Across the country, indie bookstores are celebrating Independent Bookstore Day on Saturday, May 2. And there's a lot to celebrate. In 2009, at the low point of the recession, membership in the American Booksellers Association dropped to 1401, Borders closed, and it looked like brick and mortar bookstores were endangered enterprises.
Instead, independent bookstores started popping up all over. In the last six years, the numbers have increased by 25%. That's something to celebrate. So on Saturday, visit your local indie bookstore and buy a book!
Happy writing Morgan
EVENTS IN ANCHORAGE May events from the UAA Bookstore. All UAA Campus Bookstore events are informal, free and open to the public. There is free parking for bookstore events in the South Lot, the West Campus Central Lot (behind Rasmuson Hall), the Sports Lot and the Sports NW Lot. For more information call Rachel at 786-4782 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 7, 4:30-6:00pm: Photographer Ben Huff presents his book The Last Road North
May 8, 4:00-6:00pm: Author Stuart Archer Cohen presents his book This Is How It Really Sounds
May 10, 4:00-6:00pm at UAA/APU Consortium Library room 307: Glenn Kurtz presents Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film.
Special event for Poetry Parley: Former Alaska Poet Laureate, Joanne Townsend, will be in Alaska the last week in May. We are moving the May Parley to 4th Thursday to allow her to read as our Alaska poet. She has selected Louise Gallop as the marquee poet. Louise is also of Alaska but died summer of 2013, in her nineties. The date is May 28, 7pm, Hugi-Lewis Studio, 1008 W Northern Lights Blvd. Joan says this about Louise, "Louise was a fine poet but she never had a book-- did so much for the community. She and Bell Benton years back founded the poetry program for the Anchorage elementary schools. Every year the classroom teachers would collect the poems of students, grades one to six. Bell and Louise would choose and edit the poems, lay them out for publication, and the school district would publish Pencils Full of Stars. When Bell passed away, Louise carried on the work alone as a labor of love until the final issue 2006 or 2007. Louise's fine poems were published in many small journals. Louise and her father had a gold claim for many years way up the road that leads to the peak of Denali and was finally deeded to the national park. She had come to Alaska in 1959 and never left. The big gold nugget in the Anchorage museum is from there; she was a very active museum volunteer until her last days."
EVENTS AROUND ALASKAONLINE CLASSESLynn Lovegreen will lead an online workshop on writing YA/NA historical romance sponsored by Young Adults Chapter of Romance Writers of America (YARWA). Writing YA/NA Historical Romance. Online: May 4-22. $10 for YARWA members ($20 for non-members). Register here.
SOUTHCENTRAL, MAT-SU, KENAI PENINSULAMeet Linda Dunegan. Friday, May 1 at 4pm at Fireside Books in Palmer. If you've been reading the news this past year, you've probably seen allegations of corruption and abuse in the Alaska National Guard. Linda Dunegan's book The Price of Whistleblowing is her own story of working in that institution. It's an unflinching narrative about standing up in a hostile environment, and it's a stark commentary on the impact of corruption on national security -- and on individual lives.
An All-Day Independent Bookstore Day Party at Fireside Books in Palmer! May 2nd. They're celebrating with some some really special bookstore "swag" -- collectibles that will only be available at participating independents on May 2nd. They'll have broadsheet posters created by Stephen King just for the occasion, literary tea cloths and onesies, socks from Christopher Moore. They even have a stencil from Margaret Atwood. And a full day of events. Click on the links to find out more:
SOUTHEAST Perseverance Theatre and the Juneau Public Library, and 49 Writers invite you to meet Madeline George, author of Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England. May 1, 12pm at the Juneau Public Library Downtown. Bring a bag lunch and chat with Madeline about the play, writing, and her life as a writer. Madeline is the author of two young adult novels as well as several plays. She is a resident playwright at New Dramatists. The event is free and open to the public. Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England opens May 1 at Perseverance Theatre and runs through May 24. Tickets are available at Hearthside Books and the JACC and by calling 463-TIXS. Visit ptalaska.org for information about pay-as-you-can and preview performances.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR WRITERSPUBLICATION Now accepting submissions! Compassion = commiseration, mercy, tenderness, heart, clemency. Compassion is the Summer 2015 theme for Alaska Women Speak. The deadline for entries is May 15th. Also seeking cover art for this issue. Please email: email@example.com. CONFERENCES, RETREATS & RESIDENCIES The Tutka Bay Writers Retreatis half full. Don't miss out on a fantastic retreat featuring two outstanding guest instructors, Ann Eriksson and Gary Geddes! September 11-13 at the fabulous Tutka Bay Lodge.
The Wrangell Mountains Center residency program aims to support artists of all genres, writers, and inquiring minds in the creation of their work. Their organization and community will provide unrestricted work time and space to focused individuals. They invite applicants with creative and inquisitive minds who will both add to and benefit from the interdisciplinary efforts at their campus in McCarthy, Alaska and the surrounding Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference, June 12-16, 2015 in Homer: keynote speaker is Andre Dubus III, and there are a host of amazing writers on the faculty this year (as there are every year).
Last Frontier Theatre Conference, June 14-20, in Valdez, features new work by playwrights from around the country. There are evening performances, 10-minute play slams, even a fringe festival. The deadline is past for play submissions, but they may still need actors.
Wrangell Mountains Writing Workshoppresents RiverSong with Frank Soos, Michelle McAfee, Robin Child, and Nancy Cook, July 22-27, McCarthy to Chitina. The Wrangell Mountains Writing Workshop is pleased to partner with McCarthy River Tours & Outfitters to host a six-day, five-night adventure in the fabulous Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. This year’s workshop will feature poet and essayist, Frank Soos, who is currently serving as Alaska’s Writer Laureate, joined by accomplished singer-songwriter Michelle McAfee, backcountry banjo-diva Robin Child, and workshop director Nancy Cook. Together they will explore the ways wilderness can help inspire songs, stories, poems, and essays. Activities include an opening reading/performance and craft sessions in the comfort of the Wrangell Mountains Center’s facility in McCarthy, followed by three nights and four days of creative inquiry along the Kennicott, Nizina, Chitina, and Copper Rivers. Space is limited to eight student writers/ songwriters.
Alaska Writers Guild & SCBWI Annual Writer’s Conference, September 19-20, Anchorage. Early registration starts May 2015. www.AlaskaWritersGuild.com
Sometimes I agonize over a line that seems to have an awkward pattern of stresses. The first few lines of Michael Ondaatje’s brilliant elegy on the death of his father, “Letters & Other Worlds,” begins with the italicized lines: “for there was no more darkness for him and, no doubt like Adam before the fall, he could see in the dark.” So far, so good, a certain mystery achieved, but this is followed by lines that have always struck my ears as jarring, or laboured: My father’s body was a globe of fear His body was a town we never knew He hid that he had been where we were going His letters were a room he seldom lived in In them the logic of his love could grow My father’s body was a town of fear He was the only witness to its fear dance He hid where he had been that we might lose him His letters were a room his body scarred It’s not just the repetitive syntax—subject, predicate object—that jars, but what seems a straining for significance. And then the subtly patterned line “My father’s body was a town of fear,” with its four varied stresses and compelling metaphor, is followed by “He was the only witness to its fear dance,” which feels clunky and prosaic by comparison, and seems to undermine the preceding metaphor. I mention these reservations about a poem I’ve always loved and have included in two of the Oxford anthologies I’ve edited. What’s so surprising about the strategy at work here is that Ondaatje, a very gifted free-verse poet, has chosen to begin his elegy with what feels, by comparison, to be clunky, clotted, expository. The point I seemed to have missed in my early reading of the poem was that the speaker is struggling with a series of perceptions of his father that will be explored and elaborated throughout the poem. Reversing the pattern of W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” where the free-verse poem eventually gives way to a very formal rhymed and metrical ending, as elegant and formal as a funeral dirge, Ondaatje takes a chance by giving shape to the jarring questions posed by his father’s life and death at the outset, then moving into a profoundly moving and almost cinematic account of the beautiful contradictions his father contained. Read Michael’s “Letters & Other Worlds” in its entirety, then have a look for his book-length poem called The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. You’ll learn a lot about what can be contained in a poem. In short, Ondaatje is not afraid of surprising and challenging his readers with the unexpected. He seems aware, as was the poet Robert Herrick, that “A sweet disorder in the dress” can be very useful in poetry. Robert Pen Warren also argues against a notion of pure poetry, in which there are no glitches, no moments of apparent laxity in language or prosody; and, instead, makes the case for a "degree of complexity" or "complication" rather than purity: Poetry wants to be pure, but poems do not. At least, most of them do not want to be too pure. The poems want to give us poetry, which is pure, and the elements of a poem, in so far as it is a good poem, will work together toward that end, but many of the elements, taken in themselves, may actually seem to contradict that end, or be neutral towards the achieving of that end. Are we then to conclude that, because neutral or recalcitrant elements appear in poems, even in poems called great, these elements are simply an index to human frailty, that in a perfect world there would be no dross in poems which would, then, be perfectly pure? No, it does not seem to be merely the fault of our world, for the poems include, deliberately, more of the so-called dross than would appear necessary. They are not even as pure as they might be in this imperfect world. They mar themselves with cacophonies, clichés, sterile technical terms, head work and argument, self-contradictions, clevernesses, irony, realism—all things which call us back to the world of prose and imperfection. I love his distinction between the idea of poetry and the actual poem and have come to believe that the notions of purity and perfection are bugbears that should be viewed with considerable scepticism by poets. I once read an interview with French novelist Patrick Grainville, who had written an epic novel about an African dictator called Les Flambouants. The book was turned down by Gallimard, the famous publisher, and went on to win the Prix Goncourt. An interviewer asked Grainville how it was, in an age that valued economy and restraint, that he had written a vast, sprawling epic with its shirttails hanging out. He said: “There’s a certain liberation to be found in bad taste. Art, like life, is a matter of gifts, not refusals.” Gifts, not refusals. That has become one of my mantras as a poet, which is why I am so attracted to the long poem, the poem-sequence and poetic narrative. But that’s another story.
Gary Geddes's most recent book of selected poems is called What Does A House Want? (Red Hen Press). He will be one of the featured instructors at this year's Tutka Bay Writers' Retreat.
The Tutka Bay Retreat is half full. Click here for details and registration.
Last year, at the age of 37, I began the UAA MFA program with not a little trepidation. Things I worried about: Discovering my potential as a writer was much lower than I hoped. How well-read everyone else would be by comparison. But really, what kept me up was the idea of being the lone serving veteran in the bunch. We’re an ill-understood creature in any modern landscape. Once, farmers and shopkeepers set aside their scythes and registers to answer the call. Now, we are an all-volunteer force who answer the call of the full-time profession of arms. Once, warriors came home and beat their swords into ploughshares; now we redeploy and await the next run into the breach. There’s a divide between the military and civilians as a result. It’s an experiential barrier to understanding that leaves us to regard each other from a distance. At best I thought I might receive the “automaton” stereotype; at worst, “goose-stepping fascist.” But as it turned out, my fears were entirely misplaced. Labels fell away quickly under the clear light of the workshop process and the demands of craft refinement. After a few days, the most important thing we knew about each other was that each of us was a writer. And that we needed each other to get better. I don’t want to gush, but my experience at my MFA workshop was absolutely formative, and it got me thinking about Alaska, war writing, veterans, and the war writing workshops that have sprung up throughout the Lower 48 through organizations like Words After War and Veterans Writing Project. Curious, I looked into the demographics of the state. According to a 2010 VA factsheet, there were 76,000 veterans in the state. Crunch the numbers: that’s 10% of the state. Then I asked Linda Ketchum, the former 49 Writers Executive Director, if there had ever been a veterans writing workshop in Alaska. Not to her knowledge. See, here’s the kicker: in the lower 48, a workshop is potentially a cheap plane ticket away. In Alaska, we’re an entire country away from access to that kind of thing. A crazy idea lodged in my noggin: why not put one on in Anchorage? So that’s what I’m going to do, with a slight twist inspired by the Words After War model of uniting civilians and veterans interested in writing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that in some way address war. 49 Writers and Words After War have agreed to work with me to make it happen in February of 2016. The plan: find six civilians and six veterans who want to spend two days getting after the craft of writing about war, with the hope of creating stronger bonds across the civil-military divide through the production of high-quality literature. I’m recruiting faculty and figuring out the fundraising right now, and I hope to have more news in the months to come. I’ve enjoyed sharing some thoughts with you all this month, and I hope this is just the beginning of a much longer conversation in the months and years to come. Thanks for stopping by, and circle next February on your calendar. I hope to see you then.
Matthew Komatsu is an author and currently serving veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2014, he enrolled in the University of Alaska-Anchorage's MFA in Creative Writing program as a nonfiction candidate. He has published essays in The New York Times, War, Literature and the Arts; and on stage at Anchorage's Arctic Entries. WLA nominated his memoir-essay, "31 North 64 East" for a Pushcart Prize. He also has a flash essay upcoming in the September 2015 issue of Brevity. You can follow him on Twitter @matthew_komatsu.
Susanna Mishler is one of the featured authors for Crosscurrents on Wednesday, April 29, with Frank Soos, Eva Saulitis, and David Stevensson. They'll be discussing the differences between how authors appear on the page,and how they are in real life. 7:00pm, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, 7th Ave. entrance.
This essay was originally posted on January 27, 2011.
A month ago I attended the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. There are many summer workshops that provide writers with networking opportunities, lectures, and feedback, but Kenyon distinguishes itself as a production-oriented workshop. It is geared toward the production of new writing by participants and the discussion of that raw writing. This year at Kenyon I learned to recognize a snare in my own writing process which I think I share with many writers: the sucker hold.
Kenyon workshops meet every morning for six days. At the end of each morning workshop leaders give participants an assignment or prompt due the following day. The next morning we spend reading and discussing our work on that prompt. My workshop leader this year was the poet Stanley Plumly who, though new to the Kenyon workshop, is an old hand at teaching poetry.
It wasn’t long before Stanley’s prompts were the running joke in my dorm. My roommates and friends would return from workshop with very specific, labored assignments – “Write a story in nine parts in which there are four main characters (A, B, C, and D) who move the plot forward in each scene in the following ways . . .” or “Write a poem in tercets that includes the words ‘dishrag’, ‘tundra’, and ‘stallion’ and that contains an oxymoron.”
Whereas my prompt for the night was, “Landscape with ________.” Another night my assignment was, “Weather report.” A third night it was, “A parent”.
About mid-week, Stanley explained that he holds a deep mistrust of assignments and writing prompts. He almost never gives them, but they seemed to be a requirement at Kenyon. “They detract from the principal impulse that brings the poem to the page,” he said.
What did he mean? What could be so bad about something as innocuous as a writing prompt? It was as if Stanley were protecting a difficulty that everyone else is constantly trying to escape: the empty-handed poet facing the blank page.
One night I flipped through my notebooks looking for an idea and re-discovered “truth table,” a term for the diagram printed on an electrical relay that shows how to connect wires to it for the desired function. What a great title, I thought, and jotted it down at the top of a blank page. I didn’t know anything else about the poem but that it should be titled “Truth Table” because it seemed too good to pass up.
The more I worked on “Truth Table,” the more I felt stuck. The poem just wasn’t going anywhere interesting. There’s a term used in rock climbing – “sucker hold” – for an obvious, easy hold that lures climbers in and makes them reluctant to leave it. Nothing else on the climb is as appealing as the sucker hold. A climber unwittingly organizes her whole climb around the sucker hold even though there’s an entire wall to work over with far more interesting routes on it to test her capabilities. A sucker hold is an easy grab, it’s a comfortable place on an otherwise uncomfortable plane.
Sure enough, the first thing Stanley said about “Truth Table” in workshop the next day is that the title of the poem I’d attempted was definitely not “Truth Table.” That title was my sucker hold. I was fixated on it. It obscured the principal impulse that brought the poem to the page. The poem was being cramped around that stupid title when there was a whole playground of electrical concepts waiting to be reckoned.
Assignments, too, can be sucker holds. Workshop participants strive to be good students. Good students, we are taught from grade school, follow the teacher’s assignments. But an assignment to write a poem should only lead the poet to that impulse that brings a poem to the page. The poet’s fidelity ought to belong to the impulse, the emotional core of the poem, not the assignment. The assignment, when it derails that impulse, is a sucker hold.
Stanley’s broad assignments were almost impossible not to follow. “Landscape with __________” only needs a landscape (a term broad enough to include cityscapes) and something else (anything) and the assignment is satisfied. What seemed absurdly general about his prompts was really a generosity – a trust that the poem that needs to be written that night will be written. And that poem has little to do with whatever prompt he might choose. He was trying to remove, as much as he could, the sucker hold effect of assignments. Assignments, prompts and other fixations can provide a way onto the wall, but my job as a poet is to attend to the poem, and to let go of the sucker.
Susanna J. Mishler's collection of poems, Termination Dust, was published by Boreal Books/Red Hen Press. Her poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Hotel Amerika, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, Michigan Quarterly Review, RATTLE, and elsewhere. She received an MFA in Poetry from the University of Arizona in Tucson where she also served as a poetry editor of Sonora Review. To read some of her work online, visit the archives of Michigan Quarterly Review and RATTLE. She lives in Anchorage and earns her bread as an electrician.
Eva Saulitis is one of the featured authors for Crosscurrents on Wednesday, April 29, with Frank Soos, Susanna Misher, and David Stevensson. They'll be discussing the differences between how authors appear on the page,and how they are in real life. 7:00pm, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, 7th Ave. entrance.
This essay was originally posted on January 24, 2013.
The personal essay, sigh, is my true love, home of my literary heart.
But I am a fickle lover. For a few years, I abandoned the form entirely to have an obsessive affair with poetry. When I think about it (and here comes the confessional bit), I have never been faithful to the essay. Just take a look at this relationship history:
Age 12: entries on tiny pages of keyed diary Age 16: unsent love-letters to unrequited loves Age 18: letters home Age 25: compulsive journal writing Age 28: biology master’s thesis Age 30: scientific papers and reports Age 32: beginning of essay obsession Age 40: essay collection published, diversion to poetry Age 44: flirtation with so-called lyric essay form Age 46: contract to write first book-length narrative Age 47: obsessive blogging about recovery from breast cancer Age 49: back to poetry
What does this say about me? That’s obvious. But what does this say about the subject of this blog post? Wait, I haven’t even revealed that yet! Here, I revert to the idea of the thesis, found at the end of the intro to the seventh grade version of the five-paragraph thingie we all, sadly, learned to call an essay (which it is not):
So what does my relationship history say about that? The same thing that all of those diverse form say about writing non-fiction: In important ways, the same rules apply. Like “Tell the truth.” And “Sit thee down at thy desk and write.” And “Think on the page.” And “Take emotional risks.” And “Do your research.” And “Don’t back away from the unknown.” And, as Annie Dillard says, “Aim for the chopping block.” As well as, “This is going to hurt.” Letters, blog posts, diary entries, scientific papers: they all tell stories and think on the page. As do essays, memoirs, books of narrative non-fiction. They are various species of the same genera/genre.Despite my wandering pen, I am, at heart, an essayist. My best thinking is done following the map of my mind on the page. In fact, it is only through writing that I know what I think at all. Thus, I write bloated first drafts, twenty, thirty, once, even sixty pages. This is because I am near-sighted, and I am perplexed about so much that happens in life. Why did I get breast cancer? Why am I afraid to write creatively about my research animals, orcas? What does extinction mean? Why did that guy at the party lurk in the shadows all night? What is a prayer?
In a blog post, poet Camille Dungy asked, “What do writers do all day?” Her answer: “They ask questions.” Questions are my map, and I follow them for a long time before I make any sense of the terrain. But to write a lot of words does not mean you can write a book. In fact, if I were to have followed this impulse when trying to write Into Great Silence, I’d be at word count 900,000 by now. But in fact, the first draft I sent to my editor was a mere 165,000. (With a target of 85,000. For me, not so bad.)
So is a book-length memoir merely a very long personal essay? An essay arises out of a question, and that question is a variation of the question at the heart of every creative work, short or long: what does this mean? What does it mean that there’s a creature called a wolverine on this planet? What does it mean to get cancer? What does it mean to lose a child? What does hate mean? An essay is a map of the trail a writer takes in pursuing her question. The question is unanswerable, or it has a myriad of correct answers. Or its answer is “none of the above.” A mind following such a map to its edge, to where the map ends, is a mind changed in the process, and that’s what the essay records. So I started with a question.
The question at the heart of Into Great Silence was “What does it mean that the Chugach transient orcas, the animals I have been studying for half my life, are going extinct? How can I possibly live with this? Can I personalize this extinction so a reader understands on a gut level what we’re facing? Takes personally the fact that we exist in what some call a new age of extinctions? Can I turn a scientific study into art? And can I do this without my book being a total downer? You can see already questions generating more questions, which is what happens both in literature and in science.
The prospect of writing book-length narrative non-fiction scared me. For one thing, I didn’t trust linear narrative (or my ability to write it engagingly). Chronologically may be the way we live, careening horizontally from moment to moment. But how we make sense of what we’ve lived, on the page, is vertical, coiling its way down and around itself. Actually, it’s not even vertical. The map of the mind, essaying, is a hologram. So first, I wrote an essay. The idea of a book was still taking shape. It was a kind of test run. The essay failed, mainly because the question proved to be too large for an essay-sized container. Too many trails on my map led back to the Chugach transient orcas, and I had to walk them all. The essay contained big gaps, fissures a reader had to leap across. And it was into these fissures that I had to dive.
So I started at the beginning, twenty-five years back, piling up old journals, field notebooks, data sheets, boat logs. To write a book-length work, I defied my essayistic impulses. Once upon a time I was a 23 year-old … and then, and then … (But of course, the true beginning of the book announced itself much, much later, and had nothing to do with time.)
As memoirist and poet Judith Barrington writes, for a reader, “and then, and then” is not like running on a wilderness trail, but a treadmill. And I wanted my reader to run with me through Prince William Sound. So each chapter became an essay unto itself, and gradually, the chapters piled up, each new one changing the ones underneath. To employ another metaphor: It was like hanging laundry on a line. First this pinned up, then that. Each piece of clothing separated by a little blank space. No double-pinning. And watching the shape change as the laundry accrued. And always the steady, dependable line paying out, the chronology, the storyline from which the chapters hung, the narrative of 24 years. Between them, space (spans of time, incidents not narrated, silence, the unspeakable).
I sat down each day, skimmed through another journal, another folder of notes, in that way, working in a dogged style, bowing to the god of chronology. Yet all the while, the essayist inside me pushed the questions. I read Whitman, Li-Young Lee, Barry Lopez, Gretel Ehrlich, John Cage. Fat paragraphs of thinking swelled the first draft. (They would be taken out, once they did their work). I had no idea how this thing would end. I had no idea what it all meant. But I’d written enough essays to trust the process, that it would lead to the magical, hands-down best part of writing for me, the alchemy of all that work, when the trail-running, back-tracking, accruing, thinking, reading, suddenly coalesces. The branch breaks. A sentence appears on the page that says, “This is where you are heading.” It’s the sense of an ending. The heart pounds. You know you just have to reach that place, just off the edge of the map you’ve been following. And now you know what you still need to write. And what you can cut out. Now you understand the book’s intrinsic shape.
I know exactly where I was when this happened with Into Great Silence. I was at my friends’ kitchen table in Cordova. It was storming out. I had just seen, for the first time, the rearticulated skeleton of the Chugach transient whale I knew as Eyak.
What news, what relief, that the sense of an ending functions in precisely the same way in a book-length narrative, or in an individual essay (or in a poem). Perhaps all art forms involve the same leap of faith, the same depth of commitment, the same fidelity, not to genre, but to the search for meaning.
What satisfaction. What responsibility. For in a writer’s life, the ending is also the place where the old map becomes irrelevant, where fresh questions wait. And a new work – whether it’s poetry, essay, or story – begins.
Eva Saulitis is the author of three books of poetry and prose, the most recent being Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss in the Realm of Vanishing Orcas. She has taught creative writing at theKachemak Bay Campus of UAA for 13 years, and is on the faculty of the UAA Low-Residency MFA Program. She lives in Homer. For the past 24 years, she has studied orcas in Prince William Sound, Alaska.
My experience as a student editor required 180 hours of work in 3 months and endless tasks I never thought I would perform. When I started the process I somehow thought it would be like proofing my college paper. I assumed I would be moving some commas and turning “to” into “too.” Turns out I was wrong.
As the Senior Editor of Tidal Echoes, the University of Alaska Southeast’s Literary and Arts Journal, I have learned about every facet of writing. The journal accepts submissions from anyone living in Southeast Alaska and is made up of at least 25% student work. Two students and a faculty member edit the pieces to create a published journal. We received over 350 submissions this year, our highest number yet. That created a manuscript the size of a decent novel that had to be cut down to 120 pages including all of the front matter and biographies. It seemed daunting for 3 people and a small editorial board.
Thankfully, I discovered through editing that writing is built from a community. Putting together the journal took so much more then our small group. When I first became an English major I was terrified by the thought of entering into a cutthroat profession. I envisioned something similar to the journalists in Spiderman always trying to outdo each other. But again, it turns out I was wrong.
UAS staff and faculty sacrificed time and energy by reading anonymous copies of the journal and scoring them. There were several moments I was close to tears because I felt inadequate, but the writing staff from UAS never ceased to encourage me at the right moments.
I could go on for a while about all the ways I have seen people help and share their love for writing. It wasn’t just people who loved writing that got involved in the journal. We had a gracious graphic designer that took the time to really care about details by turning pages of text into a completed book. Also, the company that printed our book, Alaska Litho, took this little old student into the printing room and explained the whole process in detail during an hour long tour.
What have I taken away from my internship? Don’t be afraid to have company along the journey. Before becoming the Tidal Echoes editor I was a one-man show. No matter how big the task I was determined to finish it alone. I have learned that more brains brings more creativity. There are so many people out there who care about what I, and other writers, are creating. We need one another for stories, to build up our areas of our weakness, and to be involved in the community.
If I could urge writers, and others involved in the arts, to remember one thing it would be to create a neighborhood of like-minded people by being involved. All of the pieces in Tidal Echoes are beautiful. But as a whole, the journal has been taken from a few unrelated stories and moved into a collection of art that is unique to Southeast Alaska. Because people submitted, volunteers dedicated time, and the staff worked hard the journal became a community in itself, one voice with many unique tones and features.
On the night of September 14th, 2012, a team of insurgents armed to the teeth and wearing US uniforms slipped through the wire of Bastion Air Base, Afghanistan. Once inside, they unleashed hell. Firing RPGs, they lit an uncovered jet fuel depot that contained millions of gallons of JP-8 ablaze, destroyed several Harrier jets and killed two Marines. I know this because I was there alongside three of my men. We answered a call for help and got a little more than we expected. In the days that followed, I had an idea to write my way through the experience. It took me over a year to get it down and published (link to the NYT essay is below) but I was hooked. It was time to quit screwing around. Time to write.
I came up with an idea for a short story about a veteran; a veteran I dropped into the Alaskan backcountry I have come to know and love. My wife’s final trimester frenzied the writing with the knowledge that time would soon grow scarce and I wrote with a sense of purpose I’d never found before. I am proud of what emerged, even if I wasn’t able to get it published. War was merely the beginning of the story, not the end. By the final drafts, Alaska emerged as a character as strong as my protagonist, and as deadly as war itself.
To return from war is to grapple with your place in the world. Hemingway knew this when he wrote “Big Two-Hearted River,” even if he was bit limited by the landscape of rural Michigan compared to what lies outside our doorsteps. And surely I’m not the only one to ask whether the story itself would have grown beyond the confines of In Our Time should Nick Adams have found respite on the Kenai, or in the wilds of the great Alaskan Interior. But Nick Adams isn’t the only veteran who turned to the natural world for whatever it might offer. Post-Vietnam, Ed Abbey placed George Hayduke in the Desert Southwest. Homer left Odysseus in the mythical wilds for a full decade. Which of you, I wonder, will write a veteran into Alaska?
Because here’s the thing: few other writers live with what we have outside our doorsteps. No matter where you live in Alaska, from Anchorage to New Stuhoyak, the natural world influences our lives in a way that is not well understood by our friends in the Lower 48. We are privileged with access and knowledge that begins not with a drive or a flight, but with mere steps. The natural world is a constant force within our lives, more so than anywhere else in the nation. It makes perfect sense we tend toward writing the natural world. I would argue, then, that we’re even better placed to produce the next Odyssey or In Our Time by examining the story of a veteran in such a place.
But should your ambitions be lower than being the next Hemingway or Homer, there is this: our history as a state is intertwined with the twists and turns of both hot, and cold, wars throughout the 20th century. There is a trove of material awaiting research and telling. From the forgotten battles of WWII’s Aleutian Islands Campaign to the Shackleton-esque survival story of the Clobbered Turkey, fell deeds await your words. Socially-minded authors might pay close attention to the untold story of the Alaska Territorial Guard, whose members were not granted veteran status until 2000, and whose example is a forgotten scion of the integration of minorities and women into the military.
I guess that all this is to say that there’s a wealth of material at your fingertips, and it all begins with a keystroke, a scribble in a worn notebook, or a lingering question. I hope you accept the challenge. It’ll make a hell of a story.
Matthew Komatsu is an author and currently serving veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2014, he enrolled in the University of Alaska-Anchorage's MFA in Creative Writing program as a Nonfiction candidate. He has published essays in The New York Times; War, Literature and the Arts; and on stage at Anchorage, AK's Arctic Entries. War, Literature, and the Arts nominated his memoir-essay, "31 North 64 East" for a Pushcart Prize. He also has a flash essay upcoming in the September 2015 issue of Brevity. You can follow him on Twitter @matthew_komatsu.
One of the first books that ever rattled my very inner core was a simple chapter book about a boy being bullied. I’ve tried for years to remember the title and author, but can’t. I was in fifth grade or so when I read it, and don’t trust my memory about the details, only about the delayed impact. The impact came after I read the second book in the series (if it was a series, rather than one book with two distinct parts): the same story told from the bully’s perspective. Until this point, I’d just fallen into fiction, happy to surrender to the enchantment of an imagined world, unable to stand outside and see them as “made” things, shaped by a living author. But reading this second book, it somehow became clear. The writer decided to tell the same story from the former antagonist’s point of view! What can I say? It hit me like a freight train. I read the book and understood why the bully was the way he was. The facts hadn’t changed; the perspective had. This seemed like an essential key to life. We call it empathy of course; I didn’t know that word at the time. I just knew that a book (or a series of books) was a fantastic way to achieve this effect, because it allowed you to step completely into the mind and life of another person–even the person you thought was the “bad guy.” As adult readers and writers, we’d say, “Well, of course.” But there was no “of course” for me. It seemed like a miracle that changed books, and changed the way I perceived the real world outside of books. I actually encountered some brief bullying around this time, from a big, sullen girl from another class who liked to push around kids, and who caught me one day standing in the center of a jungle gym. She rallied all her gigantic (okay, probably four-and-a-half-feet) thugs around the metal contraption and they taunted and pulled at my hair. The principal found out and “Barbie” and I both got in trouble–go figure–though at least we managed to avoid the infamous principal’s discipline paddle. (A bit of a sadist, that one.) The next time I saw her on the playground, I walked up to Barbie and said hi. We started talking. And strange but true: I left school that day with Barbie’s phone number scrawled in barely legible numbers (she wasn’t the brightest kid, I realized) on a damp little slip of paper. I never called, but she never bothered me again, either. I remember thinking that if I just tried to imagine what she was really like from the inside of her own skin then I didn’t need to be afraid of her. If the fear didn’t show on my face, I could walk up to her, and if I walked up to her and started talking, it was different from being hunted down, and something would change. And it did. Bullying stories rarely turn out that easy. But as a reader and a writer-to-be, that little episode meant a lot to me. Through my reading, I could get to understand a lot of Barbies –and many other people as well, including people who lived in different places or even in different historical periods. (A year later, I’d start reading books by Jane Auel, about prehistoric people living in caves who were–and weren’t–like people I knew. Mind-blowing!) Growing up, my mother often cautioned me not to “be a mind reader” or expect her to be one, either. But in truth, we’re all mind readers. In her book Why We Read Fiction, Lisa Zunshine merges cognitive science and literary theory to suggest that reading minds–practicing it, dealing with successively greater challenges of understanding–was important in our evolutionary history and one reason we still get such pleasure today in reading novels. Fiction helps us see inside others’ minds, often many of them in a single book, tracking people’s thoughts (and quite often, errors), and even what imagined people are thinking about other imagined people, on up through many layers of mind-reading and source-tracking complexity. Regardless of what point-of-view a work uses, that viewpoint stretches our abilities to imagine, empathize, and practice those mind-reading skills that happen to be one of our brain’s favorite activities. It’s amazing to know what a bully is thinking–or a murderer, or a cavewoman, or a man from Mars. It’s instructive and entertaining to read a multi-generational saga told in alternating viewpoints (or recounted by an omniscient narrator), in which we get such contrasting views from siblings, parents and children, men and women. It’s inherently satisfying to view the world through even one intelligent but otherwise ordinary mind that is different from our own.
When I first met Leigh Newman at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, I felt like I found my long lost sister. We are both raising our children in an urban setting (New York for her, Washington, D.C. for me) when we hope to pass on the values we learned in the wilderness. In Still Points North, out now in paperback from Shorefast Editions, Newman writes with tenderness about searching for identity and the difference between how to survive and knowing how to truly live. It was a finalist for the National Book Critic's Circle John Leonard Prize. Her fiction, essays and book reviews have appeared in One Story, Tin House, The New York Times Modern Love and Sunday Book Review, Fiction, Vogue, O The Oprah Magazine, Sunset, Real Simple and Bookforum. She currently serves as Books Editor of Oprah.com and teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. The first time I read Still Points North, by the time I got near the end,I flipped through the last few pages impatient to find out whether this self-reliant/self-exiled travel writer would choose marriage or divorce. We are all dying to know if you are still married to Lawrence, for how long, how old are your kids, and what is his reaction to this book and comments readers have made about him? Does he come with you on book tours? Wow! You're right. I should included a follow-up insert. Yes, Law and I are still married. We have two kids, both boys. One is 9 and the other 5. As for Lawrence's reaction to the book: he loves the reader comments; he comes off great!
At the end of your book, you drop teasers like “mugged at knifepoint by a transvestite (long story, another book)….drifting until you end up on camelback at the border of Libya (long story, another book).” Well, which book are you working on? And if you aren’t working on these stories, can you please tell us what happened? I'm working on a book of short stories about Anchorage—and that weird existence between the city and the wilderness. Most of it is about dreamers, dazzled and deluded and crashing to earth. Not unlike myself.
The stories you're talking about are part of a book I may never write…I 'm not sure. It's about very dumb things I did and survived.
In your book trailer, you say “by age eight, I could land a 40 pound king salmon, dig out an outhouse, patch a wader.” Will your kids be able to make similar claims? As a mother raising a nine-year-old, six-year-old, and one-year-old in the Washington DC area, I’m often frustrated that I can’t give my children experiences like hiking with crampons on a glacier at the age of two when we lived in Alaska. I too have photos from my childhood like the one on the cover of the book (your sassy pose beside your father who is repairing something in front of his floatplane and your dog Jasmine) and those you shared in various interviews (you as an infant bouncing up and down in a pack n’ play in the woods beside a tent) which I’m trying to capture for my kids now. What have you done to make sure your kids have the same experiences you did with your dad? I just do the best I can. I try to go up with the kids once a year. This year we're going to Fairbanks to go snow machining with my brother, who lives in a dry cabin. Other years, we've gone fishing, camping , skiing. The Alaska I grew up is kind of gone for me now—my dad no longer flies so we use cars and boats to get into the bush, which is a totally different experience. Powerful but different. I also just try to teach them all the skills they will need. They both ski, fish and do archery.
One of the things I loved about your book was the parenting tips that surface here and there. For example, “Ask kids about feelings. Specific ones. Mad. Sad. Broken Heart.” Do you have any tips for moms who are or dream of being travel writers? Leave the kids with dad. Go. Come back with big present. It will be happifying for you and inspirational for your kids. Show them how you want to live.
In interviews you shared that the process of writing Still Points North was not easy including a coffee spill right before the manuscript was due that shorted out your computer, “I wrote a lot of sloppy, long, meandering drafts. My editor Jennifer Smith at Dial was the one who kept (gently) pointing me in the right direction. Her comments really woke me up to the values of collaboration, even when that meant cutting out 120 pages (an excruciating process). The same went for her editorial assistant, Hannah, who weighed in on key points. Once I let them in, I had to let everybody in—agents, PR people, other writers. They all had good ideas, ones better than my own. It’s kind of shocking when you think about how talented and insightful people can be when you offer them the chance to help you.” From the point of time in which you sold Still Points North on a book proposal to publication, what advice can you offer other memoirists on how to navigate the implosion or explosion of a book? When to listen to your gut vs. agents/editors/writers? I think….that you have the best b.s. meter. Usually when a good editor or agent points out an issue, you already know it's an issue, you just couldn't admit it to yourself. It is almost a relief to get rid of the problem. If they point out something that really doesn't resonate—just don't do it. I usually sit on edits for 3 days before I say or do anything. The first day I’m furious and weepy and sure they are idiots who just don’t get my vision. Then the second day, they might have a point. The third day, they are so insightful! How could I not have seen it!
We’ve all heard in critiques to avoid the present tense because it complicates what Philip Lopate calls the “double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.” And yet, you managed to do this beautifully in Still Points North. Please do share your secret. I don't know. I wish I did. I had read almost no memoirs when I wrote mine, save A Boy's Life, which is in past tense. Now, of course, I feel so conflicted. Writing in the present tense is so natural for me. But I read all kinds of criticism about it (see William Gass) and it does rob you of reflecting, as an adult, on the complexity of what happened in your past. You lose out on your own hard won insight . So I wish I could do it differently—I feel very animalistic about writing, very instinctual—but I go back to the present, again and again. The past tense to me is sophisticated, elegant, and I long for it the way rube always long for urbanity, even as a rube knows she is still a rube.