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Collaborative Reflections & Book News By and About Alaskan AuthorsAndromeda Romano-Lax
Updated: 22 hours 33 min ago

Jessica Ramsey Golden: Writing For the American Reading Level

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 7:00am

The first thing I learned in journalism was this: news is written at a 4th or 5th grade reading level.
For Americans the average reading level is around 7th grade. When people read for fun or information, they tend to select materials a grade or two below their actual reading level. Thus, writing at a 4th to 5th grade reading level hits the reader’s sweet spot.
Of course, not every piece of work can be accurately and artfully rendered at a 4th grade reading level. You may be writing a meaty literary piece that will be accessible only to college-educated readers. But it behooves us to be aware of our readability. It can make you aware of which audiences your work will reach. In journalism writing to a 4th grade reading level ensures the holy trinity of writing: accessibility, clarity, concision. These traits allow the audience to read, understand, and enjoy what they’re reading.
In other words, it promotes readability.
Readability largely boils down to two factors: 1. Length and complexity of words2.  Length and complexity of sentences.
Under some metrics, paragraph length is also considered.
There are a number of tools available that will tell you the reading level of your writing. The most commonly referenced is the Flesch-Kincaid test. The Flesch Reading Ease test measures how easy a text is to read on a scale from 0 to 100. The higher the score, the more readable the text. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test measures the reading proficiency a reader needs to comprehend the writing.
In Microsoft Word, you can add a readability check to your spellcheck function by following these directions. Scrivener also offers readability stats found by hitting Command-Shift-Option-S. I prefer online tools like and Edit Central
I tested these tools using sample passages from established writers. The results are available in the accompanying chart. As much as possible I chose selections of 500 to 1000 words. I also tried to select excerpts that contained more prose than dialog.
It’s a good idea to check your results on several tools. Some tools skew high, others low. Checking your writing on multiple tools will give you an average to work with. In general, the larger excerpt you use, the more accurate the score will be.
For more tests, tools, and tips visit the Ultimate List of Online Content Readability Tests. You can also test the readability of your website or blog by entering the address into available at the final link below.
Jessica Ramsey Golden’s poetry has appeared in such journals as The William and Mary Review, Orbis International, Calyx, and Cirque. In 2006 she was awarded the Eleanor B. North Poetry Prize. In 2009, she received an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation. In 2011, she began writing fiction. She is currently drafting a science fiction project, while seeking representation for her literary Gothic novel, The Hidden Door. 

Categories: Arts & Culture

Alaska Shorts: 301 Shore Avenue, by Stephen D. Bolen

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 7:00am
Still, now; the torn tin-wrapped two-story structure stands:Towards a century ago; its tired timber and stone-age material metTo hold each other unconditionally;To vanquish Kikiktagruk’s seasons.Legendary: a hunting-guide, a bush-pilot, a man;Family spent and shared time and more time.Liquor and grub given to many at “Marie’s”:Before the hunt; Roy Rogers ate,Hunger found Hank Williams Jr.,Then Mr. Lincoln bagged the record bear: polar.Floors plywood; careful were the feet of children.Covered by linoleum; stairs steep, it changed.Generations abandon their native hallways,Sheltering memories of lives; so many,We were raised by those rooms. Upstairs at the front-room windows we all sat as children,No matter the day, no matter the Sun.None of us are around to cherish the crashing shores’ whispers anymore,Every one of us left; All of us, but one.She’s with her home; they grow old alone,Boxes and boxes; packed and stacked high.It’s almost deserted: haunting; she’s fervid,
I wish we all hadn’t left you..Mother of mine.
Stephen D. Bolen is an aspiring poet from Kotzebue, Alaska.  He is half Inupiaq Eskimo and was raised in the north.  He is currently pursuing a triple-major in English, Psychology, and Philosophy at the University of Alaska, Anchorage; he works full-time in construction as well.  Stephen enjoys spending all the time he can at home with his young daughter Sonnet.

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

Celebrate the Unexpected – Welcoming the Poetry of Place: A Guest Post by Wendy Erd

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 7:00am
Independence Mine (photo by Mike Criss)
I lost my way on Raspberry Road, driving without good directions on a recent stay in Anchorage and turned into a side road to make a U turn. In the August sun, the bright glint of metal caught my eye as a man in shorts and a faded teeshirt slowly moved his real leg, then his prosthetic leg traveling toward me down the dirt road.  Maybe I was meant to take this turn after all, to witness such perseverance and unsteady grace.  We never met eyes, his focused on each step he took and yet he shook me awake from my small bag of thoughts.
Later that day I wandered along streets unfamiliar to me, though clearly home to many with their scatter of gardening tools and wicker chairs and overturned boats.  Kids' laughter bounced off a back yard trampoline. Geese veered over birch tops, while at my feet a beetle, lustrous in late light, clambered over a bent stalk with the same slow intentioned steps as the man I watched earlier that day.
When we are strangers to a place we see it with wide unexpectedness. If we are in love with words, we begin to set language and meaning to tell how the world comes at us and through us, intersecting who we are and what we bring to the moment.  Sometimes these small notes of attention find their way to become poems.
Poems in Place celebrates such poetry of place, language born both from the freshly apprehended as well as from old knowing engendered from deep rootedness in a place.
Over the next two weekends Poems in Place, a project that puts poems written by Alaskan writers on outside signs in Alaska’s state parks, will celebrate this year’s recently selected poems by Tom Sexton and Tim Troll with free public events and dedication celebrations.
On Saturday August 30th, from 11-1 pm at Independence Mine State Historical Park, Tom Sexton, Alaska’s poet laureate from 1994 until 2000 and the author of several collections of poetry, will give a talk on the poetry of place and the characteristics he believes define such poetry. He will discuss poems by Elizabeth Bishop, W.B. Yeats, Wesley McNair and several other poets. Audience members are invited to bring a poem about a place that they admire or one of their own composition. As many poems as possible will be discussed before lunch. The dedication of Tom’s poem in place, Independence Mine, August, will be celebrated from 2-3 pm. The workshop is free and open to anyone age 18 or older. Space at the talk is limited; please register in advance at
The following Saturday, September 6th,  from 10:30-12:30 pm at Lake Aleknagik, selected poet Tim Troll and Yupik translator Molly Chythlook will share their knowledge of Yupik place names, the original language linked to Lake Aleknagik and Wood-Tikchik areas. Tim produced a short weekly program for KDLG public radio called "Our Story," stories passed down in Yup'ik lore.  Together Molly and Tim conducted traditional ecological knowledge interviews and mapped the original names for local places. The dedication of Tim’s poem, The Wisdom of the Old Ones, follows from 2- pm
As writers and readers, please join us to celebrate the unexpected… poems of place published outside book covers and seeded on permanent signs in the embrace of the late autumn sun, fresh air and changing light. 
Poems in Place is supported by Alaska State Parks, Alaska Center For the Book, the Rasmuson Foundation, Alaska State Council on the Arts, Alaska Humanities Forum, the Usibelli Foundation, Alaska Poetry League and numerous generous individuals.
 As a preview to Tom Sexton's workshop (and inspiration for the drive to Hatcher Pass), here's one of Tom's poems:
Autumn in the Alaska Range
Drive north when the braided glacial rivershave begun to assume their winter green.When crossing Broad Pass, you might seethe shimmer of caribou moving on a distant ridgeor find a dark abacus of berries in the froston the boggy trail to Summit Lake. Beyond this,the endless mountains curving like a scimitar.And in the querulous mind, the yearning hearta sudden immeasurable calm.
                                                Tom Sexton

Categories: Arts & Culture

Linda: 49 Writers Weekly Roundup

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 8:10am
It has been a momentous week for Alaska literary news, one that has evoked emotions veering from elation one moment to deep sorrow the next.

Richard Dauenhauer at the 2014 Governor's Awards for the Arts and Humanities
(photo courtesy of Alaska State Council on the Arts)The whole literary community is in mourning for Richard Dauenhauer, a modest but extraordinary man who passed away earlier this week. Husband to our current Alaska Writer Laureate, Nora Marks Dauenhauer, and a former Alaska Poet Laureate himself, Dick was primarily known for his work as a historian and linguist, working with Nora over many years to transcribe and translate stories from the Tlingit oral tradition. Many fine tributes to his life and work have followed the news of this loss, including a story by the Juneau Empire and an article in the Alaska Dispatch News.

Dick was a poet too--his latest collection, Benchmarks, was published last year by University of Alaska Press as part of the Alaska Literary Series. A member of 49 Writers, Dick participated with Nora in the regular meetings of our writers group in Juneau. We worked closely together to organize the Crosscurrents event in Anchorage in February last year that featured Nora Marks Dauenhauer in conversation with Diane Benson. In fall 2013, Dick approached us to do an author event in Anchorage en route to AFN, which became a reading featuring them both, graciously hosted by the UAA MFA program. Dick's poetry reading encompassed an eclectic range of topics, including a spirited recitation of "The Geneology of Beer." (His dry humor will not be forgotten either.) 49 Writers Juneau board member Joan Pardes speaks for us all when she says, "We extend our sympathy to Nora and the Dauenhauer family on the loss of a great (and exceedingly kind) man."

Turning to celebration of success, we were thrilled to learn this week that Alaskan women writers featured prominently in the list of finalists for the 2014 Willa awards for Women Writing the West. 49 Writers member Sara Loewen won the Creative Nonfiction award for her beautiful collection of essays, Gaining Daylight: Life on Two Islands (University of Alaska Press). Member and instructor Christine Byl was a finalist in the same category for Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods (Beacon Press). And Fairbanks poet Carolyn Kremers was a finalist for the Poetry award for Upriver (University of Alaska Press). Some of us were lucky to hear all of these wonderful writers read at a special event staged in spring 2013 by the UAA MFA program to mark the publication of these works. We are so proud of their accomplishments!

Two of our members have books forthcoming: congratulations to each of them!
  • Lynn Lovegreen has announced the release of her latest young adult/new adult historical romance, Quicksilver to Gold.
  • Becky Saleeby's debut novel, Searching for Isaiah John, will soon be available through CreateSpace (an Amazon independent publishing company).

Ernestine HayesNext week at this time, look for the announcement of our fall schedule of classes! Meanwhile, registration is open for the free Crosscurrents Southeast creative writing workshops with Sherry Simpson in Juneau (Sept. 20), and Sherry and Ernestine Hayes in Sitka (Sept. 23), Ketchikan (Sept. 25), and Craig (Sept. 27). Juneau and Craig are filling fast, so don't delay if you want to secure a spot! Thank you to the Alaska Humanities Forum for making this 10-day program possible.

Fall author events at 49 Writers kick off on Thursday, Sept. 11, 7pm, when David Stevenson gives a Reading & Craft Talk at Great Harvest Bread called "Letters from Chamonix: Teasing Fiction from Fact." We are looking for a Reading & Craft Talk coordinator, so if you'd like to volunteer or want more information, contact Linda Ketchum at 49writers (at) gmail (dot) com.

This year's Tutka Bay Writers Retreat leader, acclaimed poet Carolyn Forché, is unable to participate in the usual Crosscurrents event in Anchorage due to her tight teaching schedule. We are incredibly fortunate to be bringing her to Alaska for our popular retreat, and all 20 poets and memoirists attending are eager to learn from her. The evening before the retreat Carolyn will give a reading in Homer at the Kachemak Bay Campus, Thursday, Sept. 4, 6:30pm.

Cirque editor, Poetry Parley organizer, and poet (Defiance Street) Sandra Kleven, MFA, made the front page of the Seattle Times this week under the headline "A half-century after high school, Bothell student gets her diploma"--well done, Sandy!

The fight to save the Alaska Quarterly Review continues. Read Don Rearden's opinion piece in yesterday's Alaska Dispatch News and consult last week's roundup for information about how you can help.

Events in Anchorage and around Alaska 

Saturday, Aug. 23, 11:30amLee Goodman, author of Indefensible, will be at Fireside Books in Palmer.

Friday, Aug. 29, 11am, catch Nick Jans (A Wolf Called Romeo) at Palmer's Fireside Books.

Poems In Place, the statewide project that is putting poems written by Alaskan poets on signs in Alaska’s state parks, invites you to join them to celebrate this year’s poetry dedications at Independence Mine State Historical Park near Palmer and Lake Aleknagik State Recreation Site near Dillingham. All events are free. Poems in Place is supported by Alaska State Parks, Alaska Center For the Book, the Rasmuson Foundation, Alaska State Council on the Arts, Alaska Humanities Forum, the Usibelli Foundation, Alaska Poetry League and numerous generous individuals.

Saturday, Aug. 30, 11am-1pm. Tom Sexton, Alaska’s poet laureate from 1994 to 2000, the author of several collections of poetry, and the selected poet of this park’s poem-in-place, will give a talk and host a discussion on The Poetry of Place. The talk/discussion is free and open to anyone age 18 or older. Space is limited. Please register in advance. To register or for more information about either event, please email

Saturday, Aug. 30, 2-3 pm: Poems in Place Dedication.  Help celebrate the unveiling of the 2014 Poem in Place at Independence Mine State Historical Park. Reading by selected poet Tom Sexton will be followed by refreshments and celebration. All are welcome!

Saturday, Sept. 6, 10am-12:30pm, School House Inn, Lake Aleknagik: Yupik Place Names and the Poetry of Place. Tim Troll and Molly Chythlook will share their knowledge of Yupik place names, the first naming of place. Join in a creative writing exercise with poet Wendy Erd. The workshop is free and open to the public. All are welcome.

Saturday, Sept. 6, 2-3pm, Lake Aleknagik Landing:  Poems in Place Dedication and Celebration. Please help celebrate the unveiling of the new Poem in Place at Lake Aleknagik State Park. Reading by selected poet Tim Troll to be followed by refreshments and celebration. To register or for more information about either event, please email

Monday, Sept. 8, 5-7pm, UAA Campus Bookstore: Andy Hall presents Denali Howl: The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America's Wildest Peak, an account of the 1967 Wilcox Expedition, one of the greatest climbing accidents ever to occur on the highest peak of North America. Twelve climbers attempt the ascent and only five return. Andy Hall, the son of the Denali Park Superintendent at the time, offers an intimate look into the young men on a big adventure.

Wednesday, Sept. 10, 6-8 pm: Kenai Fine Arts Center (816 Cook Drive, Kenai) will host a book release party for Dave Acheson, whose new book, Dead Reckoning, has just been published.
September 11, 5-7pm, UAA Campus Bookstore: All You Need is Love - Forging an Emotional Connection through the Stories we Write and Read. Romance authors Jennifer Bernard, Tam Linsey, Lynn Lovegreen, Miriam Matthews, and DeNise Woodbury come together to read from their books and discuss romance. This event is sponsored with Romance Writers of Alaska.

Sept. 13 & 14, the 2014 Alaska Writers Guild Annual Conference, in conjunction with
SCBWI Alaska, takes place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Anchorage. This year's conference will feature nationally acclaimed editors, agents, and authors, as well as local authors and illustrators. Once again they are offering a children's literarure and illustration track in conjunction with The Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. Click here for a detailed list of this year's faculty. Visit the AWG website for more information and to register. Click here for a preliminary conference schedule.

Beginning Sept. 17, Anchorage essayist and author Bill Sherwonit will teach a 12-week nature and travel writing class beginning Sept. 17, in the Sierra Club office downtown. Participants in this workshop-style class will explore and refine their own writing styles, with an emphasis on the personal essay form. The class will also read and discuss works by some of America’s finest nature and travel writers, past and present. The cost is $240. To sign up for this Wednesday night class (7 to 9:30 p.m.), or for more information, contact Sherwonit at 245-0283 or Further information about the teacher is also available at

The Rasmuson Foundation has announced its latest round of artists in residence. They include Dipika Guha, a playwright in New York City, who will be in residence at the Island Institute in Sitka. She plans to use the silence and nature of Sitka to continue writing a play, as well as begin a book for a musical. (Nominated by Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, CA) Please join us in congratulating these artists and welcoming them to Alaska. They arrive for these two-month residencies in mid-September.
Opportunities for Alaskan Writers
Did you know that if you're an Alaskan writer you can get listed for free in the Alaska Writers Directory? It's easy to do, just click here to complete the online form. If you're already listed, do check your information to make sure it's current--updates can be submitted using the same form. As Alaska Book Week approaches (Oct. 4-11, 2014), it's a great way for schools, book clubs, and other groups to connect with writers to invite to their Alaska Book Week celebration.
The Alaska Literary Awards, established in 2014 by the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation through a generous gift from Peggy Shumaker and Joe Usibelli, are accepting applications. The Alaska Literary Awards recognize and support writers of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, playwriting, screenwriting, and mixed genres. Any Alaska writer over the age of 18 who is not a full-time student is eligible to apply. Quality of the work submitted is the primary consideration in determining who receives the awards. There are no restrictions on the writer’s use of the award and no formal report is required. Application deadline is Tuesday, September 2, 2014, 9:59pm (AKDT).

Remember that the deadline for the Winter Solstice issue of Cirque is approaching: Sept.15 for publication on Dec. 15. Visit for more information on how to submit and to read the journal full-text.

Nominations for the 2015 Governor’s Awards for the Arts and Humanities are now open. Learn more at the Alaska State Council on the Arts website. The categories are: Arts Education, Native Arts, Arts Organization and Individual Artist. In addition, the Alaska State Council on the Arts’ Literary Advisory Committee will accept nominations for the State Writer Laureate, who will be appointed by the Governor to a two year term (2015-2016).
Categories: Arts & Culture

Alaska Shorts: Raven’s Letter to Edgar, 
by Ned Rozell

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 7:00am
Ned Rozell

Dear Edgar:
I was poking around in a bin of opportunity (“Dumpsters” to your type, with a capital D for some reason) the other day and came across a newspaper that said you died in October 160 years ago. Bummer. I had seen your famous poem about us, in another bin (you wouldn’t believe what people throw out), and I wanted to chew your ear for a minute.
First of all, thanks for calling us “stately” on first reference. I’m with ya. In fact, we’re the real state bird of Alaska, no matter what those placemats say. Willow ptarmigan — whose idea was that? You ever see a willow ptarmigan with personality? Take a poll of Alaskans, Eddy, they’ll give you their state bird, the same “ebony bird” you made famous in 1845.
No other creature has the guts to go where we go. Climbers on Denali try to hide their food from us at 17,000-foot high camp, but it doesn’t work. We wait until they throw a bit of snow over their food and stagger away. Then we dig it up and poke away. Easy money.
And the oilfields around Prudhoe Bay — no trees, blowing snow, about a gazillion below in winter. Those big-money workers up there do a Christmas Bird Count every year, and they record just one species. You know which one it is, baby. Biologists up there have seen us nesting in drilling rigs and feeding our chicks when it’s 30 below. Thirty below! Know where the robins are then, Edgar? Florida! One biologist named Stacia captured a few of us up there to fit us with wing tags. She had trouble re-capturing us for her studies, so — get this — she wore a fake moustache to fool us! But we still know it’s her.
We only hang out in Prudhoe because your type is there, Edgar. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you guys are slobs. You don’t finish what you eat. Today, humans are what wolves were 250 years ago. Once, we were all over the Great Plains, and today we’re not. It’s not that we don’t like wide-open spaces, it’s just that there’s no more bison there, and there’s no more wolves, who, like furry can-openers, would open the buffalo for us.
It’s kind of odd you lived on the East Coast, Edgar. It’s hard to find a raven in Baltimore, except for those ones on the football helmets (Purple ravens?! C’mon guys, black is beautiful!). Today we prefer the West Coast and the far North, from Baja to Barrow. We really like caribou and other prey species, and in Alaska there’s more caribou than people, and there’s lots of wolves and bears left to scatter carcasses around the landscape for us. Ever picked at a fleshy backbone on a hot summer’s day, Edgar? Heaven.
Back to your poem. Let me see if I remember it: Once upon a midnight dreary, after rapping on a chamber door, a raven stepped into a dark parlor, perched on a bust of a Greek goddess, and terrified a bereaved lover by answering all his questions with the word “Nevermore.”I heard that a University of Alaska Fairbanks English professor once picked apart your poem like we do a road-killed red squirrel. He suggested your narrator’s ingestion of opium might have given the raven its voice. That’s baloney. We talk all the time. We squawk, we knock; we make sounds like rocks thrown into water. A Fairbanks scientist who followed us around with a recorder came up with 30 distinct phrases in the raven dictionary. Lucky for him he couldn’t translate them.
The farther I read into your poem, the more you punch up the descriptions. You describe the raven as ghastly, grim, ungainly, gaunt, ominous, grave, a devil, a thing of evil, a fiend and a demon. I’m flattered, but others have held us in pretty high esteem. In Norse mythology, for example, the god Odin employed two ravens with the names Thought and Memory to fly the world and inform him of what was happening out there. We were less dependable for Noah, when a pair of us failed to return to the ark after he sent us to search for land. We probably found some carcasses out there; why go back for hard-tack and scurvy?
In Alaska, we’re treated as we should be. Every Native group has raven stories. In many stories, including those of the Tlingit, Haida, and Koyukon, Raven is the god who created the sun, the Earth, the stars, the moon, and humankind. We are also the tricksters who deceive others in our endless quest for food. True, all true. And tell me, Edgar, what has the moose created? Nothing but moose nuggets.
A biologist once told Ned Rozell that Alaska contains large chunks of nothingness because of two things — bugs and cold air. He has cursed both in a few decades of wandering ice and muskeg but has hiked on due to the fact that he just can't figure out how wolves get enough to eat. This excerpt from “Raven’s Letter to Edgar” comes from the Alaska Sampler 2014, a free e-book.
Would you like to see your work published here? Check out our Alaska Shorts guidelines and submit today!

Categories: Arts & Culture

Jessica Ramsey Golden: The Self-Destructing Creative

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 7:00am
This blog post was originally scheduled to run last week, on Aug. 13. But following Robin Williams’ suicide on Aug. 11, I asked that the post be delayed so that I could reframe my thoughts in light of the national conversation occurring in the wake of this loss. Nothing I say will provide new solutions or special insight. But I do beleive that we have a responsibility to refuse to stop talking about depression. One in ten Americans suffers from depression. But in creative fields the percentage sky-rockets. We do artists a diservice when we write off their work as a product of mental illness. Furthermore, we perpetuate a culture that views creativity as a mentally harmful activity. In fact, study after study shows that art makes us happier, healthier, more empathetic people. If you’re struggling, seek help. Being healthy will not kill your creativity. Only giving up on your art can do that. 
In a recent article for The Atlantic, neuro-scientist Nancy Andreason discusses the links between mental instability, intelligence, and creativity (link below). She traces the idea of the "mad genius" from Aristotle to modern efforts to elucidate creativity as a trait.
Studies indicate that persons with high levels of creativity (as measured by a variety of metrics) are much more likely to have a history of mental illness and addiction in their family. They themselves are also more likely to have a history of mental disorder.
Creativity is a fine line to walk. We so deeply link the demon of dysfunction with the angel of creativity that we come to think of them as one and the same.
I remember trying desperately, futilely to explain to my college Modernism class that Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Wolfe didn't write from their depression.
They couldn't have.
Depressed people don't function well enough to organize and write a novel, let alone to edit and rigorously rewrite.
They wrote in spite of their illness, not because of it. They wrote when they were relatively healthy, when they were functional. This is evident in Wolfe’s suicide note when she writes, “I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. (...) You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read.”
To paraphrase Sylvia Plath, when you’re depressed you have no time for anything but being depressed.
To my anger and frustration I've seen gifted artists and writers use the Dysfunction of the Greats as a justification for their overindulgence in unhealthy behavior. It's the shortcut past the hard work and long hours. The floodgate through which will pour your own inner Hemingway.
Drink, drug, and self-destruct. For it proves you're a genius.
As Stephen King notes in On Writing, "The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are intertwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time."
In her TED talk, author Elizabeth Gilbert notes that artists tend to self-destruct. Then she asks, “Are you guys all cool with that?”
Are we?
It's important that we talk about the mental health of our artists, writers, and musicians. It's important that we acknowledge that great work comes from great labor, and that madness and addiction are not pathways to genius. They are merely unfortunate chemical by-products of similar neural processes. 
It's important for two reasons: First, so that we can stop giving our creative young people the idea that unhealthy behavior will make them more creative. Second, so we can treat creativity as a necessary activity for a healthy mind.
My mother is depressive. As any child of someone with mental illness can tell you, it wreaks havoc on childhood. Depression was the ghost in our home. The blackness that shadowed every aspect of life.
Her's was not the lingering malaise of existential dissatisfaction. Her depression crippled her. She spent months in bed. The tiniest decisions overwhelmed her. When you spoke to her, whether seeking joy or comfort, you never knew if you would get the fun, creative mother you loved, or the huge, seeping sadness that lurked just under the surface.
It was impossible to understand and make sense of at 6-years-old. And at 10. And at 13. But when I was 14, I discovered someone who helped me understand. Someone Andreason used as a case study on the link between creativity and mental illness. Kurt Vonnegut.
In Breakfast of Champions (a book Vonnegut considered his worst), he discusses the suicide of his mother.
Mental illness is a theme throughout his work. One he approaches with an empathy, humor, and humanity that is, true to Vonnegut form, touchingly irreverent.
His family, like mine, is rife with depression, addiction, bad relationships, suicide, and eating and anxiety disorders.
My mother's disease occurred at a time before depression was a common topic.
Socially, her depression was perceived as an implicit failure on her part to live up to the expectation of perfection that her religion demanded.
Her children, house, clothes, body, and marriage were imperfect. So she simply gave up fighting her illness.
To read Vonnegut state of his own mother that she committed suicide out of embarrassment, is a truth so profound and terrible, that one can only laugh out loud in horror.
It took the first 26 years of my life for me to figure out that genetically and behaviorally, my auto-setting is self-destruct. The genes I inherited and the behaviors I learned in childhood are a recipe for becoming imprisoned in the same disease that decimated my mother. 
I have to actively and consciously choose healthy habits. I have to override the behaviors I learned and the genes I was assigned.
I have to unlearn my earliest formed habits. My relationships to food, sleep, sex, exercise, religion, television, and family. Some days this is easy. Some days it's not.
But I choose to demonstrate healthy behaviors to my children. And one of those healthy habits is creativity. Specifically writing.
Writing is cheap therapy. Writing is working through your shit. The shit you don't want to deal with. That's what Vonnegut taught me. It's a way to call out your inner crazy.
To write is to stomp through your swampy Jungian underworld in hip-waders and see what kinds of demons you can shake from the trees.
It may not be pretty or nice. But it is necessary work.
Because, as with so many demons, they only begin to dissipate when they are named.
To know what it is, to drag it into the light, to hang Grendel's arm from the rafters of the world and cry, “Here! Here's what's been stalking me!” is to set the world in perspective. 
We must shift our understanding. We must see creativity, not as a symptom of a disease, but as a tool to help control it. A coping mechanism. A meaning that transcends the storminess of an unsettled mind. So we can nurture our artists amid their flights of fancy, and draw them back from the alluring precipice of self-destruction.

Jessica Ramsey Golden’s poetry has appeared in such journals as The William and Mary Review, Orbis International, Calyx, and Cirque. In 2006 she was awarded the Eleanor B. North Poetry Prize. In 2009, she received an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation. In 2011, she began writing fiction. She is currently drafting a science fiction project, while seeking representation for her literary Gothic novel, The Hidden Door.

Categories: Arts & Culture

Deb: One Author's Publishing Success - An Interview with Autumn Dawn

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 7:00am
Author Autumn Dawn, a former student from North Pole High School.Like many writers, I was a teacher first. Following a news article on my latest novel, I received an inspiring email from a former student, now a fellow author who writes under the name Autumn Dawn.
I wanted to thank you again for teaching my North Pole High School class,” she said. “I’ve made good use of it. It makes me emotional thinking about what I would have done without teachers like you. So many stories would have gone untold, and I have over twenty works published now. Two were published in NY, two are with Amazon’s publishing arm and the rest are self-published.”
As teachers all over the country prepare to start a new year, I hope they’ll find encouragement in this example of what a difference they’ll make in the lives of their students. Not every one of them will find the success Autumn has, or take the time to acknowledge how you’ve helped them along the way, but your creative efforts in the classroom do have an impact.
After reconnecting, Autumn and I thought it would be fun to swap interviews; you’ll find her interview with me on her blog.
You pointed out that the two of us had something in common: school counselors/academic advisers told us that we’d never make a living as writers. How did you get past that?
I’m stubborn and competitive, and I like a challenge. Writing made me happy, and the stories didn’t stop just because someone disapproved. For the record, I was almost forty before my parents saw any sense in it. My father admitted he thought I was wasting my time with writing, which I knew, but at least he didn’t say it out loud.
Also, my husband and high school sweetheart, John, is extremely supportive. We’ve been married since 1994 and every day is a blessing.
You’ve not only made a living as a writing, you’ve also earned a six-figure annual income from your books. Tell us a little about that journey, and what the money does and doesn’t mean to you as a creative individual.
It was a huge validation, of course. Someone wanted to read my books! We’d just moved to Washington and I hoped to make some money to help with groceries, and suddenly my sales numbers shot up! We watched in amazement, and all the guys at John’s work were cheering like it was a sports event as John shared the latest stats. I could say “HA!” to all all the doubters.
As for the money, I had to find a good accountant to help with that. We did our best to be practical, opened a Roth, bought our first new car ever and paid it off quickly. I also got some professional book covers and editing, which were a huge part of my success. It paid for plane tickets to see family in Alaska, things like that. I’m a practical girl, and did my best to bring value to our lives. 
You’ve managed to write twenty books while raising three active children. What advice do you have for other moms who write?
A book is a good place to hide when the toddlers are running rampant. Invest in a set of headphones and place the computer so you can see the kids but not the TV. Also, I’m not a soccer mom. We keep things simple and relaxed here without a lot of running around. I simply don’t have the temperament for it. Sports are fine and every kid should learn to swim, but there should be balance. We eat dinner together every night and the house is clean. We talk about our day and if one of the kids is having a problem, I notice and we talk about it. I can’t do that if everyone is running full tilt at all times, and I can’t write if I’m stressed.
Honestly, housekeeping, cooking and dealing with teens is a big job, so I have to stay organized if I want to write. And sometimes, John cooks.
You said, “I didn’t know until I was an adult that I was a gifted person, but writing was always an outlet for a kid that wasn’t quite in sync with the others.” What encouragement do you have for other kids who aren’t “quite in sync” with the rest?
Skip childhood. Kidding! Best case scenario, I’d love to see gifted kids discovered in school and given the help they need. To my school’s credit, I believe they tried. I actually needed counseling as an adult, and once I suspected I was gifted, I devoured books on it and haunted websites. I read things and think, what? That’s unusual? I could do that, why didn’t someone tell me? My mother said I was a weird kid, and she hated to see me “waste all my time reading”. Little did she know I was preparing for my future job.
If your kid gets a 99% verbal on the PSAT, she’s probably gifted. It won’t matter if she doesn’t know how to sew. You should discuss college or a good tech school, however.
I didn’t realize it was odd to carry books from the library stacked to my chin. I finally learned to drive at seventeen so I could spend time in the bookstore. I didn’t know how to talk to kids my age, and later Mom told me that they wanted to skip me ahead a grade. She refused that and the gifted program because she didn’t want me to feel “pressured.” ARRRGH! I wondered what happened to my friends; they seemed to all disappear from my classes in middle school, and now I know they were in the gifted program.
I saw some of them again in the AP and honor classes, but by then I hated school. High school was a prison sentence and I wanted out. Being an adult was much better.
I don’t regret not attending college. If I want to learn something, I pick up a book and read. While you can’t learn to dance that way, it’s great for teaching yourself website design, Photoshop, computer stuff and gourmet baking. We tell our kids that apprenticeships, tech school and the military are excellent ways to get an education that won’t put you in debt for years, but never stop learning, and never give up. You were custom made for a job, and if it doesn’t exist yet, create it! 
You’re incredibly imaginative and prolific. How have readers discovered you and your books? After twenty books, do you find you still have to work to promote your new titles, or do your fans find them?
Thank you. I’ve always enjoyed creating worlds no one else has dreamed of, and I’m very careful not to repeat myself. I like to keep things fresh, and my readers appreciate that.
I post new books on my site, blog and Facebook. That’s it. I should have a mailing list, but I don’t. I find that frequent releases are the best way to generate sales, and I usually have at least one ebook free. I think happy readers are the best word of mouth.
Autumn is a professional writer and stay at home mom with three kids, a dog and an active imagination. She’s married to her high school sweetheart, John, who is known to bring her flowers "just because.” After 34 years in Alaska, she moved to Washington with her family to enjoy a state with actual seasons. She started self-publishing in 2010 after a string of rejections that read, “We love your writing, but we’re not sure how to market it.” She published on Smashwords, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, which lead to a number of bestsellers. After The Charmer hit #1 on Barnes & Noble for fantasy romance, she threw herself into editing and uploading her backlist.
Her income for 2011 was $100,000, far exceeding her best year with traditional publishing. In 2012, Amazon acquired Dorchester Books, which had picked up two of her books, and Autumn gave Amazon the rights to publish When Sparks Fly and No Words Alone (from the Sparks Series), believing that diversification is good business. While Autumn is grateful for the opportunities traditional publishing provided, she remains passionate about self-publishing. 

Categories: Arts & Culture

Alaska Shorts: A Last Walk in the Woods, by Dan Walker

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 7:00am

The consensus among people I know is that we wait too long before we finally put our sick, old pets to sleep.  That was on my mind when I finally decided to put my old dog Nelson down.  I saw that his mind was more confused than ever, and as he paced around the yard overlooking the lake, I knew he had reached a point from which he couldn't return.  We had already decided that this was the place he should end his days, had been preparing ourselves for a year.   Now, it seemed the time had come.  After a final family conference, I walked him up away from the cabin and the lake, away from Madelyn shut in the cabin with radio turned up, and away from the trail that lead back to the car. 
The rain-soaked tall grass wet us quickly as we pushed through the devil’s club and wild raspberries that clutch at us with their tiny claws.  Sometime the leash would catch on a stalk of devil’s club or Nelson would go the wrong way around, so I would stop untangle us then move on forward, following the moose trails through the alder and birch forest.   Nelson came along willingly as always, and I didn’t need the leash, but I didn’t want to have to chase him down if he wondered off or decided to go back to the cabin and the dry straw bed beneath it that he refused to use.  He so hated the rain and this would not have been his choice for a walk, but he was followed me willingly with confusion thick in the big black soul of his eyes. 
I wanted to find a good spot away from the cabin and wanted a hole I could roll him into and cover with logs and leaves without digging something to scar the wild dense forest floor with my grief, so I carried the axe instead of the shovel.  Then I found a downed birch that had fallen away from another tree, lifting and pulling it’s rots so the standing tree had bit of a cave beneath it, a den there under the arch of the roots big as a dog, and dry too.
That’s where I made my stand, talking soft words to those big black eyes, and crying a bit as I gave him half a slice of ham and then the rest of it and while his head was down I felt a great surge of motion and I put the gun to his head real quick like I was in a rush and the body lurched with the shot behind the ear then I fired five or four more time times fast and muffled against the wet white hide.  The body thrashed and twitched then was limp.  I moved with planned efficiency of a criminal, lifting the limp carcass by the feet -- two in each hand-- and slid my old friend down into the dry dark den where he lay down out of the rain in the loamy odor of forest earth surrounded by the birch roots and me looking down with my share of guilt then saying something like,   “Here you go, get out of the rain, old boy.”    I knew it was a good place where maybe the bears wouldn’t do the work of digging him out or the wolverines.  I took the axe to some alders and laid them over the dog and hacked up some root from the fallen tree and layered that over the opening with chunks of birch branch and more alder to fill in the holes until there was bower of green alder dripping its rain leadened leaves on me.  I was wet all through by now even under my raincoat because I had left my hood down and the zipper open so only my shoulders and back were covered, really.  The woods were wet all around me except in that den under the roots with that crazy old dog white dog that hated the rain, and I wondered if I should bring in some fresh moose shit I had seen on the way up to cover the blood place where he died, but the rain was already washing it. 
I picked up my 22 rifle and the axe, noticing then those shaking hands trembling in the evening wet woods where I was leaving a dog who had given me ten good years and more.  I walked back to the cabin and stood in the downpour before the lake by the porch thinking how right my son-in-law was when he said, “Every good dog deserves a last walk in the woods.” 
Dan Walker is a homesteaders’ son who grew up to become a teacher and a writer in Seward.  He has published essays, professional articles, and fiction in magazines and literary journals such as the Journal of Geography and the old We Alaskans. Now, when he is not training writing teachers, he is working on two book length projects, a memoir and an autobiographical fiction.  Dan is the 2014 winner of first prize for fiction in the Alaska Daily News/UAA Writing contest. 
Would you like to see your work published here? Check out our Alaska Shorts guidelines and submit today!

Categories: Arts & Culture

Alaska Shorts: From Cold River Spirits, by Jan Harper-Haines

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 7:00am
Jan Harper-HainesWhen the Chena River overflowed its banks in 1948, as it did nearly every spring, Fairbanks took on the appearance of a slowly moving lake. The dirty brown water, dotted with chunks of ice, logs, carcasses of dead animals, and other debris from the long winter, spread across the little river town.
Lapping steadily, the floodwater crossed First Avenue and crept up the steps of the Episcopal Church and into the Masonic Temple. It leisurely entered saloons on Second and filled stores and houses all the way down Barnette Street past Seventh.
On Garden Island, the water hesitated at the steps of the Alaska Railroad depot like a mannerly aunt unsure of her welcome. A moment later, it washed across the old plank floor, covered the benches along the walls, and reached the top of the ticket counter.
The river rose fourteen feet as it flowed into truck stop cafes and smoky dives where the only women were bleary-eyed hoostitutes.
The water appeared smooth, even languid, but its rapid undercurrents and eddies swirled with energy. The force was enough to carry away sections of wooden sidewalk and cave in cellar doors all over town. With no hesitation it entered Louise Minook Harper’s log cabin on Fifth, five blocks from the river.
A drunk wading home from the bars on Second stumbled on a washed out section of sidewalk and was swept into the river where he smacked his head on a passing log. His body was found a few days later, tangled in the flotsam of a floating tree.
That morning two other men died in a fight in the Nevada Bar over the timing of the Chena breakup. A third man, clutching the winning ice pool ticket, suffered a black eye and cracked his false teeth in the commotion. When two officers from the Territorial Police arrived, big and blustery in their uniforms, the survivor convinced them the two men had stabbed one another. This stretch of truth was heartily supported by the bartender and other none too sober patrons.
When the river receded a few days later, flood-weary residents reclaimed their homes and took stock of the damage. Whites, Natives, hoostitutes, and prominent families dragged muddied books, ruined mattresses, and unrecognizable whatall into the street to be hauled away.
The sour stench of mildew, river sludge, and dog poop gagged Louise when she opened the shed door. “Chanh na hanh!” she swore, turning her head and blinking as she propped open the door with a shovel and stood outside while the cramped space aired.
Her glance fell on Sam’s trunk in the corner. It was slimy with mud.
Holding her breath, Louise grabbed the cracked leather handle. The muck made a sucking noise as she pulled the trunk from the shed. Inside, Sam’s papers and notebooks squished at her touch. His penciled words were blurred, and those written in ink were a blue smear. Louise glimpsed the butt of a pistol wedged into one side of the trunk.
She looked around her small, muddy yard. Her house was already full of damp clothes, smelly rugs, and bedding. There was no place to dry the trunk’s contents. On top of that, the stove was filled with silt. The electricity was out and they still had no drinking water.
“The trunk is gone? Dad’s stories are gone?” Flora Jane tightened her lips to keep them from quivering. Louise glanced at her oldest daughter and sighed.
Jan (Petri) Harper-Haines is Koyukon Athabascan, Russian, Irish and Dutch-German. Her non-fiction has appeared in First Alaskans Magazine, West Marin Review, Alaskan Embers and Cirque. She is currently working on Jimmy’s Song, a novel of suspense set in Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley. This excerpt comes from Cold River Spirits, a biography of Jan’s Athabascan mother and grandmother and their lives on the Yukon. It explores their rich cultural heritage and their heartrending, and often humorous, struggles to transition from a life intertwined with nature to a more fast-paced world. You can read more in the free Alaska Sampler 2014.
Would you like to see your work published here? Check out our Alaska Shorts guidelines and submit today!

Categories: Arts & Culture


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