Alaskan authors, from left, Dana Stabenow, John Straley, Emily Wall, Leigh Newman, Don Rearden, Seth Kantner, and visiting keynote speaker Mary Roach stand in front of a newly completed cabin at the Alderworks Alaska Writers & Artists Retreat in Dyea during the North Words Writers Symposium on Saturday. Not shown is North Words faculty member Christine Byl. In the background is Skagway band Windy Valley Boys.
Jeff Brady greets his guests from the porch of Bea, one of three cabins at Alderworks Alaska Artists and Writers Retreat in Dyea.
Story last updated at 6/4/2015 - 12:58 pm
If I learned one thing at this year's North Words Writers Symposium in Skagway, it's this: the correct pronunciation of duodenum is doo-wa-de-num versus duo-day-num. For years I've been talking about people's duo-day-num and making an idiot of myself. Of course it's doo-wa-de-num. If not for the symposium's keynote speaker, Mary Roach, I would never have known.
Mary Roach, we learned, is one of the top science writers in the nation. What sets her apart is her use of humor and the way she roots for the researchers who work at the fringes of science. She was on John Stewart twice! Her books include "Gulp," a look at the gastrointestinal system; "Stiff," an exploration of the world of cadavers; "Bonk," her best seller on the scientists and science of sex; and "Spook," which gleefully jaywalks across the intersection of science and spirituality.
"Use of humor" sounds like an engineer telling a dirty joke so I'll put it this way; Mary Roach is damn hilarious. If you've read her books and thought, hey, that's someone I'd like to have a beer with, well guess what? YOU'RE RIGHT! You would and should have a beer with Mary Roach. She's every bit as intelligent, funny, feisty, and game in person as in her well-crafted words.
If you can't tell, I'm a fan. I had an opportunity to sit with Mary Roach and talk the business of writing and books. I played it totally cool, but inside, I was a quivering fan. "I'm hanging out with Mary Roach! I'm hanging out with Mary Roach! Good God, I'm hanging out with Mary Roach!"
By the end of the symposium, all the participants had openly professed their Mary Roach crushes over pints of ale at the Skagway Brewery. Even her husband was getting a little defensive, objecting in jest to an intimate line of questioning about Mary Roach's dating life at the final interview.
The North Words Writers Symposium invites Alaskan authors from all over the state to be faculty for participants. They participate in panels, have one-on-one consultations, hold writing exercises, and meet for beers. Alaskan authors are, pretty much without exception, an exceptional, and exceptionally fun, lot.
Dana Stabenow held court over writing exercises and panel discussions. Rare in these settings, Stabenow is a no-nonsense voice on the craft and business of writing. One of the few fully working writers in Alaska (most writers in Alaska, even the successful ones, have day jobs) Stabenow advises to write about your passion, of course, but something that will sell too. Otherwise you'll always write for an audience of one. Not everybody likes that advice, but I do.
Suck it Dos Equis, Seth Kantner from somewhere just outside Kotzebue is the world's most interesting man. Kantner mucks through the entrails of musk ox, finding the phrasing that unites the Cabela's and REI crowds. Did you know? Musk ox have gall bladders. (Symposium lesson number two!) Kantner is also very fit. His biceps are testimony to the Olympian strength required to live off the land, and why the rest of us shop at Costco. If you haven't yet read "Ordinary Wolves," what are you waiting for?
Leigh Newman from New York wrote a memoir called "Still Points North," which is published out of Juneau's publishing house Shorefast Editions. We are exactly the same age, lived in Anchorage as children, and discovered a mutual childhood friend. I love how Alaskans' relationships within the vastness of the state are like those of a small town.
A few years back I wrote how Lynn Schooler is like the E.F. Hutton of the symposium. Whenever he spoke, people listened. This year, that role was played by Christine Byl, author of "Dirt Work: An Education In the Wood." Byl has the most useful ability to synthesize the various threads of a panel discussion and bring it all back to the panel's purpose. As the panels would often stray off topic, Byl's ability to stick to the point was most appreciated.
I finally met Emily Wall! How can you live in Juneau and call yourself a writer without having taken an Emily Wall writing class? I plan on rectifying this gap in my education soon, especially now that Wall's classes are online. Because of Emily Wall, I wrote a poem at the symposium. A poem none of you will ever read.
Don Reardon, author of "The Raven's Gift" is why I have a start on the third chapter of a novel you, too, will never read. Reardon is a professor. He has that educator's training to consider the student's needs before speaking. Thus his writing prompts and panel comments were some of the most useful of the entire symposium.
John Straley continues to be the beating heart of the North Words Writers Symposium. Whether it's his presence on a panel or his final interview with Mary Roach, he guarantees a thoughtful, kind, and funny experience. Straley's laconic and quiet delivery of dirty jokes and writer's advice forces you to pay attention and makes the payoff all the more satisfying. He's one of those phone book readers, if you know what I'm saying.
The organizers - Jeff Brady, Dan Henry, Katrina Pearson, Wendy Anderson, and Buckwheat - continue the tradition of creating a casual and intimate space to interact with great writers. Brady put his halibut grilling skills on display at Alderworks Alaska Writers and Artists Retreat (See Amy Fletcher's article on this great writers resource soon to be available). A Henry prompt to write about passion led to a weepy poem about family. (I hate weepy poems. Damn you, Dan Henry. Damn you.) Pearson kept the books and beer flowing, very important at a writer's symposium. Anderson cast the spells that made water, coffee and muffins arrive exactly when you were thinking, "Man, I could really use some water, coffee, and muffins."
Finally, there is Buckwheat. He howled to open the symposium, like something out of a Jack London novel. He shuttled people around in a truck with a plush stuffed salmon wired to the grill. Buckwheat's charisma, life force, and his love of my middle name, is yet another reason I'll be back and back again.
It's not perfect. Panels veer off topic or run out of steam. More effort and time is needed to tease questions from participants. When you have no butt, the wooden chairs at the church venue make a three-hour participant reading an ordeal. And the participant reading, a cornerstone of the event that all should attend, including faculty, should have been divided into two parts to give us buttless folks a break.
The symposium's casualness can be frustrating for those expecting more structure. Some panels began with faculty wondering what they were supposed to talk about. But I also think the casualness sets up something bigger: access to these writers, with comfort and without pretense. It's a relationship far more useful than instructor and student. It allows for friendships.
So there you have it, folks. More than just duodenums and musk ox viscera, the symposium is community. Participants commiserated over beers, during hikes, in-between sessions, on our lonely love of writing. For a few days in Skagway, the writers aren't lonely. As Seth Kantner said, "these are my people." You bet. These are my people too, and they're wonderful. I cannot understand why every writer and want-to-be writer in Alaska wouldn't come to this small symposium that offers such huge opportunity.
Clint (Jefferson) Farr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.