Watch Out for the Unexpected
October 14, 2022 § 4 Comments
By Andrea A. Firth
I walked out the doors of the tiny airport in Fayetteville into the blazing afternoon sun. At the curb I was greeted by Shari, my ride to The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs where I was doing a residency. My plan for the week was to complete drafts of two essays and start a third.
When I got in the car, Shari asked me where I was from.
Northern California, I said.
She told me that she was a transplant from the Pacific Northwest and that she hadn’t known what to expect when she moved to the area. Then she countered with a laugh,
You know, not everyone has a banjo and a gun.
I smiled and wondered if hillbilly jokes were considered PC. I’d never visited this part of the rural South. I thought about the preconceived notions I might be carrying. What came to mind when I thought of Arkansas was Johnny Cash, Bill Clinton, Walmart, and the fourth season of Jason Bateman’s crime drama Ozark that I had just finished watching. Information easily found through a Google search and Netflix.
I didn’t know what to expect of the area either.
Around five p.m., we arrived at “The Colony,” a cottage nestled in a woodland on the outskirts of town. The question buzzing around the dinner table that first night was who had seen the statue—Christ of the Ozarks. At seven stories tall, you would think it would be hard to miss, but Eureka Springs is surrounded by dense forest. I’m not religious, but I was intrigued by the idea of a monumental sculpture that none of us, three poets, two fiction writers, and me the lone CNF-er, had yet to witness.
The next morning, I started on essay one: a braid of two events, one natural, one unnatural, one remarkable, one despicable. Both had entered my orbit on the same day the previous week. I got the first braid down fast, then I started the second braid and got stuck, like two hours stuck. I knew there was a connection, but the essay fragments were scattered like fly away hair. I couldn’t tame the strands into a cohesive whole. On day two I moved on to a new essay that poured out steady and slow, which is how I write, like honey one day and molasses the next. The first essay was still rumbling around in my head.
That night we climbed a steep hill to the historic (and supposedly haunted) Crescent Hotel. From there we could see the outstretched arms of the Ozark Jesus, a 65-foot span, hovering above the treeline in the distance, as if he was reaching out to give us a big hug. The mega-statue sparkled in the setting sun, and I was surprised by how he felt like a protective presence.
Each day I’d take a couple walks and explore. Eureka Springs is a quirky tourist town full of contrasts. A blue dot in a red sea. A welcoming space for the LGTBQ community with all the trimmings of a conservative, small-town. American flags hang near Gay Pride flags. A town with at least six churches steeped in ghost stories and tales of the healing powers of the natural springs. Brightly painted Victorian homes with gardens full of angels, gnomes and sprites. An herbacy next to a tobacco shop. Kitschy souvenir stores next to high-end art galleries. A counter-culture hippie vibe on display alongside leather-clad bikers and middle-Americans on vacation. Contradictions abound but everything fits together, like a weird 3-D jigsaw puzzle.
Shari’s comment about the banjo and gun echoed in my mind. In the few days since I’d arrived, I had come to expect and accept the split nature of the area too. What we don’t see is as illuminating as what we do, but you have to dig below the surface to understand how and why it works. Like subtext in writing, what isn’t said says as much as what is.
One evening I stopped to admire the eclectic assortment of furnishings on the front porch of one Victorian home. A couple of inviting chairs, a dog’s water bowl, a campy painting of Napoleon, and a mannequin in a lacy skirt with a rabbit’s head holding a placard that said I’m Not Giving Up. Me either, I thought. Strange. Oddly creative. Anomalous décor. Idiosyncrasy that I took as inspiration.
Over the week, I finished essay two, started essay three, and essay one, the braided one, came into focus. The weird front porch motivated me to take a less conventional approach. I began to see how the two disparate things I was writing about could lie on the page and intertwine and intersect in new ways. I was able to grasp the strands of the braid and weave the story together.
You don’t always know what will help you move forward in your writing. Here in an eccentric small town, known for its tradition of coexistence, I grew to better understand the magic of juxtaposition. A new setting can be revealing. When you first arrive, you might feel out of sorts, and that’s the generative beauty of it. Your mind will set off in new directions, different neurons will fire. Have a plan but be flexible. Explore your surroundings. Wander. Observe. Give it time. Think on.
Andrea A. Firth is a member of the Brevity Blog editorial team. She lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area and is the co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop. Andrea has two classes coming up: Let’s Try: Essay starting on November 2nd and The World of Literary Journals: How to Get Published on October 22nd. Details here.
So right! I’m at a writing residency in a small town in the Adirondacks. So different from where I live. Such a place can crack you wide open.
Enjoy–love that phrase, crack you wide open. Definitely a metaphor at work there.
well said! thanks so much.