Andromeda: Let’s Talk About an Alaska Writing Center

According to a NEA survey, 7 percent of adults say they engage in creative writing. In Alaska, that’s more than 40,000 people. Hard to imagine? I thought so, but when I started mentioning the statistic to acquaintances last month, I started hearing interesting responses from people I didn’t necessarily identify as aspiring writers. It seems that many people do some covert journaling, or have a memoir in progress, or dream of writing the Great American Novel.
We construct our literary identities in stages. I still remember being uncomfortable with the “Writer” label – even though I’d published articles and several guidebooks – but various milestones helped. One “coming out of the closet” experience was attending a class taught by Bill Sherwonit over a dozen years ago. I was a shy, emerging scribbler, and getting published wasn’t enough to make me feel like a “Capital W” Writer. I needed to learn and grow among other people who shared my interests and ambitions. Reading work aloud to peers, having it critiqued, and being part of a visible community of writers bumped me up a level.
I’m still going through stages – always will be, of course — and while some years I manage fine on my own, other years I need help. I would have climbed mountains for some affordable fiction classes in 2002, when I decided to switch genres; I would have crossed glaciers for some experienced handholding to help me through the promotion of my debut novel; I continue to need more instruction and inspiration than I am able to find in my home town. And I know I’m not the only one.

We write alone – but we become writers in community: with other writers, with our readers, with the people who edit and publish and bring attention to our work.
The search for community in a state bursting with storytelling potential is the reason 49writers exists, and the reason that (with your help!) it keeps growing. In January, Deb and I started offering creative writing workshops – and very quickly realized that our state needs, deserves, and is ready for more. For the last few months, we have been evaluating the potential for a statewide, full-fledged, physically-sited nonprofit writing center, with an emphasis on affordable instruction, and events that serve writers and build an audience for Alaska literature. (You may recall a December post in which I asked what folks thought about having an AK writing center; some of you chimed in then and we need you to keep chiming in.) There is still a lot to learn and ponder but starting this week, Deb and I would like to ramp up the discussion.
This is where you come in. We’ll be asking you for your ideas, energy, and connections. (Official survey to come in May, but don’t be shy about jumping in sooner — even now.) We’d like to dialogue with everyone interested in a statewide writing center, and everyone who has something to share – and yes, if you’re still reading this blogpost, whether you are an emerging or established writer, a librarian, a teacher, a bookseller, or a book lover, this does mean you.
Deb and I both believe we should model such a center on best practices that have proved successful elsewhere, and that’s why I’m writing this blogpost from Seattle, where I arrived yesterday morning (waaaaay too early, but dizzy with excitement) to visit Seattle’s Hugo House, the third largest writing center in the country. My next post will include some of my first Hugo impressions, so please stay tuned.

10 thoughts on “Andromeda: Let’s Talk About an Alaska Writing Center”

  1. Of course, I laud the enthusiasm and optimism. Of course, it's a wonderful idea. And anything is possible. So thanks, again, for putting this out there.

    I also know a bit about the challenges currently facing not only established writing centers and literary organizations, but also the challenges currently facing virtually every arts organization in this country, especially start-ups. This knowledge is a byproduct of the touring I've done the past fifteen years.

    Three quick suggestions:

    1) Talk to as many Alaskan writers as you can (and writers from Outside with good Alaskan ties) who have first-hand experience with similar organizations. Though every organization and community is different–and an Alaska Writing Center will necessarily be different than ones down south–it sure makes sense to study what's working, and not working, elsewhere.

    2) Start thinking how to partner with other like-minded organizations (in Minneapolis, The Loft seems to have done a good job; they're in the same building as Milkweed Editions and Minnesota Center for Book Arts). Here, I'd think that means staying open to work with any number of arts and cultural organizations–not necessarily other literary organizations.

    3) Realize that not only will someone's job be fundraising, but money will be a major and ongoing concern.

    By the way, Andromeda, sorry I'm missing the AWP conference in Denver this week. I'd been to every one since 1995. There will certainly be plenty of resources there. Grub Street out of Boston always has a table in the exhibit hall, and Lighthouse Writers is based in Denver so will certainly have a presence–I remember meeting Michael Henry and Andrea Dupree back in the late 90's, when they started theirs in Denver.

  2. Great suggestions, Ken. I know Andromeda has meetings scheduled this week with folks from Lighthouse and the Loft. And next week I'll be addressing some of the unique visions for an Alaska statewide writing center.

  3. Forever the big dreamer…I have a hard time not envisioning an Alaska where we do what people with money do. Something that writers aren't all that familiar with, a fancy term called investing. (If you are asking yourself, "What? Alaska has money?" Please log-in and check our reserve or PFD account.) Wait, before you panic and think that I'm suggesting we raid the PFD to support the arts, take a Valium and chill. I'm merely having an oil fueled pipedream about an Alaska that invests in the arts by taking a crumb of our enormous wealth and transferring it to another account and creating an Alaska Endowment for the Arts.
    [insert groans of ridicule and utterances of "impossible" here.]


    This sounds like a plan. Let's make it happen.

    Count me in.

    Bake Sale anyone?

  4. I love the endowment idea. And I don't think it's impossible. There are some hefty ones out there, and if we serve underserved groups, it could work.

  5. Brilliant!!! What an exciting idea!!!

    For years I just couldn't understand why my friends and acquaintances wouldn't chat with me for hours about books or writing craft–even before I wrote much of anything. Turns out I just needed to find some writers to chat with!

    While having a connection to other writers is crucial in my life, it is also hard for me to maintain. A writing center would be a dream come true! And I can't help but think we, as writers, can only benefit from empowering others with the knowledge, skills, and even the dream of writing itself so that they too can hush those critics, internal and external, and continue the journey of writing their truths.

    I especially love the idea of taking programs into prisons as stated in your December post. I can state with certainty that writing has gotten me through the toughest parts of my life, parts that I may not have made it through otherwise. But I came to writing in a fragmented way through the years, through my wanderings, and through feelings of isolation and disconnect more so than solitude or community. Having a community of writers to attune to or programs to focus my efforts would have been beneficial in those days to say the least. That's why I would be willing contribute my time to this effort in any way I am capable of whether that be for the prisons or, perhaps, another program such as one geared toward STAR, Covenant House, or another needs based organization…

  6. I'm assuming a physical writing center would be based in Anchorage, as would make sense, but it would be great if a big part of its mission could be getting resources to smaller outlying communities. Remote towns in the bush and on the road system could really use the infusion of money and enthusiasm that a center could provide. Maybe eventually a traveling liaison, or a program to fund roving readings and workshops in small towns?

    Other organizations to check out would be the Montana Center for the Book (don't know if they have a physical site or not but they do lots of great stuff in a state with some remoteness and cultural overlap with Alaska) and of course, Poets House in NYC, founded by the inimitable Stanley Kunitz.

  7. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Ken: I agree. Talk to writers: Yes! Absolutely! We're going to communicate through this blog, via surveys, in person, and every way we can. Readers can help by putting us in touch with people we might not know already.

    Partnerships: absolutely! Both in Alaska and Outside as well. I had a mtg with Andrea of Lighthouse today, and I've been talking with the Exec Director at the Loft (breakfast meeting scheduled with her this Saturday!), and she — and so many of these other great writing centers — are supportive of new startups. Writing centers in general seem to like the idea of fostering community not only within their specified geographies, but nationwide — an idea I think we'll see taking off very soon.

    Money. Ah yes. We're looking already, but if this takes off, the search for money will be ongoing. I'd rather write fiction than write grant proposals, but someone has to do it, and learning arts administration skills — and passing on those skills to the NEXT generation of Alaska writers — are both worth a try, at the very least. (Note: We're always happy to hear from community-minded folks who just loooove fundraising.)

    Sorry you missed AWP this year, Ken, but you sure have a leg up on me. This is my first time and wow — it's a big conference! No way to see or do it all…

  8. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Don: Start your baking engines. (Metaphorically, anyway.) Glad to read your enthusiastic comments.

    And Cindy: Hooray — another enthusiast of the serving-underserved-populations concept. I will mark your name down, absolutely. And may I squeeze in mention of an all-time favorite book about a writer who taught workshops in a correctional facility? It's True Stories by Mark Salzman. I challenge my fellow softies to read without weeping.

    As far as the other populations/locations you named, i.e. Covenant House — all great ideas. We'll keep all that in mind as we look for funding.

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Alaska writer friends.

  9. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    P.S. To Anonymous: workshops to outlying communities. Yes. This should be an Alaska writing center, I believe — not just an Anchorage writing center. I'm sure Deb will be addressing that issue in her upcoming post. Thanks!

  10. Wow, an Alaska Writing Center would be a great service for current writers as well as a legacy for future writers! I love the concept. Yes, there are many groups to partner with and the opportunities for outreach and service to underserved groups are boundless. We have many writers' groups and people like Out North that could probably help with program and getting the word out. I'm excited at the possibilities. We can really build a community here, once we decide what direction we want to head. I guess that'll be the hard, part, deciding where to start. But you already have some great ideas.

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