a brief photo essay from cuttyhunk island

From June 2-9, I attended a writing residency on Cuttyhunk Island. What follows are a few images that attempt to capture the place, which was magical and enticing to someone who’s lived a land-locked life to this point.

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the western edge of the island
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a whale skull, I was told
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a little painted turtle friend
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more from the island’s western edge
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the beach roses that grew everywhere and that we ate in salads and desserts all week
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the lees of sunset

Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery, a collection of essays on writing craft, will be released on July 4, and I cannot recommend it enough. She was kind enough to bring copies for the workshop, so I’ve had the pleasure to have already read it, and I say to you, it is well worthwhile. I learned so much about structure in the novel this week from her workshop leadership and from the book.

Even revisiting my own photos from the week, it is hard to conceive of work with trappings like these. It looks like paradise, and it rather felt like it in many ways: the food was unparalleled, cooked by the amazing Didi Emmons and Odessa Piper; the weather revealed the many moods of the Elizabeth Islands, welcoming us with a double rainbow and rattling the windows with a nor’easter midweek; offering up the luxury of doing nothing but talking writing with smart and talented people. [We got to hear Paul Harding read from work-in-progress and Emma Cline read from The Girls and I’m still trying to catch my breath from it all.] We were given the gift of music from Ben Cosgrove and Lula Wiles in two lovely concerts in the Avalon Inn itself.

But even in a beautiful place, writing is hard. Even with a project you love, revision is hard. No matter how long you’ve been with the piece, you’ll need to find ways to see it newly, and scraping the scales from your eyes is hard.

4 thoughts on “a brief photo essay from cuttyhunk island

  1. Gorgeous, Holly. As an island-raised kid, I love your island water views. How, indeed, to write in such a place? Store the waves and bring them home, to the desk? Thank you so much for the rec of Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery. I’ve been looking for a craft book on novels (a long-time dream to write a novel). And is there a Livesey novel you would particularly suggest? Thank you. We shall write on from waters near & far. xo Renee (and Tootsie)


    1. Renée,
      Thanks for reading! I don’t know that I’d call The Hidden Machinery specific to novels (just more about fiction, broadly), though novels are most of the heart of the discussion. John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist is good for a particular kind of novel-writing; I enjoy his curmudgeonliness and don’t get too fussed about his Right Way/Wrong Way tack, but he’s not for everyone. But the piece of advice everyone seems to offer is that every novel is different, and only by writing the novel (and then re-writing it, inevitably) will one know how to write that particular book. The next novel will require the same trial-by-error process of discovery. And I rather enjoyed Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy (which is inspired by Jane Eyre). Mercury (her newest) was gripping and entirely differently structured. But Livesey has written many novels, and I haven’t read them all. Criminals sounded really interesting when she talked about writing it, so I’m sure to be back to her work in the future.


      1. Holly, thank you so much for this! It’s super helpful, and I love the vicarious pleasure of reading your time with Livesey (& on the island). I will look at her work and the craft book. I have a failed novel in a drawer, of course, and I was probably not a good friend to that project. (Oh, and two failed nonfiction projects, but it is all learning.) I love John Gardner’s curmudgeonliness in “The Art of Fiction,” which has exercises I’ve used over & over, but I have not his “On Becoming a Novelist.” I always meant to read it, so thank you for that reminder / suggestion. Onward. And huge thanks for being so generous.


  2. I really enjoyed hearing about your residency, Holly! I recently attended a writing conference, and there is something so inspiring about connecting with other writers. I wish the conference had been in a beautiful location like your residency though. The concert sounds like it was fun too.


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