About a decade ago, on the afternoon of October 12, 2007, I turned off South Dakota’s Highway 79 a few miles south of the small town of Hermosa, onto a road called Windbreak Lane. In January of that year I had quit writing, and I was on my way to a writing retreat where I hoped to decide whether that quit would be permanent or not.
You already know how that one ends: I’m here, writing.
Linda M. Hasselstrom, who has now run the Windbreak House writing retreat for more than twenty years, deserves some credit for the continued presence of writing in my life, but she would be the first to qualify “credit.”
Writing is a solitary doing, but the goal, for the most part, is social: writers wish to be read. Part of learning to write for other people involves locating the story you need to tell within a narrative an audience will want to read. Walking a tightrope is a fair analogy, if you think of the writer teetering toward self-interest, confession, and navel-gazing and then tottering the other way, toward pronouncements so bland and meek that they offend—and inform—no one. Consulting other people as you learn to walk this line is helpful, which is where writing groups and workshops and the like come in. Ultimately, though, a writer has to learn to go it alone.
Writing is seldom death-defying, but it’s difficult in that the writer is stringing the rope—the line of words—even as she or he wobbles along it. Nobody likes to fall, or fail, which makes it seem that perfect balance would be the essential skill, but in reality what it takes to move forward is a willingness to remount the wire after you tumble off.
This is where Linda excels. She doesn’t coddle egos and she doesn’t promote a soft and fuzzy version of the writer’s life. Windbreak Retreats provide a nurturing and supportive environment, but this isn’t a high-falutin’ big-top operation that cinches writers into a safety harness so they can taste the thrill of flying high. Nor is it a spa where writers are pampered with luxury accommodations and gourmet meal delivery. Retreat writers occupy the compact family ranch house and bring their own food. The house hunkers in a working landscape: cattle graze, trains rumble past, trucks and tourists swish along the highway. The resources a writer might wish for are nevertheless ample, if not extravagant: an expansive library, an assortment of reading and work spaces indoors and out, files stuffed with handouts, canny feedback from Linda, conversations with fellow writers for those who choose a group retreat.
Linda also encourages writers to make use of the broad prairie landscape, the wide sky, the windbreak trees. Contemplation and stillness are essential to the retreat, as they are to writing more generally; owls and pronghorn antelope and coyotes and blackbirds are tutors in these respects. This environment shaped Linda, both as a rancher and a writer, and it sustained her through profound personal hardships. She loans its ordinary beauties to visiting writers, offering it as a net into which we might bounce as we practice falling off of, and climbing back onto, the wire of words.
If it sounds serene, it is, but the retreats are also rigorous, because Linda recognizes that one of the hazards of solitary work is buying in to our own excuses. Part of my own dilemma was hoping for a way to make writing easier. When I complained that one of my problems was sticking with a piece of writing after I’d figured out what it was about—after I understood the story I wanted to tell, but before I’d told it in a way someone else would want to hear—Linda told me to print off some unfinished essays. Handing her a stack of draft pages, I told her it was like looking at roadkill.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” she said.
And she was—patiently combing through the wreckage and the stench to point out how I might splint and bandage this essay, reanimate that other one, and salvage a hunk of intact, un-ravaged hide from yet another. The solution, in other words: keep working.
Then, when I confessed my desire to find someone to be my reader or my prod, it was the rancher who worked the family outfit for forty years that replied: Linda knows bullshit when she sees it. Counting on somebody else isn’t a permanent or reliable solution, she warned, “People die. They move, they have kids, they run out of time.” If I wanted to write, it was my choice, and my work to shoulder. I shouldn’t count on anyone else to help me, particularly in the most trying of times. I’d have to learn to fail, and fall, and balance on my own.
The mind of that tough and plain-spoken rancher shares space with a keen and articulate observer of prairie and people, of cattle and horses, of wild birds and wildflowers, of words and publishing. Her understanding of writers and writing allows her to zero in on each writer’s needs (as opposed to wants), in a particular moment. As a working writer, Linda understands how self-reliance is built on a foundation of interdependence, and so she steadies writers and then steps away. As a poet, she knows grace cohabits with cruelty, and she encourages writers to locate, and articulate, both. As a rancher, Linda is fully aware that the blizzard-born calf warmed beside the stove will be sold as beef in a few years. From her I learned pragmatism: that the nurturing conferred on lines of type is meant to sustain them as they meet their fate in a world that just might chew them up.
Ten years ago, as my car bounced along the gravel of Windbreak Lane, I was frankly terrified, thinking, “I could still turn around.”
I still could.
I keep choosing not to.
In early October, 2017, just short of ten years after my first retreat, I made the turn onto Windbreak Lane for the seventh time. I felt a familiar tingle—a mix of anticipation for time on the prairie to think and hike and read and write, mixed with trepidation about re-committing, yet again, to keep walking on that damned rope. I don’t go back to Windbreak House because I need help balancing, not any more. I still fall, cursing on the way down, but I feel less bruised when I hit and I soon climb back up, even if I’m still cursing.
These days I go to Windbreak House because it gives me a chance to sprawl in the protective net of the prairie for a few days, contemplating the singular line I’m laying out. You’d think practice and a better sense of balance would have raised the stakes and lifted the tightrope higher over the years, but the irony is that the more I write and practice, the the lower it settles. I teeter, sweating with arms outstretched, almost at ground level, threading a path steadily getting closer to the plain of the world, and everyone else in it.