The following contribution is from Steve Edwards, author of Breaking into the Backcountry (Bison Books 2010). The AWP Conference & Bookfair is an annual meeting for writers, teachers, students, editors, and publishers. Each year more than 12,000 attendees join the AWP community for four days of insightful dialogue, networking, and unrivaled access to the organizations and opinion-makers that matter most in contemporary literature. You can learn more about the 2017 conference here.
Beyond the panels and readings and all the books to be had at the annual AWP writing conference—held this year in Washington, D.C.—is the chance reconnect with literary friends from around the country. For me, in particular, I’m looking forward to a reunion with four writers I’ve never met but with whom I share a profound experience. We were all winners of the PEN-Northwest/Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency, and spent half a year living (and writing) in backcountry solitude along the federally-designated Wild and Scenic Rogue River in Oregon.
Breaking into the Backcountry is an account of my tenure as caretaker of the Dutch Henry Homestead in 2001. But it’s only one account. In the twenty-five years since the Boyden family started the residency program, dozens of talented writers have had (and have written about) their own adventures.
At AWP this year, Martha Silano, Keetje Kuipers, Erin Saldin, Nick Neely, and I will be sharing some of our stories in a panel entitled, “The Wilderness and the PEN: A 25th Anniversary Reading and Discussion.” We will be taking up questions about the power of silence and solitude and time apart in a wild place. I know that for me, my time in Oregon as a recently divorced twenty-six-year old from the Midwest, utterly intimidated and alone, proved transformative. The daily rhythms of nature slowed down my anxious mind. Knowing that there were bears and mountain lions and rattlesnakes nearby forced me to confront my fears every time I left the cabin. But what was the experience of the homestead like for writers who grew up in the West and with wild places? What was backcountry solitude like for women? And what of writers who took up occupancy with their spouses and children? I’m looking forward to participating in the discussion and telling a few of my stories—but really I’m just hungry to hear how my fellow writers, from the uniqueness of their own circumstances, were affected.
As I wrote in the acknowledgments to Breaking into the Backcountry, the last thing I expected from an excursion into solitude was to make friends but that’s exactly what happened. Fifteen years later, it’s still happening. If you love a place, you’re connected to everyone else who loves it. And if you love a wild place like Dutch Henry Homestead, that connection is all the more intense. I have a strong suspicion that when I meet up with Nick and Keetje and Erin and Martha at AWP in February, we won’t feel a thing like strangers. If anything, it may feel like a homecoming.