I have never written a ghost story. I’ve never wanted to write a ghost story. So what uncanny wind was it that blew through my brain and compelled me to sign up for a week-long workshop titled “The Ghost Story: A Guide to Writing Compelling Prose?”

Baker City, Oregon

It all began on a slushy March evening in Enterprise, Oregon. My husband and I were just beginning a two-week road trip, meandering our way through places where he could film small-town cinemas of the West for a documentary project. We were off to a wintry start, on this first day of Spring, here at the edge of the Wallowa Mountains. I’d spotted a poster for a talk that evening hosted by Fishtrap, a nonprofit known for its annual Summer Gathering of Writers at nearby Wallowa Lake. Why not go, on this chilly night?

The speaker was Molly Gloss, author of The Jump-off Creek, The Hearts of Horses, and other books and stories about women in the homestead-era West. Her knowledge of writing about and by western women is wide and deep. I scribbled notes like “…the real and changing West of Model-T Fords, movies and Prohibition” and “…the shadow of violence.” That night, I began reading The Jump-off Creek, a book steeped in cold hard daily life on a hardscrabble farm. No ghosts in sight.

By the time we left Enterprise, I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to go to the Fishtrap Summer Gathering and meet other western writers and get to work writing some of my own family’s stories. I was assuming that I would write a nonfiction book. Luis Alberto Urrea’s Fishtrap workshop sounded just right.

When I finally sat down to register, Urrea’s class was full. There were many other good nonfiction choices, but I found myself drawn to Debra Magpie Earling’s fiction class, the one called “The Ghost Story.” Despite her description, which included words like “spooky” and “monster,” I was interpreting the “ghost” theme more metaphorically: the way someone more accustomed to writing nonfiction would. And yet I was also drawn to the fact that this would be a fiction workshop. Not nonfiction. What was going on? I decided not to over-think it. I signed up for Earling’s class.

Between registering for Fishtrap and going to Fishtrap, I read Earling’s haunting (and haunted) first novel, Perma Red, inspired by her own family’s history on the Flathead Reservation. I also read her new book, The Lost Journals of Sacajawea, which is both a deeply researched and a profoundly imagined telling of Sacajawea’s life from Sacajawea’s own point of view. I began to understand why I had signed up for her class.

A few days before we gathered, Earling sent an email to her workshop students, asking us to write a brief “why-I-am-taking-this-workshop bio:” but not a real one, an imagined one; “your invention and merely a writing exercise in the unheimlich.” I had to start by looking up “unheimlich,” which has nothing to do with the Heimlich maneuver. It means “uncanny,” or “weird.”

I panicked, a little, and then reminded myself that I was attending Fishtrap because I wanted inspiration, not affirmation. It was absolutely OK to be the clumsiest ghost story writer in the class.

And then an image came to me: the tiny ballerina, no bigger than a child’s baby finger, inside my grandmother’s jewelry box. When she opened it, a hidden music box played “Swan Lake” and the dancer popped up and pirouetted round and round and round. I thought the ballerina might make a good ghost. Or the guardian of some other ghost, one that lived under the velvet folds of the box. Already I was failing Earling’s prompt, because this was not supposed to be about me and my ghosts. But this was my first baby step into the uncanny: to take my real grandmother, and her real jewelry box, and make something unheimlich happen. To take things I knew, and let them inspire me to write things I didn’t know.

Is that how fiction works?

On the first full morning of our workshop, Earling talked about the many meanings of “uncanny.” “When something that should’ve remained hidden comes out in the open” is one. “When something strange happens in a familiar context” is another. We did not share the “bios” she’d asked us to write. In fact we didn’t share them until the end of the week.

But all week, the dancer, and my grandmother, and the mysteries and tragedies and joys of her life, were simply there: in my head, as I wrote other short riffs, and listened to Earling and my fellow Ghost Story students all morning, and to other presenters in the afternoons and evenings.

Lake 22, Granite Falls, WA

In the weeks since Fishtrap, I’ve camped and hiked and jumped in several lakes. But I’ve also found time to write. Fiction. Based on truth, but open to ghosts, should they care to show up. Should they care to be my guides. To help me understand history—mine, my family’s, and all the events and places that shaped us—through a lens I don’t have, because I wasn’t born yet.

Seward Park, Seattle

Fiction is freeing. Flirting with the uncanny side of real is freeing. We humans have a long history of telling tales that we hope will help us understand the truths and aches and secrets that lie far beyond simply listing the facts.

Registration is open for fall classes at Hugo House, Seattle Central College/Continuing Education, and Write on the Sound.  Go to this page for links. 

Finally, in the I-can’t-help-but-share department, check out this story about Nick Thompson in The Stranger!