Crosscurrents Southeast, featuring Alaskan authors Sherry Simpson (right) and Ernestine Hayes, is coming your way! Combining our popular Crosscurrents on-stage conversation with a creative writing workshop, 49 Writers is pleased to be bringing this program to Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, and Craig in September 2014. In Juneau, Sherry Simpson will also give a reading at Douglas Public Library. The local partners who are collaborating on this project are the University of Alaska Southeast, Juneau Public Libraries, The Island Institute, Ketchikan Public Library, and Craig Public Library. All events are free and open to the public and online registration for the writing workshops is now open. Visit our website for more details. This project is made possible in part by a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum and the National Endowment for the Arts--thank you!
We're delighted to share the exciting news that 49 Writers instructor and guest author Katey Schultz has been awarded an IndieFab Book of the Year Award from Foreword Reviews! She received the Gold Medal for Adult Fiction in the Military/War category. The IndieFab awards, judged by a select group of librarians and booksellers from around the country, were announced at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Las Vegas. Foreword Reviews created this awards program in order to help readers discover distinctive books from the indie publishing community.
If you're in Anchorage, don't miss the readings in this year's Northern Renaissance Arts & Science series, part of the UAA MFA program summer residency. The readings are free and open to the public and begin on Sunday, July 13 with keynote writer Rebecca Solnit--essayist, winner of a Gugenheim, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and a Lannen Literary Award. Altogether 18 authors will share their work, including local writers David Stevenson, Sherry Simpson, Andromeda Romano-Lax, and Susanna Mishler. See details below. Events in Anchorage
Jo-Ann MapsonToday, Friday, July 11, 5pm, Barnes & Noble: Jo-Ann Mapson, in town for the UAA MFA residency, will sign copies of her latest novel, Owen's Daughter. Look for an interview with Jo-Ann on this blog soon.
Sunday, July 13, 8pm, UAA Arts Building, Room 150: Northern Renaissance Arts & Sciences Reading Series, in conjunction with UAA MFA Summer Residency, presents Rebecca Solnit, keynote writer for this year's residency and author of The Faraway Nearby, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Click here for the pdf of the full reading schedule.
Monday, July 14, 4-6pm, UAA Campus Bookstore: Award-winning author Melinda Moustakis will read from her story collection and discuss her writing. Born in Fairbanks, Melinda captures the sense of Alaska in her acclaimed book Bear Down Bear North: Alaska Stories, which won the Flannery O' Connor Award and the Maurice Prize.
Monday, July 14, 8pm, Northern Renaissance Arts & Sciences Readings Series, in conjunction with UAA MFA Summer Residency, presents readings by Ed Allen, Eva Saulitis, and Valerie Miner.
Tuesday, July 15, 8pm, UAA Arts Building, Room 150: Contributions to Literacy in Alaska (CLIA) Awards followed by a staged a staged reading of Zack Rogow’s “Tangled Love: The Life and Work of Yosano Akiko,” part of the Northern Renaissance Arts and Sciences Reading Series of UAA’s summer low-residency MFA program. Rogow, an associate faculty member of the MFA program, is the author, editor or translator of 20 books and plays. Steven Hunt, director of the performance, is a director, playwright, and assistant professor of theater at UAA. Free and open to the public.
Wednesday, July 16, 7pm, Loussac Library Innovations Lab: The monthly Alaska Writers Guild program features Dr. Tom Wiltsey talking about Historical Research. Dr. Wiltsey is an adjunct professor of American History at UAA who served more than three decades in the National Archives and Records Administration. Come out to listen, to learn, and to be inspired.
Wednesday, July 16, 8pm, UAA Arts Building, Room 150: Northern Renaissance Arts & Sciences Readings Series, in conjunction with UAA MFA Summer Residency, presents readings by this year's graduating students.
Thursday, July 17, 4-6pm, UAA Campus Bookstore: Jennifer Schell of UAF discusses how mythic Alaska is portrayed in American literature, highlighting whaling. Her book A Bold and Hardy Race of Men: The Lives and Literature of American Whalemen was recently published by University of Massachusetts Press.
Thursday, July 17, 8pm, UAA Arts Building, Room 150: Northern Renaissance Arts & Sciences Readings Series, in conjunction with UAA MFA Summer Residency, presents readings by Guest Poet Susanna Mishler, Andromeda Romano-Lax, and Linda McCarriston. Saturday, July 19, 8pm, UAA Arts Building, Room 150: Northern Renaissance Arts & Sciences Readings Series, in conjunction with UAA MFA Summer Residency, presents readings by Elizabeth Bradfield, Carolyn Turgeon, and Sherry Simpson.
Sunday, July 20, 8pm, UAA Arts Building, Room 150: Northern Renaissance Arts & Sciences Readings Series, in conjunction with UAA MFA Summer Residency, presents readings by Rich Chiappone, Nancy Lord, and Jo-Ann Mapson.
Monday, July 21, 8pm, UAA Arts Building, Room 150: Northern Renaissance Arts & Sciences Readings Series, in conjunction with UAA MFA Summer Residency, presents readings by Distinguised Guest Fiction Writer Padgett Powell and Craig Childs.
Tuesday, July 22, 8pm, UAA Arts Building, Room 150: Northern Renaissance Arts & Sciences Readings Series, in conjunction with UAA MFA Summer Residency, presents readings by David Stevenson, John P. O'Grady, and Anne Caston.
Around the State Tonight, July 11, 6:30pm, Auke Rec covered shelter, Juneau: Join this month’s Woosh Kinaadeiyí open mic and poetry slam. The event, open to poets and performers of all ages and all abilities, will be hosted by Christy NaMee Eriksen and Jacque Boucher. Sign up to read at 6pm. Suggested donation is $5. A potluck barbecue will take place at 5:30 pm. Attendees are encouraged to bring a dish to share. Woosh Kinaadeiyí is a local nonprofit committed to diversity, inclusive community, and empowering voice. The organization hosts monthly poetry slams and open mics throughout the community. For more information, visit facebook.com/wooshpoetry, or email email@example.com with questions.
Opportunities for Alaskan Writers
Today, Friday, July 11 is the deadline to sign up for manuscript reviews at the Alaska Writers Guild Annual Conference, Sept. 13 & 14. Click here for more information on faculty manuscript critiques. Still can't decide whether or not to attend? Click hereto check out the new detailed conference schedule! Conference scholarships are available for college students and non-college students alike! College students: please email Barry Dearborn for information on the Doris Dearborn scholarship application. Non-college students: please email Jim Misko or Brooke Hartman for information on scholarship opportunities.
Rasmuson Foundation is now accepting its next round of applications from all previous Rasmuson Individual Artist Award Recipients for its Artist Residency Program. Online applications for 2015 residencies will be accepted now through August 15, 2014. Questions about the program can be directed to Program Coordinator Jeremy Pataky at jeremy.pataky (at) gmail.com or 907-244-7717.
The Alaska Literary Awards, established in 2014 by the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation through a generous gift from Peggy Shumaker and Joe Usibelli, are accepting applications. The Alaska Literary Awards recognize and support writers of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, playwriting, screenwriting, and mixed genres. Any Alaska writer over the age of 18 who is not a full-time student is eligible to apply. Quality of the work submitted is the primary consideration in determining who receives the awards. There are no restrictions on the writer’s use of the award and no formal report is required. Application deadline is Tuesday, September 2, 2014, 9:59pm (AKDT). Literary happenings in Alaska this summer July 13-27: Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival Creative Writing Class. Two weeks of writing with master teachers and a lively group of participants. Experience welcome but not necessary. Click here for more information.
July 20-26: The Island Institute hosts the Sitka Symposium at Sheldon Jackson Campus in Sitka. This year's theme, "Radical Imagining: Changing the Story With Stories of Change" will explore dominant narratives of our culture in relation to the challenges of our time, and consider empowering stories of transformative change initiated by people in communities large and small. Leading the Symposium will be Winona LaDuke, Luis Alberto Urrea, Alan Weisman, and Molly Sturges.
July 22-28: The Wrangell Mountain Writing Workshop in McCarthy presents: True Story, with Tom Kizzia, Frank Soos, and Nancy Cook. During this five-day workshop, writers will explore the craft of creative nonfiction: drafting compelling narratives that tell true stories. Click here for more information.
August 22-24, Center for Alaska Coastal Studies' Peterson Bay Field Station (across Kachemak Bay from Homer): Line by Line in Kachemak Bay: a writer and artist retreat led by Marilyn Sigman and Marilyn Kirkham. Registration $225, including water taxi transportation, food, two nights lodging, and a journal. For more information and to sign up, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-235-6667.
Howard WeaverThe story of my long love affair with Alaska and the heartbreak that ended it is easy to retrace. For 23 years I chronicled my every turn in the pages of newspapers, in public, for everyone to see. I explored those pages again recently while researching a book about those years and the Alaska Newspaper War that occupied me through most of them. Hindsight naturally brought clarity I didn't enjoy at the time and — most importantly — perspective. What first saw light as isolated, individual articles and observations revealed a clear pattern when viewed from the ridge line looking back. Almost all those writings were composed in haste, written on deadline and left to drift away uncollected, but I see now that they were more than fragments. Each small piece was a tile in a larger mosaic that now comes into view. My memoir itself doesn’t tell that story plainly. Write Hard, Die Free is mainly the tale of a quest for good journalism against imposing odds and as such looks at Alaska through a particular lens. It deals mostly with what I called “dispatches from the barrooms and battlefields” of the newspaper war, naturally a more institutional than personal view. Now I find that I have something more to offer, thanks to the perspective of time and distance. Though I rarely recognized it as these events unfolded I now see a consistent theme woven through the narrative. It’s a love story. I was born in love with Alaska, a frontier baby born to an idealistic young couple working to build a new life far away from the Great Depression, from Texas, and from World War II. Their fortunes would ebb and flow over time — often ebbing, it is true — but their fundamental optimism and affection for Alaska never faltered. I drank in their ideals and affection with my mother’s milk, I suppose. I can’t recall a time when I didn’t share them. Not long after he returned from war in the South Pacific to the dry land cotton fields of north Texas, my father and his young wife loaded a few belongings in a GMC pickup and drove north toward their future. Like many in their generation they had been shaped by depression and war, toughened by a lifetime scratching at the cotton crops they hoed by walking through dusty fields and harvested by hand-picking bolls by the sackful. Despite that — or perhaps because of it, I suppose — they were idealists, optimists not content with waiting for a better world but ready to start building it for themselves. They were not afraid when they pointed the navy blue pickup truck northward, drove to the end of the road and found a town called Anchorage, Alaska. Though its population had boomed with wartime expansion and the opening of the Alaska-Canada Highway, Anchorage was then a small town nonetheless, isolated and remote. As I heard them say a thousand times over the years, to them it seemed the Promised Land. My father had no trouble translating the lessons learned in his hardscrabble Texas childhood to his adult concerns in Alaska. In arguments about the Vietnam War, which he opposed, I often heard him say, “This is a war between the landlords and the tenants, and we’re on the wrong side.” Later I heard him talking with a neighbor who cautioned that a trifling tax the state was then proposing on oil production would “drive the oil companies out of Alaska.” As I recall my father snorted in reply: “The goddamned Alaska National Guard couldn’t run them out of here now.” My father, a carpenter, smelled like sweat and cigarette smoke; my mother worked as a bookkeeper at a lumber yard and smelled of Evening in Paris. As it turned out, their aspirations and expectations were rather different, but they were united in their desire to create a better, fairer society for the sons they expected to prosper as they never did. Their ambition did not come to pass in their lifetimes, but lives in me to this day. No doubt I had been an integral part of my parents’ footloose aspirations — a chubby blond first-born baby carried from Providence Hospital in 1950 to the young couple's unfinished Muldoon homesite. On that cold but snowless October day their hopes and expectations were still high. I spent most of a lifetime in Alaska fighting to advance the dream they had chased northward. “We spend most of our adulthoods trying to grasp the meanings of our parents’ lives,” Philip Lopate once said. “How we shape and answer those questions largely turns us into who we are.” Howard Weaverwas born in Anchorage, attended public schools there and worked in Alaska until he was 45. He tried construction, dishwashing and commercial fishing before settling into his lifetime work as a journalist. He worked at the Anchorage Daily News from 1967 – 1995, including 12 years as the editor, and worked on both the paper’s Pulitzer Prize series. He details his time in the Alaska Newspaper War in the memoir Write Hard, Die Free.This excerpt is from an essay that comprises the essence of a work in progress that seeks to understand changes in Alaska culture and character from the pioneering days of his birth until the oil-financed society of today. His conclusions are his opinion, but the facts are accurate and the events described here happened. To read the rest of the essay, download a free copy of the Alaska Sampler 2014.Would you like to see your work appear here? Check out our Alaska Shorts guidelines and submit today!
Imagery associated with rivers and fish runs through your stories. What makes these images important to you?
About six years ago, I started going up to Alaska in the summers to go fishing with my uncle and stay at his cabin on the Kenai River. He knows that river inside and out and I am extremely lucky that he takes me fishing and is an expert fisherman. I don’t know if there’s anything better than when you’re on a drift, dragging for rainbows, there’s no wind, the midnight sun is setting, and all you hear is the flick of a fly rod as you mend your line. I also don’t know anybody who tells a better hunting or fishing story than my uncle. I think this all explains my love of fishing and my love for fishing stories and fishing banter.
In many of your stories, sinister family relationships create tension that’s a lot like a fish running a line under the water – you never know when it will surface. In terms of crafting a story, how does this tension evolve?
I think my writing really came together when I started to marry the idea of fishing or hunting with family relationships. What I mean is, the structure of a fishing story became the vessel that allowed me to write about relationships. If you think about it, when you’re fishing, you have some idea that a fish could bite at any moment, you anticipate it, but, you have no idea exactly what will happen. The fish might bite. You might get skunked and never have a bite. You might hook into a little dolly and throw it back. You might be fishing for rainbows and hook into a monster king and have a story you’ll tell for the rest of your life. In my story, “The Weight of You,” there’s a similar tension built around what the character Gracie wants to tell her brother, Jack, while they are fishing for kings. You know she has something to tell him something. Will she tell him? Won’t she? Why doesn’t she want to tell him? How life-changing is this thing that she has to tell him? Is she making it out to be a bigger deal than it is? Fishing and fishing stories taught me how to structure tension and anticipation.
Alice McDermott advises writers to do what they can get away with. In your stories, you make effective use of second person (“The Weight of You”) and vignettes (“The Mannequin in Soldotna). To what extent do you advise emerging writers to push the conventions of story?
I taught myself how to think about and write different points of view and structures in this collection by pushing convention. You have to take risks in order to learn. My advice is to write the story in the way it has to be told, whatever that happens to be. Even if the story is a failure, you have learned something that will make you a better writer. I started many of these stories over again because the voice or the point of view or structure wasn’t working or clicking in. Then I would try a different point of view like second person or first person plural and suddenly, the story sailed. But there are definite reasons why these stories are in these varying points of view or structures. And all these things are working together to create compelling characters. For me, structure has to inform meaning and vice versa. When that happens, there’s magic. When that happens, a reader comes away from a story with their heart exploding and their brain buzzing. That’s what my aim is because that’s what I feel when I read something wonderful. I know I have fallen for a story when I have to shake it off and swim back to shore, so to speak. Or rather, I feel as if the universe has tilted. I don’t think you can achieve any of these things without taking risks in some way.
Clearly Alaska is important in your work. What keeps drawing you back?
I was born in Fairbanks and grew up in California, and both my parents grew up in Anchorage and my maternal grandparents homesteaded in Alaska. So all my family stories, the ones that were told over and over again, the ones that became part of the family mythology, were set in Alaska. It’s not that I keep getting drawn back, it’s more that I can’t escape it. And I am my best writer self when I write about Alaska. I have tried to write about other things, but they are never as good.
Part of what makes your work so compelling is an intimate tone that suggests you know what you write. To what extent is your fiction grounded in your own life experiences?
I have been fishing quite a bit so I can place the reader on the river. But more than that, my fishing expert uncle has shared his knowledge with me. I know the fishing jargon from listening to my uncle and his buddies and then from learning to tell my own fishing stories. The starting ideas for many of my stories are often inspired from my own life experiences or stories that I have heard or have been passed down to me. Then the process of writing turns that inspirational kernel into this whole new other thing. I write fiction because I like the freedom of changing what needs to be altered in order to make the story better -- like how every time you tell that story about that monster fish you caught, the fish gains a few pounds and inches. The story stretches. The fish stretches. I like to write in that slinky accordion of a space. Also, I know I often write to work through things I don’t quite understand and I think that gives my work a sense of intimacy as well.
With growing recognition of Alaskan-based fiction by writers like you and David Vann (Legend of a Suicide, Caribou Island), is there any sense that Alaskan fiction might one day be recognized as a regional force of its own, like Southern Ontario Gothic?
Absolutely. I think Alaskan fiction has been emerging with writers such as David Vann and also Seth Kantner, Nancy Lord, Lesley Thomas and others. There is a beautiful collection of diverse Alaskan writing and writers in a book I found called The Alaska Reader: Voices from the North. What’s strange is that although Alaska is part of the United States, Canadian literature seems to be more well-known in the lower 48. Some of my writer friends who are southerners have called my work “Northern Gothic.” I like the sound of that. I hope to be a part of the emergence of Alaskan literature – it would be an honor.
The floor of the evergreen forest surrounding Tutka Bay Lodge was covered with ferns and blooming dogwood during the recent Post-Conference Workshop of the Katchemak Bay Writers’ Conference. Renowned essayist Scott Russell Sanders admired them as we walked with him along the boardwalk that connected the lodge to our writing classroom – a renovated skow named Widgeon, high aground in a nearby cove. For those of us from Southcentral Alaska, a carpet of ferns and dogwood is a familiar sight. But for Sanders, who hails from the hardwood forests of the Midwest, they were something new. Which made them the perfect inspiration for the two days we spent together exploring the meaning of “home” and our place in the natural world, and ways to convey these themes through writing.
Kirsten Dixon (standing), co-owner of Tutka Bay Lodge and generous host of the two-day post-conference workshop, visits with participants and presenter Scott Russell Sanders (3rd on R) and his wife Ruth (4th on R).The ten of us attending the workshop were a diverse group - from highly experienced published authors and writing professors, to scientists hoping to address their topics more personally and creatively, to those of us from varied backgrounds who aspire simply to write more, and to write better. Many of us probably would not characterize ourselves as nature writers, but I doubt that any of us left the sessions untouched by Sanders’s deep concern for our beleaguered planet or his commitment to protecting and healing it through the best means he has to offer: the written word. Sanders, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Indiana University in Bloomington, has published a dozen collections of essays, eight children’s books, five novels, and two short story collections over his 40-year career, and received several prestigious writing awards. It’s safe to say he could write and publish on almost any topic. Yet at this stage in his life, he says, “it’s all about the earth.” He has written extensively about the burden our modern ways are placing on future generations and the planet itself. But he believes we can still change our trajectory. His essay collection Hunting for Hope: A Father’s Journeys (1998) came about after a heated argument with his son, who criticized him for writing pieces that gave young people cause for little but despair. Accepting his son’s challenge, he tried to offer answers to those who would ask “why have hope for the earth?” Many of his writings since, including The Force of Spirit (2000), A Private History of Awe (2006) and A Conservationist Manifesto (2009), have continued to examine this question.
Scott Russell SandersTo Sanders, stories play a powerful role in fostering hope by building our connections to place. All places have stories that need to be told, yet folklorists tell us that in modern times the U.S. is the “least storied” place in the world. Many of the names and legends significant to Native Americans have been lost, and today countless places with rich natural and human histories have no writers, painters, photographers, or artists of any kind to embrace and speak for them. The absence of story makes it easier to dismiss the deep, often unexpressed ties we have to the places we love. We may fear being too sentimental if we reveal our intimate connections. But we should take the risk, Sanders urged: “Sentimentality is asking the reader to feel an emotion your story hasn’t earned,” he said, “it’s not the inclusion of emotion in your story.” And he paraphrased the late poet Richard Hugo: “Any writing that doesn’t at least risk sentimentality isn’t trying hard enough.” It’s better to be honest about emotional attachment and take the risk than to be so fearful you don’t delve in.
Nature writers are often criticized, Sanders says, for “not caring about people.” But to him the health of the earth and the health of people are inextricably linked. And the fact that a writer focuses on the environment – or on poverty, war, or any other topic - doesn’t mean that he or she doesn’t care about other things.
“You can’t write about everything,” he says.
Sanders conveyed several other messages that stood out for me during the far-ranging conversations we exchanged in the tight circle of chairs and pillows at the Widgeon. First, that the impulse to write is a gesture of generosity, and begins with the pleasure of making something you can give. [Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (1983)] Second, that the stories we receive are not given to us for ourselves, but for our people; our visions must be shared. [John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (1932)] And third, that writing can help us re-instill the language of “common good” to the national discourse. While there has always been a tension between individual and collective interests in our country, the language of “common good” that dominated during the founding generations has been largely replaced over the past century with language exalting the “individual.” This undermines our sense of shared responsibility for each other and the land we love. [Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985)]
Ultimately, Sanders says, what writers have in common is a feeling for language and a sense of what moves them. All writers – whatever their genre or focus – should take their writing in the direction that has energy for them and offers new growth. Looking out the windows of the Widgeon to the dappled light of the forest, he put it this way:
"Ask yourself, where are the spruce tips?”
Barbara Hood is a retired attorney and co-owner of Great Harvest Bread Co. in Anchorage. She is a huge fan of 49 Writers and credits the organization with both expanding her own writing interests and creating a community from which all Alaskan writers can draw support and inspiration.
Clint Jefferson FarrThis article, first published in the Juneau Empire on June 26, 2014, is used with permission of the author and Juneau Empire.
Act I – The Hook
You know, there comes a time in everyone’s life where they must balance a rock on their nose and vigorously recite the lines of a play in front of a rowdy bar crowd.
Act II – Historical Context
I am fascinated with stagecraft, but am hesitant to commit. A theater production requires a devotion of time difficult to muster. Rehearsals for my life’s one performance, a Second Stage production at Perseverance, left me feeling like I abandoned my wife and first born. Plus, my take on theater people — “those people” — is they’re a little weird; what with the breathing exercises and amorality.
But don’t get me wrong, I love a good play. Theater is visceral. Something about a story acted in the flesh pulls me in deeper than taking a story through the interface of a movie screen or book. Maybe it’s the danger. Theater is unforgiving. Bad acting and bad writing are obvious on a stage. An actor forgets a line, a prop falls, the power goes out, and it’s not like you can do a reshoot. Theater is more risky. Like a high wire act, the draw may be the possibility of a bloody mess.
Risk of carnage aside, to be part of a good play would be deeply satisfying. I had written a short play. I didn’t know if it was any good. A friend suggested I submit to that theater conference in Valdez.
“What theater conference in Valdez?” I thought.
Act III – The Last Frontier Theater Conference
The Last Frontier Theater Conference is an annual event. Some of the country’s most accomplished theater professionals spend eight days in Valdez encouraging some of the country’s best emerging theater professionals. The conference is complex and dense with opportunities. The engineer behind this amazing event is the much-loved Dawson Moore, organizer of Prince William Sound Community College’s theater program. On the conference website, Moore writes “The Last Frontier Theater Conference strives to create an educational experience for playwrights, actors, directors, and theater enthusiasts that enriches participants’ minds and inspires their souls.”
Moore succeeded wonderfully.
To be at the conference, playwrights must submit a play to Moore. Submissions come from all over the country, the world and, given some of those plays, the cosmos. If the play is worthy, the playwright travels to Valdez. I submitted my play. It was accepted. And so, my gut a writhing snake pit of anxieties, contradictions and issues, I spent a week with “those people” at The Last Frontier Theater Conference.
Act IV – A Typical Day
A typical conference day consisted of play labs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Play labs are the meat of the conference. At the play lab, your work is read by actors, then critiqued by a set of panelists, and then the audience. The panelists are featured artists, working theater professionals, who take time from their brilliantly successful careers to fly to the remote outpost of Valdez to help new talent.
(At first I was mystified, why would these good New Yorkers and Los Angeles types come here? Within a few days, their smiles made it clear. They were having the time of their lives. Sometimes, I think we life-long Alaskans forget how amazing it is up here.)
As the critiques are provided, the playwright nods vigorously, keeps his or her mouth shut, and accepts the comments — good and not so good — with grace; at least that’s the theory. Moore advised playwrights to take notes on everything, smile and understand only about 20 percent of what you hear will be useful to your play; but it’s an invaluable 20 percent.
In the evening, conference attendees were treated to a fully produced play. Evening plays were either works from the featured artists or from plays read the year before. Uniformly impressive, these performances were a highlight.
Following the evening performance was the Fringe Festival at the Fat Mermaid — organized by Juneau’s Bostin Christopher and Chugiak’s Janna Shaw. Here, you might find yourself with a rock on your nose reciting lines in your most stentorian voice. Here, ribald and invigorating short plays were performed. Here, the newbies and old hands mingled, laughed, and hugged in a haze of lunatic creativity.
Some people moved to yet more venues. Most of us went to sleep.
This was a typical day for me. For some there were also writing sessions, 10-minute play slams, monologue and singing workshops. I completely missed the monologue workshop. Both as actor and writer, that would have been fun. Taught by Frank Collison and Laura Gardner, successful working actors in California, the workshop is yet another opportunity for writers to get their work staged and for actors to practice. On the conference’s last day, all the monologues, singing and 10-minute plays were performed. This was a treat. By then, we were all too wasted to sit through any more play labs.
Act V – The Kindness of Strangers
The play that got me to Valdez is called “The Kindness of Strangers.” Two families, the Strangers and the Joneses get together over soup for a family party. The Joneses are impossibly perfect; difficult to keep up with. The Strangers are kind. The Joneses brag of their accomplishments and when a crack in their façade appears, hilarity ensues. At least that is what supposed to happen.
My play was read early in the week. I directed one rehearsal the day before. True to my organizational skills, character names were transposed on the script, there were not enough stands, and I stunk from flop sweat. The actors were polite and understanding, particularly since this was my first play and first conference. One actor even found my play “interesting!”
Wait a minute, isn’t “interesting” the word used to describe a potentially disastrous blind date to a friend?
At the hour of my actual reading, I was terrified. I paced off a week’s worth of calories. My brain sparked like a smashed transformer. I had just met my lead panelist John DiFusco. DiFusco is a Vietnam veteran who wrote a famous and successful play about his experience called “Tracers”
The man’s background got me to thinking — which is a terrible thing.
How would a man who’s dodged bullets take my 12-minute fluffy attempt at humor. I envisioned disaster. I envisioned this wizened veteran, still quite imposing, slamming the play down in disgust, maybe ripping it in half as he ripped my effort as a total waste of his time. “I SERVED, dammit! I can’t comment on this s&^t!”
In reality, of course, DiFusco was gracious and kind. He complimented my farce. I paid attention, and as the week progressed I came to appreciate DiFusco’s feedback to playwrights; how his feedback focused on a play’s feel rather than technical prowess. As for “Strangers,” the audience laughed when they were supposed to. What more could you want? If there was any commonality to the comments it was that viewers wanted more. (Better, I suppose, than wanting less). As my new friend Jacqueline put it, “they wanted more soup in the soup.” Act VI – Confidence The first couple of days were rough. I’m new to this crowd. Basically, I smiled my way through a pervading sense of doom. I considered dropping the charade of playwright and fleeing back to Juneau. And I was nervous not just for my play’s performance, but for all the other playwrights as well. Empathy’s a b*tch. I was a wreck.
So, I have confidence issues. One conference-goer suggested I work to develop more...
“Confidence!” I said, “Ingratiating humility is totally my shtick!” It’s part of my overall effort in Life to keep everyone’s expectations low. That way, mere competence is amazing.
Folks don’t always appreciate ingratiating humility. It’s annoying. So I vowed to be more confident when and if there’s a next time. I mean, “when there’s a next time.” In fact, next time, I will describe myself in the program as “outrageously talented” and that my performances and plays are “must-see events.”
Almost all the conference attendees I met were wonderful. That helped. I made fast friends with a number of terribly talented people: 20-year-olds, 80-year-olds, New Yorkers, Texans, locals and more. There was Catherine with an ear for café chats, Antoinette the master of Southern gothic, and Jean the matriarch of Anchorage theater.
On the strength of my new friends’ encouragement, the Last Frontier Theater Conference became a place to gain confidence, a place to try new things, a place to challenge the boundaries of your comfort zone, a place to sing karaoke.
Hanging in the Boardroom after the Fringe, a group of talented conference participants sang pop and jazz. As I loosened up under the influence of a couple of IPAs I decided I could sing too. And not only could I sing, I could sing Elvis. So I sang “Only Fools Rush In,” and wouldn’t you know it? The crowd actually clapped; legitimately clapped. Granted, the crowd was only four people … and they were new friends … and drunk, but still. So, emboldened by the praise and one more beer I went for Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay” - perhaps the world’s most perfect song. The crowd was more subdued on that one. Figuring they hadn’t heard me well enough, I tried for Jimmy Dean’s “Big John,” a country proto-rap recounting the tale of a doomed miner. There was silence; silence.
Lesson: Yes, have confidence, but know your limitations.
Act VII –Dénouement
I’m still not sure if I’ll ever be one of “those people.” I can say that after Valdez, I wouldn’t mind. I am much more confident in stagecraft as a storytelling outlet for me. Theater is an inherent part of living. We’ve been telling tales since the Stone Age. Our stories teach us about kindness, sex, greed, survival and family — how to be fully human. The conference allowed full immersion in theater and creativity. It unleashed a motivation. I will try this again. Try writing a play. See if it gets in. See if the next time is as amazing as this time…
Lights fade to dark as the writer makes soup at his computer.
In the darkness, the sounds of typing.
Typing sounds fade.
49 Writers member Clint Jefferson Farr is a father and husband. He loves his family, friends, dog, and Juneau. Clint has written about film and television for the Juneau Empire since October of 2011. He dreams of writing and hosting an Alaska tourism show. Clint can be reached at cjfarr (at) hotmail.com.
John StraleyI thought I would write about craft questions I have never taught or lectured on before. I’m going to keep my posts short and I hope to respond to questions that may come in over the month of July and enter into a dialogue with any of you who are reading these posts. I’m going to start before the beginning of the drafting process, before the beginning of the idea making, before the spacing out, or staring into the firelight stage. This is my favorite part of the creative process. This pre-beginning stage has become more and more important to me as I become more experienced and want to avoid costly, time sucking mistakes. It’s during this stage when I ask myself questions and decide a few things, which will determine how I’m going to spend my time in the months to come.The first thing I try to imagine is this: How big a box am I going to need to mail the manuscript? Is it a brick of a book or is it a novella? This is something I need to sense even before I know anything else, I can usually tell from my energy level right from the get go… of course things can change and I’m open to that, but right now, what do I want, a big book or a slender one? I must decide.What kind of story is this story I want to tell? Memoir? Mystery? Fiction? Nonfiction? I have been staggered by how far along people have gone in writing manuscripts without deciding whether their story is a novel or a memoir. I myself made this mistake with a first novel/ memoir that never saw completion. This is something that should be decided soon and definitively. Many things flow from this decision, many things that will make life much easier. I must decide how I will describe this book to my editor, or to my sister before I start to write it. I can always change my mind. But this is a decision that must be made. The thought that goes into a children’s pat-a-bunny book, or a young adult Alaskan plant identifying book, or a techno-thriller, or a lesbian vampire mystery, are all different kinds of thinking, don’t waste your time thinking of one when you really want to write another. Close on the heels of this decision: how much of my own experience is going to be mixed up in the telling of this story? Do I want to write something where there will have to be a lot of detailed research? Do I need to travel? Then I better travel.Do I want to use what I've got already: then I make a list of places I've been recently or experiences that are vivid in my memory and mix those into my dream bag for consideration of the story. Similarly experience: I might need to research certain experiences. Use my own of course, but do I need to add to it for this particular book? Then I need to make a list of things I need to do.The final question I ask myself is: what am I good at as a writer and what am I crappy at? How do I use what I’m good at to the best advantage in structuring a story (without making the story one dimensional) and how do I minimize what I am crappy at, while hopefully improving at it?Okay. So far this blog post sounds like the narration from a Disney film. Maybe this will help: I wrote a book called The Big Both Ways. It is a crime story that followed a broken down logger named Slippery Wilson on an adventure up the inside passage in a dory, with an anarchist, her niece and a caged cockatiel. Before I even knew what it was about or what I wanted to do I asked myself these questions. Here is basically what I came up with: I knew I wanted to write a long book. All my other books had clocked in around 80,000 words, I had read a bunch of long books the winter before and loved them. I liked the time the authors got to spend with the characters. I loved the feeling I had as a reader getting to know the characters and the settings. When I finished reading these fat books I honestly felt I was losing some friends. I missed them. I wanted to try something like that. So. I wanted to ship it in a big box. My editor kept honing it down and down. But it started off fat. In my mind anyway. What kind of book was it? I called it “an Adventure Story” then later I called it “an Historical Crime Story” but when my first publisher published it they called it a “mystery” because that’s where I was most commonly found. That’s my last known address and if you are looking for me that is where you would look. So fine. It’s a mystery. How much of my own experience went into it? How much research? I love research if I can afford it. At that time of my life I was freelancing. I spent a lot of time researching The Big Both Ways. I brought a 40 foot boat up the Inside Passage. I read everything I could find on some of the characters I discovered. I wandered the old deserted cannery in Buttedale, which is a haunted movie set if there ever was one. I bought a rowing dory and did some rowing but not long distances. I spent hours talking with Bob DeArmond the famous and now departed historian who had rowed the trip himself in the thirties. I loved every bit of it. I had already done a great deal of research on the IWW and the radical labor movement, and I had tons of experience on small boats along the inside passage. Then: what was I good at and what did I suck at? I felt I was good at descriptive writing. I could capture a cold wet beach scene. Birds taking off from the water in a bay, whales rising from still water, these things I can capture and given a free rein, I could clog up hundreds of pages with that stuff. What I felt I sucked at was sustaining a narrative, keeping the tension moving for a long novel. Especially when they were rowing for some 600 miles, which is pretty Goddamn slow to begin with. So I had to have a hop-scotch plot line of multiple pursuers heading up the coast. I had to have an old steamship break down to let one of the pursuers have time to catch up and another one mangle her hand to slow her down, so that everyone got to Juneau on time for the historically accurate labor riot at the AJ Mine in Juneau. One last thing, I love journey stories. They have a long and glorious history. They are very old, also they are deeply rooted to geography which is naturally suited to my strengths (“birds and weather and shit” as one of my editors once said), so this too went into my decision to make a long journey a part of my decision to write a long book, that and reading Bob DeArmond’s Voyage in a Dory. I like The Big Both Ways; that is I enjoyed how it turned out. It got good reviews all around but not much notice on the east coast. It had a troubled publishing history which is not very interesting, but it came out okay. I think the reason it did was partly because of the thinking that went into it before I started writing it. Next time we’ll talk about the 'staring into the fire' period of the beginning: head scratching and list making.
John Straley is a poet, novelist, and a private investigator. He has published eight novels and one book of poetry, and was Alaska's twelfth Writer Laureate. He and his wife Jan live in a bright green house near Old Sitka Rocks.
I’ll start, as I sometimes do, with a confession: I’ve not been especially interested in crowdfunding books. At the heart of my not-especially-well-founded objection was the thought that readers are already investing in my books by purchasing them, so how could I ask them to make an even greater investment up front, to help me produce them? Then Karen E. Lewis, illustrator of my book Amazing Alaska, send me a link to her crowdfunded appeal on Kickstarter for a project called Grandmother Fish. When I clicked through on the link, the proverbial light bulb went on. No matter how it’s published, every book has investors. First and foremost, there’s the author, who invests no small amount of time and—in many cases—cold, hard cash, paying for publicists, author tours, book launch events—and that’s not even getting into the costs of independently publishing a book with a professionally designed cover and top-notch editing. In every aspect, the traditional publishing industry is all about investing in a product. As with all investors, the key players, be they agents or editors or publishers, are taking a risk on their investment in hopes of a return. What I didn’t get until I looked at Karen’s project is that investors in a well-crafted crowdfunded book project also get returns of a kind, in the form of creative products (and involvement) that they’ll find nowhere else. The best-crafted projects make them genuine partners. The best part about crowdfunding your book? You’ve got a ready-made, boots-on-ground team of fans, aka word-of-mouth. With 26 days to go, the Grandmother Fish project has already exceeded its goal, while other book projects by friends of mine have gone unfunded. What’s the difference? · For this project, there’s real value for investors at each level. Even at the lowest level ($15), you get an e-book (including artwork), wallpaper images for your computer, and your name listed in the back matter of both the electronic and print editions.· There’s a limited sponsorship level, for early backers—the sort of extra-value, limited offer deal that everyone loves. (Yup, it’s sold out!)· There’s a pledge level that allows you to give to others—a matching book shipped to an education-oriented nonprofit.· There’s ample evidence that the project is well-conceived and professional: video footage of children’s reactions as the book is read to them, a complete pdf of the book in draft, testimonials about the writer and artist.· There’s humor. Without getting into a debate over creationism vs. evolution, you have to love that a project subtitled “A Child’s First Book of Evolution” offers a special “Wait, I’m a Creationist” level of sponsorship: “Do you *hate* the idea that we're teaching little kids about Evolution? Want to burn the books in protest? At this special level you get ten copies of the book, plus a specially illustrated book of matches so you can light the pile of books on fire as soon as they arrive!”· Karen and writer Jonathan Tweet, who Karen describes as the real engine behind the project and the kickstarter campaign, have covered all the bases. Even the “Risks and challenges” section points to the inevitable success of this project: “The book is written and the art is underway. The major content questions are settled, and all that remains is putting the book together. Even if Jonathan or Karen were hit by a bus, the rest of the team could carry the project to completion.”· It’s part of something larger: “If Grandmother Fish is successful, it could be the start of a line of books and games that introduce science concepts to children. We have already made valuable contacts in the science-education community that could help us succeed with future books, games, and apps.”· It includes Dino-Wars (who doesn’t love Dino-Wars?), meaning investors get to be part of the creative process: “We’re going to include one dinosaur in the book, and as a backer you get to help choose which one. When you pledge, leave a comment telling us whether you want Karen to illustrate a Tyrannosaurus Rex or a Triceratops.”· It’s clear that the author and illustrator have already made a major investment. Of the author’s journey: “He started the project fifteen years ago when his daughter was little. Last year, he added the interactive motions and sounds, which make the book click with young children. Reactions to the book were so positive that he decided to raise funds for it here on Kickstarter. Is the world ready for an evolution book for preschoolers? Jonathan’s betting that it is.”· It’s a great project—well-conceived and professionally rendered.· Last (but most definitely not least), it’s clear why this particular book needs to be crowdfunded: “US publishers consider evolution to be too “hot” a topic for children, but with your help we can make this book happen ourselves.” None of this happened by accident. As Karen points out, the book’s author, Jonathan Tweet, “worked hard to understand his audience and gain support, reviews and attention for the book ahead of time. He is also working with a Kickstarter consultant to understand what works - and what doesn’t - for social media crowd funding. And he’s still hard at work - setting up interviews and making daily posts and updates to the project's Facebook account and Kickstarter page. It’s a full time job and hard-hitting publicity tour before the book is even finished.” For her part, Karen adds, “I’m not a natural self-promoter. I work hard to find ways to promote the project with posts, in context, that have integrity. Talking about work in progress or the development of sketches and characters, for instance, feels much more natural than shouting BUY MY BOOK!!! BUY MY BOOK!!! over and over again. She also notes the importance of having a project that you—and your backers—believe in. “While this may seem obvious to a (passionate) writer or illustrator of children’s books,” she adds, “it’s important to note that there’s no guarantee of making a bunch of money. We set modest but realistic goals that, now met, will make it possible to produce a wonderful little book and cover our basic costs.” The best part, according to Karen? “We get to make our book! . . . which is pretty wonderful, as is getting feedback and support from a community of folks who think our concept and sketches have promise.” Co-founder of 49 Writers, Deb Vanasse has authored more than a dozen books. Her most recent work includes Cold Spell, a novel now available for pre-order as part of the Alaska Literary Series by the University of Alaska Press, and No Returns, a novel for young readers, co-authored with Gail Giles, a 2014 release from Running Fox Books. Deb lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. This post first ran at www.selfmadewriter.blogspot.com. Would you like to write a guest post relevant to Alaska’s literary community? Email 49writers (at) gmail.com or debvanasse (at) gmail.com.
Carol captures yours truly note-taking furiouslyThis plenary session on inspiration and creating a writing life was moderated by Erin Coughlin Hollowell and featured panelists Kwame Dawes, Lee Martin, Eva Saulitis, and Sherry Simpson.
Lee Martin kicked off the conversation by asserting that he believes more in perspiration than inspiration. However, there's always something that brings him to the page, a story out there waiting to be told. With nonfiction it's usually a question that's bothering him—why people did what they did, why he did what he did. In the process, he often discovers things he didn't even know he had questions about. By the end, there's not necessarily an answer but the questioning has deepened a few layers. When he's not writing he's engaging with the world; then he retreats to his writing space where he decides what to make of that engagement. Pay attention to the present moment or you miss a lot. In closing, he quoted Isak Dinesen, who wrote "a little each day, without hope and without despair."
Eva Saulitis likes to write her way into inspiration. Tell yourself you only have to write one good sentence a day. Words are like keys on a chain, you just need to find one good one that opens the lock to let you in. Like Lee, she encourages you to "engage with the nitty gritty of the world." It's almost an alchemical relationship: writing feeds life, life feeds writing.
Sherry Simpson and Erin HollowellKwame Dawes declared immediately that he hates the inspiration question: he doesn't know and if he did know it would mess everything up! A better question is "how do you prepare yourself to write?" He's motivated by the desire to create language and enjoys the small victories of writing—that's what makes him come back. The key is finding what drives you to the page. Everyone has a good idea, the difference is skill and craft. If you have a good idea—write, using the craft you've learned. He thinks writer's block is a great invention: sometimes you just don't have anything to write. Inspiration and writer's block are two sides of the same coin.
Sherry Simpson related the story of her fascination as a child with the original tale of The Little Mermaid (not the Disneyfied version), whose fate never failed to move her to tears. In it you find beauty and love and sorrow, all parts of the full dimension of humanity. This is what we learn from art and life, the emotional effect of crafted words. Sherry has spent her whole life writing towards that feeling. She reminded us that inspiration is "the drawing in of breath." We need to fill ourselves up through life: decide what matters, discard the parts that don't.
As we heard in other sessions at this conference, there is no formula, no right or wrong answer. It's a personal journey and we need to find our own path, which comes from both knowing ourselves and being willing to experiment and take risks.
Reading Like a Writer
It was a relief when Sherry Simpson gave us permission to first read a book through and experience it for pleasure. The good books always carry me away, and only afterwards do I find myself wondering how the author pulled it off. So no need to chide ourselves for not paying attention to craft on the initial reading. That, of course, is the case with good writing—when the not-so-good writing isn't working, we quickly wonder "why am I losing interest?" That's an important question to answer, lest we fall into the same trap ourselves.
What we should be asking, when we're ready to examine a writer's craft more closely, is "how does this story communicate meaning?" Good examples to analyze are "Death of a Pig" by E.B. White and "Someone I Love" by Naomi Shihab Nye. What are the elements of the story that make it work? What is it about the writer's style, their diction, how they structure the story and the release of information, that resonates with us? In each of the above examples, the writer lets the reader know that the narrator has already come to terms with their loss, which reassures the reader that we're going to come out of this at the other end.
Why did the writer choose to begin the story where he/she did? What metaphors are used and why are they successful? Good imagery is fresh and surprising. As Kathleen Dean Moore said, metaphor should be "astounding but inevitable." We tend to see the strengths and weakness of our own writing in that of others, so pay attention to what you notice. When it comes to making choices about language and structure, remember that the editor in your head should be advocating for the reader!
Writing the Things We Carry
Scott Russell Sanders reads from his own essay "Buckeye"This session with Eva Saulitis on object poems was instructive for writers of all genres. "The objects that we hold dear, save, hoard, squirrel away, and/or use on a daily basis help to define us." Tangible things can act as triggers to our writing and ground our ideas. They also offer the possibility of powerful metaphor.
For those of you interested in the object poem, Robert Bly dedicated a whole chapter to it in News of the Universe. For examples of the form, look no farther than Pablo Neruda, who brought the ode down to earth by writing about the artichoke, a chestnut on the ground, onion soup, a hummingbird, and even socks! In his celebration of the ordinariness of these things, he connects them to the whole world.
Here's a partial list of object categories to get you started:
Given away to the second-hand store
Let go of in a move
Broken or awaiting fixing
Scared you as a child
Given to you that you don't like
Used in hobby
Belong to someone who's dead
Tools you use (Read Scott Russell Sanders' wonderful essay "Buckeye" in Terrain.org.)
Taken everywhere you go (non-essential)
If you do write an object poem, why not submit it to the Alaska Shorts feature on this blog?