AfterWords: Reflections on the 2012 North Words Writers Symposium

16 06 2012

Got an email from one of my writer buddies last week. “So?” she prompted. “How was the symposium?”

Tough question. I’ve been back to boat work for two weeks now, varnishing the Nerka’s rails while wondering how to tell you about one of the best experiences of my writer’s life.

First, I need to tell you how remarkable the North Words Writers Symposium’s very existence is. It began with a dream, when Skagway Tourism Director (and community heart) Buckwheat Donahue imagined a celebration of the written word in Southeast Alaska. Local publisher/bookseller Jeff Brady and writer Dan Henry shared Buckwheat’s dream, signing on as co-organizers. Thanks to these three and support from the City of Skagway, Sergeant Preston’s Lodge, Alaska Magazine and others, 2012 marked the North Words Writers Symposium’s third year. Drawing prestigious faculty – a Pushcart Prize, Shamus Award, even an Academy Award nomination among them – this all takes place in a town that’s one-and-a-half miles long by four blocks wide.

With four cruise ships in town on my arrival date, Skagway’s population of 880 jumped to 10,000.

Many of you heard how excited I was, on the way to Skagway. So should I tell you about the sudden fear that drowned excitement, just before the first night’s welcome dinner? Who do I think I am? I shouldn’t be here! When I called Joel in late-stage panic, he listened patiently before replying, “That’s ridiculous. You always get this way before something big – remember Fisher Poets? – and it always ends up amazing.”

Smart fella. I can tell you my “I’ll just stay long enough to be polite” exit strategy didn’t last long. By evening’s end, when the Red Onion staff herded me toward the door, I felt dizzied by the non-stop conversations. Genuine and generous, the authors tore down the walls my lit star-struck self had imagined.

“We’re all equals here,” Seth Kantner insisted. An hour later, Nick Jans said, “We’re all rolling the same rock up the same hill.” And when John Straley dropped into the chair next to me after talking with Scott Silver, he marveled that someone that successful would openly voice self-doubt and insecurity – “the same as the rest of us.”

A spirit of inclusivity defined the next three days. LONG days – 15 hours together, talking books, writing, and Alaska with passion that never waned. We were an intimate group, eight faculty members to 40 participants, together from breakfast to late into the night.

Kim Heacox and Dan Henry made time to speak raven. (Yes – I swooned a bit.)

For the writers amongst you, I’d love to rehash every panel. Heather Lende moderated a fantastic discussion on memoir, with Seth, Kim Heacox, and Deb Vanasse. Jeff hosted a panel on dialogue, drawing from the experiences of Scott, John, Deb, and Lynn Schooler. John led an animated examination of gender and writing, and Dan elicited stories on agent/publisher relationships. After discussions of manuscripts that sell and the business of self-promotion, we celebrated the heart of our work – the words themselves – with fantastic faculty and participant readings.

Dan hosts a discussion with Heather, Lynn, Kim, Deb, Seth & Nick.

What I really want to tell you is what this gathering of Alaskan authors felt like. “There’s no ego-tension here,” one noted. It was true. Down-to-earth sincerity fostered a feeling of kinship, a “we’re in this together” sentiment that rejected self-promotion to champion the collective instead. Kim summed up, “I cannot promote enough the work of my fellow Alaskans… The more centered you are, the best you occupy the center.”

And this faculty championed more than each other. Whether doing memoir, children’s books, or detective novels, each writes with intense love for Alaska – an entity more character than setting. With that love, each writes from a place of social responsibility. “I’ve got that whole ‘save the world’ thing going on,” Seth said. “I feel the need for my writing to go somewhere, to make an impact.” Everyone voiced similar motivation.

We even spent a morning hiking (though the train track walk was quickly abandoned.)

“So, did you come back inspired?” a friend prodded.

Absolutely yes… The greatest gift was seeing that my lit star heroes aren’t superhuman untouchables but people like you and me, who work extremely hard at the story they’re compelled to tell.  People who, as Nick said, “sit in the goddamn chair,” even when writing isn’t fun.

(“Fun?” John stared at me, brown eyes magnified behind thick glasses. “It’s like having homework due and it’s Sunday night, every fucking day of my life.”)

Powerfully inspiring.… But a bit not exactly, also. Being in a room full of Alaskan writers made me turn a more critical eye on my work. This group emphasized a perspective different from groups Down South, and I suddenly felt very underprepared. When Deb described her tendency to submit work too soon, overly eager for outside affirmation, I recognized my own undoing.

“The number one secret to writing a manuscript that sells is to not try to write a manuscript that sells,” Deb said. “Write something beautiful, a manuscript that’s not just good but exceptional, the book that you want to read and the story that only you can tell.”

The story only you can tell. I’ll be thinking on that over the coming months, ruminating amidst salmon entrails, sideways rain, and dancing whales. In the end, all I can tell you is that there’s no sweeter sound than hearing opportunity knocking, and being available to answer the door. My gratitude to all – organizers, faculty, participants – for making this such a memorable experience.

For a delightful take on the 2012 North Words Writers Symposium, check out my friend Clint Farr’s article for the Juneau Empire, “Formidable Group of Alaskan Writers Gather to Discuss Their Craft.” 

Headed back to Juneau in a five-seater, I waved to Heather’s unbelievably beautiful town of Haines.


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25 responses

16 06 2012
debi knight kennedy

Tele, You totally nailed it. I am still having trouble stopping talking about it. I am guessing that my non-writer friends and my husband have heard enough. So I guess the best thing to do here is to shut up and get back to working on my zine…

18 06 2012
Tele

I’m glad this resonated with you, Debi! Sounds like we came home wearing a similar glow. :) Zine? I didn’t know you’re a ‘zine writer; would love to hear more/see it sometime…

16 06 2012
Vicky Wood

Rock on Tele…………Your living your dream. Be Well, Best wishes for full hooks and calm seas…

18 06 2012
Tele

You’re such an encouraging friend, Vicky – thanks for that! Hope that the sun starts shining on your island soon…

16 06 2012
Clint Farr

Nicely said. Hope the summer is going well. Maybe next time we run in each other, you can sign a copy of your book.

18 06 2012
Tele

I loved your review, Clint… SO identified with your first 3 paragraphs! That conversation you had with Seth? Totally my encounter with John 4 years ago, when I babbled about whales and left utterly mortified.

Let’s do a trade. You have a copy of your latest novel and/or screenplay ready, and I’ll have one of my memoir. (Be fun to cross paths again before that, though… At the rate I’m writing, your daughters will be out of high school before there’s anything to sign!)

17 06 2012
keneumey

Worth the wait! I’m so glad you put it into words. Yes! A story only you can tell! Yes! You have an exceptional book inside you. Confession time: i am both jealous of you – what fun such an intimate conference must be. I’m pretty sure i won’t be spending 15 straight hours with anyone next weekend – and jealous of the other participants – we were your writing community first!! ;)

18 06 2012
Tele

Oh, sweetie, you’re going to have SUCH a good time at the Chuckanut conference, and I’m equally envious/eager to hear about your experience. I just checked out the schedule – impressive! How/what are you picking out of the concurrent sessions?

(And no worries, buddy… The Red Wheelbarrow/memoir class family is firmly rooted in my heart! Missing you guys is definitely a complication of this seasonal lifestyle.)

17 06 2012
Julie Farrar

I’m so glad it was everything you had hoped. I’ve had that experience before myself. They are so essential when trying to write in an isolated community. And it’s not just Alaska that is that way. Sometimes it can be so hard to find like-minded people wherever your writing chair sits.

18 06 2012
Tele

Good point, Julie – thanks for that! I just re-read your March 7 post on what you took from the AWP conference… How telling that you were amidst 8000 people, I was with 50, and yet we found similar inspiration – maybe that sense of isolation isn’t so much about where our chair is sitting, but what we’re carrying within ourselves – the fear of sharing our words, not being good enough or “real” writers. What a gift to find our people, these like-minded, like-struggling folks!

17 06 2012
Claire 'Word by Word'

What a joy to be surrounded by so many with similar aspirations, caring and sharing all together in that little haven. I hope the inspiration stays with you for a long while, some excellent gems of advice for us all, thank you so much for sharing them.

18 06 2012
Tele

You’re most welcome, Claire – thanks for your encouragement! Speaking of inspiration, your June 15 post was great; I loved learning the story behind your novel. I’ve been in some of those terrifying class prompts, completely frozen while everyone else writes furiously, and am so impressed with the excerpts born of that exercise. I definitely recognize your characterization of the sea – beautiful work, friend.

19 06 2012
Claire 'Word by Word'

Thank you so much for your feedback, high praise it is coming from a woman of the sea – I think this character brings out the minor suffering of an islander/sea creature when they move inland. His first encounter with a coastal town after this deprivation is intoxicating and primal, trying then to put that into words was wonderful experience. So touched by your response, thank you.

17 06 2012
Andrea Miles

Followed you from She Writes…It sounds pretty awesome. I’ve never been to anything like that. You’ve inspired me to think more about possibly attending such an event instead of immediately thinking I’m not good enough to hobnob with great writers! :)

19 06 2012
Tele

Andrea, thanks for stopping by from She Writes and taking the time to comment. You’re ABSOLUTELY good enough to hobnob at a conference, and I so hope that you check one out. Our participants were all across the spectrum… Those who proudly embraced the identity of “writer,” including one woman whose cookbook is on its 8th or 9th printing (The Fiddlehead Cookbook, a fantastic collection), those who said they only wrote in their journals, to those who simply love the written words and hearing how people get them to the page. We had a 13 year old working on her first novel, and a woman from San Francisco on a cruise, in Skagway for the day, who popped in for the day’s worth of panels. I suspect you’d find similar participant diversity elsewhere.

If you’re hanging out on She Writes, clearly you’ve got some literary love in your heart – I’m certain you’ll have a great time at your first conference, and I’d love to hear about it. :)

17 06 2012
creative research adventures

It was exactly where you needed to be! You are an amazing storytele!

19 06 2012
Tele

Ha! Thanks, Cedar. Did I ever tell you about when I was a teenager bumming around San Francisco, flying a sign that read, “Support a Traveling Storyteller”? Should’ve spelled it your way!

17 06 2012
Pat Dixon

Very nice! Wish I could have been there too! Do they take expatriot Alaskans?

18 06 2012
Tele

This group would LOVE you, Pat! I can imagine how well you and Buckwheat would get along. Not only do they take expat Alaskans, our participants included a 13 year old Skagwegian and a woman from San Francisco who was on a cruise ship – she could only stop in for the day, but was welcomed with open arms. The North Words crew absolutely nails inclusivity.

18 06 2012
emuf16

Oh Tele, what a fabulous experience. I’m so happy to read the name Heather Lende: I stayed with her while traveling through Haines in 2004…time to track her down, I think. :) xoxo!

18 06 2012
Tele

What a great story, Emily – I’d like to hear about that sometime! Heather was amazing – so genuinely kind, sincere, and funny. Definitely look her up on the Facebooks; you’d love her daily posts/photos on life in Haines.

18 06 2012
Patricia Sands

There was a day when writers were considered rather anti-social and withdrawn. These days I hear, and have experienced, nothing but rave reviews about experiences at symposiums/workshops/conferences such as yours. Loved this – “The greatest gift was seeing that my lit star heroes aren’t superhuman untouchables but people like you and me, who work extremely hard at the story they’re compelled to tell.” Fabulous information sharing from which we can all only benefit. Write on, Tele!

20 06 2012
Tele

Good point, Patricia… I definitely experience some of that writer’s isolation – but am also one of those folks writing in the coffee shop! Wonder how much of a role social media has played in getting us outside of our heads and into kindred spirit communities?

20 06 2012
dianajhale

Events like this, especially in smaller places are so exciting and stimulating – glad you enjoyed it! I love anything like this myself and have just written about one in London.

22 06 2012
Tele

Thanks for visiting and sharing your recent experience, Diana – sounds like we both left our events with a similar feeling of overstimulation!




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