On Simply Not Done at Willow Brook Farm
It’s summer retreat time at Willow Brook Farm.
I look forward to this like a drowning person searching the horizon for the life raft. Twice a year, in February and July, the women of Simply Not Done paddle over and haul me in. Then I just lie there, looking up at the vast sky, gasping for breath, knowing I’m going to live for a while longer.
Willow Brook Farm is a 300-acre salt-water farm on one of the peninsulas in Boothbay Harbor. The house is circa 1795 (restored in 2002 by architectural historian Les Fossel),
a Federal style whose fan-topped front doorway faces away from the road. The place is owned by Rebecca Bearden Welsh and her husband John, and has been in John’s family for more than 150 years. Becky, whom I met on the first night of grad school (“I’m new. Are you new? Can we sit together?”), is a writer of non-fiction, and one of the women with whom, after graduation, I founded Simply Not Done, a women’s reading, writing and teaching collective. She has been kind enough to offer her home for our twice-yearly workshops/bitch sessions/bashes since we all graduated from Stonecoast in 2005. John, God love him, has been kind enough to abandon the premises to us.
We are five: Jan Grieco is a professor of English and writing at Northern Maine Community College, and now writes primarily fiction, though she began her writing career as a newspaper reporter. Kasey Grieco, Jan’s daughter, is an adjunct professor at NMCC and sometimes the University of Maine at Presque Isle, and she has complemented her fiction writing lately by turning to non-fiction. Brenda Sparks Prescott worked for a million years in development for big names like Harvard University and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, but now works in artist management (as Brenda Prescott Coordinates ) when she’s not publishing fiction. Rebecca Bearden Welsh wrote a newpaper column for years, but has been working in the field of memoir as well. Then there’s me: Anne Britting Oleson, writer of anything containing words–Google me if you dare. Twice a year we abandon the real world–or perhaps return to it?–and descend upon Willow Brook Farm for several days, where we have the great good fortune to talk writing and books, cook together and eat well, and occasionally put on a workshop for the outside world; once, as part of a workshop on writing from the senses, we finished the day with a
house concert by guitarist David Jacobs-Strain, who had earlier, with Brenda, done a presentation on the physics of sound. That was a jumping evening.
We have not limited our collective to the farm, though, in the five years of our existence. Simply Not Done has done readings as a group in bookstores on the mid-coast. We participated in the Mamapalooza Festival, doing a group reading interspersed with music from an all-female group, at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village. We have participated in conferences in Austin and Atlanta. Individually we have published all over the U.S. as well as in Canada and Great Britain. But always, twice a year, we come back here to this place and to each other.
This week the women have promised to take out their knives and go to work on a manuscript of mine. This is exciting for me–and a bit painful–as both Brenda and Becky know me and my writing, and know well where and when I tend to be lazy. They do not pull punches. They do not spare my feelings. But we have been together at this game long enough that I respect their judgment, and realize that defensiveness is sheer folly. I listen to their critiques,
which are both to the point and elliptical, bringing in questions I might not have considered; I take copious notes. Because I am a slow processor, I am certain that I will not respond to them as quickly, perhaps, as Brenda likes: I will have to wander away and think over things, to see how to best improve my project. However, I also am sure that once they are done practicing their word surgery, I will have a far better manuscript than I came in with. And they will have my undying gratitude.
Simply Not Done eats well. Every time I have written something about these women, there has been food. Homemade bagels? I make ’em, I bring ’em: I am the bagel queen. Fresh vegetables from the farm garden in season. We’re good with roasts: beef, chicken, turkey. Brenda does a killer Texas chili with corn bread. I’ve written about eating olives with Fic B and Non-fic B at Las Ramblas Bar de Tapas in New York, and about the specials at Amore Bistro Italiano in Boothbay Harbor at midwinter. I’ve written about Brenda dancing in an Irish bar in Austin while holding a pint of Smithwick’s. Have any of us ever written a cookbook or a restaurant review? Not yet. Probably that should be our next group project.