Thursday, July 31, 2014

Alaska Shorts: Wildwood, 
by Tanyo Ravicz

Tanyo Ravicz

While in Kodiak, I also buy a box of cracker slugs. These are shotgun shells that when fired will explode downrange and frighten an animal without hurting him. The brown bears at the north end of the island have reportedly been aggressive all summer. Two bears have been shot and killed. At Wildwood I see brown bears regularly. I met a mother and cubs one day on our trail and I stood tall and spoke aloud to them, moving my arms through the air. The mother bear rose on her hind legs and scrutinized me, and unimpressed, she lowered her bulk to the earth and went on munching her salmonberries. I retreated.

The bears will always have the right of way at Wildwood. These ancient trails were their trails first. It doesn’t slight my pride to let a bear go ahead of me, and it’s prudent, too. The mounds of bear scat are everywhere. There’s a feverish dynamic in the air, a hot-blooded electricity. The cow parsnip lies crushed, the tall grass is tunneled, the berry thickets are broken as if barrels were dragged through them. My four-wheeler stalls one day in the trail and I work to restart it, hemmed in by the dense greenery of alder and elder and devil’s club. Fox sparrows chuck softly and nibble the fungus in the alder branches. As I work, the air becomes warm and humid, almost rancid to my senses, and I notice, on raising my head, that the fox sparrows have vanished. The hair bristles on the back of my neck, my nostrils flare, and my body knows in its animal way that a bear is near. On a separate occasion I hear a loud repeated thrashing, something similar to a humpback whale’s smashing the water with its tail, but what I find is a commotion in the cottonwood trees, a fierce huffing of breath, and a bear cub caught halfway up in a tree while a bigger bear tries to dislodge it by violently shaking the branches.

My census of the local brown bears is as follows: an adolescent; a pair of orphaned or independent cubs, quite large; a sow and two grown cubs; a sow and two yearling cubs; a sow and three spring cubs; and the big boar. This massive male bear tramps out of the silvery willows at the back of the homestead one evening and heads west down the old survey line, his steps driven by a peculiar urgency, not of fear — he’s indifferent to me — but of appetite. Clearly he has some quarry in mind, something carnal. That a mature boar is ranging through Wildwood in the middle of so many sows and cubs makes for an explosive situation and the bears themselves are on edge.

One day the two orphan cubs approach too near to my worktable, which is simply a sheet of plywood resting on paint-stained sawhorses on the south side of the cabin. When it comes to wild bears, forty feet is close enough, thank you. I love for the bears to be here, and I think I know what the Biblical shepherds must have felt whenever a supernatural being graced the emptiness of nature by visiting them in some lost pasture. Being a man, though, I am a great betrayer, and it does the bears no good to come to trust me. They mill nearby, indifferent to my words, and when even my yelling has proved unpersuasive, I fire one of the cracker slugs over their heads, and the noisemaker does its job: the second bear literally bumps into the rear end of the first as they flee.

One of my projects at Wildwood has been to blaze a trail along our eastern boundary and to link it to the old survey line on the south and to the trail I’ve already cut on the west — a sort of circumnavigation of the homestead. I want to know the extent of my little world, and with this goal in mind I lay out a route, remove the obstacles, and build sturdy log bridges over the creeks. They aren’t the Golden Gate or the Pont du Gard, my little spans, but they are sound enough. There’s a ravine at the back of the homestead with a few inches of water running in it, and here I dismount the four-wheeler and look across to the opposite bank. The ravine is unbridgeable, too deep and its banks too irregular for my bridge-making abilities, but I am confident, surveying it, that I can cross it on the four-wheeler. Yes, I can do this, I know I can.

Tanyo Ravicz grew up in California. He attended Harvard University and settled for many years in Alaska, mainly in Fairbanks and Kodiak. His novel-in-progress, Wildwood, draws on his experience of homesteading with his family on Alaska’s Kodiak Island. His books include A Man of His Village, relating the odyssey of a migrant farm worker from Mexico to Alaska, and Alaskans, a selection of his short fiction. He has a certain number of iTunes promo codes to distribute for free copies of his ebooks for publicity and reviews. Interested readers please contact him at tanyo (at)

In Wildwood, the novel-in-progress from which this excerpt comes, Jason and Brenda Everblue, a couple since their student days, grapple with their troubled marriage by moving with their two young children into the wilderness of Alaska’s Kodiak Island. At Wildwood, violent weather, wild bears, illness, isolation, and the intrusion of poachers are among the challenges they face, but they will learn much about love and courage and the bonds of family. To read more of the excerpt, download a free copy of the Alaska Sampler 2014.

Would you like to see your work featured here? Check out our Alaska Shorts guidelines and submit today.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

John Straley: Why Should We Celebrate?

The final post in this month's series from guest author John Straley.

I would like to make something clear from the last post. It takes me four times as long to revise something as it does to write the draft. That’s how I figure out how long to spend working during the revising stage. The discipline for rough draft writing is to write so many number of words a night. The discipline for revising is to spend so many hours a night.

Also, what might not have been clear, in the example I used, 500 words is a minimum for every night. I never average it out, never carry over extra to the next day. Five hundred words minimum every day. I always seem to write more… I think you will too, because getting started is always the hardest part isn’t it? That way at the end of your two and a half months or whatever puts you close, you have way more than just five hundred words per day of writing. You have a good chunk of a slender book done, usually I am so close that I am a short ferry ride in an interior stateroom to being completely, and absolutely, finished and ready to take my before revision hiatus.

Remember… every day of writing has to be a victory. Every day you set a goal. Every day you meet it. Then you celebrate your accomplishment.

Now, why is writing worth celebrating?

Reason number one: we are all haunted by ghosts of memory and imagination. Writing allows us to make these ghosts real, and give them voice.

Reason number two: the world needs every one of us. Writing allows each of us a beginning to find the best way to contribute to one of the myriad solutions out there.

Reason number three: for God to exist in any meaningful way she/he/it needs our love and praise. Writing allows us to lay out the architecture of that praise whether it be poetry, prose, direct action in politics, scientific research, music, art… you get the idea… writing is handy in the praise department. (If you are an atheist and believe only in the big bang and the materialists view of philosophical truth, language is still your necessary manna from mammalian nerology.)

These are the best reasons to write, but you will notice none of them have anything to do with publishing. These reasons: self discovery, activism, spiritual praise can find many forums in the world, but if you decide to write a book there is an element that is not touched on in the three above. I think that element is the quality a publisher looks for first thing and is hardest to define: it is the quality in writing that lets a reader know the author is reaching out to them and them alone. It is the opposite of self absorption. Some writers do it with humor, or action, or pure entertaining brio. Whatever it is, this is the quality that makes your thoughts attractive to others.

Publishing is a business run by business people and right now that business is in a time of terrific change from the print era to the electronic. But if you can weave your ideas together with this clarity and narrative drive that puts the reader’s interest first, there is still money to be made and people willing to work with you to make that money. Success is uncertain, but this will always be true: there is absolutely no success without the sitting down and trying.

I am a great proponent of writing as much as possible without regards to the self. I feel strongly that if you want to write, the best thing to do is take the advice of my poetry mentor at the University of Washington, Nelson Bentley, to “Avoid Self Pity Like the Plague,” and just write as much and as un-selfconsciously as you can. (I work hard to take my own advice here) It is a great time to be a broke-ass writer. It is a great time not only because ghosts need fleshing out, the world needs saving and the divine needs our praise. This is such important work that we don’t have to do it for money, but we can do it in letters. We can do it on line. We can do it for our family and for the people we love.

And if we want to clear out the calendar and step up to the plate we can write a book, because writing a book is worth doing once in our life no matter what becomes of it. The first two I wrote were never published, but they were the most satisfying things I did in my early years. They taught me how to praise and how to get out of my own head, they taught me how to build something beginning middle and end. They taught me confidence by giving me the satisfaction of completing something. They made all my other books possible.

Just as sitting down on that first day to start your book will make all of your future books possible. Now is always the time to start. No matter how many times you want to put it off. Now is always a good time.

Just put the pen to paper.

The game is on.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Ways to Self-Publish: Deb's Interview with Tanyo Ravicz

Traditional publishing? Author services? “Vanity presses”? Self-publishing? The options can be overwhelming.

When author and former (and sometimes) Alaskan Tanyo Ravicz of the independent author cooperative Running Fox Books wrote to tell me he’d left an author services arrangement to release fully independent editions of his books Alaskans and A Man of His Village, I asked if he’d be willing to share his thoughts on that experience in this Q & A.

What motivates you to write?

An irrational drive to give lasting and meaningful shape to the experience of life is what motivates me to write. The satisfaction comes from engaging other people with the result of the effort, or, failing that, or in addition to that, in the consciousness of having written the best prose I can. If my words cause people to smile or grit their teeth or anxiously knit their brows or to ponder, that’s a rewarding engagement. Still, apart from that, it’s satisfying to see something in your own way and to crystallize that vision in penetrating prose.

What made you decide to forego traditional publishing?

That feels like a trick question. Honestly, whatever I offer about publishing has to be understood as coming from someone who’s had the experience several times repeated since the late 1980s of trying to “get” a literary agent and “get” a publisher. From the manila envelope to the iPhone, I’ve seen the changes in how things are done, but I’m not well qualified to speak about traditional publishing from the inside. By the same token, of course, you wouldn’t expect me to greatly lament the disruptions to the industry.

The first editions of your books were published through one of the larger author services companies, one that’s sometimes called a “vanity press.” How did you choose this particular service? How did it work out for you?

In 2006 I published the novel A MAN OF HIS VILLAGE through iUniverse, which was then a young company and still independent. The results were excellent. I was in my 40s, we had settled down in California after the years in Alaska, and I had been having the unpleasantly familiar experience of not being able to convince anyone to take on a manuscript of mine. There was a difference this time, though, and it was called print-on-demand technology.

Absolutely revolutionary. I went with iUniverse because I’d seen one of their posters in the Barnes & Noble window and I liked the concept. They were also running an effective whole-page ad series featuring pictures of Virginia Woolf and Walt Whitman and other literary lights who had published their own work — effective, I suppose, in normalizing, if not romanticizing, the idea of self-publishing, or at least diminishing the lingering stigma, though speaking for myself I never felt much of a stigma. To my mind, the scores of literary agents and small presses I had tried with the book had made a mistake. A MAN OF HIS VILLAGE went on to win the top prize in its category in a couple of open national contests and by publishing it I was able to get out and do events and sell some books.

Two years later, in 2008, still working with iUniverse, I brought out ALASKANS to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Alaska statehood. It was good timing: I got a bump in interest in my book with the ascent on the national stage of Sarah Palin. ALASKANS is a collection of ten stories, two of them Pushcart-nominated and nine of them previously published in literary magazines, a circumstance I mention to help to dispel the stereotype that self-published work is unvetted and unprofessional.

Do people use the term “vanity press” anymore? This is archaic terminology rooted in the protectionism of the legacy publishers. It makes me think of those black-and-white ads discreetly tucked in the back pages of print magazines in the late 1900s. True, since the early days of print-on-demand publishing, an industry has sprung up around peripheral marketing services for authors, many of which play to our vanities; but what’s really happening here is a further closing of the gap between self-publishing and traditional publishing, which after all is hugely dependent for its advantage on its marketing machinery.

Recently, you’ve re-released your books on your own. What prompted you to do this?

Yes, I’ve broken off with iUniverse and I’ve brought out A MAN OF HIS VILLAGE and ALASKANS in new authoritative editions under the Denali Press imprint. It’s a way of taking ownership of my work and moving forward from here.

iUniverse has changed a lot since 2006. Actually, I hadn’t been entirely happy with the contract to begin with: I had agreed to a lesser paperback royalty percentage after iUniverse had represented to me that the discounts would be passed along the distribution chain. This was something it turned out iUniverse had no control over. It was a misrepresentation I wouldn’t forget.

Meanwhile iUniverse was swallowed up by Author Solutions, which in turn was acquired by Pearson, a division of Penguin, which has recently merged with Random House. This phenomenon of the old guard publishers getting into the author services business is interesting. Authors should be aware of what’s going on here structurally. A company of course wants to claim a share of the sales earned by the best-selling self-published books, but the ironic bread-and-butter truth is that these old publishers are partly evolving into “vanity presses” themselves, establishing divisions to encourage and profit from the “vanity” they earlier derided.

It’s not as though iUniverse did a good job anyway. They mismanaged the rise of ebooks, and speaking of my books in particular, iUniverse botched the ebook conversions. A reader took the trouble to inform me of this, and this was really the last straw as far as my attitude to iUniverse goes. Times had changed — the rise of ebooks, Amazon, Apple, Smashwords — and it was time for me to examine my options and to move on.

Personally, I needed to take stock anyway. Every now and then we look around and consider where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Finding myself again in the position of finalizing a new book and reaching out to literary agents, I wanted to have a strategy in place for averting the negative emotions that can come with the process.

Denali Press (“founded in Palm Springs, California, a publisher of quality fiction and nonacademic nonfiction”) is the result. Going forward, this is the rock under my books. I now have a direct relationship with Amazon, Apple, B&N and Kobo, a list which may grow as I choose. I register my own titles and I set the look and prices of the print books and ebooks. With drop caps, a matte cover finish, and a 5.25 x 8 trim — my choices — these print books are beautiful products that physically rival (at a more affordable price) the trade paperbacks of the big players.

The transition has cost me some months of concentrated effort, but I’ve become an exacting writer and so I didn’t mind the labor of one last time editing these two books. Also, the process of establishing a sole proprietorship, designing a logo, setting up vendor accounts, and so on, teaches valuable lessons. Financially, I’ve incurred switching costs — for example, I paid a pro to do my ebook conversions — and I’m in the red again with my writing, but I expect in the long term to recoup the losses.

Still, we all know how hard it is to sell books. One-book and two-book authors might be better advised to just stick with Amazon or an author services outfit and not to bother with setting up their own imprints.

Let me say too, Deb, that I had noticed what you were doing with your books over at Running Fox. You cared enough about your out-of-print books that you weren’t going to let them stay out of print. Emerging authors can look to you for an example of the nimbleness and adaptability of today’s writer who doesn’t necessarily reject tradition but isn’t bound by it.

What publishing advice do you have for emerging authors?

By all means try to work with a traditional publisher. A writer isn’t just a witness but also a participant, and your story as a writer, not the one you write but the one you live, becomes a part of the record of your time.

Remember that the established book world, from its editorial reaches to its diminished infrastructure to its far-flung superstructure (including bookstores and print journals) has never been especially friendly to self-published authors. In my experience, there are wonderful exceptions to this rule, but by and large I find it true. Small publishers face very large hurdles in bringing serious attention to their titles.

A third reason, if you’re an emerging author, not to hasten into do-it-yourself publishing is you’re probably not as good a writer as you’re going to become. Look at your finished manuscript two or three years from now; I guarantee it won’t seem so finished.

At a certain point, though, a pile of rejected manuscripts is toxic for a writer. If you don’t look out for your writing, no one will. Act. Act. Act.

If you’ve internalized the misconception that traditional publishing is somehow synonymous with literary quality and that the rest is dreck, you need to get past it.

Don’t fear Amazon and Apple. If as an author you’re a free agent, Amazon is your ally.

If you’re young, you probably don’t sit around longing for the lost simplicity and glamor of an earlier publishing era you never knew anyway and which may or not have existed. Considering our relative freedom to write what we want and the digital technologies that enable micropublishing, America in 2014 is a pretty good place to be a writer if you really have to be a writer. And like I always say to my friends who lament being overweight, don’t let them tell you that you take up too much of the world. It’s the world that takes up too much of you. 

Tanyo Ravicz grew up in California. He attended Harvard University and settled for many years in Alaska, mainly in Fairbanks and Kodiak. In Alaska he worked as (among other things) a wildland firefighter, cannery hand and schoolteacher. His novel-in-progress, Wildwood, draws on his experience of homesteading with his family on Alaska’s Kodiak Island. Tanyo’s classic short novel Ring of Fire, which explores the conflict between an Alaskan big-game hunting guide and the Crown Prince of Rahman, will be released in a new digital edition in 2014. His books include A Man of His Village, relating the odyssey of a migrant farm worker from Mexico to Alaska, and Alaskans, a selection of his short fiction. This interview was also posted at

Monday, July 28, 2014

From our Archives: The Long and Winding Road to the Writing Life, by Bill Sherwonit

Bill Sherwonit

When talking about the writing life, I like to tell a story from my geology days, about a boss who absolutely loved the work we did. As I recount in Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness (2009, University of Alaska Press), “Inwardly I cringed when a crew leader named Joe talked about our work. ‘You know,’ he said with gusto, ‘geology isn’t just a job to me. It’s my hobby, too.’ For me it was more chore than challenge. I think of Will Rogers’ joke about golf: a nice walk ruined. That’s pretty much how I felt about stream sediment sampling and pounding on rocks while hiking through one of North America’s wildest landscapes (the Central Brooks Range).”

Nowadays I smile when recalling Joe’s words and my wincing response to them, because I better understand his perspective. He and my other geology buddies would eventually become role models of a sort. Only four years after earning an MS at the University of Arizona, I decided to seek a new career, one that I could love as much as they loved geology. (Passion for the work – or rather my lack of it – was only one of several factors that prompted the change, but it was a crucial one.)

Here I’ll again borrow from Changing Paths, which in part chronicles my evolution from geologist to journalist and eventually nature writer and wilderness advocate:

“What that (career) would be, I had no idea. Many friends and family members thought I must be nuts, to throw away all the years of hard work, the MS in geology, and the opportunity to work in a profession where I’d already had some notable success. But the void beckoned. I had to make the leap into the unknown, because the real craziness lay in doing work I’d found to be either boring or destructive to what I loved. . . .

“A serious amateur photographer for several years, I decided to return to school and see how photojournalism suited me. Without much savings, I focused on local junior colleges, which seemed ideal for experiments like mine. As a California resident (where I’d settled in the late seventies) I could take a full load of courses for under $20. Among the schools that taught photojournalism, one immediately caught me eye (for reasons I explain in the book): Pierce College.

“I wouldn’t learn until later that Pierce’s journalism department was nationally acclaimed. Nor could I know that its staff would quickly recognize some raw talent in this serious new student – in writing and reporting, more than photography – and shepherd me toward a new and then unimaginable life. My three-semester apprenticeship at Pierce led to a real newspaper job at the tiny Simi Valley Enterprise and my entry into the life of a professional journalist. But more than that, it led me to something that soon became a passion: writing. All that remained was one final link to a lifelong love, wild nature.

“Much like the circumstances leading from grad school to Alaska, this turn of events initially seemed to be a string of coincidences or lucky breaks. But with a quarter-century of hindsight, I now hear the words of Joseph Campbell, who in talking with Bill Moyers during The Power of Myth series referred to the ideas of nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: ‘When you reach a certain age and look back over your life, it seems to have had an order; it seems to have been composed by someone. And those events, that when they occurred seemed merely accidental and occasional and just something that happened, turn out to be the main elements in a consistent plot.'”

Ah, life as a plot. Now there’s something that should resonate with creative writers. I won’t continue with Schopenhauer’s ideas here, but the notion that accidents or coincidences or lucky (or unlucky) breaks might in fact be more than they seem resonates with me. So does Campbell’s famous counsel to “follow your bliss.” I don’t have his exact words at hand, but essentially he says that to follow one’s true passion, a person must heed “the call” – and act upon it. To do so often requires a leap of faith. Such a leap may appear intimidating, even dangerous. But the potential rewards are great.

In taking the leap, a person may discover a path that has been there all along, though unrecognized. And once on that path, all sorts of miraculous things seem to happen, as doors open and new possibilities emerge. It sometimes also seems that “invisible hands” are there to guide a person along the way.

It’s hard to write or talk about such a thing without seeming a little “woo woo,” a bit weird in a new-agey sort of way. Indeed, it seems a strange thing to me. And yet it somehow makes sense. Or at least I see it in my own life. It’s as if a path were always there, waiting for me. Maybe I actually walked (or crawled) upon it in my earliest days, but then got sidetracked by other forces, other influences. But in “leaping” from geology to journalism/writing, I found – or rediscovered – a path I was meant to take. (Though I’m not sure it’s the only path I might have followed and still found my passion.)

The ideas of being called and finding one’s own path are linked to the notion that our lives have meaning, a purpose. Whether or not that’s true, I think that most of us humans believe in the notion of purpose and we look for meaning in our lives. Or we at least want to live in a meaningful way. We want to leave a positive legacy of some kind.

It makes sense to me that my life’s purpose somehow would be closely tied to the larger, wilder world of nature. It’s always been a refuge, a home, a place of solace, inspiration, wonder and hope. (It is also sometimes intimidating and frightening.) The writing part is harder to explain. I don’t remember being a voracious reader or passionate writer when young. As a member of a deeply religious Lutheran family, mostly what I read – or had read to me – were the Bible and “Bible stories.” I sometimes feel envious when people talk about their favorite early books. None come to mind for me. Could I have blanked them out?

In grade school my favorite class was spelling. And I was pretty good at penmanship (when older I’d be praised for my handwriting). I suppose those might have been early hints of the importance that words and writing would later have for me. But in high school and college, I was a “math and science guy.” I didn’t particularly like English or history or more generally “the arts.” I remember reading classic novels in high school, for instance The Scarlet Letter, Ivanhoe, and A Tale of Two Cities. But they didn’t particularly inspire or excite me, though I do vaguely remember enjoying Ivanhoe. I was more into books about baseball, stories about fishing.

Sometime in college I became interested in Ernest Hemingway and eventually read several of his novels, but I’m not sure I can call him an important influence. I also began keeping a journal, off and on. In those journals I recorded my thoughts and experiences, reflected upon puzzling aspects of my life, tried to better understand my life. But they were very private, nothing to share.

Even after writing became my livelihood, I paid little attention to literature for years, either as writer or reader. My earliest creative efforts were the newspaper columns I wrote about sports and “the outdoors,” which sometimes took the essay form. But I didn’t begin to more seriously explore essay writing or longer narrative nonfiction until I’d embraced the life of a freelance writer, after The Anchorage Times lost its newspaper war with the Daily News. Becoming a freelancer, too, was something of a leap of faith, and something I’ve never regretted, despite the inevitable ebbs and flows – and rejections by all manner of publications.

What still amazes me is that I had no awareness that there was a literary genre called “nature writing” until I’d reached my late thirties, maybe even early forties. Though I’d read – and loved – Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men and Arctic Dreams, I knew little or nothing about Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Ed Abbey, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, John Haines, Richard Nelson, Terry Tempest Williams, Robert Michael Pyle, Scott Russell Sanders – the list goes on and on. Many, if not most, of the above would hesitate to call themselves nature writers, but they have contributed greatly to the body of work that is called “nature writing.” And all have joined my personal library, inspired and fed my own writing efforts, since they made their way into my life.

As I’ve reflected in an essay, “Anchorage’s Wild Coastal Fringes,”

“There are strong links between my middle-aged ‘discoveries’ of songbirds and Anchorage’s coastal refuge and several other things that have become important to me – and to my understanding of the world – over the past decade or so (now closer to 15 years). Two examples are nature writing and a yearly Alaskan event called the Sitka Symposium (which recently ended after a run of 25 years) . . .

“Looking back, it seems I had a dim awareness of all those things – songbirds, coastal refuge, nature writing, symposium, and more – for years, as they moved in and out of my life. Yet I didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, sense their power, their ability to expand, deepen, enrich, even transform a life, until some triggering event opened my eyes, my capacity to understand. The trigger itself might be perfectly ordinary. . . . But each somehow lifted a veil, opened a door, revealed a previously hidden path. And suddenly my world opened up. I learned a new way of experiencing the world that I had never before imagined. Of course such opening up isn’t limited to middle age; it can and does happen throughout our lives, if we’re lucky. Or paying attention.

“I think about all these things in my own life, because I want to know more about the ways we humans broaden our perspectives, the circumstances through which we willingly change or reshape our core beliefs and behaviors, the triggers that open us to new possibilities.”

Among writing’s greatest gifts to me is that it helps me pay greater attention to what’s happening around and within me. It is also one of the primary ways that I explore life’s mysteries, reflect upon my place in the world, and better understand wild nature, human nature, my nature. Yes, I’ve been fortunate enough to earn a living as a writer. But like Joe’s relationship with geology, writing has long been more than a job or career to me and something closer to a way of life, a way of being in the world. Writing is also a reminder to remain open to possibilities – and the way that a life can blossom when a person pays attention to his intuition, his heart.

Born in Bridgeport, Conn., nature writer Bill Sherwonit has called Alaska home since 1982. He has contributed essays and articles to a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, journals, and anthologies and is the author of more than a dozen books. In September 2014, Alaska Northwest Books will publish his collection of essays, Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife. His website is www.billsherwonit.alaskawriters.comThis post first ran in 2010 at 49 Writers.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Linda: 49 Writers Weekly Roundup

Alaska Book Week 2014 (Oct. 4-11) is ramping up! The organizing committee (Alaska Center for the Book, 49 Writers, Alaska State Library, Anchorage Public Library) has been working hard behind the scenes and you can now sign up to participate at the Alaska Book Week website at Questions? Contact ABW coordinator Jathan Day at akbookweek (at) gmail (dot) com.

We'd like to take this opportunity to thank the various sponsors who have stepped forward to lend their support to this annual celebration of Alaska's authors and their books, helping us to run and promote the event: Alaska Center for the Book, University of Alaska Press, Associated General Contractors of Alaska, Epicenter Press, VP&D House, Arctic Cliffhangers, Great Northwest, Inc., Alaska Northwest Books, and Graphic Arts Books.

Looking for an author to invite to your Alaska Book Week activity? Check out the Alaska Writers Directory. Want to participate in the Great Alaska Book Fair at Loussac Library on October 11?  Click here for more information and to register for a table.

Congratulations to Stefanie Tatalias, whose picture book manuscript Whatever You Do, Don't Think About A Dragon took first in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's literary contest, children's category. Stefanie has been a finalist four out of the last five years, and reports it was a thrill to win this time.

Only four days left to sign up for the annual Sledgehammer contest, which takes place July 26 & 27. What’s Sledgehammer, you ask? It’s a quirky writing contest that incorporates a scavenger hunt, four writing prompts, a 36-hour deadline, the option to write as a team or solo, celebrity judge Ariel Gore, and prizes worth thousands (including 49 Writers memberships). Last year, 49 Writers member Kellie Doherty was a winner in the online category. You can also follow the contest on Facebook

Events in Anchorage

Wednesday, July 30, 8pm,Embassy Suites Hotel in Anchorage: Reading by poets and writers from the pages of Cirque. Readers include Mary Mullen, Sherry Eckrich, Sandra Kleven, Paul Winkel, Tonja Woelber, Cynthia Sims and Matthew Morse. Joe Craig will entertain with jazzy, bluesy guitar. The hotel is staffing the event, offering a selection of great wines and beers, as well as an appetizer menu. Donations accepted at the door. Get a copy of the new Cirque. See it, full-text, at The next submission deadline is September 21, 2014.

Donate new and gently used books to thread's 8th annual children's book drive. Through July 31, collection bins are available at Anchorage Fred Meyer stores and four Credit Union 1 branches (Bragaw, Eureka, 8th Avenue, Abbott). Donated books will be distributed to children and families at thread's Book Party in the Park on Aug. 14, 4-7pm, at 3350 Commercial Drive in Mountain View.

Around the State

Today, Friday, July 25, 9am, Yaw Chapel on Sheldon Jackson Campus: As part of the Sitka Symposium held this week by the Island Institute, Luis Urrea will talk on the theme of "Radical Imagining: Changing the Story with Stories of Change." Open to anyone not able to attend the Symposium full-time. $25 at the door.

Tomorrow, Saturday, July 26, 1-2pm, Palmer Public Library and via video-conference: Join Dan Bigley (Beyond the Bear) and readers at other libraries in the OWL Project to hear his story about triumphing over a devastating tragedy. Bring your questions and join in the conversation.

Tomorrow, Saturday, July 26, 7pm, Bear Gallery at Alaska Centennial Center for the Arts, Pioneer Park: Fairbanks Arts Association Community Writers' Group presents a reading by Jean McDermott, Gregory Shipman, Emma Thomas, Dick Ourada, Pamela DeWitt, Sue Ann Bowling, and visiting artist G.M. Whitley.

August 22-24Center for Alaska Coastal Studies' Peterson Bay Field Station (across Kachemak Bay from Homer): Line by Line in Kachemak Bay: a writer and artist retreat led by Marilyn Sigman and Marilyn Kirkham. Registration $225, including water taxi transportation, food, two nights lodging, and a journal. For more information and to sign up, contact or 907-235-6667.

Opportunities for Alaskan Writers

Did you know that if you're an Alaskan writer you can get listed for free in the Alaska Writers Directory? It's easy to do, just click here to complete the online form. If you're already listed, do check your information to make sure it's current--updates can be submitted using the same form. As Alaska Book Week approaches (Oct. 4-11, 2014), it's a great way for schools, book clubs, and other groups to connect with writers to invite to their Alaska Book Week celebration.

Need an author photo for your upcoming book? Affinityfilms, Inc., an Anchorage non-profit, will create your photo in exchange for a donation to the organization. Visit their website to contact them and make a donation online. Big thanks to Mary Katzke for this generous offer.

Anchorage Public Library is looking for fall writing group leaders, one for a teen group and one for an adult group. This is a great way to share your love of writing. For more information, contact Jim Curran at or 343-2938.

Rasmuson Foundation is now accepting its next round of applications from all previous Rasmuson Individual Artist Award Recipients for its Artist Residency Program. Online applications for 2015 residencies will be accepted now through August 15, 2014. Questions about the program can be directed to Program Coordinator Jeremy Pataky at jeremy.pataky (at) or 907-244-7717.

The Alaska Literary Awards, established in 2014 by the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation through a generous gift from Peggy Shumaker and Joe Usibelli, are accepting applications. The Alaska Literary Awards recognize and support writers of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, playwriting, screenwriting, and mixed genres. Any Alaska writer over the age of 18 who is not a full-time student is eligible to apply. Quality of the work submitted is the primary consideration in determining who receives the awards. There are no restrictions on the writer’s use of the award and no formal report is required. Application deadline is Tuesday, September 2, 2014, 9:59pm (AKDT).

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Alaska Shorts: “Landscape of Anguish,” by Kaylene Johnson

Kaylene Johnson

It’s the little mistakes that kill you.

Shivering, with frozen fingertips, Dick could not thread the zipper of his sleeping bag back onto its track. Stunned, he wondered for a moment if this was it. If this would be the one small detail that tipped the balance.

He quickly wrapped himself the best he could in his sleeping bag and crawled into the two-foot-deep snow trench he had dug for himself. This would be his shelter for the night. At minus thirty degrees, with winds howling up to forty miles an hour, the wind chill factor was more than one hundred degrees below zero. He had staked his sled and backpack into the snow using his ski poles to keep them from blowing away.

Snow drifted in over the trench, covering him with an insulating layer of snow. He began to feel warmer. As his body warmed, so did the frostbitten parts of his anatomy. The wind that had pressed at his back all day — which had been strong enough to push his sled out in front of him — had frozen the flesh of his backside and legs.
He was terribly thirsty.

Less than two days earlier, on March 10, 1980, Dick had been lying in the loft of his friends Roosevelt and Beth Paneak’s home in Anaktuvuk Pass. It was the night before his trek and the plan was to ski from Anaktuvuk Pass to Bettles and then over the mountains to the village of Tanana and on to the Yukon River. It was to be a 300-mile trek through rugged country with snow deep enough to swallow snowmachines.

With snow conditions as they were, Dick decided to lighten his load. He left his tent behind, opting instead for a large, heavy-duty sleeping bag that would shelter him from the cold. A layer of spruce boughs would be his bed. If necessary, he could build snow caves for shelter. He also decided to leave his stove and fuel at home. He liked a wood fire best, and as he had on previous trips, he would gather wood as he traveled. He also left his Gortex bibs behind. His plan was to keep moving at a good clip and take as little as necessary to stay agile and quick.

The 1959 trip from Kaktovik to Anaktuvuk Pass had taught him a great deal about wilderness travel in the North. Later in 1977, Dick walked 150 miles and floated 450 miles from Anaktuvuk Pass to Kotzebue with his friend Bruce Stafford. Between mosquitoes, rain, and rivers swollen with floodwaters, he learned that travel was best done before “breakup” — the time of year when Alaska’s daylight grows longer but before the warmer weather of spring melts the ice on rivers. Two years later in 1979, he traveled solo on foot and by ski from Nuiqsut to Anaktuvuk Pass, a distance of two hundred miles.

People asked him why he took these trips, and sometimes he wondered himself. On his 1979 solo journey he reflected, “There are moments I don’t know why I’m here. It’s cold and the landscape is monotonous. Progress is slow and the distance ahead seems to be unreachable. You need the capacity to see beauty even when it’s not pretty every day.”
He learned he could travel much lighter. On the solo trip, he’d dropped a lot of gear — a thermos, food, a wet down jacket, even his sled. “This is a situation where possessions can forfeit freedom,” he wrote. On that trek he also noted, “Comfort is best when interspersed with moments of great discomfort.”

He would soon discover the slender thread between discomfort and disaster.

Kaylene Johnson is a writer and long-time Alaskan who lives in Eagle River, Alaska. She writes non-fiction, biography, and memoir including A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising Sons in Alaska. Her award winning essays and articles have appeared in the Louisville Review, Alaska magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and several Alaska anthologies. She holds a BA from Vermont College and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.

This excerpts comes from Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith, which recounts the remarkable journeys of Alaska legend Dick Griffith. Canyons and Ice offers a rare look at the man behind the soaring achievements and occasionally death-defying moments. A grand tale of adventure, Griffith’s story is also a reflection on what motivates a man to traverse some of the most remote places on earth. To read the rest of the excerpt, download the free Alaska Sampler 2014.

Would you like to see your work featured here? Check out our Alaska Shorts guidelines and submit today!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

John Straley: The Paperwork

Here is the third post from July guest author John Straley. 

I once heard Robert Hass, before he was the Poet Laureate of the United States, say  “Being a writer would be great, if it wasn’t for all the damn paperwork.” 
So we have inevitably come to writing the cursed book. 
In the earlier blog entries I discussed some aspects of preparation. Here are a few more:
Fit your organizational needs to the workspace that you have. Space and organization of materials are related matters. We all might like a huge white board or a magic screen to project outlines and photographs upon and leave them there to think upon. If you have big room or an office you can afford such a thing. If you’re in a tiny space or share a tiny space you can’t. If you have a private office you can afford sloppiness, if you don’t you can’t. No sense fighting about this with roommates or spouses. Whatever space you have, whether it’s a laptop, a notebook and an ironing board, use it and be grateful. Great books have been written on less. I have found that public libraries are great places to work and can become kingdoms if you let them. Personally I think coffee shops are terrible places to write.
No one makes time. You steal your time back and you keep it. All of us, if we are lucky, will have twenty-four hours in the next day. It’s what we do with those hours which determines our fate. To write a book we have to plant our pen in the day-planner and say, “This is my time for writing,” and then we have to follow through and use it. We colonize that portion of the day. We establish a beachhead and we start shoving out other lesser claimants to our attention. Our partners will support us in this only if they see progress from us. When they see pages. When they hear us read selections, and understand that we are doing something we have always wanted to do but never had the nerve to actually do, they will help see this book to completion. This part I have taught and said before but it is worth saying again: the supportive partners of this world have done way more for the Arts than the MacArthur Foundation. 
Back to the book: Who is going to tell your story? This is a big decision. First person, Third, Third Omniscient, these are the most common. There is lots to be said about this decision. I wrote my Cecil Younger series, first person in the voice of Cecil. First person has immediacy and it is easy to crack wise.  It’s suited to the private I. novel. Right out of the gate your reader is engaged with the series character and sees the world through his/her eyes. But first person has severe limitations. One person can only be at one place at one time, cannot time travel without a lot of ridiculous hocus pocus (discovered letters that suddenly appear ect…) If you want help with this and other questions starting out, I suggest Ursula Le Guin’s very fine book Steering the Craft. I really think it is the best of the writer’s manuals I’ve come across for understanding the essentials. I would also point you to some of her interviews on craft. She has a nice minority point of view on some of the big questions. 
Ok, Butt in chair time. Here we go… Every day has to be a victory. You have your notes, you have your desire, set yourself a goal every day, and don’t get out of that chair until you meet that goal. The first step will be to take your notes and start filling out the lists of “things that happen” into some kind of loose outline. As you do this start drafting out an opening paragraph that captures the poetry and the geography of your book, something that transports your reader to the world of this story. 
Now. Choose how many words you want to write every day. How big a book did you say you wanted?  A skinny book is 60,000 words, a chunky book is 150,000 words, a doorstop, editor screamer is 400,000. So, how long do you want to work on this rough draft? It’s up to you. (The neurosis of the writer largely revolves around the feeling of helplessness, but the truth is, at this point, the Universe in under your command.) The important thing is to make sure that every day is a victory.
Let’s say you want to start off slender. Good idea for a novel. Write about five hundred words a day. Bite off two hours a day, five days a week. Maybe an extra day or two when you have the momentum rolling and in two and a half months or so you have a rough draft done. Now, this is not exactly free writing, you edit as you go but you don’t suffer a lot and you don’t you don’t tear it apart and start over half way through, unless you want to start the clock all over. 
Now you’ve got a rough draft, take a vacation. Take a vacation from the book. Don’t think about it for at least a month. Don’t let anyone read it at this point. No one. Not your spouse not anyone. Let it sit like Sauerkraut in a jar for about six weeks. Try your best to forget about it. At six weeks read it yourself. Read it straight through with a pencil and mark it up. What do you think it needs? Structural changes? Minor tweeking, copyediting? Something in-between… a character re-alignment or a plot adjustment?  Whatever…. You are probably wrong at this point because you are still too close to it. Start revising the easy stuff. This first time through try to revise with you first impulse. Go back to your dream notebook. Is this rough draft really what you wanted? Probably not. If you see some structural changes you can make at this point, make them. If you see plain old dopey mistakes fix them… a common mistake I make is; I have a character give a speech rather than bother write an extra scene or two. It’s like the narrator in a melodrama tromping out on stage to say, “Well folks, then this and this and this happens but it’s not all that interesting.”  I’m really bad about characters speechifying. If you do that, fix it. 
But back to revisions. If it took me “X” number of hours to write the draft of a mms it will take me (“X” x 4) hours to revise it. So, that’s how I figure the number of hours I have to sit in the chair that night.  
Drafting= # of words per night
Revising = # of  hours per night
So, you got about a year into this maybe. Time to show it to somebody. Show it to your partner. They’ll be nice, probably. That’s nice. Usually worthless as far as real help. Partners should be supportive, not really brutal. Then send it to someone brutal, smart, and honest. 
Most Valuable Lesson: A good writer learns to take a punch: Over and Over and Over and Over. I’m sorry, but this is true. The editors (and by extension hard-ass readers) of this world really don’t care about your tender little feelers. Generally they don’t care about anything in your life other than what lives on the page. They are not cruel, they are just busy, and there are way more people who want to be writers than want to be editors. So, if you get a real editor with experience in publishing to read your work, listen to their criticism. You don’t have to take it, you might be mismatched and that does happen, a lot, but still consider what they say, and look at your work with a new eye.
Keep revising and sending your novel to readers until you are one hundred percent satisfied with it in your heart of hearts. One clue that you are done writing the novel is when you notice you are beginning to write another novel on top of the one you are revising. Then stop. Call it done. Either set it aside and start that new novel, while you are sending your first packet to agents or publishers (with that very pretty one page cover letter and the beautiful sample chapter).
I know, it doesn’t sound very romantic, does it? When do we drink martinis by the paddocks with Lady Ashley?
Next time will talk about why it was worth it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Deb: Is Your Beginning Good Enough?

I don't normally enter writing contests (not that I'm opposed to them), but three years ago, I submitted the first three pages of what was then my WIP (work in progress) to the Guide to Literary Agents literary fiction contest. To my surprise, I won - or rather, my beginning did.

Even so, I ended up revising the beginning of what is now my latest novel, and I'm glad I did. Here’s what Publishers Weekly says about how the novel begins now:

This lyrically written coming-of-age story from Vanasse grabs you from the opening line and never lets go: “I am a poem, Sylvie once thought, swollen like a springtime river, light swirled in dark, music and memory.”

Author Sinclair Lewis learned the hard way about the importance of beginnings. Cruising the Atlantic aboard the Queen Elizabeth, he was pleased to see a fellow passenger settle into a deck chair and open his latest novel. She read the first page, got up, and dropped the book over the railing, into the ocean. “If I didn’t know it already,” Lewis told his assistant Barnaby Conrad, “I learned then that the first page – even the first sentence – of one’s article, short story, novel, or nonfiction book is of paramount importance.”

Don’t Try This at Home

Suppose you hand the first 250 words of your manuscript to an actress, who then reads it before a panel of four agents and editors. Each agent raises a hand at the point where his or her interest fades. When two hands are raised, the actress quits reading. Yours doesn’t get read to the end? Don’t feel bad: only 25 percent do.

This was the scenario that played out at a “Writer Idol” event. As reported by Livia Blackburne on the Guide to Literary Agents, there were many reasons the panelists rejected the beginnings. They were generic, or slow. There was too much unrealistic internal narration, or too much information. There were too many clich├ęs, or the writing was unfocused, or the writer seemed to be trying too hard. In her PubRants blog, agent Kristen Nelson elaborates on this latter problem, pointing out that too often authors trying for active beginnings overload them with action.

Ways to Begin

The fundamental purpose of a beginning is simple: it must entice the reader to want more. In Learning to Write Fiction from the Masters, Conrad suggests several types of beginnings that, skillfully rendered, will lure readers into the prose. Conventions of the nineteenth century allowed the luxury of beginning with setting, or a combination of setting and character, strategies that are tougher, though not impossible, to pull off with today’s attention-challenged readers. If you begin with setting, Conrad warns, you need to be masterful with it, as was F. Scott Fitzgerald in launching Tender is the Night, using specific details, imagery, dynamic verbs, foreshadowing, and a hint of conflict.

You can also begin with a provocative thought, though you’ll want to follow it directly with specifics of the story. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” says Jane Austen in the opening of Pride and Prejudice. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” opens Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

By no means do beginnings need to be elaborate. The Old Man and the Sea opens like a news story, with the straight facts: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” The appeal can be more emotional, as in the opening sentence of Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps: “She would leave him, she thought, as soon as the petunias bloomed.” Or the novel can open with action: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,” begins James Cain in The Postman Always Rings Twice. In each of these examples, there’s enough said to engage the reader, and there’s enough left out for the reader to want to know more.

With some beginnings, the reader dives with grace into the story. With others, it’s more of a cannonball splash. In media res takes the reader directly into the middle of a scene. Opening with dialogue has the same effect. When you’re suddenly immersed in a scene, you grab for bits to hang onto. You want to puzzle your way to some clarity. In short, you’re hooked.

Character beginnings prove equally enticing. Look no farther than Conrad’s Lord Jim or Nabokov’s Lolita for proof that a book can open successfully with character. Also endearing is the author’s appeal to the reader, as in Melville’s “Call me Ishmael,” or Twain’s “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that don’t matter.” Conrad calls this author-to-reader appeal “disarming, confidential, effective, and somewhat old-fashioned,” but given today’s emphasis on voice, it seems more than modern.

Ending Thoughts on Beginnings

It’s all too easy to get attached to our beginnings. Because they come to us first, they soon feel indelible.  Remember - they’re not.

To weigh in on what makes a good beginning, check out the “Flog a Pro” feature at Writer Unboxed.

Co-founder of 49 Writers, Deb Vanasse has authored more than a dozen books. Her most recent work is Cold Spell, part of the Alaska Literary Series by the University of Alaska Press. Deb lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. Portions of this post have been published previously.

Would you like to write a guest post relevant to Alaska’s literary community? Email 49writers (at) or debvanasse (at)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Alaska Shorts: "Tending to Our Own" and "Baptized" by Kristina Cranston

Tending to Our Own

In death, we turn over our loved ones, ourselves, to strangers; our lifeless corpses vulnerable to the preparation and attention of professionals in sterile, chemical environments.

In death, we've grown accustomed to the removal of useless organs and the drainage of once vital blood, replacing with embalming fluid preservatives, fighting decay, even in death.

Washed and dried, oiled and waxed, combed and preened, dressed in our best, we lay ready for our final viewing, disinfected with the promise of delayed decomposition.

Gone are the days we tended to our own, mothers and daughters, sisters and aunts, friends and neighbors working together, washing remains with loving hands and scented soaps, bodies touched by salty tears and clean smelling powders.

Gone are the days we gathered together in intimate fellowship, in homes and on mountain sides, celebrating the transition from life to death, saying goodbye, guarded by our men, our brothers, our families.

Tending to our own has become a lost art, a lost humbling opportunity for reverence, a lost process and forgotten practice; the new way has become a silent empty space in our culture, societal bonds even more broken.

I welcome the rain, nature's shower, accompanied by the wind, carrying stories and songs and hints of conversations from some other place, some other time.

The cold droplets speckle my face if I dare to look up, to face what's coming.

Coupled with Wind, they nudge at my heart, my steps, and my mood.

Pushing me gently with soft pressure, much like my great grandmother who had lost her strength, but still held her power.

Clouds release their bounty on us below, cleansing, opening pores, washing away secret sins and screaming blemishes.

I am baptized in the rain, no witness necessary.

Kristina Cranston is a 43 year old Alaskan mother, grandmother, sister, auntie, and daughter. She is part Tlingit from Haines, and belongs to the Eagle Moiety/Thunderbird Clan. She was raised in Mountain View, a diverse neighborhood in Anchorage, and spent her summers in Haines and Klukwan, balancing the two worlds of village life and city life. Kristina helps her significant other run an art gallery in the beautiful seaside community of Sitka. She has been writing since she was a teenager, and has learned to embrace life and what it offers through this process.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Linda: 49 Writers Weekly Roundup

Deb Vanasse and Melinda Moustakis
It was a rare treat to get to talk to both 49 Writers co-founders in the same day! On Monday, Deb Vanasse attended the reading by Melinda Moustakis at the UAA Campus Bookstore. Deb's latest novel, Cold Spell (University of Alaska Press), makes an excellent summer reading choice. Melinda's award-winning collection of linked short stories about an inimitable family of Kenai Peninsula homesteaders, Bear Down, Bear North, is now available in paperback. She was cheered on from the audience by a number of her own relatives, whose stories are the origin of many of her fictionalized tales (that stretched in the telling like a true fish story). The recipient of a current NEA fellowship, Melinda is getting ready to start her stint at Kenyon College as the 2014-2016 Kenyon Review Fellow in Fiction. But first, she looks forward to beginning her annual Alaskan fishing trip, far from her writer's desk. Fans of her work will be happy to know she continues to write about the characters you first met in the pages of her debut book and we look forward to seeing their further adventures in print.

As to our other esteemed co-founder—Andromeda Romano-Lax is indeed back in Anchorage from Taiwan (via the Philippines) to teach in UAA's MFA summer residency. It's great to see her looking revitalized by her Asian travel experiences. After a year's absence, Andromeda will be teaching two classes in our fall season. Details of these workshops and others will be announced before the end of August. 

The Northern Renaissance Arts & Science summer reading series, part of the UAA MFA program residency, continues this weekend (see details below). Still to come: Elizabeth Bradfield, Carolyn Turgeon, Sherry Simpson, Rich Chiapon, Nancy Lord, Jo-Ann Mapson, Craig Childs, David Stevenson, John P. O'Grady, Anne Caston, and Distinguished Guest Fiction Writers Padgett Powell.

The Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage is looking for volunteers to teach writing workshops to their guests, as part of an initiative to bring artistic programs to the shelter. If you are interested in learning more, please contact VISTA Scott Wiser at

Events in Anchorage

Tonight, Friday, July 18, 5pm, Blue Hollomon Gallery, 3555 Arctic Boulevard: Reception for Homer author Tom Kizzia (Pilgrim's Wilderness), followed by 6:30pm reading and Q&A session.

Tomorrow, Saturday, July 19, 8pm, UAA Arts Building, Room 150: Northern Renaissance Arts & Sciences Readings Series, in conjunction with UAA MFA Summer Residency, presents readings by Elizabeth Bradfield, Carolyn Turgeon, and Sherry Simpson.

Sunday, July 20, 8pm, UAA Arts Building, Room 150: Northern Renaissance Arts & Sciences Readings Series, in conjunction with UAA MFA Summer Residency, presents readings by Rich Chiappone, Nancy Lord, and Jo-Ann Mapson.

Monday, July 21, 8pm, UAA Arts Building, Room 150: Northern Renaissance Arts & Sciences Readings Series, in conjunction with UAA MFA Summer Residency, presents readings by Distinguised Guest Fiction Writer Padgett Powell and Craig Childs.

Tuesday, July 22, 8pm, UAA Arts Building, Room 150: Northern Renaissance Arts & Sciences Readings Series, in conjunction with UAA MFA Summer Residency, presents readings by David Stevenson, John P. O'Grady, and Anne Caston.

Saturday, July 26, 1-2pm, Palmer Public Library and via video-conference: Join Dan Bigley (Beyond the Bear) and readers at other libraries in the OWL Project to hear his story about triumphing over a devastating tragedy. Bring your questions and join in the conversation.

Around the State

July 20-26The Island Institute hosts the Sitka Symposium at Sheldon Jackson Campus in Sitka. This year's theme, "Radical Imagining: Changing the Story With Stories of Change" will explore dominant narratives of our culture in relation to the challenges of our time, and consider empowering stories of transformative change initiated by people in communities large and small.
During the Symposium, individual faculty talks will be held at the Yaw Chapel on Sheldon Jackson Campus. These talks are open to anyone not able to attend the Symposium full time. $25 per talk, pay at the door.

Tuesday, July 22, 9am: Molly Sturges
Wednesday, July 23, 9amAlan Weisman
Thursday, July 24, 9am: Winona LaDuke
Friday, July 25, 9amLuis Urrea

July 22-28: The Wrangell Mountain Writing Workshop in McCarthy presents: True Story, with Tom Kizzia, Frank Soos, and Nancy Cook. During this five-day workshop, writers will explore the craft of creative nonfiction: drafting compelling narratives that tell true stories. Click here for more information.

August 22-24Center for Alaska Coastal Studies' Peterson Bay Field Station (across Kachemak Bay from Homer): Line by Line in Kachemak Bay: a writer and artist retreat led by Marilyn Sigman and Marilyn Kirkham. Registration $225, including water taxi transportation, food, two nights lodging, and a journal. For more information and to sign up, contact or 907-235-6667.

Opportunities for Alaskan Writers

Did you know that if you're an Alaskan writer you can get listed for free in the Alaska Writers Directory? It's easy to do, just click here to complete the online form. If you're already listed, do check your information to make sure it's current--updates can be submitted using the same form. As Alaska Book Week approaches (Oct. 4-11, 2014), it's a great way for schools, book clubs, and other groups to connect with writers to invite to their Alaska Book Week celebration.

Need an author photo for your upcoming book? Affinityfilms, Inc., an Anchorage non-profit, will create your photo in exchange for a donation to the organization. Visit their website to contact them and make a donation online. Big thanks to Mary Katzke for this generous offer.

Rasmuson Foundation is now accepting its next round of applications from all previous Rasmuson Individual Artist Award Recipients for its Artist Residency Program. Online applications for 2015 residencies will be accepted now through August 15, 2014. Questions about the program can be directed to Program Coordinator Jeremy Pataky at jeremy.pataky (at) or 907-244-7717.

The Alaska Literary Awards, established in 2014 by the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation through a generous gift from Peggy Shumaker and Joe Usibelli, are accepting applications. The Alaska Literary Awards recognize and support writers of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, playwriting, screenwriting, and mixed genres. Any Alaska writer over the age of 18 who is not a full-time student is eligible to apply. Quality of the work submitted is the primary consideration in determining who receives the awards. There are no restrictions on the writer’s use of the award and no formal report is required. Application deadline is Tuesday, September 2, 2014, 9:59pm (AKDT).

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Alaska Shorts: "Digging Robert's Grave," by Don Rearden

Don Rearden

Through a mouth full of Copenhagen he gave some of his last words of wisdom to me: “No good when you die in the winter. Gonna leave too much work behind.”

A couple hours into digging and I understood what he meant, and I wanted to shoot the guy came up with six feet as the regulation depth of a grave. I worried we wouldn’t be finished in time. Just one day to dig the hole. One day. One day before the village carried his plywood coffin to the cemetery. Men stopped by to help. Someone brought an old red Sears chainsaw that looked like it had been digging graves since the day it left the store shelf. I thought about the irony of digging the grave with a chainsaw when fifty miles of tundra stood between the village and the nearest real tree. Why not use it to cut frozen dirt, why not dig graves?

I thought the men who came to help probably saw in my face that I needed to dig the grave by myself. Robert wasn’t a relative, not even a distant uncle, but the old man was special to me and somehow everyone seemed to understand this.

After a quick demonstration without words, Robert’s brother handed me the rumbling saw. I crawled back down into the hole and began gnawing away at the black earth. The hungry saw sputtered and threw a fine dark mist of permafrost. I kept my eyes fixed on the tip of the saw blade and worked it into the iceblock soil. I would pull the blade and hungry chain out, and make another slice, until I could kick with my boot and loosen a chunk of the frozen ground. Robert’s younger brothers stood over me. They waited to relieve me. To grieve with me. Their shadows crept into the grave. The lights from the small village houses turned the white crosses in the cemetery into an army of straight soldiers, their dark arms held out against the snow.

Over the whine of the small saw's engine, I felt the men grow restless. I sensed they no longer wanted to help dig. They wanted the warm comfort of home. Perhaps it wasn’t the icy burn of the wind getting to them, but the chill of standing amongst the spirits of their ancestors. Still, they didn’t leave. They stood guard, at the edge of the grave, watching this battle with the frozen earth.

My fingers and toes had lost all feeling, and I could feel the frost cutting away at the tip of my nose. I tried to think of Robert and find strength in his last breaths. How the river ice must have just opened up and swallowed him, how he scrambled from the swirling black water and pulled himself to shore, his clothing soaked. I pictured the small patch of willows where he spent his final hours, minutes, seconds, fighting for life, for warmth. I wondered why he didn't just allow the water to take him, why he put up such a struggle in the howling, burning, cold winds when he didn’t have anyone left to live for.

When they found his body, he was huddled beneath the willows. A small pile of dried yellow grass and green twigs half-blackened, his lighter had almost managed to save him. Almost. He hadn't dug into a snowbank for warmth, knowing he was already too wet. It was more important they find his body so that his spirit could be properly cared for. So someone could dig him a grave. Perhaps he knew it would be me.

At the sight of Robert, I had collapsed to the snow and cried. Robert. Frozen in a ball, on his side in the back of a long plywood sled, wrapped in a blue tarp. Forever selfish, I thought nothing of anyone, except myself. My friend, my teacher. I was alone again.

But in the grave I was too busy working, thinking, and I didn’t hear the saw sputter out. My mind still in the sled, wrapped in the blue tarp. I heard a voice, "No more gas."

I looked up and saw the hand reaching towards me. Then lowered my eyes to the saw, dead. I started to hand the saw up to Robert’s brother, but he reached for my free hand and he began to pull me up and out of the grave.

"That's good,” he said. “We’ll finish in the morning. Robert can wait another day, if he needs to."

I looked down at my three sad feet of progress against the impossible permafrost. Pathetic. A day of digging and no answers. My arms, legs, and back hurt, but I couldn’t stop.

Don Rearden grew up on the tundra of Southwestern Alaska. His experiences with the Yup'ik culture shaped both his writing and his worldview. His critically acclaimed novel The Raven’s Gift was named a 2013 Notable Fiction selection by The Washington Post. You can read a sample chapter or order The Raven’s Gift here. Don’s writing has been published internationally and he is also a produced screenwriter and poet. His heart often draws his writing back to characters and stories that originate on the tundra; in his fiction, he hopes to shed light on the struggles of everyday life in rural Alaska. Rearden is an Associate Professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage and president of the 49 Writers.
This excerpt is from “Digging Robert’s Grave,” a fictional short story of a young man dealing with the tragic death of a father figure. To read the rest of the story, download the free Alaska Sampler.

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