The 2015 Rasmuson Foundation artist awards were announced this week. The Fellowship award winners include writers Dawnell Smith and John Tetpon, and poets Nicole Stellon, Anne Coray, and Vivian Prescott. Project Grant winners include writers Martha Amore, Mary Odden, Rachel Ford, Sarah Birdsall, Chantelle Pence, and Maris O'Tierney, and songwriters Todd Grebe and Emma Hill. Congratulations to all!
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the National Endowment for the Arts wants to hear how the arts have affected your life: "how the arts are part of your day, how the arts have inspired you to do something unique, how they have made a difference among you and your family, as well as in the communities and neighborhoods in which you live," and if there is a specific NEA grant that has had an impact on you and your community. Check here for details.
Happy writing Morgan
EVENTS IN ANCHORAGESpecial event for Poetry Parley: Former Alaska Poet Laureate, Joanne Townsend, will be in Alaska the last week in May. The May Parley will move to the 4th Thursday to allow her to read as our Alaska poet. She has selected Louise Gallop as the marquee poet. Louise is also of Alaska but died summer of 2013, in her nineties. The date is May 28, 7pm, Hugi-Lewis Studio, 1008 W Northern Lights Blvd. Events at the UAA BookstoreJune 10, 4-6pm. Poet Tom Sexton presents A Ladder of Cranes.June 15, 4-6pm. Author and Activist Chris Dixon presents Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements EVENTS AROUND ALASKASOUTHCENTRAL, MAT-SU, KENAI PENINSULAAuthor events at Fireside Books, Palmer:
Roger Woods, Saturday, May 23 at 2pm. Roger first landed in South Central Alaska in 1945. His book, "Treasure Alaska" is the story of a colorful people "with their strengths and their foibles tempered by the environment in which they have lived."
Robert H. Armstrong, Friday, May 29 at 11:00am. Bob Armstrong has pursued a career in Alaska as a biologist, naturalist, and nature photographer since 1960. He is the author of the best-selling book Nature of Southeast Alaska and numerous other popular and scientific books and articles on the natural history of the state. He lives in Juneau, Alaska.
Timothy Bateson, Saturday, May 30 at 11:30am. Timothy's short story appears in the new anthology: .Across the Karman Line.
Open call for writers in Homer: reading opportunity with Emily Johnson/Catalyst. Deadline: Friday, May 22, 2015 at 5pm. Submit: Between 8 and 10 minutes of finished work (poetry, prose, short story, song, spoken word) related to HOME, PLACE, LAND. This can be interpreted widely. They are looking for work that speaks to our inherent connection to and disconnection from home, place, land, each other. How: Please submit finished work as one PDF to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write SHORE READING SUBMISSION in the subject line. Include a cover page with your name and contact information (email, phone) and links (youtube, vimeo,etc) to your performed work, if possible. Applicants mus be available to read/perform the submitted work at 7:30pm on June 9th at Bunnell St Arts Center as part of Emily Johnson/Catalyst’s performance project, SHORE in Lenapehoking. 5 - 6 applicants will be selected and paid a performance stipend. Machetanz Art Festival writing panel and workshops, June 6, at the Mat-Su College campus. Preregistration required.
Writers Panel: Is This the Golden Age of Alaskan Writing? 9-10:30am. Panelists: Deb Vanasse, Don Rearden, Julie LeMay
Poetry: The Mysterious and the Obscure. 10:30-12pm, Instructor: Julie Hungiville LeMay
Unleashing the Screenwriter Within. 1-2:30pm. Instructor: Don Rearden
Saturday, June 6—1:00-2:30 PM
Windows on Your Characters: Strategies for Compelling Fiction. 2:30-4pm. Instructor: Deb Vanasse
Spoken Word Poetry Slam Workshop for High School. 6-7:30pm. Instructor: Trey Josey
Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference, June 12-16. 2015’s keynote speaker is Andre Dubus III, and there are a host of amazing writers on the faculty this year (as there are every year). This year's post-conference workshop at Tutka Bay Lodge, Finding the Geography of Our Work, will be led by 2014 Kingsley Tufts Award winner Afaa Weaver, June 16-18, SOUTHEASTThe Sitka Story Lab is a place where young Sitkan writers ages 7-19 can tell their stories, practice their writing skills, and unleash their imaginations. The programs are free of charge and open to everyone. They believe that storytelling is an essential art form, especially for young people. It builds confidence, fosters important skills, and strengthens interpersonal connections. They aim to empower youth to think creatively and express themselves with clarity and purpose. The Sitka Story Lab is sponsored and created by the Island Institute and is a brand new program for the 2014-2015 school year. INTERIORThe Art of the Essay, June 26-28, with Frank Soos, is a three-day intense class in reading and writing personal essays. The essay as practiced from the beginning of the form up to the present day is the most open to experimentation and innovation of all the commonly practiced forms. They will explore that range by discussing a variety of essay forms to consider how an essay can be made. Details and registration info at Northern Susitna Institute, Talkeetna AK.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR WRITERSCONFERENCES, RETREATS & RESIDENCIES The Achievement and Assessment Institute(AAI) will be holding two writing workshops in Alaska this summer, one in Anchorage in June and the other in Fairbanks in July. They develop material for the Alaska Measures of Progress as well as other reading assessments, and participation from Alaskan writers helps ensure quality passages that relate to Alaskan students. Writers can apply to either workshop by filling out a brief survey. They'd like to have a mix of educators and established writers as well as students in these workshops and will be selecting applicants based on the strength of their writing samples and background. The Tutka Bay Writers Retreatis half full. Don't miss out on a fantastic retreat featuring two outstanding guest instructors, Ann Eriksson and Gary Geddes! September 11-13 at the fabulous Tutka Bay Lodge.
The Wrangell Mountains Center residency program aims to support artists of all genres, writers, and inquiring minds in the creation of their work. Their organization and community will provide unrestricted work time and space to focused individuals. They invite applicants with creative and inquisitive minds who will both add to and benefit from the interdisciplinary efforts at their campus in McCarthy, Alaska and the surrounding Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference, June 12-16, 2015 in Homer: keynote speaker is Andre Dubus III, and there are a host of amazing writers on the faculty this year (as there are every year).
Last Frontier Theatre Conference, June 14-20, in Valdez, features new work by playwrights from around the country. There are evening performances, 10-minute play slams, even a fringe festival. The deadline is past for play submissions, but they may still need actors.
Wrangell Mountains Writing Workshoppresents RiverSong with Frank Soos, Michelle McAfee, Robin Child, and Nancy Cook, July 22-27, McCarthy to Chitina. The Wrangell Mountains Writing Workshop is pleased to partner with McCarthy River Tours & Outfitters to host a six-day, five-night adventure in the fabulous Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. This year’s workshop will feature poet and essayist, Frank Soos, who is currently serving as Alaska’s Writer Laureate, joined by accomplished singer-songwriter Michelle McAfee, backcountry banjo-diva Robin Child, and workshop director Nancy Cook. Together they will explore the ways wilderness can help inspire songs, stories, poems, and essays. Activities include an opening reading/performance and craft sessions in the comfort of the Wrangell Mountains Center’s facility in McCarthy, followed by three nights and four days of creative inquiry along the Kennicott, Nizina, Chitina, and Copper Rivers. Space is limited to eight student writers/ songwriters.
Alaska Writers Guild & SCBWI Annual Writer’s Conference, September 19-20, Anchorage. Early registration starts May 2015. www.AlaskaWritersGuild.com
Flying to the first residency of my MFA program five years ago, I was still having second doubts. The first class I entered—8 a.m., everyone bumping and muttering with Styrofoam coffee cups in hand—was standing-room only. The topic: punctuation. That’s right, not something sexier, like “truth” in creative nonfiction or how to publish your first novel. Just punctuation. At least one other class was running at the same time, and the Antioch LA MFA model does not feature required attendance at all classes. These people could have slept in. They could have turned around as soon as they saw there weren’t enough chairs. The lecturer opined and the students debated: about commas and colons. About semi-colons and parentheses. About their own preferences and influences, well aside from the rules. A stylistically distinct sentence appeared on the board. My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three…Voices called out, in recognition and appreciation: “Nabokov!” I love what that particular parenthesis accomplishes in terms of voice and characterization. Who but the narrator of Lolita would compress and wall off, in an almost aggressively chilly aside, the causes of a fatal accident? * If you’re a writer, you love the fine details of language. You understand that every word – every dot and dash, in fact—can make a difference. But just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes. I sure do. I recently finished an online graduate level class with a group of teachers in which nearly every person said he or she needed to learn more grammar in order to feel more confident in the classroom. Even the English teachers don’t know (or remember) all this stuff! Tackling grammar and punctuation in isolation doesn’t help writers learn to write better, the research categorically informs us. The skills have to be learned in context. If a peer group, teacher or editor can point out a specific error you are making, perhaps repeatedly, that is the perfect opportunity for improvement. Better to tackle a few errors in context than add a complete book about copyediting to your summer reading list. Some of us like to have fun—for example, experimenting with or without quotation marks, a la Cormac McCarthy. (See Deb’s post on this very subject.) But we don’t want to choose to vary from linguistic norms without purpose or to make repetitive errors unintentionally. Right? (Learn the rules, then choose whether to break them, in other words.) One of the top errors I repeatedly see from my own students and book coach clients is the comma splice. Comma splice. Definition from Purdue Owl: Comma splices are similar to run-on sentences because they also incorrectly connect independent clauses. A comma splice occurs when two independent clauses are connected with only a comma. For example:
I didn’t like the movie, it was way too long.
She and Jerry are getting married in the fall, they didn’t want a summer wedding.
My favorite bands are all really loud, playing loud music is good for stress relief.
How to rewrite the first? Break into two sentences I didn’t like the movie. It was way too long. Use a semi-colon to connect independent clauses. I didn’t like the movie; it was way too long. Connect the two ideas with a conjunction. I didn’t like the movie because it was too long. Another error I see nearly as frequently is incorrect semi-colon use, or—among people who do understand how to use semi-colons—simple overuse and abuse. (I’m guilty as well. You can also see I have a fondness for em dashes and, while we’re at it, here I am using parentheses, perhaps once too often.) I’m tempted to cut and paste more corrections and examples, but this blogpost about punctuation is more about process than rules. When I’m not sure if I’m using punctuation correctly, or when an editor or peer reader flags something for me, I head to Google. I do a search and look for trusted sources in the results. Or I put the source—like Purdue Owl or Grammar Girl—in the searchbox. So for example, I type: “Lie versus lay grammar girl.” If I need more examples to understand the rule, I search again. Lots of writing centers and educational sites have good handouts, like this one on semi-colons, commas, and dashes. I’m not always the fastest learner. I have to look up “lie versus lay” at least once a year. Last week, I was corrected on my use of “since” versus “because.” (Always more to learn!) This blogpost could have been more concise, starting with “correct” choices instead of “artistic” choices, including Nabokov’s parentheses. But my message for you—and for my own perennial-student self—is that grammar*, punctuation*, mechanics*, usage*, and all that English class stuff is really cool, first. It’s also necessary, second. (*What do each of these terms mean? This post explains nicely.)
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow, published in 11 languages, as well as The Detour and a forthcoming novel, Behave. She teaches for I2P, 49 Writers, and in the University of Alaska Anchorage low-residency MFA program. Her website iswww.aromanolax.com.
The current state of publishing is a frenzy of competition and marketing with publishers, booksellers, authors, and distributors fighting over a seemingly shrinking audience. Whether it’s shrinking or not, the entire industry is engaged in a frantic effort to capture audience interest.
Recently I read about a new strategy publishers can use for identifying bestsellers by tracking the sales of indie authors. If an author is doing well the publishers move in for a takeover. Meanwhile indie authors are organizing blog parties featuring trivia contests and free giveaways. Wanna-be authors are polishing their pitches and query letters in hopes of getting that pitch just right and impressing a publisher. On the prowl, ever-present Amazon fine-tunes its schemes and algorithms for holding onto the fickle loyalty of readers.
Despite all this, we’re still in the business of selling books. In the last ten years, e-book sales have taken off, but they won’t replace paper books. Readers are still more likely to buy a book if they can hold it in their hands. Even if they buy the e-book copies instead, that experience of holding a physical book, thumbing through it, and hefting its weight remains part of tactile memory. A physical book is advertising.
The big publishers know this. They put their money into getting books into bookstores even if most of those books won’t sell. The sheer number of copies stacked up on tables or turned face-out on a shelf makes an impression on readers.
Paper books are indispensable to indie authors as a marketing tool. Conferences often have signing events with maybe a hundred authors signing books. Authors who have e-books only must resort to signing postcards and passing out candy and swag. I recall meeting with some of these authors and still have the pens, bookmarks, and charms, but I have little recall of the authors’ names or what they write. I carry copies of my book in a shoulder bag. When I meet new people, I could explain what I do for a living and pass out business cards, but it’s faster to show what I do by pulling a book from my bag and handing it to them.
Once those stacks of books are sold or given away, they continues to act as advertising. Books sit on bookshelves, lie around on tables, or are given away. Other people see paper books and may borrow them. This doesn’t happen with the e-books squirrelled away on cell phones. For physical books, the longevity of reach can be astounding. I have books which belonged to my great-grandparents. Some of the books contain doodles in the margins and mustaches on historical figures. Others are beautiful examples of design with vintage typesetting and gorgeous illustrations. I love these books as a window into the past. Their physicality offers an immediacy which e-books can’t surpass.
Lizzie Newell is an author, illustrator, book designer, and artist living in Anchorage, Alaska. She has written six books and twelve short stories set on the planet Fenria, a world which greatly resembles Alaska. She crafts related jewelry, costumes, and sculpture, and received a BA in arts and humanities from CSU in Colorado and a BFA in fine art from UAA. She does book design for other authors and often works with consulting editor Rebecca Goodrich. Newell’s first book, Sappho’s Agency, is available at UAA Bookstore and at Fireside Books in Palmer and as an e-book.
When I punched the time clock at 7 a.m. on June 30, 1958, excitement was evident throughout the Anchorage Daily Times building. It could easily be seen on the faces of those who were already hard at work, their demeanor even more earnest than usual. I soon learned that the Alaska Statehood Bill, which had been debated for the past week, was awaiting a final vote in the United States Senate. Passage was assured and was imminent. History was being made, and Anchorage would celebrate in a big way once that day’s edition hit the streets. Throughout the building we could feel the tension as we waited for the words from Congress that would set us in frenzied final motion.
When the back shop crew arrived, we saw that Publisher Robert B. Atwood was already at his desk in the editorial offices on the second floor, on the telephone with E. L “Bob” Bartlett, Alaska Delegate to Congress in Washington, D.C. Also getting an early start was the three-person news staff. Those of us whose job it was to set the type and get the paper ready for printing were met by Editor Bernard J. Kosinski. Adrenalin began to flow when he told us to prepare the front page for an Extra. That word was set twice in 72-point bold capital letters, placed in “ears” at the top of the front page, one in a box on each side of the paper’s nameplate.
“What’s the biggest type we have?” Kosinski asked me.
From the adjoining pressroom, I extracted from a dust-covered cabinet a character from a font of wood type. The type was six inches tall, reserved for use in a “Doomsday” headline.
“Try ‘WE’RE NO. 49’,” Kosinski commanded. When I attempted to comply, I found two problems. The more serious was that the phrase was too long to fit within the 16-inch page width. The other was that there was no apostrophe in the type case.
“There’s a comma, and I can make an apostrophe out of it if you can shorten the head,” I advised.
“Make it ‘WE’RE IN’,” he replied after a moment’s thought. That solved the first problem. The other didn’t take long. I took the comma and walked over to the saw standing in one corner of the composing room. I cut off the raised character from the bottom portion of the slim strip of hardwood, and placed it at the top of the headline; spacing material cut to order filled the void below.
Even though the front page soon was complete, except for a two-column hole on the right side, it would be several hours before the “Extra” hit the street. There was a great deal of nail-biting while we waited, all eyes on the clock. The gaping hole could not be filled until the Times’ Associated Press representative in Washington sent his lead paragraphs by teletype. From the publisher to us minions in the back shop, we agonized as we waited to break the news to a public waiting eagerly.
Background stories had been written in advance by Kosinski and his two reporters. They told of the effort to bring a Statehood Bill to the floor, what it provided, and its anticipated effects. Leaders of the Statehood effort were quoted, and space was given to the constitution that would guide the new State of Alaska. Emphasis was placed on President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s promise to sign the Bill as soon as it made its way to his desk. A picture of a huge pile of wood stacked on the Park Strip, waiting to become a celebratory bonfire, illustrated the excitement.
Bartlett had advised that passage of the bill was certain even though debate was continuing by senators not yet ready to admit defeat. All that was needed was word that the vote was final. It did not come until 8:00 Eastern time—2:00 Alaska time, the newspaper’s normal Page One deadline—when Associated Press reporter Robert Smith filed his report.
Times Circulation Manager Harry Stiver had already called in his crew of carriers and engaged a handful of them to take the Extra to the streets. Drivers were standing by to get copies to the stores, to the airport, and up the highway. The pressroom foreman was told to run twice the usual number of copies.
With the recently installed Hoe press cranking out 12,000 copies an hour, the 20-page edition was soon in the hands of sellers who shouted, “Extra, Extra! Alaska’s a state! Read all about it.” The newspapers, which sold for 10 cents each, became valuable souvenirs.
The “WE’RE IN” headline became an icon identifying the successful end to a decades-long struggle by Alaskans to gain a place in the Union. That fight began half a century earlier when residents of Nome (then Alaska’s largest city), Juneau (named as Alaska’s capital in 1906), Sitka (the former capital dating from the days of ownership by Russia), and Skagway (gateway to the Klondike in the 1890s Gold Rush) petitioned for recognition. Lack of a voice in Washington—other than that of lobbyists—and edicts coming from people thousands of miles and a continent’s-width away had long frustrated residents of the Territory.
The first Alaska Statehood Bill was filed in 1916 by former judge James Wickersham, who was elected as Alaska’s third non-voting Delegate to Congress in 1909. It failed, as did several subsequent efforts, although each brought attention to the Last Frontier’s concerns.
Fiercely pro-Statehood, Atwood became publisher of the Times in 1935. He battled relentlessly against the wealthy salmon cannery interests based in Seattle, whose fishermen came each spring to harvest the incredibly valuable runs spawned in Alaska’s rivers. To a great extent the Outside fishermen escaped paying taxes to the Territory. There were also concerns that with its small population Alaska could not afford to provide services previously provided by federal agencies. Control of the fishery, at least partially, ended with Statehood. The financial concern was alleviated when it became known that Atlantic-Richfield’s 1957 discovery of oil in the Kenai Peninsula’s Swanson River Field was a major find. That find was later eclipsed by what was found on Alaska’s North Slope. Although in 1958 we had only hopes for the future, Statehood has proved to be a success. Alaska holds untapped natural resources in abundance. The $7.2 million purchase from Russia has been repaid many times over. Alaska’s star continues to shine brightly.
My role in this drama was miniscule, but I still feel a sense of pride whenever I see the “WE’RE IN” headline. For a brief moment, I had a hand in history.
Lee Jordan was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1930. He enlisted in the Army and, despite asking to be sent “anywhere but Alaska,” found himself shivering at 20 degrees below zero on a windy dock in Whittier in January 1949, assigned to the Signal Corps’ historic Alaska Communication System. He later worked as a printer with the Anchorage Daily Times. He married Barbara Erickson in 1951. They moved to Chugiak in 1962, where they remain today. They founded the Chugiak-Eagle River Star in 1971 and operated it for 30 years until selling to the Morris newspaper chain. In 1974 Jordan was elected mayor of the short-lived Chugiak-Eagle River Borough. In semi-retirement, he is writing his fourth book—stories about people of the Klondike-Alaska Gold Rush. After 21 years of coaching baseball, Jordan is currently president of the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks Booster Club. He has four children, nine grandchildren, and four great-grandsons.
They divorced and I packed my books, piano music, and journals to move away from the house with the chair by the kitchen window and my secret mountain. I gave my homeless friends the rest of my money and my large, well-organized bundle of bus transfer slips before hugging each of them good-bye.
I walked across the street, turned around, and said, “Stay strong!” just before getting on the departing bus.
When he remarried there were no more threats to have my arms or legs broken and I no longer worried I would be locked in my room at night. The New Wife guarded my boundaries and protected me in the same way my older brother had years earlier. The scabs and bruises on my arms healed and she took me shopping for short-sleeve shirts. I never asked anything of her but she always knew what I needed and it was always better than what I would have asked for myself. Whenever I had a dress-up event to attend, she always handed me her silver fox jacket and pearl necklace to borrow. I never felt I deserved to wear anything so expensive, but the look on her face as I wore it made me feel nothing less would have been right.
The New Wife had been adopted as an infant and she told me the story of the gold Star of David she always wore around her neck. As an adult she searched for her biological parents and found out they had been a young teenage couple who were both Jewish. She gave me books about the Holocaust and we spent hours talking about the Righteous Among the Nations and what we would do if we were in a similar circumstance.
Everything I did and dreamed to do she told me was good and wonderful. Every day she hugged me and told me I was loved until one day I believed it. At seventeen, I now had a Mom.
When I was married at eighteen, my Mom bought my wedding dress, hosted my bridal shower, and helped me in the dressing room before the wedding. She graciously ran interference as the peacekeeper to keep me safe from others who wanted to bully themselves into this chapter of my life.
Before my Mom adopted me, she raised five other children and lived in Nome, Alaska. I loved everything about my Mom and as a voracious reader, I spent the next twenty years reading every Alaskana book I could get my hands on.
I moved to Norway and back again, raised three sons, became a homeschool activist, Boy Scout leader, Girls on the Run coach, and renovated a Victorian house. I started a non-profit rescue mission for domestic violence survivors and gave motivational speeches to create a surreptitious income to buy plane tickets to move women to shelters far away from their abusers. My Mom helped me secretly purchase $50 savings bonds every week for twelve years, before I was finally able to rescue myself and move to Alaska.
Over the years, my non-profit work became more than simply buying plane tickets to relocate women and grew into rescuing women and children from situations around the world many people turn away from. On one of my trips I stopped off in Paris for a week. I walked the streets of Paris to honor my Huguenot ancestors who had escaped to Switzerland in the face of religious persecution. I took a train to Rouen to see where my childhood heroine, Joan of Arc had been burned at the stake. As I serenely sat beside an ancient fountain while enjoying a hot Nutella crepe I thought how wrong it was on so many levels my Mom never got to see Paris and I did.
Almost thirty years after my Mom adopted me, I lived in Israel for three months. As I walked through Jerusalem every day, I frequently thought of my Mom’s love of her Jewish heritage. I kissed the Western Wall every Shabbat for my Mom before I slowly backed away.
Our lives intertwined in more ways than my Mom ever knew. Over the years I serendipitously adopted four daughters one by one. A deep part of me didn’t want anyone else to wait seventeen years like I had to know a mother’s love. Two of my daughters came into my life just shy of their seventeenth birthday, one was eleven and one was fourteen. My Mom’s adoption story continues to live on through my family legacy.
In the ten years since my Mom’s passing, I’ve accomplished so much more than I could ever have imagined for myself. All is good and wonderful and I know my Mom is proud of me.
K.M. Perry is currently living the adventurous life in Alaska as a photographer and creative writer, while working on international justice issues for a non-profit humanitarian aid agency as a Justice Pastor. She also works locally as a domestic violence and homeless advocate, enjoys playing hockey, hiking and camping, traveling, painting, and playing ukulele.
You know those people you never see often enough, but when you do get together, it’s like you found a little piece of yourself you’d misplaced? That’s how I felt enjoying a cup of tea with Heather Lende. We talked about family, writing, and her new book, Find the Good. One of the things I love about Heather is that she’s the same in person as she is on the page—heartfelt and wise and full of hope. Without trying, she makes you believe in your better self. And yet as she’s quick to point out in the pages of her new book, it’s in death that she finds her inspiration: For years, she has written obituaries for the small-town newspaper in Haines, Alaska. “Bad doings bring out the best in people,” she says in her book. Or as she explains to her granddaughter, who wonders aloud where the stars come from, it’s darkness that brings out the light. In an odd way, it’s not all that different from what I heard author Chris Abani say recently, his idea that noir is the only actual genre that exists in fiction anymore, the only way in which novelists can wrestle with the trauma of industrialization. Applied to my work, the term noir makes me squirm. It sounds bleak, hopeless, cynical—and I’m none of those things. But there’s no denying what lands on the page: A boy whose anger spirals toward self-destruction. A family that lands in the wilderness for all the wrong reasons. A mother and daughter who dance like boxers around the other’s longings and needs, obsessions filling in where they feel most powerless against their hurts. In the novel I’m drafting now: a young man’s senseless death; his mother’s anguish; anger fueled by racial hurts and injustice, the stuff that fueled recent riots in Baltimore.
I can’t explain why I’m drawn to the hard stuff. The difficult questions. The stakes that spill over from individual lives to touch us all. The violence, the injustice. I can only believe as Heather does, that bad things draw out the best in us, that darkness leads the way to the light. Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored sixteen books. Her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion; and Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist. Deb lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier.
Recently I attended a writers’ conference in the Lower 48. Nearly every writer I encountered pitched their books the same way, following a script recommended in a workshop. I‘d hear “paranormal” and then my mind would drift. I like paranormal fiction, but the books all seemed the same. If I asked questions, I often found out that these seemingly dull books had brilliant ideas hidden behind the expert-recommended sameness. The advice given in presentations compounded the stultifying monotony. Writers asked questions such as, “Is it okay to use first person in paranormal romance?” Entire presentations were devoted to standardized plots. Advice on marketing included shoving book brochures at every person encountered. I also heard advice on how to monetize podcasts by selling advertising. This seems to be a sideline and a distraction. For a writer, a podcast should be driving customers to the books, not to other businesses. Such a writer would expend time and effort as a podcaster, not as an author. Traditional publishers can be wonderful for some authors because publishers have resources necessary for marketing and distribution. They may know what sort of cover will work best. They have contacts and so can get endorsement blurbs and reviews. Most importantly, they have the money necessary to get quantities of book copies into stores. I’ve been told that a reader who picks up a book in a store is more likely to buy it than is a reader who encounters a book online. However, publishers try to reduce risk by selecting manuscripts which they know will sell. They make such determinations based on books which previously sold well. It’s likely that this risk-aversion drives books to be increasingly similar to books already on the market. Agents feed the pipeline with books which are similar, and experts give advice to meet the requirement of sameness put in place by the publishers. The selection of manuscripts becomes increasingly restrictive, until an author breaks out with a new idea which then sets a new standard which is then followed to the point of monotonous sameness. Buying books is often like shopping for hair care products. In the grocery store, I face fifty different types of shampoo differentiated only by scent and packaging. This is an illusion of diversity. I observe a similar phenomenon in book marketing. In some genres, nearly identical plots and characters are differentiated only by superficial changes in setting. It’s as if the publisher has bottles of artificial flavoring which are added to the same low-cost ingredients. The best cooks use fresh, natural ingredients and enhance the flavor without the addition of artificial flavors and colors. Lemon- meringue-pie-flavored jelly beans are worlds away from lemon meringue pie made with actual lemons and eggs. To avoid numbing sameness, I believe writers should ignore common advice. Commonality of advice is a good indicator of the direction of the herd. As writers we’re better off leaving the herd to focus on whatever it is which makes our writing different. This distinctiveness is a writer’s pearl of great price. The presentation of a gem should enhance rather than detract from its beauty. Advice designed for other people gems becomes a distraction and, if taken too far, destroys the gem itself. I sell books without the support of a publisher by carrying a shoulder bag with copies of my book. I sell more copies out of my shoulder bag than I do through Amazon. Fortunately, we also have independent book stores who are willing to host events and to sell books on consignment. Fireside Books in Palmer is wonderful, so is UAA Bookstore. They both sell my book. There’s also River City Books in Soldotna. Soon a new independent bookstore will be opening in Spenard. Writer’s Block, scheduled to open in 2016, will have a full service restaurant and will sell new books, some of them on consignment. I’m ecstatic. It’s important to support these businesses so that writers have a venue for sharing their new ideas. Independent bookstores may be the best means we have for busting out of sameness to reach a diverse audience.
Lizzie Newell is an author, illustrator, book designer, and artist living in Anchorage, Alaska. She has written six books and twelve short stories set on the planet Fenria, a world which greatly resembles Alaska. She crafts related jewelry, costumes, and sculpture and received both a BA in arts and humanities from CSU in Colorado and a BFA in fine art from UAA. Newell’s first book, Sappho’s Agency, is available at UAA Bookstore and at Fireside Books in Palmer and as an e-book.
“Do you think we could have a mock election here at West?” Ted Trueblood, editor of the school newspaper Eagle’s Cry asked me in journalism class. “I think I can wangle some voting machines.” “If you can arrange for the voting machines, I think it would be all right. You’ll have to check with Mr. Rewolinski, though,” I said. I was the newspaper advisor as well as journalism teacher. John Rewolinski – “Mr. R”– was the assistant principal in charge of activities.
“The way I see it,” Ted said, “with all the fuss over this election coming up in November, we’ll have a great story for the Eagle’s Cry about how the kids vote.”
It was fall 1962—barely into statehood. The election coming in November was a big one. We had a race for governor between Bill Egan, the present governor since statehood in 1959, a Democrat, and Mike Stepovich, a Republican, who had been the governor in Territorial days just before statehood. Ernest Gruening, one of the two U.S. senators since statehood, a Democrat, was opposed by Ted Stevens, a Republican. Democrat Ralph Rivers from Fairbanks, our lone U.S. representative, was opposed by Lowell Thomas Jr., a Republican from Anchorage. There was much speculation in the newspapers and around town about all three races. How our West High kids voted might predict how their parents would vote. That was Ted’s idea—he thought it would be a great scoop for Eagle’s Cry.
Mr. R did approve, and Ted and the newspaper staff were off and running. Ted was able to arrange for two voting machines. We set a date that would work with our publication schedule, put up posters, urged everyone in school, maybe about 1,400 kids, to vote. Social Studies teachers encouraged their students to vote as a practice in civic duty.
The word got out into the community that West was having a mock election. Like us, others saw the significance of our election as a straw poll indicator of how the November election might go. I got phone calls at home.
“Miss Lundstrom, I’m calling from the Anchorage Times to ask about your election at West High.”
“I’m calling from the Anchorage Daily News. Can you tell me about the election at West?”
Democratic and Republican headquarters folks called the school, Ted Trueblood, John Rewolinski, and Les Wells, West High principal. We told everybody the same thing: wait until after our election--read it in the Eagle’s Cry.
Election day at West High arrived. The Eagle’s Cry kids, especially Ted, were all excited. The voting machines, which had arrived the night before – big and black, about the size of upright freezers – were set up in the foyer, near the main entrance and the gym, where everybody went at some time during the day. Mr. R, who knew everybody, and newspaper staff kids watched nearby to see that kids didn’t vote twice. Students could vote only between classes, at lunch, and before and after school. At lunch, the lines of voting kids were long. Reporters and political folks were walking around the school off and on all day.
“I’m not telling anyone the outcome,” Ted said. He was under a lot of pressure. It was after school, and the voting was over. He had the results and was writing the story for the Eagle’s Cry in our second floor journalism classroom while the voting machine handlers packed up the two machines downstairs in the foyer.
The rest of that issue of the newspaper was already at Anchorage Printing, owned and run by Herb Rhodes. Ted typed up the story, and I made sure he got it to the print shop to fill the hole set aside for it.
We waited on tenterhooks for the Eagle’s Cry to be printed–-it would take a couple of days. Ted kept his cool, even as he sat on hot political stuff. We waited to get the word from Herb Rhodes that the paper was all printed, then Ted and I planned to pick up the copies ourselves, take them to school and deliver them to classrooms and kids.
The day after our election, with another day to go before the Eagle’s Cry would be printed and ready to distribute, Ted came to my classroom just after lunch, waving a copy of the Anchorage Times, and yelling, his face red.
“Look at the headline, Miss Lundstrom. They scooped us! How did they find out?” He was furious. The headline was “Egan, Gruening Win West High Election.”
I immediately called Herb Rhodes at Anchorage Printing to see what had happened.
“The Times reporter came over and asked,” Herb said. “I told him.”
“That was our scoop! You had no business giving out that information!” I yelled at him. I couldn’t keep my calm teacher voice, I was so mad.
“Oh, I thought you’d be pleased that they were interested in your election,” Herb said.
I pulled the Eagle’s Cry out of Herb’s print shop and moved it to Northern Printing the very next issue.
Marie Lundstrom taught high school English and journalism at West, Dimond, East, and Bartlett high schools in the 1960s and early 1970s. After 20 years of marriage, two children, and earning two graduate degrees in Wisconsin, she returned to Alaska in 1996 and spent 10 years as the Dimond High School librarian. After her retirement in 2006, she worked part-time as an editor at AQP Publishing for five years, and in 2015 she will complete a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing with an emphasis on poetry at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
I had Visqueen, Blazo, and a .22 strapped to my snowmachine.
If you were born in Alaska or grew up here, this sentence makes perfect sense. But even if you’ve only been here a few years, you’ve probably had ample time to learn the lingo. Outside editors, however, usually have a different take. Readers won’t know what you’re talking about, is the usual caveat.
My argument is that keeping a few brand names and colloquialisms adds local color to our writing. What would Faulkner have done, if he’d been spinning stories set in the North?
Looking again at that first sentence, an Outside (to use Alaska speak) editor would probably suggest “plastic sheeting” in lieu of Visqueen, “white gas” instead of Blazo. Damn, though—that’s not what we say up here. Okay, I can concede on the white gas, but plastic sheeting just isn’t in our vocabulary. Then there’s the .22—who needs “rifle” to follow? Tacking on the explanatory noun seems redundant and unnecessary. As for snowmachine, I’ve been told by my New York editor (my younger brother, a former acquisitions editor at Syracuse U. Press) that most non-Alaskans would consider this “a machine used for making snow.” But I stubbornly refuse to use the word snowmobile in my writing.
Besides losing local color, another problem of giving in to these kinds of edits is that it makes for lazy readers. What ever happened to the practice of sleuthing out meanings based on context, or simply looking up words that are unfamiliar? With Internet now sitting in most people’s laps, how hard is it to Google “Visqueen”?
Don’t get me wrong—certainly may editors raise good points and the writer has a degree of obligation to his or her audience. We don’t want to confuse people; neither do we want to spoon-feed them.
I’d love to hear from the rest of you on this, with specific examples of words or phrases you’ve had to fight for. Or, to put in another way, when you’ve decided to stick to your aught-six.
Anne Coray’s latest collection of poetry is A Measure's Hush, published by Boreal Books. She lives on Lake Clark and her website is www.annecorayalaska.com.