I spent second grade trying to please Mrs. Rebscher. She had a paddle, and she wasn’t afraid to use it on any seven-year-old who got out of line. Under her watchful eye, we worked hard on our penmanship. Graduating from printing to cursive was proof we were growing up. If Mrs. Rebscher could see what a mess I’ve made of my handwriting, she’d be reaching for that paddle. My signature is almost as bad Jack Lew’s loop-de-loops, my day-to-day cursive only slightly more readable. Still I was sad to learn that longhand is going the way of the typewriter. The Common Core State Standards don't require it, so more and more schools are swapping out the teaching of cursive for lessons in keyboarding, which is deemed practical, fast, and efficient - the same advantages that cursive once had over printing. Before long, cursive will be like Gregg shorthand, a quaint and old-fashioned novelty, or like calligraphy, an art practiced by people with too much time on their hands. I understand we have to move on. But my sadness is not just nostalgia. There are good reasons why I’ll miss cursive: · Longhand reveals who we are in ways that printing does not. If you want to check this out for yourself, write the sentence She sells seashells by the seashore. Then go here for a little analysis. Through this short exercise, I learned that the slant of my letters affirms that I’m open and like to socialize. The size of my words indicates that I’m well-adjusted and adaptable. The way I write e’s and l’s shows that I’m somewhat skeptical and unswayed by emotional appeals (sorry, PTL Network).· Handwriting changes as we change. It documents our growth. As years intervened between Mrs. Rebscher and me, I quit connecting some of my letters. My loops have gotten larger. Other letters have compressed. My handwriting may not be all that readable, but I like it. It’s me, all grown-up (mostly). · In losing cursive, we’re not just losing a way of writing. We're losing a way of thinking. Longhand encourages right-brained messiness. Poetry, brainstorming, revision notes – for these, keyboarding just doesn’t cut it. And the kinesthetic activity of the hand on the page, joining letters, makes us feel close to our work. That’s why there are still authors who draft whole books by hand. One of them is Claire Messud, author ofThe Emperor’s Children. In a recent interview with Poets and Writers, she reports how writing by hand brings her close to the text. “It sounds silly,” she says, “but it used to be that when I was reading aloud from a book at a reading I basically knew it by heart.”
The spring migrants are singing – sandhill cranes, robins, varied thrushes, fox sparrows, ruby-crowned kinglets – despite the limbo of this cold May in Alaska. The intrepid are constructing their nests of moss, twigs, grass, lichen, the shed hairs of moose, dogs, and humans. The undaunted are defending territories. Despite the fact that this morning, we all woke to a skiff of white on the rooftop, and my friend up on the ridge reported a completely white world a few hundred feet higher. My toes are cold, and I’m thinking of starting a fire in the woodstove. Last night to cheer up the rainy gloom, I plugged in the Christmas lights. But hiking in the afternoon, up the bluff through the forest, I heard hermit thrushes whirl-a-whisping high in the trees. Water gushed down through dirty, cracked ice slabs still holding on in the shadowed gullies. Not even a hint, a suggestion, a flush, a mirage, of green in the canopy. Yesterday, we plucked a handful of wild cucumber and fireweed shoots for our salad. Sometimes, I want time to hold still like this, in suspension. Sometimes suspended animation is just the thing my creative spirit needs. But sometimes the waiting is unbearable.
Sitting on my desk, open to page 55-56, is an English-Latvian dictionary my father gave to me me years ago. The first entry on page 55 is “application” (iesniegums; lugums, in Latvian), which is what I filled out this morning, an application to Ventpils Writers’ and Translators’ House in Latvia, for my third residency there. And while I can’t escape this seasonal limbo, this recalcitrant spring, it is time to escape the literary limbo I’ve been in since I finished my memoir Into Great Silence. Literary limbo: the No Fly Zone between the completion of one book and the full-on commitment to another. And of course there are the mini-limbo, that can be just as excruciating, between one poem and another, one essay or story or play and another. My English-Latvian dictionary translates limbo as cietums (prison) or ieslodzijums (place where one is locked in, confined). Ciets, in Latvian, means “hard.” Hard place. No-man’s-land. Borderland. Oblivion. But also, according to Merriam-Webster’s, “an intermediate or transitional place” or “a state of uncertainty.” Uncertainty, yes. For my birthday, my sister sent me a Buddhist book Comfortable with Uncertainty. Which I’m not. So I’ll round them all up, these words, to describe this nebulous, gestating, tentative silence I’ve inhabited since finishing the final edits on my last book. Of course it’s not total silence. This winter, I wrote poems obsessively, every morning, in the darkness, watching the sky lighten from my friend’s window seat high above Homer. I called them “anti-prayers.” And then there’s the distraction of the book tour, the all-out yes-to-everything one feels compelled to live after the release of a book into the world. But that excuse for not writing seriously, like the Cancer Card I kept in my pocket for a year post-treatment, eventually expires, and then, it’s what’s next?What are you working on now? After sending off my application, the dictionary remained open on my desk, and I found myself drawn to those pages, intrigued with the look of those bold, low-caps words, like apprenticeship (macekla stavoklis), apron (prieksauts), April (Aprils), and apricot (aprikoze). The Latvian alphabet has 33 letters. Twenty-two match the familiar Latin alphabet you and I learned in kindergarten. Now I know my A, B, C’s, except there are no Q’s, W’s, X’s or Y’s in Latvian. Eleven extra letters are created by modification, with a caron (a little triangular “hat” over a letter, changing its pronunciation; for example, a “C” with a caron sounds like ch, and an “S” with a caron sounds like sh). A macron (a horizontal line over a vowel) elongates the sound. My last name has a macron over the first “i.” Sau-liii (ee)-tis. And a cedilla, a little comma above or below certain consonants, well, what that does is engages the tongue, mashing it against teeth or palate to create consonant goo, or buzzy birdsong. Take “L,” for example. To form “L” with the cedilla, I shove my tongue against the side of my upper left teeth, and pull the skin above my jaw to the left, and expel a squished, gummy sound no one but a Latvian could pronounce. Sounds pretty, yes? “L” is now a soft banana pressed through the tines of a fork. “K” with a cedilla requires the tongue to squeeze inward so it fits between my upper teeth, then domes up and kisses the roof of my mouth. Kyeuh, kyeuh, kheuh I chuck, joining the chorus of spring birds outside my window. In Latvian orthography, there is even a trill. Rrrrrrrrrrrrr. This is my mother tongue. It’s sorely out of shape. Perhaps switching over to another writing project, one gone dormant, put aside to complete Into Great Silence, requires something similar to a language switch. I have a best friend in Latvia who shares my name. To her, I am not Eva, but Ieva. That dipthong ie is another Latvian tongue-masher, the “i” and the “e” squished and cooked into a new utterance, kind of like eeiyeh. When I look up “squish” in the English-Latvian dictionary, I laugh. It’s listed only as a noun. The Latvian word: marmalade. My friend Ieva is first person in my life, since my Oma was alive, with whom I have a relationship entirely in Latvian. Once, when we were having coffee with a couple Slovenian writers, we had to speak English, as that was the common language. A few minutes into the conversation, she leaned toward me and said, in Latvian, “This is too weird. You are like a different person. You are so much more talkative and opinionated in English.” “Yeah,” I replied, also in Latvian. “I don’t like myself in English.” That’s the power of language. I am Ieva, and I am Eva, and they are not the same people. And to write my next book, I will not be able to use the same voice as the person who wrote Into Great Silence. In this literary limbo, I’ve wandered through leafless woods, words falling on my shoulders. Latvian words. American words. Trying to find purchase. But the soil has been cold. The soil ground has been waiting. The presence of that dictionary on my desk, my unpracticed mouth forming the difficult words of my first language is what tells me I am pushing my way out of literary limbo. For a writer, literary limbo is not a comfortable place. Some might confuse it for writer’s block. But I don’t think it is; I think it is a necessary mulching, seeding, warming, quickening preparation. We have to trust these dormant times, trust that the language, the voice, will rise within us. But it doesn’t just arise passively. We’ve got to root around in the cold soil with our hoes and shovels. We’ve got to get under the leaf litter with our bare hands. So I’ve been rereading old, unfinished essays started in Latvia. I’ve pulled out graph paper and made maps and diagrams, circles around words. I’ve read old letters from my mother, stared at photographs. I’ve revised, sent out my Latvian essays to magazines. And now, today, it’s to the seduction of the words themselves that I turn. They stare up at me from the pages of my open dictionary. They speak to me from the bare branches of trees, the voices of the industrious, the intrepid, the undaunted feathered beings. These nights, as winter inevitably releases its hold on the earth, and on my mind, I’ll be sleeping with the dictionary. The time of waiting – gaidisana – is over. What is your waiting about? What are you waiting for? Eva Saulitis' most recent book is Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas, published this January by Beacon Press. A poetry collection, Many Ways to Say It, was published by Red Hen Press last fall. Her homeground is comprised of Latvian sand and birch forest, western New York State farmland and beech-maple woods, and Alaskan muskeg, old growth and islet. Visit her at her www.evasaulitis.com.
A recent book review in the New York Times began with this: “No subject offers a greater opportunity for terrible writing than motherhood.” That review reminds me that writing about mothering is just like mothering itself – fraught with judgement, whether it’s from family or neighbors or the media. It’s right up there with education as media’s go-to when we’re not in the midst of an election or scandal or disaster or tragedy. And so, at the Associated Writing Program’s annual conference in March, I was happy to chair a panel of women who write about motherhood. Me,Kate Hopper, Caroline Grant, and Hope Edelman convened to give insights into how to write honestly about our own kids, about this job of motherhood. So, what keeps us from writing honestly? Well, for one thing, fear. Fear of a reviewer like that. Fear of what others might say or think about us as writers and as mothers. Fear of what our kids will think of what we say about them, and what they’ll feel. Could we damage them for good with our words? And fear of what every mother fears: that we’re bad mothers. Writing honestly about our kids requires, first of all, overcoming those fears. Years ago I taught a Literature of Motherhood class that was rooted in the awareness that until recently most portrayals of mothering have been written by men. For most of literature’s life, wrote Helene Deutsch, “mothers don’t write, they are written.” This, says Susan Rubin Suleiman, is the underlying assumption of most psychoanalytic theories about writing and about artistic creation in general: the productivity of motherhood is believed to replace the urge to intellectual and artistic creation. In other words, either you create kids, or you create art. The course I taught was a look at how contemporary writers who are actual mothers portray this most fraught subject. We read “The Language of the Brag” by Sharon Olds, Intrusions by Ursula Hegi, Mother Love by Rita Dove. We read Rosellen Brown and Adrienne Rich and Tillie Olsen. And the roomful of women breathed a sigh of recognition. But that was a roomful of women, mothers and mothers-to-be. How does it play outside the cloistered classroom of Women’s Studies in the larger realm of Literature? So, even as we consider some techniques to write about motherhood in a way that I hope isn’t as terrible as the New York Times reviewer would call it (would that I ever had a review in the New York Times!) I want to first say that I often wonder if the level of critique isn’t biased when it’s an actual mother writing about mothers and their children. And especially with nonfiction, it’s part of our cross to bear, isn’t it, that the critiques often get aimed not only at the writing but also at ourselves. A recent A Room of Her Own survey on women writers reminded me of a conversation I've had with some fellow mother-writers over the years - we keep having this uneasy feeling that women writers are judged differently especially when writing about parenting, that we're criticized for our parenting rather than critiqued for our writing. So I wonder: do we ask more humility of mother writers than we do of, say, father writers? Is there a double standard? And I also want to let you in on a fear that arises when I read, for example, Meg Wolitzer’sessay in the New York Times Review of Books: “The Second Shelf: Are there different rules for men and women in the world of literary fiction?” I fear that writing about motherhood may, as some say about women’s writing in general (think chick lit), become simply a novelty, a lesser subcategory not taken seriously in the world of literature with a capital L. That being said, we do have a habit, us mothers, of loving our children so unconditionally that we cannot see them as anything other than perfect. Ten fingers, ten toes, pure miracle. When writing about our kids, it’s hard not to brag. After all, one’s child is perfect, by definition of unconditional love. So as writers we need to pay special attention. The first time I had a lesson in this was from a peer reviewer of my first memoir, The Heart of the Sound. During the course of the narrative, my son is born and grows to be five years old. I met up with a peer reviewer at a conference, and she came up to me and, in a whisper, said, “You know, Marybeth, you don’t have to keep telling us how precious James is. We get it.” And I had been overebullient in my prose about his perfect baby self, his curly blond locks and cherubic cheeks. Honest, maybe, but too ebullient. She was right. So, beyond bravery, I’ve found that writing honestly and well about my kid is a matter, mostly, of space: a combination of closeness and distance. Closeness is important because it’s essential to write it down as it happens. what they say and do. We think we’re going to remember, but we may not. This holds true for any writer of any subject, but parents in particular seem to believe they will always remember the way their toddler says helicopter for the first time, or the way their teenager looks when she first falls in love. But maybe not. I can’t, for example, remember my son’s first steps. I know I was there, but I just don’t remember it. So we need to record the immediacy of the moment. As well, as Patricia Hampl so beautifully wrote in “Memory and Imagination,” memory is not terribly honest, and less so as time goes by. Distance is equally vital. For their sake, and for our ability to see the forest rather than the trees, it’s best to let some time go by before writing about a certain period or event in our children’s lives. With time, it’s less likely that we’ll embarrass or otherwise harm our children. I talked to a friend’s stepson at his high school graduation. My friend had just published a memoir in which his 6-7-8-year-old self featured prominently. I asked him what he thought and he said, “Oh, that was when I was just a little kid.” In other words, I’m not that person anymore. In other words, time moves differently for our kids than for us parents. Time moves more quickly away from who they no longer are. That said, it is important to let our unconditional love guide us and talk to them (if they’re older) about what we’re up to, and be willing to let go of writing about something if they're uncomfortable with it. Writing about our kids, said Hope Edelman, “doesn’t trump but increases our need to protect them.” Still, time is our best friend. If they say no, we just might ask them again in a few years.
Caroline Grant’s son was happy to see his name in print and was “apparently proud to have given his mother so much material.” Another child might feel differently. “One’s children,” she said, “are very unpredictable. So know your child.” With time, we can see more clearly ourselves; we can put the event in context of what else was happening in our lives, the bigger picture. This alone makes us more honest.
In the early stages of writing, said Kate Hopper, it’s best to pretend that no one else will ever read what we’re writing. She often advises her students, “No one needs to see this.” We need to dive in, no holds barred, the blinking red light of the editor eye turned off, to get to the heat of the story - no matter how uncomfortable. Often we find that our frames shift, and things that we worried about including don’t even make it into the final story. So, not until it is poised to be published do we need to carefully decide what is ethically safe to include. As Caroline said, “Write with freedom but edit with care.” But when writing about our kids, we’re really writing about our relationship to them, that is, our mothering. “Ultimately,” said Caroline, “the person you expose in your writing is yourself.” And Kate noted that, “Motherhood writing that doesn’t work is often too focused on the child and doesn’t reflect on the relationship.” So, besides overcoming those fears and letting closeness and distance do their magic, another important thing is to write honestly about ourselves as mothers. Working on my new memoir about homeschooling and traveling with my son, I realized the book was missing what Terry Tempest Williams has called the story’s “underbelly.” That is, why was I the kind of mother I was? What drove me, what were my underlying motivations, the unconscious ones? I needed to explore my relationship with my own mother, even if none of that makes it into the memoir. So now I’m at work teasing this out, like a strand of a thin gold necklace at the bottom of a jewelry box, carefully, patiently. Finally, it helps to remember that we are only writing our perspectives of the story. It’s not, says Hope, an absolute truth; it’s just our story. And we should also be prepared that our children may, as Hope experienced, start writing about us. So we might be patient and kind to ourselves, especially considering the level of critique aimed at mothering books. That New York Times reviewer, who actually liked the book she was reviewing because it focused on the negative aspects of child-rearing, wrote: “To be fair, writing well about children is tough. You know why? They’re not that interesting. What is interesting is that despite the mind-numbing boredom that constitutes 95 percent of child rearing, we continue to have them.” Well, THAT feels like an uphill climb. Yes, there's a craft to writing honestly (and not romantically) about our children, but there's also the double standard that I suspect makes mother writers either shy away from writing about certain things, or write about them more brusquely, with a layer of protective armor (often in the guise of humor) hiding the heart's truth. I’d like to offer a challenge. I think there is in this an opportunity to carve out new territory – and the source is mothering itself. “The advantage of motherhood for a woman artist,” wrote Alicia Ostriker in her essay “A Wild Surmise,” “is that it puts her in immediate and inescapable contact with the sources of life, death, beauty, growth, corruption.” In this immediate and inescapable contact, we can see what Fanny Howe called “the lock of dualism (it’s this or that)” as the illusion it is. We know, as mothers, from our daily reality, that life doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes we have to hold two seemingly opposing things at the same time. We have to embrace “this AND that.” We don’t live in an either/or world, but a both/and world. This is a rich vein. In my memoir, I’m trying to work it. I’m melding mothering and the natural world, trying to get my words around this both/and world, trying to reawaken a sense of wonder in a 14-year-old boy through the lens of nature. We might go back to Sharon Oldsand Alicia Ostriker. To Tillie Olsen’s“I Stand Here Ironing.” To Adrienne Rich. There’s nothing boring about giving birth. Nothing mind-numbing about dealing with your troubled teenager. Sure, there are moments of boredom in parenting, but even firefighters spend lots of hours sitting around playing cards. We can do this. There are strengths we gain as mothers that can be Herculean. Here’s what Barbara Washburn, who in 1947 became the first woman to ascend North America’s highest peak, Mount McKinley, had to say: “Over the years many people have asked me how I trained for such a major climb. I tell them I didn’t train. I didn’t exercise and I didn’t run. I pushed a baby carriage. That’s how I got in shape for Mount McKinley.” Exactly. Marybeth Holleman’s next book, Among Wolves: Gordon Haber's Insights into Alaska's Most Misunderstood Animal, will be out next October. She is also author of The Heart of the Sound and co-editor of Crosscurrents North. Pushcart-prize nominee, her essays, poems, and articles have appeared in such venues as Orion, Christian Science Monitor, The Future of Nature, and on National Public Radio. This post comes from her new blog, Art and Nature, and was also posted at She Writes.
Hi, Writergirl, I have been working on a book about a friend that survived the Holocaust. I am 97% done, in my inexperienced opinion. I plan to self publish the book via a web page dedicated to her. I am very close to the story and need an objective review, so that I can tweak what doesn't work. Are you able to suggest an experienced reviewer who would be willing to provide constructive feedback? Her story is historically significant, and I want it to be a good representation of her experiences and her life. Thank you for any advice or suggestions you can share. Claudia "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you think you know that just ain't so." The man who said was Henry Wheeler Shaw, aka Josh Billings. He kicked around at the same time as Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, doing more or less the same thing, being witty and smart. I can’t say for sure, Claudia, but I think he recognized as you and I do that a good editor can steer you around a whole lot of trouble. That’s what you’re after, love – an editor, not a reviewer. Someone to dish up large helpings of constructive feedback without caring who’s at the table or whether they’re hungry. Flash yourself a big smile for hitting the 97 percent mark on your draft. That’s no small achievement. On your next pass through, flash another. You’re a good friend and a smart writer for seeking an editor so that your friend’s life will be honored. There are two kinds of editing. You want both. In industry-speak, the first is developmental editing – macro, some call it. It’s the big picture stuff. How the pieces fit. What’s over and underexposed. The parts that made perfect sense when you wrote them but then somehow got twisted around on the page. On a project like yours, you might also want fact-checking. You want all this big feedback first, to make sure your book has its legs. Then it’s on to the line edits, aka micro-editing, the nitty-gritty of making sure your words and sentences are pulling their weight without calling undue attention. Proofreaders and copyreaders correct your grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Good ones heft around dog-eared copies of The Chicago Manual of Style. Really, really good ones don’t stop at correctness. They help you with style and voice. They show you how with a few adjustments, a sentence can go from Plain Jane to Greta Garbo. If you’re lucky, you’ll find one person who can do both types of editing, preferably with some time in between for you to respond to suggestions. If you can’t find one person who’s good at both, two will do. We’re talking professional editing here. It will cost you. Figure $35 an hour for straight copyediting, ten pages give or take in an hour; $50 an hour for the all-in-one package of developmental and line edits. Where to find a good editor? Ask around. Do a Google search. Try the Editorial Freelancers Association. The Independent Editors Group. Check back with this Writergirl post to see if any of our lovely readers have offered up help. Once you zero on a prospect, don’t be shy, love. Check resumes and references. Before you start paying by the page, talk with your prospective editor, if only by phone, to make sure you two are on the same page. Small budget? In APE:Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur – great resource if you’re self-pubbing – Guy Kawaski recommends crowdsourcing, niche communities, and enlisting people you know to supplement whatever professionals you can afford. An objective review. A good representation of your friend’s experiences and her life. That’s the right stuff, Claudia. Good for you for going after it. Truly yours, Writergirl
When the Rasmuson Foundation announces its annual Individual Artist Awards, it’s always exciting to see Alaska’s creative community acknowledged and supported in this way. Attendees at the awards reception earlier this week included trustees of the Western States Arts Federation, who were in town for a meeting. I happened to be standing next to the WESTAF table when Diane Kaplan, President and CEO of the Rasmuson Foundation, was describing the awards program and detailing how much the foundation has given out in the last decade. We already appreciate how fortunate Alaskans are to have a foundation that invests significantly in Alaskan arts and literature but you never feel so blessed as when your peers from Outside spontaneously express their astonishment and admiration at such bounty. For a full listing of the awards, visit the Rasmuson Foundation website. Sitka basket and textile weave Teri Rofkar was named as the 2013 Rasmuson Distinguished Artist, and her work is amazing, so check it out.
In the realm of writers, the literary artists named as 2013 Fellows ($18,000) are Joan Kane, Erin Hollowell, and Arlitia Jones. Joan will use her Fellowship to advance some current projects (poetry and fiction) through travel, research, and time to focus on her writing. Erin will support the release of her poetry collection, Pause, Traveler, and create new work. Playwright and poet Arlitia will complete her latest drama, Hellraiser, about the life of labor organizer Mother Jones. 2013 Project Awards ($7,500) go to Christine Byl, Lucian Childs, Joan Nockels Wilson, and Merry Ellefson. Christine will launch a national book tour this year following the publication of Dirt Work. Lucian plans to travel to writers’ conferences and retreats to use the inspiration, connections, and learning to create five new stories and curate a collection for publication. Joan will take a sabbatical from her job as an attorney to complete the manuscript of her spiritual memoir. And Merry will further develop a script for a play that explores the issues surrounding homelessness in Juneau. Congratulations to everyone who was honored in this way. We look forward to seeing new creative work from Alaska's talented writers.
Are you a published writer with a strong teaching background? Do you feel passionate about a particular aspect of your craft? Or perhaps you have expertise in a special topic relating to the writing life. If so, we are now accepting proposals for our fall courses and want to hear from you! The deadline for proposals is June 15. For more information and to submit a proposal, go to the Instruction/Teach for Us page on the 49 Writers website. Last week you were promised nuggets from Pitfalls of the Memoir, Debra Gwartney’s evening talk on May 6. Drawing on her 15 years of teaching memoir writing, Debra has identified three primary pitfalls facing those who write personal narrative.
Pitfall #1—The “I” is underdeveloped as a character. The “I” or narrator is both the filter and the guide, and must be presented as a specific, legible character. The reader can’t enter the scene unless she knows who’s telling the story. Also, too often writers introduce an unspecific “we” into the story; only use “we” intentionally, as a way to get to know the protagonist.
Pitfall #2—Scenes are not rendered in a way to move the story forward and/or reveal character. A good scene brings the reader clear inside the experience with you, so provide specific details that help the reader enter. A scene isn’t static, it contains action that reveals a dynamic between characters. Be clear what the narrator’s role is in this scene; something has to happen that’s internal. For more on writing scenes, read Debra's blog post on the topic.
Pitfall #3—Past versus present tense. Memoir’s natural tense is simple past, as past tense allows for the reflective narrator. Memoir is not about what you remember but whyyou remember it in that way; why you are attached to this particular version of this slice of history. The “I” of memoir is of two strands: the character “I” in the action, and the narrator “I” who has lived past the event and is looking back on it with more insight and wisdom. Here it’s important to write about the dynamic rather than circumstance. Write intoself-implication: the narrator played a role in what happened.
A good example of a memoir that delivers on all three points is This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. For more insight into the memoir, read what Sven Birkets (The Art of Time in Memoir), Phillip Lopate, Vivian Gornick (The Situation and the Story), and Patricia Hampl have to say on the subject.
Applications for the one-month Fall 2013 Island Institute collaborative residency in Sitka must be received by May 20. This year, they are inviting two participants who wish to collaborate on a project, or two participants who each have individual projects and who anticipate synergistic benefit from each other's presence. At least one of the applicants must be a writer with an interest in the Island Institute's scope of work. The second applicant may also be a writer, or he or she may work in another field (e.g. arts, science, history, philosophy). More information here. The deadline for the Winter 2014 residency is September 1, and for the Spring 2013 residency it's December 1.
Here’s a tip from 49 Writers member Arne Bue – thanks for passing along, Arne! "I am a Tablet user. Often I use the Flipboard app. You may not know that with ease you can publish your own magazine on Flipboard to promote your work. Here’s a link to Flipboard on the PC: http://editor.flipboard.com/. Magazine creation is a breeze, even for me!"
Despite the weather, we're moving into summer, which means conference season. The Last Frontier Theatre Conference is coming up Saturday May 18--that's this weekend! Check their website for full details. And for once this conference doesn't conflict with the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference in Homer (June 14-18). Registration is still open, and a lot of us are very excited to have Naomi Shihab Nye as keynote speaker--a beloved presence in the writing world, known mostly for her essays and poetry but also a fiction writer! Before that, the North Words Symposium will happen in Skagway May 29-June 1 with another exciting keynote speaker, renowned environmental writer Kathleen Dean Moore.
Tomorrow, Saturday May 18, 6-8pm, drawing near the end of her book tour, Christine Byl will be reading and signing copies of Dirt Work at Gullivers Books in Fairbanks.
A reminder: Alaska Writers Guild's May program features editor Rebecca Goodrich in a presentation on how first lines can make or break a work. Tuesday, May 21, 7-8.30pm, Jitters Coffee House, Eagle River. Afterward, AWG members are invited to submit the first 250 words of a manuscript for critique.
Note from Andromeda: At this moment I'm headed south and east to be alone for a week, working on my novel at a writers' hotel in the Virginia countryside. I considered applying for a more formal residency, but the deadlines, timelines and locations didn't match up with my own needs to do some concentrated research in a specific locale. For that reason, I put together my own self-funded, low budget retreat (no applications! no potential rejections!) -- but I love the other kind as well. Heck, I like any kind of retreat, even if it's inside one's own home. My only requirements are: solitude, limited or no Internet access, and lots of good drinks and snacks (I just loaded up on cheese, crackers, apples, salami, and wine; no, it's not a good way to lose weight, but it will be a good way to get some pages done).
Because I'm traveling, I decided to use today's post to re-run a favorite 2009 blogpost by Nancy Lord, which I remember whetting my appetite for both travel and writing. If you're more inclined to an accidental retreat, try this 2011 post by Rich Chiappone. And if you've got your own wonderful retreat planned for the near future, or know of some great opportunity that might stir someone to beat a retreat, let us know.
By Nancy Lord
It happens that I’m at a writing retreat -- colony, residency, whatever name you want to give it -- right now. It also happens that (I’m quite sure of this) I’ve been to more writing retreats (15 different ones, some more than once) than any other Alaska writer, which must make me an expert on this subject. ...
How do you find these places? They exist all over the country and the world. Some are for writers only, while most host a mix of artists. Many of them belong to an organization called The Alliance of Artists Communities, which has a helpful website. Go there, click on “residencies,” and start dreaming—or filling out applications. (Note -- there is a $25 annual subscription fee for detailed listings.)
You’ll find that some colonies charge large fees, some small, some charge you nothing (except you have to get yourself there), and some offer scholarships that include travel costs and stipends. Of course, the “free” ones are the most selective, so when you apply you will want to impress them with your very best work! (The admission panels base acceptances mostly on work sample quality, though they also look to see that you have a well-thought-out plan for using your time, and for diversity—which is where being from Alaska can help!)
There is (at least) one Alaska retreat program—a small one operated by the Island Institute in Sitka (which also hosts the summer Sitka Symposium.) This is not a colony but an opportunity for one writer at a time to be in residence and do his/her work. I had the privilege once, for a winter month, and loved getting to know Sitka and some of its people as well as taking advantage of the two libraries there.
So, where am I now? Ragdale Foundation, in Lake Forest, Illinois. I’m starting the last of my four weeks with eleven other artists (writers, visual artists, performance artists, and one composer) in a complex of buildings surrounding what was once the summer home of famous Chicago architect Howard Shaw. I didn’t bring my camera (my habit is to bring nothing with me except what I need for whatever writing project I’m focused on) so I can’t include any photos here—of my charming room in the old house, or the (snow-covered) gardens and prairie out back, or the group of us celebrating on Inaugural Day. You will have to imagine—or look at photos on the Ragdale website.
Typical day? Wake up slowly, help myself to breakfast (and the New York Times) in kitchen, go to desk and work without interruption. When the hunger pains start, head for kitchen again—the other one, the one with last night’s steak and mashed potato left-overs in the fridge. Back to work. Mid-afternoon, walk on the prairie, look at the remains of a rabbit and try to figure out who (fox, hawk, owl?) ate it. (Another day I might walk the mile to the library in town.) Then, sit at desk, write two pages and delete three. Resist checking e-mail. Dinner at 6:30 (created by Linda, our marvelous chef), with wine we take turns buying. Evening: reading in a comfy chair in my well-lit room, journal writing, trying to solve the writing problem I was having all day. Tonight, a break from that: fellow resident Marianne Boruch, a fabulous poet, and I, feeling much less than fabulous but with some new pages that give me a certain satisfaction, will present short readings in the Ragdale living room. No one has to come, but everyone will. The conversations may go on long afterwards, there by the fire, the next day, years after.
Not everyone, I know, can leave family and work responsibilities to go off and write in a retreat setting. Not every writer even wants to. But if you want and you can, I’m here to attest that it can be very, very nice—so very affirming of yourself as a writer—to accept such a gift.
Some flim-flam grand slam, glitchy as religion, this is, with its chronic key-and-padlock, hit-and-missy cerebellum, its sturm and drangish, bum- rushed, all-thumbed cockalorum. —from “Inspiration” by Hailey Leithhauser (featured on Poetry Daily, May 10).
My friend says we all have a hungry ghost inside us. Both Buddhism and Taoism recognize this entity, which can arise from neglect or desertion of an ancestor. My friend isn’t using the term in that traditional sense, of course, but metaphorically; a hungry ghost can never be satisfied.
Hungry ghost. The term popped into my mind unexpectedly this morning as I walked with the dogs through the woods, searching for signs of spring. I was, myself, hungry, gulping in a kelpy scent coming off the bay, a smell I associate with the open ocean. Salty, low-tide, far-away. After a day of sun and promise, this morning a smoky gray pall had greeted my eyes when I’d pulled back the curtains. No shadows. No bright patches. Cool, only 40 degrees, trees leafless, ground wet, fifty shades of brown, sullen. Spring, so corporeal yesterday, transformed into a ghost again.
Writing is like that. The hungry ghost craves inspiration. Yet it’s hit and missy, as Leithhauser puts it. Unreliable. There’s a key. There’s a padlock. Some days the key in your hand just won’t fit. Some days, inspired, words, true ones, flow from head to hand to page. Some days, dull words clomp, clad in cement boots. You sound so damn stilted. Years ago, daunted by my first writing retreat down in Sitka, a wise poet-friend said: “One good sentence a day. One sentence worth keeping. What if that were your goal?” One inspired sentence. A hungry ghost whispering, more.
But inspiration comes unbidden, like the rare sighting of an owl or wolf in the woods. How many times have I walked the loop full of expectation – down the dirt road, a left turn at the dead spruce, a short walk along the wetland, a jump across the ditch, hands in the earth pulling me up the other side into the birch forest at the edge of the slough, stopping every twenty feet to scan for moose or coyotes or a bear – and saw nothing I hungered for. This morning I saw: in a copse of birches, the tree stand someone long ago had nailed up, collapsed. What did it mean? All the obvious metaphors drifted by, like dead leaves down the rivulets in the slough below. Ideas, inspiration. The support beams had rotted underneath, spilling the plywood sheet to the earth. Nothing more.
A writer is a hungry ghost. For a writer, a walk is never simply a walk. It’s a collection trip. It’s a beseeching sort of prayer. Inspire me. Shake me up out of this lethargy. Knife a hole out of this heavy sky. Wake me up. Teach me how to see. Tweet a first line in my ear.
And when the prayers go unanswered, we sit before the page anyway. We walk the same trail, over and over, laying down a muddy path through familiar woods, collecting what’s given, squirreling it away, using it later. Things are always falling in the woods. Last winter, a beautiful birch. A tree stand. One spruce tree in a grouping had died. I stood and puzzled at its rusty needled self. What went wrong?
There are two sides to the hungry ghost of writing, a useful one, and a destructive one. How many rituals do we devise, telling ourselves we must enact them in order to write? Time, a certain span of it. This pen. That notebook. Quote tacked to the wall above desk, stack of poetry books beside computer. Coffee made just so. Quiet. This place, that music. And when we do sit down to write, never enough pages. Never the right voice or word. And when we publish, never enough praise. Never enough attention. Ad nauseum. That hungry ghost is nauseous, of course, throat stretched tight, mouth wide, stomach gnawing its own insides raw.
Day of dank, exposed gray mudflats, drizzle, air almost particulate in its graininess and weight. Day inarticulate, brooding. Nothing green poking up out of the dead and fallen meadow grass. I followed the trail of a moose. Its dropping here and there were fresh, gleaming. I could see its prints in the potato patch. I think it’s a she, trying to find a place to bed down to give birth. I pocketed my observations, stopped to note the progress of the rhubarb nubs pushing up out of the earth. I remembered yellow birch leaves, edges burnt brown, mottling the surface of that plywood tree stand last fall, and all the falls before.
And yet. The hungry ghost is also the best of us. The hungry ghost urges, tugs, niggles, nags. The hungry ghost drives us out the door, a journal in our pocket. It urges us to look, to pause, to listen to the wetland surging with snowmelt, to listen for our own voice buried deep as a scaly fiddlehead under a bed of leaf-rot. It urges us to write, and not always what we think we should be writing. What the hell does this mean, the fallen tree stand, the hidden moose, the trail I walk and walk, repetitively, leaving my boot prints. Bear witness to this life, begs the hungry ghost. Bear witness.
What is writing all about? Which hungry ghost do we feed? It is humbling to sit before the page each day. The page, like this gray, uninspiring sky, like this empty, waiting woods. It is humbling to strive to get perception translated into words, knowing we will never get it exactly right. To find that one inspired sentence. To wait, day after day, to cultivate patience in the midst of hunger.
When I teach a class, I sometimes begin by asking people the simple question: Why do you write? No one answers: for attention, for praise. They answer like people who’ve just staggered out of a desert and are asked “Why do you gulp water like that?” Thirsty ghost. Ignore it and you suffer.
And if we think it gets easier, this hungering and thirsting after words, here is what John McPhee wrote about first drafts in a letter to his daughter, who was struggling with writing: Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something –anything—as a first draft.
And then, and then, I swear to you, here at my kitchen table, laboring over this blog post, flinging broken tree stands and moose turds at my computer screen, plopped down in this same spot where I sit every day, a white blur catches my eye, a swooping something, and then I hear strange cries. I open the door, and the cries are loud now, bleating, beseeching, something in pain (you know what it is, the dying rabbit-baby squeal) and then a snowshoe hare suddenly bounds through the underbrush, and on a fallen tree, sits a blue-gray goshawk, baffled, looking this way, that, wondering how the hell that pealing, frantic, fearful beast escaped its grasp. What’s its ratio, I wonder, success to failure? No matter. Driven by hunger, the goshawk flies up into the trees, to begin the hunt again.
I write to feed the hungry ghost, the one for whom inspiration, ever just out of reach, leaps like a self-saved rabbit through the trees. I write because it takes me underneath the mundane, the slog, the muck, the sleep-walk, the petty, the dull, the bored. I write because it gives me back my most-alive life.
Why do you do it? Why do you write? Tell me about your hungry ghost.
Joan Kane (copyright Seth Kantner) Joan Kane is Inupiaq with family from King Island and Mary's Igloo, Alaska. She earned her bachelor's degree from HarvardCollegeand her MFA from ColumbiaUniversity. Kane's awards include a 2007 individual artist award from the Rasmuson Foundation, a 2009 Connie Boochever Fellowship from the Alaska State Council on the Arts, a National Native Creative Development Program grant, and a Whiting Writers' Award for her first book, The Cormorant Hunter's Wife. She received the 2012 Donald Hall Prize for her second book, Hyperboreal. She is recipient of the 2013 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Literature Fellowship, the 2013 Creative Vision Award from United States Artists, and will be the 2014 Indigenous Writer in Residence at the School for Advanced Research and faculty for the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Along with her husband and sons, she lives in Anchorage, Alaska. She is currently fundraising through United States Artists to crowdsource an important project, Ugiuvaŋmiuguruŋa, that would take her and others to her remote and now-uninhabited ancestral home for the first time.
The upcoming book includes your poem “Disappearer”, which begins with an epigraph by Lisa Stevenson that says “Disappearance, extinction, the inability to survive as a race—these are the anxieties of an Inuit modernity. They lie at the fuzzy border between cultural and biological extinction.” To what extent does that anxiety inform your work, your parenting, your desire to finally reach KingIslandfor the first time? With the recent death of Helen Pushruk, my grandfather’s sister, there is only one King Islander remaining alive from the generation in which people lived complete subsistence lifestyles and were born and raised and lived on the island. My grandfather did not ever learn to speak (or write) a single word of English. The King Island dialect is so unique and particular that each time we lose people whose first language is in our dialect, whose verbal and conceptual grounding is on King Island itself, we lose a considerable bit of our identity, our culture. I’m desperate to bring my children, along with our cousins and aunts and uncles and other relatives, to the island so that their identity can be affirmed at an early age. I want their existence to be informed by the very harsh and very beautiful environment that our ancestors and family survived and thrived in for thousands of years. I don’t want a momentary set of policy decisions by the federal government last century to defeat any chances of King Islanders from being fully self-determined in the present and future. To my mind, that self-determination needs to be contextualized in the notion of “selfhood” that is informed by the home that our mothers and aunts and uncles and others grew up in and knew. I mention Helen not just because her passing was deeply sorrowful for our community and family. I mention it also because she was very patient in teaching me highly specific things about our dialect. She and her husband Simon Pushruk used to help raise me at their house at Heintzelman projects in downtown Anchorage. I try to keep up a lot of translation work. I researched the word kavitagzaqtaaŋa for a long time — finally I asked her. It is a word that refers to the sound the wind makes as it shakes/slams against a seal intestine window in the entry to a house at King Island. If she hadn’t told me, I don’t know who would have. So many elders and other fully bilingual did not remember but her recollection was invaluable on and opened doors to other memories about such words from other speakers of the King Island dialect. My work is written both out of an urgency to record this knowledge before it is lost, but more than simply being documentarian, I write poems and plays and now fiction, because I am interested in the role that language – transmission, publication, preservation, voice, perspective – plays in cultural survival. Words are very powerful. The world of your poems is a very physical and placed world. The sense of both real and imagined landscapes permeates your poems. How important is place to your identity and process? Absolutely critical. Words are powerful. Places are powerful. Identity, for me, is informed by my place in the context of a cultural and physical landscape. King Island itself has been wholly inaccessible to me so far in my life because of the now-mindboggling logistics of getting there. I can see it from Nome, from Cape Woolley, from the Teller Road outside of Nome. I have been told in such detail about its houses and buildings and clubhouses and places to pick greens and how my mother played as a child; it is so vivid to me. But I have never been there. That feels like a huge blind spot in my construction of a self, and always has. I have seen and heard and witnessed the trauma relocation has had on us as King Islanders. Going back isn’t going to erase that trauma, but is a necessary part in moving forward and having a complete sense of identity, of coming to terms with the terrible and persistent trauma that Native people experience on a daily basis as a colonized people. How did your long stint away from Alaskain Bostonand New Yorkaffect your identity and process as a poet, and how did coming home influence your work? I was homesick. My first book of poems was nostalgic and yearning. I have always yearned for King Island but living in NYC through 9/11, subway strikes, blackouts, and being part of a truly egalitarian and anonymous urban setting was necessary to me in so many ways. Luckily I got to come home and go to Shishmaref and Nome during the summers and every chance I could get. I needed, too, some distance from being here in Anchorage. I decided to leave Anchorage in the winter of 2000-2001; after the painful winter, the winter when Della Brown was raped and murdered, the winter when so many Native women were attacked and assaulted. I had never felt more vulnerable and unsafe as a Native woman in this city. The statistics certainly uphold that. I couldn’t live here and create. I couldn’t live here and witness this continuing trauma and devastation of our people. I moved back and just about within a year my uncle was killed in a hit and run accident. The police finally found the man who murdered him, but the only thing that resulted was the revocation of his license. My uncle’s death was very hard on my family. My first son is named for him. I began to feel a complete responsibility to my son after my uncle died – when I was about three months pregnant. I began to feel a sense of responsibility as a mother to begin righting the wrongs and looking to a time when we as Native people, as King Island people, take a proactive role in furthering our self-determination.
How have other King Islanders and your Inupiaq community reacted to your work and your current efforts to reach KingIsland? I was elected to the Board of Directors of the King Island Native Corporation a few weeks ago. This demonstrated to me a sense of real support for the vision of us as King Islanders responding to relocation and assimilation. It is our home, together. It is part of our collective identity. Many relatives and others in Nome and elsewhere are eager to join me on the trip, especially the aspect of bringing our children. This is our future. So many King Islanders are homeless – not just literally, in Nome and Anchorage and Fairbanks and Portland and Seattle – but culturally. Luckily our language and dialect are still alive. Luckily, I am alive. We have one of the most phenomenal groups of traditional dancers and drummers. We also have generations of people who haven’t been home or anywhere near it for three or four or five decades since we were forcibly relocated off the island. It is time to go home, symbolically, as a way of paying due tribute to the sacrifices our ancestors made for us to exist and live today. And in actuality, so that this aspect of our identity is not lost to future generations. How does the upcoming Hyperboreal differ from your debut Cormorant Hunter’s Wife? What are you working on now, and what directions will a trip to KingIslandtake you and your writing? Hyperboreal was written in its entirety after I returned home to Alaska. Since moving back, I have worked at the very high policy level as Director of the Alaska Native Policy Center at First Alaskans Institute, at the Denali Commission in looking at some of the existing decisions to situate or evaluate communities’ responses to current federal programs, at the corporate level working for another of my village corporations, and very fortunately, on the personal level as I’ve traveled extensively in Arctic Slope, Bering Straits and NW Arctic regions. The book is much more accessible, less nostalgic, and more proactive in engaging questions of identity, language, and memory. I just finished a third manuscript of poetry, When the World was Milk. I have started a novel that is preoccupied, right now, at looking at the real implications of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. My novel and next manuscript will draw heavily on returning to King Island. For my whole life, I have wanted to go there. My writing and professional careers have made possible trips internationally and within the US – and in Indian Country. I see tremendous creative and cultural potential in helping King Islanders return home. Can you comment on your forays into other genres, and perhaps about the particular way that poetry seems to be a home for you as a writer? With two young kids, poems have been the easiest to write in terms of my time and training. Poems don’t presume having all of the answers. My poems do raise a lot of questions and give breathing room in interstitial spaces. Poetry is home for me in those formal and personal contexts. The plays have been a real challenge, not just bringing them into being on the page, but on stage as well. The novel is taking so much time. I think all of these other genres have strengthened my poetry writing. But it takes a lot for people to get to poetry. Maybe these other works – the novel, the plays – can help readers get a bit more comfortable with my voice and vision and artistic efforts. For more information about the Ugiuvaŋmiuguruŋa, or to donate, visit: http://www.usaprojects.org/project/ugiuva_miuguru_a_i_am_from_king_island Also, for a great chance to hear Joan and others speak about King Island, stream this story from KNOM’s May 9th news broadcast, beginning at 2:44. Jeremy Pataky is a poet and writer based in Anchorage and McCarthy, and a board member for the 49 AlaskaWriting Center.
Dan Bigley is a bear-attack survivor, but much more than that, he’s a loving husband, a warm father, and a dedicated social worker. Though mauled in 2003, he learned to not only live, but to thrive and love again. Deb McKinney is a freelance writer who fled Montana for Alaska. Beyond the Bear, a tale of sorrow, loss, transformation, and overcoming, brought these two strangers together. It is a memoir to the memory of the mauling and a unique narration of those it affected, a story not only of Dan but of a community. Why did you move to Alaska?Dan: Alaska has been one of those places that has always captured my curiosity in the Last Frontier sort of way. It’s nature’s last stand. Ever since I was a young kid, I’ve always been fascinated with Alaska, its scenery and wildness. I first came up to Alaska in 2001 as part of an independent study on the cultural history of Alaska through Prescott College and just knew that seeing it in the fall I really wanted to see it in all the seasons. It felt like home. I graduated from college that December, and in June 2002, I moved up to make it home. Deb: Alaska was never on my to-do list. I ended up here because the phone rang one night at my place in Missoula, and instead of one of my housemates, I got to it first. The woman on the other end was trying to track down a friend of mine who’d been hired by her company to stake mining claims in Alaska. He wasn’t around, and somehow she and I stayed on the phone and started chatting and laughing and generally hitting it off. By the time we hung up, she’d offered me a job. I’d just started a new job as a waitress at the Old Spaghetti Factory. I had a degree in journalism. So my first day of that job was also my last. I spent that spring and summer hopping out of helicopters alone in the middle of nowhere, surveying a grid and staking claims for a minerals exploration company. After three summers of surveying and cooking in various camps, from the Interior to the Alaska Peninsula, I decided it was time to check out winter. I got a job at the Anchorage Daily News, and planned to stay two winters max. That was in 1984. Is writing your day job, Deb?Deb: Writing is my day and my night job. How long have you been writing?Deb: I started as a high school sophomore, writing for my school newspaper and have been at it ever since, all because of a dynamic journalism teacher named John Forssen. At the time, I was unhappy about my family splitting up and was kind of lost. Mr. Forssen saw something in me and nurtured it along. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without that man. That’s the power of a gifted teacher. I got the chance to tell him this before he died. And when he did, I flew down from Alaska to attend his memorial service in Montana, that’s how much he meant to me. I have vivid memories of him standing in front of our high school journalism class pounding his fist on his desk and shouting “Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy!” He was a grizzled, tough old marshmallow. I have to toss in the name of my high school here because it’s the best name ever. Hellgate High. Tell me that’s not awesome. What originally got you into the craft?Deb: I was born into a newspaper family in Hillsboro, Oregon. My great-grandmother, Emma C. McKinney, bought into the Hillsboro Argus in 1904 as a young, single mother who’d lost her husband to tuberculosis. Five years later, she became the sole owner, publisher and editor. She was quite the force. The National Newspaper Association’s highest award for women in community journalism is named in her honor. She worked into her 90s. By then, my grandfather, Verne, was at the helm, then my father, Walter McKinney. All three of them are in the Oregon Newspaper Hall of Fame. So I was the fourth generation — no pressure or anything. But then I ran away to Alaska.Why writing and not drawing or art or sculpture?Deb: Unlike drawing or sculpture, writing allows you to change your mind without leaving a trace. It can be tweaked and fiddled with over and over, at least until your editor starts making death threats. I’m kind of known for worrying my stories to death. My writing coach at Poynter Institute, the late Foster Davis, once told me, “You need an editor who knows when to pull you off the carcass.” Dan, why did you decide to use writing (or storytelling) as an outlet?Dan: In my field - mental health - there’s a concept called the Sleeper Effect, and basically what that refers to is that if you hear something enough times you believe it’s true regardless of the reliability of the source. That happened for me in the aftermath of the bear. It seemed like everyone who I told the story to would respond with ‘you should write a book’ and so in 2005 I just woke up with the notion that ‘hey, I’m going to write a book.’ I was a writer, in school and reflective journaling and poetry, but at the time I was also getting ready for grad school and getting ready to be a father. I wasn’t going to have a lot of time. I talked to my dad and he purchased a few books on How To Write a Book. I read them and that’s really how I got started. Why did you decide to co-author Beyond the Bear?Dan: I made the decision of getting a co-author both because of her experience in writing and also her knowledge of the craft, as well as time. Deb: Writing a book was never on my to-do list, but I always figured if the right story came along I’d consider it. Then I met Dan Bigley. His story is so deeply moving, and his ability to tell it so well was a writer’s dream. It’s been a great collaboration. We put what each of us had to offer into a blender and out came this book. How did you two meet?Deb: I was with the Anchorage Daily Newswhen Dan’s mauling first made headlines. It was so disturbing. Two months after the bear, Dan left the state for specialized surgery and to attend a school for the blind. Before he left, he sent an open letter that was published on the front page of the ADN. Well, what do you know? I just happen to have it right here: “If it were not for the wonderful treatment provided by Dr. Kallman and Dr. Ellerbe’s office and the amazing care of Providence hospital, I would not have survived. The members of this community really came together in my family’s time of need to extend their thoughts, services, financial aid, and most of all their prayers. I have been healing quickly and I attribute this to those Alaskans who have extended themselves and their thoughts to my recovery. I thank you more than words can express. Keep on fishing, and I’ll see you out there next summer.” How do you forget someone like that? Five years later, when I learned that Dan was back in town, I did a where-is-he-now profile for ADN. He talked of his dream of a book. We teamed up and here we are.
Dan: Well, originally I started looking around and found a Fairbanks author. We started discussing how it was going to work when out of nowhere I got a call from Deb McKinney. She was interested in writing a story on a five-years later ‘where are you now’ type of thing. The story came out; I was impressed so I called her up and asked if she was serious. How did the process work for you two?Dan: It was a great collaboration to start with, and I think I can speak for both of us when I say we each really did bring something extremely valuable to the table. I brought a great story. Obviously what she brought to the table is that she’s just an incredible writer, and part of the value in that was the ability to shape how the different parts of the story were going to tie in together. The other thing that she brought to the table which really enriched the book was her rich history in journalism. We interviewed over fifty people for the book, over countless hours, so she was really able to take the perspectives of the doctors, the family members and friends, and rescuers, and tie up loose ends to really make what the story was in the book.How was the publishing experience?Dan: It was very crazy, to be honest. It wasn’t necessarily what I would call the best experience. We had two different publishers with two different book deals. Basically what happened is we were picked up by one of the big ones and we felt in the beginning that they believed in the story like we did and how it was more than a bear book, that it was an inspirational story and a love story. I’m not sure when that started to change but it did, and we no longer shared the same vision of what the book was. We decided not to submit our final manuscript and they were kind enough to give us back our rights. Fortunately we were very lucky and Globe Pequot Press loved the story. We’ve had a much better experience working with them. Dan, did you ever get storyteller’s block? Deb, what do you do when you get writer’s block?Dan: Not really, since it’s a true story, my life story, and so it’s sort of like the story told itself. We just had to recall what’s happened. There was so much to tell, the hardest part was to decide what had to go. I think, by far, that was the more challenging part. Deb: Writer’s block is my evil twin. When I seize up, which is often, I go on a house-cleaning frenzy. Nothing like dancing around the living room with a feather duster, with Frank Zappa’s “Guitar” blasting from the speakers to loosen things up in your head. Other times, in Anne Lamott fashion, I just start writing crappy stuff, then come back later and de-crap it. Why did you decide to switch POVs so often, transitioning from first-person to an almost omniscient narration? Dan: We started the prologue in 3rd person then transitioned to 1stperson through the rest of the book, but there were parts of the story when I was unconscious or in a medically induced coma or other things were happening that weren’t right in front of me but needed to be included into the story - like the scene when Brian heard the news and made the journey up to Alaska - so in order to really bring some of that to the table we did have to switch into that more narrative voice, still 1st person but more me reflecting back on what we had gathered in the aftermath. I’m very pleased about how it worked out.Deb: How do you keep the first-person going when the narrator is in a coma for a couple of chapters, then loopy on pain meds for another chapter or two? The answer was to watch others react to what happened to him. His brother, his friends, his brand-new girlfriend, Amber.
Do you think all of these different POVs strength your story?Dan: Absolutely! I think in so many ways that was what made the story so rich. It wasn’t just my story, there was a medical story, a whole story from Amber’s perspective, what my family went through trying to internalize the news of a) I might not live and b) I would be blind if I did live. So absolutely those elements made the story a lot more real.Deb: I absolutely think they strengthen Dan’s story. What happened to Dan profoundly impacted many people, loved ones and strangers. No one got off easy.
You included a lot of his personal life (as well as others) into this work. How long did it take you to compile all of the information?Deb: We started talking book after I profiled Dan for the Anchorage Daily News in 2008. The book was his idea, and it took me a long time to get on board. By the time I left the paper in 2010, I was committed. We traveled to California together, which is where he did the majority of his healing, to interview his parents, brother, friends, therapists and staff at what’s now the Hatlan Center for the Blind. We got a proposal together, and got our agent that spring. We spent more than six months stockpiling more interviews with everyone from the surgeon who saved Dan’s life, to the only other person in North America to be completely blinded by a bear and live to tell about it. Next came a complete revamping of the proposal, then writing an additional sample chapter and creating a marketing section with some meat on its bones. After that came many more interviews with many more people who helped fill in the blanks in Dan’s memory and that stretch of time he was out of it. Just translating his medical records, which are a couple of phonebooks thick, into common language was a project. And then people kept surfacing: “Hey, are you Dan Bigley?” “I am. Who’s that?” “I’m Wes Masters. I was with you in the ambulance that night.” This is a long-winded way of saying that compiling all these details took forever.
My final question: Did writing/crafting this book help move past the bear attack? Deb: When I sent him the first six chapters, the chapters leading up to and including the mauling and immediate aftermath, I hit the “send” button without thinking about what it would be like for him to read them. (He reads via talking computer software.) I’d been working with the material for so long I’d become numb to it, but it hit him like a bus. He was flattened and did a lot of crying that day. I felt so awful. But he considered that a good thing, a necessary thing. I think that speaks to how powerful his story is and how brave he is to tell it. Dan: There’s something to be said for talking about our traumas as trauma survivors that helps us process it in some way. But it wasn’t the countless revisions of chapters that helped me process the bear mauling. I would say more of what’s been helpful for me in the writing process was to really put the story together and to create a full narrative that is more than just the attack, and to be able to see the beauty of its various parts. It’s more than just the bear mauling and the loss of my eyes. There is the beautiful story of how the community really came together to support me. There’s this beautiful story of how I put my life back together, and not only live but to thrive and to have dreams and to actualize those dreams. The fact that I can look at the story now and see how Amber was such a presence and still is in my life - how can I not feel lucky looking at the story through those lenses, to now have a beautiful family with two kids and a job that I love doing. There’s a lot there to feel uplifted and inspired by. To create a narrative for myself that’s so positive has been really healing and certainly a part of how I moved beyond the bear.