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From our Archives: The Long and Winding Road to the Writing Life, by Bill Sherwonit

49 Writers - Mon, 07/28/2014 - 7:00am
Bill Sherwonit

When talking about the writing life, I like to tell a story from my geology days, about a boss who absolutely loved the work we did. As I recount in Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness (2009, University of Alaska Press), “Inwardly I cringed when a crew leader named Joe talked about our work. ‘You know,’ he said with gusto, ‘geology isn’t just a job to me. It’s my hobby, too.’ For me it was more chore than challenge. I think of Will Rogers’ joke about golf: a nice walk ruined. That’s pretty much how I felt about stream sediment sampling and pounding on rocks while hiking through one of North America’s wildest landscapes (the Central Brooks Range).”

Nowadays I smile when recalling Joe’s words and my wincing response to them, because I better understand his perspective. He and my other geology buddies would eventually become role models of a sort. Only four years after earning an MS at the University of Arizona, I decided to seek a new career, one that I could love as much as they loved geology. (Passion for the work – or rather my lack of it – was only one of several factors that prompted the change, but it was a crucial one.)

Here I’ll again borrow from Changing Paths, which in part chronicles my evolution from geologist to journalist and eventually nature writer and wilderness advocate:

“What that (career) would be, I had no idea. Many friends and family members thought I must be nuts, to throw away all the years of hard work, the MS in geology, and the opportunity to work in a profession where I’d already had some notable success. But the void beckoned. I had to make the leap into the unknown, because the real craziness lay in doing work I’d found to be either boring or destructive to what I loved. . . .

“A serious amateur photographer for several years, I decided to return to school and see how photojournalism suited me. Without much savings, I focused on local junior colleges, which seemed ideal for experiments like mine. As a California resident (where I’d settled in the late seventies) I could take a full load of courses for under $20. Among the schools that taught photojournalism, one immediately caught me eye (for reasons I explain in the book): Pierce College.

“I wouldn’t learn until later that Pierce’s journalism department was nationally acclaimed. Nor could I know that its staff would quickly recognize some raw talent in this serious new student – in writing and reporting, more than photography – and shepherd me toward a new and then unimaginable life. My three-semester apprenticeship at Pierce led to a real newspaper job at the tiny Simi Valley Enterprise and my entry into the life of a professional journalist. But more than that, it led me to something that soon became a passion: writing. All that remained was one final link to a lifelong love, wild nature.

“Much like the circumstances leading from grad school to Alaska, this turn of events initially seemed to be a string of coincidences or lucky breaks. But with a quarter-century of hindsight, I now hear the words of Joseph Campbell, who in talking with Bill Moyers during The Power of Myth series referred to the ideas of nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: ‘When you reach a certain age and look back over your life, it seems to have had an order; it seems to have been composed by someone. And those events, that when they occurred seemed merely accidental and occasional and just something that happened, turn out to be the main elements in a consistent plot.'”


Ah, life as a plot. Now there’s something that should resonate with creative writers. I won’t continue with Schopenhauer’s ideas here, but the notion that accidents or coincidences or lucky (or unlucky) breaks might in fact be more than they seem resonates with me. So does Campbell’s famous counsel to “follow your bliss.” I don’t have his exact words at hand, but essentially he says that to follow one’s true passion, a person must heed “the call” – and act upon it. To do so often requires a leap of faith. Such a leap may appear intimidating, even dangerous. But the potential rewards are great.

In taking the leap, a person may discover a path that has been there all along, though unrecognized. And once on that path, all sorts of miraculous things seem to happen, as doors open and new possibilities emerge. It sometimes also seems that “invisible hands” are there to guide a person along the way.

It’s hard to write or talk about such a thing without seeming a little “woo woo,” a bit weird in a new-agey sort of way. Indeed, it seems a strange thing to me. And yet it somehow makes sense. Or at least I see it in my own life. It’s as if a path were always there, waiting for me. Maybe I actually walked (or crawled) upon it in my earliest days, but then got sidetracked by other forces, other influences. But in “leaping” from geology to journalism/writing, I found – or rediscovered – a path I was meant to take. (Though I’m not sure it’s the only path I might have followed and still found my passion.)

The ideas of being called and finding one’s own path are linked to the notion that our lives have meaning, a purpose. Whether or not that’s true, I think that most of us humans believe in the notion of purpose and we look for meaning in our lives. Or we at least want to live in a meaningful way. We want to leave a positive legacy of some kind.

It makes sense to me that my life’s purpose somehow would be closely tied to the larger, wilder world of nature. It’s always been a refuge, a home, a place of solace, inspiration, wonder and hope. (It is also sometimes intimidating and frightening.) The writing part is harder to explain. I don’t remember being a voracious reader or passionate writer when young. As a member of a deeply religious Lutheran family, mostly what I read – or had read to me – were the Bible and “Bible stories.” I sometimes feel envious when people talk about their favorite early books. None come to mind for me. Could I have blanked them out?

In grade school my favorite class was spelling. And I was pretty good at penmanship (when older I’d be praised for my handwriting). I suppose those might have been early hints of the importance that words and writing would later have for me. But in high school and college, I was a “math and science guy.” I didn’t particularly like English or history or more generally “the arts.” I remember reading classic novels in high school, for instance The Scarlet Letter, Ivanhoe, and A Tale of Two Cities. But they didn’t particularly inspire or excite me, though I do vaguely remember enjoying Ivanhoe. I was more into books about baseball, stories about fishing.

Sometime in college I became interested in Ernest Hemingway and eventually read several of his novels, but I’m not sure I can call him an important influence. I also began keeping a journal, off and on. In those journals I recorded my thoughts and experiences, reflected upon puzzling aspects of my life, tried to better understand my life. But they were very private, nothing to share.

Even after writing became my livelihood, I paid little attention to literature for years, either as writer or reader. My earliest creative efforts were the newspaper columns I wrote about sports and “the outdoors,” which sometimes took the essay form. But I didn’t begin to more seriously explore essay writing or longer narrative nonfiction until I’d embraced the life of a freelance writer, after The Anchorage Times lost its newspaper war with the Daily News. Becoming a freelancer, too, was something of a leap of faith, and something I’ve never regretted, despite the inevitable ebbs and flows – and rejections by all manner of publications.

What still amazes me is that I had no awareness that there was a literary genre called “nature writing” until I’d reached my late thirties, maybe even early forties. Though I’d read – and loved – Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men and Arctic Dreams, I knew little or nothing about Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Ed Abbey, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, John Haines, Richard Nelson, Terry Tempest Williams, Robert Michael Pyle, Scott Russell Sanders – the list goes on and on. Many, if not most, of the above would hesitate to call themselves nature writers, but they have contributed greatly to the body of work that is called “nature writing.” And all have joined my personal library, inspired and fed my own writing efforts, since they made their way into my life.

As I’ve reflected in an essay, “Anchorage’s Wild Coastal Fringes,”

“There are strong links between my middle-aged ‘discoveries’ of songbirds and Anchorage’s coastal refuge and several other things that have become important to me – and to my understanding of the world – over the past decade or so (now closer to 15 years). Two examples are nature writing and a yearly Alaskan event called the Sitka Symposium (which recently ended after a run of 25 years) . . .

“Looking back, it seems I had a dim awareness of all those things – songbirds, coastal refuge, nature writing, symposium, and more – for years, as they moved in and out of my life. Yet I didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, sense their power, their ability to expand, deepen, enrich, even transform a life, until some triggering event opened my eyes, my capacity to understand. The trigger itself might be perfectly ordinary. . . . But each somehow lifted a veil, opened a door, revealed a previously hidden path. And suddenly my world opened up. I learned a new way of experiencing the world that I had never before imagined. Of course such opening up isn’t limited to middle age; it can and does happen throughout our lives, if we’re lucky. Or paying attention.

“I think about all these things in my own life, because I want to know more about the ways we humans broaden our perspectives, the circumstances through which we willingly change or reshape our core beliefs and behaviors, the triggers that open us to new possibilities.”


Among writing’s greatest gifts to me is that it helps me pay greater attention to what’s happening around and within me. It is also one of the primary ways that I explore life’s mysteries, reflect upon my place in the world, and better understand wild nature, human nature, my nature. Yes, I’ve been fortunate enough to earn a living as a writer. But like Joe’s relationship with geology, writing has long been more than a job or career to me and something closer to a way of life, a way of being in the world. Writing is also a reminder to remain open to possibilities – and the way that a life can blossom when a person pays attention to his intuition, his heart.

Born in Bridgeport, Conn., nature writer Bill Sherwonit has called Alaska home since 1982. He has contributed essays and articles to a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, journals, and anthologies and is the author of more than a dozen books. In September 2014, Alaska Northwest Books will publish his collection of essays, Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife. His website is www.billsherwonit.alaskawriters.comThis post first ran in 2010 at 49 Writers.
Categories: Arts & Culture

Linda: 49 Writers Weekly Roundup

49 Writers - Fri, 07/25/2014 - 7:00am
Alaska Book Week 2014 (Oct. 4-11) is ramping up! The organizing committee (Alaska Center for the Book, 49 Writers, Alaska State Library, Anchorage Public Library) has been working hard behind the scenes and you can now sign up to participate at the Alaska Book Week website at www.AlaskaBookWeek.com. Questions? Contact ABW coordinator Jathan Day at akbookweek (at) gmail (dot) com.

We'd like to take this opportunity to thank the various sponsors who have stepped forward to lend their support to this annual celebration of Alaska's authors and their books, helping us to run and promote the event: Alaska Center for the Book, University of Alaska Press, Associated General Contractors of Alaska, Epicenter Press, VP&D House, Arctic Cliffhangers, Great Northwest, Inc., Alaska Northwest Books, and Graphic Arts Books.

Looking for an author to invite to your Alaska Book Week activity? Check out the Alaska Writers Directory. Want to participate in the Great Alaska Book Fair at Loussac Library on October 11?  Click here for more information and to register for a table.

Congratulations to Stefanie Tatalias, whose picture book manuscript Whatever You Do, Don't Think About A Dragon took first in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's literary contest, children's category. Stefanie has been a finalist four out of the last five years, and reports it was a thrill to win this time.

Only four days left to sign up for the annual Sledgehammer contest, which takes place July 26 & 27. What’s Sledgehammer, you ask? It’s a quirky writing contest that incorporates a scavenger hunt, four writing prompts, a 36-hour deadline, the option to write as a team or solo, celebrity judge Ariel Gore, and prizes worth thousands (including 49 Writers memberships). Last year, 49 Writers member Kellie Doherty was a winner in the online category. You can also follow the contest on Facebook

Events in Anchorage

Wednesday, July 30, 8pm,Embassy Suites Hotel in Anchorage: Reading by poets and writers from the pages of Cirque. Readers include Mary Mullen, Sherry Eckrich, Sandra Kleven, Paul Winkel, Tonja Woelber, Cynthia Sims and Matthew Morse. Joe Craig will entertain with jazzy, bluesy guitar. The hotel is staffing the event, offering a selection of great wines and beers, as well as an appetizer menu. Donations accepted at the door. Get a copy of the new Cirque. See it, full-text, at www.cirquejournal.com. The next submission deadline is September 21, 2014.

Donate new and gently used books to thread's 8th annual children's book drive. Through July 31, collection bins are available at Anchorage Fred Meyer stores and four Credit Union 1 branches (Bragaw, Eureka, 8th Avenue, Abbott). Donated books will be distributed to children and families at thread's Book Party in the Park on Aug. 14, 4-7pm, at 3350 Commercial Drive in Mountain View.

Around the State
Today, Friday, July 25, 9am, Yaw Chapel on Sheldon Jackson Campus: As part of the Sitka Symposium held this week by the Island Institute, Luis Urrea will talk on the theme of "Radical Imagining: Changing the Story with Stories of Change." Open to anyone not able to attend the Symposium full-time. $25 at the door.

Tomorrow, Saturday, July 26, 1-2pm, Palmer Public Library and via video-conference: Join Dan Bigley (Beyond the Bear) and readers at other libraries in the OWL Project to hear his story about triumphing over a devastating tragedy. Bring your questions and join in the conversation.

Tomorrow, Saturday, July 26, 7pm, Bear Gallery at Alaska Centennial Center for the Arts, Pioneer Park: Fairbanks Arts Association Community Writers' Group presents a reading by Jean McDermott, Gregory Shipman, Emma Thomas, Dick Ourada, Pamela DeWitt, Sue Ann Bowling, and visiting artist G.M. Whitley.

August 22-24Center for Alaska Coastal Studies' Peterson Bay Field Station (across Kachemak Bay from Homer): Line by Line in Kachemak Bay: a writer and artist retreat led by Marilyn Sigman and Marilyn Kirkham. Registration $225, including water taxi transportation, food, two nights lodging, and a journal. For more information and to sign up, contact info@akcoastalstudies.org or 907-235-6667.

Opportunities for Alaskan Writers

Did you know that if you're an Alaskan writer you can get listed for free in the Alaska Writers Directory? It's easy to do, just click here to complete the online form. If you're already listed, do check your information to make sure it's current--updates can be submitted using the same form. As Alaska Book Week approaches (Oct. 4-11, 2014), it's a great way for schools, book clubs, and other groups to connect with writers to invite to their Alaska Book Week celebration.

Need an author photo for your upcoming book? Affinityfilms, Inc., an Anchorage non-profit, will create your photo in exchange for a donation to the organization. Visit their website to contact them and make a donation online. Big thanks to Mary Katzke for this generous offer.

Anchorage Public Library is looking for fall writing group leaders, one for a teen group and one for an adult group. This is a great way to share your love of writing. For more information, contact Jim Curran at curranjm@ci.anchorage.ak.us or 343-2938.

Rasmuson Foundation is now accepting its next round of applications from all previous Rasmuson Individual Artist Award Recipients for its Artist Residency Program. Online applications for 2015 residencies will be accepted now through August 15, 2014. Questions about the program can be directed to Program Coordinator Jeremy Pataky at jeremy.pataky (at) gmail.com or 907-244-7717.

The Alaska Literary Awards, established in 2014 by the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation through a generous gift from Peggy Shumaker and Joe Usibelli, are accepting applications. The Alaska Literary Awards recognize and support writers of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, playwriting, screenwriting, and mixed genres. Any Alaska writer over the age of 18 who is not a full-time student is eligible to apply. Quality of the work submitted is the primary consideration in determining who receives the awards. There are no restrictions on the writer’s use of the award and no formal report is required. Application deadline is Tuesday, September 2, 2014, 9:59pm (AKDT).
Categories: Arts & Culture

Book Review Winners Week 7

Juneau Public Library Blog - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 12:08pm
From the Mendenhall Valley Library  Finn Kesey, age 9, a gift certificate to Bullwinkle’s Pizza Parlor for his review of Total Soccer by Dean Hughes. “One fascinating part of this book is when he makes a head shot for a goal.”  Johnathan Garrigues, age 6, a gift certificate for Hearthside Books and Toys for his […]
Categories: Arts & Culture

Alaska Shorts: “Landscape of Anguish,” by Kaylene Johnson

49 Writers - Thu, 07/24/2014 - 7:00am
Kaylene Johnson
It’s the little mistakes that kill you.
Shivering, with frozen fingertips, Dick could not thread the zipper of his sleeping bag back onto its track. Stunned, he wondered for a moment if this was it. If this would be the one small detail that tipped the balance.
He quickly wrapped himself the best he could in his sleeping bag and crawled into the two-foot-deep snow trench he had dug for himself. This would be his shelter for the night. At minus thirty degrees, with winds howling up to forty miles an hour, the wind chill factor was more than one hundred degrees below zero. He had staked his sled and backpack into the snow using his ski poles to keep them from blowing away.
Snow drifted in over the trench, covering him with an insulating layer of snow. He began to feel warmer. As his body warmed, so did the frostbitten parts of his anatomy. The wind that had pressed at his back all day — which had been strong enough to push his sled out in front of him — had frozen the flesh of his backside and legs. He was terribly thirsty.
Less than two days earlier, on March 10, 1980, Dick had been lying in the loft of his friends Roosevelt and Beth Paneak’s home in Anaktuvuk Pass. It was the night before his trek and the plan was to ski from Anaktuvuk Pass to Bettles and then over the mountains to the village of Tanana and on to the Yukon River. It was to be a 300-mile trek through rugged country with snow deep enough to swallow snowmachines.
With snow conditions as they were, Dick decided to lighten his load. He left his tent behind, opting instead for a large, heavy-duty sleeping bag that would shelter him from the cold. A layer of spruce boughs would be his bed. If necessary, he could build snow caves for shelter. He also decided to leave his stove and fuel at home. He liked a wood fire best, and as he had on previous trips, he would gather wood as he traveled. He also left his Gortex bibs behind. His plan was to keep moving at a good clip and take as little as necessary to stay agile and quick.
The 1959 trip from Kaktovik to Anaktuvuk Pass had taught him a great deal about wilderness travel in the North. Later in 1977, Dick walked 150 miles and floated 450 miles from Anaktuvuk Pass to Kotzebue with his friend Bruce Stafford. Between mosquitoes, rain, and rivers swollen with floodwaters, he learned that travel was best done before “breakup” — the time of year when Alaska’s daylight grows longer but before the warmer weather of spring melts the ice on rivers. Two years later in 1979, he traveled solo on foot and by ski from Nuiqsut to Anaktuvuk Pass, a distance of two hundred miles.
People asked him why he took these trips, and sometimes he wondered himself. On his 1979 solo journey he reflected, “There are moments I don’t know why I’m here. It’s cold and the landscape is monotonous. Progress is slow and the distance ahead seems to be unreachable. You need the capacity to see beauty even when it’s not pretty every day.” He learned he could travel much lighter. On the solo trip, he’d dropped a lot of gear — a thermos, food, a wet down jacket, even his sled. “This is a situation where possessions can forfeit freedom,” he wrote. On that trek he also noted, “Comfort is best when interspersed with moments of great discomfort.”
He would soon discover the slender thread between discomfort and disaster.
Kaylene Johnson is a writer and long-time Alaskan who lives in Eagle River, Alaska. She writes non-fiction, biography, and memoir including A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising Sons in Alaska. Her award winning essays and articles have appeared in the Louisville Review, Alaska magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and several Alaska anthologies. She holds a BA from Vermont College and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.
This excerpts comes from Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith, which recounts the remarkable journeys of Alaska legend Dick Griffith. Canyons and Ice offers a rare look at the man behind the soaring achievements and occasionally death-defying moments. A grand tale of adventure, Griffith’s story is also a reflection on what motivates a man to traverse some of the most remote places on earth. To read the rest of the excerpt, download the free Alaska Sampler 2014.
Would you like to see your work featured here? Check out our Alaska Shorts guidelines and submit today!

Categories: Arts & Culture

John Straley: The Paperwork

49 Writers - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 7:00am


Here is the third post from July guest author John Straley. 
I once heard Robert Hass, before he was the Poet Laureate of the United States, say  “Being a writer would be great, if it wasn’t for all the damn paperwork.” So we have inevitably come to writing the cursed book. In the earlier blog entries I discussed some aspects of preparation. Here are a few more:Fit your organizational needs to the workspace that you have. Space and organization of materials are related matters. We all might like a huge white board or a magic screen to project outlines and photographs upon and leave them there to think upon. If you have big room or an office you can afford such a thing. If you’re in a tiny space or share a tiny space you can’t. If you have a private office you can afford sloppiness, if you don’t you can’t. No sense fighting about this with roommates or spouses. Whatever space you have, whether it’s a laptop, a notebook and an ironing board, use it and be grateful. Great books have been written on less. I have found that public libraries are great places to work and can become kingdoms if you let them. Personally I think coffee shops are terrible places to write.No one makes time. You steal your time back and you keep it. All of us, if we are lucky, will have twenty-four hours in the next day. It’s what we do with those hours which determines our fate. To write a book we have to plant our pen in the day-planner and say, “This is my time for writing,” and then we have to follow through and use it. We colonize that portion of the day. We establish a beachhead and we start shoving out other lesser claimants to our attention. Our partners will support us in this only if they see progress from us. When they see pages. When they hear us read selections, and understand that we are doing something we have always wanted to do but never had the nerve to actually do, they will help see this book to completion. This part I have taught and said before but it is worth saying again: the supportive partners of this world have done way more for the Arts than the MacArthur Foundation. Back to the book: Who is going to tell your story? This is a big decision. First person, Third, Third Omniscient, these are the most common. There is lots to be said about this decision. I wrote my Cecil Younger series, first person in the voice of Cecil. First person has immediacy and it is easy to crack wise.  It’s suited to the private I. novel. Right out of the gate your reader is engaged with the series character and sees the world through his/her eyes. But first person has severe limitations. One person can only be at one place at one time, cannot time travel without a lot of ridiculous hocus pocus (discovered letters that suddenly appear ect…) If you want help with this and other questions starting out, I suggest Ursula Le Guin’s very fine book Steering the Craft. I really think it is the best of the writer’s manuals I’ve come across for understanding the essentials. I would also point you to some of her interviews on craft. She has a nice minority point of view on some of the big questions. Ok, Butt in chair time. Here we go… Every day has to be a victory. You have your notes, you have your desire, set yourself a goal every day, and don’t get out of that chair until you meet that goal. The first step will be to take your notes and start filling out the lists of “things that happen” into some kind of loose outline. As you do this start drafting out an opening paragraph that captures the poetry and the geography of your book, something that transports your reader to the world of this story. Now. Choose how many words you want to write every day. How big a book did you say you wanted?  A skinny book is 60,000 words, a chunky book is 150,000 words, a doorstop, editor screamer is 400,000. So, how long do you want to work on this rough draft? It’s up to you. (The neurosis of the writer largely revolves around the feeling of helplessness, but the truth is, at this point, the Universe in under your command.) The important thing is to make sure that every day is a victory.Let’s say you want to start off slender. Good idea for a novel. Write about five hundred words a day. Bite off two hours a day, five days a week. Maybe an extra day or two when you have the momentum rolling and in two and a half months or so you have a rough draft done. Now, this is not exactly free writing, you edit as you go but you don’t suffer a lot and you don’t you don’t tear it apart and start over half way through, unless you want to start the clock all over. Now you’ve got a rough draft, take a vacation. Take a vacation from the book. Don’t think about it for at least a month. Don’t let anyone read it at this point. No one. Not your spouse not anyone. Let it sit like Sauerkraut in a jar for about six weeks. Try your best to forget about it. At six weeks read it yourself. Read it straight through with a pencil and mark it up. What do you think it needs? Structural changes? Minor tweeking, copyediting? Something in-between… a character re-alignment or a plot adjustment?  Whatever…. You are probably wrong at this point because you are still too close to it. Start revising the easy stuff. This first time through try to revise with you first impulse. Go back to your dream notebook. Is this rough draft really what you wanted? Probably not. If you see some structural changes you can make at this point, make them. If you see plain old dopey mistakes fix them… a common mistake I make is; I have a character give a speech rather than bother write an extra scene or two. It’s like the narrator in a melodrama tromping out on stage to say, “Well folks, then this and this and this happens but it’s not all that interesting.”  I’m really bad about characters speechifying. If you do that, fix it. But back to revisions. If it took me “X” number of hours to write the draft of a mms it will take me (“X” x 4) hours to revise it. So, that’s how I figure the number of hours I have to sit in the chair that night.  Drafting= # of words per nightRevising = # of  hours per nightSo, you got about a year into this maybe. Time to show it to somebody. Show it to your partner. They’ll be nice, probably. That’s nice. Usually worthless as far as real help. Partners should be supportive, not really brutal. Then send it to someone brutal, smart, and honest. Most Valuable Lesson: A good writer learns to take a punch: Over and Over and Over and Over. I’m sorry, but this is true. The editors (and by extension hard-ass readers) of this world really don’t care about your tender little feelers. Generally they don’t care about anything in your life other than what lives on the page. They are not cruel, they are just busy, and there are way more people who want to be writers than want to be editors. So, if you get a real editor with experience in publishing to read your work, listen to their criticism. You don’t have to take it, you might be mismatched and that does happen, a lot, but still consider what they say, and look at your work with a new eye.Keep revising and sending your novel to readers until you are one hundred percent satisfied with it in your heart of hearts. One clue that you are done writing the novel is when you notice you are beginning to write another novel on top of the one you are revising. Then stop. Call it done. Either set it aside and start that new novel, while you are sending your first packet to agents or publishers (with that very pretty one page cover letter and the beautiful sample chapter).I know, it doesn’t sound very romantic, does it? When do we drink martinis by the paddocks with Lady Ashley?Next time will talk about why it was worth it.
Categories: Arts & Culture

Savikko Park Field Resurfacing Continues through August 21

Parks and Recreation Special Events - Tue, 07/22/2014 - 9:11am
Date of Event: Tuesday, Jul 22 - Admirality Construction will begin resurfacing the ball fields at Savikko Park this week. The expected completion date is August 21, 2014. The ball fields will not be available for public use during the project.
Categories: Arts & Culture, Outdoors

Deb: Is Your Beginning Good Enough?

49 Writers - Tue, 07/22/2014 - 7:00am



I don't normally enter writing contests (not that I'm opposed to them), but three years ago, I submitted the first three pages of what was then my WIP (work in progress) to the Guide to Literary Agents literary fiction contest. To my surprise, I won - or rather, my beginning did.
Even so, I ended up revising the beginning of what is now my latest novel, and I'm glad I did. Here’s what Publishers Weekly says about how the novel begins now:
This lyrically written coming-of-age story from Vanasse grabs you from the opening line and never lets go: “I am a poem, Sylvie once thought, swollen like a springtime river, light swirled in dark, music and memory.”
Author Sinclair Lewis learned the hard way about the importance of beginnings. Cruising the Atlantic aboard the Queen Elizabeth, he was pleased to see a fellow passenger settle into a deck chair and open his latest novel. She read the first page, got up, and dropped the book over the railing, into the ocean. “If I didn’t know it already,” Lewis told his assistant Barnaby Conrad, “I learned then that the first page – even the first sentence – of one’s article, short story, novel, or nonfiction book is of paramount importance.”
Don’t Try This at Home
Suppose you hand the first 250 words of your manuscript to an actress, who then reads it before a panel of four agents and editors. Each agent raises a hand at the point where his or her interest fades. When two hands are raised, the actress quits reading. Yours doesn’t get read to the end? Don’t feel bad: only 25 percent do.
This was the scenario that played out at a “Writer Idol” event. As reported by Livia Blackburne on the Guide to Literary Agents, there were many reasons the panelists rejected the beginnings. They were generic, or slow. There was too much unrealistic internal narration, or too much information. There were too many clichés, or the writing was unfocused, or the writer seemed to be trying too hard. In her PubRants blog, agent Kristen Nelson elaborates on this latter problem, pointing out that too often authors trying for active beginnings overload them with action.
Ways to Begin
The fundamental purpose of a beginning is simple: it must entice the reader to want more. In Learning to Write Fiction from the Masters, Conrad suggests several types of beginnings that, skillfully rendered, will lure readers into the prose. Conventions of the nineteenth century allowed the luxury of beginning with setting, or a combination of setting and character, strategies that are tougher, though not impossible, to pull off with today’s attention-challenged readers. If you begin with setting, Conrad warns, you need to be masterful with it, as was F. Scott Fitzgerald in launching Tender is the Night, using specific details, imagery, dynamic verbs, foreshadowing, and a hint of conflict.
You can also begin with a provocative thought, though you’ll want to follow it directly with specifics of the story. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” says Jane Austen in the opening of Pride and Prejudice. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” opens Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
By no means do beginnings need to be elaborate. The Old Man and the Sea opens like a news story, with the straight facts: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” The appeal can be more emotional, as in the opening sentence of Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps: “She would leave him, she thought, as soon as the petunias bloomed.” Or the novel can open with action: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,” begins James Cain in The Postman Always Rings Twice. In each of these examples, there’s enough said to engage the reader, and there’s enough left out for the reader to want to know more.
With some beginnings, the reader dives with grace into the story. With others, it’s more of a cannonball splash. In media res takes the reader directly into the middle of a scene. Opening with dialogue has the same effect. When you’re suddenly immersed in a scene, you grab for bits to hang onto. You want to puzzle your way to some clarity. In short, you’re hooked.
Character beginnings prove equally enticing. Look no farther than Conrad’s Lord Jim or Nabokov’s Lolita for proof that a book can open successfully with character. Also endearing is the author’s appeal to the reader, as in Melville’s “Call me Ishmael,” or Twain’s “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that don’t matter.” Conrad calls this author-to-reader appeal “disarming, confidential, effective, and somewhat old-fashioned,” but given today’s emphasis on voice, it seems more than modern.
Ending Thoughts on Beginnings
It’s all too easy to get attached to our beginnings. Because they come to us first, they soon feel indelible.  Remember - they’re not.
To weigh in on what makes a good beginning, check out the “Flog a Pro” feature at Writer Unboxed.
Co-founder of 49 WritersDeb Vanasse has authored more than a dozen books. Her most recent work is Cold Spell, part of the Alaska Literary Series by the University of Alaska Press. Deb lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. Portions of this post have been published previously.
Would you like to write a guest post relevant to Alaska’s literary community? Email 49writers (at) gmail.com or debvanasse (at) gmail.com.


Categories: Arts & Culture

Alaska Shorts: "Tending to Our Own" and "Baptized" by Kristina Cranston

49 Writers - Mon, 07/21/2014 - 7:00am
Tending to Our Own
In death, we turn over our loved ones, ourselves, to strangers; our lifeless corpses vulnerable to the preparation and attention of professionals in sterile, chemical environments.

In death, we've grown accustomed to the removal of useless organs and the drainage of once vital blood, replacing with embalming fluid preservatives, fighting decay, even in death.

Washed and dried, oiled and waxed, combed and preened, dressed in our best, we lay ready for our final viewing, disinfected with the promise of delayed decomposition.

Gone are the days we tended to our own, mothers and daughters, sisters and aunts, friends and neighbors working together, washing remains with loving hands and scented soaps, bodies touched by salty tears and clean smelling powders.

Gone are the days we gathered together in intimate fellowship, in homes and on mountain sides, celebrating the transition from life to death, saying goodbye, guarded by our men, our brothers, our families.

Tending to our own has become a lost art, a lost humbling opportunity for reverence, a lost process and forgotten practice; the new way has become a silent empty space in our culture, societal bonds even more broken.
BaptizedI welcome the rain, nature's shower, accompanied by the wind, carrying stories and songs and hints of conversations from some other place, some other time.

The cold droplets speckle my face if I dare to look up, to face what's coming.

Coupled with Wind, they nudge at my heart, my steps, and my mood.

Pushing me gently with soft pressure, much like my great grandmother who had lost her strength, but still held her power.

Clouds release their bounty on us below, cleansing, opening pores, washing away secret sins and screaming blemishes.

I am baptized in the rain, no witness necessary.
Kristina Cranston is a 43 year old Alaskan mother, grandmother, sister, auntie, and daughter. She is part Tlingit from Haines, and belongs to the Eagle Moiety/Thunderbird Clan. She was raised in Mountain View, a diverse neighborhood in Anchorage, and spent her summers in Haines and Klukwan, balancing the two worlds of village life and city life. Kristina helps her significant other run an art gallery in the beautiful seaside community ofSitka. She has been writing since she was a teenager, and has learned to embrace life and what it offers through this process.
Categories: Arts & Culture

Book Review Winners Week 6

Juneau Public Library Blog - Thu, 07/17/2014 - 12:58pm
The Juneau Public Libraries received 50 different book reviews from 21 different young readers under the age of 18. Here is a summary from the top book reviews from this week’s winners. From the Mendenhall Valley Library Sven Rasmussen, age 9, a gift certificate to the Amazing Bookstore and a toy from the Imagination Station […]
Categories: Arts & Culture

Alaska Shorts: "Digging Robert's Grave," by Don Rearden

49 Writers - Thu, 07/17/2014 - 7:00am
Don Rearden
Through a mouth full of Copenhagen he gave some of his last words of wisdom to me: “No good when you die in the winter. Gonna leave too much work behind.”
A couple hours into digging and I understood what he meant, and I wanted to shoot the guy came up with six feet as the regulation depth of a grave. I worried we wouldn’t be finished in time. Just one day to dig the hole. One day. One day before the village carried his plywood coffin to the cemetery. Men stopped by to help. Someone brought an old red Sears chainsaw that looked like it had been digging graves since the day it left the store shelf. I thought about the irony of digging the grave with a chainsaw when fifty miles of tundra stood between the village and the nearest real tree. Why not use it to cut frozen dirt, why not dig graves?
I thought the men who came to help probably saw in my face that I needed to dig the grave by myself. Robert wasn’t a relative, not even a distant uncle, but the old man was special to me and somehow everyone seemed to understand this.
After a quick demonstration without words, Robert’s brother handed me the rumbling saw. I crawled back down into the hole and began gnawing away at the black earth. The hungry saw sputtered and threw a fine dark mist of permafrost. I kept my eyes fixed on the tip of the saw blade and worked it into the iceblock soil. I would pull the blade and hungry chain out, and make another slice, until I could kick with my boot and loosen a chunk of the frozen ground. Robert’s younger brothers stood over me. They waited to relieve me. To grieve with me. Their shadows crept into the grave. The lights from the small village houses turned the white crosses in the cemetery into an army of straight soldiers, their dark arms held out against the snow.
Over the whine of the small saw's engine, I felt the men grow restless. I sensed they no longer wanted to help dig. They wanted the warm comfort of home. Perhaps it wasn’t the icy burn of the wind getting to them, but the chill of standing amongst the spirits of their ancestors. Still, they didn’t leave. They stood guard, at the edge of the grave, watching this battle with the frozen earth.
My fingers and toes had lost all feeling, and I could feel the frost cutting away at the tip of my nose. I tried to think of Robert and find strength in his last breaths. How the river ice must have just opened up and swallowed him, how he scrambled from the swirling black water and pulled himself to shore, his clothing soaked. I pictured the small patch of willows where he spent his final hours, minutes, seconds, fighting for life, for warmth. I wondered why he didn't just allow the water to take him, why he put up such a struggle in the howling, burning, cold winds when he didn’t have anyone left to live for.
When they found his body, he was huddled beneath the willows. A small pile of dried yellow grass and green twigs half-blackened, his lighter had almost managed to save him. Almost. He hadn't dug into a snowbank for warmth, knowing he was already too wet. It was more important they find his body so that his spirit could be properly cared for. So someone could dig him a grave. Perhaps he knew it would be me.
At the sight of Robert, I had collapsed to the snow and cried. Robert. Frozen in a ball, on his side in the back of a long plywood sled, wrapped in a blue tarp. Forever selfish, I thought nothing of anyone, except myself. My friend, my teacher. I was alone again.

But in the grave I was too busy working, thinking, and I didn’t hear the saw sputter out. My mind still in the sled, wrapped in the blue tarp. I heard a voice, "No more gas."

I looked up and saw the hand reaching towards me. Then lowered my eyes to the saw, dead. I started to hand the saw up to Robert’s brother, but he reached for my free hand and he began to pull me up and out of the grave.
"That's good,” he said. “We’ll finish in the morning. Robert can wait another day, if he needs to."
I looked down at my three sad feet of progress against the impossible permafrost. Pathetic. A day of digging and no answers. My arms, legs, and back hurt, but I couldn’t stop.
Don Rearden grew up on the tundra of Southwestern Alaska. His experiences with the Yup'ik culture shaped both his writing and his worldview. His critically acclaimed novel The Raven’s Gift was named a 2013 Notable Fiction selection by The Washington Post. You can read a sample chapter or order The Raven’s Gift here. Don’s writing has been published internationally and he is also a produced screenwriter and poet. His heart often draws his writing back to characters and stories that originate on the tundra; in his fiction, he hopes to shed light on the struggles of everyday life in rural Alaska. Rearden is an Associate Professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage and president of the 49 Writers. This excerpt is from “Digging Robert’s Grave,” a fictional short story of a young man dealing with the tragic death of a father figure. To read the rest of the story, download the free Alaska Sampler.

Would you like to see your work published here? Check out our Alaska Shorts guidelines and submit today!
Categories: Arts & Culture

John Straley: Staring Into the Fire

49 Writers - Wed, 07/16/2014 - 7:00am
Here is the second post from July guest author John Straley. As he told us in his first post, "I thought I would write about craft questions I have never taught or lectured on before...and I hope to respond to questions that may come in over the month and enter into a dialogue with any of you who are reading these posts."
*  *  *  *So, I have basically decided what kind of story I would like to write, (always with the proviso that I can change my mind with any of these decisions) I know basically the scope, if not the actual length of the story. I know if I’m going to have to do extensive research/travel for this story or not, and I know basically what my strengths and weaknesses are as a writer.

Now you and I ready to start the spacing out and dreaming part of writing the book. This is the thinking about the book stage. While you are walking… cooking...working at a crappy job...you are thinking about it. It’s ill formed. You can’t even describe it to anybody. At this point you shouldn’t even try to describe it to anybody. If somebody asks you you should say, “I’m thinking about a story”. If they say, “What’s it about?” you should say, “I don’t know yet.” If you try to tell them at this point, you might commit to something too soon. Or you might become embarrassed by a half-baked dumb-assed idea that will set you back months. This stage is intensely private and best to keep it that way. You have no idea what’s going to happen at this point because you are juggling with an infinite number of eggs.

Let me say something right here that is intensely personal and may apply only to me. Worrying about “whether I’m a writer or not” is a colossal waste of time. It is a question that answers itself by what you spend your time doing. The less said about it the better.

You should have a fat notebook that you can divide into four parts or four separate notebooks. You should write in these notebooks either first thing in the morning or the last thing at night. Think of this as a kind of dream journal. This dream journal will have the four important parts:

POETRY
GEOGRAPHY
PEOPLE
THINGS THAT HAPPEN

POETRY
Every day after thinking/dreaming about this story that you want to write you should write something in you notebook under one or the other one of these sections. Poetry is the poetry of the story, the heart, the mood, the soul material of the story. It can also be some experimental technique you want to employe. I am a visual person I will note images here or details that will evoke mood or atmosphere. Other people may write scraps of poetry, their own or others. 

GEOGRAPHY
What is the world of this story? This will have little interesting details of place, images, snapshots, places you may want to go in a story. Does setting influence action? How? Does it effect character? Think of it as if you were shooting a film, you can scout locations and list possibilities here, create maps. If you travel to locations put your descriptions here along with, pressed flowers, photographs, drawings. Remember you may use these things in your story or not.

PEOPLE
Who inhabits this story? Details of characters, biographical sketches. Things you have observed. Details. Who might be in a story? Who do you need in a story to tell your tale. Who lives in these places? Who has these poems? This passion? Who inhabits the world you want to create? Imagine these people. Here too: photographs, drawings. quotations. Poems. Moods. Are some characters foils for other characters? How? Necessary? Some characters are simply needed to advance plot necessities but they can still serve several functions.

THINGS THAT HAPPEN
One of the things that is most difficult to do is keep a story moving in a natural way. Action comes naturally in a story from the seeds you plant in the world right from the beginning with the setting and your characters… or it drops out of the sky like the hand of fate. Chaos is the friend of action. Domestic tranquility is not. In crime novels the expectation is that there must be a “plot point” or some dramatic action close on to every three pages or less. But even in the most intellectual mainstream fiction things happen, even if it is a subtle shift in tension. Things happen that keep the readers interest. When considering your story, keep a list of things that happen. peaks and valleys. dramatic actions, think of them as non-cheesy, highly intelligent cliff hangers. This is what Shakespeare did when shaping his plays, he created dramatic tension. and David Foster Wallace, who used broad humor and exquisite detail as well, and no one called him stupid. Just don’t forget to make things happen, while you are making things smart and beautiful.

While your are thinking about your own story. Read other peoples stories. Go to public readings. Listening to writers read aloud, is the single most inspiring thing I do. I get the best Ideas for my own stories by listening to good writers read aloud. The better the writers the better the ideas I get. I swear. I think they just raise the bar.

Remember that in this notebook you are not composing your book. You are gathering possibilities. Do not sweat this. There is no editing this notebook. Neither is this free writing. You are pulling up possibilities of poetry, geography, people and things that happen. This is more like dredging the well of well of memory and imagination.

The difference between memory and imagination, is tricky. Here is what I think: imagine you find an old well in the hard granite country where the fissures in the earth are very deep. It’s an old fashioned well with a short wall built around it and rope pulley and bucket. Bend over, pick up a stone and throw it in. The stone falls a distance, you look over and see your dappled reflection and hear an echoing splash. The sound of the splash echoing up, the reflection, the bricks of the well and the dank air, is your memory, everything the stone falls through ever after is your imagination.

Now there is a mysterious thing that happens. At some point of staring out the window and puzzling about this story, you will think you are ready to start writing. But you will be wrong, and you will know it in your heart, because one of your characters will be too thin, or the geography will be too vague. But you will be excited because ONE THING will be so good you will want to get started right away. DONT DO IT. When you have some thing really great in each section of the notebook, then you are ready to go on to the next step. They don’t have to all fit together. They don’t have to even make sense. You just have to have something great in Poetry, Geography, People and Things That Happen, you will be close.

Finally, mysteriously, you will just know. You will know your story is there. Not in the notebook, but in the darkness of the well. In your mind, and ready to come out.

Next time we go the actual, butt in the chair grinding it out phase. Step one: Colonizing the Day-planner.

John Straley is a poet, novelist, and a private investigator. He has published eight novels and one book of poetry, and was Alaska's twelfth Writer Laureate. He and his wife Jan live in a bright green house near Old Sitka Rocks.
Categories: Arts & Culture

From Our Archives: 49 Writers Interview with Willie Hensley, author of Fifty Miles from Tomorrow

49 Writers - Tue, 07/15/2014 - 7:00am
Willie Hensley
Back in 2009, we caught up with Inupiat elder and activist Willie Hensley as he was preparing for his first book tour for Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People.
Fifty Miles from Tomorrow is your first book. What inspired you to write it?
I wrote Fifty Miles from Tomorrow, in part, to inspire our own people to tell their story and to convey their knowledge of culture, history and the natural universe--that we didn't need our story to be filtered through people from the Outside.
Tell us how the process of writing was for you. What were the greatest challenges, and how did you overcome them?
I was fortunate to have a good editor who took my early writing and described what she thought would be a successful way to write for me. My sentences tended to be too long and I didn't realize how much my early cultural upbringing affected how I wrote. It is very hard for an Inupiaq to take credit for anything due to our understanding that it takes many people to create success. I didn't find the writing too difficult and I did very little rewriting. I tried to describe the images in my life and my feelings and recollections of the various stages and efforts in my life.
Memoir is a tough genre, because you end up telling truths that may cause some discomfort for people you love. How did you resolve these issues when crafting your story?
Very early on I realized there were painful experiences that our people felt uncomfortable in expressing. We have lived in a harsh universe and for over ten thousand years, we learned to suffer through difficult circumstances without becoming whiners. To me, it was important that I not only try to describe our way of life before great changes began to occur--it was also important for us to expose the human toll of government and missionary policies and practices on our people. Before I started the book, I called my relatives to let know that I was going to write a book and they encouraged me--painful subjects and all.
What has been most rewarding about seeing your project through to completion?
The reward is the result. I never in my wildest imagination thought that I could write. The thought that I could write something that others will find worth their time and money is exhilarating. Also, I wanted our own people to know that despite my college degree and succession of good jobs and experiences, I also had to deal with my own adjustments to difficult circumstances that we all have faced due to forces beyond our control. I also am proud of that fact that other Americans and the world will have a book that sheds some light on a part of America that people know virtually nothing about.
What creative work has engaged you since finishing the book?
I had to work on the book at night, weekends, holidays and on planes--as I had not retired at the time I was writing. Since then, I have retired and tried to learn to be less driven--now beginning the effort to help my publisher publicize the book. I will spend most of January and the first quarter on the road. If the book sells reasonably, my publisher has first option on another book. I have not decided what the subject might be but I have some thoughts. I am not like most writers who are "driven" to write. I would like to try a novel.

Categories: Arts & Culture

Book Review Winners Week 5

Juneau Public Library Blog - Fri, 07/11/2014 - 5:48pm
From the Mendenhall Valley Library Kee Cole, age 1.75, a gift certificate to Bullwinkle’s for his review of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star by Jane Cabrera. “One fascinating part of this book is that I finally know what the song is about!”  Keeley Rielly, age 9, an art book from Fairweather Gallery for their review of […]
Categories: Arts & Culture

Game Day at the Library

Juneau Public Library Blog - Fri, 07/11/2014 - 4:15pm
Saturday, July 12th, 11 am – 5 pm at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library Dixit, Wits & Wagers, 7 Wonders, Settlers of Catan, Forbidden Island, Set, Citadels, Munchkin, Ticket to Ride…. You are bound to find a fun game to play, or bring your own! While all are welcome, available games are rated for ages […]
Categories: Arts & Culture

Accepting movies for summer JUMP

JUMP Society - Mon, 06/09/2014 - 11:29am
Download this awesome poster! You’ll never get bad advice from three adult men wearing pug shirts, so go ahead and submit your short film for the JUMP 2014 Summer Film Fest! Deadline is July 10 or so. Screening at the Gold Town Nickelodeon July 17-20. See the guidelines and submission form for more info.
Categories: Arts & Culture

Hannah Lindoff’s Book Signing

Clarissa Rizal: Alaska Native Artist Blog - Tue, 06/03/2014 - 6:01pm

An illustration by Nobu Koch and Clarissa Rizal in Hannah Lindoff’s children’s book “Mary’s Wild Winter Feast”

Juneauite author Hannah Lindoff first children’s book “Mary’s Wild Winter Feast” is hot off the press.  Illustrated by artists Nobu Koch and Clarissa Rizal, both Hannah and Clarissa will be doing a book-signing the weekend of “Celebration” at 11am on Friday, June 13th at the Juneau Public Library.  Come on by and buy a copy of the book!

Categories: Arts & Culture

Doggone If She Flipped For A Cat Skan

Clarissa Rizal: Alaska Native Artist Blog - Thu, 05/22/2014 - 6:46am

Clarissa heads into the cat skan to check for internal bleeding…

The assessment after the bike accident (that happened on May 12th) revealed that my front brake system on my bike had gone awry causing the brakes to clamp down on the front tire which hurdled me over the bike, bouncing me on the cement street and hit my head on the curb!  At the urgency of my youngest daughter, she took me to the emergency room to make sure I had formed no blood clots or bleeding on the brain.  (And do you know how many thousands of dollars that cost!?)

To her relief, I was clean of harm…BUT my body suffered multiple bruises and I had sprained both hands/wrists badly, especially my left hand…I have not been able to do anything with my left hand except that although still painful, I can at least WEAVE!  Slowly but surely I can weave as long as I take breaks to not cause additional strain.

I ice-packed the sprain the first four days to reduce the swelling.  In addition, to assist with the brusing and a speedier recovery, I used the famous “Skookum” salve made by Harlena Warford in Hoonah, Alaska that you may buy on line from www.gutsuwu.com.  I swear by this product.  I applied this salve to all my bruised areas and to my bruised brow and face; it was amazing to see and feel the results!

And for continual circulation and support, I used my trusty “Incredibrace” for both wrists—I travel with these companions; they have been life-savers over the past year!

I am reminded every day how precious an artists hands are!

X-raying painful hand/wrist for broken bones!—there were none!

Categories: Arts & Culture

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