When the Rasmuson Foundation announces its annual Individual Artist Awards, it’s always exciting to see Alaska’s creative community acknowledged and supported in this way. Attendees at the awards reception earlier this week included trustees of the Western States Arts Federation, who were in town for a meeting. I happened to be standing next to the WESTAF table when Diane Kaplan, President and CEO of the Rasmuson Foundation, was describing the awards program and detailing how much the foundation has given out in the last decade. We already appreciate how fortunate Alaskans are to have a foundation that invests significantly in Alaskan arts and literature but you never feel so blessed as when your peers from Outside spontaneously express their astonishment and admiration at such bounty. For a full listing of the awards, visit the Rasmuson Foundation website. Sitka basket and textile weave Teri Rofkar was named as the 2013 Rasmuson Distinguished Artist, and her work is amazing, so check it out.
In the realm of writers, the literary artists named as 2013 Fellows ($18,000) are Joan Kane, Erin Hollowell, and Arlitia Jones. Joan will use her Fellowship to advance some current projects (poetry and fiction) through travel, research, and time to focus on her writing. Erin will support the release of her poetry collection, Pause, Traveler, and create new work. Playwright and poet Arlitia will complete her latest drama, Hellraiser, about the life of labor organizer Mother Jones. 2013 Project Awards ($7,500) go to Christine Byl, Lucian Childs, Joan Nockels Wilson, and Merry Ellefson. Christine will launch a national book tour this year following the publication of Dirt Work. Lucian plans to travel to writers’ conferences and retreats to use the inspiration, connections, and learning to create five new stories and curate a collection for publication. Joan will take a sabbatical from her job as an attorney to complete the manuscript of her spiritual memoir. And Merry will further develop a script for a play that explores the issues surrounding homelessness in Juneau. Congratulations to everyone who was honored in this way. We look forward to seeing new creative work from Alaska's talented writers.
Are you a published writer with a strong teaching background? Do you feel passionate about a particular aspect of your craft? Or perhaps you have expertise in a special topic relating to the writing life. If so, we are now accepting proposals for our fall courses and want to hear from you! The deadline for proposals is June 15. For more information and to submit a proposal, go to the Instruction/Teach for Us page on the 49 Writers website. Last week you were promised nuggets from Pitfalls of the Memoir, Debra Gwartney’s evening talk on May 6. Drawing on her 15 years of teaching memoir writing, Debra has identified three primary pitfalls facing those who write personal narrative.
Pitfall #1—The “I” is underdeveloped as a character. The “I” or narrator is both the filter and the guide, and must be presented as a specific, legible character. The reader can’t enter the scene unless she knows who’s telling the story. Also, too often writers introduce an unspecific “we” into the story; only use “we” intentionally, as a way to get to know the protagonist.
Pitfall #2—Scenes are not rendered in a way to move the story forward and/or reveal character. A good scene brings the reader clear inside the experience with you, so provide specific details that help the reader enter. A scene isn’t static, it contains action that reveals a dynamic between characters. Be clear what the narrator’s role is in this scene; something has to happen that’s internal. For more on writing scenes, read Debra's blog post on the topic.
Pitfall #3—Past versus present tense. Memoir’s natural tense is simple past, as past tense allows for the reflective narrator. Memoir is not about what you remember but whyyou remember it in that way; why you are attached to this particular version of this slice of history. The “I” of memoir is of two strands: the character “I” in the action, and the narrator “I” who has lived past the event and is looking back on it with more insight and wisdom. Here it’s important to write about the dynamic rather than circumstance. Write intoself-implication: the narrator played a role in what happened.
A good example of a memoir that delivers on all three points is This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. For more insight into the memoir, read what Sven Birkets (The Art of Time in Memoir), Phillip Lopate, Vivian Gornick (The Situation and the Story), and Patricia Hampl have to say on the subject.
Applications for the one-month Fall 2013 Island Institute collaborative residency in Sitka must be received by May 20. This year, they are inviting two participants who wish to collaborate on a project, or two participants who each have individual projects and who anticipate synergistic benefit from each other's presence. At least one of the applicants must be a writer with an interest in the Island Institute's scope of work. The second applicant may also be a writer, or he or she may work in another field (e.g. arts, science, history, philosophy). More information here. The deadline for the Winter 2014 residency is September 1, and for the Spring 2013 residency it's December 1.
Here’s a tip from 49 Writers member Arne Bue – thanks for passing along, Arne! "I am a Tablet user. Often I use the Flipboard app. You may not know that with ease you can publish your own magazine on Flipboard to promote your work. Here’s a link to Flipboard on the PC: http://editor.flipboard.com/. Magazine creation is a breeze, even for me!"
Despite the weather, we're moving into summer, which means conference season. The Last Frontier Theatre Conference is coming up Saturday May 18--that's this weekend! Check their website for full details. And for once this conference doesn't conflict with the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference in Homer (June 14-18). Registration is still open, and a lot of us are very excited to have Naomi Shihab Nye as keynote speaker--a beloved presence in the writing world, known mostly for her essays and poetry but also a fiction writer! Before that, the North Words Symposium will happen in Skagway May 29-June 1 with another exciting keynote speaker, renowned environmental writer Kathleen Dean Moore.
Tomorrow, Saturday May 18, 6-8pm, drawing near the end of her book tour, Christine Byl will be reading and signing copies of Dirt Work at Gullivers Books in Fairbanks.
A reminder: Alaska Writers Guild's May program features editor Rebecca Goodrich in a presentation on how first lines can make or break a work. Tuesday, May 21, 7-8.30pm, Jitters Coffee House, Eagle River. Afterward, AWG members are invited to submit the first 250 words of a manuscript for critique.
Note from Andromeda: At this moment I'm headed south and east to be alone for a week, working on my novel at a writers' hotel in the Virginia countryside. I considered applying for a more formal residency, but the deadlines, timelines and locations didn't match up with my own needs to do some concentrated research in a specific locale. For that reason, I put together my own self-funded, low budget retreat (no applications! no potential rejections!) -- but I love the other kind as well. Heck, I like any kind of retreat, even if it's inside one's own home. My only requirements are: solitude, limited or no Internet access, and lots of good drinks and snacks (I just loaded up on cheese, crackers, apples, salami, and wine; no, it's not a good way to lose weight, but it will be a good way to get some pages done).
Because I'm traveling, I decided to use today's post to re-run a favorite 2009 blogpost by Nancy Lord, which I remember whetting my appetite for both travel and writing. If you're more inclined to an accidental retreat, try this 2011 post by Rich Chiappone. And if you've got your own wonderful retreat planned for the near future, or know of some great opportunity that might stir someone to beat a retreat, let us know.
By Nancy Lord
It happens that I’m at a writing retreat -- colony, residency, whatever name you want to give it -- right now. It also happens that (I’m quite sure of this) I’ve been to more writing retreats (15 different ones, some more than once) than any other Alaska writer, which must make me an expert on this subject. ...
How do you find these places? They exist all over the country and the world. Some are for writers only, while most host a mix of artists. Many of them belong to an organization called The Alliance of Artists Communities, which has a helpful website. Go there, click on “residencies,” and start dreaming—or filling out applications. (Note -- there is a $25 annual subscription fee for detailed listings.)
You’ll find that some colonies charge large fees, some small, some charge you nothing (except you have to get yourself there), and some offer scholarships that include travel costs and stipends. Of course, the “free” ones are the most selective, so when you apply you will want to impress them with your very best work! (The admission panels base acceptances mostly on work sample quality, though they also look to see that you have a well-thought-out plan for using your time, and for diversity—which is where being from Alaska can help!)
There is (at least) one Alaska retreat program—a small one operated by the Island Institute in Sitka (which also hosts the summer Sitka Symposium.) This is not a colony but an opportunity for one writer at a time to be in residence and do his/her work. I had the privilege once, for a winter month, and loved getting to know Sitka and some of its people as well as taking advantage of the two libraries there.
So, where am I now? Ragdale Foundation, in Lake Forest, Illinois. I’m starting the last of my four weeks with eleven other artists (writers, visual artists, performance artists, and one composer) in a complex of buildings surrounding what was once the summer home of famous Chicago architect Howard Shaw. I didn’t bring my camera (my habit is to bring nothing with me except what I need for whatever writing project I’m focused on) so I can’t include any photos here—of my charming room in the old house, or the (snow-covered) gardens and prairie out back, or the group of us celebrating on Inaugural Day. You will have to imagine—or look at photos on the Ragdale website.
Typical day? Wake up slowly, help myself to breakfast (and the New York Times) in kitchen, go to desk and work without interruption. When the hunger pains start, head for kitchen again—the other one, the one with last night’s steak and mashed potato left-overs in the fridge. Back to work. Mid-afternoon, walk on the prairie, look at the remains of a rabbit and try to figure out who (fox, hawk, owl?) ate it. (Another day I might walk the mile to the library in town.) Then, sit at desk, write two pages and delete three. Resist checking e-mail. Dinner at 6:30 (created by Linda, our marvelous chef), with wine we take turns buying. Evening: reading in a comfy chair in my well-lit room, journal writing, trying to solve the writing problem I was having all day. Tonight, a break from that: fellow resident Marianne Boruch, a fabulous poet, and I, feeling much less than fabulous but with some new pages that give me a certain satisfaction, will present short readings in the Ragdale living room. No one has to come, but everyone will. The conversations may go on long afterwards, there by the fire, the next day, years after.
Not everyone, I know, can leave family and work responsibilities to go off and write in a retreat setting. Not every writer even wants to. But if you want and you can, I’m here to attest that it can be very, very nice—so very affirming of yourself as a writer—to accept such a gift.
Some flim-flam grand slam, glitchy as religion, this is, with its chronic key-and-padlock, hit-and-missy cerebellum, its sturm and drangish, bum- rushed, all-thumbed cockalorum. —from “Inspiration” by Hailey Leithhauser (featured on Poetry Daily, May 10).
My friend says we all have a hungry ghost inside us. Both Buddhism and Taoism recognize this entity, which can arise from neglect or desertion of an ancestor. My friend isn’t using the term in that traditional sense, of course, but metaphorically; a hungry ghost can never be satisfied.
Hungry ghost. The term popped into my mind unexpectedly this morning as I walked with the dogs through the woods, searching for signs of spring. I was, myself, hungry, gulping in a kelpy scent coming off the bay, a smell I associate with the open ocean. Salty, low-tide, far-away. After a day of sun and promise, this morning a smoky gray pall had greeted my eyes when I’d pulled back the curtains. No shadows. No bright patches. Cool, only 40 degrees, trees leafless, ground wet, fifty shades of brown, sullen. Spring, so corporeal yesterday, transformed into a ghost again.
Writing is like that. The hungry ghost craves inspiration. Yet it’s hit and missy, as Leithhauser puts it. Unreliable. There’s a key. There’s a padlock. Some days the key in your hand just won’t fit. Some days, inspired, words, true ones, flow from head to hand to page. Some days, dull words clomp, clad in cement boots. You sound so damn stilted. Years ago, daunted by my first writing retreat down in Sitka, a wise poet-friend said: “One good sentence a day. One sentence worth keeping. What if that were your goal?” One inspired sentence. A hungry ghost whispering, more.
But inspiration comes unbidden, like the rare sighting of an owl or wolf in the woods. How many times have I walked the loop full of expectation – down the dirt road, a left turn at the dead spruce, a short walk along the wetland, a jump across the ditch, hands in the earth pulling me up the other side into the birch forest at the edge of the slough, stopping every twenty feet to scan for moose or coyotes or a bear – and saw nothing I hungered for. This morning I saw: in a copse of birches, the tree stand someone long ago had nailed up, collapsed. What did it mean? All the obvious metaphors drifted by, like dead leaves down the rivulets in the slough below. Ideas, inspiration. The support beams had rotted underneath, spilling the plywood sheet to the earth. Nothing more.
A writer is a hungry ghost. For a writer, a walk is never simply a walk. It’s a collection trip. It’s a beseeching sort of prayer. Inspire me. Shake me up out of this lethargy. Knife a hole out of this heavy sky. Wake me up. Teach me how to see. Tweet a first line in my ear.
And when the prayers go unanswered, we sit before the page anyway. We walk the same trail, over and over, laying down a muddy path through familiar woods, collecting what’s given, squirreling it away, using it later. Things are always falling in the woods. Last winter, a beautiful birch. A tree stand. One spruce tree in a grouping had died. I stood and puzzled at its rusty needled self. What went wrong?
There are two sides to the hungry ghost of writing, a useful one, and a destructive one. How many rituals do we devise, telling ourselves we must enact them in order to write? Time, a certain span of it. This pen. That notebook. Quote tacked to the wall above desk, stack of poetry books beside computer. Coffee made just so. Quiet. This place, that music. And when we do sit down to write, never enough pages. Never the right voice or word. And when we publish, never enough praise. Never enough attention. Ad nauseum. That hungry ghost is nauseous, of course, throat stretched tight, mouth wide, stomach gnawing its own insides raw.
Day of dank, exposed gray mudflats, drizzle, air almost particulate in its graininess and weight. Day inarticulate, brooding. Nothing green poking up out of the dead and fallen meadow grass. I followed the trail of a moose. Its dropping here and there were fresh, gleaming. I could see its prints in the potato patch. I think it’s a she, trying to find a place to bed down to give birth. I pocketed my observations, stopped to note the progress of the rhubarb nubs pushing up out of the earth. I remembered yellow birch leaves, edges burnt brown, mottling the surface of that plywood tree stand last fall, and all the falls before.
And yet. The hungry ghost is also the best of us. The hungry ghost urges, tugs, niggles, nags. The hungry ghost drives us out the door, a journal in our pocket. It urges us to look, to pause, to listen to the wetland surging with snowmelt, to listen for our own voice buried deep as a scaly fiddlehead under a bed of leaf-rot. It urges us to write, and not always what we think we should be writing. What the hell does this mean, the fallen tree stand, the hidden moose, the trail I walk and walk, repetitively, leaving my boot prints. Bear witness to this life, begs the hungry ghost. Bear witness.
What is writing all about? Which hungry ghost do we feed? It is humbling to sit before the page each day. The page, like this gray, uninspiring sky, like this empty, waiting woods. It is humbling to strive to get perception translated into words, knowing we will never get it exactly right. To find that one inspired sentence. To wait, day after day, to cultivate patience in the midst of hunger.
When I teach a class, I sometimes begin by asking people the simple question: Why do you write? No one answers: for attention, for praise. They answer like people who’ve just staggered out of a desert and are asked “Why do you gulp water like that?” Thirsty ghost. Ignore it and you suffer.
And if we think it gets easier, this hungering and thirsting after words, here is what John McPhee wrote about first drafts in a letter to his daughter, who was struggling with writing: Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something –anything—as a first draft.
And then, and then, I swear to you, here at my kitchen table, laboring over this blog post, flinging broken tree stands and moose turds at my computer screen, plopped down in this same spot where I sit every day, a white blur catches my eye, a swooping something, and then I hear strange cries. I open the door, and the cries are loud now, bleating, beseeching, something in pain (you know what it is, the dying rabbit-baby squeal) and then a snowshoe hare suddenly bounds through the underbrush, and on a fallen tree, sits a blue-gray goshawk, baffled, looking this way, that, wondering how the hell that pealing, frantic, fearful beast escaped its grasp. What’s its ratio, I wonder, success to failure? No matter. Driven by hunger, the goshawk flies up into the trees, to begin the hunt again.
I write to feed the hungry ghost, the one for whom inspiration, ever just out of reach, leaps like a self-saved rabbit through the trees. I write because it takes me underneath the mundane, the slog, the muck, the sleep-walk, the petty, the dull, the bored. I write because it gives me back my most-alive life.
Why do you do it? Why do you write? Tell me about your hungry ghost.
Joan Kane (copyright Seth Kantner) Joan Kane is Inupiaq with family from King Island and Mary's Igloo, Alaska. She earned her bachelor's degree from HarvardCollegeand her MFA from ColumbiaUniversity. Kane's awards include a 2007 individual artist award from the Rasmuson Foundation, a 2009 Connie Boochever Fellowship from the Alaska State Council on the Arts, a National Native Creative Development Program grant, and a Whiting Writers' Award for her first book, The Cormorant Hunter's Wife. She received the 2012 Donald Hall Prize for her second book, Hyperboreal. She is recipient of the 2013 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Literature Fellowship, the 2013 Creative Vision Award from United States Artists, and will be the 2014 Indigenous Writer in Residence at the School for Advanced Research and faculty for the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Along with her husband and sons, she lives in Anchorage, Alaska. She is currently fundraising through United States Artists to crowdsource an important project, Ugiuvaŋmiuguruŋa, that would take her and others to her remote and now-uninhabited ancestral home for the first time.
The upcoming book includes your poem “Disappearer”, which begins with an epigraph by Lisa Stevenson that says “Disappearance, extinction, the inability to survive as a race—these are the anxieties of an Inuit modernity. They lie at the fuzzy border between cultural and biological extinction.” To what extent does that anxiety inform your work, your parenting, your desire to finally reach KingIslandfor the first time? With the recent death of Helen Pushruk, my grandfather’s sister, there is only one King Islander remaining alive from the generation in which people lived complete subsistence lifestyles and were born and raised and lived on the island. My grandfather did not ever learn to speak (or write) a single word of English. The King Island dialect is so unique and particular that each time we lose people whose first language is in our dialect, whose verbal and conceptual grounding is on King Island itself, we lose a considerable bit of our identity, our culture. I’m desperate to bring my children, along with our cousins and aunts and uncles and other relatives, to the island so that their identity can be affirmed at an early age. I want their existence to be informed by the very harsh and very beautiful environment that our ancestors and family survived and thrived in for thousands of years. I don’t want a momentary set of policy decisions by the federal government last century to defeat any chances of King Islanders from being fully self-determined in the present and future. To my mind, that self-determination needs to be contextualized in the notion of “selfhood” that is informed by the home that our mothers and aunts and uncles and others grew up in and knew. I mention Helen not just because her passing was deeply sorrowful for our community and family. I mention it also because she was very patient in teaching me highly specific things about our dialect. She and her husband Simon Pushruk used to help raise me at their house at Heintzelman projects in downtown Anchorage. I try to keep up a lot of translation work. I researched the word kavitagzaqtaaŋa for a long time — finally I asked her. It is a word that refers to the sound the wind makes as it shakes/slams against a seal intestine window in the entry to a house at King Island. If she hadn’t told me, I don’t know who would have. So many elders and other fully bilingual did not remember but her recollection was invaluable on and opened doors to other memories about such words from other speakers of the King Island dialect. My work is written both out of an urgency to record this knowledge before it is lost, but more than simply being documentarian, I write poems and plays and now fiction, because I am interested in the role that language – transmission, publication, preservation, voice, perspective – plays in cultural survival. Words are very powerful. The world of your poems is a very physical and placed world. The sense of both real and imagined landscapes permeates your poems. How important is place to your identity and process? Absolutely critical. Words are powerful. Places are powerful. Identity, for me, is informed by my place in the context of a cultural and physical landscape. King Island itself has been wholly inaccessible to me so far in my life because of the now-mindboggling logistics of getting there. I can see it from Nome, from Cape Woolley, from the Teller Road outside of Nome. I have been told in such detail about its houses and buildings and clubhouses and places to pick greens and how my mother played as a child; it is so vivid to me. But I have never been there. That feels like a huge blind spot in my construction of a self, and always has. I have seen and heard and witnessed the trauma relocation has had on us as King Islanders. Going back isn’t going to erase that trauma, but is a necessary part in moving forward and having a complete sense of identity, of coming to terms with the terrible and persistent trauma that Native people experience on a daily basis as a colonized people. How did your long stint away from Alaskain Bostonand New Yorkaffect your identity and process as a poet, and how did coming home influence your work? I was homesick. My first book of poems was nostalgic and yearning. I have always yearned for King Island but living in NYC through 9/11, subway strikes, blackouts, and being part of a truly egalitarian and anonymous urban setting was necessary to me in so many ways. Luckily I got to come home and go to Shishmaref and Nome during the summers and every chance I could get. I needed, too, some distance from being here in Anchorage. I decided to leave Anchorage in the winter of 2000-2001; after the painful winter, the winter when Della Brown was raped and murdered, the winter when so many Native women were attacked and assaulted. I had never felt more vulnerable and unsafe as a Native woman in this city. The statistics certainly uphold that. I couldn’t live here and create. I couldn’t live here and witness this continuing trauma and devastation of our people. I moved back and just about within a year my uncle was killed in a hit and run accident. The police finally found the man who murdered him, but the only thing that resulted was the revocation of his license. My uncle’s death was very hard on my family. My first son is named for him. I began to feel a complete responsibility to my son after my uncle died – when I was about three months pregnant. I began to feel a sense of responsibility as a mother to begin righting the wrongs and looking to a time when we as Native people, as King Island people, take a proactive role in furthering our self-determination.
How have other King Islanders and your Inupiaq community reacted to your work and your current efforts to reach KingIsland? I was elected to the Board of Directors of the King Island Native Corporation a few weeks ago. This demonstrated to me a sense of real support for the vision of us as King Islanders responding to relocation and assimilation. It is our home, together. It is part of our collective identity. Many relatives and others in Nome and elsewhere are eager to join me on the trip, especially the aspect of bringing our children. This is our future. So many King Islanders are homeless – not just literally, in Nome and Anchorage and Fairbanks and Portland and Seattle – but culturally. Luckily our language and dialect are still alive. Luckily, I am alive. We have one of the most phenomenal groups of traditional dancers and drummers. We also have generations of people who haven’t been home or anywhere near it for three or four or five decades since we were forcibly relocated off the island. It is time to go home, symbolically, as a way of paying due tribute to the sacrifices our ancestors made for us to exist and live today. And in actuality, so that this aspect of our identity is not lost to future generations. How does the upcoming Hyperboreal differ from your debut Cormorant Hunter’s Wife? What are you working on now, and what directions will a trip to KingIslandtake you and your writing? Hyperboreal was written in its entirety after I returned home to Alaska. Since moving back, I have worked at the very high policy level as Director of the Alaska Native Policy Center at First Alaskans Institute, at the Denali Commission in looking at some of the existing decisions to situate or evaluate communities’ responses to current federal programs, at the corporate level working for another of my village corporations, and very fortunately, on the personal level as I’ve traveled extensively in Arctic Slope, Bering Straits and NW Arctic regions. The book is much more accessible, less nostalgic, and more proactive in engaging questions of identity, language, and memory. I just finished a third manuscript of poetry, When the World was Milk. I have started a novel that is preoccupied, right now, at looking at the real implications of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. My novel and next manuscript will draw heavily on returning to King Island. For my whole life, I have wanted to go there. My writing and professional careers have made possible trips internationally and within the US – and in Indian Country. I see tremendous creative and cultural potential in helping King Islanders return home. Can you comment on your forays into other genres, and perhaps about the particular way that poetry seems to be a home for you as a writer? With two young kids, poems have been the easiest to write in terms of my time and training. Poems don’t presume having all of the answers. My poems do raise a lot of questions and give breathing room in interstitial spaces. Poetry is home for me in those formal and personal contexts. The plays have been a real challenge, not just bringing them into being on the page, but on stage as well. The novel is taking so much time. I think all of these other genres have strengthened my poetry writing. But it takes a lot for people to get to poetry. Maybe these other works – the novel, the plays – can help readers get a bit more comfortable with my voice and vision and artistic efforts. For more information about the Ugiuvaŋmiuguruŋa, or to donate, visit: http://www.usaprojects.org/project/ugiuva_miuguru_a_i_am_from_king_island Also, for a great chance to hear Joan and others speak about King Island, stream this story from KNOM’s May 9th news broadcast, beginning at 2:44. Jeremy Pataky is a poet and writer based in Anchorage and McCarthy, and a board member for the 49 AlaskaWriting Center.
Dan Bigley is a bear-attack survivor, but much more than that, he’s a loving husband, a warm father, and a dedicated social worker. Though mauled in 2003, he learned to not only live, but to thrive and love again. Deb McKinney is a freelance writer who fled Montana for Alaska. Beyond the Bear, a tale of sorrow, loss, transformation, and overcoming, brought these two strangers together. It is a memoir to the memory of the mauling and a unique narration of those it affected, a story not only of Dan but of a community. Why did you move to Alaska?Dan: Alaska has been one of those places that has always captured my curiosity in the Last Frontier sort of way. It’s nature’s last stand. Ever since I was a young kid, I’ve always been fascinated with Alaska, its scenery and wildness. I first came up to Alaska in 2001 as part of an independent study on the cultural history of Alaska through Prescott College and just knew that seeing it in the fall I really wanted to see it in all the seasons. It felt like home. I graduated from college that December, and in June 2002, I moved up to make it home. Deb: Alaska was never on my to-do list. I ended up here because the phone rang one night at my place in Missoula, and instead of one of my housemates, I got to it first. The woman on the other end was trying to track down a friend of mine who’d been hired by her company to stake mining claims in Alaska. He wasn’t around, and somehow she and I stayed on the phone and started chatting and laughing and generally hitting it off. By the time we hung up, she’d offered me a job. I’d just started a new job as a waitress at the Old Spaghetti Factory. I had a degree in journalism. So my first day of that job was also my last. I spent that spring and summer hopping out of helicopters alone in the middle of nowhere, surveying a grid and staking claims for a minerals exploration company. After three summers of surveying and cooking in various camps, from the Interior to the Alaska Peninsula, I decided it was time to check out winter. I got a job at the Anchorage Daily News, and planned to stay two winters max. That was in 1984. Is writing your day job, Deb?Deb: Writing is my day and my night job. How long have you been writing?Deb: I started as a high school sophomore, writing for my school newspaper and have been at it ever since, all because of a dynamic journalism teacher named John Forssen. At the time, I was unhappy about my family splitting up and was kind of lost. Mr. Forssen saw something in me and nurtured it along. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without that man. That’s the power of a gifted teacher. I got the chance to tell him this before he died. And when he did, I flew down from Alaska to attend his memorial service in Montana, that’s how much he meant to me. I have vivid memories of him standing in front of our high school journalism class pounding his fist on his desk and shouting “Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy!” He was a grizzled, tough old marshmallow. I have to toss in the name of my high school here because it’s the best name ever. Hellgate High. Tell me that’s not awesome. What originally got you into the craft?Deb: I was born into a newspaper family in Hillsboro, Oregon. My great-grandmother, Emma C. McKinney, bought into the Hillsboro Argus in 1904 as a young, single mother who’d lost her husband to tuberculosis. Five years later, she became the sole owner, publisher and editor. She was quite the force. The National Newspaper Association’s highest award for women in community journalism is named in her honor. She worked into her 90s. By then, my grandfather, Verne, was at the helm, then my father, Walter McKinney. All three of them are in the Oregon Newspaper Hall of Fame. So I was the fourth generation — no pressure or anything. But then I ran away to Alaska.Why writing and not drawing or art or sculpture?Deb: Unlike drawing or sculpture, writing allows you to change your mind without leaving a trace. It can be tweaked and fiddled with over and over, at least until your editor starts making death threats. I’m kind of known for worrying my stories to death. My writing coach at Poynter Institute, the late Foster Davis, once told me, “You need an editor who knows when to pull you off the carcass.” Dan, why did you decide to use writing (or storytelling) as an outlet?Dan: In my field - mental health - there’s a concept called the Sleeper Effect, and basically what that refers to is that if you hear something enough times you believe it’s true regardless of the reliability of the source. That happened for me in the aftermath of the bear. It seemed like everyone who I told the story to would respond with ‘you should write a book’ and so in 2005 I just woke up with the notion that ‘hey, I’m going to write a book.’ I was a writer, in school and reflective journaling and poetry, but at the time I was also getting ready for grad school and getting ready to be a father. I wasn’t going to have a lot of time. I talked to my dad and he purchased a few books on How To Write a Book. I read them and that’s really how I got started. Why did you decide to co-author Beyond the Bear?Dan: I made the decision of getting a co-author both because of her experience in writing and also her knowledge of the craft, as well as time. Deb: Writing a book was never on my to-do list, but I always figured if the right story came along I’d consider it. Then I met Dan Bigley. His story is so deeply moving, and his ability to tell it so well was a writer’s dream. It’s been a great collaboration. We put what each of us had to offer into a blender and out came this book. How did you two meet?Deb: I was with the Anchorage Daily Newswhen Dan’s mauling first made headlines. It was so disturbing. Two months after the bear, Dan left the state for specialized surgery and to attend a school for the blind. Before he left, he sent an open letter that was published on the front page of the ADN. Well, what do you know? I just happen to have it right here: “If it were not for the wonderful treatment provided by Dr. Kallman and Dr. Ellerbe’s office and the amazing care of Providence hospital, I would not have survived. The members of this community really came together in my family’s time of need to extend their thoughts, services, financial aid, and most of all their prayers. I have been healing quickly and I attribute this to those Alaskans who have extended themselves and their thoughts to my recovery. I thank you more than words can express. Keep on fishing, and I’ll see you out there next summer.” How do you forget someone like that? Five years later, when I learned that Dan was back in town, I did a where-is-he-now profile for ADN. He talked of his dream of a book. We teamed up and here we are.
Dan: Well, originally I started looking around and found a Fairbanks author. We started discussing how it was going to work when out of nowhere I got a call from Deb McKinney. She was interested in writing a story on a five-years later ‘where are you now’ type of thing. The story came out; I was impressed so I called her up and asked if she was serious. How did the process work for you two?Dan: It was a great collaboration to start with, and I think I can speak for both of us when I say we each really did bring something extremely valuable to the table. I brought a great story. Obviously what she brought to the table is that she’s just an incredible writer, and part of the value in that was the ability to shape how the different parts of the story were going to tie in together. The other thing that she brought to the table which really enriched the book was her rich history in journalism. We interviewed over fifty people for the book, over countless hours, so she was really able to take the perspectives of the doctors, the family members and friends, and rescuers, and tie up loose ends to really make what the story was in the book.How was the publishing experience?Dan: It was very crazy, to be honest. It wasn’t necessarily what I would call the best experience. We had two different publishers with two different book deals. Basically what happened is we were picked up by one of the big ones and we felt in the beginning that they believed in the story like we did and how it was more than a bear book, that it was an inspirational story and a love story. I’m not sure when that started to change but it did, and we no longer shared the same vision of what the book was. We decided not to submit our final manuscript and they were kind enough to give us back our rights. Fortunately we were very lucky and Globe Pequot Press loved the story. We’ve had a much better experience working with them. Dan, did you ever get storyteller’s block? Deb, what do you do when you get writer’s block?Dan: Not really, since it’s a true story, my life story, and so it’s sort of like the story told itself. We just had to recall what’s happened. There was so much to tell, the hardest part was to decide what had to go. I think, by far, that was the more challenging part. Deb: Writer’s block is my evil twin. When I seize up, which is often, I go on a house-cleaning frenzy. Nothing like dancing around the living room with a feather duster, with Frank Zappa’s “Guitar” blasting from the speakers to loosen things up in your head. Other times, in Anne Lamott fashion, I just start writing crappy stuff, then come back later and de-crap it. Why did you decide to switch POVs so often, transitioning from first-person to an almost omniscient narration? Dan: We started the prologue in 3rd person then transitioned to 1stperson through the rest of the book, but there were parts of the story when I was unconscious or in a medically induced coma or other things were happening that weren’t right in front of me but needed to be included into the story - like the scene when Brian heard the news and made the journey up to Alaska - so in order to really bring some of that to the table we did have to switch into that more narrative voice, still 1st person but more me reflecting back on what we had gathered in the aftermath. I’m very pleased about how it worked out.Deb: How do you keep the first-person going when the narrator is in a coma for a couple of chapters, then loopy on pain meds for another chapter or two? The answer was to watch others react to what happened to him. His brother, his friends, his brand-new girlfriend, Amber.
Do you think all of these different POVs strength your story?Dan: Absolutely! I think in so many ways that was what made the story so rich. It wasn’t just my story, there was a medical story, a whole story from Amber’s perspective, what my family went through trying to internalize the news of a) I might not live and b) I would be blind if I did live. So absolutely those elements made the story a lot more real.Deb: I absolutely think they strengthen Dan’s story. What happened to Dan profoundly impacted many people, loved ones and strangers. No one got off easy.
You included a lot of his personal life (as well as others) into this work. How long did it take you to compile all of the information?Deb: We started talking book after I profiled Dan for the Anchorage Daily News in 2008. The book was his idea, and it took me a long time to get on board. By the time I left the paper in 2010, I was committed. We traveled to California together, which is where he did the majority of his healing, to interview his parents, brother, friends, therapists and staff at what’s now the Hatlan Center for the Blind. We got a proposal together, and got our agent that spring. We spent more than six months stockpiling more interviews with everyone from the surgeon who saved Dan’s life, to the only other person in North America to be completely blinded by a bear and live to tell about it. Next came a complete revamping of the proposal, then writing an additional sample chapter and creating a marketing section with some meat on its bones. After that came many more interviews with many more people who helped fill in the blanks in Dan’s memory and that stretch of time he was out of it. Just translating his medical records, which are a couple of phonebooks thick, into common language was a project. And then people kept surfacing: “Hey, are you Dan Bigley?” “I am. Who’s that?” “I’m Wes Masters. I was with you in the ambulance that night.” This is a long-winded way of saying that compiling all these details took forever.
My final question: Did writing/crafting this book help move past the bear attack? Deb: When I sent him the first six chapters, the chapters leading up to and including the mauling and immediate aftermath, I hit the “send” button without thinking about what it would be like for him to read them. (He reads via talking computer software.) I’d been working with the material for so long I’d become numb to it, but it hit him like a bus. He was flattened and did a lot of crying that day. I felt so awful. But he considered that a good thing, a necessary thing. I think that speaks to how powerful his story is and how brave he is to tell it. Dan: There’s something to be said for talking about our traumas as trauma survivors that helps us process it in some way. But it wasn’t the countless revisions of chapters that helped me process the bear mauling. I would say more of what’s been helpful for me in the writing process was to really put the story together and to create a full narrative that is more than just the attack, and to be able to see the beauty of its various parts. It’s more than just the bear mauling and the loss of my eyes. There is the beautiful story of how the community really came together to support me. There’s this beautiful story of how I put my life back together, and not only live but to thrive and to have dreams and to actualize those dreams. The fact that I can look at the story now and see how Amber was such a presence and still is in my life - how can I not feel lucky looking at the story through those lenses, to now have a beautiful family with two kids and a job that I love doing. There’s a lot there to feel uplifted and inspired by. To create a narrative for myself that’s so positive has been really healing and certainly a part of how I moved beyond the bear.
The party begins this weekend in the new adaptation of The Great GatsbyA warning first: There will be no high-school essayist’s hunt for symbols (the green light of Daisy’s dock, Dr. Eckleburg’s big eyes that see all) or any critical comment on the music chosen for the new Baz Luhrmann adaptation opening this weekend (I loved Moulin Rouge and applaud a director for freshening up a concept with new sights and sounds).
What I’m hurrying to write about here, before the movie opens and we all lose the ability to imagine Gatsby without Leonardo DiCaprio and big nightclub scenes--the book has private parties but no nightclubs--is the classic text as a source of lessons and pleasures for the creative writer.
As anyone who lives in my house (apologies to a certain 15-year-old daughter) or has taken a class from me knows, I’ve been reading and re-reading Gatsby a lot this year, and finding more novelist’s nutrition in it as a forty-something than I ever found as a high school freshman. A swift read and half the length of most novels today, Gatsby rewards the aspiring novelist looking less for obvious symbols and themes – the prey of the analytical assignment-conscious reader –than for things like macrostructure and revision, the quarry of the craft-conscious writer.
Here are 10 things I’ve learned from Gatsby so far, with the help of scholar-interpreters Matthew Bruccoli, Susan Bell, and others. Many of these lessons have to do with revision and editing--part of the writing process we study least and depend upon the most.
1.Even great writers have a hard time with titles.
Fitzgerald’s other choices were “Trimalchio in West Egg” and my least favorite, “The High-bouncing Lover.” Even after its current title was chosen, Fitzgerald was trying to make another switch, which he telegraphed to his editor Maxwell Perkins: “Under the Red White and Blue.”
2. POV choices are some of the most important choices we make in a novel.
The use of a partially involved observer-narrator—Nick Carraway—is one of the most memorable and essential elements of Gatsby. Can you imagine this novel told by the phony and tragic Jimmy Gatz himself? Maybe you can, but it would be a different novel entirely. I’ve hit more novelistic dead ends by choosing the wrong POV than by any other error. Choose a fresh and fitting POV, on the other hand, and a novel can seem to tell itself.
3. Condensed storytime creates a powerful temporal frame.
Flashbacks and backstory aside, Gatsby is framed by the events of a single summer, a timeframe so classic—and now so emulated--we might underappreciate its brilliance. The change in a young narrator’s ways of seeing the world over a single, sensual season has become, along with its themes of aspiration and self-invention, one of the most American aspects of this slim, simply structured novel.
4. Short can be sweet.
Is Gatsby such a classroom classic because of the all-American themes, the lyrical language, the colorful time period and setting, the P.G.-rated party scenes that thrill without disturbing? Or is it because it’s short enough for most students to finish over a weekend? If you’re a novelist who writes on the short side, take heart: 50,000 to 70,000 words – a novel one can read in four to six hours -- has its advantages. Just avoid calling it a novella whenever possible, and you’ll find yourself in good company with Philip Roth (Goodbye Columbus), Muriel Spark (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) and Ian McEwan (On Chesil Beach).
5. We can cloak characters in mystery, but only up to a point.
Fitzgerald wanted Gatsby to be enigmatic, and many of the novel’s characters are simply and even thinly drawn, but with the help of editor Maxwell Perkins, the author recognized that Gatsby was simply too vague. In later drafts Fitzgerald added more hints of Gatsby’s business dealings, including pressing calls from associates. Perkins also recommended Fitzgerald repeat Gatsby’s “old sport” expression a few more times to give his character a recognizable verbal tic.
6. Break up the backstory.
In early drafts, Fitzgerald clumped Gatsby’s backstory, creating what his editor agreed was “a certain sagging in chapters six and seven.” How Fitzgerald solved the Gatsby backstory problem—and whether he solved it completely, or only introduced more artifice—is an excellent puzzler for working novelists. Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit is a great primer in self-editing that instructively explores many of the Fitzgerald-Perkins edits, focusing especially on the author’s problems with macro-structure.
7. Use the power of understatement.
There are two deaths in Gatsby; both happen more-or-less “off-camera” and take up little space in the novel. The car-accident death of Myrtle, in particular, is told in swift, unadorned prose – mostly in two sentences without internal punctuation that seem stylistically closer to Hemingway than Fitzgerald. Compare that to the lavish prose Fitzgerald uses in his scenes and chapters dedicated to parties.
8.Structural details matter—including even the order of chapters.
The first three chapters of Gatsby show us American society in triptych: the high class, old money culture of Tom and Daisy; the low class culture of Myrtle and friends; the nouveau riche frenzy of Gatsby and the crowds he attracts. In earlier drafts, the second (low class) and third (nouveau riche) chapters were transposed. In earlier drafts, the triptych ends with a fistfight; in present form, the triptych ends with Nick finally meeting Gatsby. Why one choice is better than the other—and how it changes our reading – is yet another interesting detail for writers to ponder.
9.Borrow from the best.
Gatsby has inspired and influenced many, and few authors have been more outspoken about deliberate mimicry of the American classic than Michael Chabon, who literally pulled Gatsby off a shelf and used its summer-time structure and themes as a scaffold for his own bestselling debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Recognizing that books talk to each other, and how authors take what they need and transform it into something fresh and new, is an essential element of the novelist’s apprenticeship.
10. Listen to the editors… to the critics, not so much.
Gatsby is a testament to the power of revision, including both Fitzgerald’s own skills of self-editing and his humble wisdom in listening to the editing advice of the brilliant Maxwell Perkins. It’s also one of those books that prove how often critics get it wrong. The very first review that appeared proclaimed: “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Latest a Dud.”
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Detour and The Spanish Bow. She teaches in the UAA low-residency MFA program and for 49 Writers.
Homeground. That’s the word bobbing around in my mind this morning, rising and sinking like a stick in a tiderip, nudging me. It’s the word and concept that began a three-hour 49 Writers-sponsored workshop I led in Kodiak last Sunday. Looking out my window past the bare birch trees to the west, toward Kodiak, I remember the hop and skip the distance seemed between Homer and the archipelago as I flew there on a Dash 8. From the mainland mountains, hop to the Barrens, hop to Shuyak, and you’re there. A boat journey is another story. The fetch down Cook Inlet is enormous, the currents, treacherous. The north wind’s track across that expanse was dramatic, from my vantage, like a huge feathered wing. Wind, a relentless force that defines our coastal lives, bigger than us, “push of the world,” as the musician David Grimes calls it, writ in plain language on the inlet.
Writer Sara Loewen met me at the airport twenty minutes later. For Sara and her husband, Kodiak Island is homeground, birth place, and I could feel it. Homeground. Island archipelago large enough to be a state. Part treeless, flat, part mountainous, snow-covered, part indented by deep intrusions of saltwater, part gentle, part wild. “Teach me how to live here,” I said to the workshop participants sitting around the table with me at the Wildlife Refuge the next day. And then we all began writing. Homeground. What is it for the migrating crane? The brown bear? The gray whale? Can you have more than one? In the workshop, we considered the idea that we write out of an inner soil made up of the places that have formed and shaped us. Our language. Our way of seeing. Geologically, the people sitting around that table in Kodiak were, for the most part, conglomerates. Place, when we consider it this way, brings up conflicted responses. A few people were still feeling their way into Kodiak, testing their hearts against the questions: Do I belong? Is this home? Do I recognize myself in this landscape? Does this place speak my language? A couple were dead-certain: I was born here. This is home. Or: I’ve lived here forty years. This is home. I could see it in their faces, this solidity. This hard place, this windy, foggy, rainy, difficult, gorgeous place: it’s mine. I belong to it. It knows me. And then the strange surprise. One person in the workshop was, like me, a longtime Alaskan with roots half a world a way, in Latvia. We’d both been born to refugee parents, displaced persons, people who saw themselves as lifelong exiles. Wrenched from their homes, our parents had settled in America with reluctance, waiting for the chance to go back home. Eventually, the adopted, temporary home laid its claim on their lives. Today, my mother says she’s more American than Latvian. My parents never went back, even when it was safe. Perhaps this man and I had been driven by our parents’ sense of displacement to lay claim to a homeground ourselves. When I first came to Alaska, that recognition hit hard; it felt like a matter of life and death. I’m home. But my homeground, that’s another story. I am certain that the way we write has something to do with our complicated relationship to place. Our inner creative ground reflects the weather and tectonic forces we’ve known as strongly as the terrains of Kodiak reflect the story of wind, glacier, earthquake and rain. We are a story of layered dirt, a collection of rocks. While we were writing the afternoon away in the workshop, up the hill, at hoe, Sara’s young sons were doing their own geological explorations of homeground. With their father, Pete, they were chipping away at a big, gray, quartz-riddled rock on the kitchen table, using a hammer and chisel. Imbedded in the rock were fossilized shells. They’d found the rock at a special place on the island. “Kodiak is amazing,” said Pete, holding the rock steady while Liam tap-tapped away. Said the man born and raised in that place. Homeground written all over his hands and face and the easy way he moved through in and out of the house. No question of where do I belong troubling his eyes. Back at the workshop, after identifying the components of our homeground, we took blank sheets of paper and wrote “word hoards,” on one sheet, words associated with our childhood homeground, and on the other, words associated with the place we live now. We mined the words not just out of landscape, but also out of our bodies at work, our hands and bare feet in the dirt, out in the weather. Here are some words from my childhood homeground, a little western NY town called Silver Creek: heat lightning lake effect snow drift crayfish grackle starling vineyard tractor pesticide quince shale snow plow floodplain And then we tied word to self. I am from yellow crate of picked grapes pesticide stenched chalk-dusted squeezed through a sieve to make grape juice I drank iced down in September heat. Homeground is not about nostalgia. Homeground is gritty, real. Our bodies carry the traces down the years. Our writing and speaking reflects the rhythms and nature of the terrain. I used to think my hometown irrelevant to me, backward, depressed, provincial, pedestrian, boring, plain, dull, dirty, forgotten, lost. Now I think it is imbedded, like those fossil snails Luke, Liam and Pete freed with their careful tapping. Sassafrass floodplain trillium creek Teach me how to live here. I still remember an image shared by a workshop participant in Nome, years ago. One day, during break-up, she watched a chair drift by her window, riding on a slab of ice. And that’s what told her it was break-up. I can see that chair in all its detail when I close my eyes. As writers, homeground is what we conjure, not simply through story, but through language, rhythm, the internalized ecology, geology, geography, meteorolopy of place. Take poet Charles Wright, whose childhood homeground is North Carolina and Tennessee. This is a fragment from his incredible poem “Dog Creek Mainline:” Dog Creek: cat track and bird splay,/Spindrift and windfall; woodrot;/Odor of muscadine, the blue creep/Of kingsnake and copperhead;/Nightweed; frog spit and floating heart,/Backwash and snag pool: Dog Creek. The poet David St. John wrote this description of Wright’s language in the preface to his collected poems: “Knotty, rhythmically muscular, alliterative, yet still highly imagistic and visual, Wright’s poetry took on a beautiful rasping quality.” Rasp of fish crow. Fizz of frazil ice. Wind-shush of grassy treeless half of island. Creak of moose tread on forty-below snow. Places matter. And the places we inhabit speak in specific languages. Our lives matter. We are the keepers of the hidden, endangered language of places, known only through intimacy, through carrying what Charles Wright calls the “hard freight” of our lives across ice, through mud, up steep cutbanks. We are the keepers of stories no one else can tell. To retrieve them takes what Adrienne Rich called “a severer form of listening.” Whenever I travel to teach in Alaska, I try to listen as well as talk, to keep my eyes open. In answer to my question Teach me how to live here answers come, images that become part of my own homeground. A wooden chair perched on slab ice drifting past a window. A small blonde boy tapping at a rock with a hammer and nail. A 40 year resident of Kodiak standing by a stream emptying into the ocean, talking about midsummer in Latvia. The look on the face of a Coast Guard wife who knows she’ll be leaving soon. In the introduction to Homeground: Language for an American Landscape, Barry Lopez writes: “What many of us are hopeful of now, it seems, is being able to gain – or regain – a sense of allegiance with our chosen places, and along with that a sense of affirmation with our neighbors that the place we’ve chosen is beautiful, subtle, profound, worthy of our lives.” The people I met last weekend on Kodiak embodied that. So I’ll end this May Day blog right here, right now, this place, Homer, my mid-life homeground, which has changed my inner soil in ways I can’t even fathom: white-fronted goose small-craft advisory stinging nettle erosion slough spit mudflat breeze cloudbank float plane varied thrush dust. I am from these. What are you from?
Lorena Knapp One way that writers can build their platform is by blogging. Often the most challenging part of blogging as a fiction writer is knowing what to blog about. If the intent of our blog is to engage with our readers, then our blogs should discuss some of the same themes as our writing.
In my novel, the protagonist, Vivian, is a helicopter pilot embroiled in a battle-of-wills with her coworkers: crusty good-old-boy Vietnam Era pilots who take Vivian’s presence in the cockpit as a threat to their identities and their livelihoods. My blog, Big State, Big Life focuses on giving readers ways of looking what stops them from achieving their dreams. Is the link between my novel and my blog perfect? Probably not, but it's close enough that I know my blog readers will enjoy my novel once it is published.Study the Craft of Blogging Just as writers must study the craft of writing hone their skills, so too must bloggers study the craft of blogging. I recommend the students in my platform building classes find 20-30 blogs to follow. Most bloggers only post 1-3 times a week so this seems a manageable number, but you may want to increase or decrease this number as your schedule allows. The blogs you follow should be an eclectic mix: ones that are written by people in the same niche as well as those outside of your niche combined with a mix of well-known bloggers and some less well-known bloggers with a smaller audience. This will give you a broad range of examples to learn from. Once you start subscribing to a few blogs, you will often be led to others either by reading a guest post and then linking back to the author’s blog or as other blogs are promoted and recommended on the site. Three Ways to Follow Blogs:
Visit a blog directly by typing in the web address into your browsers address bar or by bookmarking the site.
Subscribe to the blog's RSS feed.
Subscribe via email.
My preferred method to follow a blogger is by RSS feed. This way my inbox isn't cluttered with blogs I'm just getting acquainted with and I can skip the step of having to check my bookmarks to see if there is updated content on my favorite blogs. How to Subscribe to a Blog via RSSRSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. You can think of your RSS feeds as a subscription. The content from your favorite blogs gets delivered to your RSS reader each time it is updated. Subscribing to a blog via RSS also reinforces how important it is to write a great title for your blog posts. If the blog headline doesn’t grab me, I’ll skip over the article entirely because I'm usually only looking at the title. Symbols for RSS feeds:
You may recognize some of the above symbols. These indicate a blog has an RSS feed. By clicking on the RSS button on a blog you will be taken to another window and prompted to add the feed to the reader of your choice.
In the past, I always used Google Reader but since Google will disable Reader July 1, 2013, I’ve made the switch to Feedly. Here's a guided tour of Feedly to learn more about how it works. Here are some other alternatives to Google Reader. Instead of linking from the blog I want to follow, my preference is to go directly to Feedly and search for the blog by name and add the subscription. My goal is to check my Feedly account once a day and share valuable content with those that follow me on twitter, but in reality it is more like several times a week. If I’m having a particularly busy week, it might only be once during the week- again I’ll be skimming the post titles and only reading those that seem particularly useful.Read Blogs Like a BloggerOnce you start following blogs you want to read them as if you were the blogger, just like when you read as a writer and you pay attention to how the writer crafted the piece. Here are a few questions to get you started:
What is the blogger doing well?
Why was the post valuable?
How did the blogger get the readers to engage?
What is the theme of the blog? How does this translate into blog posts?
Who is the target audience? How can you tell?
What do I dislike about the blog post? Too wordy?
What would make the post more valuable?
Suggestions for Blogs to FollowBlogs About Writing:One of my favorites is Alexis Grant. Alexis always has the perfect blend of the practical mixed with a personal story about her own endeavors. Alexis started her blog as a way to build an audience for her book but has since turned blogging and social media into a full-time profession. I follow nearly all the blogs from Write to Done’s Top Ten Blogs for Writers 2012. Look back to previous years for additional suggestions. Tom Ewer has lots of useful information about freelance writing on his site, Leaving Work Behind. Blogs About Blogging: Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive IncomeCorbett Barr’s Think TrafficProBloggerCopyBlogger Blogs About Lifestyle Design:Scott Dinsmore's Live Your LegendChris Guillebeau's The Art of Non-Conformity Great Content + Great Design = Great BlogIf I find a blog article I enjoy, I often click to the bloggers site and look at their site design. Unfortunately, great blog posts don’t always mean great site design. Hard to read fonts, cluttered design, or too many ads are immediate turnoffs. But If I consistently enjoy a blog's posts, I’ll change my subscription to email and delete them from my reader. About once a month I’ll unsubscribe from the blogs that I’ve been skimming over and seek out a few new ones to try. The blogs that I stay subscribed to? Blogs that educate, entertain, or inspire. Preferably all three. This is the value I get from reading the blogger's posts. Great content = access to my RSS feed and potentially my email inbox. Once you're in my inbox, you’ve got a much higher chance of selling me your services, a product, or your book. Following blogs via an RSS reader to learn the craft of blogging is a smart use of your platform-building efforts. What are some of your favorite blogs to follow? Why? Share in the comments.
Kathleen Dean MooreKathleen Dean Moore is an essayist, philosopher, and environmental advocate, the author of Wild Comfort, Pine Island Paradox, Riverwalking, Holdfast, and other award-winning books. Co-editor of books about Rachel Carson and the Apache philosopher Viola Cordova, Moore’s work has appeared in New York Times Magazine, Audubon, Discover, The Sun, Utne Reader, Conservation Biology, and Orion, where she serves on the Board of Directors. Moore is keynoting this year’s North Words Writers Symposium, which begins May 29 inSkagway. You’re co-editor with Michael P. Nelson of Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a People in Peril. The Chicago Examiner stated, “This is one of the first anthologies to combine the appeal of moral duty; conscience choice in relationship to the environment, in combination with the argument for basic survival.” Has the book brought the kind of attention you expected? In Moral Ground, we published calls to action on climate change from eighty-three of the world’s moral leaders, people like Desmond Tutu, Wangari Maathai, Oscar Kawagley, and the Dalai Lama. The response has been amazing. We never expected that people would buy this book by the box-load to give to their employees, or their politicians, or the CEO’s of major banks. We never expected that it would be the kind of book that families would read aloud or that activists would read late into the night. We never expected that even now -- three years from publication -- Michael and I wouldn’t be able keep up with invitations to speak about the ideas. It thrills us that, as people are starting to understand that climate change is a moral issue, we are able to put in their hands a book that explains the connection between climate change and duties of compassion, justice, respect for human rights, and many more. How can we make a difference as writers? This is a really tough one. I agonize over this. I keep coming back to the old mantra -- audience and purpose, audience and purpose. How can we reach the indifferent, the hostile, the frightened, the busy well-meaning? How can we call true believers to actions that match their beliefs? And if the overriding purpose is to help nudge the “Great Turning” toward truly sustainable and just life-ways, how do we begin? There are many answers: Some writers are giving up writing and going to direct action, organizing the beautiful “creative disruptions” the world needs. Some are writing narratives of change. Some are moving away from print to video or music. Some are already writing the elegies or the dystopian-future novels. Some are simply witnessing -- calling attention to the glorious lives that we recklessly destroy. It’s not a matter of choosing the best approach. Getting ourselves out of this mess is going to take the greatest exercise of the human imagination the world has ever seen. It doesn’t matter how we do it. The moral imperative is to begin. You are also author of several books, including Wild Comfort, which Diane Ackerman called, “a richly poetic book, and Moore a wonderful guide to the wilderness and our own wildness.” Is it more difficult to write on a more personal level? How can you express your own ideas without sounding preachy? I don’t want to be a preacher who knows all the answers -- solemn and wordy and self-satisfied. I want to be the woman in the pew who rises to her feet, weeping and shouting “halleluia.” She may have no answers, but she believes in questions. She may have no hope, but she knows joy. She is not afraid. When she holds out her hands, pleading, she sees that they are spangled with the jewel colors of light through stained glass windows. She, not the preacher, is the poet in the sacred space. Nature writing runs throughout your work, but you accomplish this through different threads of your career (editing, writing, teaching). Are they equally important to you, or does one take priority over another? This is a tough year for environmental writers, when decisions about our priorities are more urgent than ever. God knows, challenges are coming from all directions, and opportunities too. But energy is finite and our time is about up. So what is to be done? And within what institutions? I don’t know a single environmental writer who is not asking these questions. And for me? This is the year when the “threads” of my career -- writing, public speaking, university teaching -- transmogrified into monsters that started eating each others’ feet. So I quit my university position, and I’m spending all my time on writing and public speaking, primarily about climate change. Nature writing informs all this work -- the convictions that it’s not enough to celebrate the natural world while bulldozers and drilling rigs take it down, that we have to do what we can to prevent what I believe is a failure of reverence and a betrayal of love for the world. On May 29 - June 1, you will be a faculty member at the North Words Writers Symposium, held in SkagwayAlaska. You live in Alaska part of the year; is that what drew you to the symposium? What do you look forward to at the event? Yes, I do live in Alaskaduring the summers, in a cabin where two creeks and a bear trail meet a tidal cove in Tenakee Inlet. But I was drawn to the symposium by my old friend Dan Henry, who asked me to do a keynote at the Symposium -- “Just 20-30 minutes of profound, insightful, inspirational talk,” he said. “That's all.” “Okay,” I muttered, as profoundly and insightfully as I could. I’m very excited about this. It will be a chance to meet all the Alaskawriters whose books pile up under my bed and overflow from my shelves. These are my heroes. These are the people I want to be. And now I will get to meet them and maybe even buy them a beer.
Lynn Lovegreen writes Sweet Alaska Historicals, novels set in the Gold Rush era.