Ten Days at Ucross

Ucross Day 1

First full day was good. I wanted to write more but ended up doing some reading, transcribing, and tons of research instead. Trying not to beat myself up over it and instead just asking the question, “Did you show up, Mare?” If the answer is yes, I’m not going to be to hard on myself.

I woke super early because of the time difference, made myself a morning shake with a powder that I brought and some yogurt from the kitchen, and came to the studio. No coffee or tea here, but I can bring it over from the main kitchen, I had just forgotten. My next-door studio mate, a nice young poet from Minneapolis who drove here made a run with his car and rectified the situation.

We had orientation at 10am which cut into my morning and made me itchy, but it was all good info. There are some wonderful areas nearby for hiking (a tipi circle, a ghost town, a fossil bed–all things I drool over), so now I have to decide if I am going to only work or if I am going to take advantage of some of the amazing opportunities that abound here. It’s a tougher decision than you might think, as I only have ten days and I told myself I would leave with a full first draft.

Read more of SAVE THE CAT to mock-out my outline for where important plot points need to turn in this new novel. Researched a bunch of questions:

1) Are seahorses edible?
2) How do you dry jellyfish for storage and how do you fix the dried disks into food?
3) Where does the loggerhead turtle migrate?
4) What small creatures live among the mats of sargassum that float in the Sargasso Sea?
5) What equatorial currents make up the Atlantic gyre?
6) etc.

I made a ton of notes, drew sargassum, created a map of the world of the novel to orient myself, so did a lot. But my word-count target is about 3,600 words a day (crazy, I know) and I only did 1,000 by the end of the day.

Lunch is delivered outside your studio door every day around noon in an insulated bag. Sandwich, cookie, and fruit. Feels super special and supported to have that bag quietly appear. It’s a little wonderful “I believe in what you’re doing” moment.

Went back after dinner and worked more because I really needed to have gotten at least 1,000 words on my first day to feel like I could sleep. Walked home in the snowy dark. Beautiful.

Word Count: 14,064 (I arrived with 13,071 and am shooting for 50,000)

Dinner: roasted orange-rosemary chicken, roasted cauliflower, roasted acorn squash, some heavenly macaroni and cheese, and salad. No dessert tonight, but there is a cookie jar that’s always filled and ice cream if anyone wants it. Also an overflowing fruit bowl. I didn’t need any extra food. My second helping of mac and cheese was my dessert.

Slept like a baby and woke at 6am ready to go.



Ucross Day 2

Yesterday was a good, productive day. Still didn’t meet my insane projected word count, but I’ve decided it’s a goal, not a hard requirement. To quote Pirates of the Caribbean, “They’re more guidelines, actually.”

It was a really beautiful, snowy morning. Not actually that cold, but the wind that picked up later was wicked. I love my studio, greet it every morning when I arrive, “Good morning studio! Shall we have a good day today?”

I did realize that I’m suffering from a bit of altitude sickness still. (It’s definitely a thing. If you’ve never experienced it, it can last for a few days as your body acclimatizes and symptoms can be odd and not too specific, like fatigue, insomnia, GI disruption, even swelling of your hands and feet.) I’m sleeping fine, but definitely having headaches and GI issues, things I’m prone to anyway. So I’ve cut out my afternoon beer for now, no wine at dinner, lots of water, periodic Motrin, and it seems to be easing.

The other excitement yesterday was the baby calf born across the creek but within sight of my studio window. A little adorable Angus/Hereford mix: all black but with a white face. His mother appeared kind of distressed to me. She was the first thing I noticed. Her back was arched oddly and she wasn’t moving or grazing or doing the usual cow things. Then I saw the dark lump at her feet. She was licking and nudging it but the little calf wouldn’t budge. He was shaking his head around, so I knew he was alive, but getting up and nursing as soon as possible is pretty important for these little guys, especially when it’s so cold out and they’re wet with afterbirth. So I watched for about 45 minutes–doing NO work at all–then called the office just to let them know. They said they would call the rancher and within about ten minutes a covered ATV came out and herded the cows in. At that point, the mother pushed extra hard and the baby wobbled to his feet and slowly stumbled after her, bashing into the fence a few times along the way. Adorable.

Word Count: 16,218 (not stellar, but really solid. I’ll take it.) My main character met her future romantic partner and together they saved a massive loggerhead entangled in a ghost net.

Dinner: Oh, dear lord was it ever good. Roasted lamb with preserved lemon and garlic, coconut curried root veggies, couscous with almonds, and homemade challah (which she broke for us). I had two helpings it was so good…and this morning I brought some of the lamb and veggies for my breakfast. 😉

Slept well. I’m keeping to my east coast time zone for the most part (except for eating late, over which I have no control) and it seems to be working well. It gets me up and out before everyone else, I have a nice long walk to the studio in the beautiful, quiet, morning light, and I have the studio to myself.


Ucross Day 3:

Had a little additional excitement last night. Let me set the stage.

My studio mate is a young guy who is super down-to-earth, and I really like him. Quiet, solid, good guy. We don’t really interact much at the studio, just sometimes at dinner.

Well, last night I was in my studio after dinner to do a little bit more work, and I kept noticing this smell. It was sort of a hot, electrical smell, or like burning rubber. I thought it was my old laptop computer and I started to get really paranoid about losing all my work. I kept sniffing all around…finally I cut my computer off and unplugged everything just in case, then got ready to leave. But when I left my room (I keep the door closed) the odor was even stronger. So I touched all the electrical outlets to see if they were warm, checked the mini fridge, checked the furnace room…nothing. We aren’t supposed to bother other fellows in their studios, but my studio mate has been really nice, so I just tapped on his door and asked him if he would also give it the sniff test. He noticed it right away and so we set about trying to find the source–sniffing heat vents, etc. Finally, even though it was 9:30, we decided to call the site manager who I met on day one and who lives right on the property.

The site manager got there in about ten minutes, did all the things we had been doing, then I finally opened my studio door (I had shut it before he got there, hoping to keep the smell contained) and it hit us all pretty hard. He zeroed in on the switch to one of my ceiling lights that was hot. He turned it off and said he would get a switch the following day and fix it. As he was about to leave, I noticed that the light was NOT in fact turning off, just dimming. Turns out there was a short in the wiring switch. He found the breaker and switched that off. Holy cow! The studio could have burned down last night! I’m so glad I went back to work after dinner…and that my studio mate was there, too… and that I asked him to do a sniff check. I was literally pacing indecisively around the common area for like five minutes before I finally tapped on his door…not wanting to disturb him but thinking I should really probably ask and not just leave with the smell undetermined. (Plus, it wasn’t getting better, and I had ruled out my computer by that point.)

Anyway, that was my excitement for the night. The site manager gave me a ride back to the dorms (about a half a mile) which was nice, since it had gotten fully dark by then.

Although…I really should have walked because I HURT MYSELF at dinner. If you come to Ucross, pack Alka-Selzer. I’m not even joking. The food is so good I’ve been overeating, and with my body thinking 6pm is actually 8pm, it’s been a bit uncomfortable. Must. Fast. Till. Dinner.

Word count: 18,206 (just shy of 2,000 words for the day)

Dinner: Provence style food: beef bourguignon; a quinoa, snow pea, and broccoli salad; a French-style potato salad with capers and dill; two baguettes, a caprese salad with fresh mozzarella, arugula, and tomatoes; and an awesome carrot cake with lemon custard as the filler icing and cream cheese icing for the outer icing. I took some to the studio after dinner, and only ate half, and it still put me over the edge into discomfort.

And this came after lunch, which arrived at my studio door at noon–a giant, thick, hot ham sandwich, Reuben style with carmelized onions, and some sort of wonderful gooey cheese, and fresh tomatoes, grilled like a grilled cheese. She’s killing me.

Slept fine after a cup of hot peppermint tea to try and settle my bulging stomach. Such a rough life.


Ucross Day 4:

No external undue excitement yesterday, thankfully, but I had a GREAT writing day. You know it’s good when you’re humming along AND having to make notes for future plot points that are coming up as you write the present scene. I love those days. Respectable word count, too.

I’m writing some charged scenes between two teenagers who are only just starting to explore their budding sexuality (probably why my writing is going so well!) and I’m trying to remember those great scenes in The Virgins by Pamela Erens, and also to not rush my characters to sex. Some teenagers do rush, but I’m more interested in conveying those long petting sessions that go on for hours–and that’s what I’m trying to create for these young lovers. That luscious, pre-sex time when everything is sensation and you feel electricity in every cell of your body.

Most of the fellows are taking the weekend off like they’re at home, but I can’t afford to do that, so I’m working away. I’ll probably quit around 4pm and head back to get dinner early since the cook is off, take my shower, and try to do some laundry. I may or may not come back after. Evenings don’t seem to be too productive for me. I think I’d be better off going to bed early and getting an earlier start tomorrow.

On the way to the studio this morning I saw a Tom turkey in full display. Man, he was a sight to see. Strutting after the females, fanning out that luscious tail. And then when he was done, pffff, it was like someone let all the air out of him and he didn’t look much different from the females. Nature is so cool. I tried to get a picture but I suck and so does my camera. But I at least have my camera beside me as I work now, because last night the deer and geese were going right past my window.

Tried to feed a carrot to a wild bunny this morning. He (or she) was having none of it. Tried another bunny who was equally unconvinced. Finally just walked close to one, pretending I didn’t see him (they won’t run away as readily if your focus is elsewhere) and–whoops!–casually dropped it near him.

Found part of a jawbone that I will take home to my hermit crabs (they’re scavengers and love bones). I think it might be from a sheep or one of the white-tailed deer that are everywhere here. There are only a few teeth, but they’re grazer’s teeth and not as big and flat as a cow’s would be.

Speaking of the white-tailed deer, they are smaller than the ones in the east, and if the eastern white-tails have a modest bandanna for a tail, these deer have got full on ostrich-plume, feather-boa tails and they know how to use them–waving them seductively side-to-side as they trot away.

Word count: 20,816 (So far, my word count is increasing every day by a couple hundred words. If I can maintain that momentum, I will be happy and not too hard on myself.)

Dinner: Mexican night. Chilaquiles (which I had NEVER had, and I feel like I have been missing out my entire life!), chili rice, roasted pork, zucchini with pumpkin seeds, frijoles negros, roasted corn-on-the-cob with lime, fresh mango salsa (spicy), fresh tomato salsa (mild), fresh guacamole (amazing) and some nice-looking chips which I couldn’t even bring myself to try after my second helping of chilaquiles. Seriously. I want to make this at home now and buy it in every restaurant. I looked it up online and most recipes tell you to make it in a skillet and serve either with scrambled eggs or a fried egg on top. But the chef made hers more like a souffle, so the eggs and sour cream soaked into the corn tortillas and the whole thing had this lovely lightness to it. Like a fluffy lasagna, only Mexican and not Italian, if that makes any sense to say.

The chef doesn’t come for the weekend, so we’re on our own. But the fridge is fully stocked and there are so many amazing leftovers it’s ridiculous. As weird as it sounds, I am frankly a little relieved. I need a break from all this amazing food. (I know, I know: poor me.)


Ucross Day 5:

….sorry. distracted by the cute little Rufous-sided Towhee in the bush outside my window, not two feet from me. (At least I think that’s what bird it is–eastern birds and western birds often have really interesting differences but enough similarities to help me figure out their names.) So far, I have seen a lot of magpies, tons of Canadian geese, some ducks, an osprey, a bazillion robins, a hawk, a flicker, and a bunch of mourning doves (in pairs). Although I think one of the mourning doves met his or her maker yesterday. I walked through a big pile of feathers right near a fir tree that I’m pretty sure they had been roosting/nesting in, because each day when I walked by I would startle them and cause a great flapping and trillish cooing.

Gave the bunny 5 or 6 blackberries yesterday afternoon. Most of them appear to be still there this morning. They started out in yogurt, so even though I rinsed them, they may not have smelled right for picky Mr. Cottontail.

Had a good writing day yesterday. Not stellar, but sufficient. I’m meeting my (new) word count goal but producing a fair amount of dreck and/or filler that will eventually get pared way down or even cut entirely. But it’s a conscious choice on my part to keep even the bad stuff for now, having determined that the feeling of a successful day by sheer volume produced makes me happier and more ready to begin again the next day than having a much smaller amount that is polished. As Liz Strout would say, I’m producing my literary clay right now. There will be time later to form it and fire it and glaze it. For now, I just need the dirty, messy raw materials. (I had a dream about Liz last night. She was very encouraging to me in the dream, telling me to keep going and she believed in me. Choosing to take that at face value, too.)

Part of the reason my writing was a bit rough yesterday was because I spent a little more that two hours yesterday reading my studio mate’s poetry collection for ordering, theme, etc, and then giving him my thoughts. It’s awesome work. I hope he gets a lot of attention for it.

Then called hubby and we had a nice birthday chat for about 45 minutes. I only have roaming here, so it’s 15 cents a minute. Grrr.

I came back to work late in order to exceed my day-before work-count, then walked home in the dark–it was VERY dark last night. Cloudy and no visible moon, either. I got back to my room and raided the Ucross cookie jar (which is always full), and had a call from my daughter at about 11:00, which was 1am her time, so I knew it was important. She was having a mini-crisis brought on by a distressing phone call (at work, no less). She just needed to talk it through with someone in order to help her process the information. On balance, I think it will be a good thing, but it was a hard night for her. Fortunately, me being in an earlier time zone, I was up and still coherent.

For the first morning since I’ve been here, the weather is gorgeous. It’s sunny and bright with a few high, wispy clouds and already warmer than it’s been in the past week. I think I will try to get some pictures today.

Yesterday was hubby’s birthday…and I was away. Feeling guilty about that, but hey, part of the reason I applied here was because ever since I have known him he has said how much he wants to see Montana, Yellowstone, and Wyoming. I thought if I was here already he could come out at the end of my stay and we could do a bit of sightseeing together. I said I would pay for his ticket, even, but he declined, saying he didn’t feel like he could take the time off from work. Boo.

Word count: 23,466 (of the aforementioned…ahem…clay) So my daily net numbers since the start have been 993…1,154…2,051…2,547…and 2,650. My new goal is to just increase that count by some amount every day I have left. Wish me busy fingers!

Dinner: Leftovers. Thank god. I had a little more chilaquiles, and a handful of raw carrots. And I ate it at 4:30 (6:30 by my body clock). What a relief.

Oh! And I also had a beer. Levity Amber Ale. It was a bit of heavenly levity.


Ucross Day 6:

Woke up late this morning. It was almost 9am. I probably needed the sleep, but now I’m feeling a little behind the eightball.

Yesterday was a lovely day. So warm and sunny. I spent as much time outside as I could while still working. Took my notebook out for part of the day, just to feel some glorious sun on my face. Then of course had to type it up inside later, doubling the time spent, but it’s always good for me to do some longhand writing every day (I don’t, though, not usually…note to self…). I go places longhand that I don’t usually on a keyboard.

I ate oatmeal for breakfast, took a nap halfway through the day, did yoga with four other women artists here (a composer, two painters, and a sculptor) at 4:30, which went till almost 6, then we ate dinner together (salad greens with some leftover chicken on top and the chef’s wonderful homemade dressing. That also went long because we got on the topic of arts in education, then someone made a pot of coffee, which I shouldn’t have had a cup of, and then I was still behind on word count so I came back to the studio, had a nice chat with my studio mate about writing and other residencies and the like, got a flurry of texts from my sister, then was still short 800 words so I kept writing until almost midnight…which then made me not sleepy after I walked home and saw all the unbelievably beautiful stars. Man, Mars was red as hell and low in the sky. Bright and burning. Jupiter was really big and bright, too. So beautiful. Back at my room, jazzed up by the late evening coffee and the entrancing night sky and the various conversations, I couldn’t sleep. So I finished off the beef burgonoigne with a piece of seedy bread in my room, sitting up in bed–so decadent!–then added a chocolate chip cookie for good measure…at 1am. It’s no wonder I slept until nine.

I need to get back on schedule.

And those last 800 words last night were almost funny. I was streaming ideas for future scenes, positing theories for why my characters think the way they do, describing a hermit crab in great detail. Really funny and slightly sad that THAT’s how I made my word count, but make it I did! Onward.

Word count total: 26,222 (2,756 for the day)


Ucross Day 7:

Got back on schedule this morning. Forced myself to leave the studio by 9pm and got to sleep probably about 10:30. Woke a little after 6am, pretty much ready to go. Showered and then unloaded the dishwasher–residents are asked to do light kitchen duty to keep the chef’s time for cooking. We all clean up together after the evening meal, for instance. There are nine of us, and in eight days I haven’t unloaded in the morning yet, so I figured it was my turn. Then I gathered my breakfast materials (a muesli mix of grains, cereals, and dried fruit that I cook in the studio microwave, where I also have my morning tea) and walked to the studio. Took the long way this morning (instead of the shortcut through the fields) because I felt like being on the open road a little longer and also walking down the tree-lined front driveway, which is pretty spectacular.

It’s another gorgeous day in Ucross, Wyoming, population 25.

SAL-LUTE! (Extra points if you get that 1970s reference.)

Family needs have been intruding a bit these last few days with texts and phone calls. Not sure if I’m relieved to touch base or irritated at the time pulled away from my diligent work. Probably a little of both. Sorry family!

Word count: 28,614. Shoot! Didn’t quite pass yesterday’s count. Will try to double-down today and make up for it.

Dinner: Asian night. Jasmine rice cooked with coconut milk, baked salmon, pad Thai, naan bread, fresh mango and pineapple salad with coconut shavings, a stir fry of snow peas, broccoli rabe, and sesame. Sriracha optional. And I opted.


Ucross Day 8:

I’m starting to feel the OhmygodI’maboutotleave engine revving up, so yesterday was a really good word-count day.

I’m at it early this morning, hoping to get even more done. So this post will be fairly short as I want to save as many of my letters and words for the writing day as I can.

But it was so wonderful and hot here yesterday. Rolled up my pants legs, took off my shoes, and got a little sun on the porch, then burned my feet when I stood up. So freaking hot! Crazy. Things are popping out all over here. It’s almost like an Alaskan summer where it hits BOOM and everything goes great guns because they know time is short.

The bats were out last night as I walked home at dusk (9pm). That was lovely. Dinner was amazing and I’m still a bit full this morning.

Word count: 33,137

Dinner: Grilled steak, grilled potato fingerlings of all different colors, Caesar salad, homemade sourdough bread, grilled veggies (zucchini, eggplant, and peppers) and for dessert, a NY style cheesecake that was to die for.

We fellows are starting to feel the short time as a group, I could tell. (Most of us arrived together and leave together. Turns out I like that model a lot better than VCCA where people are coming and going all the time.) We all laughed and joked through dinner, and lingered much later than we normally do, and tonight after dinner we’re all going as a group to see the Ghost Town that’s nearby. Should be a fun evening.


Ucross Final Day:

Well, sad to see it coming to an end. The two-week residency is really only ten days because they clock it Monday to Friday, and frankly I could have really used those four extra days, but I am so happy and grateful to have had the chance to be here and to work and meet wonderful people and enjoy the high plains. So awesome. I am completely in love with Wyoming.

Continued my amazing feats of rescue this morning–saved a giant night crawler who was writhing in the dry dirt road and was really sorry he had ever left the wet grass. I know, I know, I’m amazing.

The ghost town was pretty cool. We had to climb some barbed wire fences and it all felt a bit illicit, but it was neat. Not SO old a ghost town. The owner of the land was still using it as a ranch but it was cool to see the old schoolhouse with desks still inside and a chalkboard where someone had written “Good people went to school here.”

As we drove up, I saw a huge bird in a tall dead tree and thought it might be an eagle at first, but then we realized it was a turkey vulture. Fitting for a ghost town, no?

The things I find most fascinating about abandoned towns are the stories behind them. And oddly enough, I really like the outbuildings and overgrown landscaping. There was a cool old chicken coop that was at one end of a quiet little glade that looked very purposely planted–surrounded by juniper trees in a large oval (windbreak? Natural fence?) and inside that area the grass was lush and green (deliberately planted? Shaded from the blistering sun? Years of chicken poop? All of the above?). Also, the house still had curtains and a gate and a little “corduroy road” style sidewalk. And then this huge white lilac was just days away from bursting into bloom. Someone had loved that bush and planted it and tended it and now it had gone feral and was still gloriously thriving as a giant version of its former side-of-the-house hedge.

Found two calves that had died recently and had been piled near one of the outbuildings. Eyes were gone and one had been eaten down to the spinal chord and pelvis but otherwise intact. (Work of the turkey vulture, no doubt.) My studio mate took a bunch of pictures of those. I left him to it and walked down the road to an old rusty car carcass. As I was there, a man drove up on a four-wheel ATV and we talked to the man for about 15 minutes. He had gone to school in the one-room schoolhouse, was born one hill over, moved two hills over, then recently came back to the house where he was born. He told us about what had been in the area back in the 50s and 60–it was a big railroad stop before they built a spur over to Buffalo, Wyoming. All-in-all, very cool.

Got a couple of rough rejections forwarded to me from my agent yesterday afternoon. I really should have asked her to hold those until I got home–didn’t think about it. Had a beer and sat by the creek soaking my feet and shedding a few tears then got up and got back to work. Found some cool rocks to bring home. (I love rocks.)

Realized yesterday that the cows that always turn to stare at me aren’t being weird, they’re simply reacting to this unusual thing in their landscape–me. The cows far outnumber the people here.

Yesterday, in the middle of my writing day, I looked up to see a parade of cows going past the fenceline so I went out to watch (I love a parade), and as I sat there in the grass, I realized how good they smelled–like hay and earth and sun-warmed black cow hide. They smelled like the best kind of barn–one that is mostly used for storing hay and only occasionally big mammals. I sat for about 45 minutes and enjoyed them…because frankly, sometimes you’ve just gotta take time to stop and smell the cows.

Word count: 36,723 (on Chapter Eleven now)

Dinner: Chicken soup with optional homemade noodles, Lentil soup for the vegetarians, a salad of shaved fennel, zucchini, and tarragon, beets in a marinade with walnuts, two baguettes with Jarlsburg and Brie, asparagus spears with crumbled boiled egg on top, and salad. It was nice to have the lighter fare. Oh, and brownies for dessert.

Busy day today–getting our pics taken for the fellow record, going to Sheridan to get my rental car for the trip back to Billings to catch my flights home tomorrow, and tonight the fellows are all planning to hit a nearby cowboy bar after dinner to enjoy some local color. Should be fun.

*Fun facts from the cowboy bar: 1) the mustache is alive and well in Buffalo, Wyoming. 2) The show Longmire (which I love) was filmed here and they have a celebration called Longmire Days every summer. Must. Attend. In. 2017.