North Words Writers Symposium: A Guest Post by Heather Lende

Registration is open, but limited to fifty, for the third annual North Words Writers Symposium in Skagway, May 30-June 2, 2012. I’ll be there, as will other Alaskan writers Seth Kantner, Kim Heacox, Deb Vanasse, John Straley, Nick Jans, Dan Henry, David Hunsaker, and Jeff Brady. This year’s keynote speaker is New York-based screenwriter Scott Silver (The Fighter), who has recently written the screenplay for Howard Blum’s historical novel of Skagway con man Soapy Smith’s rise and fall, The Floor of Heaven.

At North Words there are no formal lectures, classes, or craft talks; instead there are two-hour-long panel discussions (this year with some emphasis on screenwriting thanks to David Hunsaker and Scott Silver) hosted by a faculty member and featuring other faculty, but also open to all participants. They are lively, thought-provoking, sometimes controversial–and always informative. (Last year I learned Lynn Schooler wakes at 3:30 every morning and rarely re-writes, and that I could watch John Straley read the phone book and be entertained.)
Organizer Dan Henry said that nine years as a staff member for the defunct Sitka Symposium convinced him that writers who attend conferences want at least as much to contribute as to listen, and he has structured North Words accordingly. “People ought to have time to talk with each other. Great conversation is a scarce commodity in our treadmill world of digital messaging, and anything we can do to stimulate discussion will contribute to the event’s value.”
What Dan didn’t say, is that these panels take place in hundred-year-old buildings that are themselves full of stories (if only the walls could talk) and what a pleasure a long, rambling discussion with a room full of smart writers and readers is.
The food is great, too. Breakfasts and lunches are prepared by a local bakery, and evening meals are at gourmet restaurants. This year’s events include a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad, which doubles as an opportunity for small discussions (two to six) with the faculty, a brothel tour at the historic Red Onion Saloon, and the keynote dinner features seasonal local food at Poppies, overlooking beautiful (and for we Alaskan gardeners the stuff dreams are made of) Jewell Gardens, a commercial organic produce and show flower garden.
North Words provides a wonderful opportunity to make and strengthen friendships with other writers and to learn much from freewheeling discussions in a friendly little gold rush town. Where else are a bunch of writers feted like foreign dignitaries in a rowdy old saloon by the mayor, members of the town council, and a tourism director who looks like Santa Claus, spouting Robert Service poems? You’d have to wear a paper bag on your head not to be inspired to write more after attending the North Words Writers Symposium. (At the very least, you’ll gather plenty of material).
For more information on registration, panel topics, schedule, and planned activities go to or contact Buckwheat Donahue at 907-983-2854 or
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