I play Sudoku when anxious. I burned through a number of puzzles on the ferry to Skagway to attend the North Words Writers Symposium (www.nwwriterss.com) over the weekend of June 1. Who was I to think I could hang with a bunch of accomplished and published writers? Confidence at a low, dreams of being a paid writer fading, I hit upon a solution in the Sudoku book – advertisements for training in medical transcription. Your fingers have to hit a keyboard. That’s writing! Then I lost the Sudoku book.
It’s also hard to hang out with well known authors when you suffer from “stupidity by celebrity.” My first day at the symposium, I had no idea what to say to these writers whose works I’ve read and admired. Take Seth Kantner who wrote “Ordinary Wolves,” a fantastic depiction of the stark beauty and dysfunction of rural Alaska.. Kantner comes over and shakes my hand, “Hi I’m Seth”.
And the best I could respond was, “Ordinary Wolves” was awesome! You live in Kotzebue, right? Kotzebue is awesome!”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Scott Silver was the keynote speaker. Silver, who wrote “8-Mile” and “The Fighter,” provided attendees insight to the big time of Hollywood. He spoke with a direct style out of the side of his mouth. Work harder than the other guy, he would say. Do your research. He acknowledged the final movie may be very different than what he envisioned. It’s part of the job. Fascinating and so very removed from my Juneau existence.
Silver shifted between bemusement and astonishment with the Alaskans. I enjoyed watching his face when we expressed our somewhat psychotic devotion to the state and how disappointed we are with Alaska’s portrayal in books and movies.
Faculty included Heather Lende, author of “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name.” Lende is wise and well spoken. She also belongs to a group of Haines residents who have, at long last, found the Fountain of Youth. Haines attendees were ageless and fit people. Only their grey hair and discussions of grandchildren hinted at an age north of 40. Want to stay young? Become a working writer and move to Haines.
Other faculty included Lynn Schooler, author of “The Blue Bear.” He is like E.F. Hutton. He doesn’t say much, but when he does, people listen. Schooler showed us how consuming wild plants can be character building. Debra Vanasse, who wrote the excellent children’s book “Under Alaska’s Midnight Sun,” excelled at keeping her sessions focused on the stated topic and attendee questions. Other faculty included Nick Jans, Kim Heacox, John Straley, Jeff Brady, Dan Henry and Skagway’s one and only Buckwheat – who regaled folks with stories of his cross-continent walk.
Session topics ranged wide, from writing exercises to talks on the influence of social media, getting published, getting an agent, self publishing, and the necessity to hustle as the internet churns the book business. The faculty didn’t always stay on topic, but were unfailingly interesting. I sat three hours on a hardwood bench listening to writers discuss the craft of writing dialogue and somehow stayed engaged (even as my legs fell asleep). That’s the power of a knowledgeable and engaging faculty.
At symposium’s end, there came time to read personal works to the participants and faculty. For some reason, I agreed to a reading thinking the Lassie story I did for Mudrooms might work. Almost the moment I decided on the dog story I thought, “Am I really going to read a dog story in front of published authors and an Oscar nominated screen writer? Ugh.” This sentiment only became more acute after the excellent and heartfelt non-dog stories read before mine.
Upon completion of my reading, I learned a couple of things:
1. Retire the Lassie story. A grown man can only cry in public over the death of his childhood dog so many times before it gets weird.
2. Bring a change of shirt. If you are going to sweat like a boxer due to the anxiety of a reading, bring a change of shirt before hugging award-winning writers goodbye.
Part of me hoped the symposium would provide the nugget of advice that would lead to “Finally! I can write my novel!” But if anything, the one repeated piece of advice was “Work. Work hard. Work real hard.” And that’s disappointing. On the other hand, I left with a renewed energy toward writing – a willingness to look at a blank page and revisit old drafts. I also left with an appreciation of the generous and kind spirit of Alaska’s many talented writers.
Kim Heacox, author of “Caribou Crossing,” more or less said the following, “Celebrate the success of your writing family. Celebrate the success of others. We are the scribes of Alaska. To be a writer in Alaska; not to be a soldier with a farm or a farmer with a sword; not to be bowing to some dictator; not to be working in some factory in China making computer chips; but to be at the millennium a writer in Alaska...it’s amazing.”
Amen, Mr. Heacox. Amen. And that is why Kim Heacox is not a medical transcriptionist and why I need to find that Sudoku book.