A Gathering of Writers

The Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference happened this past weekend and I’m taking the day to recover and reflect.  This year I didn’t just attend the conference; I really did the conference.  I didn’t skip any sessions.  I went to the evening readings.  I even socialized after hours instead of rushing home to the solitude of my home.  I wish I had it in me to write up something cohesive to describe the weekend, but since I’m still feeling whooped and I need to save my writing energy for some revising that needs to be done over the next couple of days, I’ll stick to bullet points.

Here are few things that are sticking with me from the 2012 Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference:

  • Barry Lopez started things off with an incredible keynote address.  He asked the question, “What is the purpose of a writer in a pluralistic society?”  Then he wound around to the answer he’s come up with for himself which is that the writer’s job is to help.  So that leaves me asking, am I helping anyone or anything in any way?  Am I telling stories that need telling?
  • Ann Pancake discussed the tricky territory of writing fiction that delves into political issues.   It’s difficult, she said, but when it’s done the right way it has the potential to dispel psychic numbing.  I think of The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, a book that I just finished reading for the first time this week.  It was relavent when it was written and its relavent today.  It’s a book that has helped.
  • Valerie Miner, one of University of Alaska Anchorage’s MFA faculty members, suggests that we are all literary citizens.  She offered ideas of how to keep the literary conversation going, one of which was simply to take one another’s writing more seriously.  And that’s one of the beautiful things about this conference; writing is shared, discussed, taught and discovered in a supportive, friendly, noncompetitive environment.  Warm fuzzies pretty much all around.
  •  Peggy Shumaker.  Alaska is beyond fortunate to have Peggy as the State Writer Laureate.  Her generosity, professionalism and kindness are a blessing.  In her closing address she admonished us to look out for one another—and nobody looks out for writers the way Peggy looks out for writers.
  • Back to Barry Lopez.  He says to know exactly why you’re writing.  It’s necessary to have a solid understanding of your purpose as a base for the rejection you will face.  Yikes, but true.  This leads me back to the forever question of why do I do this?  My answer is forming and changing all the time.  He also says that writing is not about intelligence.  It’s about telling a memorable story.  And for some reason I find that statement incredibly comforting.

Then there are the other, non-classroomy things:  I got to hear longtime acquaintances from the library read their work at the open mic and in hearing them discovered a side to them I would likely never have known had I not been there.  I ran into an old friend—one I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade—and we had the chance to get caught up with each other’s lives.   And of course I got to see lots of my MFA cronies.

The last thing I’ll mention is the bonfire.  It was just what I needed after three days of sitting.  The wind died down, the rain held off and the bay was calm.  Children of attendees ran around, drinks were shared, stories were swapped and music was played.  Amy brought her ukulele, Ed brought a guitar, TJ brought his banjo and I brought my fiddle.  Since the three of them are infinitely more musically versatile than I am we were able to play tunes into the night.  It was a great convergence of a few things that I love.

The 2012 Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference was a great gathering and next year will be too.  I mean, Naomi Shihab Nye will be the keynote speaker.  Can it get any better than that?  Hopefully I’ll see you there.

Kachemak Bay Bonfire

What’s it all about?

For the past several weeks I’ve been working diligently on my application for graduate school, and just yesterday I delivered it to the post office.  I decided quite a long time ago that I wanted to get an MFA in creative writing but I needed to take care of a few things before I could go through with applying.  Most importantly, I needed to wait until the timing was right for my family.  And on the more technical side, I needed to finish my bachelor’s degree, which was unfortunately a little more complicated than it should have been.

Now I have earned the elusive psychology degree (they tell me the actual diploma is in the mail) and I can pursue the MFA.  Although I’ve been writing for quite a while, I believe this next step, assuming I get accepted, will allow me to really immerse myself into a writing community and grow, something I’ve been craving for a long time.  And as far as my family goes, well to them I feel infinitely grateful.  They have supported me in every possible way, from listening to me fret over having to take statistics to not taking it personally when I’ve had to lock myself away for several hours at a time.

One of the requirements for the application was to write an essay with an explanation of why I write.  Since I’m about to invest a tremendous amount of time and my family’s resources into writing over the next few years it’s good to consider just why I’m doing it.  Every time I ponder that difficult question though, I seem to come up with a different answer, and each answer feels a little vague.

Sometimes writing feels like a very selfish act.  After all, it’s time consuming.   And time spent with my notebook or computer is time that’s not spent on tasks that are also important, like working at my job that helps pay the bills, or cleaning the house, or sometimes spending time with my family.  In fact there are times when there are about a million things I feel like I should be doing instead of writing.  And what makes me think I could possibly contribute anything of importance in a world where there is so much information out there, in a time when we already have to filter through so much junk in order to find something meaningful?

Answering the question of why I write could easily make me lose heart.  But last June, at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, Nancy Lord in her closing talk gave some advice that has helped me when I start feeling guilty for spending so much time on writing.   She said to think of writing not as something selfish but as a gift to give.  She said, “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.”

I’m not using Nancy’s words of wisdom as an excuse to neglect my family or all of my responsibilities, but I am using them to give myself permission to prioritize writing.  I can only hope the things I write, or the gifts I give, reach people in some way.  Each piece of writing has the potential to connect me with someone else, and ultimately, at least for me, that’s what it’s all about.

The Low Down on the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference (so far)…

The Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference is underway, and I’m feeling lucky that such an event happens right here in my home town.  World class authors come here, to me, making it just so easy (and affordable) to learn from them.  I get in my car, drive about fifteen miles, make myself comfortable in the conference room at Land’s End Resort, and people like Michael Cunningham, Dinty Moore, Bill Roorbach, Peggy Shumaker, Sherry Simpson, Nancy Lord and Rich Chiappone (to name just a few) offer workshops, answers to writing questions and expert advice.   It’s pretty cool.

Although I’ve been dabbling in writing for several years, I’m a newbie to the writing world.   The KBWC is a good way to get a sampling of what it’s all about.  Jennifer Pooley, a senior editor from HarperCollins imprint William Morrow is here, as is agent April Eberhardt.  It’s been nice to meet both of these very approachable women because they remind me that agents and editors are real people; something I’m guessing that most of you already knew.

Here are a few morsels I’ve gleaned from the offerings so far:

  • I use the word “I” way to much in my writing and I think I’m going to have to start looking for alternative ways to talk about myself so as to not bore the poor readers or sound like a narcissist.
  • Bill Roorbach says to call writing “work” and not “writing,” because the guilt-ridden side of us won’t let us skip out on work and it’s easy to decline social engagements when you say, “Sorry, I have to work.”
  • Dinty Moore’s workshop on miniature nonfiction validated my love for keeping things short and gave me some great ideas for future projects.
  • Michael Cunningham says it’s important to stay engaged with a piece of writing by visiting it every day, even if you don’t have much time.  He also says to “write smarter than you are.”
  • Listening to Peggy Shumaker read from her new book, “Gnawed Bones” reminded me that I love poetry, especially when it’s as accessible and beautiful as hers.
  • And Bill Roorbach says that gardening is writing.  I love that.

An elusive Psych degree

I recently discovered that the bachelor’s degree I thought I had earned back in 1999 is incomplete.  You see, eleven years ago I was under the influence of raising small children; I was just trying to stay afloat in a world filled with diapers, play-dates and sibling squabbles.  It’s not surprising that  somewhere during that time frame I missed some important paperwork.

After I finished all of the coursework I needed to complete my BA in Psychology I took my exit exam and never looked back.  I went about my life.  Besides being a mother, I worked as an advocate for victims of domestic violence and as a skills trainer for the community mental health center before I landed my current position at the Homer Public Library.  On each of the resumes I submitted for those jobs I proudly added that I had my bachelor’s degree.  But it turns out I was wrong.   A certain detail kept it from being official.

I had failed  to submit the proper paperwork to the Psychology department when I changed my major from pre-nursing; a little thing, but big enough to throw my bachelor’s degree into a state of limbo for many years.  Since I thought I was done it never occurred to me that there was a problem and since I didn’t go through the graduation  ceremony I never really thought about the fact that I had never been given a diploma.

I could have blissfully gone through my life never knowing of this problem but about a year ago I decided that I would apply to the University of Alaska MFA program.  The advisor at the college, who also happens to be my husband, went through my transcripts and discovered the discrepancy.   Enough years have gone by that the Psychology department has different requirements than it used to and in order to actually get my degree I found out I was going to have to enroll again as a student, this time in the correct program, take a couple of classes and reapply for graduation.

At first I was in denial, “Surely they will make an exception for me,” I thought.  Much time was spent whining and exchanging emails with registrars and department heads but soon enough I realized that although my case was unique, it didn’t warrant any special treatment.  If I wanted to officially graduate then I had to go through the motions.  That’s when I got angry.  I didn’t want to go back to school and take classes that are irrelevant to where I want to be in my life.  For a while I thought about just giving up on the whole MFA idea.

My obstinate attitude started to subside though when I attended the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference last summer and went to a discussion about the pros and cons of getting an MFA.  It turns out that there aren’t many cons.  If I want to improve as a writer, if I want people to take my writing seriously, then the MFA will only help me.   The low-residency program makes it possible for me to work towards the degree and stay at my job.  And the real clincher is that my husband (remember him, the academic advisor) works for the UAA system which offers tuition waivers for family members of employees, thus making the whole thing affordable.  Really, it’s a no-brainer.

So once again I’m working on my bachelor’s degree.  This time though, I’m making sure to follow all the rules.   Tomorrow I’m off to my Psychological Statistics class and next week I’ll start Systems and History of Psychology.   No, I’m not thrilled about the fact that for the next few months I have to spend so many hours working on courses that are essentially meaningless to me, but I’ve come to a place of acceptance about the whole matter. Really, I have.   And who knows, maybe the statistics class will give me lots of new, interesting things to write about.  I’ll be sure to let you know if it does.