State of Uncertainty

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    Books can make you love a place, or at the least the spirit of a place.  Lately I’ve been missing the part of the country where I grew up, and so I’ve sought out books that take me there.  This week I read, Where Rivers Change Direction, by Mark Spragg.  I used his stories, his experience, his adept configuration of words, to take me back to the Rocky Mountains.  His love for the ranch in Wyoming where he was raised came through and I could hear the elk bugling, and the coyotes calling and the sound of water running over a rocky streambed.  The way his characters talked—their concerns, their desires, the hardships some of them had to endure—they were familiar, like people I’ve known, or at least like people my people have known.

It’s a hard thing for me to admit, but I’ve been disillusioned with Alaska lately.  Or maybe a better way to say it is that I’ve been disillusioned with my experience of living in Alaska. When we moved here looking for adventure nearly twenty-two years ago, we thought we had an idea of what living in Alaska would be like.  No doubt about it, we were naïve.  We thought that it would be just like Montana, but bigger.  We also had no concept of the realities of full-time employment or of the way our lives would change once we had children and a mortgage.  We never anticipated how difficult it would be to access so many of the wild places we hoped to explore or that getting to them would require more money, time and work than we could manage. We imagined a life in Alaska that was somehow like the books we had read:  Margaret Murie’s Two in the Far North, Nick Jans’ The Last Light Breaking, Edges of the Earth, by Richard Leo, Shadows on the Koyukuk by Sidney Huntington and Jim Rearden, and Nancy Lord’s collection of short stories, Survival.  Those books made me infatuated with this place.  They gave me an idea of what I thought it meant to be an Alaskan.

When we planned our move north, I imagined us rafting interior rivers, flying into the remote Brooks Range and hiking for days.  I imagined long winters with deep snow and of spending those dark, cold days tending a fire and writing, cooking, snow-shoeing to a neighbor’s house for a visit and a cup of tea.  But even here, in this place that blows my mind with its beauty, a hectic life seems to have worked its way into the forefront of our existence.  We go to jobs five days a week.  We stress about paying the bills.  We spend our weekends doing house chores and recovering from the workweek.  When we have extended breaks we tend to fly south to visit family.  And the Alaskan life we read about all those years ago in anticipation of living here goes largely unrealized.

I’m not meaning to whine here.  I’m just trying to think this through.  I’m trying to discern whether it’s a lifestyle I’m longing for, or a place.  The two might be connected.  The lifestyle I crave might be better found where the cost of living isn’t so high, where public land and diverse landscapes can be more easily accessed.  I’m wondering if we should stay here longer and give ourselves some post-raising-children time to enjoy this incredible state, or if we should go be closer to extended family or to the part of the country I think of when I think about home.

And what does it mean that I still call someplace else home?  It might mean more than all of the ways I try to rationalize, it might mean more than all of the books I read or sentences I write.

The discussion of whether to stay or go has been constant for a while now, so much so that I’m starting to get used to this state of uncertainty.  But until we’re able to make a decision, or a change, I’ll continue to walk out my door every day and feel glacier-cooled air on my skin.  I’ll watch the way the wind plays on the surface of the bay, turning it different shades of green and brown and gray.  I’ll marvel at how the light and shadows settle and spill across the mountains.  I’ll stand on this shelf of land where I live and look east toward the Fox River Flats and west to Cook Inlet and beyond.  I’ll be humbled and inspired and overwhelmed by the bigness of it all.

My own story about living in Alaska is still unfolding.  It may have more to do with exploring ideas of home and belonging than it has to do with climbing mountains or fording raging rivers.  It may be that my story of living in Alaska is simply about uncertainty, and all of the ways this place has taught me to embrace it.

Ready to Read

It’s Alaska Book Week.  And for the literary crowd it’s been pretty exciting.  The internet is abuzz with Alaskan book talk.  In the library I put together a display featuring books written by our local, Homer area authors and next week we’ll be hosting a reading of twelve of those authors, each reading for a few minutes from a piece of their own work.  An Alaskan, Debby Dahl Edwardson was even named as a finalist for the National Book Award this week for her Young Adult book My Name is Not Easy.

Tonight at the college there will be a panel and public discussion in which Nancy Lord, Tom Kizzia, Rich Chiappone, Miranda Weiss and Erin Hollowell will discuss the books that influenced their lives and their writing.  So besides being in awe of the fact that I live in the same town as all of these great authors, I’ve been asking myself that same question this week.  What books influenced my life?

Nancy Lord wrote an essay called On Rereading Siddhartha where she reflects on the impact the book Siddhartha had on her as a young teenager.  Over the past couple of days Miranda Weiss has posted the question “What books made you?” on her Facebook page.  We’ve got Anne of Green Gables and the Little House books.  People mentioned Shakespeare and Jane Austen and Edgar Allen Poe.  A lot of the classics were listed as well as a few contemporary wonders like one of my own favorites, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barabara Kingsolver.  I’ll be interested to see what others have to say tonight at the panel discussion and I plan on taking notes, mining the conversation for reading ideas.

My own reading history is one that is a bit embarrassing to admit.  While Nancy Lord may have been ready for Siddhartha at age thirteen, I was not.  I was consumed with worry about boys and my hair at age thirteen.  And while many children were at home reading the Little House books, I was watching it on television, along with other shows like Three’s Company and Welcome Back, Kotter.  I remember owning one book that I treasured, Heidi by Johanna Spyri, but I don’t actually remember reading it.  I did love the movie though.

I was encouraged to read the Bible as a child.  I would get these little pamphlets from church that would have a mapped out plan for reading the entire Bible in one year.  Every night I would read a certain number of verses and then mark them off on the chart.  As far as I’m concerned there is no better way to make a child want to go to sleep than to have them read Bible verses before bed.  I remember absolutely nothing of significance in all of that Bible reading.  No epiphanies, no moments of enlightenment.  I just remember trying like heck not to fall asleep.

In middle school someone was passing around Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume.  I may have read that one, I don’t fully remember.  I at least read the part about periods.  I learned more about menstruation from Judy Blume than I did from anywhere else.

In a high school English class we were assigned The Great Gatsby.  I did not read it all the way through, and I did not care.  I still managed to get an A in the class somehow, probably because although I was late to develop an appreciation for fine literature I was well ahead of the game when it came to bullshitting.

It wasn’t until about my senior year in high school that I came across a book that changed it all for me.  I don’t recall its title, but the author was Danielle Steele.  Oh yes, it got my attention.   It had glamor. It had conflict. It had SEX!  Aside from a few picture books as a young child, it was the first book I remember reading from cover to cover.

At the library I sometimes hear people complaining about the “trash” that kids read these days.  The other day I heard a father say of his son, “If it doesn’t have a dragon or a vampire, my kid won’t read it.”

I wanted to say, “At least he’s reading!”

Assuming I live a long time, and I’ve got pretty good genetics on my side, I will have time to read plenty of good books, some of them, thankfully, more than once.  I can forgive myself for being a very late bloomer when it comes to literature.  The good news is that it happened.  I learned to love really good books.  It happened at the University of Montana where I was exposed to authors that wrote about the very surroundings in which I found myself.  William Kittredge, Rick Bass, Richard Hugo, John Maclean.  They wrote about the West, which was familiar, but they made me see it in a new way.  They somehow validated my rural upbringing.

The biggest thing though, was that I was ready.  I was finally ready to read.

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.