At the end of Amigo Road in Soquel, near the top of a trail that heads down into the trees, there’s a little clearing with a bench and a redwood tree.
It’s part of the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, and in many ways it’s a perfect symbol of the experience that husband-and-wife Wellstone co-founders Steve Kettmann and Sarah Ringler try to create for writers. Not only because it offers a gorgeous view of the natural world, but also, more importantly, because it’s quiet. Wellstone is a place where silence is revered, a retreat in the truest sense of the word. And the fellowships, resident internships and other opportunities writers get to create and explore their process on the grounds comes with a strong encouragement to digitally detox. While Wellstone has Wi-Fi, and there are certain areas where Internet and cellphones are allowed, there are others where they’re prohibited.
In another way, that same clearing at the end of Amigo Road also symbolizes just how hard Wellstone’s push against our culture’s ever-growing obsession with connectivity can be. That’s because the redwood by the bench was planted in honor of Kettmann’s sister, who died of cancer. She visited the Wellstone Center only a couple of times in her life, but the mandatory offline policy didn’t sit well with her.
“She was an educator. A great, generous person who totally understood what we were up to,” says Kettmann. “But she came and visited us, and had it in her mind that she wanted to go online to, I don’t know, check in for Southwest Airlines or something. And we told her no, please don’t do that here, and she just couldn’t process the information. It became a little bit of a conflict, and it bothered her—later, she mentioned ‘Well, they’re a little bit pushy about that!’ And my sister almost never said anything like that.”
The thing is, his sister’s view was not unusual; in fact, it’s the societal norm.
“People feel like it’s really their entitlement to be connected at any point, without stopping to understand how dangerous that is—that there is no ‘no,’ it’s always ‘yes,’” he says. “So it was a pretty jarring lesson for me. We have to keep trying, even though we run into things like that all the time.”
The payoff comes when they get to work with writers like Ethel Rohan, the Irish-born, San Francisco-based author who was awarded the Wellstone Center’s first Plumeri Fellowship—named for Joe Plumeri, a New York-based philanthropist whose son Christian developed anorexia in his early teenage years, which led to treatment facilities, drug problems, and ultimately Christian’s tragic death before he was 40 years old. Plumeri wrote about the painful loss in his book, The Power of Being Yourself, which was co-authored by Kettmann.
“We were thinking of [Christian], wanting it all to mean something, to try to turn it into something tangible,” says Kettmann. “Twice a year, we have a Plumeri Fellow who is an established writer pursuing a book project at the intersection of food and health. The idea is it should be fiction or creative nonfiction, not journalism or academic writing. It should have a personal component.”
During her month-long fellowship in June, Rohan worked on her first novel, The Weight of Him, which will be published in February by St. Martin’s Press. In announcing the Plumeri Fellowship on her website, Rohan said she was “thrilled and grateful,” and looking forward to the “solace and inspiration of nature.”
Wellstone is now accepting applications for the second Plumeri Fellowship, which are due Aug. 22. The fellowship comes with a $5,000 stipend.
There is also another month-long residency on the property, the WCR Fellowship, for which applications are due Aug. 20. It’s awarded four times a year, and provides for a writer to stay in the property’s rustic Library House, which epitomizes the digital detox experience—“no electricity, no running water, really nothing except a nice bed, books and an amazing view,” says Kettmann.
The couple—who just a few days ago welcomed their second child into the world—bring a sort of intersection of passions to their work at the Wellstone Center. Kettmann, who was born in San Jose, is a former sports writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and a contributor over the years to everything from the New Republic to the New York Times. He has written or co-written several best-selling books, including the groundbreaking and highly controversial 2005 autobiography by Jose Canseco, Juiced, which was one of the key works in the mid-part of that decade that brought awareness of rampant steroid use in professional sports to the mainstream.
Ringler, who earned her master’s degree in international relations in Berlin, comes from the world of nonprofits. They had been living in Berlin for 10 years when they discovered their Soquel property on a trip to the Bay Area.
“We came here and were just so wowed by the place, the location,” says Ringler. “We felt like we wanted to bring people here and engage their creativity.”
While Kettmann has the writing fame, Ringler is in many ways the face of the Wellstone Center—literally, even, since her face is on the landing page of their website, along with a diary that is part of the very personal connection she considers essential to the Wellstone experience.
“We don’t have that very often anymore in our world,” she says. “We feel like we have 100 friends on Facebook, but what we really want is personal connection.”
There is also a publishing arm of the Wellstone Center, Wellstone Books, that has already put out an eclectic array of works, like A Book of Walks by San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, and the “Music That Changed My Life” series.
“We look to do personal writing that’s not afraid to inspire,” says Kettmann. “It’s not self-help, it’s not overtly inspirational. But why not do stuff that has positive energy and might make people feel good?”
Though their goals are ambitious, and their vision finely tuned, they don’t see the Wellstone Center as their home, exactly.
“We see ourselves as the custodians of it,” says Kettmann. “The custodians of quiet.”
For more information on the Wellstone Center and the deadline for fellowship applications, go to wellstoneredwoods.org.