Deb: Big State, Big Vision

Writing Center? Again? Don’t worry, dear readers – we won’t blog-beat this drum forever. But at this point in our planning, Andromeda and I are devoting a couple of weeks (this being the second of those) to engaging our readers in the excitement of pulling together programming and instruction for writers from throughout Alaska. From the beginning of our 49 Writers venture, we’ve committed ourselves to being inclusive, which means we don’t want to get very far in our scheming and dreaming before making the broadest possible reach to include Alaska’s writers, an effort that begins with these blog posts.

If you’ve hung around here for any length of time, you know that neither Andromeda nor I need another project. We’re up to our writerly necks in blogging, instructing, and creating new books. But this Alaska Writing Center idea – our working title is 49: The Alaska Writing Center – grabbed us hard. Like many of you, we’re mostly self-instructed as writers. Through programming and outreach, we’d love to see support for creative writers from throughout Alaska at all stages of their development while building an audience for Alaska literature.

My road to publication began with a short writer’s conference Outside followed by a short Teacher as Writer workshop sponsored by the Alaska Writing Consortium. But trips Outside are expensive, and by design, AWC workshops are available to only teachers and public school students. Alaska’s emerging and established writers deserve better than hit-and-miss when it comes to honing their craft and getting their work to market. So Andromeda and I began a program of writing workshops. Motivated students, content that’s fun and challenging to prepare, and no unwieldy institutional requirements to wrestle – what teacher/writer wouldn’t love doing this? We’ve enjoyed a fabulous response, which tells us we’re meeting a need.

We could be content with writing and teaching and blogging in Anchorage. But I want more. My desire has little to do with money (ha!) or recognition (double ha!). It comes from something that snuck into my soul back in 1979 when I landed in the Yup’ik village of Nunapitchuk, something that rooted in my emotional core and grew as I moved to the villages of Tuluksak and Akiachak. As a writer, I’m at a sorry loss to explain it.

Someday I’ll shove aside other projects and devote a book to trying to sort it all out. All I know now is that it has something to do with people like Maggie, who taught me to cut fish and shared her steam bath with me – she must have noticed sponge baths weren’t doing the trick. And the Alexies, who showed such tenderness to my firstborn, convinced the soul of their beloved A’pa had been reborn in him. And Eliza, who watched that little boy like one of her own while I went off to teach, and who helped me stitch the tiny fur parka that hangs in my closet, waiting for the day when I can pass it on to that boy’s first child.

These are the people I consider, with a catch in my voice, when I speak of a statewide effort to encourage writers. Against all odds, they’ve held fast to their culture. They’ve suffered watching their children grow up between worlds, without self-esteem. I’m no Pollyanna, but I’ve seen the way writing helps people discover a sense of themselves. I want that for all Alaskans, not just those in Anchorage.

To my knowledge, none of the wonderful writing centers Outside attempt to serve a whole state. We’d be the first. But I believe it’s essential to launch with a big vision, before the stories of people like Maggie, the Alexies, and Eliza are lost. Yes, there’s the little problem of funding far-flung programs. But we’re dialoguing with donors, movers, and shakers who share our passion. Are you one?

2 thoughts on “Deb: Big State, Big Vision”

  1. Chiming in from my brief home (two days) in the village of Fort Yukon, to say "Yes,yes, yes," to that. I have been trying to say it for a long time and I felt alone in it. I thought even of a literature… Those my age watched a black literature take shape, coalescing around writers of the fifties and sixties and then drawing in many older, lost texts. I learned so much in the reading. Then, when I discovered a similar vein of writing from Asian Americans, it so increased my knowledge of the world. Out of this as I heard the stories of Alaska's native people many told in Talking Circles and some told in the protected confines of counseling, it became so clear to me that these stories had to be told — had to reach the other stories of the human struggle as literature — a literature to come from Alaska's Native people. It will draw on those who are already writing Hensley, Wallis and Hayes, to name just three, and it will likely bring lost texts to it, as well. This has grown in my mind since 1984, when I arrived in Bethel. I have grappled with the place of my own writing feeling at first that I was not entitled to speak — which was especially true when I had just arrived. Now, twenty-five years later, I've been marked enough to give in to it, to say my small piece but the work that will arise from Alaska's native people will be astonishing because of who they are, because of the palpable metaphysical spirit murmuring within the culture and the remarkable revelations to come from the work.

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