F rom May 29 through June 1, the 4th annual North Words Writers Symposium was held in Skagway.
Strained metaphors, nature essays, confusion of fact and fiction, male and female perspective and sci-fi erotica were just a few items touched upon like two Martian lovers of indeterminate gender arguing climate change politics while skipping across a bridge of stones over a salmon swollen stream.
It was quite a weekend.
Some of Alaska’s best known writers sat across the table from some of Alaska’s best unknown writers. Faculty keynote was Kathleen Dean Moore, nature essayist from Oregon. Alaska faculty included last year’s stalwarts Heather Lende, Kim Heacox, Lynn Schooler and John Straley. Also serving as faculty was novelist Andromeda Romano-Lax from Anchorage, screenwriter David Hunsaker of Juneau, and Howard Weaver, former publisher of the Anchorage Daily News.
Symposium hosts are Jeff Brady, who publishes the Skagway News; Dan Henry, who’s an essayist and rhetorician, and sings a mean tenor; and the one and only Buckwheat Donahue, who founded the symposium.
The rest of us were there for our own varied reasons: to write better, find a publisher or make connections. Some were trying to figure out if they could write, whether they had stories worth committing to paper. Faculty went out of their way to help participants reach these symposium goals.
Mostly though, the symposium serves as a way for those who write, successfully or otherwise, to connect. Writing can be a very isolated activity. Putting out some words you hope resonate with others, whether funny or poignant, is terrifying. If it is not funny or poignant, you feel a fool. It’s wonderful to be with people who get this.
In addition to the symposium is the town of Skagway, a great place. The steep Dewey Lake trails are great for a vigorous trail run. (By “run” I mean staggering uphill while gasping, gagging and spitting). Bombay Curry serves amazing Indian food, the Red Onion is haunted, and the Skagway Brewing Co pours a good spruce tip ale.
It wasn’t all perfect of course. There was the hand holding and sing-along stuff, which, for a guy with a personal space bubble the size of a planet, was a wee bit uncomfortable. There was the borderline hypothermic experience of standing by a dying fire with no comfort but a wet can of Kokanee beer (which, believe me, was of little comfort).
But mostly, the symposium was a personal kind of heaven. Consider, many Alaskans are from somewhere else, thus friends are made quickly, and family can form from your friends. The symposium was no different. We started among friends and ended among family. In the course of three days we sang, laughed, cried, bickered and argued. Of all potential outcomes from a writer’s symposium, I never expected the love and catharsis of a family reunion over Thanksgiving weekend.
If it were my family, Lende would be my auntie, keeping me in line with her country song kind of love. Heacox, Schooler, Brady and Henry would be my uncles: Wise, walnut tough and kind, they’ll sing classic rock while cooking the meal and argue over the Beatles and Stones. In the kitchen, I would act the condor, circling high then swooping in on the carcass for bits of dark meat. Meanwhile, my hyper and brilliant little sister Romano-Lax would challenge her big brother to feats of strength and win, of course. The mysterious Straley would be the cousin, master of haiku, funny as hell, slightly unknowable, and alarming in his talent and morality. Older brother Weaver would hold court over politics, looking forward to the traditional post-meal game of Risk. Hunsaker would not be related to me, perhaps a friend from down the street. Nobody with his lyricism and fashion sense could remotely be my relative. Moore would sit at one end of the table, quiet, observant, soaking in the details for her next masterpiece of introspection. Buckwheat would sit at table’s other end. Not so much a writer as a storyteller, Buckwheat would hold his hands out wide like he’s going to hug you; like he’s going to hug the whole world.
Do writers in other place engender such adoration? I doubt it. It’s a function of being an Alaskan. Alaska inspires and humbles in equal measure. Alaska engenders a unique perspective that translates into powerful works by her writers. Yet Alaska keeps that success from manifesting as arrogance. Even the best of us can capsize a boat or fall off a trail.
That humility dissipated what little demarcation existed between faculty and participant like a puff of glacial talc in the breeze. Lectures weren’t given so much as conversations had. To strain the Thanksgiving metaphor to its breaking point, we participants sat at the adult table.
Above all, for three days, I was just a writer. That was nice.
How to tie this all up? Symposium faculty suggest a hallmark of great writing is brevity. So if you want to write, tell some stories, hear the wisdom of masters, or just meet some great human beings, then go. It’s good.