I started reading Alaska Quarterly Reviewas an undergraduate creative writing student at University of Central Florida. Yes, Central Florida. I’m not sure whether I found the journal or the journal found me. My childhood was filled with dreams of mountains, despite being raised in a state so flat the majority of it sat below sea-level. I could never explain from where my yearning came. Anything titled Alaska would have attracted me. My connection with the state is on a different plane of understanding, one not bound by the limits of my reason. In that sense, I (subconsciously) found AQR. On the other hand, my quest as an undergraduate was to master the craft of writing. I read everything that promised it could teach me something about this art. At the time, I was a clumsy stylist and wandering storyteller. I am probably still both of those things, but back then I was filled with optimism. I read everything with an insatiable hunger, wanting to absorb every poetic metaphor, every well-developed character, every surprising plot turn. Jeanne Leiby was my first mentor. She served as Editor-in-Chief at The Florida Review and taught the first two Fiction Workshops I had ever taken. She taught me how to write sentences so that they snap, how to drive stories instead of describing routines. She always had some recently published work available to exemplify the element of craft I was learning. She was always timely. She came into class one day thrilled about a story she had had accepted in the 2003 (vol. 20) edition of AQR. The story was called “Family Meeting.” I read and reread and reread her story, looking for the secret that made her sentences sing. Then I read other stories in the same edition. I remember how my imagination ran wild thinking about the diverse talent appearing in a journal published out of Alaska. Every few months, The Florida Review office would receive another edition of AQR. With their glossy covers of craggy spires and mystic meadows, their pages of riveting fiction, AQR captured my spirit and intellect. In that sense, AQR found me. Not only did I want my own story in those pages one day, I wanted my body, mind, and soul to be in Alaska. My irrational childhood desires seemed somewhat attainable. I modeled my neophyte writing on the work I found in AQR; and while I wasn’t publishing my own stories, I learned how to analyze other stories well enough for Jeanne Leiby to invite me to serve on the editorial staff for The Florida Review. Even with access to several national literary journals in Florida Review’s library, something kept drawing me back to that opalescent cover of rain-clouds crowning a mystical mountain’s peak. Maybe it was the promise of unthinkable possibility. After all, Jeanne Leiby was a Florida author, whose story was featured in this far away land’s journal. I kept writing. I kept imagining impossible thoughts. The first story I ever sent out to journals was sent only to AQR. Of course, it was rejected. But the letter itself, a standard-issued response, seemed to provide some vindication for my efforts. The editors had, at the very least, written me back. Which meant they read my story! I was close enough to feel the cold blue of tundra frost. I remembered something Jeanne always said: “Writer’s write because they want to be read. Otherwise, why write at all?” She said this while discussing the importance of considering audience even when writing fiction, especially when writing fiction. I realized it then, when a standard-issued response that all submitters receive appeared to me as words of encouragement written only for me. I continued to grow and learn because of my desire to be included in AQR. Later, in 2011, while I was completing my MFA thesis, I learned that Jeanne Leiby passed away in a tragic car accident. Immediately after a former professor broke the news, I reread “Family Meeting,” feeling inspired by her all over again, listening to the snap of her sentences and the hum of her story’s engine. There are recent talks of dismantling Alaska Quarterly Review. I would have never believed that a journal as prestigious as AQR, which can reach from one distant coast on this continent to the diametrical opposite, would not be valued at its own home. There isn’t much I can offer as a means to save the journal. I myself have, to this point, failed to gain inclusion in its pages, even though I did realize that irrational fantasy of living in Alaska. What I hope, then, is that more writers and readers alike pick up an edition of AQR before it’s too late. Feel inspired by some of the nation’s most elegant writers. Even if you’re not looking, let AQR find you. JT Torres was born in Miami, Fla., where only legend told of winter. He imagined snow and mountains, the cloud-covered ground and steep blue peaks. He earned his MFA from Georgia College & State University. Four hundred miles north introduced him to flurries, which were colder than imagined–not the warm downy fluff that fell in his dreams. He bought his first coat. For a year, he lived in Colorado, where he taught composition at Front Range Community College. During that year, he had stories or essays published in The Rambler, Fiction Writer’s Review, Limestone, Brokenplate, Alimentum, Florida Review, Greensilk Journal, and A Capella Zoo. Winter had a positive effect, it seemed. But it wasn’t “winter” enough. (Did you know Boulder, CO averages 300 days of sunshine a year?) JT finally lived in Alaska, teaching composition at University of Alaska-Anchorage. The cold and dark became home. Currently, he is pursuing a PhD at Washington State University. His novella, "Nana's Guide to Illusion," will be included in VP&D House's Weathered Edge II.
As summer draws to a close, our thoughts turn to winter writing projects that will sustain us through the long, dark days. The new schedule of creative writing classes at 49 Writers is designed to both inspire and encourage you, while you hone your writerly skills and re-connect to your literary community.
The Anchorage season kicks off October 1 and runs through November: click here for information about our fall faculty. We are also offering a special Southeast Alaska program in September--see below for details if you live in the vicinity of Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan or Craig. For information on Juneau activities during the season, check our website here.
We have planned three Reading & Craft Talks at Great Harvest Bread Co. in Anchorage, highlighting new work from David Stevenson (Sept. 11), Susanna Mishler (Oct. 16), and Lee Goodwin (Nov. 6). Our fall Crosscurrents event will take place at the Anchorage Museum during Alaska Book Week, (Oct. 6) and address the topic, "Would the Real Alaska Please Stand Up?" Departing from our usual format, this evening features a panel of distinguished Alaskan authors that includes Joan Naviyuk Kane, Seth Kantner, Peggy Shumaker, and Deb Vanasse, as well as illustrator Beth Rearden Hill. Please join us in congratulating Joan Kane, who we hear has just won the American Book Award for Hyperboreal, her second collection of poetry that already won AWP's Donald Hall Prize for Poetry.
Seth KantnerThis fall's selection of half-day classes includes Children's Books: Writing, Illustrating, Publishing (Oct. 4) with Deb Vanasse, Seth Kantner, and Beth Hill; Our Stories and Their Songs (Oct. 11) with Jonathan Bower; Complex & Conflicted Characters: What's in Your Character's Pocket? (Nov. 1) with Don Rearden (well-received in Juneau this spring); and Composition by Juxtaposition (Nov. 22) with Caroline Goodwin, formerly of Sitka and current Poet Laureate of San Mateo County, CA. Caroline will also teach this class in Juneau (Monday, Dec. 1).
If you are looking for a longer learning commitment, Douglass Bourne will be teaching Claiming Your Place, a five-week series for writers in all genres that begins October 2. Fresh from her success as an instructor for our Anchorage Remembers memoir project (many students have told me how much they enjoyed Judith's workshops and how much they learned from her), Judith Conte will be offering a six-session series called Memoir Matters.
Frank Soos, who last fall taught the popular Art of the Essay class twice, is back with an Essay Workshop for those students who have completed a piece started in or since that class a year ago. Participants will critique each others work in the first session (Nov. 8-9) and discuss revisions a month later (Dec. 6-7).
Caroline Goodwin will teach in Anchorage and JuneauWe are especially excited to announce our first online class this season, taught by 49 Writers co-founder Andromeda Romano-Lax. Andromeda spent most of her time in Asia this past year but she's back in Alaska and ready to roll with two new creative writing offerings! Achieve lift-off with a jump-started or re-started novel in Your Novel Now: The First Six Weeks, a class that will emphasize quick-drafting, supplemented with discussion of craft and process. So long as you have Internet access, you can participate! Plan to dedicate at least one hour a day to drafting new work with the goal of writing the first 10,000 words or more of a rough draft and learning more about your own best writing processes.
Finally, if you're one of the writers who has requested help in writing sex scenes that avoid cheesy metaphors and purple prose, your wait is over: Andromeda has stepped up to teach Writing the Intimate and Explicit on Wednesdays, October 4-22.
Click here for full details of the Crosscurrents Southeast program featuring Sherry Simpson and Ernestine Hayes, funded in part by the Alaska Humanities Forum and National Endowment for the Arts. All activities are free but pre-registration is required for the workshops.
Friday, Sept. 5-Sunday, Sept. 7: Tutka Bay Writers Retreat with Carolyn Forché
Thursday, Sept. 11, 7pm, Great Harvest Bread Company: Reading & Craft Talk by David Stevenson--"Letters from Chamonix: Teasing Fiction from Fact."
Friday, Sept. 19, 7pm, UAS, Egan Lecture Hall, Juneau: Crosscurrents with Sherry Simpson and Ernestine Hayes, "Learning to Listen, Listening to Learn: Cultural Appropriation in Alaskan Writing" (Evening at Egan)
Sunday, Sept. 21, 3pm, Douglas Public Library: Reading by Sherry Simpson, "The Unseen Bear"
Monday, Sept. 22, 7pm, Naa Kahidi Community House, Sitka: Crosscurrents with Sherry Simpson and Ernestine Hayes, "Learning to Listen, Listening to Learn: Cultural Appropriation in Alaskan Writing"
Tuesday, Sept. 23, 6-9pm, Yaw Chapel, Sheldon Jackson Campus, Sitka: Creative Writing Workshop with Sherry Simpson and Ernestine Hayes, "The Story and the Music: Fresh Approaches to Familiar Places"
Wednesday, Sept. 24, 7pm, Ketchikan Public Library: Crosscurrents with Sherry Simpson and Ernestine Hayes, "Learning to Listen, Listening to Learn: Cultural Appropriation in Alaskan Writing"
Thursday, Sept. 25, 6-9pm, Ketchikan Public Library: Creative Writing Workshop with Sherry Simpson and Ernestine Hayes, "The Story and the Music: Fresh Approaches to Familiar Places"
Friday, Sept. 26, 7pm, Craig Public Library: Crosscurrents with Sherry Simpson and Ernestine Hayes, "Learning to Listen, Listening to Learn: Cultural Appropriation in Alaskan Writing"
Saturday, Sept. 27, 9am-12pm, Craig Public Library: Creative Writing Workshop with Sherry Simpson and Ernestine Hayes, "The Story and the Music: Fresh Approaches to Familiar Places"
Events in Anchorage
Tomorrow, Saturday, Aug. 30, 1-4pm, Barnes & Noble: Author AdriAnne Strickland will be signing her debut YA sci-fi/fantasy, Wordless. Stop by to meet her and learn more about her work.
Thursday, Sept. 4, 7pm, Z.J. Loussac Library, Public Conference Room: The Alaska Gold Rush, for Teens and the Young at Heart. Young adult author Lynn Lovegreen will talk about the history of the Alaska Gold Rush and the inspirations for her novel about gold mining and the claim jumping controversy in Nome in 1900. Each person who donates food or money to the Food Bank of Alaska at this event will receive a free bag of book swag!
Monday, Sept. 8, 5-7pm, UAA Campus Bookstore: Andy Hall presents Denali Howl: The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America's Wildest Peak, an account of the 1967 Wilcox Expedition, one of the greatest climbing accidents ever to occur on the highest peak of North America. Twelve climbers attempt the ascent and only five return. Andy Hall, the son of the Denali Park Superintendent at the time, offers an intimate look into the young men on a big adventure. September 11, 5-7pm, UAA Campus Bookstore: All You Need is Love - Forging an Emotional Connection through the Stories we Write and Read. Romance authors Jennifer Bernard, Tam Linsey, Lynn Lovegreen, Miriam Matthews, and DeNise Woodbury come together to read from their books and discuss romance. This event is sponsored with Romance Writers of Alaska.
Sept. 13 & 14, the 2014 Alaska Writers Guild Annual Conference, in conjunction with SCBWI Alaska, takes place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Anchorage. This year's conference will feature nationally acclaimed editors, agents, and authors, as well as local authors and illustrators. Once again they are offering a children's literarure and illustration track in conjunction with The Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. Click here for a detailed list of this year's faculty. Visit the AWG website for more information and to register. Click here for a preliminary conference schedule.
Beginning Sept. 17, Anchorage essayist and author Bill Sherwonit will teach a 12-week nature and travel writing class beginning Sept. 17, in the Sierra Club office downtown. Participants in this workshop-style class will explore and refine their own writing styles, with an emphasis on the personal essay form. The class will also read and discuss works by some of America’s finest nature and travel writers, past and present. The cost is $240. To sign up for this Wednesday night class (7 to 9:30 p.m.), or for more information, contact Sherwonit at 245-0283 or email@example.com. Further information about the teacher is also available at www.billsherwonit.alaskawriters.com. Events around Alaska
Today, Friday, Aug. 29, 11am, catch Nick Jans (A Wolf Called Romeo) at Palmer's Fireside Books. Tomorrow, Saturday, Aug. 30, 11am-1pm. Tom Sexton, Alaska’s poet laureate from 1994 to 2000, the author of several collections of poetry, and the selected poet of this park’s poem-in-place, will give a talk and host a discussion on The Poetry of Place. The talk/discussion is free and open to anyone age 18 or older. Space is limited. Please register in advance. To register or for more information about either event, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Tomorrow, Saturday, Aug. 30, 2-3 pm: Poems in Place Dedication. Help celebrate the unveiling of the 2014 Poem in Place at Independence Mine State Historical Park. Reading by selected poet Tom Sexton will be followed by refreshments and celebration. All are welcome! Thursday, Sept. 4, 6:30pm, Kachemak Bay Campus: Prior to leading the annual 49 Writers Tutka Bay Retreat, acclaimed poet Carolyn Forché will give a public reading in Homer.
Saturday, Sept. 6, 10am-12:30pm, School House Inn, Lake Aleknagik: Yupik Place Names and the Poetry of Place. Tim Troll and Molly Chythlook will share their knowledge of Yupik place names, the first naming of place. Join in a creative writing exercise with poet Wendy Erd. The workshop is free and open to the public. All are welcome. Saturday, Sept. 6, 2-3pm, Lake Aleknagik Landing: Poems in Place Dedication and Celebration. Please help celebrate the unveiling of the new Poem in Place at Lake Aleknagik State Park. Reading by selected poet Tim Troll to be followed by refreshments and celebration. To register or for more information about either event, please email email@example.com. Wednesday, Sept. 10, 6-8 pm: Kenai Fine Arts Center (816 Cook Drive, Kenai) will host a book release party for Dave Acheson, whose new book, Dead Reckoning, has just been published. News from our Writers
49 Writers member Lynne Curry PhD has a new book out: Solutions addresses workplace challenges by offering strategies and answers that can change your work life for the better. For more information and to order visit www.thegrowthcompany.com. Also available as an e-book! Click here for more info.
Our members are published regularly in the press, and the latest to pop up is Douglas member Katie Bausler, whose piece "When endless sunshine become too much to bear" appeared the other day in the Alaska Dispatch news--a soggy Southeast perspective on summer. Opportunities for Alaskan Writers The Alaska Literary Awards, established in 2014 by the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation through a generous gift from Peggy Shumaker and Joe Usibelli, are accepting applications. The Alaska Literary Awards recognize and support writers of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, playwriting, screenwriting, and mixed genres. Any Alaska writer over the age of 18 who is not a full-time student is eligible to apply. Quality of the work submitted is the primary consideration in determining who receives the awards. There are no restrictions on the writer’s use of the award and no formal report is required. The application deadline is Tuesday, September 2, 2014, 9:59pm (AKDT). Remember that the deadline for the Winter Solstice issue of Cirque is approaching: Sept.15 for publication on Dec. 15. Visit www.cirquejournal.com for more information on how to submit and to read the journal full-text.
Nominations for the 2015 Governor’s Awards for the Arts and Humanities are now open. Learn more at the Alaska State Council on the Arts website. The categories are: Arts Education, Native Arts, Arts Organization and Individual Artist. In addition, the Alaska State Council on the Arts’ Literary Advisory Committee will accept nominations for the State Writer Laureate, who will be appointed by the Governor to a two year term (2015-2016). Deadline for both is October 1.
It was probably January when I decided to move a short distance into an abandoned log cabin right on the riverbank. Now there were two things I didn’t know. First, it was abandoned because it’s too cold right on the river, and if that wasn’t enough, this cabin had been lifted up in a flood and rotated so now its front door faced north. Right into the wind. I didn’t know. I thought it looked good. It was impossible to heat. That night, with no warning, I got sick. Really sick. I became very weak. I had a fever and I was burning up. I felt terrible and to top it off I had to take a wicked shit. I can’t claim to have been thinking clearly but the only thing on my mind was to make it to the little outhouse near my previous cabin. It wasn’t far. Maybe 2 football fields away. I already had on two pairs of thermal woven cotton long-johns. I put on sweaters. I got on my parka. I opened the door. It was brutal. Maybe 40 below. It was 4 am. (from Sleetmute: A True Story of Alaska, by Stan Resnicoff) New York City. 1968. I was 24. I had just graduated from college. I applied to VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) as a possible deferment from the Army and Vietnam. I was young and I thought I knew everything. I figured if they had VISTA in any state they had to have VISTA in every state. I requested an assignment in Hawaii. So naturally, six months later I’m in the very remote, tiny Eskimo village of Sleetmute, Alaska. No streets, no electricity, no phones, no television, no signs, no law. I’m wearing everything I own. I’m hunting for my food. It’s fifty degrees below zero and it’s getting colder........ Kirkus Reviews said Sleetmute is “incredibly entertaining” and also “Resnicoff’s encounters fascinate not only because they introduce readers to a world few have ever seen, but also because he’s a gifted storyteller. He channels his 24-year-old self’s confusion and naïveté in a way that is by turns hilarious, endearing and often quite moving.” After Sleetmute, Stan spent three warmer years in Honolulu designing creative educational materials for the children of Hawaii. He then accepted a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at M.I.T for work that he was doing on natural sensory playgrounds called ‘Playcanos’. While in Boston he was also the exhibits designer for the Boston Children’s Museum, and later he designed creative learning games and experiences for the American Museum of Natural History (NY), the Bronx Zoo and the Smithsonian Institution.In 1982 he joined Mattel Toys as an educational software designer eventually becoming the Director of their ‘blue-sky’ toy research group. He designed the award winning GeoSafari CD-ROM series. More recently, his first children’s book, ‘Stanley, the Seal of Approval’ was published by Random House and it, as well as several other of his children’s books and movies are now available online. He lives in Redondo Beach, California. AUTHORS SITE: http://www.stanresnicoff.com/Stan_Resnicoff/Sleetmute.html
The first thing I learned in journalism was this: news is written at a 4th or 5th grade reading level. For Americans the average reading level is around 7th grade. When people read for fun or information, they tend to select materials a grade or two below their actual reading level. Thus, writing at a 4th to 5th grade reading level hits the reader’s sweet spot. Of course, not every piece of work can be accurately and artfully rendered at a 4th grade reading level. You may be writing a meaty literary piece that will be accessible only to college-educated readers. But it behooves us to be aware of our readability. It can make you aware of which audiences your work will reach. In journalism writing to a 4th grade reading level ensures the holy trinity of writing: accessibility, clarity, concision. These traits allow the audience to read, understand, and enjoy what they’re reading. In other words, it promotes readability. Readability largely boils down to two factors: 1. Length and complexity of words2. Length and complexity of sentences. Under some metrics, paragraph length is also considered. There are a number of tools available that will tell you the reading level of your writing. The most commonly referenced is the Flesch-Kincaid test. The Flesch Reading Ease test measures how easy a text is to read on a scale from 0 to 100. The higher the score, the more readable the text. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test measures the reading proficiency a reader needs to comprehend the writing. In Microsoft Word, you can add a readability check to your spellcheck function by following these directions. Scrivener also offers readability stats found by hitting Command-Shift-Option-S. I prefer online tools like Readability-Score.com and Edit Central. I tested these tools using sample passages from established writers. The results are available in the accompanying chart. As much as possible I chose selections of 500 to 1000 words. I also tried to select excerpts that contained more prose than dialog. It’s a good idea to check your results on several tools. Some tools skew high, others low. Checking your writing on multiple tools will give you an average to work with. In general, the larger excerpt you use, the more accurate the score will be. For more tests, tools, and tips visit the Ultimate List of Online Content Readability Tests. You can also test the readability of your website or blog by entering the address into readable.com available at the final link below. Jessica Ramsey Golden’s poetry has appeared in such journals as The William and Mary Review, Orbis International, Calyx, and Cirque. In 2006 she was awarded the Eleanor B. North Poetry Prize. In 2009, she received an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation. In 2011, she began writing fiction. She is currently drafting a science fiction project, while seeking representation for her literary Gothic novel, The Hidden Door.
Still, now; the torn tin-wrapped two-story structure stands:Towards a century ago; its tired timber and stone-age material metTo hold each other unconditionally;To vanquish Kikiktagruk’s seasons.Legendary: a hunting-guide, a bush-pilot, a man;Family spent and shared time and more time.Liquor and grub given to many at “Marie’s”:Before the hunt; Roy Rogers ate,Hunger found Hank Williams Jr.,Then Mr. Lincoln bagged the record bear: polar.Floors plywood; careful were the feet of children.Covered by linoleum; stairs steep, it changed.Generations abandon their native hallways,Sheltering memories of lives; so many,We were raised by those rooms. Upstairs at the front-room windows we all sat as children,No matter the day, no matter the Sun.None of us are around to cherish the crashing shores’ whispers anymore,Every one of us left; All of us, but one.She’s with her home; they grow old alone,Boxes and boxes; packed and stacked high.It’s almost deserted: haunting; she’s fervid, I wish we all hadn’t left you..Mother of mine. Stephen D. Bolen is an aspiring poet from Kotzebue, Alaska. He is half Inupiaq Eskimo and was raised in the north. He is currently pursuing a triple-major in English, Psychology, and Philosophy at the University of Alaska, Anchorage; he works full-time in construction as well. Stephen enjoys spending all the time he can at home with his young daughter Sonnet. Would you like to see your work published here? Check out our Alaska Shorts guidelines and submit today!
Independence Mine (photo by Mike Criss) I lost my way on Raspberry Road, driving without good directions on a recent stay in Anchorage and turned into a side road to make a U turn. In the August sun, the bright glint of metal caught my eye as a man in shorts and a faded teeshirt slowly moved his real leg, then his prosthetic leg traveling toward me down the dirt road. Maybe I was meant to take this turn after all, to witness such perseverance and unsteady grace. We never met eyes, his focused on each step he took and yet he shook me awake from my small bag of thoughts. Later that day I wandered along streets unfamiliar to me, though clearly home to many with their scatter of gardening tools and wicker chairs and overturned boats. Kids' laughter bounced off a back yard trampoline. Geese veered over birch tops, while at my feet a beetle, lustrous in late light, clambered over a bent stalk with the same slow intentioned steps as the man I watched earlier that day. When we are strangers to a place we see it with wide unexpectedness. If we are in love with words, we begin to set language and meaning to tell how the world comes at us and through us, intersecting who we are and what we bring to the moment. Sometimes these small notes of attention find their way to become poems. Poems in Place celebrates such poetry of place, language born both from the freshly apprehended as well as from old knowing engendered from deep rootedness in a place. Over the next two weekends Poems in Place, a project that puts poems written by Alaskan writers on outside signs in Alaska’s state parks, will celebrate this year’s recently selected poems by Tom Sexton and Tim Troll with free public events and dedication celebrations. On Saturday August 30th, from 11-1 pm at Independence Mine State Historical Park, Tom Sexton, Alaska’s poet laureate from 1994 until 2000 and the author of several collections of poetry, will give a talk on the poetry of place and the characteristics he believes define such poetry. He will discuss poems by Elizabeth Bishop, W.B. Yeats, Wesley McNair and several other poets. Audience members are invited to bring a poem about a place that they admire or one of their own composition. As many poems as possible will be discussed before lunch. The dedication of Tom’s poem in place, Independence Mine, August, will be celebrated from 2-3 pm. The workshop is free and open to anyone age 18 or older. Space at the talk is limited; please register in advance at firstname.lastname@example.org. The following Saturday, September 6th, from 10:30-12:30 pm at Lake Aleknagik, selected poet Tim Troll and Yupik translator Molly Chythlook will share their knowledge of Yupik place names, the original language linked to Lake Aleknagik and Wood-Tikchik areas. Tim produced a short weekly program for KDLG public radio called "Our Story," stories passed down in Yup'ik lore. Together Molly and Tim conducted traditional ecological knowledge interviews and mapped the original names for local places. The dedication of Tim’s poem, The Wisdom of the Old Ones, follows from 2- pm As writers and readers, please join us to celebrate the unexpected… poems of place published outside book covers and seeded on permanent signs in the embrace of the late autumn sun, fresh air and changing light. Poems in Place is supported by Alaska State Parks, Alaska Center For the Book, the Rasmuson Foundation, Alaska State Council on the Arts, Alaska Humanities Forum, the Usibelli Foundation, Alaska Poetry League and numerous generous individuals. As a preview to Tom Sexton's workshop (and inspiration for the drive to Hatcher Pass), here's one of Tom's poems: Autumn in the Alaska Range Drive north when the braided glacial rivershave begun to assume their winter green.When crossing Broad Pass, you might seethe shimmer of caribou moving on a distant ridgeor find a dark abacus of berries in the froston the boggy trail to Summit Lake. Beyond this,the endless mountains curving like a scimitar.And in the querulous mind, the yearning hearta sudden immeasurable calm. Tom Sexton
Dear Edgar: I was poking around in a bin of opportunity (“Dumpsters” to your type, with a capital D for some reason) the other day and came across a newspaper that said you died in October 160 years ago. Bummer. I had seen your famous poem about us, in another bin (you wouldn’t believe what people throw out), and I wanted to chew your ear for a minute. First of all, thanks for calling us “stately” on first reference. I’m with ya. In fact, we’re the real state bird of Alaska, no matter what those placemats say. Willow ptarmigan — whose idea was that? You ever see a willow ptarmigan with personality? Take a poll of Alaskans, Eddy, they’ll give you their state bird, the same “ebony bird” you made famous in 1845. No other creature has the guts to go where we go. Climbers on Denali try to hide their food from us at 17,000-foot high camp, but it doesn’t work. We wait until they throw a bit of snow over their food and stagger away. Then we dig it up and poke away. Easy money. And the oilfields around Prudhoe Bay — no trees, blowing snow, about a gazillion below in winter. Those big-money workers up there do a Christmas Bird Count every year, and they record just one species. You know which one it is, baby. Biologists up there have seen us nesting in drilling rigs and feeding our chicks when it’s 30 below. Thirty below! Know where the robins are then, Edgar? Florida! One biologist named Stacia captured a few of us up there to fit us with wing tags. She had trouble re-capturing us for her studies, so — get this — she wore a fake moustache to fool us! But we still know it’s her. We only hang out in Prudhoe because your type is there, Edgar. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you guys are slobs. You don’t finish what you eat. Today, humans are what wolves were 250 years ago. Once, we were all over the Great Plains, and today we’re not. It’s not that we don’t like wide-open spaces, it’s just that there’s no more bison there, and there’s no more wolves, who, like furry can-openers, would open the buffalo for us. It’s kind of odd you lived on the East Coast, Edgar. It’s hard to find a raven in Baltimore, except for those ones on the football helmets (Purple ravens?! C’mon guys, black is beautiful!). Today we prefer the West Coast and the far North, from Baja to Barrow. We really like caribou and other prey species, and in Alaska there’s more caribou than people, and there’s lots of wolves and bears left to scatter carcasses around the landscape for us. Ever picked at a fleshy backbone on a hot summer’s day, Edgar? Heaven. Back to your poem. Let me see if I remember it: Once upon a midnight dreary, after rapping on a chamber door, a raven stepped into a dark parlor, perched on a bust of a Greek goddess, and terrified a bereaved lover by answering all his questions with the word “Nevermore.”I heard that a University of Alaska Fairbanks English professor once picked apart your poem like we do a road-killed red squirrel. He suggested your narrator’s ingestion of opium might have given the raven its voice. That’s baloney. We talk all the time. We squawk, we knock; we make sounds like rocks thrown into water. A Fairbanks scientist who followed us around with a recorder came up with 30 distinct phrases in the raven dictionary. Lucky for him he couldn’t translate them. The farther I read into your poem, the more you punch up the descriptions. You describe the raven as ghastly, grim, ungainly, gaunt, ominous, grave, a devil, a thing of evil, a fiend and a demon. I’m flattered, but others have held us in pretty high esteem. In Norse mythology, for example, the god Odin employed two ravens with the names Thought and Memory to fly the world and inform him of what was happening out there. We were less dependable for Noah, when a pair of us failed to return to the ark after he sent us to search for land. We probably found some carcasses out there; why go back for hard-tack and scurvy? In Alaska, we’re treated as we should be. Every Native group has raven stories. In many stories, including those of the Tlingit, Haida, and Koyukon, Raven is the god who created the sun, the Earth, the stars, the moon, and humankind. We are also the tricksters who deceive others in our endless quest for food. True, all true. And tell me, Edgar, what has the moose created? Nothing but moose nuggets. A biologist once told Ned Rozell that Alaska contains large chunks of nothingness because of two things — bugs and cold air. He has cursed both in a few decades of wandering ice and muskeg but has hiked on due to the fact that he just can't figure out how wolves get enough to eat. This excerpt from “Raven’s Letter to Edgar” comes from the Alaska Sampler 2014, a free e-book. Would you like to see your work published here? Check out our Alaska Shorts guidelines and submit today!
This blog post was originally scheduled to run last week, on Aug. 13. But following Robin Williams’ suicide on Aug. 11, I asked that the post be delayed so that I could reframe my thoughts in light of the national conversation occurring in the wake of this loss. Nothing I say will provide new solutions or special insight. But I do beleive that we have a responsibility to refuse to stop talking about depression. One in ten Americans suffers from depression. But in creative fields the percentage sky-rockets. We do artists a diservice when we write off their work as a product of mental illness. Furthermore, we perpetuate a culture that views creativity as a mentally harmful activity. In fact, study after study shows that art makes us happier, healthier, more empathetic people. If you’re struggling, seek help. Being healthy will not kill your creativity. Only giving up on your art can do that. In a recent article for The Atlantic, neuro-scientist Nancy Andreason discusses the links between mental instability, intelligence, and creativity (link below). She traces the idea of the "mad genius" from Aristotle to modern efforts to elucidate creativity as a trait. Studies indicate that persons with high levels of creativity (as measured by a variety of metrics) are much more likely to have a history of mental illness and addiction in their family. They themselves are also more likely to have a history of mental disorder. Creativity is a fine line to walk. We so deeply link the demon of dysfunction with the angel of creativity that we come to think of them as one and the same. I remember trying desperately, futilely to explain to my college Modernism class that Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Wolfe didn't write from their depression. They couldn't have. Depressed people don't function well enough to organize and write a novel, let alone to edit and rigorously rewrite. They wrote in spite of their illness, not because of it. They wrote when they were relatively healthy, when they were functional. This is evident in Wolfe’s suicide note when she writes, “I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. (...) You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read.” To paraphrase Sylvia Plath, when you’re depressed you have no time for anything but being depressed. To my anger and frustration I've seen gifted artists and writers use the Dysfunction of the Greats as a justification for their overindulgence in unhealthy behavior. It's the shortcut past the hard work and long hours. The floodgate through which will pour your own inner Hemingway. Drink, drug, and self-destruct. For it proves you're a genius. As Stephen King notes in On Writing, "The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are intertwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time." In her TED talk, author Elizabeth Gilbert notes that artists tend to self-destruct. Then she asks, “Are you guys all cool with that?” Are we? It's important that we talk about the mental health of our artists, writers, and musicians. It's important that we acknowledge that great work comes from great labor, and that madness and addiction are not pathways to genius. They are merely unfortunate chemical by-products of similar neural processes. It's important for two reasons: First, so that we can stop giving our creative young people the idea that unhealthy behavior will make them more creative. Second, so we can treat creativity as a necessary activity for a healthy mind. My mother is depressive. As any child of someone with mental illness can tell you, it wreaks havoc on childhood. Depression was the ghost in our home. The blackness that shadowed every aspect of life. Her's was not the lingering malaise of existential dissatisfaction. Her depression crippled her. She spent months in bed. The tiniest decisions overwhelmed her. When you spoke to her, whether seeking joy or comfort, you never knew if you would get the fun, creative mother you loved, or the huge, seeping sadness that lurked just under the surface. It was impossible to understand and make sense of at 6-years-old. And at 10. And at 13. But when I was 14, I discovered someone who helped me understand. Someone Andreason used as a case study on the link between creativity and mental illness. Kurt Vonnegut. In Breakfast of Champions (a book Vonnegut considered his worst), he discusses the suicide of his mother. Mental illness is a theme throughout his work. One he approaches with an empathy, humor, and humanity that is, true to Vonnegut form, touchingly irreverent. His family, like mine, is rife with depression, addiction, bad relationships, suicide, and eating and anxiety disorders. My mother's disease occurred at a time before depression was a common topic. Socially, her depression was perceived as an implicit failure on her part to live up to the expectation of perfection that her religion demanded. Her children, house, clothes, body, and marriage were imperfect. So she simply gave up fighting her illness. To read Vonnegut state of his own mother that she committed suicide out of embarrassment, is a truth so profound and terrible, that one can only laugh out loud in horror. It took the first 26 years of my life for me to figure out that genetically and behaviorally, my auto-setting is self-destruct. The genes I inherited and the behaviors I learned in childhood are a recipe for becoming imprisoned in the same disease that decimated my mother. I have to actively and consciously choose healthy habits. I have to override the behaviors I learned and the genes I was assigned. I have to unlearn my earliest formed habits. My relationships to food, sleep, sex, exercise, religion, television, and family. Some days this is easy. Some days it's not. But I choose to demonstrate healthy behaviors to my children. And one of those healthy habits is creativity. Specifically writing. Writing is cheap therapy. Writing is working through your shit. The shit you don't want to deal with. That's what Vonnegut taught me. It's a way to call out your inner crazy. To write is to stomp through your swampy Jungian underworld in hip-waders and see what kinds of demons you can shake from the trees. It may not be pretty or nice. But it is necessary work. Because, as with so many demons, they only begin to dissipate when they are named. To know what it is, to drag it into the light, to hang Grendel's arm from the rafters of the world and cry, “Here! Here's what's been stalking me!” is to set the world in perspective. We must shift our understanding. We must see creativity, not as a symptom of a disease, but as a tool to help control it. A coping mechanism. A meaning that transcends the storminess of an unsettled mind. So we can nurture our artists amid their flights of fancy, and draw them back from the alluring precipice of self-destruction.
Jessica Ramsey Golden’s poetry has appeared in such journals as The William and Mary Review, Orbis International, Calyx, and Cirque. In 2006 she was awarded the Eleanor B. North Poetry Prize. In 2009, she received an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation. In 2011, she began writing fiction. She is currently drafting a science fiction project, while seeking representation for her literary Gothic novel, The Hidden Door.
Author Autumn Dawn, a former student from North Pole High School.Like many writers, I was a teacher first. Following a news article on my latest novel, I received an inspiring email from a former student, now a fellow author who writes under the name Autumn Dawn. “I wanted to thank you again for teaching my North Pole High School class,” she said. “I’ve made good use of it. It makes me emotional thinking about what I would have done without teachers like you. So many stories would have gone untold, and I have over twenty works published now. Two were published in NY, two are with Amazon’s publishing arm and the rest are self-published.” As teachers all over the country prepare to start a new year, I hope they’ll find encouragement in this example of what a difference they’ll make in the lives of their students. Not every one of them will find the success Autumn has, or take the time to acknowledge how you’ve helped them along the way, but your creative efforts in the classroom do have an impact. After reconnecting, Autumn and I thought it would be fun to swap interviews; you’ll find her interview with me on her blog. You pointed out that the two of us had something in common: school counselors/academic advisers told us that we’d never make a living as writers. How did you get past that? I’m stubborn and competitive, and I like a challenge. Writing made me happy, and the stories didn’t stop just because someone disapproved. For the record, I was almost forty before my parents saw any sense in it. My father admitted he thought I was wasting my time with writing, which I knew, but at least he didn’t say it out loud. Also, my husband and high school sweetheart, John, is extremely supportive. We’ve been married since 1994 and every day is a blessing. You’ve not only made a living as a writing, you’ve also earned a six-figure annual income from your books. Tell us a little about that journey, and what the money does and doesn’t mean to you as a creative individual. It was a huge validation, of course. Someone wanted to read my books! We’d just moved to Washington and I hoped to make some money to help with groceries, and suddenly my sales numbers shot up! We watched in amazement, and all the guys at John’s work were cheering like it was a sports event as John shared the latest stats. I could say “HA!” to all all the doubters. As for the money, I had to find a good accountant to help with that. We did our best to be practical, opened a Roth, bought our first new car ever and paid it off quickly. I also got some professional book covers and editing, which were a huge part of my success. It paid for plane tickets to see family in Alaska, things like that. I’m a practical girl, and did my best to bring value to our lives. You’ve managed to write twenty books while raising three active children. What advice do you have for other moms who write? A book is a good place to hide when the toddlers are running rampant. Invest in a set of headphones and place the computer so you can see the kids but not the TV. Also, I’m not a soccer mom.We keep things simple and relaxed here without a lot of running around. I simply don’t have the temperament for it. Sports are fine and every kid should learn to swim, but there should be balance. We eat dinner together every night and the house is clean. We talk about our day and if one of the kids is having a problem, I notice and we talk about it. I can’t do that if everyone is running full tilt at all times, and I can’t write if I’m stressed. Honestly, housekeeping, cooking and dealing with teens is a big job, so I have to stay organized if I want to write. And sometimes, John cooks. You said, “I didn’t know until I was an adult that I was a gifted person, but writing was always an outlet for a kid that wasn’t quite in sync with the others.” What encouragement do you have for other kids who aren’t “quite in sync” with the rest? Skip childhood. Kidding! Best case scenario, I’d love to see gifted kids discovered in school and given the help they need. To my school’s credit, I believe they tried. I actually needed counseling as an adult, and once I suspected I was gifted, I devoured books on itand haunted websites. I read things and think, what? That’s unusual? I could do that, why didn’t someone tell me? My mother said I was a weird kid, and she hated to see me “waste all my time reading”. Little did she know I was preparing for my future job. If your kid gets a 99% verbal on the PSAT, she’s probably gifted. It won’t matter if she doesn’t know how to sew. You should discuss college or a good tech school, however. I didn’t realize it was odd to carry books from the library stacked to my chin. I finally learned to drive at seventeen so I could spend time in the bookstore. I didn’t know how to talk to kids my age, and later Mom told me that they wanted to skip me ahead a grade. She refused that and the gifted program because she didn’t want me to feel “pressured.” ARRRGH! I wondered what happened to my friends; they seemed to all disappear from my classes in middle school, and now I know they were in the gifted program. I saw some of them again in the AP and honor classes, but by then I hated school. High school was a prison sentence and I wanted out. Being an adult was much better. I don’t regret not attending college. If I want to learn something, I pick up a book and read. While you can’t learn to dance that way, it’s great for teaching yourself website design, Photoshop, computer stuff and gourmet baking. We tell our kids that apprenticeships, tech school and the military are excellent ways to get an education that won’t put you in debt for years, but never stop learning, and never give up. You were custom made for a job, and if it doesn’t exist yet, create it! You’re incredibly imaginative and prolific. How have readers discovered you and your books? After twenty books, do you find you still have to work to promote your new titles, or do your fans find them? Thank you. I’ve always enjoyed creating worlds no one else has dreamed of, and I’m very careful not to repeat myself. I like to keep things fresh, and my readers appreciate that. I post new books on my site, blog and Facebook. That’s it. I should have a mailing list, but I don’t. I find that frequent releases are the best way to generate sales, and I usually have at least one ebook free. I think happy readers are the best word of mouth. Autumn is a professional writer and stay at home mom with three kids, a dog and an active imagination. She’s married to her high school sweetheart, John, who is known to bring her flowers "just because.” After 34 years in Alaska, she moved to Washington with her family to enjoy a state with actual seasons. She started self-publishing in 2010 after a string of rejections that read, “We love your writing, but we’re not sure how to market it.” She published on Smashwords, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, which lead to a number of bestsellers. After The Charmer hit #1 on Barnes & Noble for fantasy romance, she threw herself into editing and uploading her backlist. Her income for 2011 was $100,000, far exceeding her best year with traditional publishing. In 2012, Amazon acquired Dorchester Books, which had picked up two of her books, and Autumn gave Amazon the rights to publish When Sparks Fly and No Words Alone (from the Sparks Series), believing that diversification is good business. While Autumn is grateful for the opportunities traditional publishing provided, she remains passionate about self-publishing.