these plains. Praying for peace and calm, I carried a smouldering bowl of native sagebrush and sweetgrass through each room and around the hillside. The feeling of despair vanished in a scent both fresh and wild. Each spring, and at intervals during the summer, I gather native plants for ceremonies to reconsecrate the house, following my instincts to create rituals similar to those performed for generations before whites came to this grassland. As I ground the house literally and metaphorically in its place, I am reminded how much we have to learn from old ways of living on the land. Like the buffaloberry bushes in my windbreak, the idea of a retreat has thrust its roots deeper, its branches higher, than I thought at first.
The long drive between Wyoming and South Dakota, along with the chore of cleaning, gave me time to consider how to conduct writing retreats. In my travels, I’d often encountered the belief that rural life and hard work are synonymous with ignorance. I’d also met dozens of women who wanted to write but had been discouraged by officious teachers in high school or college. I could sympathize, having been told by a professor in graduate school I should go back to the ranch, get married, and have babies, because I wasn’t smart enough for advanced education. Women who read my published work sometimes thanked me for telling their stories, for showing, as one said, “that ranch women aren’t just big dumb cows.” If I could encourage these women to write about their lives, could show them their stories had value, I might help them live more satisfying lives, and add their important viewpoints to our culture and history.
When I say ‘work’ I only mean writing. Everything else is just odd jobs.
-- Margaret Laurence
From the first, part of my motive was selfish. I wanted to dedicate Windbreak House to writing, since-- like most people-- I am easily distracted by daily city life. Dogs bark, salesmen phone, religious spokespersons knock on the door, and sirens scream-- distractions excluded from Windbreak House. Yet writing was my salvation after George’s death, no longer a “spare time” occupation. Now I had to decide if writing, besides giving me mental sustenance, would produce enough income to nourish my body. I could not run the ranch alone; I have no cattle, my horses all died, and I am no longer willing, and probably not physically able, to do the required work. Yet I am convinced I must keep my roots in that arid soil, to learn from it all I can, in order to continue to grow as a writer and as a human being.
I’d had modest success as a writer before leaving the ranch-- submitting essays and poems in a rush whenever the ranch work allowed. Now, with nearly forty years’ ranching experience, perhaps I could write full-time, become more aggressive about publishing, and become a voice for ranchers, especially women. This nation has become “citified” so fast its citizens are in danger of forgetting where food originates. I can explain how ranching works to people who mistakenly believe any grazing destroys a natural environment. Conversely, I could clarify environmentalists’ ideas for ranchers who feel threatened by change. I’ve found that a considerable amount of friction is often based on ignorance, a correctable condition. If two opposing groups can begin by discussing shared ideas instead of hurling rhetoric at one another, they may be able to work toward a common goal.
For years, my “writing” income came primarily from honoraria as a visiting writer for a day, week, or month. After the isolation of writing, I enjoyed the travel, meeting new people, eager discussions of writing. I hated long absences from home, unfamiliar surroundings where I could not write, and classrooms filled with indifferent students. Therefore, a retreat would have to replace my income from itinerant teaching. Otherwise, it would be only another job, worse because it would occupy a place I loved.
Yet even those closest to me-- my parents, neighbors and friends-- have never accepted the idea that writing is work. Forgetting that my father made me choose between the ranch and writing, my ninety-year-old mother still asks if I’ve “gotten a job yet.” Many women who live in rural areas of the Great Plains understand that writing can influence political change, but few have learned to take their work seriously enough to devote time or money to it. By working with Western women who wanted to write, I might earn my own keep, and give rural families a stronger voice.
Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.
-- Pablo Picasso
Besides convincing prospective students, I had to establish the idea of the retreat as a business in my community. Each time I returned to my house, my phone started to ring. Everyone knew I’d sold my cows to buy the ranch, and had leased the land to a neighbor. Assuming I must not have anything to do, they’d tell me about vacant teaching jobs, or ask me to bake cookies for school functions. “Had any books out lately?” they might ask, but my explanations of publishing only confused them.
The rancher who rented my land, uncomfortable discussing business on the telephone, often drove to my house, where tradition demanded I invite him in for coffee, or lean on his pickup while he worked up to asking a question about tearing out fences or expanding water systems. One morning when three writers were in residence, I saw the renter and his wife in the corral sorting cattle, and walked down to see them, determined to explain why they should not interrupt retreats.
“You know,” I began during a lull in talk about local news, “those women have read my books, so they pay a lot of money to come here to work with me.”
They blurted in unison, “They pay to come here?”
Of course! People who don’t consider writing a profession would hardly imagine its study to be a business. Since this ranch couple may be my most important link to the community, I explained how the retreat worked-- with special emphasis on the profit motive-- and sent them copies of my books, along with fliers advertising the retreat. These days, my neighbors have learned to talk to my voice messaging service, but when they ask how my retreats are going, they still grin and chuckle, shaking their heads.
Your retreat is at once a sanctuary. . . . and a place of creative invention. You are user-friendly.
-- Judy, in the Windbreak House journal
I ask writers who want to come to Windbreak House to read my writing as a guide to whether my style and outlook will help them, and to make clear the house is not a public space available to anyone with the whim and the fee. Moreover, many writers concerned about the environment realize that while the general public knows something of lobster fishing and ocean pollution, rain forests and logging, the Arctic and oil production, little is known about the prairie. As a society, we concentrate on saving what one writer calls “megafauna”-- grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions, whales-- but have barely noticed the plains where much of our food is produced. We glimpse its animals, flattened by speeding cars, on our way to Yellowstone. If we are to negotiate wisely for the future of the west, informed people must speak for it.
No matter what the topic, writers seem to be inspired by Windbreak House. Joanne came from Montana to work on a book about seven women who drove two Model T’s from Iowa to California and back in the early 1900s. Gin worked on a memoir, and spent hours copying information from my teaching files to use in her own classes. Maura is working on a manuscript for her children, explaining some of the tough choices she’s made. Mary Ethel said she really came to “hang out” with me, but began writing poems with encouragement from Sharon, who was putting together another book. Ruby came hoping I’d tell her if her work was good enough to publish; it wasn’t, but after I convinced her that publishing was not the most important objective of writing, she returned to write more poems, as well as a feature article for a statewide magazine. Half a dozen English teachers from Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, Colorado, and other Great Plains states have come because they believe-- as I do-- that writing will help them be better teachers.
You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen.
You need not even listen. Simply wait.
You need not even wait.
Just learn to become quiet and still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked.
It has no choice.
It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
-- Franz Kafka
In my writing, I have always combined philosophical ideas with practical methods for accomplishing a goal, probably because my childhood was devoted to hard work. Both my nonfiction and my poetry often emphasize my belief that we must all take responsibility for our actions.
So I decided to use the same methods at Windbreak House, teaching environmental efficiency by example. Though everyone said the house would be easier to clean if the walls were washable off-white paint, I used earth tones, keeping the sunrise in the bedroom. I re-hung many of my favorite paintings on walls I’d designed for them fifteen years before. Because I wanted visiting writers to feel comfortable enough to put their feet up, and because I had little money, I furnished the house from second-hand stores. I dragged the old nine-foot couch back to its place before the big south windows, where it can hold three writers and their books and notebooks.
When the container beside the kitchen sink is full of vegetable peelings and coffee grounds, each writer knows where to dump it for compost. Recycling bins line the pantry. A drawer full of second-hand napkin rings and napkins reminds us that wasting paper squanders trees. Most of the women resist, since someone has to wash cloth napkins, but I insist that washing uses fewer resources than paper towels.
I also see the house as a metaphor for the way a writer’s life is organized: orderly but not immaculate. Bare dressers and tables invite an accumulation of books and papers. I ruthlessly evict knickknacks. Decorative objects must be useful, and include such prized possessions as a handmade box containing tiny letterpress books, crocheted shawls, a rocking chair, the mahogany bookshelves my father built in high school, several antique trunks. Everywhere are interesting objects, and inviting places to settle. Women who suggest I put away the handmade quilt on one bed, so it will be safe, provide me with an excuse to discuss “using” or “saving” all kinds of things, including great poetic lines, and talents.
If anything irreplaceable is damaged, I say, I will find something less fragile to fulfill its function, and recall the antique with pleasure. Meanwhile, seeing these objects enables me to picture the people who made them, memories that may lead to writing that will last longer than any hoarded keepsake. Thus the house mirrors the inspiration of writing by ordinary life.
The dry brown plants, with their intricate and tangled shapes, spoke to me this morning as we walked through the pastures-- and the wide sky reminds me how much room I have to grow.
-- Mindy, in the Windbreak House journal
Conscious of the symbolism, I officially begin each retreat by yanking the upstairs phone off the wall. A basement phone, its bell turned off, saves messages I check each evening. In emergency, residents’ families know how to reach the county sheriff. Windbreak House has no television, but a weather band radio in the basement warns me of severe storms.
On the first afternoon of each retreat, I lead an orientation walk inside and outside the house. While I demonstrate practical details of the house’s operation, I convey information about the environment. Writers who have never lived in the country may not know, for instance, how inadvertently they might disable the septic system, ending our retreat at once because plumbers are an endangered species in this neighborhood. Such gritty details can lead to a discussion of the types and amounts of waste we each generate, and our options for disposal.
Outside, I talk about weather, native plants and animals, and the community’s culture and economics. Under windbreak trees now ten feet tall, I display the remains of the carpet-and-catalog mulch to show how it caught and held moisture until the trees could support themselves. I point out badger dens, and suggest listening at night for splashes and honking as the badger catches frogs and ducks at the pond below the house. We watch hawks and water birds; coyotes hunting moles down the draw; two fawns playing tag among the haystacks.
Sheltered from wind and highway noises, we sit to meditate on the coming retreat. Each of us selects something she’s never before examined closely-- a rock, an insect, a plant, a thought-- to study and sketch, or write about. Even after living on this prairie for forty years, and conducting this exercise fifty times, I always find something new to see-- a lesson rarely lost on the other writers. Two young women carried this observation to its ultimate when they photographed and identified the first nest of the Common Snipe ever found in western South Dakota.
Later, I direct the writers to resource books for addition information, which leads naturally into a discussion of research. I show them how my observations as a child led me to specific information in my essays, and tied me to this homeland. Writing, I tell them, requires awareness of your surroundings, no matter where you live. When they gasp at the number of stars visible from the deck at night, we discuss how people make the choices that create light pollution, and hide stars from the view of most city dwellers.
The importance of becoming intimate with a place, inherent in my own work, has become a fundamental part of my teaching. No matter what the topic, a writer’s attachment to a specific place helps her determine her relationship to the rest of the world; specific details strengthen writing. I don’t care if Windbreak House writers are concerned with the praying mantis, Hmong embroidery, or dog breeds, as long as each acknowledges her surroundings. The woman writing about the sea coast of Maine drew my attention no less than the women writing about South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Oregon, Kansas, and Missouri. When she goes home, she is more likely to notice particular features she’s never really seen before.
To find ourselves in the land, we don't need to buy a farm ..... We are all creatures born to soil and wilderness; the outdoors, not an air-conditioned office or schoolroom with windows that can't be opened, is our natural habitat. Night or day, walk out into the grass or woods alone, sit down, and listen. Dig in the earth; plant something. Walk and watch any living thing except another human.
-- Land Circle
Both the differences and the similarities among the women of Windbreak House lead us into penetrating discussions about our place in the world and our responsibilities as writers. Since each writer brings and prepares her own food, I didn’t know several are vegetarians until I’d leaned on the dividing wall to chat, waiting my turn while they cooked. None of them were repulsed by my eating meat, so the difference simply furnished a starting point for interesting dialogue. I try to be aware enough to guess at a woman’s specific fears-- of ticks, rattlesnakes, Native Americans, the treeless horizon, or admitting she works for an oil company-- so I can offer reassurance, or suggest ways to approach them in writing.
After the orientation walk and dinner the first evening, we meet to discuss each writer’s goals, and to plan a schedule. I provide long written commentaries on each woman’s writing, so she may revise, or create new work during her retreat. Freshly inspired by returning to the house, I divide my time between these comments and my own writing projects. At meals, we discuss our progress, altering the schedule if necessary. “Our conversations on issues,” wrote a Kansas environmental activist, “were as beneficial to me as our conversations on writing.”
Since we are all writing, the visitors soon realize how a serene environment and regular schedule help them to concentrate. A conversation is never interrupted by the telephone. No one knocks on the door or comes to be fed. Many of these interruptions, I remind them with anecdotes from my experiences, can be minimized by a determined writer. Writers who have sampled the reverence for work which pervades Windbreak House are, I believe, more likely to respect their own writing enough to create writing time and space at home.
By talk and action, I remind them that an obstruction in their work may indicate the brain needs a change: a nap, a walk, or a prowl through the bookshelves. One bird-watcher alternated writing with hours on the deck, binoculars in hand, improving her tan while she added to the list of birds she’d seen in her lifetime.
At first, the women carry their books and papers from the bedroom to the dining room to the deck, or to the windbreak, and back. Eventually, most choose a favorite nesting spot. They delight in leaving a book or a journal behind, finding it still there, untouched and private, when they return. Sometimes we discuss how to make this possible in our own homes.
The simple abdication of responsibility for neatness has, I think, profound results, especially for women who write. Each of us benefits from respecting the others’ work and methods more than we esteem perfect order. This realization alone can create a quiet revolution in a writer’s life.
The most important and empowering thing for me is to be in a house with a working writer. Together we generate energy which pushes each on, saying yes, this is important to do-- if not for the world, at least for you, here, now. Be here now.
-- Mary, in the Windbreak House journal
I’ve seldom found it necessary to suggest, after a lively conversation over lunch, that it’s time for us all to get back to work. Most conversations naturally center on ideas, and concurrences have become common. It’s not unusual for three or four of us to discover similar reasons for fear, guilt, or divorce, to learn we have the same birth days, or that several of us have step-children.
Going to the kitchen for a late-night snack, I may meet another woman doing the same. Wearing nightgowns at two in the morning, we talk with an intimacy that illuminates and expands the work we do as individuals. We are working hard at our writing even after normal hours, but such happy accidents would be unlikely with men-- or children-- in residence.
One day four of us learned we were all writing about our mothers. During the ensuing discussion, we confided in one another, and performed a considerable amount of what I’d call home-grown therapy. A couple of us convinced the others not to feel guilty about our anger about particular incidents from the past, and we all discovered reasons we behave as we do. We went back to work refreshed, convinced that what we were doing was worthwhile. I’ve read two publishable essays enriched by that unplanned, leaderless talk. At the request of previous writers, I now reserve time on departure day for writers to exchange addresses, information on contacts, publishing, and other useful topics.
Edith Wharton once observed, “There are two ways of spreading light, to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” My zeal for writing is mirrored by Windbreak House, where I slept in every bed and wrote or read in every chair as I created rooms to embrace women who may never have had a writing space. Waiting for the first writers to arrive, I wondered if I had lost my mind: inviting strangers to my most private space. Now I realize that I am not their hostess. I am a writer, sharing an inspiring place with other writers. Windbreak House is no longer a private home, narrowly defined. It is a collage: a constantly-changing work of art expressing my ideas about writing. Like art, writing arises out of individual taste and inspiration, with infinite possibilities for expression.
A poet never feels useful.
-- May Sarton
In order for my actions to furnish lessons to visiting writers, I had to resist the urge to sabotage myself as I often do at home. Pausing to think about a difficult phrase, I may do the breakfast dishes, scour the kitchen sink, put the garbage outside and sweep snow off the steps-- because I am responsible for those jobs. Three hours later, when I return to that perplexing paragraph, I can blame no one but myself for the lost time. “Picking up” a living space is more depressing than laundry since it’s not really cleaning, just beating back chaos. I knew writers might work hard at Windbreak House and lose the impetus when they returned to their lives. Part of my job, I decided was to help them learn self-discipline so they could practice it later. That means, in part, resisting the urge to tidy things at the retreat. I also provide short handouts summarizing good writing habits, drawn from thirty years of trial and (mostly) error.
When writers arrive at Windbreak House in mid-afternoon. I greet them in the driveway. Some women have been so nervous the wrong word or gesture might have made them bolt for home. One woman said she’d had her hair done the day before. Helplessly, I giggled, explaining she was unlikely to see anyone but me. She laughed with me, and we talked about how and why women learn that looks is more important than brains or skill.
After I’ve helped each woman move in, I explain that I will not enter the room again without invitation. If they hear my footsteps in the hall, they’ll know the house is on fire, or I’ve seen a tornado. Few visitors to the retreat are so unresponsive to the atmosphere of privacy that I’ve had to remind them of our purpose. Almost none ever invite me into their rooms; we meet elsewhere in the house. Most work so hard before arriving that my first job is persuading them to relax enough to allow for creative thought.
My teaching varies in response to individual needs, and my observations of the women. Barbara, for example, was so physically and emotionally exhausted from her job arranging for the adoption of problem children that she couldn’t face her computer. We walked together, talking about writing. That spring the dam below the house was full of water for the first time in its history, and chorus frogs sang all night. I’d never seen them, so we launched the flat boat and had a hilarious time measuring the depth of the water. Then she insisted I sit perfectly still while mosquitoes gnawed our flesh, until I spotted the first frog-- then another, and another. She wrote in the house journal, “When the blue waters in my life have contracted to a mere mudhole, I’ll remember sounding Lake Linda. . . and I’ll have faith that the dry spell will come to an end eventually.” Her trip home took longer than usual, though, because she kept stopping to write poems.
When I realized that Yvonne had washed dishes twice, I seized the excuse for a brief lecture, including a handout on creating a retreat atmosphere at home. “You didn’t pay good money to wash dishes,” I reminded her. . “We have so many dishes we can let them pile up.” In fact, after the writers head home, I read their evaluations, then analyze the retreat just ended while I wash dishes and ease into my own long drive.
Every time I sit down to write, I’m back on retreat.
-- Ruby, in the Windbreak House journal
Visiting writers have helped me reincarnate Windbreak House. The air crackles with energy during retreats. Each writer will go home to a job, to children, to varied responsibilities, but each has completely immersed herself in writing and glimpsed its power. Reimagining her own home after a retreat, a woman might unplug the telephone when she is writing, leave the dishes in the sink until she takes a break, or see her neighborhood more clearly.
Each group of women creates particular moments of intimacy, establishing friendships that will link us even if we never meet again. On the final night of each retreat, soaking in the old iron bathtub in the basement bathroom, I realize that my understanding of the writing process has expanded again. Each writer, plunged into a house dedicated to writing, has increased her comprehension of its art. Eileen, who played her violin each evening, wrote in the house journal about the sounds different grasses made as she walked a mile every day to the old stone house. Wendy keeps a chunk of white quartz on her desk at school to help her visualize the badger den. These specific objects are more than souvenirs, containing meanings and memories that will influence their writing for years to come.
I feel as if the huge rock I’ve been pushing against has begun not only to budge, but gain a bit of momentum.
-- Joanne, in the Windbreak House journal
I receive mailings from a religious retreat named Haggodesh, a Hebrew word meaning “holy ground.” I know of no comparable term in English, but I know that the women who have joined me to write have become part of the effort to reimagine Windbreak House. Like the buffaloberry bush in the windbreak, the retreat continues to wind its roots deep into the native sod, stretch its branches toward the sky. My retreat stands in the path of a highway and a railroad, but I am exploring ways to establish a botanic garden of native Great Plains species there. Buffaloberries grow among long thorns, and are too tart to eat alone, but combined in the right proportion with other ingredients, they are unforgettably tasty.
Start with the closest spot of earth .... Sit outside at midnight and close your eyes; feel the grass, the air, the space. Listen to birds for ten minutes at dawn. Memorize a flower....you cannot overdose on this experience, and it doesn't cause a disease, or require you to seek therapy. You can only benefit.
-- Land Circle
This essay originally appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review (Volume XL, Number 1, Winter 2001) under the title "Reimagining Windbreak House"
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“Leaning into Windbreak: Writers’ Movement Takes Shape Among the Grass Roots”
By Amanda Henry, Rapid City Journal Staff Writer
Quotes taken from the Windbreak House journal
This article originally appeared in the Rapid City Journal, June 27, 1999
Used by permission with thanks. www.rapidcityjournal.com
"The dry brown plants, with their intricate and tangled shapes, spoke to me this morning as we walked through the pastures-- and the wide sky reminds me how much room I have to grow."
In the midst of an unusually rainy spring, the plant life surrounding Windbreak House is more mossy than brown, but the thundercloud-studded sky does stretch out on all sides, as wide as the expanse of ranch land it embraces. Highway 79 isn't far off, but the rumble of passing trucks is muffled by the wind in the tall prairie grasses. Birds circle overhead, and a fawn leaps, briefly, on a distant rise; there is even a resident badger.
"A lot of these women have never been even this far from civilization," says Linda Hasselstrom. The weather and the sky, the names of plants and the habits of animals, the land and lake and a view from the porch are part of what Hasselstrom offers those who come to Windbreak House for her writing retreats.
Hasselstrom is best known as the author of books of nonfiction and poetry including A Roadside History of South Dakota and Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains, and as one of the editors of the anthology Leaning Into the Wind: Women Write from the Heart of the West. She has been offering literary retreats for women-- no more than three women at a time-- since 1996.
Windbreak House is built on the John Hasselstrom ranch near Hermosa. It sits just west of the home where Hasselstrom lived from the time she was 9, and the faded red barn where she kept her first pony. Since then, she has come and gone, but she has never completely severed ties.
After her husband, George, died in 1988, Hasselstrom sold her cattle, rented out her homes and moved to Cheyenne, Wyo. In 1994, she came back to Windbreak. A friend suggested using the serenity of the setting for writing retreats.
Hasselstrom still has a home in Cheyenne, but from April to October, she spends her weekends at Windbreak. Prospective attendees are selected after Hasselstrom reads the 20 pages of writing, published or unpublished, that must accompany each application.
"Twenty pages weeds out a lot of people," Hasselstrom says. She wants to be sure her participants are serious about writing, because once they arrive at Windbreak, they are welcomed into the house as peers.
"When the blue waters in my life have contracted to a mere mudhole, I'll remember sounding Lake Linda ... and I'll have faith that the dry spell will come to an end eventually."
The women who come to Windbreak are looking for different things. One arrived so burned out it was all she could do to sit, and stroll and play on the lake. She didn't do much writing during the retreat, but she later told Hasselstrom it took her two weeks to get back to Utah because she kept stopping to write poems along the way.
While at Windbreak House, each writer sets her own schedule. Hasselstrom opens not only her home and its environs, but also her extensive collection of books, articles and other reference materials. The only off-limits area is the basement shelf containing Hasselstrom's high school yearbooks, which bears an emphatic "Private!" The only taboo activities are smoking in the house and washing too many dishes. "I want them to realize they're writers, not housekeepers," Hasselstrom explains.
Receiving that kind of affirmation from an established writer is probably the single greatest reason women come to Windbreak. Hasselstrom critiques manuscripts and offers advice on getting published, leads walks and explains the ranching life. Underlying all of her advice is the passionate conviction that women's writing matters.
The Windbreak retreats were inspired in part by the experience of editing Leaning into the Wind. Hasselstrom has attended readings by many of the contributors, and is amazed at the effect that being published had on their confidence. Well-versed in the academic tradition that, until recently, focused only on writing by men, Hasselstrom is proud to encourage women to express themselves.
"We had 200 women who live a rural life in six Western states writing about their lives," she says, still awed at the thought. Submissions for a second anthology of Western women's writing already are filling milk crates in Hasselstrom's basement, and every time she gives a lecture or holds a retreat, she hopes to inspire more writers. "The more of us that are doing it, the harder it's going to be to ignore us all."
"I feel as if the huge rock I've been pushing against has begun not only to budge, but gain a bit of momentum."
The two writers at the most recent Windbreak retreat were Judy Johnson of Spencer, Iowa, and Yvonne Hollenbeck, who lives on a ranch near Clearfield, South Dakota. Johnson is a birder and keeps binoculars next to her chair on the deck. She points out a blackbird drafting off a redtail hawk. The two birds are so close together the blackbird appears to be hitching a ride.
"Most of my writings reflect nature and the creatures in it," says Johnson, who spends much of her time at home working on environmental causes with the Clay County Conservation Board.
Hollenbeck, who brought some of her mother's famous banana cake to the retreat, comes from a long line of cowboy poets. She recalls finding her grandmother's poems on bits of paper sack or the blank spaces on used greeting cards.
Hasselstrom draws herself back from a discourse on recycling-- a subject dear to her heart-- to attest to the passion of cowboy poets. At a recent convention, Hasselstrom discovered that, unlike their stuffy academic counterparts, cowboy poets recite all day and all night. "It's the most exciting event that had anything to do with poetry that I've ever been to."
Hollenbeck shakes her head at yet another example of the breadth of Hasselstrom's literary experience. "It's like getting a world of knowledge in two days," she says. "How many authors are willing to share what they know?"
Johnson nods in agreement. "She's user-friendly."
Hasselstrom looks slightly embarrassed at being eulogized while she's still in the room, but concedes the point. "I didn't have this opportunity," she recalls. "I didn't see a real, live writer until I was in college. ... I want kids to know that you can grow up in South Dakota and be a writer."
As evening settles around Windbreak, the storm clouds disband. The three writers stake out spots on couch and porch, or in bedrooms with names such as "Eagle," "Dragonfly" and "Burrowing Owl" ("Prairie Chicken," the trailer, perches out back). There are no phones, and no television, no families or jobs, or any of the other excuses writers love.
With the last day of the retreat looming, Hasselstrom regrets that most people feel they can spare only a few days at Windbreak, rather than staying a full week. By Monday morning, Hollenbeck and Johnson will be adding their own parting reflections to the Windbreak diary.
Hollenbeck suggests that a week sounds too daunting. "I didn't know this lady from a bale of hay," she says, jerking her thumb at Hasselstrom. Now, she says, she'd be glad to have a week.
So rarely these days
Do I sit down and write
For three, four, five hours at a time.
So rarely these days
Do I stay up long into the night
Reading, talking, reading more.
So rarely these days
Do I sit on the deck
Watching fawns play hide and seek.
I will do these things more often now.
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