Ten years ago, I made a radical change. I left Bethel for Anchorage. Lisa Demer wrote about it. “Social Worker Leaves Tragedy Behind,” read the front page headline, as if it my move were big news. Anchorage would have a creative community and my articulated purpose was to find it. I continued to work as a clinical social worker, but my intention when I got here in 2004 was to build the skills and relationships needed to be an artist in the world. Professionals had failed. I had failed. Make way for artists, clowns, and poets. The creativesof Anchorage shaped themselves around me as if they were spirits directly called. The multiply talented Yngvil Guttu asked me to be the First Friday poet in December of 2005. I had three hours to prepare. A twelve-year-old Juneau boy helped me as part of his counseling session. “Wanna help me write a poem?” I asked. He said, “Sure.” Creative therapy. Individuals merged, became larger entities. Bruce Farnsworth ran the Mountain View Gallery (Trailer Art Center), where on Winter Solstice, 2006, I read, “A Murder of Crows” orating while balanced on a saw horse, so I could peer out over the crowd. Through Yngvil, I met Dawnell Smith, Linda Lucky, Melissa Wanamaker, Hal Gage, and Izzy. I dyed my hair an incredible red and took up belly dancing. Also taking shape were F Magazine, brainchild of Gretchen Weiss and Teeka Ballas; 49 Writers, birthed by Deb Vanasse and Andromeda Romano Lax; and Cirque, a literary journal founded by Michael Burwell. Yngvil Guttu founded the Spenard JazzFest and a few years into it asked me to be festival poet. Elizabeth L Thompson performed with me and by the fourth year we formed a mixed media group, Venus Transit, with nine members. I wrote instant poems for a dollar on any subject. Dreamed of writing a few thousand. It was a fundraiser. I don’t remember the fund. A sample written on the spot at the 2009 Spenard JazzFest: For Pete and VickieWind moans through hollow trees and the night, still light, defies time. Then morning birdsong reckless with hope, with improvisational abandon. And here you are with me, enduring, unsettling, exciting, mine. The Creative Writing MFA program at UAA was struggling toward its current shape as a low residency program. Enrolled since 2005, I joined with other students in opposition to this move. Think it over, we urged. We believed then that this move would lead to a program serving non-Alaskans with money. We made waves; made the news. I would write I view this spectacle like a little dog, head a-tilt, a-tuned to lively ditties from an old calliope. I have seen it all by now – a carnival of fat little kings with ladders, really not so different from the one I left behind. Then, in 2007, the youngest in our class, Jason Wenger, was murdered on a Sunday morning, as he sat in his Lois Street driveway warming up his car. My dad died that month, too, and in the spring, my brother took his own life. I would leave tragedy behind. Students from out of state came to the Low Residency program. They were just like the rest of us, essentially, wonderful. The new students expanded horizons and created connections beyond Alaska even as they were transformed into Alaska-shaped beings. You know, long drooping peninsulas, spits, gouged out bays, hulking mountain, birded estuaries, mud flats. They were okay. David Stevenson was hired to run the low residency program with writer Kathleen Tarr as the program coordinator. The level of excellence represented by David and Kathleen cannot be overstated. The program thrived. I tabled my objections, graduated, and published poems; published my first book of creative writing, Defiance Street: Poems and Other Writing, with Vered Mares at VP&D Publishing House. Thirty years of social work were behind me. I could stop being so damn good; role model for the legions. Call me an edgy writer. Burwell dubbed me quirkyand then gifted me with the editorship of his journal, Cirque. In the ten years since I announced my intention, I was immersed in the creative community of Anchorage – and Alaska – connected to important things, but I was left with a very big problem. Haunted by the troubles of rural Alaska, I was still compelled to beat on a bucket, lamenting about troubles in rural Alaska. An insistent vibration arises from two centuries of compression; something wills its way out. Something says, Tell it. By way of illustration, consider this sketch of one untold story: My friend has been teaching in villages for more than twenty years. A couple years back, a former student committed suicide. She said, “That is number fifty-three.” Fifty-three former students had been lost to suicide, murder, illness and accident. Stunned by that number, I begged her to write her story – how, in the ‘90s she arrived with her newly minted degree; how it started and how it did not end; how she grappled with questions of why and what should I do? I urge her to write as a witness. Today, she updated the number – it now stands at sixty-seven. Next week: Acts of Attention: Lancing Wounds, Treating with Inquiry’s Ointment Editor of Cirque, a literary journal, Sandra Kleven is a poet, filmmaker, and essayist. She also facilitates Poetry Parley, a monthly poetry event (Hugi-Lewis Studio). Her own work has appeared in AQR, Oklahoma Review, Topic, Praxilla Stoneboat, f-zine and the UAP anthology, Cold Flashes. Two poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her work has also won notice in the UAA Creative Writing and F’Air Words contests. Kleven is the author of four books, her most recent being Defiance Street: Poems and Other Writing (VP&D Publishing House). She holds an MSW degree as well as an MFA in Creative Writing and works for Alaska Native tribal organizations as a clinical social worker. Kleven claims affinity for Alaska, where she lives with her husband, and Washington State, where she was born.
Not long ago, I took a writerly side trip. You know how it goes. You’re getting back to your novel after a few too many days away for celebrations and family and a whole lot of other things that matter a lot, plus a few that only matter a little but still manage to snag your time, and you’re trying to get into the swing of your narrative because you know if you get to a certain spot you’ll be truly engaged and the story will carry you off the way you hope it will carry your future readers, but that spot teases and hides till you reach a little epiphany: it’s time for some research.
I won’t go into how and why I ended up researching prehistoric humanoids with over-sized brains, but it did get me thinking, not only about how to use the information in my story but how much nicer it might be if writers had the generous 25% bonus brain of a Boskop.
Lynch and Granger contend that in relation to their large cranial capacity, the Boskops had small, childlike facial features reminiscent of…well, maybe you've caught one of those Twilight Zone marathons?
Extrapolating on potential brain capacity, the authors believe these hominids may have boasted IQs averaging 150 and stretching to 180, not to mention an “inconceivably large” frontal cortex.
“While your own prefrontal area might link a sequence of visual material to form an episodic memory,” they write, “the Boskop may have added additional material from sounds, smells, and so on. Where your memory of a walk down a Parisian street may include the mental visual image of the street vendor, the bistro, and the charming little church, the Boskop may also have had the music coming from the bistro, the conversations from other strollers, and the peculiar window over the door of the church.”
The Boskops were a tad pre-Paris, but you get the idea. Higher IQ, heightened sensory memory. If only we writers had Boskop brains. Then there’s this:
“Longer brain pathways lead to larger and deeper memory hierarchies. These confer a greater ability to examine and discard more blind alleys, to see more consequences of a plan before enacting it. In general this enables us to think things through. If Boskops had longer chains of cortical networks—longer mental assembly lines—they would have created longer and more complex classification chains. When they looked down a road as far as they could, before choosing a path, they would have seen farther than we can: more potential outcomes, more possible downstream costs and benefits.”
If writers got three wishes, surely this would one: to imagine more deeply, while knowing the narrative costs of following one thread over another.
But there’s a downside to this super-sized thinking. Lynch and Granger speculate that aside from the difficulty of birthing large-headed babies, the Boskops may have been overwhelmed by their own potential and frustrated by their inability to make good on it. And there is that little extinction problem.
More important than wishing for long-lost genes is doing the best with what you’ve got, the way . pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly did. An aspiring poet, Lilly attempted but never achieved publication in Poetry magazine. Undaunted, she applauded the positive tone of her rejections and, in 2002, donated $100 million to further the magazine’s mission of advancing poetry.
The Boskops may have us beat when it comes to brains, but our hearts – well, that’s another matter altogether. In this season of giving, consider the many ways you can open your hearts to others within the literary community. Recommend books you love; every author appreciates sincere word-of-mouth praise. Mentor an emerging writer. Donate your time, talents, and cash to a literary nonprofit like 49 Writers. Attend readings, signings, and other literary events. Support the innovative efforts of other writers on crowdsourcing sites, in journals, and on blogs.
When you finish a book, take a minute to leave your thoughts at online sites like Goodreads and Amazon. You’ll be giving the gift of social proof while helping readers find books they’ll enjoy. Like, comment, and share. Email writers to let them know you enjoyed their books. The few minutes you take to write your email will multiply into days (if not weeks) of encouragement for the author. Just yesterday I received this from a reader: That book blew me away! Thank you for it. Write more. Soon. I'm greedy . . . At this point I'm a raging fan! Sent from an iPhone, the note took only seconds to write. But what a gift. Never mind the size of my brain; my heart is warmed beyond compare. Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored more than a dozen books. Her most recent is Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist. Deb lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. This post also ran at www.selfmadewriter.blogspot.com. Would you like to write a guest post relevant to Alaska’s literary community? Email 49writers (at) gmail.com or debvanasse (at) gmail.com.
You can spend much time in the North’s backcountry without ever bumping into some of its more secretive denizens—lynx, wolves, or wolverines. I’d like to use this opportunity to share my encounter with an Arctic critter I had never met face-to-face until recently: Ursus maritimus, the polar bear. It happened in 2010, on an 11-day rafting trip on the Canning River (the western boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) that I was co-guiding for Alaska wilderness outfitter. The encounter was not exactly face-to-face, rather binocular-to-face, but nevertheless, life-changing. Here is what I wrote, to give you a taste of the experience: Sipping coffee in the morning’s quiet, looking south from the top of the bluff where we pitched our tents, I notice a white lump on the bench below muscling toward camp. I cannot believe my eyes. A polar bear! The clients pop from their nylon cocoons when I alert them—one clad in boxer shorts and a down jacket. We stand and watch the bear sniff and root around. To this carnivore, accustomed to fatty seals and other marine mammals, the only morsels of interest here would be ground squirrels, foxes, or birds—none of which could satisfy the hunger of this blubber-burning powerhouse. And: Without a care in the world, the bear lies down for a nap halfway up the bluff’s slope. What is there to fear? We sit and keep our binoculars trained on the pile that could easily be mistaken for a limestone boulder. Occasionally, the bear lifts its head to sample the air. We crouch downwind from it, and it remains unaware of our presence.Before long, a Golden Eagle strokes past. Mobbed by some songbirds but still regal in its bearing, it scrutinizes the bear, which sleeps on, unconcerned. Then I catch another bright spot heading downstream. A scan with my glasses reveals a white wolf. Indifferent to our attempts to make sense of it all, the wolf approaches the sleeping bear. Casting sideways glances and giving it a wide berth of respect, the wolf saunters over a ridge, out of sight but already etched into memory. Because the bear is not moving much and poses no immediate threat, I have breakfast and break down my tent. Then I act as lookout while the rest of the group takes their turn and loads the rafts, shielded by the bluff and prevailing wind . . . This obviously came as a total surprise, and, at the time, was the southernmost sighting of a polar bear inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—almost 30 miles from the coast. It was only one of the many highlights on this trip, which to this day stands out as one of the best ones I’ve been on. Everybody was awe-struck, but for me the encounter sparked, what for lack of a better term might be called an obsession with polar bears. (Ask my wife. She’ll tell you how I can hardly talk about anything else these days.) I’ve been a bear enthusiast for decades, but seeing this animal, “out of place” and without bars between it and us, kicked my obsession up to a new level. I started to read up on polar bears and on 8,000 years of shared history between them and us and was amazed by some of the things I learned: That Vikings traded live cubs to European royalty. That Roald Amundsen tried to train polar bears (with the help of a circus man) to pull sleds to the pole. That, on hand-colored Renaissance maps, they sometimes are brown. That a long wooden staff wielded effectively can deter nosy polar bears. (Don’t try this yourself, though.) I was so intrigued and amazed by what I found, and much of the information was sort of obscure, that I decided to write my own book with everything I ever wanted to learn about the charismatic carnivore. Now, there are quite a few books out there about polar bear biology and so on—but I wanted to know what lay at the root of our fascination with this animal, how we relate to it. The making of this book, like many an Arctic trip, has been quite a journey. And like all journeys, it needed some funding. It still does, as many of the illustrations I hope to round up require licensing or processing fees that go to museums or special collections libraries. So I began to crowd-fund the project, and you can find the link here. I hope that this animal and its home will affect others as it has affected me and that the Great White Bear will continue to grace both, our internal and external landscapes for thousands of years to come.
Michael Engelhard lives in Cordova, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic. He has been obsessed with bears for decades now, despite the fact that he almost got mauled by one last summer. He has written several books and articles for numerous publications, and edited four anthologies of nature writing. The canyon country of southern Utah and northern Arizona is his other favorite region.
The 49 Writers elves are hard at work behind the scenes in their quest to bring you the gift of a sensational spring season! We will announce the full schedule here next week and open registration on December 28. Meanwhile, we can tell you that the lineup includes a new course in spiritual writing from Kathleen Tarr, whose class two years ago proved very popular with you. After a successful online pilot this fall with Your Novel Now, Andromeda Romano-Lax will return in spring with not one but three online classes! Poetry lovers will have the opportunity to take a class with Sandra Kleven, editor of Cirque and organizer of Poetry Parley. Author Rachel Weaver (Point of Direction), long-time instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, will teach in Anchorage and Juneau. Larry Weiss will return with lots more information about tools and resources for writers. And Bryan Fierro, our moderator for the Luis Urrea Crosscurrents, will bring you a class on how to write sparkling dialogue. The Juneau season is still taking shape and we plan to offer at least three creative writing classes in spring. Stay tuned!
As for author events, we look forward to announcing the lineup for the Reading & Craft Talk and Crosscurrents series before the end of December. Thank you to all the elves involved: not just Linda and Morgan, but also our instructors, our hosts at Great Harvest Bread and the Anchorage Museum, and our volunteers: Juneau board member Joan Pardes, author event coordinators Dan Brinker and Kate Partridge, and graphic designers Lucian Childs and Mariah Oxford.
49 Writers Happenings
TONIGHT,Friday, Dec. 12, 5-6:30 pm, Orso, 737 W. 5th Avenue, Anchorage. YOU'RE INVITED to join our entire board of directors,our new Executive Director, Morgan Grey, and other members of the writing community for a casual, no-host meet-up at the Orso bar. Join us anytime With an expanded board that includes three residents of Juneau-Douglas, it’s rare to find us all in one spot! We'll be gearing up for our annual board retreat that weekend and would love to connect with members, friends, and anyone curious about the organization or eager to meet Morgan. See you there for conversation, happy hour deals, and a cheers to 49 Writers as we approach our five year anniversary! TONIGHT, Friday Dec. 12, 7pm in Juneau: Jimmy Riordan presents Le Roman du Lievre (The Romance of the Rabbit). We're excited to announce another unique opportunity for the Juneau 49 Writers community in the form of a potluck event hosted by Sarah Isto (1718 Willow Avenue). It's our pleasure to announce that 49 Writers Board President Don Rearden's novel, The Raven's Gift, has been selected as the featured book for Anchorage Reads 2015, a program of Anchorage Public Library. Look for more information soon about February's program of events.
Looking for the perfect gift for a writer friend this festive season? Why not surprise them with a 49 Writers membership? A Matanuska membership costs only $49 for 12 months! Click here to purchase a gift voucher.
Events in Anchorage
TONIGHT, Friday, Dec. 12. 7pm, Jitters in Eagle River: Don't miss the next gathering of The Living Room, where local writers share their work and love of literature. Find out more and stay in touch by following The Living Room on Facebook.
Wednesday, Dec. 17, 6-8:30pm, Loussac Library, Ann Stevens Room: Join the Alaska Writers Guild for their Christmas Mix & Mingle, where you will get to know local authors, listen to a few poetry readings, and enjoy some snacks and awesome company.
Monday, Dec. 22, 4-6pm, UAA Campus Bookstore: Kseniya Melnik presents Snow in May, which introduces a cast of characters bound by their relationship to the port town of Magadan in Russia's Far East, a former gateway for prisoners assigned to Stalin’s forced-labor camps. Comprised of a surprising mix of newly minted professionals, ex-prisoners, intellectuals, musicians, and faithful Party workers, the community is vibrant and resilient and life in Magadan thrives even under the cover of near-perpetual snow. Born in Magadan, Melnik moved to Alaska in 1998. She received her MFA from NYU. Snow in May was short-listed for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.
Events around Alaska Sunday, Dec. 14, 4pm, Kindred Post, Juneau: A book release party will be held for Ishmael Hope, whose first book of poetry, Courtesans of Flounder Hill, has been published by the Ishmael Reed Publishing Company. Hope will read selections from Courtesans, and his deeply respected friends and colleagues Nora Dauenhauer and Christy Namee Eriksen will read their poetry too. Author News
Check out Healy author and 49 Writers instructor Christine Byl's contribution to The Common: A Modern Sense of Place, where she's featured in their Ask a Local series. Congratulations to poet Kate Partridge, 49 Writers instructor and Crosscurrents coordinator, who began a three-month research and writing residency at the Anchorage Museum began in Fall 2014 as part of the Polar Lab Project. Click here for more information about her work.
Continuing the successful run of Alaska's poets, Front Porch has nominated Alyse Knorr's "Jane and Then-Jane dance in their bodies" for a Pushcart Prize! Read her poem here.
Opportunities for Writers Shopping for an aspiring writer, established author, student, teacher, or a lover of literature? Maybe you’re on the market for a little something just for you? Discounted preregistration rates for #AWP15 are available until Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015. Register a colleague, friend, loved one, or yourself today! Join us in Minneapolis from April 8-11, 2015, at the Minneapolis Convention Center and the Minneapolis Hilton Hotel for North America’s best-attended and most dynamic literary conference.
Since 1981 writers of every age from every part of Alaska have participated in the annual UAA/Alaska Dispatch Creative Writing Contest. For several past winners, this contest was the first public recognition of their work and helped launch successful writing careers. We are pleased to announce this year’s contest is open for submission. Go to adn.com/content/creative-writing-contest-rules for complete rules, list of prizes, and submission guidelines and send us your best fiction, nonfiction or poetry. Deadline is Feb. 20, 2015, 5:30pm. Winners will be announced in mid-May. NEW! The Alaska Sampler is an annual ebook anthology of prose by Alaska’s finest contemporary authors. It’s free to the reader. For the author, it’s a proven discovery tool for increasing readership. Running Fox Books is currently seeking fresh fiction and non-fiction by Alaskan authors that reveal the unscripted, everyday Alaska. Works may be original or already published, whole or excerpted. Illustrations and photos for the cover are also being considered. Submissions must be received by Jan. 10, 2015. To learn more, visit http://www.runningfoxbooks.com/submit.html. Jan. 1, 2015 Fairbanks Arts Association will begin accepting entries for the 2015 Statewide Poetry Contest, deadline Mar. 1, 2015, 6pm (hand delivered or postmarked). Hand deliver entries to Fairbanks Arts Association, Alaska Centennial Center for the Arts, Pioneer Park, 2300 Airport Way. This year's judge is Joan Naviyuk Kane, author of The Cormorant Hunter's Wife and Hyperboreal. A 2014 recipient of the American Book Award, and Whiting Writers' Award recipient, she's on the faculty for the graduate creative writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Visit www.fairbanksarts.org for more information. Jan. 31, 2015 Ooligan Press is proud to announce their seventh Write to Publish conference, to be held at the Smith Memorial Student Union located at 1825 SW Broadway, Portland, Oregon. Panel topics include how to write about difficult subjects, straight talk about contracts and rights, and how to create a professional platform. Workshops will feature editing and design tips. Authors will be able to sign up to pitch story ideas to publishers and agents.
There was a girl, just like any other.Special, just like any other. She lived in her own realm, next to all the others. In her realm, black was white, and red was blue.The darkness was intoxicating; the sound of silence suffocating. The empty words and hollow sounds. Heads raised high, feet on the ground.Her mind is turning.Thrashing.Bashing.Churning.Yearning.It yearns for you, and you for me, and me for two, and two for three. In her world, desire is a box, a cup, a collection of stars. It’s a spider’s web; inescapable and fatal. Souls bound to one another by invisible thread. You can lose yourself in the abyss of love. Its hold is infinite and endless, for the heart beats to its very own tune and all is shrouded. Ribs are ivory prisons encasing this beating heart, this hollow shell.In her world, unquenchable hunger drives the skeleton, devoid of compassion and full of pounding misery. Piercing cries and flooding weeps seep into the corridors of the round room. That empty canvas that everyone leaves. Leaves fall from the sky, the mighty sky, up so damn high.She mines for the treasure.She mines to keep.Her hopeless thoughts resume their trails of mindless inklings, taking shapes of echoes throughout the icy canyon. The water taken fancy with the embrace of soiled soil.In her world, abstract thoughts and unconscious chatter fill the lush forests that patrol the outskirts. The lone wolves and hopeless romantics hide in the society that cowers beneath the conforming skies. And she lives, trapped in an inconceivable loneliness. She survives, drowning in the sorrow and shards of broken heart beats. Her blue eyes of wonder remain sealed by the unspeakable truth. Her lips are stained and bound with her unspoken words. She dances on the brink of hopelessness, and flirts on the cusp of greatness. Her hopscotch lines have already been drawn. Her stars have been collected, and counted. Recollected and recounted once more. In her world, mountains reign from high above, and rain pours down in form of love. Music dances in the air, thoughts wander with no travel fare. She listens carefully for nature’s forbidden whisper. She looks for the beauty in the sun, raging and reaching. Beauty in the stars, blistering starling bulbs screwed into the fabric of time. There are rips there, too. Imperfections. In her world, sadness is accompanied by the anthem of death: silence. Desolate like a desert. Loyal, with her for every waking moment. Cloaks of pity adorn the sea of bodies draped in black. Comfort baskets, full of dying flowers and stale bread, but no comfort. In her world, the stars are strewn across the midnight sky and scattered throughout the Milky Way. The colors bloom and saturate the dark canvas. In her world, love is this mystical being. It transcends all of humanity and existence. It’s poised, and cold, and limp and warm. It’s strong, unknown, bewildering and inexplicable. It’s a stronger force than that of gravity. It’s the hesitant mercy and merciless beast. There was a girl, like any other. Special, just like any other. Would you like to see your work published here? Check our Alaska Shorts guidelines and submit today!
This post continues the discussion from Kleven's post last week, Rural Alaska Lit: Poet as Witness. As an outsider writing about rural Alaska, I was conflicted about my right to speak at all. The idea of poet or writer as witness, would in time give a channel, a justification, for my words and perceptions. The introduction to Holy Land, the narrative poem that represents my first effort to get Bush Alaska on paper, reveals my process as I struggled to recognize my purpose and to validate the right to write: Holy Land was written by one pilgrim—one refugee—just to get it down on paper. It’s not the insipient tragedy that leaves the wanderer misshapen and begging for release. It’s the burden of the untold story. These are the tentacles that begin to wrap about the gut and squeeze in dark hours. I don’t claim to understand this holy land or these fine people, but I do have a stake in the story. Before I fully internalized my “right to tell,” I read the work to people in Bethel and eventually read a significant part of “Holy Land” onstage, at a Bethel talent show. Not sure of my role as witness, I looked for permission. This was compounded, at the time, because Linda McCarriston, a nationally known poet and a faculty member at UAA, was being decried in the press over a single poem, “Indian Girls.” Protests about the poem were led by Native activist Diane Benson, who was also McCarriston’s student. McCarriston’s classroom was picketed, her job in jeopardy. Living in Bethel and reading in the Anchorage paper about “Indian Girls,” I was inexplicably drawn to pull “Holy Land” from a six year hiatus in a drawer. I re-keyed all 30 pages into my newest computer and, after getting the local nod—“It’s about time somebody said all this”— I submitted “Holy Land” to Alaska Quarterly Review. I would blunder toward this fray. “Holy Land” was published in the summer 2005 issue of AQR, my first literary publishing credit. In my own opinion, “Holy Land” goes much further than McCarriston’s toward what one might call trespassing. Dark secrets are told, by way of a Native man, whom I imagined was addressing the reader or an off-stage character, much like myself. The words he speaks came from my experience. He’s wise, compassionate, and fed up; in that, he is a lot like me. I expected to be taken to task for the act of putting words in his mouth. The only reason I have been given for why it is going over without comment is that he says it right, somehow. I wanted him to say it right. Stories demand telling. Wrongs force voice from witnesses, don’t you think? I can’t stay quiet about all this. Curiously, one of my unpublished manuscripts is titled, “The Story Thief.” The thief of the title was one of the first to take tales from rural Alaska, publishing them for personal gain – and, yet, the people of the village take pride in them, today. Sins are various and we have all done something. A broader, deeper literature of rural Alaska is yet to come. Here are some early entries. The making of the list, below, triggered recall of additional books including those involved with my relocation to Alaska, Going to Extremesby Joe McGinniss, and Lael Morgan’s account of a visit to Bethel, embedded in a larger work. More writing from Alaska’s Native people will extend this literature into new realms. A School Teacher in Old Alaska– Jane Jacobs gives shape to her great aunt’s journals, creating a teaching memoir from 1904. Tisha Must be the most widely read story (1927) of a teacher in an Alaska Native village. Daylight Moon Not as widely read, Elizabeth Chabot Forrest tells of teaching in Wainwright, a village on the Arctic Ocean. Raising Ourselves: A Gwitch’in Coming of Age Story Velma Wallis has also written two books based on cultural myths. Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human BeingHarold Napoleon of Hooper Bay implicates post-traumatic stress as cause of current troubles experienced by Alaska native families. Ordinary Wolves: A NovelSeth Kantner’s novel draws on his childhood in Northwest Alaska.Place of the Pretend People: Gifts from a Yup’ik Village Carolyn Kremers. A teacher’s memoir of Toksook Bay, Alaska. Hollow Out, Kelsea Habecker. This collection of poems five years teaching in an Inupiat Eskimo village on the Arctic Ocean.The Hide of My Tonque: Ax L'óot' Doogú Vivian Faith Prescott. A collection of poems that give a familial and historical account of the loss & revitalization of the Tlingit language.Slick Vivian Faith Prescott’s online chapbook with a focus on oil. Love “October Checks,” a nod to the PFD and our greasy fingers. The Last Light Breaking: Living Among Alaska's Inupiat Eskimos Nick Jans' work was introduced to me by instructor Oscar Alexie in a Yup’ik culture class at Kuskokwim Campus, College of Rural Alaska. Always Getting ReadyJim Barker has been the photographer of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta for about 40 years. I typed and formatted his resume when he was hired to teach photography at UAF. He gave me a photo as payment. This book includes many well-known pics. Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People – Alaska native leader Willie Hensley account of growing up in Northwest Alaska. Harmonious to Dwell– Jim Henkelman’s history of the Moravian Church in the Y-K Delta. The Raven’s Gift – Don Rearden’s doomsday thriller is set in the Y-K Delta. Having grown up in Bethel, Rearden gets the culture right. My Name is Not EasyDebby Dahl Edwardson’s novel of brothers set in the ‘60s at a Copper Valley, AK, boarding school. Bethel: The First 100 Years. Pictorial and narrative history of Bethel. Turn Again Kris Farmen’s novel of old Kenai. Lucy’s Dance Deb Vanasse’s children’s book about the return of traditional dance to a Yup’ik village. Editor of Cirque, a literary journal, Sandra Kleven is a poet, filmmaker, and essayist. She also facilitates Poetry Parley, a monthly poetry event (Hugi-Lewis Studio). Her own work has appeared in AQR, Oklahoma Review, Topic, Praxilla Stoneboat, f-zineand the UAP anthology, Cold Flashes. Two poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her work has also won notice in the UAA Creative Writing and F’Air Words contests. Kleven is the author of four books, her most recent being Defiance Street: Poems and Other Writing (VP&D Publishing House). She holds an MSW degree as well as an MFA in Creative Writing and works for Alaska Native tribal organizations as a clinical social worker. Kleven claims affinity for Alaska, where she lives with her husband, and Washington State, where she was born.
A week had passed since Red found the corpse behind his cabin and called the state trooper. He didn’t have a phone in his dilapidated shack. He had to drive five miles down a rutted dirt road to use the payphone that hung on the wall outside the ferry terminal. Red knew what it was straight off; murder for profit, plain and simple. A large caliber bullet had pierced the brown bear’s skull just below her right ear, ricocheted off some bone, and exited from the left side of her neck. A precise incision, probably made with a razor-sharp hunting knife, slit the bear’s hide, and the gall bladder had been removed. All four paws had been hacked off with a bone saw, leaving the flesh ragged, the bone splintered. The coagulated blood was crusty, the color of burgundy wine, and crawling with black flies. Driving to the payphone, wedged behind the wheel of his tiny Datsun pickup truck, Red pulled on his curly red beard and wondered how much a bear gall bladder and a set of paws fetched on the aphrodisiac market in China.(GRIZZLY TRADE, Dale Brandenburger) A taciturn Vietnam vet named Red just wants to be left alone in his Alaskan retreat, but when he starts to find dead bears in the forest with their paws hacked off, he is forced to wage war once more, and this time he intends to win. Tim Branson is a gregarious small-town reporter, looking for a news story that sizzles. Despite their differences, Red and Branson are forced to become allies when a methamphetamine addict and an unemployed lumberjack start selling bear gallbladders and paws on the Asian aphrodisiac market. While trying to track down the poachers, Red and Branson discover toxic chemicals dumped on the pristine salmon fishing grounds. Accusations fly and the entire town takes sides. Tim’s job and Red’s sanity are at stake as they try to find the connection between the bear killings and the environmental disaster. “Written in the vein of Carl Hiassen and Elmore Leonard, every page bristles with the perfect blend of tension and hilarity…You’ll stay with it - the writing is that good.”Dan Henry, author of ACROSS THE SHAMAN’S RIVER “…colorful characters…inspired by Brandenburger’s experiences and news events in Alaska.” Shannon Haugland, Associated Press “Be prepared to laugh out loud…to get angry…to root for an underdog, to feel the hot breath of a giant brown bear wafting off the pages.” Brett Dillingham, author of RAVEN DAY “…a knack for storytelling…GRIZZLY TRADE is a fun read.”Robert Woolsey. KCAW Raven Radio
Dale Brandenburger wanted to become a novelist after studying journalism at University of Maryland, but he realized he hadn’t experienced anything worth writing about, so he moved to Alaska. He began working for the Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game in 1984. He earned a degree in environmental science from Sheldon Jackson College and became a fisheries biologist. He excelled at his new career and writing took a back seat, although he always kept a journal and collected stories. Thirty years later, he found he had enough material for 10 novels, but he didn’t want to re-hash the Jack London theme of man struggling against nature. He wanted to write a fast-paced character-driven novel that included a touch of pathos, as well as the sense of humor that is so much a part of the Alaskan spirit. Dale Brandenburger is a member of 49 Writers. He lives in Juneau, Alaska. GRIZZLY TRADE is available in bookstores and on Amazon.com in print or e-book format. Would you like to see your book featured here? Check out our Spotlight on Alaska Books guidelines and submit today!
It is a tremendous honor to be asked to serve as the new executive director of 49 Writers. Linda Ketchum leaves a legacy of excellence, and I will strive to fill her shoes. I wish her well in her new adventures, and hope that she reports back from time to time.
It’s been an interesting journey to this point. Five years ago I decided that I wanted to get an MFA in creative writing and work in a community-based writing program. Less than two weeks later, Deb and Andromeda announced the creation of 49 Writers. I volunteered immediately. I wanted to be part of this new writers’ organization and the evolving community of Alaskan writers. Later that year, I was accepted into the MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) at UAA. Flash forward to summer, 2014. I was nearing completion of the MFA. I retired from my job at UAA and was looking for something interesting to do in the next phase of my life. Then the search for a new Executive Director was announced. When the Universe provides such a clear opportunity, I figure I need to pay attention.
Back in 2011 when 49 Writers was just one year old, Deb Vanasse interviewed me for a series of volunteer profiles. In her final question she asked what I imagined for the writing center in ten years. My reply was, I see the 49 Writers Center with its own building and adequate classrooms, running a full schedule of workshops, programs, and events for writers of all ages, genres, and geographic locations. The Center will foster connections among writers across the state, rural and urban, multi-generational and multi-cultural, using face-to-face and distance delivered formats. As the Center’s growth in this first year has shown, there’s a lot of interest and need. It’s a very exciting future.
Under the leadership of founders Andromeda Romano-Lax and Deb Vanasse, and executive director Linda Ketchum, 49 Writers has grown and expanded while maintaining a solid foundation. We are blessed with a diverse, talented, and highly skilled membership. I've met many of you in workshops, at the Tutka Bay retreat, the member salons, and other events. I look forward to meeting the rest of you in the coming year, personally or virtually. Together, we are capable of doing wonderful things.
This week, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Chairman Jane Chu announced the super-exciting news that 49 Writers has been selected to receive a $10,000 NEA Challenge America grant to support a September 2015 literary tour in Southeast Alaska featuring author Melinda Moustakis. This grant will allow us to partner with Alaska Quarterly Review to combine live literary events in the Southeast Alaska communities of Haines and Juneau with distance programming, in pursuit of our goal to serve more writers across the state. Live offerings will include readings, workshops, an author panel, and a book discussion. In order to reach a wider audience, events will be broadcast live in up to ten other rural and remote communities via the Alaska State Library's "OWL" video conferencing system. Several events will be recorded and posted online.
Out of 347 applications, 163 Challenge America grants were awarded nationwide. As our board president Don Rearden says, “The NEA award represents an important milestone for 49 Writers. We've worked diligently to build a reputation for excellent programming and service to Alaska, and this opportunity to work with Alaska Quarterly Review and bring Melinda Moustakis to Southeast Alaska is a huge honor.” Yes, we'd love to go to even more communities but must take one step at a time! Rest assured that Morgan, our new ED, will be working on this as we move forward.
In this latest round of NEA funding, ten grants totaling $210,000 were awarded to Alaskan artists and arts organizations. Congratulations to the other beneficiaries, especially Sean Hill of Fairbanks, who received a $25,000 Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry. YOU’RE INVITED! If you’ll be in Anchorage one week from today, please consider joining our entire board of directors, our new Executive Director, Morgan Grey, and other members of the writing community for a casual, no-host meet-up at the Orso bar. Join us anytime Friday, Dec. 12, 5-6:30 pm, at 737 W. 5th Avenue, Anchorage. With an expanded board that includes three residents of Juneau-Douglas, it’s rare to find us all in one spot! We'll be gearing up for our annual board retreat that weekend and would love to connect with members, friends, and anyone curious about the organization or eager to meet Morgan. See you there for conversation, happy hour deals, and a cheers to 49 Writers as we approach our five year anniversary! Once again there was a great turnout (19) for last night's writers group in Juneau. Thank you to Bill Hanson and Kate Troll for hosting, and to the five members who read from their work. For more information on Juneau area happenings, visit the 49 Writers website.
Looking for the perfect gift for a writer friend this festive season? Why not surprise them with a 49 Writers membership? A Matanuska membership costs only $49 for 12 months! Click here to purchase a gift voucher.
Upcoming events at 49 Writers
Saturday, Dec. 6, 12-2pm, 645 W. 3rd Avenue, Anchorage: 49 Writers Lit Mag Sale! In recent years we have accumulated a library of literary journals through generous donations from members and other writers. Until we secure our own long-term space, we are going to share the wealth with our members rather than hide the journals away in a basement. A second sale will take place in Juneau at the Thursday, Feb. 5 meeting of the Juneau writers group. This is a great opportunity to get your hands on some of the journals that might be interested in publishing your work!
Friday Dec. 12, 7pm: Jimmy Riordan presents Le Roman du Lievre (The Romance of the Rabbit). We're excited to announce another unique opportunity for the Juneau 49 Writers community in the form of a potluck event hosted by Sarah Isto (1718 Willow Avenue). See the links below for an introduction to Le Roman du Lievre in under 3 minutes!
TODAY, Friday, Dec. 5, 11am-1pm, UAA Campus Bookstore: Ray Hudson and Rachel Mason present Lost Villages of the Eastern Aleutians: Biorka, Kashega, Makushin. This book documents the history of three Unangax^ villages left behind in the evacuations and dislocations of World War II, never to be permanently resettled. In 1942, the Unangax^ residents of the three tiny villages of Biorka, Kashega, and Makushin were taken by boat first to the Wrangell Institute, then to a camp at Ward Lake near Ketchikan, where they stayed until the end of the war. When they finally returned to the Aleutians, they were not allowed to go back to their villages, but were resettled in Unalaska or Akutan. TODAY, Friday, Dec. 5, 4-6pm, UAA Campus Bookstore: Seven Years in a Madagascar Prison: The Stolen Years with Jean and John Wight. This book is the story of John Wight, an Anchorage pilot originally from South Africa, who is falsely accused of espionage in Madagascar. How he survives seven years of imprisonment, from 1977-1984, is explained in this captivating book written by his wife, Jean Wight. Currently, John Wight is Associate Professor of Aviation Technology at UAA.
Friday, Dec. 12. 7pm, Jitters in Eagle River: Don't miss the next gathering of The Living Room, where local writers share their work and love of literature. Find out more and stay in touch by following The Living Room on Facebook
Events around Alaska TOMORROW, Saturday, Dec. 6, 7pm, Fairbanks Arts Association Bear Gallery: Reading by poet John Morgan with artist Kes Woodward (River of Light). Wednesday, Dec. 10, 6:30pm, Seward Community Library: BookTalk/Reading: Join author Dave Atcheson as he discusses his new book Dead Reckoning, Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on its High Seas. Author News
Congratulation to Anchorage poet Olena Kalytiak Davis, whose soon-to-release new book (first in a decade) received a great review in The New Yorker! Opportunities for Writers NEW! Fairbanks Arts Association will begin accepting entries for the 2015 Statewide Poetry Contest on January 1st, 2015. The deadline for the contest will be March 1, 2015 at 6 PM hand delivered or postmarked. Hand deliver entries to Fairbanks Arts Association, Alaska Centennial Center for the Arts, Pioneer Park, 2300 Airport Way.
FAA is pleased to announce that this year's Poetry Contest Judge is Alaskan author, Joan Kane. Joan Naviyuk Kane is the author of The Cormorant Hunter's Wife and Hyperboreal. A 2014 recipient of the American Book Award, and Whiting Writers' Award recipient, she's on the faculty for the graduate creative writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts and is at work on new poems and across genres. Please visit www.fairbanksarts.org for more information.
Ooligan Press is proud to announce their seventh Write to Publish conference, slated for January 31, 2015. This conference will be held at the Smith Memorial Student Union located at 1825 SW Broadway, Portland, Oregon. This year’s conference is sponsored by PubSlush, a global crowd-funding platform for publishers and authors alike. John Mutter, founder of Shelf Awareness, will give the keynote speech.
Write to Publish is a rare conference, one that devotes its entire presence to demystifying the publishing process. This year’s panel topics include: how to write about difficult subjects, straight talk about contracts and rights, and how to create a professional platform, among others. Speakers include Vinnie Kinsella, publications consultant for Indigo Editing; Nicole McArdle, marketing director for PubSlush; and Shannon Wheeler, a cartoonist for The New Yorker and Dark Horse. Workshops will feature editing and design tips. Authors will be able to sign up to pitch story ideas to publishers and agents. Vendors will provide their own personal insight into the publishing world, as well as food and drinks, and attendees will have the chance to participate in a raffle filled with fun, local prizes."
This blogpost originally ran in February 2012. For the next two weeks, I'll be continuing to work on a novel revision, and for me, that means re-thinking all of my own questions and provisional answers about character, plot, language and more. In that spirit, please accept this re-run. “Psssst. Let’s talk about plot.”
No, I didn’t say pot, I said plot.
So why am I whispering?
I once heard a sharp writer and really good teacher talk about visiting an MFA program and having an older, dignified teacher inform her: “We don’t talk about plot here.”
Which is why the writer wasn’t entirely surprised when a student approached in the hallway, wanting to talk—furtively—about this untalked-about thing called plot. The student knew she needed some. She just wasn’t sure how to get some.
Even writers who plot very conventionally try to distance themselves from the word and the subject. Stephen King, of all people, says “plot is shifty … and best kept under house arrest.”More elitist writers don’t even want you to ask them about it. As I’ve blogged here, one very successful author recently told me, “I have no interest in plot or character.” Wow, not plot or character? If that leaves only artfully selected (but possibly unarranged) words ripped free of any sense of development or arc, I already own some great dictionary and thesaurus sets, thank you.
Readers love plot—by which I mean a story that is organized into a sequence of causes and effects, generally producing some sort of meaning and hopefully an intellectual and/or emotional experience.
Yet some writers are threatened by it.
They are threatened most, I think, because of a misunderstanding. When people hear “plot,” they think “pre-plotting”: coming up with a rigid and formulaic game plan, perhaps sketched out on a series of note cards. (Of course, there are successful literary writers—and many screenwriters—who do exactly that.)
But learning about plot doesn’t always mean pre-plotting. It often means reading for plot, as a way of training one’s brain to have a better intuition for structures our culture has honored for thousands of years. And also revising for plot, in other words, looking back at where a story implodes or just sags, loses tension, or fails to satisfy, and seeing if the plot or a related aspect of character development is to blame.
I’m always on the lookout for metaphors that relate to writing. My favorite is the one credited to E.L. Doctorow: Writing is like driving a car on a foggy night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but that’s enough to get you there. So true!
And yet, in that metaphor, the road already exists. That’s why you can just hug the yellow line and keep the gas pressed down. Whoops. When we write, we usually don’t have a road in front of us. We have an unpaved landscape stretching in all directions, with way too many options and lots of obstacles and hazards in our way.
Let’s say, then, that novel or memoir writing is more like hiking up a mountain, over the tundra. We’re talking an easy, leisurely hike – not a technical fast climb, not something requiring special equipment and lots of people who will need to collaborate. (That would be screenwriting.)First, let’s admit that most of us can at least, usually, see where we’re aiming: a peak or ridgeline. If it’s totally fogged in, we may have some trouble. But generally, I hike when I can see at least part of the way and glimpse some landmarks that correspond with either map or memory.
When we write novels, most of us have not figured out “what it’s all about” (thank goodness)—but we may have a revealing scene from the middle or the end or some sort of image or central tension guiding us. I often have a scene I’m really itching to write that doesn’t come at the very beginning. Someone else might just have a feeling, a question, an indecipherable symbol. Something. At the very least we have our own taste: a preference for the way some other novels or memoirs are ordered.
If you have that place or feeling for which you are aiming—and even if you don’t, but are well stocked with food, water, patience, and time, you can pretty much get to the top putting one foot in front of the other.
Once you’re there, open up the granola, share the cheese and crackers. Hooray!
Now look back, and look down, and you see what you did. There is that patch of thick brush you hacked through not realizing that if you’d just walked further west, you could have found flatter, easier terrain. There is that spot on the ridge you aimed for, thinking it was the peak, not realizing that it was just a trick of perspective—a false peak. There is that creek you crossed, soaking your pants to the thighs (and now you really are quite chilly), not seeing that off to the side of the valley, there is a bridge, or a shallow braided area.
Your route was not ideal. Your path was illogical or unshapely. As a hiker, you can make a mental note and try a different route next time. As a writer, you realize that route and plot (also called suzhet by the Russian formalists) are related—they are the way the material is ordered, the way a place and story are experienced and perceived. And they are in your control. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
You realize, because you have read a lot and even learned about three-act structure and some other things, that you better not waste so much time in the alder mess of that first fifty pages. Slash-slash-slash. Delete. Is the conflict clearer now? Is there a conflict at all, perhaps an outer and an inner one? (I hope so.) Do we care from the beginning? Does the structure itself communicate a level of confidence to the reader?
You realize that the middle is where a lot of energy, time, and readers get lost. It sags because of digressions. On the way up, you were just route-finding; you didn’t realize they were digressions. Now you do. Be more selective. Also look for opportunities to sharpen up symbol and theme. If you stumbled into a discovery (what a beautiful little lake hidden away between those rocks!) then clear up your signaling; make that discovery feel more purposeful, or at least frame it better by getting rid of all the dull stuff.
The end, also known as the part that people will remember even more than the beginning: does it feel like an arrival? Has the ending spoken to and overturned the beginning? Do we have a clear new view we’ve never had before? And if not—why all this climbing? I could have stayed home! Show me something surprising or spectacular! Make me weep, or rejoice, or puzzle—but at least puzzle meaningfully, in a way I couldn’t have puzzled before! (Ambiguous endings are still endings.)
This is plot. It isn’t anti-literary. It isn’t threatening or scary or antithetical to art, any more than a musical melody is. We are pleased for a reason. Our brains crave order and meaning, also known as -- you got it -- plot. Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour, as well as a forthcoming novel, Behave. She is a co-founder of 49 Writers and teaches in the UAA MFA low-residency creative writing program. She is also a book coach with a special interest in revision, narrative structure, and the lifelong development of the writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info on her book coaching services.