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.

North Words Writers Symposium? Yes, Please!

30 05 2012

Greetings from the Juneau Airport!

Remember that last halibut trip we made? Turns out we nailed our poundage, got everything we needed. We spent the next few days cleaning up – scrubbing every last drop of halibut slime and blood, taking the longline gear off the boat and getting it set up to be ready to go trolling for salmon on July 1. Joel and I moved ourselves back onto the Nerka, ready to think about our own boat projects.

This weekend, I finally waded through 10 days’ of email. Cruising through with one finger hovering over the delete button, I stopped short at a post from 49 Writers.

“North Words Writers Symposium,” read the headline by Alaskan author Heather Lende. What’s that? Three days with my favorite Alaskan authors? The same writers whose books fill my memoir proposal’s “Comparative Titles” section, whose words I study devoutly, awed by their evocation of landscape, communities and experiences I recognize as my own? Registration limited to 50 – a 1 to 3 faculty/participant ratio – with lit stars dancing in my eyes? Scheduled perfectly between my boat and fishing responsibilities, only five days away?

My gods.

Once in a special while, opportunity appears spread-eagled before you, stunning with its blatant invitation. That’s what I saw in that post. And with a fresh longline check burning in my wallet and a partner who said, “Of course you should go,” I was in.

That’s not to say the trip planning was easy. Hopscotching between remote communities in Southeast Alaska takes effort. I spent the next two days figuring out how to get from Baranof Island to Skagway, one of only three communities in Southeast Alaska that’s accessible by road. Thanks to one Boeing 737-400, two Cessna bush planes, and one high-speed ferry, everything seems to have lined up just right.

Cap’n J borrowed a friend’s van to drop me off at the Sitka Airport at 5:30 this morning. By 6:30, I’d landed here in Juneau. In a few minutes I’ll be boarding a Cessna Caravan to Skagway – at nine seats, it’s one of the “big” planes.

My chariot to Skagway.

Some deckhands blow their hard-earned crewshare in the bar; I run off to a writer’s conference. Excited? Oh, yes. Anxious? That, too. Stand by for a delirious report, buddies. Meanwhile, do check out the North Words Writers Symposium details here.

For my writer friends – any special requests? Questions you’d like to ask if you were here? What discussions would you attend?

%d bloggers like this: