Bill Sherwonit: Getting Essays Published – Maybe the Local Newspaper is an Option to Consider

Earlier this month, on returning home from a trip to Denali
National Park, I got some exciting news: one of my stories, “Of Waxwings and
Goshawks and Standing Up to Power,” has been named a “Notable Essay” in this
Best American Essays anthology
(joining two other 2014 Alaskan notables, Eva Saulitis and David Stevenson).
But that’s not all. In April I learned that another essay of mine had been
chosen to appear in
The Best American
Science and Nature Writing 2014
, where “Twelve Ways of Viewing Alaska’s
Wild, White Sheep” will be in the good company of essays and articles written
by such literary luminaries as Barbara Kingsolver, Elizabeth Kolbert, Rebecca
Solnit, and E.O. Wilson (along with several other lesser known journalists and
I mention these honors not to boast or seek pats on my aging back,
but to make a couple of points. First, such recognition is good for the
writer’s spirit (as well as his ego), especially one who’s a largely obscure
scribbler beyond Alaska. Or perhaps even beyond Anchorage. It’s natural, I
think, to wonder how one’s work stacks up against other, better known essayists
and authors, especially when a writer works in the far-north reaches of our
nation. It’s also too easy (at least for this writer) to become despondent
after repeated rejections, whether sending essays to magazines and literary
journals, submitting book proposals to agents or publishing houses, or applying
for grants, residencies, etc.
The past few years my writing life has been filled with such
rejections, prompting me to wonder whether I was in a slump of exceedingly long
duration or simply didn’t measure up. Despite a reasonably successful career as
a freelance journalist, essayist, and author, the doubts crept in. Maybe my
work just isn’t very good. Or at least not good enough.
The acceptance and now publication of Animal Stories marked an important turning point to more positive
territory (though it’s simply one of many pivots in a writing life that now
stretches nearly 35 years, if I count my dozen years as a newspaper
journalist). It’s been a darn cool thing, to have a book publishing staff get
excited about my essays, a body of work that stretches across two decades. And
I suppose the recognition of my essays in two “best American” series this year
is the proverbial icing on the cake.
What’s even more cool is this: though both of the essays are
included in Animal Stories, each was
initially published in the Anchorage
How amazing is it that the list of stories to appear in The Best American Science and Nature Writing
collection not only includes pieces from Audubon, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Scientific American, Orion,
The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine
, and National
, but also a small weekly newspaper published in Anchorage,
I bring this up because I think many creative nonfiction writers
tend to overlook—or look down upon?—local publications when they have essays or
other stories they’d like to see in print. Again I think it’s natural to seek
publication in literary journals or magazines with a national or even
international reach. And why not? But it might be a mistake to overlook
something like the Anchorage Press,
which (happily for me) sometimes runs pieces of 3,000 to 4,000 words and
occasionally even longer. And which also pays decently (at least by newspaper
standards) for such stories, not a small consideration for a “working writer”
who’s eking out a living. Now that the Alaska
Dispatch News
has resurrected “We Alaskans,” there’s even more opportunity
for Alaska’s essayists and other writers to find a local home for their
There’s one other thing about writing for a local audience that I
appreciate. As I note in my acknowledgments in Animal Stories, “Though it’s always a pleasure to have work appear
in a national and/or literary publication, I owe a special debt to the string
of editors who’ve run my essays in the local weekly newspaper, the Anchorage Press. Besides providing a
forum for several of my longer pieces, the Press
has given me the opportunity to share my observations, musings, and
perspectives with a broad spectrum of local residents, many of whom have much
different backgrounds, attitudes, and beliefs than I. The opportunity to
present these readers new or alternative ways of relating to and thinking about
the wildlife with whom we share this landscape is no small thing.”
So both the Anchorage Press
and the newly revived “We Alaskans” will be on my literary radar whenever I
write essays about the larger, wilder world we inhabit. And sometimes they’ll
be the first places I turn when I have stories to share.
A transplanted New
Englander, nature writer Bill Sherwonit has made Anchorage his home since 1982.
He’s contributed essays, articles, and commentaries to a wide variety of publications
and is the author of more than a dozen books. His newest,
Animal Stories:
Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife, will
be published this fall by Alaska Northwest Books. His website is

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