Deb: 49 Writers Interview with Jeremy Pataky, Wrangell Mountains Center

It’s that time of year when we beat winter blahs by planning for summer, and it’s tough to imagine anything more invigorating than a chance to work on your writing in the heart of the Wrangell Mountains at the Wrangell Mountains Writing Workshop (WMWW); this year, it’s July 17-24, and scholarships are available. As part of our continuing series on organizations and opportunities for writers, we offer this interview with Jeremy Pataky of the Wrangell Mountains Center.

For those not familiar with the Wrangell Mountains Center (WMC), tell us a bit about what it is and how it came to be.

The Wrangell Mountains Center is a private nonprofit institute which fosters understanding, appreciation, and stewardship of wildlands and mountain culture in Alaska through scientific and artistic inquiry in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. We provide residential and walk-in experiential education programs that foster discovery through direct contact with diverse environments. Our programs provide students, local citizens, scholars, and travelers with an increased understanding of complex natural processes and a changed view of the human place in the natural environment.

The Wrangell Mountains Center was incorporated in 1986, having grown out of activities dating back to the early 70s, well before the establishment of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The WMC is headquartered in the “Old Hardware Store,” a historic building which originally served as a general store for boomtown McCarthy during the copper mining period of the early-20th century. Built in 1908 and abandoned in 1938, the structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places after former board member Sally Gibert initiated ongoing stabilization and restoration efforts in 1976, after several years of base-camping there with students. What was once a store, family living quarters, and rooming house is now an active solar-powered educational center, with a library, seminar room, program office, equipment storage for rafting and mountaineering expeditions, workshop, office/studio space for visiting scholars and artists, a cooperatively-run kitchen, flower, vegetable gardens, and a small green house. By joining a learning community at the Hardware Store, participants from all backgrounds have the opportunity to experience a self-contained and largely sustainable living system.

How and when did the WMC decide to start hosting summer workshops for writers? Was there a particular niche you were hoping to fill?

A woman called Nancy Cook has been the driving force behind summer writing workshops at the Center. A student in our Wildlands Studies Program years ago, she fell in the love with the Wrangells and with the Center. She felt the power of writing in the field right away as a student at the Center, and eventually she came to live in Alaska, where she earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from UAF, worked as a ranger for the National Park Service, and eventually worked as an instructor in our college program. She also taught a three-week long program for the Center on sketching and writing in the field, accredited by San Francisco State University.

She directed the first Wrangell Mountains Writing Workshop, which was offered 13 years ago, featuring visiting writer and instructor Gretchen Legler. The workshop filled up, as most of them have – many of our students end up coming back again and again. Since then, we have had a number of great visiting writers teach the workshop in partnership with Nancy Cook herself, who has taught writing at Prince William Sound Community College and University of Alaska Fairbanks, and who is currently a full time faculty member at Clatsop Community College in Astoria, Oregon. She owns a cabin near McCarthy.

In addition to our annual Writing Workshop, we have offered raft-based writing workshops on the Copper River, with faculty including Sherry Simpson, as well as a number of readings and literary events as part of our Summer Arts and Lectures Series out in McCarthy/Kennecott. Also, the Wrangell Mountains Center’s annual fundraiser in McCarthy has a bit of a literary twist – the Tall Tales Contest and silent auction, a fun night hosted by the McCarthy Lodge, awards the winner a $500 cash prize and is usually held on the last Saturday in August.

How do you choose the theme and presenter(s) for each summer’s workshop?

Many of the instructors hired to teach the Wrangell Mountains Writing Workshop (WMWW) have come to us at the recommendation of previous instructors or at the request of students. We have been lucky to host Kathleen Dean Moore, Gretchen Legler, Robert Michael Pyle, Seth Kantner, Sandra Alcosser, Scott Russell Sanders, Frank Soos, and many others. It means a lot to us when they go home and call their writer friends and say “Can I put you in touch with the Wrangell Mountains Center? You would love to teach in their workshop.” The themes are often formulated by the writers themselves or in collaboration with Nancy Cook, the Workshop Director.

Describe a typical day at the WMC writing workshop.

The WMWW is very much a writing workshop, as opposed to a writers conference – we emphasize the production and revision of original work over the course of the week. We also foster a true writing community, immersing participants in an environment dedicated and conducive to the practice of writing. That practice is stimulated by morning writing circles with a prompt, daily craft talks, one-on-one critique sessions, group workshops, discussion of readings from a reading packet, and excursions in the field to the toe of the Kennicott Glacier and even a guided hike on the inspiring Root Glacier. Meals are provided by the staff of the WMC, who don’t just prepare and serve but grow much of the food in our organic garden.

One night of the workshop is opened up to the public for a literary open mic night in the Hardware Store’s Great Room, which is always a great time. We also hold a participants-only reading on the last night of the week, giving students a chance to share revisions of their work in progress generated during the workshop; another public reading featuring the visiting writer and the Program Director is held in the historic Kennecott Recreation Hall. Many participants attend multiple times, and it is also very common for writers who meet each other in McCarthy to maintain their new friendships and to share their work long after the end of the workshop.

How have the WMC writing workshops evolved? What changes might we expect in the future?

As we become more known within Alaska and throughout the U.S., more and more students have been coming to us from the Lower 48 as well as from throughout Alaska. We also have a scholarship program in place now, which enables some to attend who might be otherwise unable. We are negotiating an expansion of our residential space, which will enable us to possibly offer multiple programs per year. We also are planning a writer-in-residency position that would not be tied to the Writing Workshop.

This year’s 13th annual WMWW, however, probably marks the biggest change the program has seen yet. Creative Cross-pollinations, the theme for this year’s workshop, will feature visiting writer Frank Soos. He collaborates regularly with Margo Klass, a mixed media construction artist, and both of them will be teaching this year. Nancy Cook will direct the program as usual before taking a sabbatical next year from the program that she has founded and nurtured for over a decade. Those three will also be joined by writer, artist, and scholar Jonathan Gray and quilt artist and writer Maria Shell, for a total of five instructors. We have added an extra day to the program and reduced the number of participants. As usual, this will be a writing workshop taught by writers, but this time there will be many optional opportunities for interdisciplinary work, for “cross-pollination” with some of the best visual artists in their field, available for those who are interested in exploring new dimensions of their creative process. The introduction of the visual arts to a decidedly literary context is an exciting new page in an ongoing evolution of one of Alaska’s most unique and exciting writing workshops. And we are lucky to have both Frank Soos and Margo Klass, both well-respected and productive artists and teachers in their own right as well as fluent trans-disciplinary collaborators, to expand our writerly horizons.

Anything else you’d like us to know about how the WMC works with writers?

Our Kennicott Summer Arts & Lectures Series is well-attended by both locals and visitors in the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. I would love to hear from writers whose work is relevant to the mission of the Wrangell Mountains Center who might be interested in offering a reading, a talk, or class in the future. It is also worth noting that we try to assist, insofar as we can, with logistics between Anchorage or Fairbanks and McCarthy, pairing passengers with drivers who are attending the summer workshop. With meals included and a variety of free, cheap, or comfortable but inexpensive lodging options available nearby, the WMWW is a bargain. I encourage writers to explore our website as well as our Facebook site to learn more about the Center and the Wrangell Mountains Writing Workshop. Also, our scholarship deadline is March 15, 2010 – don’t miss it!

Several participants in the 2009 Wrangell Mountains Writing Workshop explore the Root Glacier with WMC staff while other participants explore the nearby Kennicott National Historic Landmark or work on their writing projects back in town.

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