Author Pam Houston gravitates towards wildness and challenges. Which is why she is returning to Alaska, after the publication of her recent book, a collection of 132 vignettes, “Contents May Have Shifted.”
Houston will be in Juneau for both a performance in collaboration with musician Emma Hill, and a four-hour workshop.
“There are certain places in the country where people understand my books and my life more than others, and Alaska is one of them,” Houston said.
She described her writing as an organic process that is composed of following her thirst for adventure. She is a keen observer, noting various moments and feelings that catch her somehow. She collects them, and then weaves them together into her prose.
“A lot of what writing is about for me is finding a particular landscape that has resonance for me, that strikes some sort of cord inside me,” she said. “And then describing it. It could be specific: the way the light bounces off a river. It doesn’t have to be a place, like the Brooks Range, though it could be, because I’ve done several trips up there and I think it’s fantastic, but it could just be momentary. When I feel that resonance, when I’m out in nature - and it doesn’t have to be nature, when it’s out in the concrete physical world, and then I write it down, and bring it back to the page, it’s about seeing those things, feeling that connection, writing it down, and then putting it next to other things. I call these ‘glimmers.’ Things that go, ‘Hey, hey, pay attention, write this down.’ When I collect them and bring them to the page and they start to work together, to make something different and bigger. When they start to make a story, to me that’s the happiness of writing.”
She said that what resonates with her may be a bird, a conversation she overheard on a trail or the ocean. Bringing these observations into a coherent story is her art, grasping those moments.
“It’s like bringing a bunch of ingredients for a soup together,” Houston said. “You’ve made something out of all the disparate parts, but they’re connected through the conduit of me.”
Houston said her biggest challenge is the same many writers face: overcoming fear.
“If you start a book, if that book has any chance of being great, it’s going to be because you were willing to not know, to sit in the dark and let the book happen around you,” she said. “I don’t think anyone’s written a good book knowing everything. I think writing is a big mystery and you have to be willing to not know. You have to be willing to know that you don’t know what you’re going to say or what will happen.”
On Feb. 23 Houston will lead a writing workshop. As the workshop is one day, participants are not expected to bring works-in-progress. Rather, Houston said, she’ll be encouraging students to notice those observations and emotional experiences that glimmer for them.
“It will be more of a generative class, generating new work,” Houston said. “They will definitely be writing, and we’ll be hearing them read what they wrote, and I will be talking about my messages, getting stuff on the page.”
Houston said the class will be geared to those who want to be more serious about their writing, and she will assist in how to kick-start that process.
“A lot of people who come to me for these one day classes come with a bunch of scribbles that they want to connect,” she said. “They have things written down that they don’t know what to do with. We can talk about putting them into a memoir or short stories or a novel. Who they are and where they are will influence what I say and what we do.”
Houston said that writing can be rather self-obsessed, a dissection of one’s thoughts. Teaching is a way for her to not only encourage that self-exploration for others but to unwind the momentum of focusing on herself.
“It’s making and holding a space for somebody else’s creativity,” she said. “It’s a balance. It’s important to me to do a lot of both, and traveling is sort of a by-product and a fit of both, because I teach all over the world and I love to travel.”
Houston will help participants with developing themes, structure and using metaphors, dialogue and tension. Just a desire to learn how to effectively recognize and capture what tugs at your soul is the prerequisite for the workshop.
Later in the evening Houston will perform with Emma Hill at the Downtown Public Library. The performance is something in which she has participated numerous times.
“The really fun thing about us performing together is the way we do it,” Houston said. “Her songs and my stories really work together.”
Typically the performance format goes like this: Hill sings a song, and Houston responds with a reading from her book, Hill builds upon the reading and Houston lengthens the storyline.
“It tells a different story every night,” she said. “It’s different than a standard reading or a standard concert. It shapes itself as it goes along.”
The Juneau workshop will be held on Feb. 23 from noon to 4 p.m. at the Northern Light United Church. The cost to participate is $100. Registration is required, by contacting Joan Pardes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The performance with Hill will be held the same evening at the Downtown Library at 7:30 p.m. Hill, who lives in Anchorage, will also be performing at The Rookery Café on Feb. 22.
• Amanda Compton is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at email@example.com.