When highly acclaimed author David Vann was in town to give a reading at the Juneau Public Library last month, he offered an analogy about writing that was perfectly suited to his Alaskan audience: Writing, he said, is not unlike fishing for halibut.
Vann, now based in California, was born on Adak Island and spent his early years in Ketchikan. On one fishing trip with his dad, he recalled, he spent what felt like hours reeling in a fish, imagining what it might look like once he got it in the boat, and trying to catch glimpses of it over the side through the dark grey-green water. It remained obscured until it was finally pulled out of the water and into the boat, revealing itself to be monstrous.
This experience came back to him when he was writing his first book, the short story collection “Legend of a Suicide.” The pivotal moment of the central story, “Sukkwan Island,” came a complete shock to him even as he was writing it down, Vann said, an intense experience that really impressed upon him the power of the unconscious in steering a writer’s mind. You never really know what hidden things might be revealed if given time and space to emerge, he said.
Writers in Juneau and the rest of the country have got plenty of lines in the water this month, for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short), a month-long writing marathon that stresses production over perfection. Local activities are being coordinated by the Juneau Public Library’s Outreach Librarian Jonas Lamb, who, with JPL Program Coordinator Carol Race, also set up the “Gather Inspiration” series that Vann was part of in October. "Gather Inspiration" will continue later this month with an Alaska Native Heritage Month event, a reading by Nora and Richard Dauenhauer and Carol Feller Brady. November NaNoWriMo events include “Come Write In” weekly group writing sessions at all three library branches (see /juneaubookblog.wordpress.com/ for a schedule) and a workshop about writing under deadline pressure with freelance writer Geoff Kirsch, scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Valley Library.
Lamb said the NaNoWriMo project is part of the library’s larger vision to move from being a place of transaction to a place of transformation.
“We try to keep it vibrant,” he said.
A strict deadline stands as the backbone of NaNoWriMo: writers must complete 50,000 words between Nov. 1 and 30. The nearly impossible parameters are designed to encourage writers to get past their barriers — procrastination, perfectionism, fear of commitment — and just get into the process of writing itself.
Begun in San Francisco in 1999, NaNoWriMo has grown to include chapters all over the country and in Europe. The first year, it attracted 21 participants, 9 of whom completed the challenge. Last year it had more than 200,500 registered writers, with nearly 37,500 completing their 50,000 word goal. Previous years have produced published works, most famously Sarah Gruen’s “Water for Elephants.”
This year in Alaska, 1,395 are registered as participants, with active groups in Juneau, Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Local events got started on Nov. 5, at a kick-off party. Participants quickly warmed up to the idea of joining forces in a common goal, Lamb said, adding that what the group lacked in numbers it made up for in enthusiasm.
“They were really excited to come across a small group that was as encouraging as that group was,” he said.
Some participants in Juneau said they were using the pressure of NaNoWriMo to get their work done, while molding the guidelines to fit their specific projects. Lamb, for example, said he’s turned NaNoWriMo into NaPoWriMo, forcing himself to write a poem a day. Another writer, Youseph Tanha, said he’s using the group writing sessions to work on a book he’d already started, a science fiction novel. After getting a late start -- he registered just this week -- he has attended two of this week’s three ”Come Write In” sessions, and said the presence of other writers in the room was encouraging.
“I didn’t find it distracting at all -- as soon as the ‘hello’s’ were out of the way,” he said.
Tanha, who already has a novella under his belt, “All that Matters,” said he’s glad to finally get a chance to test the theory that having a set time and place for writing leads to greater productivity. His conclusion thus far? It works. He’s shooting for 2000 words a session.
The sessions are draining, however; being sufficiently motivated is key.
“You have to like to write, too,” he said. “You have to wake up saying, 'I’d really like to write today.'”
On Saturday, local writer Geoff Kirsch will help writers confront what might be the toughest part of NaNoWriMo: the strict deadline. Kirsch is a freelancer for the Juneau Empire and other local groups, and has also written for national media outlets such as the Huffington Post and Comedy Central. He recently published his first book-length piece, “Run For Your Life! Doomsday 2012!” He’s also participated in the Juneau Douglas Little Theatre’s 24-Hour Miracle, which forces playwrights to come up with a play that is then immediately produced on stage.
Kirsch juggles writing with being a stay-at-home dad to his two kids, ages 13 months and nearly 4, so he is very familiar with having to squeeze all his work into the tiny window of time during the babysitter’s watch. Kirsch said one thing he tries to keep in mind at all times is the idea of moving forward, a concept he hopes to share with workshop participants. He no longer spends hours on a single paragraph, for example — becoming a professional writer made such habits impossible to sustain.
“Once I started getting paid... I had no choice but to break myself of all those bad habits,” he said.
He also plans to share some ideas about when to stop, and keeping a balance between creativity and control.
“You want to open the valve on your hose, but at the same time you want to learn how to nozzle it too,” he said.
Kirsch, who has previously taught writing at the college level in New York City, said some aspects of the craft —such as when to step back — must be learned by feel.
“There’s no way of teaching this, but there’s a way of guiding people so they can feel when they get to that point with their own work,” he said.
Having too much time for a project can be as detrimental as having too little, he said. While in getting his master’s degree in creative writing at the New School University in 2005 he had two years to produce four stories, all of which ended up being “too tight.”
“In some ways, having all of that time is a big pressure, you’re just going over the same thing again and again,” he said. “Your project can die that way.”
Those interested in registering for the workshop should email Jonas Lamb at firstname.lastname@example.org
Another writing workshop taking place this weekend -- one that is not part of NaNoWriMo -- is the Woosh Kinaadeiyí writers retreat, to be held Sunday at the Canvas. Co-organizer Christy NaMee Eriksen, who hosts the Woosh Kinaadeiyí monthly poetry slam at the canvas with Na Haan, said activities will include writing exercises led by Juneau writers and a chance to share writing and get feedback.
“Because we’re a spoken word series, our exercises may be geared towards that audience, but we are open to any type of writer,” she said in an email.
The workshop is open to writers of any ability, slam regulars or not. The event gets started with a potluck at noon, and runs through 4 p.m. at the Canvas. For more information, email email@example.com or 586-1750.
If you aren’t participating in a workshop or NaNoWriMo, but feel motivated to kick-start your writing project this month, the NaNoWriMo website is a good place to start, particularly the “pep talks” page, where literary stars share encouraging words. A few examples: Dave Eggers (“People can’t read the thoughts in your head. They can only read the thoughts you put down, carefully and with great love, on the page. So you have to do it, goddamnit.”); Neil Gaiman (“Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.”); Tom Robbins (“Pack your imagination, your sense of humor, a character or two, and your personal world view into a little canoe, push it out onto the vast dark river, and see where the currents take you”); Peter Carey (“You can not play the top game without reading every day”); and Aimee Bender (“In a nutshell: go where the writing goes. Follow your interesting work”.)
Come Write In workshops
Open Writing Labs held in library conference rooms all of November. Coffee and tea provided.
Downtown: Mondays, 5-8 p.m. Nov. 7, 14, 21, and 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Nov. 28.
Douglas: Tuesdays, 5-8 p.m. Nov. 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29
Valley: Wednesdays, 5-8 p.m. Nov. 2, 9, 16, 23 and 30.
“Pressure! Techniques for Writing Under Deadline” a workshop with Geoff Kirsch
10 a.m.-noon- Valley Library, Saturday, Nov. 12
Register in advance by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank God it’s Over Party
6 p.m. Dec. 3 at the Douglas Library
Woosh Kinaadeiyí writers retreat
Noon-4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13 at the Canvas
Register at email@example.com o 586-1750.