This summer I’m going to the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference—again. I’ve been to others, all wonderful places, each offering its unique atmosphere and particular added attraction—a mountain to hike at Squaw Valley, readings held at wineries at Napa Valley, fierce bonding at VONA, a sense of history and celebrity at Bread Loaf, the D.H. Lawrence ranch near Taos.
But there’s a reason I keep going back to Port Townsend. Really, several reasons.
Port Townsend is practically in my backyard, if my backyard were to stretch from my little house in North Seattle across Puget Sound to the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula. Getting there is one of the best parts. There’s a ferry ride, a little bit of highway, and then stretches of country road. I always look for The Egg and I Road sign. The road passes the farm site once owned by Betty MacDonald who wrote the 1945 best-selling book The Egg And I about the calamities of running a chicken farm. My sister and I read that book over and over when we were kids, not to mention the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books. There’s something almost bewitching about encountering traces of an author whose works delighted you as a child.
The conference is held at Fort Worden atop a bluff overlooking Admiralty Inlet which is traversed by maritime traffic to and from ports in Seattle and Tacoma. The fort was an active army base from 1902 to 1953; when decommissioned, it housed delinquent juveniles. Now it’s an arts center. The dorm rooms are tiny and monastic. Fitting for an army recruit or a reforming youth. Fitting as well for a writer.
The rooms have a desk and a chair and a little bed. What more does one need to write and sleep? Well, ear plugs. Program director Jordan Hartt advises packing ear plugs as the walls are “thin as masking tape.” Otherwise, the digs really are quite sufficient. And if you’re lucky, you might get a view of the inlet, though a view of the parade grounds and the officers’ quarters isn’t bad. A view of the parking lot may be useful for keeping your eyes and brain focused on your computer screen. When you need to get outside, there are places to run, bike, or hike nearby.
The place is damn picturesque and a bit charmed—maybe even magical.
I first went to the Port Townsend conference in 2003. At the time I was three chapters in to rewriting my first novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced, which was eventually published in 2011 by Signal 8 Press. Bret Lott was my workshop leader. He was kind, funny, and smart. Our workshop group enjoyed him and each other. We were a highly companionable group, and I made some forever friends.
Six years later I was back, this time for a workshop led by the charismatic Chris Abani who generously gave his time and talent to his students. The story I brought to workshop was published soon after in Connecticut Review.
It was hard to stay away and I returned to the conference for three consecutive years. One of those years I took a non-fiction workshop with another brilliant teacher, Paisley Rekdal. The essay I worked on that summer was later published in Kartika Review and then anthologized in New California Writing.
The other two years at the conference I signed up for the residency option, an alternative to enrolling in a morning workshop. As a resident, I was provided with a room in which to write, a meal plan, and access to the faculty craft lectures and readings. Each time, I spent the week working on my second novel The Education of Angie Rubio. After many interruptions and delays over the intervening years, I have a full draft that needs layering and polishing.
This summer it’s me and Angie Rubio getting it done in Port Townsend. And maybe, if the work has absorbed any of the Port Townsend magic, it, too, will be published.