A Montana Writer's Return to Roots

There's a comic that sits on my desk. I've had this comic for several years; I've carted it around the country to all of my various desks. It is simple: there are two girls sitting with their backs against a tree. One girl lounges into the tree with her hands crossed in front of her; the other, blonde and pigtailed, holds an open book in her lap. The first says, "So what do you want to be when you grow up, Kate?" The reader responds, automatically, I imagine, without looking up from the page, "A writer."

I do not remember clipping this comic from a newspaper; it is such a natural fixture of my writing space. But I do remember the discovery. Here was, in a small scrap of paper, the story of my life.

I grew up in Whitefish, Montana. I submitted fiction to local writing contests and stored stacks of floppy discs in a drawer, discs that contained novel excerpts and other kid musings. Writing was a passion, occasionally entertained; it was an imaginative, uncertain space. I spent my odd hours riding horses bareback near Eureka and tromping around in the snow near the river at the back of my house.

Writing remained a haphazard hobby even when I attended Princeton University in 2010, with a brief return my sophomore year as I studied creative writing under Colson Whitehead and Joyce Carol Oates.  My junior year abroad at Oxford University and my senior thesis were, however, academically-inclined. I graduated with a degree in English Literature (a minor in Interdisciplinary Humanities), several fiction pieces edited by Whitehead and Oates, and an aimless, profound love of Shakespeare that dominated all else. Nonetheless, the following year (2015) found me enrolled in an M.F.A. program at Boston University. Here was my chance: a year of aggressive writerliness, an opportunity to delve into my craft, permission to write. It was, above all, something to do, while everyone else pursued graduate programs abroad or fellowships in Asia.

At the end of the year, my writing professor told me in a letter that the program was likely disappointing to me. I had not found my voice, he said. I did not accomplish what he thought I would have accomplished. "You need to write what you know about,” he told me. “And what you know about is Montana."

It was true: my pieces from the program depicted faux city-lives, confused and abstract characters far from the high sky and winds of Montana. There was a pointed evasion of my roots: I had, actually, quite rejected what I saw as a provincial past and a backward state. I refused to be seen as the country girl from Montana with mud on her boots; I detested the title of amateur. I was embarrassed of where I came from.

So I kept moving. I traveled to Vietnam and came back disenchanted. I got hired at a charter school and was set to become a Composition instructor with a generous pay grade. I bought a new car and fancy clothes. I cut my hair. I changed part of my name. I drank cocktails in high places.

I stopped writing.

I could not sustain this for long, as the words wanted out. I quit my teaching job a month before beginning, donated the fancy clothes to GoodWill, packed everything into my car, and drove West. When I crossed the border into Montana, tears began; more importantly, a story began. My first. The protagonist crawled into the passenger seat and sat there until he'd told me his story. I pulled over somewhere near Miles City and wrote it in large, hasty, shivering batches. In the months that followed, I lived in the worlds of my characters. I observed; I read; I wrote. I decided that I wasn't just visiting Montana. I was living there. I am now. I am starting to see that this is the place I have always wanted to write about. I want to tell the stories of these mountains and these towns.

What is it about Montana that draws my writing? It is raw here. The emotions gather in the stones. The narrative is present.

Weekly I call one of my friends in New York, a fellow graduate or writer. I hear of positions at Google; one of my friends travels the world for MOMA. Others are in swanky PhD programs, or on WallStreet. I spend my days covered partially in espresso and residue--I manage my rent by barista-ing--and carefully counting my quarters. I have days when I question why I should not go further, and be a part of what once were to me glamorous, crowded, moving streets.

But then I recall my comic. It's on my desk for a reason. It will always be there.

I met author Laura Munson, officially, at Casey's Bar in Whitefish, Montana several weeks ago. We were at a release party for The Whitefish Review, a reputable journal based in Whitefish. I'd been accepted for publication and was reading part of my story. After shakily sharing my words with the crowd, Laura embraced me. "I've read your work since the beginning," she said. She'd been the secret judge of all of those writing contests, the ones I entered every year as a child. "Here you are."

There I was. After the reading, Laura and I kept in touch. She shared her story. She validated mine. Her Haven retreats, nationally known and highly reputable, emerge from her own story of the pursuit of words, one that feels similar to mine. Laura herself gave up the hallmarks of the east, the shininess of ambition, to come to Whitefish and write. Her retreats scrutinize what is powerful; they encourage conviction. They work mindfully and rigorously through the art of retreating within, and telling a story, and sharing one's particular voice.

When she suggested that I attend her retreat in June, I felt honored. I felt once again, for the thousandth time, that curious emotion of surprise: "If I was still in New York...." I said I would come.

Here, at last, emerges the point of this brief narrative. I am humbly and graciously asking for the support of fellow creative spirits and loved ones, near and far, in order to solidify for me what has been a return to the beginning: an embracing of this wild Big Sky and its place in the center of my work. I long to share its narrative with the world. I already have begun. I am confident that there is more to share, and more to inspect, and that this sacred space of five days in Whitefish--the beginning of it all--will enable the conviction required to pursue this craft.

Laura Munson conducts Haven retreats at her beautiful home in Whitefish nestled near five-hundred acres of wilderness; for five days (June 7-11) she facilitates six hours of daily workshop, enables individual writing practices, and meets with writers one-on-one. The cost of a Haven retreat is high--$4,200--but certainly not over-priced, given what it grants visiting artists.

A Haven retreat will provide me with the ability to hone my craft officially under Laura’s tutelage, and within the heartland of my own writing. I strongly believe Haven will set the narrative in motion, the one that needs most telling; it will mark my return to my roots, and my beginning as a writer.

I cannot express my gratitude enough for your time and your interest, and am honored beyond words to be completing this journey with your support.  

My deepest blessings and gratitude,


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Kate McGunagle 
Bozeman, MT
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