Three years ago, Homer writer Dana Stabenow had a dream: build a retreat where women writers could go through the same life-changing experience that she had in 1989 at the Hedgebrook Writers Retreat on Whidbey Island, Wash.
Called Storyknife, after the Inuit storytelling tool, the compound would be built in a fireweed meadow near Homer overlooking Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay. Stabenow plans to build six cottages and a community hall where writers would stay for two-week to two-month residencies.
This month, Hawaii resident writer Kim Steutermann Rogers made that dream happen — at least the first baby step in Stabenow’s grand vision. Selected from a pool of 65 international applicants, Rogers is the inaugural Storyknife fellow.
“This is the beginning of the fulfillment of her dream,” Rogers said. “I realize that. It makes it that much more impactful for me.”
Rogers spent September living in Frederica, a cabin on the Storyknife land named after the anthropologist Frederica de Laguna, enjoying the gift of a solid block of time to do nothing more than reflect and write.
“The whole idea of a retreat is to force a kind of hothouse environment. You want to be in attractive circumstances where all your cares are taken away,” Stabenow said. “Mainly they have this small, beautiful place where they have nothing to do but work at their craft. That’s all they do. That’s all we’re asking for.”
Rogers, 53, wrote a solid first draft of “Mark Twain and Me: A Passion for Place,” the working title for a nonfiction book that’s about the search for a lost journal Twain kept during a visit to Hawaii in 1866. Twain had been hired by the Sacramento Union to write dispatches. By coincidence, a boat of shipwrecked survivors washed up in Hawaii, and Twain wrote the story for Harper’s Magazine. That lead to his big break as a writer, Rogers said.
With her husband Eric, Rogers moved to Anahola, Kauai, in 1999 after growing up in the Midwest. Rogers didn’t realize Twain — the pen name of Samuel Clemens — had been to Hawaii until she stumbled across his book of letters in a used bookstore in Kauai. Rogers also shares some Midwestern connections to Twain. Her family goes back five or six generations to the same Missouri valley where Twain was born in Hannibal. Rogers also went to the University of Missouri journalism school where Twain got an honorary doctorate degree.
“I feel like it’s giving me the eyes to look at the Twain story, of Twain in Hawaii,” she said of that connection.
Rogers’ book is about more than the search for a lost journal. She mentioned Vivian Gornick’s book on personal writing, “The Situation and the Story.”
“For me, the situation is the quest for the missing journal, but the story is our relationship to place,” Rogers said.
There’s a theory in environmental psychology called “place attachment,” which looks at the emotional bond between people and place. That’s another theme Rogers wants to explore.
“We can fall in love with a place. We can have a relationship with a place,” she said. “Why is it that I, a person from the Midwest, had to move so far away from home to find my home?”
Stabenow’s vision of Storyknife, and the Hedgebrook experience she shared, brings a group of writers together in a short-term community. They will have the solitude of their work with the companionship of others at meals. Stabenow said with Rogers being alone in her residency, she worried that Rogers would miss out on that aspect.
“I was very concerned about that. The community aspect of Hedgebrook was very important,” Stabenow said.
She and Storyknife executive director Erin Hollowell reached out to Homer’s literary community and asked them to invite Rogers into their homes. Writers Nancy Lord, Tom Kizzia and Linda Martin had Rogers over for dinner. Another nonfiction writer, Miranda Weiss, took Rogers on a long beach walk. Rogers went to a sandhill crane count session and the Burning Basket.
“Kim has kind of fallen in love with Homer,” Stabenow said. “She’s worked her way into the community as well.”
Rogers said that she discovered a bonus from living in Homer a month.
“Each one of these meetings really gave me a kernel or a seed of an idea on the project I’m working on right now,” she said. “There’s little seeds in there of memory or experience that will always make me think of this place.”
Rogers said she has seen the phases of the moon, has seen sandhill cranes leave on their migration, has seen fireweed change from vivid red to fluff, has seen all the changes of fall in Alaska.
“I don’t want to come to a place or a residency that’s a void or where I leave without a sense of place,” she said. “It feels like this is the right residency for me.”
Rogers came to Storyknife with her brain filled with research and ready to write. The intense time of focusing on writing has given her a good start on her book — and a lot more work to do, she said.
“I feel like I will be well down the path to realizing this book,” Rogers said.
Stabenow said Storyknife will offer another residency in 2017. Her goal is to raise $1 million to build the six cabins and main house, and another $2 million to create an endowment to pay the retreat’s expenses. Storyknife will be Stabenow’s legacy, with her literary and physical estate to go to the foundation after her death. People interested in contributing can visit Storyknife on the web at storyknife.org or on Facebook. An announcement about the next fellowship opportunity will be made there.
For Rogers, being the first fellow has given her another connection to a beautiful place.
“That creates a stronger bond, not only with Alaska and Homer, but with Storyknife,” she said. “I will be forever grateful.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.