Nine Ways to Write When You’re the Writer-in-Residence on the Washington State Ferry

November 17, 2021 § 15 Comments

By Iris Graville

  1. Sit. Place a folded sign with your name and title on the table where you usually work. A table under sepia photographs of Coast Salish peoples rocking a baby in a cradleboard, carving wood, and hunting whales. Some of their faces carry deep creases; many fold chapped and worn hands in their laps. They lived, worked on, and cared for this sea long before you did, years before this sixty-year-old vessel plied these waters at 13 knots, coursing between islands that now carry names of European explorers who claimed them as their own.
  2. Scrawl. With a pen in a leather, handbound journal, numbering each page and dating each entry. Record conversations overheard; observations of rocky cliffs, cedars and coppery Madrones, and jewel-like water carrying the 310-foot Tillikum on its route through Washington’s San Juan Islands.
  3. Type. On a shiny, 13-inch, three-pound laptop Coast Salish tribes never could have imagined. Nor European explorers. Nor you when you first learned to type on a black, Royal typewriter, followed by a cranberry, IBM self-correcting electric typewriter, your reward when you could tap out 50 words per minute. Sometimes type on a smartphone to preserve unexpected bits of conversation, possible essay topics, names and contact information of people who know so much more than you about ferries, the sea, orca whales, harbor seals, kingfishers and cormorants, kelp, starfish, jellyfish, Chinook salmon, and how the water can wear dozens of colors during a single sweep of the interisland route.
  4. Breathe. On a wooden bench in the covered, outdoor deck, wind whistling through the open sides, rain spattering the square windows overlooking the uncovered deck where other passengers huddle. Fingerless gloves allow you to grip your pen until your digits stiffen and redden, and sea spray blurs the ink on the page.
  5. Linger. In the Galley, enveloped by smells of fake-butter popcorn under a heat lamp, clam chowder simmering in a pot, and coffee when a passenger pumps the thermos top and stirs in cream and sugar.  Banter in your preschool-level Spanish with Juan when you pay him for your coffee. Notice his eyes glisten and his hands cover his heart when a Costa Rican CD plays his favorite tune.
  6. Revise. Insert ear buds to signal you’re deep in thought and not desiring conversation. Or perhaps you’re deep in daydreaming, or fretting over words that don’t come to describe images, fears, hopes, and wonder. Some days, many days, are like that, just a few worthy words saved in the journal or the laptop’s memory.
  7. Walk. Close the laptop lid or the leather journal. You’ve read that walking stimulates creativity. Stroll to the outside deck as the ferry docks. Let your eyes follow walk-on passengers with dogs on leashes; cyclists in spandex and cleats pushing their bikes; paddlers in sandals hefting kayaks; then the stream of cars, vans, gravel trucks, lumber trucks, pickups pulling trailers with horses, sheep, goats, or cows; Sysco and beer trucks; sometimes a school bus or an ambulance, or motor homes. You know they all have stories.
  8. Read. Instructions about what to do if there’s a fire on the ferry or if passengers need to prepare to unexpectedly exit. Historical information about the Washington State Ferries. Posters about bike rides, fun runs, concerts, and how to protect the Salish Sea. Framed certificates for captains, first mates, and engineers. Plaques recognizing the crew’s safety records and customer service. Brochures for tourists about where to sleep, eat, drink, shop, hike, and watch whales. Read books of poetry and essays you stashed in your backpack for inspiration. Read, because reading is essential to writing.
  9. Nap. After a morning of reading and writing, then lunch, return to the pen or the keyboard until you notice letters turning into loops and trailing off the page, or typos appearing on the screen, or your eyelids fluttering and your neck bobbing. Don’t resist these signs to rest. Succumb to the ferry’s cradle-like motion, and nap, trusting you’ll be roused by Ordinary Seaman Michael’s raspy announcement, Lowwwwwpez… Lopez Island.” As you leave, notice a vase of lilacs Able-bodied Seaman Teri cut from her garden.


Iris Graville lives on Lopez Island, WA, where she writes nonfiction and the occasional poem. Her memoir, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance (Homebound Publications, 2017), received a Nautilus Book Award. In 2018, she was named the first “Writer-in-Residence” for the Washington State Ferries system, drafting essays as the vessel coursed among the state’s San Juan Islands. The resulting Writer in a Life Vest: Essays from the Salish Sea is scheduled for release in March 2022. On Twitter: @irisgraville.

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