Sara Loewen: Writer, Reader

Our featured author for November is Sara Loewen, whose first
book, Gaining Daylight: Life on Two Islands, was published by the UA Press in
February.  She received her MFA in creative writing from the UAA
Low-Residency Program in 2011. She works at Kodiak College and fishes
commercially for salmon each summer with her family in Uyak Bay. Shown here is one of her readers-in-training.
My first real job was teaching kindergarten in New Mexico.
From the highway, Newcomb is a gas station, a school, and some teacher housing.
Only flickering house lights under night skies reveal the trailers flung out
for miles across the mesa.
It was two hours roundtrip to the nearest public library, a
drive I made weekly to load the car with books for my classroom. Sharing the
wonder of all those stories was one of the best things about teaching. I don’t
want to think about how much of my salary went toward Farmington Public Library
fines those years.
Now I work in a college library, surrounded by more than I
could read in a lifetime. And yet I’d still rather not think about how much of
my salary goes toward buying books.
The other day when I asked my husband about adding some
bookshelves upstairs he said, “Every time I build new shelves you just fill
them up with more books.”
I reminded him it’s my responsibility as a writer to buy and
promote the works of other authors. I didn’t mention that thanks to Alaska Book
Week recommendations in the Juneau Empire and Alaska Dispatch in October, I’ve
added a whole new batch of Alaska titles to my wish list.
Neil Gaiman recently gave a Reading
lecture in support of libraries and spoke of our obligation to read
aloud to our children, “to do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to
stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves.”
He quoted Albert Einstein’s answer on how to raise smart
children. “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales,”
Einstein said, “If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy
Such advice reassures the mom in me. But not necessarily the
writer, who has heard over and over that if you want to be an author you need
to “read, read, read,” but isn’t sure that Where’s
My reading list these days is dictated by two little boys,
so it’s heavy on Seuss and snakes and chapter books about giants, cowdogs, and
eating worms. I don’t mind. Especially on summer nights when sunlight floods
their bedroom at 10 p.m., I’m happy to read chapter after chapter, knowing it’s
a luxury we won’t have during winter months of early dinners and darkness and
school night bedtimes.
Meanwhile, my own book stacks grow faster than houseplants,
reminding me how MANY things I want to read, and I’m always trying to fit too
much into my short windows of time. I play audiobooks in the car, even though
Kodiak’s limited road system and lack of traffic or stoplights necessitates
‘reading’ audiobooks in five minute segments spread out over months. I carry
three books to the bathtub, four to bed, and pack half a dozen for a weekend
trip. I find myself reading as fast as I can, skimming to get to the end.
Binge reading means I can stand in front of a bookstore or
library shelf and recognize various titles I’ve read without being able to pull
up details of plot or characters.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I cannot remember the books I’ve
read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”
While I’d like to believe in a kind of literary osmosis, I’m
not sure that I’m reading deliberately enough to absorb anything into my own
writing. I read like a manic beachcomber, shoving shiny words and images into
crowded pockets, worrying that I’ve overlooked something significant.
“The more you read, the better you write. That’s just self
evident,” says Anthony Horowitz.
That sounds good, but how important is the what and the how
of reading when it comes to transference? Would slowing down, or reading with
pen in hand and making time for reflection help my reading feel less compulsive
and more cohesive?
In Sven Birkerts’ The
Gutenberg Elegies,
he writes that all acts of creation are “an arranging
and interpreting of the given. Not so much a bringing-into-being as a
recovering of what is in some way already known. The writer, then, places
himself in a condition of silent receptivity.”
When we sit down to create a scene, “We research our sense
memories, applying our attentiveness inward with the same diligence we would
apply to the reading of a difficult text…We must, for we cannot have all of the
images and sensations we need at our command at once; memory works by
association, by accumulation, and by unconscious reconstruction.”
I’ve resolved to read more conscientiously, to pay attention
to the confluence of my reading and writing.
But I’ve also decided to trust that all of this is what makes me—the hour reading aloud at the foot of
the bunk bed because I believe in the power of stories to nurture imagination
and empathy in my boys, mixing pumpkin into pancake batter at midnight because
I believe holidays should start with a special breakfast, while this unfinished
blog piece rolls through my thoughts and I try to puzzle out what exactly I’m
looking for every time I open another book. It’s that one sentence or image or
paragraph that reminds me why I wanted to be a writer in the first place and
why I will always be a reader—to move or be moved by a quiet truth so
masterfully written it becomes a revelation worth sharing and savoring and
seeking out, a place to begin.  
(Because I found a dozen more books on reading for this
post—too many to fit into ten-minute windows or these 800 words—more about reading
like a writer next week.)

4 thoughts on “Sara Loewen: Writer, Reader”

  1. Hi Sarah, I think you're on to something. Maybe reading a novel or two a day creates story-telling pathways in your brain. Maybe not. I've taken to reading old classics because the archaic language forces me to slow way down and pay attention to things I can steal from the masters. I don't know if that is working either. There's no way to test these things. But in the end, I'm happy if I've read a couple great books instead of a hundred I can't remember reading.

  2. So glad your kids are getting so much reading. And I agree, even if we're not consciously reading as writers it's got to be an influence.

  3. Great post Sarah; it's so reassuring to hear another mom talk about the crazy of trying to be a writer, reader, and mama all at the same time. Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. I love how you weave your words, Sarah. Excellent post. I, too, believe in reading aloud. There is just a magical moment that is shared in the imagined world of our words. My students and I have a story circle each day after their recess/lunch. Some days I get those afternoon yawns, and my kids are quick to respectfully point out that I need more expression. 🙂 They hang on the words, and our conversations about the story are deeply meaningful…extending beyond standards and into our world as young members of a big community. Yep, mentor texts help model what they/we should aspire to in writing personal narratives – but there is something else pretty powerful there. Again, thanks always for sharing your gift of writing.

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