Annie Osburn | Becoming a Writer in Alaska

When I grew up in the flatland, the only way to see rain was to see it fall on you. If rain was nearby, you might get a sense from the clouds crowding in, but you didn’t see it until it was overhead, surrounding you.

I lived there, in several places that were all flatland, for too many years. In some of those flatlands it was easy enough to visit the mountains on sunny days, and easy enough to stay home when the storms came. When I lived there, I did the things I was supposed to do and for the most part wanted to do. I had always loved writing in high school, but found it simpler to let it slip during college. That’s when you’re supposed to prepare for a real career. A real life. I went to law school, dated kind and wonderful people who also wanted a real life, worked out at a gym. But there was a rain cloud circling above me, like Eeyore or an egg in a Zoloft commercial, cutting off access to life beyond. I wasn’t depressed, but somehow I was still locked in. I found out I wasn’t designed for life as an attorney, I never fit right with those kind and wonderful people, and I tested positive for a genetic aberration that could wreak havoc with my body and my future. When I wrote, everything came out wrong. I tried to convey my own fears and demons from the inside, but they never fully translated. They twisted and curdled and I dug myself in deeper. I couldn’t find my way out of it in the flatland, so I quit and moved north to McCarthy, Alaska.

McCarthy teaches you many things: mining history and proper sauna technique, glacier travel and self-reliance. Mostly, though, it teaches you perspective. Standing on the Root Glacier, you can see it raining twenty miles away while the sun still bounces off the ice below you. You can watch the rain dance across mountains on its way toward you and you can watch it leave. You can see the shape of it. You can define it.

Blue pool on the Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

These days, my main characters may mostly be women who find themselves in rural Alaska, but they are inspired by history, by tall tales at the bar and broken down houses pushing back against time. They are not re-living my own story. I still write about my fears and demonsthe characters stumble through my worst flaws and impulsesbut somehow they aren’t mine anymore. They are twenty miles away, and I know what they look like barreling down on other people’s lives. 

There is a binder sitting on a plywood shelf in my plywood hooch with 280 pages that no one else will or should ever read. It is my first novel, written entirely from inside the rain. The main character is a me in a different gender and a different city, and his voice is weak, inconsistent. I let it sit for a year in McCarthy to give myself some distance, and on re-reading it, realized that the supporting characters are much more alive and engaging. If I were to re-write it, and I might someday, the current main character would be shuffled back in favor of the people in his life I allowed to breathe on their own.

Annie Osburn is originally from Michigan, and currently splits her time between McCarthy, Alaska and Laramie, Wyoming, where she is working on her MFA in Creative Writing. In the last five years, she has worked as a lawyer, nanny, guide and housekeeper.

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