Andromeda: North Words Symposium Report from Skagway

What do we expect from a writing conference?

That question kept running through my mind as I enjoyed several days at the new North Words Symposium in Skagway, which ended on Sunday. Modeled on a symposium — more about ideas than about extremely specific issues of craft or the business of writing or writing workshops, per se — the Skagway conference defies easy description. (Comparisons might be made to the now defunct Sitka Symposium.) The highlights for me were those moments a conference organizer can’t engineer — exactly — but can only facilitate.

For several sunny days in historic Skagway, I had the pleasure of taking part in, or listening to, one interesting conversation after another — occasionally during panel discussions, but just as often on field trips, like the railroad trip to Lake Bennett or the short hike and float on the Chilkoot Trail. What wasn’t discussed on a field trip ended up fodder for dinner or casual bar talk. We ate well and mixed freely. The faculty-participant ratio was 1:1. Everyone had access to everyone else, which I’ve never experienced at any other conference.

I listened to Dan Henry and Kim Heacox — great writers and also history lovers extraordinaire — bring history to life as they energetically discussed key moments from the Tlingit/European contact past. This was on the train to Lake Bennett. Overhead, a guide was trying to tell us about the area, but it couldn’t compare with Dan’s and Kim’s feverish retellings of negotiation, battles, and other human moments of passion and change.

At a panel discussion, park historian Karl Gurcke convinced me that someone should write a history of the U.S. as discovered through excavations of outhouses. Really. Super interesting stuff falls into those holes. (And if such a history is written, I know the Skagway bookstore that will sell it — thanks to Jeff Brady, the publisher and bookstore owner who helped support North Words.)

At the Red Onion Saloon, I went on a brothel tour with Peggy Shumaker and several other participants. We were astonished by the historic details that helped us envision what a Gold Rush prostitute’s life was really like. Peggy’s empathy about Gold Rush life was akin to her empathy in other areas. At one panel after another, she was a good listener, adept at creating bridges between participants and faculty.

Over dinner and on the Chilkoot Trail, I took part in several discussions with Nick Jans and others about which Alaska books will last, and why, and how Alaska writing has changed over 30 years. Since I first read Nick close to 15 years ago, but had never met him, the discussions had a special resonance for me. I felt like I was encountering someone from my own coming-to-Alaska past, when I first started reading the essayists who shaped my idea of what Alaska is.

I listened to Kaylene Johnson read a beautiful essay about her family and the ambivalence she felt when her husband and sons went on a trip to hunt brown bears. No mention of Palin in that essay, but plenty of moments that made me teary. I look forward to reading more by her.

With Tim Woody of Alaska Magazine, I discussed other bear stories he has covered, and learned more about the magazine’s focus and audience. Good things to know. Great opportunity to meet an editor face-to-face.

With participants Leslie and Lisa — both sci-fi writers — we talked about the challenges of writing in the near future and how to define and test for sentiency (in animals or robots), and other subjects that reminded me that I do want to try to write sci-fi someday. (Manuscript in a file, waiting to be reawakened.)

With participant Art, I discussed Civil War and World War II history. And a lot more. Everyone had interesting conversations with Art.

With screenwriter Dave Hunsaker, I talked about the current state of Hollywood. At panel discussions, I never tired of hearing him describe how he does research, frames stories, and brings ideas to the screen. All inspiring. Hollywood, here I come! (Meeting any screenwriter inflames one’s screenwriting ambitions.)

With Sherry Simpson, I laughed often (no surprise ) and discussed what we read, and how we’re influenced by what we read, among other things. (Note to self — read more. Expand one’s sights.)

I didn’t talk about marketing with Dana Stabenow — I just listened. Her keynote address was about how to market one’s book online, what works and what doesn’t, and she forced me to take a good look at whether I do enough. The answer: I don’t. More on this later. Dana is going to be teaching a 49 Alaska Writing Center workshop this fall on the subject and I will twist the arm of every writer I know to encourage them to attend. She has info to impart. Don’t miss it.

But didn’t I say the symposium wasn’t about the business of writing? Yes. So why did Dana’s keynote work? I’m not sure, but it did. Maybe because it came from a deep place in Dana’s heart. As with every other conversation in Skagway, she was sharing something she had struggled to master, something she deeply felt was essential, something authentic and true.

Would a more singular theme — or a more hands-on focus on the craft of writing — make this conference even better? Or did participants like it just as it was: an almost indefinable mix, made possible because people took every opportuntity to connect without artifice. I’d love to hear.

I’ve named only some of the great faculty members and fewer of the interesting participants at North Words. To be honest, my head is still spinning. Is that what a conference is about? Maybe so. Put a lot of interesting people together in an inspiring place, feed them well, take them on great field trips, give them time to think and talk. It occurred to me that I’d rather have experienced those four days than spend a lifetime on Facebook. Amazing, actually.

The North Words conference will continue next year — possibly in another location. One plan is to have it move from Skagway, to Dawson City, to Denali National Park, and then back to Skagway. Whatever happens, I’ll pay attention. The organizers created some magic once and I don’t doubt they’ll create it again.

Congrats to organizers Buckwheat Donahue, Dan Henry, and Jeff Brady for pulling it off with style.

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