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49 Writers ... and then some

Posted: Thursday, July 08, 2010

Writing is a solitary activity, a private struggle Annie Dillard has compared to wrestling with an alligator. But though the process itself may be unsharable, one's approach to it is not, and rare is the author who doesn't benefit from the input or influence of others, especially other writers.

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Finding a way to connect with other writers can be challenging, however, especially if you live in Alaska. Most of us don't have access to the equivalent of Gertrude Stein's Paris salon, where Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Joyce and Pound were known to convene.

"Just because Hemingway got to hang out in a salon in Paris doesn't mean that some writer in Nebraska could meet other writers," said Anchorage-based author Andromeda Romano-Lax. "I think we've always had this problem of people feeling somewhat isolated in terms of their writing lives."

Romano-Lax's solution was to take matters into her own hands. She started a blog (49writers.blogspot.com/) with fellow Alaska author Deb Vanasse, offering writers around the state a way to communicate and share information about the writing life. The women had each been operating their own literary blogs, and decided to join forces in January 2009. The blog includes practical information about publishing and applying for grants as well as more inspirational content, said Romano-Lax.

"We both had the same goal, which was not to use the blog in that navel-gazing sense that blogs have a reputation for," she said. "We were not interested in just promoting our own work, we actually wanted to use it to help connect other Alaska writers and create sort of a collaborative online community."

Problems of distance and remoteness are in some ways offset by a shared Alaskan perspective, she said.

"It's possible to create one group of people working toward the same end in a way that you would not be able to do in a place like New York City or Los Angeles," she said.

Romano-Lax and Vanasse take turns posting entries, often including guest posts from other authors. In a recent post, Alaska writer laureate Nancy Lord shared some of her comments from the closing talk she gave at the Katchemak Bay Writers Conference in Homer in June. In another, author David Vann answered questions from other bloggers about his highly acclaimed book "Legend of a Suicide," set in Alaska. Heather Lende and Charles Wohlforth also contribute posts.

This past spring, the women have expanded 49 Writers from a virtual presence into a physical one, opening a writing center and guesthouse in downtown Anchorage. Romano-Lax said having a place to host workshops and readings had long been a goal. The women spent months researching similar centers down south, such as Grub Street in Boston, but ended up creating their own model, one that incorporates a rental space with a literary center. Raven Place operates as a guesthouse part of the year in order to pay for the literary programming offered in the fall. The house is listed on the Vacation Rentals By Owner website, and has already fulfilled its projected number of reservations for the season.

The guesthouse, located on the west side of Anchorage next to Snow City Café, also can be used for accommodation for visiting writers who are leading workshops or giving readings at the writing center. Romano-Lax said snagging authors who come through town was a big reason for getting the writing center established as soon as possible.

"That was actually one of the really big reasons why Deb and I wanted to move forward quickly, because we were noticing people coming through town and there wasn't any organization in place to say 'Stop here, we'll give you a place to do a reading, we'll give you a place to do a class, and we'll pay you,'" she said. "We have to capture those people as they come through instead of losing that opportunity for our writers and our readers to meet them."

Another incentive for the center was that Romano-Lax and Vanasse had both tried to lead workshops in noisy cafes in the past and been frustrated by the lack of better venues. Though small, the new center will easily accommodate workshops for 12-15 people (an ideal number according to Romano-Lax), as well as larger-scale events such as readings.

In another move off-screen, the women have organized a fall retreat with David Vann at the Tutka Bay Lodge near Homer; both women are committed to the idea of the writing center being a facility with a state-wide reach. Romano-Lax said the retreat wouldn't have been possible this early in the game without the cooperation of lodge owners Carl and Kirsten Dixon. Openings are still available.

Romano-Lax said that she's been thrilled and surprised to see the blog and the writing center take off in such a short time.

"When I started my personal blog before I merged with Deb, I called it 49 writers because I thought, 'I'm going to run posts by or interviews with 49 other writers, I'll do 49 posts and then I'm done,' and then it was like, whoops! It got bigger and bigger, and I can't live without it now."

She also said she has experienced first-hand how important the support of a literary community can be. She never could have completed writing her first book, "The Spanish Bow," she said, if not for the financial support she received from the Rasmuson Foundation and the encouragement she received from the writing community.

"To have a group of people that actually believe that it is possible for you to write a novel, that you might actually get it published - something that I myself didn't believe in the beginning - that makes all the difference," she said.



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