Teaching, Learning, Writing: Guest post by Peggy Shumaker

Since 1976, I’ve balanced teaching and writing in my professional life. Writing is usually solitary, blissfully so. Teaching is usually sociable. For me, this makes a good mix. (Except when there is too much of a good thing, and teaching demands every waking hour.)

It’s been my privilege to work with hundreds of wonderful writers in Alaska, many of whom are at this moment creating contemporary Alaskan literature.

In 1999, I retired from full-time teaching at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Now I teach in the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency Master of Fine Arts program. (Alaskan writer Sherry Simpson teaches there too.) I still get to work with students who are crafting their first books, and I still get to challenge myself to articulate my critical and aesthetic perspectives. The differences? No meetings. No committees. And I have the great luxury of three students.
Sneak previews–teaching the next generation of writers means that I get to see poems, stories, essays, novels, and plays before they’re in print. What a privilege! Literary friendships deepen and grow long after school adjourns.

Many writers have lots of life experience before they opt for an MFA. Our own Andromeda Romano-Lax is a good example of this.

Here are the perspectives of five Alaskan writers who’ve been writing a long time and have chosen to study for their MFA degrees at Rainier Writing Workshop.

Debbie Moderow, from Denali Park, first year:

So I’m back at my desk after an extraordinary day in the park with our 28-year-old son. Our hike of a few hours across brilliant red tundra culminated when a sow grizzly and her two yearling cubs plunked themselves down at the base of a bluff beneath us. We had witnessed their urgent “bleating” sounds as they crossed the gravel bar towards us, and Andy and I were anticipating making a hasty retreat. We need not have worried. When the sow reached the base of the bluff she nestled against its bank on her back, and her two cubs proceeded to nurse. Three bears, connected to one another, fifty feet away. The feeding didn’t last long. Mom sat up, then pinned her belly against the ground. When one of the cubs started rooting around for an additional serving, she growled then swatted the persistent one away. Within a minute or two all three were soundly sleeping in a contented bear-pile. Andy and I got onto a park bus and smiled all the way home.

So, that is my excuse for not getting back to you sooner. Now for your requested topic: I am thrilled to be embarking on the RWW program, and after the residency returned to Alaska inspired to have attended a dazzling week of classes, and delighted to have interacted with such a talented group of students and writers. Always one for an adventure, I decided to attend a out-of-state program in order to broaden my horizons, and I was not disappointed. The cedar tree outside my dorm window, my classmates from D.C, Wyoming, Texas and Florida to name a few, and “the mountain” that was not named Denali but rather Rainier — these unfamiliar landmarks of the residency in Tacoma added to my sense of gratitude that magnified as the ten days unfolded. I love my Alaska home and hope to write about it with new skill as a result of the MFA program. I am also eager to engage a broad non-Alaskan audience. I’m optimistic that in widening my learning horizons in a lower-48 program, I’ll do the same for my craft.

In short, I feel like the luckiest person around to be enrolled in a program with such breadth. Then to return to Denali and write about our life in such a wild and engaging place is far more than anyone deserves.

Linda Martin, from Homer, is in her thesis year:

I’m a mature woman following a mature dream. In the process of working on the MFA my mind has grown and changed, something that doesn’t necessarily happen in daily life. The discipline of study and writing toward a purpose has kept me sane during periods of loneliness (my children have left home) and periods of illness (the kind a woman could dwell on if she had nothing more important to think about).

My choice of RWW was practical–the program had room for me when I decided to pursue an MFA–and mystical: Every part of the program seems so right to me; each mentor has provided structure, sympathy and direction when I needed one or all; I trust the direction I seem to be going. I am enjoying the present process and anticipating the future, while sitting at a studio window in my own home at the end of the road.

(Linda is writing both poetry and nonfiction. During her second-year Outside Experience, she did a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. She learned there that she needed a studio of her own, and so turned her son’s former bedroom into her new workplace.)

Erin Hollowell, from Cordova, graduate:

I saw getting my MFA as an investment in myself as a writer. It was a chance to become part of a community of writers. Living in a remote place, I wanted to have a group of people whom I could I rely upon to give me good advice, read my work, and commiserate with me about the vagaries of a writer’s life. RWW gave that to me in spades. I now have a wonderful cadre of writers who not only give me good writing advice, but are dear friends.

Because I’m now taking myself more seriously as a writer (my newly-minted MFA clutched in my hand), I am sending out my work more often and applying for opportunities to continue to enrich my writing life, such as Bread Loaf. My MFA has given me the confidence to pursue my writing whole-heartedly. I consider myself a writer, first and foremost. Whatever else I’m doing is simply supporting that writing.

As for why I chose RWW – there were no in-state low-res MFA programs at that time. I knew that I couldn’t quit working and relocate to pursue a full-time MFA, and so I looked at a host of different programs. In the end, I chose RWW because of the people. Stan Rubin and Judith Kitchen are the nicest, kindest and most supportive folks running any MFA program. I applied to several and none gave me the encouragement and individual attention that RWW did. The faculty at RWW were impressive not only for their writing careers, but also for their teaching careers. Honestly, I have never once regretted choosing RWW, not even for a moment. The spirit of the program is like nothing else.

Erin Coughlin Hollowell lives in Cordova, Alaska, a small fishing town off the road system. She is originally from upstate New York and has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cornell University, concentration writing. Although she is currently teaching English at the high school level, she has held many careers including several in the multimedia and computer industry, weaving rugs, selling books, and developing programs for a local arts association. She was commissioned by the University of Alaska Southeast to co-write a play in verse, Bedsheets, for the Alaska Humanities Forum. She was the Rona Jaffe Scholar in poetry at Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 2010. Her work has most recently been published in Blue Earth Review, Crab Creek Review, Terrain.org, Weber Studies, and Alaska Quarterly Review.She blogs about poetry and writing at http://www.beingpoetry.net/.

Katie Eberhart, from Palmer, graduate:

Being in a three-year MFA program helped me schedule writing time, and my writing certainly improved because of the suggestions and feedback I got from my mentors.

RWW came to my attention when I met Stan and Judith at the Writer’s Conference in Homer one summer. It was the same year I had applied to UAA’s traditional MFA Creative Writing program but they decided they weren’t taking any new students and were reconfiguring to low residency. When I applied to RWW there wasn’t an MFA Creative Writing program in southcentral AK, so out-of-state low residency was the only option I had. (UAF has a traditional MFA, but moving, whether in state or out of state, was not a possibility.)

Who is Katie Eberhart? Is she the one writing (not “texting”) in a small notebook under the edge of the table? You might have seen her: swimming, biking and running in the Gold Nugget or Eagle River triathlons, teaching / Smart Web Site Planning / at an Alaska Music Conference, installing the free Iñupiaq font on a computer at the Senior Center in Kotzebue. If you’d been there, you would have encountered her sloshing through Yukon Flats marshland searching for Rusty Blackbirds, sifting dirt at the Mat-Su Borough’s archaeology dig, or along the Denali Park Road extricating invasive dandelion roots from the gravel. You might have spied her at Prudhoe Bay or Tuktoyaktuk, hunting for the Arctic mirage; and at Dachau sixty-five years after Liberation. Listening. Who is Katie Eberhart? Economist, researcher.mother, teacher, poet, essayist, and a woman up to her elbows in the sweet muck of ideas. Katie Eberhart has a bachelor’s degree in Geography and Economics (CWU 1977), a Master of Arts in Agricultural Economics (WSU 1980), and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop (2010). Her web site is http://www.solsticelight.com/

Theresa Bakker, from Fairbanks, graduate:

For most of her career, Theresa Bakker has worked at public radio stations across Alaska, covering subjects as diverse as politics, persistent organic pollutants, and placer mining. She’s written for several small-town newspapers and publications as well as airline magazines and on-line zines. She lives with her son near the Chena River.

Coming from a background in journalism, Theresa wanted to see what could happen in her writing when it wasn’t driven by deadlines and on-air times for radio broadcasts. She used her three years to write a collection of personal essays called The Desert Was Once an Ocean. The essays deal with many topics, including transformations on several levels–geological, political, familial, personal. She also explored, in a critical paper, how walking and writing are inextricably intertwined. She’s recording Alaskan writers and trying to find ways to use their voices to bring their writing into people’s lives.Now that she is finally submitting her work to literary journals, two of her essays have been accepted for publication in the fall. She is grateful to have found RWW, which treated her as a writer and helped her find a writing community.

Featured guest author Peggy Shumaker’s new book of poems is Gnawed Bones. Her lyrical memoir is Just Breathe Normally. She’s currently working on a manuscript of poems set in Costa Rica. Peggy lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, and travels widely. Professor emerita at University of Alaska Fairbanks, she teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop and at many writing conferences and festivals. Please visit her website at www.peggyshumaker.com.

1 thought on “Teaching, Learning, Writing: Guest post by Peggy Shumaker”

  1. Thanks for sharing these, Peggy. Great fun to read about a program with much flexibility and to recognize so many talented Alaskans.

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