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.
Paisano fellows live in a 3-bedroom frame house on the ranch's
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.”
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.”
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
“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