49 Writers Interview: Marilyn Sigman

Marilyn Sigman of Homer has an impressive resume: director of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, winner of the Alaska Conservation Foundation’s Jerry S. Dixon Award for Excellence in Environmental Education, former statewide coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s ‘Alaska Wildlife Curriculum’ program, past chairman of the Alaska Natural History Association, and a host of other leadership roles in Alaskan environmental organizations. Somehow, she has also found time to publish in the Alaska Quarterly Review, first in 2007 and again this fall. Here we talk with Sigman about balancing writing and work, the Alaskan experience, and literary journals.

You’ve made a significant impact on environmental education in Alaska. In what ways do your writing efforts extend that mission, and in what ways is your writing something altogether different?

In environmental education, the goal is to raise awareness and then to provide people with experiences and information so they can think critically, and think for themselves, about environmental issues and decide to change their behavior to be less harmful to the environment. So as an educator, I would always strive to share my own knowledge and enthusiasm and love of the (nonhuman) natural world, but keep a lot of my own thinking and opinions to myself. Writing, on the other hand – particularly what is now termed “creative nonfiction,” is a means to speak from the same passion that drives me as an environmental educator but with a much greater freedom to share my personal exploration of the cultural and spiritual complexities which I believe are at the root of many of our environmental issues. My hope is that I will able to affect and influence people at a deeper level.

What prompted you to begin publishing in literary journals?

I was encouraged by Sherry Simpson, who provided a manuscript review at a Kachemak Bay Writers Conference, and Nancy Lord, who taught a course in creative nonfiction at the UAA/KBC Kachemak Bay campus. After a lot of editorial help, they told me that I had written some pieces that they thought were publishable. I entered the Anchorage Daily News writers’ contest and received an honorable mention. After a few experiences with slush piles, the impetus to submit to the Alaska Quarterly Review was the result of reading in the submissions guidelines that all submissions from Alaska writers had a guarantee of being read [clarification: AQR reads all submissions].

In what ways do you feel Alaska has enriched and informed your writing?

I’ve always believed that Alaska is a state of mind as much as a geographical place. I’m continually inspired by connections between my sense-memories and the meanings they evoke. So as I ponder some abstract concept about which many thinkers and writers have had much to say and try to reach some synthesis or resolution that brings me some peace, or at least balance, of mind, it’s the Alaskan landscape and seasons and communities of living beings and beauty that provoke me and ground me and provide the stories and the metaphors.

What have you learned, and what are you still learning, about writing creative non-fiction?

After many, many years of writing more scientifically or bureaucratically in the third person, I think I am just beginning to learn to relax my resistance to writing in the first person and revealing myself through my writing. When I been successful at being a character in my non-fiction tales of science and philosophy, I have learned that this “trueness” of the writing is not only personally rewarding, but it also makes the strongest connections to people who read what I have written. I’m also learning that the personal things that are the hardest to write about are the richest in meaning.

Publishing in literary journals can be a good way to “get noticed,” but it also can be a rewarding end in and of itself. How do you view it?

I have a certain compulsion to write to make sense of the world. Writing “pieces” that are potentially publishable requires a certain coherence and organization on my part that really helps me figure out the nature of my current obsession and how I might need to change my belief system and life style accordingly. Actually having something published is the “icing on the cake.” I get the pat on the head by the editor that it’s “good enough” to publish and a potential audience who appreciates good and artful writing and who will, hopefully, share my obsessions and resolutions by reading the piece. While I sometimes dream of a “writing life,” I’m pretty busy with my “day job” which I think wise to keep.

What advice would you give to writers interested in publishing in literary journals?

Write what you’re compelled to write. Take a course and/or join a writing group – polish your editorial skills and learn how to “kill the darlings.” Know when a piece is done. Research the journals that publish the type of writing you do. Send it off. Send it off. Send it off. Keep writing. Repeat.

1 thought on “49 Writers Interview: Marilyn Sigman”

  1. Having read from the slush pile at AQR for several years as a grad student, I'd like to clarify that ALL manuscripts received by AQR have the guarantee of being read. Even ones whose font or presentation was obnoxious, even ones that were obviously not right for AQR upon quick perusal, even ones that were outside submission parameters. Alaskan writers of course pique the interest of other Alaskan writers, but I don't want anyone to come away with the idea that AQR favors anything but excellent work.

    That said, thanks for the interview, Ms. Sigman!

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