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A Working Ranch for Wordsmiths: Paisano Ranch a rustic retreat for Texas writers

The journey to the Paisano Ranch seems perfectly designed to evoke back roads Texas: Turn off the paved road and unlock, pass through and relock two rusty gates. Bump along a few miles of gravel drive lined with scruffy cedar trees. Brave a low water crossing of Barton Creek. Don’t be surprised if you arrive to find feral longhorn cattle grazing in front of the white frame house, leaving divots in the soil.

3-bedroom frame house on Paisano Ranch
Dobie Paisano fellows live in a 3-bedroom frame house on the ranch's 254 acres.

It’s not its sloped floor ambience that makes Paisano such a notable Texas landmark, however. Since 1967 it has had the distinction of being home to a series of Texas’s finest writers through the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Project.

Sponsored by The University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Institute of Letters (TIL), the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Project gives two writers every year the opportunity to spend six months each living and writing at the Paisano Ranch. To date, 67 writers have holed up at the property just 14 miles from Austin, and while there they have written the stories, poems, novels, essays and plays that have helped shape Texas letters.

“Ultimately, the commodity we’re after as writers is time,” says Oscar Casares, the current Dobie Paisano fellow, whose first collection of stories, “Brownsville,” will be published in March. “It’s not about money and it’s not about prestige or whatever other commodity you might think is necessary. It really comes down to time, and that’s what Paisano’s been for me: time to write.”

Paisano sign at entrance of ranch

Fellows are granted that time through having free rein to set up house at the ranch and also through a stipend that covers their expenses. The stipend, provided by the Johnston Foundation, the Houston Endowment and others, is set at $2,000 per month. A Dobie Paisano fellowship offers more than a home, more than a stipend. It is a true chance for a writer to retreat.

The late folklorist and one-time University of Texas at Austin English Professor J. Frank Dobie purchased the ranch in 1959 with retreating in mind. He is reputed to have loved sitting on the long front porch, or gallery, smoking his pipe and discussing life and literature with friends.

The original cabin, which can be seen hidden within the walls of the current house in a unique glass frame set into the wall in the main bedroom, was built in the 1860s. The property changed hands several times before Dobie bought it and named it Paisano, a name of Spanish origin used in the Southwest to denote the roadrunner. Roadrunner images can be seen throughout the property, from the first gate to a sketch on the wall in the main room. Dobie was also familiar with the other connotations of the word, such as “compatriot,” “native” and “rustic.”

J. Frank Dobie's handmade pine writing desk
Among J. Frank Dobie's belongings preserved at the ranch is his handmade pine writing desk.

The story of how Paisano became a writer’s retreat after Dobie’s death is novel-worthy, involving prominent Houstonians, meetings among Dobie’s many friends and finally a gala dinner and auction of paintings by 20 southwestern artists. Ultimately, the property was deeded to the university, and the university regents placed the maintenance and administration of Paisano under the university while the TIL assumed responsibility for the fellowship stipends. Preserving Paisano as a retreat for writers was a fitting tribute to Dobie, the author of more than a dozen books, who was in his day considered the primary spokesperson for Texas culture.

The Dobie Paisano Fellowship is only available to Texas writers. To be considered applicants must have either been born in Texas, have lived in Texas for two years, or have published work with a Texas theme.

Dr. Audrey Slate has been directing the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Project for nearly 30 years. She explains that the intention to restrict the fellowship to Texas writers was there from the beginning.

“The university’s support of Texas letters and literary traditions going back to Dobie is a very significant contribution to the state and its citizens,” she says.

The fellowship is frequently awarded to writers in the early stages of their careers. In fact, the second fellow, A.C. Greene, considered his time at Paisano as the turning point in a career that took him from being a reporter to being an author. After winning the fellowship, he went on to write 23 books and win countless awards. At the time of his death in April 2002, he was considered one of Texas’s leading writers.

Birdhouses on Paisano property

For other writers, the fellowship offers recognition after years of hard work. Dagoberto Gilb, a Dobie Paisano fellow in 1988, had been working construction jobs in El Paso and Los Angeles before being awarded the fellowship. Gilb, author of four books, including the recent story collection “Woodcuts of Women,” would write between jobs or on what he calls his occasional “unemployment literary grant.”

Gilb says his time at Paisano, when he worked on essays and wrote the bulk of a novel, was “my first big break. It was sort of like the reward for the trouble we’d been through: all of those years of struggle and my insanity of wanting to be a writer and trying to pay the rent and the bills and all of the little crises.” He remembers his time at Paisano not simply for the work he did, but for how good it was for his family. He and his sons would dig for fossils and swim in the creek.

“I have nothing but good memories,” he says.

The low-water crossing of Barton Creek
The low-water crossing of Barton Creek never fails to leave an impression on visitors to the ranch.

Though most Dobie Paisano fellows find their time at the ranch to be tremendously productive, writing is rarely the exclusive focus of writers while there. Inevitably, the land itself becomes a focus. While writers hope for an abundance of inspiration, they also find an abundance of wildlife. Application materials for the fellowship include a letter from TIL President Mark Busby that warns applicants that life at Paisano is indeed life in the country.

Poet Craig Arnold taught his young son to stamp his feet upon entering a room to scare off scorpions. Writers have chased rattlesnakes from the porch and gotten lost walking the large stretch of land. A book of reports by previous fellows tells of encounters with coral snakes, spiders, deer, possums, foxes and great horned owls.

“I’d always believed myself an experienced native-dweller, hiking and mountain biking being my great loves when I wasn’t at home writing,” wrote Mylène Dressler, a writer who worked on her third novel while at Paisano in 2002. “But now, of course, I know that visiting the land, and living as part of it, are two very different things; and I will forever feel a sense of wonder at having witnessed and been part of the cycles of birth and death, flower and fall, and drought and flood that mark this surprising place.”

Flaco's paws

For Dressler the surprises came in many forms. Her new novel “imploded,” demanding that she begin again, and her Jeep Grand Cherokee was swept downstream when Barton Creek overflowed its banks.

The creek is a constant presence at Paisano. From the front yard, one can hear it gurgling in the distance, and its moods can determine the moods of those residing at the ranch. When its waters are up, the low water crossing can become uncrossable, and fellows may be trapped at the ranch until the waters recede. And Dressler is not alone in losing a vehicle to the waters. Fellows are warned to park farther from the creek than they think they need to, as Barton Creek floods with more vigor than one would expect.

Despite some wrangles with the natural world, former Dobie Paisano fellows are enthusiastic about their time at the ranch.

Oscar Casares on the front porch with Flaco
Oscar Casares on the front porch. A.C. Greene remarked that for six months fellows “own the clock.”

“I would go back in a minute,” Dressler says. “I have no doubt that Paisano was and will remain the single best writing experience of my life.”

Each year more applicants seek a shot at that experience. For the 2002-03 year, 125 applications were received for two fellowships. The six judges—three from The University of Texas at Austin and three from the TIL—change each year. Applicants provide a description of a proposed writing project and a sample of the type of work they would do while at Paisano. Many fellows report having applied numerous times before winning the fellowship.

Slate is not surprised that applications continue to increase.

“I think it is one of the finest fellowship opportunities in the country,” Slate says. “Clearly for the amount of time, the beauty and serenity of the place and the adequate—even more than adequate—financial backing, it is an absolutely wonderful fellowship.”

Her sentiment is confirmed by Casares, who on a recent autumn afternoon stretched out on a rusted chair on the front porch with his dog Flaco. A breeze swept across the gallery and a cardinal flew from an oak tree. Like many fellows before him, Casares is working on his first novel at the ranch. And like many fellows before him, the ability to set his own schedule facilitates the work.

University of Texas at Austin writing instructor Stephen Harrigan held the fellowship 25 years earlier, but elements of Harrigan’s experience were the same for Casares and the other Dobie Paisano fellows.

“It was the perfect place to work, and the time I spent there was unhurried, untroubled and expansive,” said Harrigan, most recently the author of the acclaimed novel, “The Gates of the Alamo.” “In many ways, Paisano was the place that allowed me to become a writer.”

[The deadline for the 2003-04 Dobie Paisano Fellowships is Jan. 31, 2003. For more information and to fill out an application, visit the Dobie Paisano Fellowships Web site.]

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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