Writing from an Unlocked Building With Nobody Around for Miles

Buck’s Cabin in Ucross, Wyoming.

Matthew Paul Olmos

Matthew Paul Olmos is currently in Wyoming attending the Sundance Institute Playwrights Retreat at Ucross Foundation, an 18-day writing colony where five playwrights and two theatre composers convene each year to workshop their written projects. Below is Olmos’s recent dispatch from Ucross.

As a handful of playwrights and Wyoming locals make our way into the very close quarters inside the tiny, propeller’d plane, several people make comments at how tiny an aircraft this really is. There are only two single lanes of seats separated by a cramped aisle, which even the fittest of flight attendants could not make their way through; not that there are any attendants on this flight. I am not sure there is even a bathroom. But this lack of convenience is made up for by the amazing open view of the cockpit, which is strangely fascinating to look at as in most commercial flights we are not allowed but a passing glance at that exclusive area which is normally secured with systematic doors.

I am in the second seat from the front, outside my window is one of the propellers, and this is what I’m staring at while we taxi to the runway. I am staring because there is a silver knob in front of the propeller, which I can only assume acts as a bolt in keeping the propeller attached, and this silver knob is shaking. And the faster the blades begin to move, the more it shakes. I begin to wonder “Is it supposed to be shaking like that?” “Should I tell somebody?” “Could it be that I alone have discovered that a crucial bit of machinery is perhaps faulty?” “Would it be my fault were something to happen?”

But do I act on any of these thoughts? No. Instead I sit and watch the shiny knob shake, I watch the propeller spin faster and faster, while my mind begins to imagine what would happen if the blades were to spin out of control, shatter into the windows of the plane and kill several passengers, possibly even the pilots.

And here is the funny thing about thoughts like that: they are rooted in some sense of reality, but they are then bathed in our sense of amusement. Any serious distress I felt for that shiny silver knob is washed over by my own entertaining imagination, as I play out how I would tell the story, what I would say to the news reporters, and if a small, propeller’d plane would make its way into one of my plays.

Oh, also, I got distracted by the pilots preparing for lift off. Watching which buttons they press, which levers they move, what they say to each other. Really, when else do we get to see this played out outside of a movie? And to look out through the pilots’ windshield? A view we normally see only in that last chaotic moment before a plane that is holding either Tom Hanks, Jeff Bridges, or Denzel Washington crashes.

I won’t go into the rest of the flight, just only to say it was rather low to the ground, there was snow under us for most of the hour flight, and a couple times during turbulence some folks in the plane let out a scared cry for help. I thought repeatedly of us as a Chilean soccer team. I also played over and over the voice of that actor playing Ben Fong-Torres uttering the phrase “I’m flying high over Tupelo, Mississippi, with America’s hottest band … and we’re all about to die.”

And while this 18-day playwrights’ retreat provides a serene and inspiringly beautiful environment with which we can escape the hectic of our lives and play focus to our art, the running theme, at least in my mind, seems to be fear. And not boring fear like I’m scared to write about certain things from my past or anything lame like that. Like actual physical fear.

Each of the buildings at UCROSS has a stairwell leading down to a basement of sorts which is either dark and too scary to check out, or with a flip of a light, looks like that room at the end of The Blair Witch Project.

And while it’s quaint to think of the town of UCROSS having only 25 residents, it is less quaint when your mind spends a little time on how the closest police station is about 20 miles away.

Several of us, myself included, can’t seem to lose the novelty that about eight miles up the road is an abandoned town. The running joke here is that the dead children of that town are always with us. Laughing. Watching. Giggling. All that.

Each night after it hits dark, I close all the blinds in my writing studio because in my head I don’t want anyone lurking outside to be able to see in.

I also lock my studio door, where I sleep, at night even though the outside door of the Depot where I’m staying is left unlocked as policy.

And okay sure, I want to be able to jump on the bandwagon of everyone leaving all doors unlocked, yay, we’re in Wyoming where bad things don’t happen. And truthfully, I am not actually scared I am going to see some figure leaning in the corner of one of the basements, nor am I literally anything but intrigued by the abandoned town (c’mon, it’s an abandoned town, how bad’ass is that), and really I don’t actually believe I would be murdered at night if I didn’t lock my door.

But my mind attracts these ideas and plays with them, tosses them around while I’m out here in northern Wyoming. Almost as if my existence needs them. Like they keep me humble. Or…something.

One, I suppose, could just put it that I’m a New Yorker and the shift in my environment unleashes all the clichés somebody from the city might have about small and empty towns that are cold and snowy.

But I suspect it is more than that.

I suspect that I want those clichés to be true. I want to find out that there is real danger somewhere out there in the icy darkness.

Not just because it would make my life more interesting. Or because of the adrenaline rush. Or because a writer is always looking for a kickass first scene to a movie script.

Rather I believe it to be more that our minds, our imaginations need to run the extremes. They need to experience just god-awful sadness, but glorious happiness too. Infuriating anger, but also forgiveness. Unbearable pain, but then the comforting peace of recovery. The complete and total fall into relaxation, but also sometimes terrifying fright.

This is something art does for us. It allows us to dip into the intensity of emotion from the safety and thought-provoking sidelines.

So if you think about it, my thinking I hear the crunching of snow outside my window is actually really healthy for me. My humming Buddy Holly tunes on the flight back will actually have a positive effect on all my fellow passengers.

And my creating art from a space where my mind is being allowed to tap into the full range of temperaments is similar to an athlete stretching out so they get full use of their muscles. And so this retreat is not only about having the time and ridiculously accommodating hosts and digs, but also a place to let our imaginations run wild with new colors and shapes to play with.

That all said, if you’ll excuse me, I am now going to walk by myself on the hardening snow, in the pitch of dark, to Buck’s Cabin, a rustic structure which sits a short distance from where people sleep, but which nobody seems to go into. There is a pool table which I am going to play a few solo games, all the while thinking to myself how the noise of the billiard balls smacking into each other will be just loud enough such that I won’t be able to hear if some prowler were to wander in through the front door and walk quietly right up behind me.

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