Many people daydream about becoming writers. For those who get serious about it, often the best way to start is by joining a writers' group. A good group can provide the training, discipline, feedback and encouragement to not only put words on paper but even bring them to publication.
One such group is the Community Writers Group of Fairbanks, founded in 1998. Longtime members decided to celebrate the group's fifth anniversary by publishing an anthology of their favorite works.
"It is a surprise to most of our writers that one can learn from critiquing someone else's work, but it is true," writes Janet Baird, the group's facilitator, in the book's introduction. "Writers too shy to share their own work gain knowledge by deep intellectual and poetic study of another person's story."
"Flickering in the Arctic," the result of their labor of love, contains fiction, nonfiction and poems by nine writers. Some have written for a long time, but for many this volume marks their first publication.
These tales, in prose or rhyme, celebrate family, faith, friends and Alaska's landscape both human and wild. The general mood is autumnal, as many contributors are retirees putting thoughts into words as they reflect back over long and eventful lives.
Despite the authors' underlying commonalities, the works included are diverse, ranging from humor to horror and including inspiration, nostalgia, reverie and adventure. Readers will find pieces that cause chuckles and others that bring a tear to the eye. We meet a father dreaming of a reunion with his dead son, a wistful boy with an imagination worthy of Walter Mitty, an aging rock climber who sheds human disappointments by embracing wilderness and a couple who use hot-fudge sundaes to keep life in perspective.
It is difficult to pick favorites, but some pieces stand out on a first reading.
Of the fiction pieces, the most original and vivid is also the book's darkest piece. Edward L. Hoch's "The Claret of My Longing" is a Gothic vampire tale, but its central character has long since lost the desire for immortality. He would trade his living hell for death and redemption, his body and soul frayed by the tug-of-war between holy love and blood lust.
"I am no monster, not by choice," he tells us. "But all my attempts at abstinence are but whispers compared to the screams of my desire."
The poems include gentle lyrics, a poignant take on the demise of the World Trade Center and rollicking rhymes inspired by Robert Service.
Jack Ferguson, for example, harks back to the legendary sourdoughs of the gold rush to create "Pay Dirt at Ketchum Creek." He tells how a miner called Lonesome Nick coped with the solitary life:
"Now Nick had been out digging holes
For better than a year,
A tearing up the tundra
'Til he'd got a little queer."
In contrast, Joyce Freeman-Clark contributes meditations on nature, such
as the brief poem titled "Lonely Sounds." She writes:
"There's a lonesome sound
to coyote's call,
and a mournful note
to the cry of the loon,
but the forlorn wail
of the long freight train
is the loneliest of them all."
"Flickering in the Arctic" contains several interesting memoirs.
For example, Donna Rosebeary shares boisterous yarns of her years working at the Healy Roadhouse. These include social dilemmas involving a poodle, breaking up bar fights and her surprise at discovering that a cook was "improving" the prime rib with food coloring.
My favorite of the memoirs, however, was Betty Robinson's "St. Louis Christmas Memories." She takes the reader through warm scenes of her youth to her gradual, maturing realization that her cherished memories were only part of the truth. Her parents' love and thoughtfulness had shielded their children from poverty and prejudice, giving them instead a rich legacy of family devotion.
Each section ends with a brief biography of the writer.
Also enhancing the book are charming illustrations by Judy Cooper, Todd Sherman and DeeDee Hammond.
Some pieces start slow, but become more engrossing as the writer loosens up and becomes immersed in the tale. This is a gentle little book, especially appropriate for people interested in exploring the path to writing. Often the authors reflect on their relationship with their craft, as when Don Elbert looks back on his late father's penchant for penning poetry.
"Words have become exciting to me, as they were for Dad," he writes. "I've learned the power of words and have demonstrated that warm words spoken in tenderness can melt a cold heart."
"Flickering in the Arctic" is like a diamond in the rough. It lacks polish but contains sparkle, value and interesting facets. Even when filtered through the prism of fiction, these are tales written from the heart by real people about real lives.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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