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A Letter from Penland


This winter, Martha Park returned to Penland as a winter resident in writing. We were curious about her experience, and in response to our questions about it, she composed the essay that follows. The photographs are hers as well. Martha is an MFA candidate at Hollins University’s Jackson Center for Creative Writing, where she works as a Teaching Fellow and the Assistant Editor of the Hollins Critic


When I arrive at Penland, I carry my bags up to my room and try to settle in, feeling the nerves of newness. I stack my books on the nightstand and spread journals and pens across the huge desk. Downstairs, a group of artists is finishing up their lunch, and I listen to the clatter of dishes and muffled conversation drifting up through the floor. Then I confront my nerves the way I usually do, by taking them for a walk.


deskThis is my first time at Penland working outside the studios. Over the past six years I’ve come to Penland to study textiles and printmaking, but this time I am here to write. I have a graduate thesis due this spring, a collection of essays that needs lots of work. In past sessions at Penland, with twenty-four hour access to studios, I went sleepless most nights, working past the point of delirium. That kind of energy can be productive to my practice in visual art, but to write well I need long stretches of quiet and calm.


I walk a loop around campus. It’s sunny out, warm despite the cutting wind. At the ceramics studio, the artists are loading the kilns, wearing t-shirts and tank tops. By the time I circle back, smoke is tracing a long line from the ceramics studio across the cloudless sky. I find a wooded path back to Long House. The rhododendron leaves are still green, but curling inward against the winter chill. I calm my nerves thinking of all my half-finished essays. The words seem scattered in the wind. I return to my room and try to gather them up.


That evening, the sun sets incrementally in Penland’s wide sky, and the studios’ lights spread like a constellation across the hillside. In each of those dots of light, I know someone is setting type, etching a plate, throwing a mug, turning a bowl, forging a ring. At my desk, I sit and rearrange words, the glow of my laptop my own little bright light.


Mid-morning, I cook bacon and biscuits while a photographer simmers mushrooms, peppers, and onions on the stovetop. She tells me she’s driven here from California and is looking for a new home. We talk about home, about place. My essays are about Memphis, my place. I’m not looking for a new home but ever trying, it seems, to get back to that one. We talk a while, and then I retreat upstairs to my room, to the desk covered in scribbled notes and dried plants I’ve been collecting on my walks.


shadowsTo be a writer, there is a test we must take again and again. The test concerns various kinds of silence: the silence of a day spent alone, unspeaking, or the silence of day without writing, when the words won’t come, or the silence of rejection and self-doubt. For most of my week at Penland I abide well in silence: I work on essays, I read, I write in my journal. But when I feel restless, I let myself cheat. One day I go on a walk and end up in the midst of a search party, a hodgepodge group of photographers, printmakers, and woodworkers looking for a lost Chihuahua. Or I go sit in Bamboo House, the temporary coffee shop, and feel the warmth of other people in that sunlit space. Or I go visit my friend Wyatt, a woodworker I met at Penland four years ago, and he shows me how to use a lathe, how to color a piece of turning wood by holding a colored pencil up to it. After these excursions I return to my room, to my writing, ready to start again.


fogOn the last morning I wake before dawn, intending to go on a walk in the early-morning light. But I can hear hail hitting the window panes and the ceiling, so I sit down at my desk and write. The ice accumulates throughout the morning and by noon Penland’s campus is so shrouded with mist that the mountains disappear. From my room I can hear the scraping of someone’s spoon against bowl. The stomp of snow boots. I go downstairs and find my new friend Lydia, a photographer doing research in the Penland archives, sitting at the table. She is sweatered and braided, eating a bowl of the collard greens she made in the crockpot the night before. We walk to the coffee shop, gripping each other’s arms on the slick, ice-covered stairs. Later, when I walk back to my room alone, the fog has thickened. The knoll’s yellow grass is startling against the flat, white mist. I watch four crows land on the grass, calling to each other, or calling just to hear the echo of sound against this suddenly solid air, this great silence.–Martha Park