Friday, July 31, 2009
What a week for Alaska. Not only do we now have a governor who meets with the local press, offers informed answers to questions about issues, and plans to live in Juneau during the legislative session, but our writers also made the New York Times, not once but twice. Last Sunday's Times pubbed a great op-ed piece about Palin as a "qivitter" written by Willie Hensley, author of Fifty Miles from Tomorrow. Mention of the essay as a "must read" also scrolled on CNN's coverage of the Big Quit.
The Times also ran a great review of Anchorage author Bill Streever's new book Cold, calling it a "crisp and bracing little book" that is "chilling in too many ways to count." In one of those double-edged writer's developments, Streever's book is currently out of stock in the three biggest Anchorage book stores, with assurances that more are on order.
Maybe we'll discover more Times-worthy Alaskan authors through the Kathleen Tarr's undergraduate nonfiction workshop at UAA on Wednesday evenings, 5:30-8:15, this fall. Three openings remain in the three-credit course that promises to carve out some very productive writing time while affording the benefit of a group of careful readers. Kathleen says the class will also tackle a variety of supplemental readings during the semester, with a few mini-craft talks to spice things up. For more information, contact Kathleen at 786-4394 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A reminder that the Alaska Writers Guild is sponsoring a great Writers Workshop August 22nd & 23rd here in Anchorage. Authors, agents, publishers, editors, and publicity folks will be here for two days of helpful instruction and discussion about your writing.
For just $225 you can meet and discuss writing with seven professionals, boosting you along in your quest for publication, from rough draft to a contract with an agent, editor, publisher or a marketing person. And hear a stirring keynote talk by International playwright/and creativity consultant Andrew Harmon on the FOUR CRISES OF AUTHORSHIP. For more information, go to Alaska Writers Guild dot com and click on Workshop or call 243-5523 about the Alaska Writers Workshop. That’s www.alaskawritersguild.com or 243-5523.
In the category of news we'd rather not have to mention, I've enlisted the help of Angela Hoy of WritersWeekly.com, the largest-circulation freelance writing ezine in the world, in hopes that Carus Publishing will honor its contracts with writers (including me) by paying them on publication. Several months ago I mentioned here that Carus, publisher of several well-respected children's magazines, responded to my initial inquiry about payment for articles published in the January issue of their Faces magazine by saying "due to a temporary cash flow problem, payments are going out late. Payments are going out every week and we hope to be caught up soon."
WritersWeekly.com publishes a Warnings section on its website and in its newsletter. This warning section contains reports about publications that are unprofessional in dealing with writers, haven't paid writers money that is owed to them, who have not abided by their contracts, or who have unfair contract terms. These reports are used by WritersWeekly.com's subscribers to decide which publications they should and should not work with.
Since February, I've had no response to my repeated queries about the "delayed payment." Angela at WritersWeekly, working on my behalf, got a response within days. No money, just more talk about hard times and their plans to pay everyone eventually. So unless they're comfortable with "delayed payments," writers may want to think twice before submitting to APPLESEEDS, ASK, BABYBUG, CALLIOPE, CICADA, CLICK, COBBLESTONE, CRICKET, DIG, FACES, LADYBUG, MUSE, ODYSSEY, SPIDER, or any other publication of the Carus/Cobblestone Publishing group.
The good news take-away point: WritersWeekly has some clout. But I'm still waiting for my check.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Three times this summer, people – other writers – I respect have publicly fired broadsides at nature writers, either directly or in a roundabout way. Their comments have gotten me thinking about the place of nature writers, and their work, in our culture. And that thinking has led (for better or worse) to this blog post.
The first zinger was fired in Homer, at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, during a panel discussion titled “Our Words: More Thoughts on the Role of Writing and Today’s Global Challenges.” Yeah, that’s a mouthful. And a BIG topic. I wish now that I’d taken notes, but I didn’t. In my recollection, various panel members discussed (among other things) the ways they weave politics or larger social and cultural issues into their stories or poems and how it is best to do that. Or whether it should be done at all in what’s considered creative writing, the stuff of literature.
Panelist Rich Chiappone seemed especially perturbed by the notion of creative writer as activist. A Kenai Peninsula resident, he writes both short stories and essays – that is, shorter forms in both fiction and nonfiction – and also teaches writing for the University of Alaska. I’ve only met Rich a few times, usually at literary events, and don’t know him very well; but I like both him and his writing. Sometimes – often? – he says things that seem intended to incite and I think it’s fair to say he likes to get a rise out of people. On this particular occasion, he happened to pick on nature writers.
Again, I’m not going to get his words exactly right (you’d think a journalist and nature writer would always be taking notes when provocative things are being said, but such is not the case), but Rich seemed to argue that politics have no place in story telling. In literature. It’s worst to explicitly tackle political issues. But even to address politics implicitly, subversively, compromises great storytelling. A writer best serves his work – and audience – by avoiding politics altogether.
Then, as an example of how politics can ruin good story telling, Rich pointed to nature writers. By being so political, he argued, nature writers marginalize themselves. They end up preaching to the choir and alienating those who believe differently than they do. They write bad stuff. No wonder hardly anyone reads them. At least that’s what I heard through my own nature-writing filter.
The more I thought about Chiappone’s criticisms, the more they bugged me. To let them pass would implicitly endorse them, or so I convinced myself. Of course that’s not necessarily so; I hear lots of things said in public forums that rub me the wrong way but which I don’t challenge. This time the criticisms hit a little too close to home. I raised my hand and then had my say “in defense of nature writers.” I agreed that much nature writing is political; but to me, almost all writing is political in one way or another. And rather than “preaching to the choir,” I suggested most of us nature writers want our stories and ideas and viewpoints to reach a large and diverse audience. That’s one reason I like writing for newspapers; with a much wider sweep than either magazines or books, they increase the chance that I’ll provide “food for thought” to people with different perspectives and experiences than my own.
I can’t remember everything else I said, because the whole experience was something of a nerve-wracking blur, standing up in front of a couple hundred people and speaking in defense of nature writing. But I have a few more things to say now. Much nature writing is not explicitly political and lots of it – perhaps too much – isn’t even implicitly political. But some of the best of it is. I think of contemporary writing by Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Gary Snyder, Peter Matthiessen, Robert Michael Pyle, and David James Duncan, and, moving back farther in time, Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, the list goes on and on. Are these not literary giants? And right here in Alaska, many of our best and brightest literary artists produce nature writing that is political, from past and present Alaska State Writers Richard Nelson and Nancy Lord to other talented writers such as Nick Jans, Seth Kantner, Marybeth Holleman, Eva Saulitis, Kim Heacox, and Sherry Simpson (to name several who come immediately to mind). I’m not sure how many in those lists consider themselves nature writers; sometimes I think I’m the only writer alive who still embraces the title. But what these people do, by and large, is nature writing.
Conversely, some of the world’s best literature, of any genre or form, past and present, has political elements. I didn’t mention this at the Kachemak Bay conference (because I didn’t know it then), but some of keynote speaker (a fabulous poet) Li-Young Lee’s poems are clearly political – and powerful.
In short, the inclusion of politics doesn’t make or break a piece of writing. Like anything else, it can be done well or poorly. And I would suggest that intentionally steering clear of politics is even more dangerous than taking the risk of including it in a story or essay or poem.
I will end this little rant with a quote taken from Terry Tempest Williams’ newest book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World. Talking about politics, Chinese-American artist Lily Yeh tells Williams, “By living your principles, you are political. Living your values is political.” That rings true to me. And I would ask: If writers of non-fiction, fiction, and poetry are true to their values and principles, how can they not be political in their writing.
Next stop, the Sitka Symposium, where nearly sixty people gathered in late June to consider how we citizens can shape a more enduring and sustainable culture that is more human and earth friendly. One of the guest faculty members brought to Sitka to stimulate our conversations was author, poet, educator and scholar Gary Holthaus, a man who’s been involved in both environmental and social justice issues for four decades or thereabouts. Some may recognize him as the first director of the Alaska Humanities Forum. Holthaus, I’m happy to say, has moved back to Alaska after several years away. At the symposium he raised many provocative questions. He made us squirm a bit, he challenged our thinking. Along the way he made a few pointed criticisms of nature writers, but he did so in a thoughtful and provocative way and in a setting that allowed – even encouraged – discussion of his ideas.
This time I did take some notes. And in reading them, I’m reminded that Holthaus questioned nature writers’ tendency to focus too much on beauty or aspects of the earth and its inhabitants that touch our desire for – and sense of – beauty, whether landscapes or creatures or relationships.
One of Holthaus’s premises was that humans are part of nature, as is everything that we build, invent, create – or destroy. “We need language,” he urged us, “that honors all of it.” And he suggested that “there is only one sacred place” and it encompasses the entire universe – or all of creation, if you will.
Nature writers – and others – need to broaden their outlooks, their perspectives and “find nature in the marred and scarred . . . find beauty in the ugly and demeaned.” Hardest of all to digest was his idea that we need to look upon and write about the “marred and scarred” without judgment.
In other words, we need to reshape our relationship with the entire earth. We need to see with fresh eyes and speak – or write – with a language that emphasizes reverence and respect for ALL of nature.
It was a lot to take in and absorb. Some of it I agree with, some I question, and parts I don’t understand. So Gary and I have agreed to continue the conversation here in Anchorage. It’s something I eagerly anticipate.
The most recent, and in some ways most jarring, comments about nature writing were made earlier this week, at a night of faculty readings on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus, as part of UAA’s Northern Renaissance Arts & Science Series. Among the readers was Sherry Simpson, in my mind one of the nation’s best essayists and a nonfiction writer whose work (as noted above) often qualifies as nature writing. Introducing Simpson was David Stevenson, director of UAA’s Creative Writing and Literary Arts Department and the university’s new (now in its second year) low-residency MFA program. Stevenson too is a creative writer; in fact Monday he read a riveting excerpt from a novel-in-progress. He’s also a mountaineer and, as his university bio notes, he “writes often about the mountaineering experience both in fiction and nonfiction prose.” I met David last year and like him a lot; he’s smart, humble, outdoorsy, well read, and seems like a genuinely nice guy.
Here’s what David said, in part, while introducing Simpson (and again I paraphrase): Sherry’s work is often described as nature or outdoors writing. But what she’s really writing about is people.
Whoa, I thought. Did David just dismiss nature writing, or what? It’s as if writing about PEOPLE gave Sherry’s work more gravitas, made it more substantial and relevant and worthy. And I wondered how many other people in the room agreed with those sentiments.
Yeah, I wanted to shout out, she writes about people. So does everyone else in this room. What sets Sherry Simpson’s work apart from most is that she writes wonderfully well not only about the human drama, but also about the larger world and people’s place in it. She may not call herself a nature writer, but in essay after essay she looks deeply at people’s complex relationships with each other and the grander, wilder, and more mysterious world we inhabit. As I once commented about her newest book, The Accidental Explorer: Wayfinding in Alaska, “The essays superbly blend Simpson’s personal idiosyncrasies with larger questions about discovery, longing, imagination, and how it is that each of us finds – or seeks to find – his or her own place in the world.” In short, the essays are about people AND A LOT MORE.
And that, to me, is one of nature writing’s great appeals. In a time and culture where way too much attention is focused on celebrity and the human drama, the people who do nature writing (whether or not they call themselves “nature writers”) consider our species’ place in the larger world. Nature writing looks at the bigger picture, while often weaving together such elements as science and spirituality, magic and mystery, and stories about landscape and the other forms of life with which we share the world. And it raises questions about how we can live more decently and respectfully on the Earth, our home.
By Bill Sherwonit
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Airports can be mind-numbing places. But I passed a quite pleasant hour in Sweden’s largest airport, Arlanda, by examining one of several book kiosks.
First I simply looked at books: titles, authors, and content. I was surprised to see how many books were translated from English. Individual titles ranged from Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth to He’s Just Not That Into You, charmingly translated as Dumpa Honom! (Dump Him!). Marilyn Manson’s face glared from the cover of a Swedish edition of The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, just across the display table from Jeremy Seahill’s even more chilling Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. On the same table, juxtaposed between the two, one of Alexander McCall Smith’s “#1 Ladies Detective Club” mysteries invited a far more comforting read.
Ever the split personality, I soon found myself eyeballing the layout as a librarian might: about ¼ of the space devoted to novels, both in translation and original Swedish; at least ¼ to mystery/suspense, primarily in Swedish; a shy quarter to miscellaneous nonfiction; and a generous quarter to English translations. The “LOOK HERE NOW!!” tables were primarily an amalgam of the suspense, nonfiction, and English translation sections.
In nonfiction the Obamas were clearly a topic of interest, with at least four titles by or about Barack and one about Michelle. Fiction looked to be fairly equally divided between English (American/British) authors and Scandinavian. The number of Scandinavian mystery/suspense authors was notable. Mari Jungstedt, Camilla Läckberg, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, and Leif G.W. Persson all scored at least four front-facing titles. That doesn’t include the dozen or so writers with fewer titles, or the table devoted solely to Mankell’s new novel, Kinesen.
American authors were well-represented, both in translation and original English. Notables included Dennis Lehane (at least six titles), David Baldacci, P.D. James, Andy McNab (Seven Troop), Jennifer Lee Carrell (The Shakespeare Secret), Dean Koontz, Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Michael Connelly, Dan Brown, Elizabeth George, John Grisham, and Robert Ludlum.
In sum, I was struck by three things: the overall number of thriller stories; the popularity of Scandinavian mystery writers; and the plethora of books of all types in English.
English is indeed the lingua franca of Europe, the one language most commonly spoken at least rudimentarily by people from different countries. So I suppose it makes sense to find so many books in English at a European airport. Yet as I looked at the offerings, I thought about a question posed by a Swedish writer friend: Are many books translated from other languages into English? Off the top of my head I could think of a few titles I’d read in the last year or two: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (German); Blindness by Jose Saramago (Portuguese); Stieg Larsson’s recent best-seller The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo (Swedish); Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (Norwegian); Independent People and World Light by Halldor Laxness; and numerous children’s books from the German by Cornelia Funke.
I know there are many more translations out there and that my personal list is Eurocentric with a pronounced slant to the Nordic. But my point is this: think what it means to walk into a bookstore and routinely find half the books written by authors from other countries!
We like to think of ourselves as multicultural. A little translation -- or bilingualism -- anyone?
By Ann Dixon
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Earlier this year, Alaskan author Michael Engelhard shared a post called "Many Voices: The Pleasures and Pains of Anthologizing." Anthologizing is tricky enough - now imagine collaborating with several authors, none of whom you know personally, on a novel. Alaskan writer Glenda Smith, pictured above, is in the process of doing exactly that. In this interview, she shares details of her involvement in The Book Project. I wonder...will there someday be an Alaska Book Project?
How and when did you become involved in the book project?
In November of 2008, shortly before my birthday, I received an e-mail from someone I didn’t know with the subject line of “looking for writers.” I have been writing some short stories, in more of a journal manner than a book, and saving these in a collection. What I really wanted to do with them was write a book.
On opening the e-mail there was a brief statement that The Book Project was soliciting writing samples and would be selecting a group of published and novice authors to collaboratively write a novel in 12 months. It listed Peter Lihou’s e-mail address and said that anyone interested needed to submit a 500-word writing sample to Pete. What it didn’t say was the potential author was to submit a 500-word writing sample of why they wanted to participate in the project. Wanting to submit something that would stand out, I submitted a 500-word article I had written about my experiences with a ruptured appendix a few years earlier.
When Pete contacted me, he provided more details about the project, including what the sponsor wanted in the writing submission. I offered to provide another submission but Pete said my writing was great, he thoroughly enjoyed it, and no further submission was needed. I received my author’s contract and saved it to my computer on my birthday, November 24, 2008, and by December all selected authors were required to sign a contract whereby each would split an equal share of royalties. Provisions in the contract included that anyone who left the project would receive a percentage based on the number of months they participated; however, the remainder of their “earned” royalties would be donated to the charity of their choice – a great incentive to participate to the end.
Do you think being Alaskan had anything to do with being selected?
Amazonclicks is the project sponsor and they are based in the UK. The main requirement was the ability to read and write proficiently in English and the goal was to have authors from around the world. We have authors in Australia, Canada, Spain, British Channel Islands, mainland UK, Spain, Turkey, the Philippines, and four in the US (Alaska, Colorado, Tennessee, and Texas). I don’t think being from Alaska helped in my selection but I guess I would have to ask Pete.
As a novice writer on the team, what challenges do you face?
Five of the remaining thirteen authors already have published poems, short stories, and/or novels. Keeping that in mind, I think the published authors who already had their own writing methods have been more challenged by the collaborative writing than the novices. In all honesty, my biggest challenge was trying to stick to a guideline of 4,000 words for a chapter and my own difference of opinion regarding one part of our story. I wasn’t alone in this – our group was either vehemently in favor of the selection or vehemently opposed.
The novel is actually three stories that interweave, with authors being divided into groups to write about one thread.
Tell us a little about the process of collaborating online. How do you feel one another out?
Part of the “feeling one another out” process was taken care of by division of the authors into groups. This was done by the project coordinator, Peter Lihou, who allegedly had some sort of ranking system to decide who to put in which group. This was not divulged to the group but overall it seems to have been a good matrix from my standpoint. Although there have been some disagreements between the groups, the individual groups have meshed pretty well. We have been at this for seven months now, and one of the authors commented that she was amazed how our forum “chats” often remind her of small office meetings and/or water cooler discussions.
How do you integrate styles?
Part of the process early-on was determining what type of “voice” we would use to tell the story. The on-line forum has many areas that discuss characters, chapters, story line, where the story lines intersect, research, etc., and everyone is required to participate as part of the author agreement.
Since my group has finished writing, we have been editing (and reading) the integrated chapters for grammar and punctuation. When we started, I thought there would be a lot of necessary revision so the book didn’t sound like twenty people had written it. I’ve been very surprised that all the chapters have meshed very well and the story is one I would have difficulty putting down before I finished. Taking the time to decide up front has left little work to integrate the novel.
And how do you steer things in a different direction if you feel like they’re going astray?
In December, most of the potential authors submitted a 1200-word plot. We discussed the ideas on the forum and discussed whether or not they would work with this far-flung large group. Then voted with majority rule and eventually combined two of the plots into the novel we are now writing.
The next thing we did was put together an overall high level chapter outline. Next characters were created and some bios for the characters outlining their part in the novel. If anyone feels we are going astray, we come back to the outline. So far, so good except we do have some loose ends to tie up in the final chapter.
Who handles the logistics?
Peter Lihou has handled most of the logistics, setting up the forum and the wiki sites we have used. He is now handling the logistics of scheduling the webinar where we will reveal some of the story.
How do you collectively make decisions?
A lot of forum discussion and eventually an on-line forum vote is the process that has been used to collectively make decisions. Since we officially began the novel on January 1, 2009, almost all of the authors have over 500 forum posts to date, plus posts to the wiki pages.
How are you handling the feedback and revision part of the process?
Originally, authors were reading individual chapters and posting suggestions on the forum. For example, Chapter 1, Page 3, Line 10, xxxxxx is not spelled correctly or a comma should be inserted after xxxxx, the paragraph might read better if stated this way, or more/less description needs to be included, etc. That was a very labor intensive method for providing feedback and revisions.
One of the authors then put all the finished chapters into one document and I copied that document to my computer. I then took each individual chapter and used track changes to insert words that seemed to be missing, delete duplicate words, and insert grammar and punctuation changes. I then sent the track changes version to him to accept or reject. He and I then had some e-mail discussions on which grammar reference to use. He has then integrated the changes and we are at version 10 of the one document editing. The biggest challenge for me was editing in British English, the voted style to use at this point. I eventually overcame that challenge by using Word tools and setting the selected language to English (U.K.).
You mentioned that the project began with twenty writers and is now down to thirteen. What are some of the reasons people dropped out?
For such a small group, there have been an amazing number of individual challenges. One of the authors suffered a heart attack and after a period of recuperation left the group due to his doctor’s recommendation that he do so. One other U.S. author left because of job difficulties. A couple of people left because of family commitments and another author was asked to leave the group for failure to comply with acceptable behavior as outlined in the writer’s agreement. These are why authors have left as I understand the circumstances. Pete is the only one who knows all of the details.
You mentioned that your experience so far has been both frustrating and thrilling. Could you give an example from each end of the spectrum?
It was thrilling to be one of twenty selected authors from the fifty authors who submitted written interest to the The Book Project.
It has been frustrating to me to spend so many hours doing research and writing bios for character development to have that information not be read by the other groups for chapters that involve all three threads. I will admit it was difficult to try to stay on top of what was happening with the other characters while writing about my own as this sometimes led to more forum reading than actual writing; however, time-consuming edits were required when authors integrated characters without paying attention to character development prior to that chapter.
Anything else you’d like to share about your involvement in the project?
This project has allowed me to learn skills I’m finding useful in everyday life. We discuss the novel itself and everything from admin skills to marketing. We have held two test webinars and it was delightful to talk to most of the authors involved. With the wide range of time zones, a few individuals were unable to make one or the other webinar and this is a challenge we are trying to overcome with the webinar in September.
For anyone who is interested in this type of project, I would encourage participation. Although the requirement in the author’s agreement stated each individual would volunteer at least 1-1/2 hours a week between writing, the forum, and the wikis, some weeks require 5 hours or more just to keep up with all the forum posts.
Overall, this project has allowed me a paradigm shift and expanded my ability to think across several continents.
Glenda Smith is currently employed in the State Pipeline Coordinator’s Office for the State of Alaska and spends part of her time doing field work (material mining site and revetment inspections) along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which she says provided a great summer of 2008 driving from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez – some on the highway and some on a narrow dirt road beside the pipeline called the drive lane. Recently she moved from Anchorage to the Valley.
Monday, July 27, 2009
The king season got off to a shaky start, but Alaska is now thick with salmon. So many people are grabbing for their share that the state had to do a second run of personal use fishing permits. What better time for our 49 Writers "Ode to a Dead Salmon" Writing Contest?
The idea for the contest comes from our interview with Alaska's Writer Laureate Nancy Lord, who in response to Andromeda's question about why it took a while to focus her writing on Alaska said, "I think I was scared off, years ago, by something John Haines wrote in “The Writer as Alaskan”: a kind of condemnation that new-comers to Alaska always mined the same myths, 'odes to dead salmon,' and that it would take generations to develop a worthy Alaskan literature. I’d written a few odes to dead salmon and knew that I needed to get beyond the obvious."
Like Nancy, most of us have probably already written a few "Odes to Dead Salmon." Here's your chance to share them with the world (under a pen name, if you like), or to write some - ahem - fresh ones. Here's what we want: your best tongue-in-cheek "Ode to a Dead Salmon" bad Alaskan writing, poetry or prose, fiction or non. We'll publish all entries over at www.AlaskanAuthors.com so the world can read them, and we'll post finalists here at 49 Writers. And yes, we'll have some theme-appropriate prizes, but the main goal is to have fun.
For examples of the kind of bad poetry and prose we're looking for, check out the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest (for bad opening lines), Chortler's Bad Poetry Contest, and the Joyce Kilmer Bad Poetry Contest.
1. Entries must conform to our editorial policy.
2. We need your real name and real email address. If you want your post to be under a Blogger name or other pseudonym, make that clear in your entry.
3. No more than three entries per person.
4. No more than 800 words per entry (shorter is just fine with us: limerick, haiku, opening lines).
5. Entries must be your own original work.
6. You keep the copyright, of course, but by entering you're giving us permission to post.
7. This is our contest. We make the rules (that's the beauty of blogging, folks), and the rules may change as we see fit. We'll let you know if they do.
8. All entries must be emailed to email@example.com by midnight on August 15.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
The site might even be helpful to one of our readers, who wrote to ask if there are any writing retreats in Alaska in August or September this year. I'll tell her about the Wrangell Mountain Writing Workshop. If anyone knows of others, please leave a comment here.
Good news from Alaskan poet and playwright Joan Kane, who has made the list of 36 finalists (out of almost 600 applicants)for the 2009 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship competition. Winners will be announced on the Poetry Magazine website.
A reminder, too, that the world premiere of Joan's play "The Gilded Tusk" is in its final week at the Anchorage Museum. Featuring a young woman who tires of waiting for her prospector husband and sets off for Nome alone, the play can be seen daily at 11 a.m.
Another Alaskan writer, Glenda Smith, reports that since December 2008, she has been the fortunate novice author participating in The Book Project,a group of 13 writers (selected from 50 applicants) who been writing a collaborative novel, working only online in our forum and using a private wiki site. The group is scheduling webinars in September; if interested, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for an interview with Glenda about the project in an upcoming 49 writers post.
More Alaskan writing activity: the Alaska Writers Guild is bringing six professionals in various aspects of the writing business as faculty for a two-day workshop at Coast International Inn, near the Ted Stevens International Airport, in Anchorage, August 22nd and 23rd, 2009. Writers in all stages from all over Alaska are invited.
Keynote speaker Andrew Harmon, playwright, and creativity consultant, will lead a workshop on “The Four Crises of Authorship—Moments of Truth in the Creative Process.” Harmon’s breakout session will cover “Voices of the Change Journey—Plot, Character Function and Dilemma as Explanation.” Elizabeth Sims, author of six novels, will go over the importance of the first draft: “Rough it Up: For a Better First Draft, Get Messy!”
Paula Margulies, PR expert, will cover “Book Publicity on a Budget—Seven Simple Steps for the Frugal Writer.” Literary lawyer Paul S. Levine will teach “Legal and Business Aspects of Writing Fiction and Non-Fiction Books.” Chuck Sambuchino, editor for Writers Digest Books, will go over “What Editors Want” and “Building Your Freelance Portfolio; Magazine & Newspaper Writing 101.” Lynn Price, editorial director, will speak on what to do after the manuscript is done: “I’ve Written ‘The End’—Pass Me the Maalox” and “Good Grief! Who ARE All these Publishers?” Janet Reid, literary agent, will lead the interactive workshop: “Write a Query Letter That Knocks My Socks Off!”
Workshop faculty will offer reviews and critiques of manuscripts that are submitted prior to arrival at the workshop. Some scholarships are available; contact the Guild for details.
Finally, a few competitions of note: The Briar Cliff Review Poetry, Fiction and Creative Nonfiction Competition opens August 1 and runs through November 1. There's a $20 entry fee per story/creative nonfiction piece or grouping of 3 poems with a $1,000 prize for the winner in each category. Also, the Juniper Prize for poetry opens August 1 and runs through September 30, with a $25 entry fee for a manuscript of poems with a first place prize of $1,500, plus publication of the winning manuscript.
And speaking of contests, watch for details next week on our very own tongue-in-cheek "Ode to a Dead Salmon" writing contest.
Hours later when my friend’s mother woke up, we realized our mistake. My friend’s mother kept saying the same phrase again and again: “Oh no, oh no, oh no,” until the ambulance came. My friend must have been shattered but I don’t remember her speaking, or anyone explaining anything to us, or trying to make us feel better.
In the historical novel I’m writing, two of my characters find their traveling partner dead on the side of the road. Should character B show more emotion or less? Should character A pitch in and help with the body or shirk the duty? The fact that I don’t know for sure tells me I don’t know my characters as well as I need to. It helped when I gave the characters some other sensory matters to deal with – a shattered jar of milk on the road next to the body, milk from the farm that character C visited the night before (against the wishes of characters A and B), milk which has begun to stink and attract flies in the heat. Concrete details always help. It also helped for me to mull over character A’s backstory, to understand why he would act as he does (stoically, without panic, based on prior experience dealing with a decomposing body).
How do people really react in these situations? How we do create realism and show things as they are, not in the clichéd shorthand that gets further pounded into our brains by television episodes or poorly written stories?
My limited experience reminds me that people react to death in many ways: with confusion, denial, verbosity or silence.
I never found a corpse again but I did once find someone trying to become dead, and my main reaction, after the ambulance came and my heart settled down, was anger – anger as I crawled around on hands and knees, scrubbing the blood from the tile floor on which this particular unconscious body had been found. I can still remember the way the nearly black blood got caught in each crack of that damned tile. No one told me to leave the blood, just as no one told the 5-year-old me that it wasn’t my fault for failing to call an ambulance. In real life, people are less talkative than in fiction – less talkative than in my own fiction, certainly, where chattiness and exposition all too frequently run wild.
I’ve been sketching still-lifes at the kitchen table once a week with my kids this summer, and it’s so damn hard to draw what is front of us, what we’re actually seeing. After drawing one half of a slotted spoon, it's hard to resist finishing the other half by memory or reason, forcing the spoon into false symmetry. (Even a spoon is hard to draw. Even a spoon!) It’s a lot like writing. The easier and lazier thing is to write or draw an idealized version. The hardest thing is to really observe and get the details right.
“The induction of faith” is a phrase that visiting writer Josip Novakovich used last week, speaking to MFA students enrolled in the UAA low-residency program. (The same Novakovich, the author of April Fool's Day, that I mentioned in yesterday's post.) By faith, he meant the faith the writer must have in the created world of the story – not the readers, who come later, but the writer. Every detail, every moment that is real and true and not a cliché, brings the invented world to life -- brings death, also, to life.
I have to believe that the corpse exists in my story, that I can see the scene and feel it and smell it, and that when my two characters find the body, they react authentically. There may not be tears. Or there may be. Until I know for sure, until I believe without a doubt, my job as a writer isn’t finished.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
They can be Alaskan or not. Fiction or nonfiction or poetry. A new discovery or a re-read of an old favorite.
I'll go first. What my two fave summer reads had in common were: they were both writers I'd never heard of before, they were short enough to read in two to three days (good thing, since I still have some unfinished doorstops on my nightstand) and they were both very dark and very, very funny.
Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles is a very slim (just a bit more than novella-length?) novel framed by the conceit that the protagonist, a failed poet turned translator, is stuck at O'Hare airport and writing a long, scathing letter of complaint to the airline that has grounded him, forcing him to miss the wedding of his estranged, lesbian daughter. But of course, it's really not about the letter. It's about Bennie Ford's opportunity to review his life and figure out what went wrong. Many of the flashbacks work as wonderful, bitter, humorous or poignant short stories. Miles also weaves in excerpts of the Eastern European novel he is translating. All these threads, and the dynamism of the voice (which starts as a ranting whine and becomes more complex) make the thin book feel like much more than the sum of its limited pages. Loved it!
UAA visiting professor Josip Novakovich is the author of April Fool's Day, a novel I might not have discovered except for the MFA program connection. This book, set in the war-torn Balkans, traces the life of Ivan Dolinar, a Croatian medical student who bumbles through life -- from an unfortunate arrest, to labor camp, into the Serbian army and then, after deserting, onto the opposite side of the conflict. Add heavy drinking (of plum brandy), chess, infidelity and finally -- at book's end, a twist that produces a wonderfully absurd and caustic first-hand account of death. I finished the novel quickly but it's still resonating -- I'm finding myself dipping into journalistic accounts of the Balkans, plus short stories by Tolstoy and Chekhov, still thinking about the voice, the content, and so on.
Anyone else have a book they'd like to recommend, in a sentence or a paragraph?
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Over 100 guests attended the UAA Summer Reading Series (officially the Northern Renaissance Arts and Science Series) event that precipitated and preceded last night's gathering, with readings by Judith Barrington, David Stevenson, and Sherry Simpson, all on the faculty of UAA's low-residency MFA program.
Barrington opened the evening by reading from Lifesaving, a memoir which she described as a process of discovering the story under the story, exploring almost entirely unconscious feelings of unacknowledged grief connected with the simultaneous drownings of her mother and father. In striking, resonant prose laced with humor, she transported the audience to a feudally-organized Spanish village where she worked as a tour guide many years back. At the home of Dolores, a bottling-plant worker bearing some resemblance to Barrington's mother, son Paco is presented as a marriage prospect, worthy not only because he's a good man and a hard worker, but also (Dolores's trump card) because he's tall, like Barrington. "Dolores, I really don't think I'll get married for a long time," Barrington admits. Touching Barrington's arm, encompassing both the failed prospect and the untimely deaths of Barrington's parents, Dolores replies, "Que lastima - what a pity."
In her introduction of the next reader, Jo-Ann Mapson described David Stevenson as "a sort of towel boy for our YWCA," referring to the all-female faculty of the program he now directs. From outside his usual genre of mountaineering nonfiction, Stevenson read a flashback from the end of his novel-in-progress, a novel that according to Mapson features boxing, Mexico, Vietnam, subversive politics, and beautiful women. Expelled from catholic school (a "mutual understanding," he calls it) and then from public school, Eddie's friend Slip is confined to an insane asylum, "at least one boy who wouldn't come home from Vietnam in a box." Out on a pass, Slip dies one night, becoming "a statistic, one that couldn't be saved from himself." "We'll pray later," says Crow as his friends dump Slip's body on the lawn of the asylum. Beyond the edgy narrative, Stevenson captivated listeners with lines like "Kidney, liver, heart," which he explained as a mantra for boxers punching bags in the gym.
Introduced by Stevenson as level-headed, funny, and self-effacing, Sherry Simpson ended the evening on a fully resonant note with the gutsy choice of "Fidelity," my personal favorite from her collection The Accidental Explorer. "Only a few times in life are you asked to surrender completely to a moment," she writes of a bear approaching her camp. Simpson juxtaposes repeated bear encounters with ongoing tensions in her marriage. "There was no place to camp where bears would not be - we knew that," she writes. She and her husband fight. "They scraped us clean, those words. They stripped us into silence." By the end of her intimate and deftly woven narrative, Simpson writes, "I felt kindly toward those bears" for showing "how we all should believe in the plain truth of each other," a fine note on which to end the evening.
The UAA series ends tonight with a presentation at 8 p.m. in Rasmuson Hall featuring the collaborative art and poetry project of Frank Soos and Margot Klass. As for the next 49 Writers gathering - well, stay tuned for that.
Monday, July 20, 2009
That's me getting ready to sign stock at Sing Lee Alley books, located in a well-appointed converted house in Petersburg.
The writing life comes with its share of frustrations, not the least of which is the rather solitary nature of our craft. Especially when I'm drafting a novel, as I am now, getting out seems like an intrusion. But when I break away, especially when it's to mingle with other writers, I return refeshed, and my project benefits.
So we do hope you'll take a break from writing and all the summertime distractions to spend an hour with us after tonight's UAA Summer Reading Series event. As mentioned in yesterday's ADN, the 49 writers no-host gathering begins at 9:45 at the Embassy Suites lounge (600 E. Benson). We've heard from a number of local writers as well as some of the UAA series authors, so we anticipate an energizing event, despite the late hour. You don't have to RSVP to attend. Just show up and look our group - I'll be the one with the pencils. We're looking forward to meeting you.
Another great "coming out" event I enjoyed this summer was the guest lecturer opportunity my publisher arranged for me aboard Cruise West's Spirit of Oceanus. Setting sail from Whittier last month, I cruised the Inside Passage in the company of some remarkable passengers with a keen interest in Alaska and its history. Without getting into an extensive travel piece, I'll just say that the cruise, with its intimate setting, attentive staff, and adventure-oriented itinerary, is one of the best travel opportunities around.
In addition to talking about my latest book, Picture This, Alaska, onboard ship, I also was able to visit bookstores and sign stock on our way south. We spent a full day in Skagway, where Jeff Brady's Skaguay News delights Alaskan visitors with a great selection of books. Author Nita Nettleson was signing at the store that day. In Sitka, I visited Old Harbor Books, another delightful store, and encouraged them to share book-related news with us here at 49 Writers. Ditto in Petersburg, where Sing Lee Alley Books is, in my opinion, the nicest shop in a charming fishing village. The owner gave me a locally published books called The Strangest Story Ever Told, recounting the author's experiences with what the Yup'ik people call the "little people." I was fascinated to find such similar lore from such far-flung places.
If all book promotion were as personable, fun, and effective as my guest lecturer stint, no one would complain. It got me out of my bubble and into everything I love about this place.
Friday, July 17, 2009
Speaking of writerly gatherings, Jim Misko of the Alaska Writers Guild tells us the group has passed the 100-member mark. Don't forget their upcoming Alaska Writers Workshop on the Art and Business of Writing, August 22-23 in Anchorage. For details, visit the Guild's website.
Having just returned from paddling 400 miles down three rivers from the crest of Brooks Range to Arctic Ocean, Fairbanks author Debbie Miller reports that the 28-day amazing trip generated tons to write about for some new projects. Her new children's book, Survival at 40 Below, a book about animal adaptations of Arctic animals, comes out next February with Walker. Jon Van Zyle has just finished the illustrations, which Debbie says are quite nice. It's their ninth collaboration. Wild Moments, the new anthology by Michael Englehard (UAF Press) contains one of Debbie's essays, Glad Singer.
Another new book: Alaska Geographic announces the release of Tricia Brown's Silent Storytellers, about the totems of Bight State Historical Park, where elders worked with carvers to create a model village to help preserve the craft.
And from author Lesley Thomas comes word that one of her short stories has been accepted for Northern Review's fall literary issue. Set in modern day Nome, the story debuts in November. "That is exciting," says Lesley, "since I had never submitted any short fiction to anything. I didn't know about NR until you brought it to my attention (on this blog!)"
That's exactly our mission, sharing opportunities and bringing writers and readers together. So keep sending your news, and thanks for reading...Andromeda, much better with stats than I, reports that our regular readers have nearly doubled in the past six months. We like it.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
You’ve heard of Pippi Longstocking, right? Well, Pippi is just the tip of Astrid Lindgren’s creative iceberg, which is itself just a chunk -- though a sizeable one -- off the floe of Swedish children‘s lit. The Brothers Lionheart, Emil in the Soup Tureen, Ronia the Robber’s Daughter, The Children of Noisy Village are only some of Lindgren’s titles that have been translated into English and dozens of other languages. You may also have seen books by Swedish authors and illustrators such as John Bauer, Elsa Beskow, Tove Jansson, Christina Björk, Lena Anderson, Barbro Lindgren, Gunilla Bergström, Sven Nordqvist, and Inger and Lasse Sandberg in the U.S.
Junibacken began as an idea from Staffan Götestam, an actor who played numerous roles from Lindgren’s stories for Swedish films. He proposed a museum centered around a train ride through Lindgren’s fiction, but also including a playground, displays, bookstore, and café. Lindgren’s response: great idea, but only if other Swedish children’s authors and illustrators were well-represented. And no naming it after her!
Thus Junibacken was born, its name taken from the setting of Madicken, another Lindgren story. It opened in 1996, inaugurated by Sweden’s Royal Family. Now 400,000 visitors each year step into this story-world.
Recently, I was one of them.
In the Storybook Square, I watched dozens of children at play in various story settings. They clambered up Alfie Atkin’s tower, cooked in Moominmama’s kitchen, climbed into Mulle Meck the inventor’s homebuilt airplane, visited Pettson and his cat Findus, and milked a cow with Mama Moo and the Crow.
I rode the Story Train, moving through sets from Lindgren’s tales, each complete with characters, detailed scenery, lighting, dialogue, music, and narrative recorded by Lindgren.(I chose the English telling so as not to miss anything, but could also have requested Chinese, Russian, or numerous other languages.)
In the Gallery I studied exhibits, drawings, paintings, photos and facts about Lindgren and the illustrators who worked on her books. When I walked -- carefully, to avoid bumping my head -- through Villa Villakulla, Pippi’s crooked yellow house, kids all around me climbed, slid, jumped, and played Pippi games like “Don’t Touch the Floor!”
I was too big to take the slide into the Elsa Beskow fairy tale room, so I resigned myself to the adult entrance, a wide but otherwise ordinary doorway. Beneath blueberry bushes as tall as trees, kids rode a pony-sized mouse, poked a giant orange (a.k.a. the Sun Egg), and sat beneath overgrown toadstools. Upstairs, in Sweden’s largest children’s theater, actors and musicians were performing to raucous laughter and applause.
I spent about an hour in the large, well-stocked children’s bookstore, which includes American children’s books translated into English and Swedish books translated in English, German, French, and other languages. Finally, I headed for the café, which serves several classic Swedish meals (children’s plates available, of course) plus an irresistible smorgasbord of pastries. I highly recommend the apple cake, accompanied by vanilla sauce and strong coffee. The outdoor, waterside patio off the café is another plus.
Why do I describe all this? Because I want something like it in Alaska! And I want to lift your writerly spirits with a vision. Just imagine how lovely it feels to be surrounded by dozens -- hundreds -- of children and adults interacting on multiple levels with stories! To paraphrase Tor Svea, who builds the exhibitions at Junibacken, visitors to Junibacken are living in the books.
And I might add -- playing. What more could a writer wish for?
by Ann Dixon
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Ever heard the old saw “if you can’t say it in a page, you won’t be able to in a hundred?”
In these times, writers as well have to economize. Embracing the idea that less can be more, I am looking for short prose submissions for a new anthology—Cold Flashes: Literary Snapshots of Alaska. These are highly polished micro-narratives that explore the state’s many facets, settings, and exotic inhabitants, flash-frozen slices of life. They are fiction or nonfiction. Sweet as smoked salmon. Short as summer nights and winter days north of the Arctic Circle. The genres and tone range throughout the register: humorous, contemplative, action-packed, tragedy, romance, sci-fi, mystery... anything but poetry (as poets have an unfair advantage in this).
I will accept a maximum of two submissions per writer and might include both in the book. Maximum word length is 450 words. So, there’s no time for throat-clearing or verbal calisthenics. This is art in a nutshell. Think of these “word nuggets” as the equivalent of Japanese haikus. I am looking for the unexpected turn of event, the flash insight into human and non-human nature, for the sort of episode that could be the core of a novel. Submissions need to have a clearly identifiable Alaska setting or theme.
To get a better idea, you can check out a writing sample at:
Given the large number of contributors and the tough market, I cannot pay for submissions this time; but this it a cutting edge, fun project and a writerly challenge, and there’ll be complimentary and discounted copies of the book.
Flash fiction is quickly becoming fashionable. There already are numerous contests for it. Time is of the essence, and you don’t want to miss this new form. This collection is meant for sophisticated readers with little patience or time (and thus, very timely)—writing to be savored piecemeal at the coffee shop, on the bus, in the outhouse, waiting in line at the P.O., during breaks or breakdowns, while the children are playing, or in your tent on the tundra . . . Submissions should be marked “fiction” or “nonfiction” but hard to tell apart. Have fun with it, and please circulate this call to other writers and photographers.
That’s right. There is also a visual component, the picture that says more than a thousand words: black-and-white Freeze Frames that are eloquent as well as artistic. You may submit a maximum of two shots, as low-res jpgs or pdfs only, at this point. Don’t forget to title them, as this could be part of the narrative context. No Photoshop jobs, please. One of these photos will grace the book’s cover.
All submissions should include a 35-word bio and be sent to the following address:
All other things being equal, original work will have preference, but I will consider previously published material if the artist obtains permission to reprint it. Please indicate clearly whether your submission is original or has already been published.
The deadline for submissions is November 1, 2009. The University of Alaska Press is committed to this project, and I’m confident that it will come together nicely.
I look forward to your flashes of genius.
by Michael Engelhard
Monday, July 13, 2009
If you're looking for great summer reading that (at $6.95) won't break the bank, be sure to check out the current issue of Alaska Quarterly Review, one of the country's premier literary magazines.
By design, AQR doesn't focus specifically on either Alaskan writers or Alaskan themes, but the Spring/Summer issue features a compelling nonfiction piece, "About a Moment," by Nancy Lord, Alaska's current Writer Laureate. Lord writes of visiting her ailing father in "a building full of people who've lost their minds...the saddest, sorriest, most heart-wrenching place of which I have personal knowledge." Thoughtful, provocative, and touching, she tells of "things I'm not likely to forget, not at least until I forget very much more."
The current issue of AQR also includes a special section of poetry by Tlingit poet Robert Davis Hoffman. I was so impressed by some of these poems that I shared them with a few of the special people I met while cruising the Inside Passage a few weeks ago, including an English professor from MIT and a young Tlingit leader with political aspirations. "Some men can't help it," Hoffman writes in "Saginaw Bay: I Keep Going Back." "They take up too much space, always need more. They gnaw at the edge of the woods till the sky once swimming with branches becomes simply sky, till there is only a scarred stubble of clearcut like a head without its scalp of hair."
Other selections intrigued me even though they had no Alaskan connection. "Patients are more than the sum of their failing parts," writes John Gambel in his essay "The Elegant Eyeball," after sharing remarkable facts and anecdotes about human sight. In "Resting Place," Kim van Alkemade weaves police reports of her father's suicide with a visit to his gravesite in Holland. In the fiction section, I especially enjoyed "Vestigal Horns," a story by Ben Brooks that explores an aging father's relationship with his granddaughter, and "One Person Per Life," by Kristen Kearns, who juxtaposes a visit to an exhibit of plasticized corpses with a wife's desire to have children despite her failing health.
Published twice a year by the University of Alaska Anchorage, Alaska Quarterly Review features contemporary literary art, publishing fiction, short plays, poetry, photo essays, and literary non-fiction in traditional and experimental styles. According to the journal's website, "the editors encourage new and emerging writers, while continuing to publish award winning and established writers." Now is a great time to consider submissions, as they are read between August 15 and May 15. Submission guidelines can be found on the AQR website.
Pick up the current issue of AQR at any major bookstore in Alaska (plus many throughout the U.S.). You can also order through their website.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Friday, July 10, 2009
Make a night of it and attend the readings too, featuring three teachers in the UAA MFA program: Judith Barrington, David Stevenson and Sherry Simpson. Barrington is a memoirist, poet and teacher who was born in the U.K. and lives in Portland, OR. Her work has been published in many literary journals, and she gives memoir workshops in Europe and America. She is most well known for her nonfiction book, Writing the Memoir. Her most recent book of poems is Horses and the Human Soul. Stevenson writes often about the mountaineering experience both in fiction and nonfiction prose. He is widely published in journals such as Ascent, Alpinist, Isotope and Weber Studies as well as in The American Alpine Journal where he has been book review editor since 1996. Simpson is the author of two collections of essays, The Way Winter Comes and The Accidental Explorer: Wayfinding in Alaska, that explore how people use nature, wilderness, animals and cultural icons to define themselves and understand their world. Her nonfiction has appeared in anthologies and journals across the country. She is currently writing a book about people and bears.
And of course, there's a twelve-day stretch of opportunities to hear from writers during the series. Check our calendar in the sidebar for details.
Can't make it to Anchorage? There's plenty going on in Fairbanks, too, during the two-week Creative Writing strand at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival beginning July 20. Classes run all day, Monday through Friday. Participants may do all or part; some also take music and visual art classes. Last year participants ranged in age from 18-84 and in experience from complete beginners to folks who had published books. The faculty includes:
Jeanne E. Clark~ poetry, essays
David Crouse~ fiction
Margo Klass~book arts, collaboration
Peggy Shumaker~poetry and nonfiction
Frank Soos~fiction, brief prose, nonfiction
Nicole Stellon O'Donnell~guest writer
Melina Draper~guest writer
On Thursday, July 23, 5:30-7:00 at the UAF Museum Education Center, there will be a Creative Writing Faculty Reading, free and open to the public, followed by a book signing in the UA Museum lobby.
If you have questions about either the classes or the reading, contact Peggy Schumaker at email@example.com or 907 350-9894.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Here in Alaska, we’re all familiar by now with the erratic and manic manner Palin employed in her recent resignation speech (and follow-up Tweets) – defensively and unattractively promoting herself on the way out, while bashing anyone who has dared question or criticize her.
The Palin explosion reminded me of another very recent clash of egos. Here’s the summary from salon.com about Alice Hoffman’s attack of self-defensive rage, directing at a book reviewer who gave her a mixed review:
Smarting from a so-so review of "The Story Sisters" in the Boston Globe, the prolific novelist tweeted her fury to the world. She came out swinging, calling reviewer Roberta Silman "a moron," quickly moving on to "idiot," then expanding her repertoire to dis the newspaper and the city of Boston itself. But the real jaw-dropper in Hoffman's two dozen plus tweets on the subject was her suggestion that "If you want to tell Roberta Silman off, her phone is [Silman's phone number and email address]. Tell her what u think of snarky critics."
Ouch, ouch, ouch.
Those of us who are not as stoic or silent as we’d like to be might recognize a good literary lesson in these oddly paired celebrity dust-ups.
If I ever doubted it before, I’m sure of it now: Dignified silence is usually the best response, for both politicians and authors. One might think that threatening a book reviewer or delivering a long, self-pitying speech that climaxes with a quote from a refrigerator magnet (ah – our literary governor, how I will miss her) will earn one more respect, but somehow it doesn’t.
Isn't it obvious that the higher one rises to prominence, the more criticism one should be ready to handle? And the more careful one should be using technology that encourages overly quick responses and magnifies one’s mistakes.
But now I’m just lecturing, which is nearly as unattractive as whining.
What I’d rather take away from this is a question: How do we writers keep ourselves open to experience and emotion, while thickening our skins just enough to survive the criticism we’re bound to receive – which in fact we should receive?
Thanks for reminding me, Ms. Palin and Ms. Hoffman. Next time I’m feeling defensive, I’m going to try to keep it under wraps. And for the time-being at least, I’m staying awaaaaaay from Twitter.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Sweden also turned me toward writing for children. Their literary tradition of innovative and imaginative children’s books goes back to the 1800s. As in Alaska, sense of place and the integration of nature and imagination are strong in both text and illustrations. Unlike Alaska -- or the U.S. in general -- picture books in Sweden frolic with good-natured irreverence and an openness about the facts of life that will either make you laugh or shudder, depending on your sensibilities.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
When I told my writer friends that I was going to be the guinea pig writer-in-residence at Denali National Park and that if things went well, this might become a regular thing like the artist-in-residence program they have going, everyone had the same reaction—don’t screw up!
I’m just back from my ten-day stay at the Murie Cabin on the East Fork of the Toklat River, near Polychrome Pass. The cabin has a double bunk bed, a propane stove and refrigerator, and impressive bear-proof shutters with long rusty nails sticking out. (I’m told that bears actually like to scratch their backs on the nails.) Nancy, my wife, and our son Ben, spent three days with me and the cabin was comfortably big enough for us all.
The location couldn’t be more central, 43 miles from the park entrance and about the same distance from Wonder Lake. I had free run of the park road with my now very dusty-brown (formerly green) Subaru, and I quickly learned that whatever you plan or expect, something surprising will likely turn up. For instance, I’d seen a blond grizzly mom with two brown cubs several times in the fields near Eielson Visitor’s Center and fully expected to see her again as I drove out to North Face Lodge in Kantishna to give a reading. Instead, caribou mobbed the field—over a hundred of them, large and small, with some of the little ones line-up and playing “follow the leader,” the herd instinct already active in them.
On another day, it was pouring at the cabin, but I thought what the hell, this is the park—who knows what’s going on the other side of Polychrome? So I drove that way and found out…snow. But the road wasn’t bad, so I continued driving and came upon a grizzly mother and cub wrestling and rolling around in the frosty white stuff, delighted with each other and with the snow.
I tried various hikes and climbs, got myself briefly in trouble on a rocky pinnacle near Savage River (but made it down unscathed), and snapped a photograph of a possible dinosaur footprint near Tattler Creek. I kept a journal of all this, and also got a start on a number of possible poems. My agreement states that by the end of the year I’m supposed to turn in one piece of writing for the park to use, but, as with magazine publication, I’ll have the right to reprint the work afterwards.
At the end of my ten days, I talked with the program administrator, Ingrid Nixon, and with park superintendent, Paul Anderson, and they both seemed enthusiastic about expanding the artist-in-residence program to writers. They warned me, though, that it may not happen very quickly. An application and selection process will need to be set up and a method worked out for apportioning time between writers and artists in the cabin. And, this being a government program, there could be unforeseen hitches. Still, as of yesterday, it sounded very promising.
During my stay, I noticed that the cabin log book where residents are free to jot down their comments and observations has a funny seasonal bifurcation. In winter, members of the park staff arrive by dog-sled and on snowshoes and write about the overflow at Igloo Creek, and how plucky their lead dog was despite the -40 wind chill. In summer, the artists take over and write about the wonderful effects of light, the various projects they’re working on, and their fox, moose, and ground squirrel sightings. But my first evening in the cabin, reading through this log, I found myself suddenly moved to tears, feeling a rush of assent at one of the artists’ comments: “It’s as if you dropped me off in Paradise.”
by John Morgan
Monday, July 6, 2009
Last Thursday I rounded up writerly news for the week, set it to post Friday morning, and set off for a three-day weekend in one of my favorite camping spots. The road wound out of the haze and away from traffic to a place where we relaxed in mountain silence. Our almost-grown pup behaved sensibly as she was carried across a swinging seventy-foot suspension bridge (the alternative being a long drop to the surging river below). Nose to nose with her first glacier, she dashed on high alert from one end of the face to the other, unnerved by gravel tumbling as the glacier did what glaciers do. Two caribou trotting across the stream distracted her briefly, but otherwise she stayed fixed on that big hunk of ice. This morning, she's still sleeping it off.
Coming into radio range yesterday and hearing Mike Huckabee comment on Sarah Palin's political future now that she'd resigned was a bit like arriving at a surprise party just as they're tearing down the streamers and mopping up the spilled beer. Reading Andromeda's challenge, I thought of other metaphors. Palin's resignation was like a karoake rendition of "I Did it My Way." More sadly, it was like the pretty bird that flew into the car ahead of us on the highway. Fluttering to its senses, it no doubt blamed the car.
But mostly it felt like my little dog grappling with a rock-tossing glacier. Sarah, I trust, is now likewise sleeping it off - between tweets.
When I came to Alaska, I gave no thought at all to the fact that the state, at twenty, was a year younger than me. Under the ruse of not caring much about politics ("Ah, but politics cares about you," my brother is quick to remind me), I gave little thought to our growing up together. That changed last August. Sarah Palin has angered, astounded, fascinated, and annoyed me in turn. She's also made me think a lot about who we are as a people of place, a people defined by where we live, and how important it is for us to refine that definition before others do it for us. Which is, I believe, our task as writers, inching forward, carving the landscape, forging a body of literature that's truly Alaskan.
Friday, July 3, 2009
Speaking of Dana, you can read an an exerpt from her 17th Kate Shugak novel, A Night Too Dark, at her website. Dana also reports that she's thrilled with the cover art. "I didn't think they could do better than Whisper to the Blood, but then the year before I didn't think they could do better than A Deeper Sleep," says Dana. "Never have I been so happy to have been so wrong. Twice." Publication is scheduled for February 2010.
Dana also penned a short story for an anthology edited by Elizabeth George called Two of the Deadliest. Publisher's Weekly says, "In Gold Fever, Dana Stabenow fits quick characterizations, an exotic locale (Alaska) and a tidy plot into a few pages." The anthology publishes on July 21st.
Our next illustrious featured author is Ann Dixon, checking in from Sweden with her first post. Watch for it next week.
If you're still wiping tears over the hasty departure of June, don't despair: July brings a full slate of authorly activities, free and open to the public, courtesy of UAA's Low-Residency MFA Program. In fact, more than a dozen of the biggest names in fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry will be in Anchorage this month to give a series of free readings and talks.
The second Northern Renaissance Arts and Science Series of public readings at UAA begins Sunday evening, July 12, with noted novelist and short story writer John Keeble reading from his work. Altogether, 18 writers from Alaska and the Lower 48 will read for nine evenings, through July 21.
The Northern Renaissance Arts and Science Series of free public readings is part of the Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts graduate writing program of the UAA Department of Creative Writing and Literary Arts (CWLA). The three-year low-residency MFA program includes a 12-day intensive summer residency at UAA, after which the student writers depart for their homes in Alaska and elsewhere to write and study under the guidance of individual writing mentors.
The public readings are scheduled for 8:00 to 9:30 each evening in Room 101 of Rasmuson Hall on the UAA campus. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m.
Here's a brief rundown of the events:
Sunday, July 12 – John Keeble
Keeble is the author of four novels, including Yellowfish and Broken Ground, and a work of non-fiction, Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound. His collection of stories, Nocturnal America, won the Prairie Schooner Award Series in Fiction. A longstanding member of the MFA faculty at Eastern Washington University and now Professor Emeritus, he will deliver the Northern Renaissance Arts and Science Series keynote address at the residency and kick-off the public reading series.
Monday, July 13 – Derick Burleson and Eva Saulitis
Burleson is the author of two books of poems, Never Night and Ejo: Poems, Rwanda 1991-94 and his poems have appeared in numerous journals, including the Georgia Review, the Kenyon Review, the Paris Review and Poetry. He lives in Two Rivers, Alaska, and teaches creative writing and literature at UAF. He is also an associate faculty member in the UAA Low-Residency MFA program.
Saulitis teaches creative writing at the Kachemak Bay campus of Kenai Peninsula College, in Homer, and she also teaches in the Low-Residency MFA program. Her essays and poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and several anthologies. She was trained as a marine biologist but turned to poetry and essays to develop a second language for addressing the natural world. Her essay collection, Leaving Resurrection, was a finalist for the Tupelo Press Non-Fiction Prize.
Tuesday, July 14 – Linda McCarriston and Josip Novakovich
McCarriston is the senior core faculty member and Professor of Poetry in UAA’s Low-Residency MFA program. She has received two literature fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and two from the Vermont State Council on the arts. Her poems have appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry, The Ohio Review, the Georgis Review and the New England Review, among others. She is a featured poet in Bill Moyers’ PBS Poetry Series, The Language of Life, and has been twice interviewed by Terry Gross for Public Radio’s Fresh Air. She lives in Rockport, Massachusetts. Her books are Eva-Mary and Little River: New &Selected Poems.
Novakovich moved from Croatia to the U.S. at the age of 20. He wrote the Fiction Writers Workshop and has published three story collections, two narrative essay collections and a novel, April Fool’s Day, which has been translated into 10 languages. He has received the Whiting Writer’s Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, two NEA fellowships and the Ingram Merrill Award. He currently teaches at Concordia University in Montreal and lives in Warriors Mark, Pennsylvania.
Wednesday, July 15 – Anne Caston, Rich Chiappone and Zack Rogow
Caston is a poet and former nurse who teaches as a member of CWLA’s core faculty. She has published two books of poetry and is working on a book about growing up Southern, Deep Dixie, as well as a third collection of poetry. She divides her time between Alaska and Pennsylvania where she lives with her husband and two miscreant cats. Chiappone, who lives in Anchor Point, Alaska, is the author of a collection of short fiction, Water of an Undetermined Depth (Stackpole Books 2003), and his stories and essays have appeared in a variety of national magazines and literary journals. He teaches at the Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College and is also an associate faculty member in the UAA Low-Residency MFA program. Rogow is the author, editor or translator of 18 books or plays. His sixth book of poems, The Number Before Infinity, was published by Scarlet Tanager Books in 2008. He teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco and in the UAA MFA program.
Thursday, July 16 – David Lynn Grimes (free public concert)
Grimes is a bardic trickster, song teller and wandering fool who has howled with wolves, run from bears and cavorted with killer whales. In the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, Grimes has been one of the primary citizen artists and activists working to protect and praise wild habitat for critters and human communities in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and Copper River ecosystems. His most recent CD is Raised On Rabbit.
Saturday, July 18 – Nancy Lord and Willie Hensley
Lord, Alaska’s current Writer Laureate, a long-time resident of Homer and winner of many honors and fellowships, is the author of three short fiction collections (most recently The Man Who Swam with Beavers) and three books of literary nonfiction (most recently Beluga Days). She fished commercially for many years and has worked as a naturalist and historian on adventure cruise ships. She teaches part-time at the Kachemak Bay Branch of Kenai Peninsula College and at UAA.
Hensley published his memoir last year, Fifty Years from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People; a Korean language version will be published in 2010. In 1966, he spearheaded the formation of the Northwest Alaska Native Association which filed claim to 40 million acres in Alaska. He was instrumental in fighting for passage of the historic Alaska Native Lands Claim Settlement Act of 1971, signed by President Richard Nixon. Hensley spent eight years in the Alaska State Legislature and has been in many top leadership positions in the Alaska Federation of Natives. He presently serves as Chairman of the First Alaskans Institute, providing leadership development, research and analysis to improving the Native community.
Sunday, July 19 – Jo-Ann Mapson and Ernestine Hayes
Mapson, a member of CWLA’s core faculty, has written nine novels, most recently The Owl & Moon Café (Simon & Schuster). Her second, Blue Rodeo, was made into a TV movie starring Kris Kristofferson. Her stories, personal essays and poetry have been widely published and anthologized, most recently in Wild Moment: Adventures with Animals of the North. She is an assistant professor in UAA’s Low-Residency MFA program and currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico where she is at work on another novel.
Hayes, who teaches in Juneau at the University of Alaska Southeast and in the UAA MFA program, is the author of Blonde Indian, an Alaska Native Memoir, winner of an American Book Award. She is a grandmother of four and a member of the Wolf House of the Kaagwaantaan Clan of the Tlingit who has published work in fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction.
Monday, July 20 – Judith Barrington, David Stevenson and Sherry Simpson
Barrington is a memoirist, poet and teacher who was born in the U.K. and lives in Portland, OR. Her work has been published in many literary journals, and she gives memoir workshops in Europe and America. She is most well known for her nonfiction book, Writing the Memoir. Her most recent book of poems is Horses and the Human Soul. Barrington also teaches in the UAA MFA program.
Stevenson is the director of the CWLA Department and the Low-Residency MFA Program at UAA. He has taught at several universities for over 20 years and writes often about the mountaineering experience both in fiction and nonfiction prose. He is widely published in journals such as Ascent, Alpinist, Isotope and Weber Studies as well as in The American Alpine Journal where he has been book review editor since 1996.
Simpson, a member of CWLA’s core faculty, is the author of two collections of essays, The Way Winter Comes and The Accidental Explorer: Wayfinding in Alaska, that explore how people use nature, wilderness, animals and cultural icons to define themselves and understand their world. Her nonfiction has appeared in anthologies and journals across the country. She is currently writing a book about people and bears.
Tuesday, July 21 – Margot Klass and Frank Soos (art presentation and final summer reading)
Among Klass’s influences are medieval altarpieces and the work of constructionist Kurt Schwitters and architect Tadeo Ando. Her work is in private collections and the University of Alaska Museum of the North, the Anchorage Museum of Art and History, and Davistown Museum in Liberty, Maine. She is a 2008 recipient of a Rasmuson Foundation Artist Award.
Soos has published two works of fiction: Early Yet and Unified Field Theory, the 1997 winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and one book of essays, Bamboo Fly Rod Suite. His short essay responses to Margo Klass’ work represent a new and unexpected direction in his work. Klass and Soos began their collaboration in 2002 and make their home in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Books written by the speaker/writers will for sale courtesy of the UAA Campus Bookstore.
For more information, contact Kathleen Tarr, MFA Program Coordinator at (907)786-4394 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, information about each of the writers, the CWLA low-residency program and the Northern Renaissance Arts and Science Series is available on the CWLA Web site, www.uaa.alaska.edu/cwla.