Nancy Lord writes: I’m hoping to see some posts from the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference. As the state writer laureate it was my honor to give the closing talk there on June 15. The following is the basic text.
Back when I was finishing my MFA degree, more than 20 years ago, there was an essay circulating among us, called “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years” by the writer and editor Ted Solotarof. It was addressed to young writers coming out of graduate writing programs and basically said, “the key to success is not your talent but your persistence,” and that a writer needs to trust the writing process, which involves a lengthy apprenticeship, and write because you love to do it or must do it and not because you expect anyone to recognize your genius or to publish your work anytime soon. I recently went back and reread this essay; much of what he said about writing programs and the publishing industry is dated now, but the basic advice about the time it takes to develop as a writer and the need to keep working still seems sound. And I realized that I also remembered that essay for its metaphors about cold; Solotarof said a new writer thinks he or she knows about uncertainty and rejection but that’s like saying a new immigrant to Alaska knows about cold. You don’t really know it until you live it. He returned to the comparison later on to say that rejection and disappointment “are as much a part of a writer’s life as snow and cold are of an Eskimo’s: they are conditions one has to learn not only to live with but also to make use of.”
When you leave here today and head for home, you will indeed be leaving the warmth of Homer in June and the friendships kindled here. If you imagine yourself to be Solotarof’s snow-bound traveler, you might imagine yourself with new long undies and a good set of goggles to keep warm and see through the snow. We’re writers, so of course we use metaphors, and in this case your long underwear might be all the notes, ideas, advice, inspiration, and beginnings of things you’ve written down—the layers that will warm and sustain you in the cold. Your goggles might be the new and improved skills you’ve developed, the new ways of seeing you’ve been introduced to. The fire will be at your back—the community that has warmed us all as we’ve shared our work, struggled, tested, and felt some level of accomplishment and satisfaction—or the encouragement, perhaps, to set out in a new direction.
When we started this annual conference nine years ago, the hope was to contribute to the sense of a writing community—a uniquely Alaskan one but one also that brought to us the fresh ideas and artistry of writers from beyond our borders. It wasn’t going to be about bowing before rock-star writers or catering to publication ambitions, but about developing craft, sharing, working together in common mission, and building a supportive and embracing community of writers. Some of you have returned now multiple times and have connected to other writers, maybe even to an editor or agent, and certainly to new ideas and ways of being a writer. I like to think that even writers who have not attended the conference have been touched by the community that’s been fostered here, as the—to continue our metaphor—heat waves that began here radiate out into the larger culture. Or perhaps they’re sparks from the fire—a phrase from someone’s talk, a mentioned book, a writing exercise, a bit of advice or insight, an enduring friendship.
For some, these few June days are an indulgence, a rare chance to set the rest of life aside to focus on one’s thoughts and the writing craft. That same opportunity may not come again for a year, or a lifetime. But if writing is what you do, you’ll find your ways to keep it going in whatever form it sustains you. You’ll keep it hot in the cold. From my own experience and that of others, and from what I’ve learned about the larger writing community in Alaska and beyond, I’ve got a few ideas—not in any particular order—for encouraging that.
1. Find your tribe and stay with it. You’ve connected with people here. They “get” you. They have ideas like your ideas, or different from your ideas in a good way—they make you think. This is your tribe. Find a way to stay in touch, by sharing work, or planning to meet up again, or participating in an organization or project together.
2. Know and take advantage of your community resources. There are other conferences, reading and writing groups, classes, the new Alaska Writing Center, mentorships, publications, reading series, open mikes. Make it a habit to check in with the 49writers blog. That’s the single best source of information about what’s happening in the Alaska writing scene—and a place where you can also post your website, blog, or writerly news. The Alaska Writing Center associated with it needs volunteers—find a way to contribute that also feeds your writing and your connections to community.
3. Write as a regular practice. This is easier said than done. But the point is to establish regular times when you apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. You can talk forever about wanting to be a writer, but you will only be a writer if you actually write, and you will only write if you make it a habit with a commitment of time and mind.
4. Develop other writerly practices, such as reading, observing, thinking, and making notes. Writing doesn’t all take place at the keyboard. When you’re taking a shower, doing dishes, walking, use the time to think through a writing problem or work out plot points. When you hear a good line, write it down. Most of all—read. It’s the rare writer who reads enough. And when you read, read as a writer—not only for content and pleasure, but for the how—how did the writer make that scene so effective? How did she build character? How does this sentence work?
5. Think about writing not as something selfish but as a gift to give. Writing is not about expressing yourself; it’s not about you at all. It’s what you can give to others, to the world. Lewis Hyde wrote a beautiful book called The Gift—something else I read in grad school—about writing and other art forms as gifts, about the value of creativity. He says, in his introduction, “That art that matters to us—which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience—that work is received by us as a gift is received.” The time you put into writing is not self-indulgence, not navel-gazing; you will write something to share with others, even a small number of others, even one other person, that will present a fresh idea, brighten someone’s day, help create empathy, be simply beautiful. The time needed to create such a gift needs no defense.
6. Grace Paley advised her writing students, keep a low overhead and never live with anyone who doesn’t respect your work. She gave this advice to young people starting out as writers. For older people, I would extend this to simplify your life and, to the extent you can control who your family and friends are, don’t put up with anyone who doesn’t respect your work.
7. Set deadlines for yourself. This is a good reason to be part of a writing group or to submit to writing contests and publications. It forces you to get writing done and polished and then out of your hands—until the critique or rejection, when you take it up again to rework. And speaking of contests and publications, these are where the only expectation you should have is for rejection. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll get a hand-written note of encouragement. But as one of my teachers used to say, if you don’t have a lottery ticket, there’s no chance you’ll win the lottery. The implication is that your chances of publication are about the same as winning the lottery, but you surely won’t win without the submission that’s your lottery ticket.
8. Did I mention how important it is to read? I can’t emphasize this enough. Reading good writing closely is the very best way to develop our own writing, but it’s also important to know what other writers are writing, to be literarily literate. Read the classics, but also read contemporary work and journals as well as books. Support your fellow writers. Subscribe to Alaska Quarterly Review and other literary journals, and buy hard cover books—from independent bookstores—as often as you can afford them. If we don’t buy books and journals, who do we think is going to keep books and journals and writers in business?
9. Write other things, in addition to your magnum opus. Write blogs, letters to the editor, book reviews, songs, birthday poems, plays for small children to perform. Write and deliver commentaries for public radio. These are all ways of honing your craft and extending your range, and they give you readers and listeners. And there’s always the chance that an editor or someone else in a position to recognize your genius will find you through one of these other entry points. Both Tom Bodett and Heather Lende came to the attention of New York publishers who heard them on national public radio. They got to national public radio by volunteering first at their local stations in Homer and Haines.
10. Keep journals and or writing notebooks. This is another good habit to have. Don’t let these substitute for your writing, but use them to capture ideas and images and your responses to what you read, and to process what you’re thinking, to talk your way through writing problems. It’s also useful if you can organize these in a way that you can find things in them later.
11. Understand that it all takes time. Sure there are instant successes, but much more often books—even individual essays, stories, or poems—are the labor of years. (John Haines dates his poems when he publishes them; in looking through one of his books I find poems dated 1984-87, 1981-88, 1962-82. That doesn’t mean he worked on a poem every day for twenty years but that it took that long, rethinking and reworking, before he got it to where he wanted.) There are times for all of us when other demands are just too much, when life gets in the way. That’s OK. Maybe you can’t keep it hot. Keep it warm. Read and make the occasional note, maintain an active mind. Know that the experiences of your life will be there for you. Nothing is wasted on a writer. Terrible things that may have happened to you, that may yet happen to you and those you love, will inform you as a writer, will be that gift to others when you’re able to write it out. In the end, as Solotarof wrote, and as Michael Cunningham also told us in his keynote, it’s about persistence—staying with the effort, coming back to it, writing a new beginning, adding a comma, subtracting a comma, sending out your work, getting it back, revising, sending it out again. That’s not talent; that’s persistence.
This has been another great conference. I wish you all well as you head off into the metaphoric cold with your bursting heads, your notebooks full of scratch, and your metaphoric new hand warmers.