Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dan Coyle's THE TALENT CODE : Read about it here first...

Is talent inborn, or something we can develop with practice -- and if so, what kind of practice? What's happening inside the brain when we work hard to perfect a tennis serve, play a musical instrument, or struggle to become more proficient writers? Why do there seem to be hotbeds of talent -- Brazil for soccer, for example -- around the world?

Dan Coyle explores this terrain in The Talent Code, released April 28. I've only read the first chapter -- thanks to his amazing website -- but I love Coyle's writing and I'm fascinated by what he has to say about recognizing and fostering talent. Relying on scientific research and his journalistic ability to uncover overlooked personal stories and societal patterns, Coyle looks at the world-class abilities of major athletes and performers. But he also gives the reader practical insights and personal hope by passing on tips for how any person can better develop his or her own skills -- even something as basic and non-competitive as overcoming shyness. Furthermore, he considers the parent's role in helping children discover their own talents, not by pushing them into some pre-ordained mold, but by paying attention to what stokes their natural passions.

Coyle, the author of the bestselling Lance Armstrong's War and the autobiographical Hardball: A Season in the Projects (made into a movie starring Keanu Reeves), is an author and magazine writer of national caliber. The fact that we Alaskans get to claim him as one of our own -- he lives in Homer, with his wife and four children -- is just icing on the cake. He'll be appearing at Title Wave in Anchorage on Friday, May 8th at 7:00.

Did you start out writing about just soccer talent, with the other ideas snowballing along the way, or did you always envision this as a multifaceted look at talent development in general?

In one way or another, I’ve been writing about talent for a long time – much of my magazine work, and the Armstrong book, is built around the mysteries of peak performance, what factors help certain people to grow up to be great, that kind of thing. But this project really had two beginnings.

The first was a map. Not a pretty map – just one I started sketching on scratch paper. I was looking at where the top tennis, golf, and soccer players were born (sports are handy because they’re always keeping track of who’s best). I found these strange little clusters. The map didn’t look random at all, especially when you looked at them over time. For instance, there was a bunch of tennis stars from Moscow who suddenly appeared in the late 1990s – whereas before there had been none. Why is that? The map didn’t look like a random distribution of genes – it looked like the map of something growing.

The second was a footnote. I was reading this book about expert performance (long winters, don’t you know) and bumped into mention of a study of piano players that showed a certain neural substance called myelin increased proportionally with practice.

The next day I called a neurologist at the National Institutes of Health named Doug Fields. When I mentioned myelin, Dr. Fields got excited—he didn’t quite freak out (he’s a neurologist, after all) but he came close -- using words like “epiphany” and “revolution,” and he connected the skill circuits of Tiger Woods to the myelin he had earned through practice. He described how it worked: you practice in the right way, you earn a bit of myelin, and it makes you faster, better, more fluent.

In thirty seconds, I got the feeling that as a journalist you always hope for: that you’re on the leading edge of something big. For the last hundred years, every scientist was studying neurons – almost zero were studying myelin, and now it looked like that was where the action was, when it came to questions of acquiring skill and talent. I then got a magazine assignment to travel to the hotbeds to see what they were like – to see if there were certain common patterns they followed. And it turned out, long story short, that all these mysterious hotbeds are essentially the same place, doing the same thing: growing skill circuits with the same set of tools.

You've given this a how-to spin, making it of immediate interest to people with aspirations for themselves or their children. Please, do tell -- is there an amateur talent you've struggled to develop?

Yeah, I ended up applying a lot of this stuff to my own life. I can’t say I’m particularly good at anything (most of my circuitry is connected to writing—can you relate?) but I found myself using these principles when I was playing hockey. I started a couple years ago, and I was pretty terrible – I couldn’t do a real hockey stop, or crossover, and pretty much got schooled by any decent ten-year-old. But I applied these rules – I practiced deeply—and I’ve gotten better. (Added factor: my wife plays on a team – so I guess you could say I had plenty of motivation.) It helped with playing guitar, which I’m also less mediocre at than I was – and I can learn songs a lot faster now.

Mostly, though, I used it coaching Little League. I’ve coached on and off for ten years, and only this past year did I feel like I was really coaching, as opposed to being a Friendly Encourager and Chief Suggester. Basically, I stole a bunch of ideas from the master coaches I met at the hotbeds – their way of teaching to the individual (as opposed to broadcasting general information to the team), of seeking to create and correct errors (as opposed to avoiding/ignoring them) really helped. Plus they had lots of concepts—like slowing down the game, or shrinking it into a tiny space –that had a huge effect.

About the children, again. Given that you're a father of four, what did you learn doing this project that relates most to your own family? Any major changes to your previous parenting philosophies?

It’s funny, but these ideas have sort of slid into our lives. Like with music practices. Our kids play instruments, and like every other parent in the history of the world, we’re always reminding them to do their practice. But here’s the thing: not all practice is created equal. Certain kinds of practice – which I call deep practice – add skill ten times faster than shallower practice. So when we see signs of the kids practicing deeply (which basically means that they’re right on the edge of their ability, making errors, fixing them – firing their circuits and adding myelin, basically), we don’t care if they only spend just ten minutes doing it– because that’s worth hours and hours of shallow practice.

Or with motivation. The main lesson of visiting these hotbeds was that motivation operates like a hair-trigger. When a kid identifies with something—when he or she can see themselves doing it for a long time—then that’s like rocket fuel that can fuel the deep, productive practice. That moment of ignition is a cool and mysterious thing – what makes that happen? It’s certainly not logical—it’s pure emotion, a primal connection, and it has big consequences.

There’s this great study in the book that shows how this works. A scientist named Gary McPherson took several hundred kids and started studying their musical progress. He started before they even picked out an instrument, and followed them for a dozen years – an amazingly comprehensive study. So the kids start playing and soon they’re sorted as we’d expect: a few of the kids zoom off, progressing really quickly. A few hardly progress at all. Most are somewhere in the middle.

So McPherson goes back and asks, so what key factor is causing this? Why do some kids zoom and some plod along? He analyzes all the data he’s gathered on the kids (and he’s got tons). Is it IQ? (No.) Ability to identify a tone? (No.) Is it math ability? (No.) Ability to keep rhythm? (No.) Is it socioeconomic status? Income? Parents? (No, no, no.)

The only thing it is – the factor that determined their progress – was their answer to a question he’d asked them BEFORE they even started. The question was: how long do you think you’re going to play this instrument?

The kids who said, “I’m going to play for a year or so” – they hardly progressed at all. The kids who said, “I’m going to play for through elementary school” – they were in the middle. And the kids who were ignited, who said, “I am going to play this my whole life” – they zoomed off, progressing 400 percent faster than the others.

The lesson here is that their progress had nothing to do with their aptitude. It had everything to do with some mysterious moment where the kids got this idea: I am a musician. This idea wasn’t logical (remember it didn’t correlate with any tonal or rhythmic ability they had). But this tiny idea had huge consequences. When a child’s identity gets wrapped up in a goal, they’re tapping into a huge fuel source.

So as a parent, I now see my job as keeping an eye out for those moments of ignition. The kids won’t tell you of course—how inconvenient! -- but they’ll give it away in other ways that you can pick up. In fact, a Stanford psychologist named Carol Dweck has a nice rule. She says that all parenting can be boiled down to two simple things: 1) pay attention to what your kids stare at; 2) praise them for their effort. And I have to say, that works. It also makes for a lot more pleasant life around the house, I have to say.

When I heard of the book, my first thought was to compare it to Malcolm
Gladwell's Outliers.
Do you want to spell out any distinctions between your book and his, any differences in opinion about how talent is promoted at the individual or societal level?

First, let me say that I think Outliers is terrific. In fact, it’s part of a nice wave of books about talent out right now – one is called Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, and I hear the Freakonomics authors are also working on one. So the subject of talent is in the air.

If I had to draw a distinction, I would say that Gladwell’s book flies at 30,000 feet, identifying the big forces that lead to talent (which in his view have to do with opportunity, culture, and luck). It’s intriguing stuff, and makes you think about the big picture—how we structure our society, make judgments, etc.

My book, on the other hand, seeks to fly a little closer to the ground—to give a blueprint for exactly how talent is grown, to show the fundamental mechanism that we all share for growing our skill circuits, and teach people how to tap into that mechanism. His book is more about the Why – mine is about the How.

I know you've traveled and had opportunities to write about other nationalities. As Americans, do we crave success and reward too much? Do we practice too little? Do we push our kids for the wrong reasons (or do we fail to push/guide them enough?)

Good question. I’d say that there are other cultures that are definitely more in tune with the talent mechanism. I remember meeting a tennis coach at Spartak (that Moscow tennis club with one indoor court). She had a rule: no tournaments for three years. Her students spend three years learning the stroke before they compete – and the reason is that when you compete, you can get really bad habits (skill circuits) because you want to win. Most hotbeds are like that: you have to master the instrument before you can play in the orchestra, as the saying goes.

When a culture makes mistakes (like pushing kids too hard, for instance), I’d like to suggest that it’s because they don’t understand the way the talent mechanism truly works. For instance, if you are part of a culture that believes that talent is purely genetic, a divine spark someone is born with, then you don’t tend to focus on hard practice – because after all, they just need to “express” their “gift.”

Or if you are part of a culture that believes all talent is a result of hard practice alone—that a kid has to do 1,000 golf swings a day to be like Tiger—then you will push your kid too hard, guaranteed.

But if on the other hand you are part of a culture that understands that talent requires both deep practice and ignition – and that the motivation must come from the kid – and that motivation should then be funneled into certain kinds of productive practice – then you’re a lot closer to how things really work (and, not coincidentally, how Tiger Woods and Gretzky and Michelangelo all really built their own talents).

The hopeful thing is that cultures can change. Physical fitness is a good example. Our grandparents never worked out; in those days, people who ran marathons were regarded as nuts—genetic freaks. All that changed when the culture came to understand how muscles really work; when they understood the idea that if you pushed yourself (no pain, no gain!) you could get a lot stronger. You didn’t have to be a genetic freak to run a marathons—in fact, most grandmothers could do it. We’re realizing now that our skills—which are literally circuits in our brains—are built to operate exactly the same way as our muscles. If we work those circuits in the right way, they get faster, stronger, more fluent.

Finally, did The Talent Code change the way you think about developing your own skills as a writer? I admire that you write in multiple genres, and I appreciate your mention of the Bronte sisters. Do you have any personal literary insights regarding getting better as a writer that you'd like to share?

I don’t know how insightful it is, but I will say that it took a loo-oong time to figure out how to write this book. I’ve got twelve 180-page notebooks that are my practice field—I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages, trying to figure out how to tell a story, how to make this kind of voice work. I studied how Gladwell did it, and other writers handled this kind of material – Steve Johnson, Oliver Sacks, Johah Lehrer, Michael Lewis. I relied a lot on having some good readers – my wife, Jen, and my brother Maurice chief among them. And “good” in this case means that they told me the truth.

Throughout, I made a LOT of mistakes—false starts, areas of reporting that didn’t pan out, outlines that got scrapped, introductions that proved, on reflection, kind of stupid. One of the problems with writing is that the eventual outcome is so polished that it’s easy to forget the foundation on which it is built—in my case, those 12 notebooks. But one thing I like about this story is that it casts our failures into a new light. Those are not screwups. They were, quite literally, me building the circuit to write this book. You can’t build the circuit if you don’t make those errors, because the mistakes tell you where to go. No screwups, no book.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is a co-founder of the 49writers blog, a perenially struggling amateur cellist, and a back-of-the-pack runner competing in her first marathon this June.

I want to be your librarian: guest-post by a returning Alaskan

By Michael Catoggio
Special Collections Librarian, Loussac Library

About a month into my new job, I picked up the ringing phone and said “This is Michael in the Alaskana section here at Anchorage Public Library.”

A familiar voice replied, “Is this the Michael I think it is?”

I had been out of the state the past three years “searching for home.” I have been doing that much of my life, but that’s another story. My wife and I moved back to upstate New York in 2005 – back to our birthplace; to dear, old friends; to the ghosts; to a dwindling population of aunts and uncles; to the golden, autumnal Hudson Valley light.

About two years into the adventure we found home.

So we moved back to Anchorage in November, 2008.

It was great hearing Andromeda’s voice. I told her I had “found her blog” and was not terribly surprised that she was at the center of an effort to create a sense of community among Alaskan writers. Now she had found me, in a chair occupied by my wonderful friend Bruce Merrill, who had recently retired after a stellar career as the Alaska Bibliographer here at Anchorage Public.

The great thing about being a librarian (ok, one of the many great things) is that, in most communities, the library is the center point of the literary community. In my career, I’ve had the pleasure of working with scores of writers, including a few Pulitzer Prize winners. One “future Pulitzer winner” hung around my local history collection back east for years, hungry and semi-employed, before he burst upon the national literary scene like a rocket on the Fourth of July.

Oh yes, Andromeda had a reference question. I found what I could, apologizing that “I was not Bruce” one too many times. But our conversation circled back to the rich and deep community of writers here in Alaska.

Kindly, Andromeda invited me to connect with you all via this blog. You see, I want to be your librarian. I want to share this rich collection here at Loussac Library with you. I want to buy your books. I want to invite you in for a book talk, to foster connections between you and your audience. I want you to come in for a personal tour, a cup of tea, a chat. I will give you an insider’s tour of the nooks and crannies in the Alaska Wing. The crannies, btw, have a GREAT view!

I am already using 49 Writers as a “collection development” tool. Our collection is the flower bed – you all are the seeds and starters. I want to plant a garden with your images and dreams.

So, please make this place your place. There are great spaces to work (we’re wireless, of course), and thousands of voices (silently) shouting from the books and media – inspiration everywhere. Most importantly, and you know this already, we (the librarians) are your friends. Like dear friends, we’re always here for you.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Comfort Zones

I came to Alaska as a generalist, one of two teachers plus a principal charged with teaching all courses at a high school with an enrollment of thirty-three. Back then, being a generalist was a good thing. You could consider yourself a Renaissance person of sorts, despite the other, less-flattering label of being Jack of all trades, master of none.

These days, you're supposed to specialize, in education as well as in business and, by extension, in life. Not specializing early in one genre was probably a mistake in my mostly-agentless writing career. I suppose it's never too late to settle into one niche, and perhaps I will now that I'm writing full-time and not quite so frantic to prove myself financially.

My generalist tendencies were all the excuse I needed to attend the screenwriting workshops last weekend, hosted by the Alaska Film Office and led by Dave Hunsaker. Though chances are good I'll never attempt a screenplay, I'm glad I went. Looking at scripts forced me to think about stories in a different and more fundamental way.

Even when we don't specialize by genre, our writing styles become a specialization of sorts. Certainly one of the toughest parts of writing is balancing what we naturally do well with what we could do better. While I suspect I'd struggle with the stripped-down style of screenplays, I love working with landscapes, about which David Vann posted yesterday. (If you haven't read David's post yet, by all means do; it's one of the finest craft pieces we've had the privilege of posting.) Not surprisingly, he cited some of my favorite books and writers as fine examples of honing landscape. But I know good, intelligent readers who more or less detest those same books. So they may not be overly impressed with my style, either, though I suspect they're too polite to say so.

In politics, I force myself to read and listen to those I disagree with. It's not always pleasant, and I admit to some unflattering backtalk, but I think it's an important exercise in balance. In literature, I mostly read what I admire, the kind of writing that would please me to produce. But there's still enough of the generalist in me to believe it's good to read - and to write, if only as an exercise - outside my comfort zone.

Monday, April 27, 2009


This is my last of four posts, but I’ll be in Alaska for most of the summer, mostly on the Kenai Peninsula, so I hope I’ll get the chance to meet a couple of you. My email is I’d also like to thank Deb and Andromeda for inviting me to blog here.

Reading Deb’s post on Friday about what’s depressing and cheering about publishing got me thinking about the business. The London Book Fair has been going on this week, and it’s one of those events that controls my future. I know nothing about it, though, except that my agents are there and several of my editors are there, and I do trust that they’re doing the most they possibly can for me. This hasn’t always been the case. I’ve been to only one book fair, in New England in 2005, and I saw then that my publisher’s distributor (Publisher’s Group West) had picked (actually, the publishers had picked, I think) about five books to sell. These books were in large piles of ARCs with full-color covers. Every bookstore owner or rep who came up to say hi was given a copy of each of these books, and they usually ordered at least five copies of each right there, on the spot, without having read the book. My book and about a hundred other books were sitting on tables farther back, one copy of each. The bookstore owner would have had to push past the rep, go around the front table, and then find my book among these others. When I mentioned this to my publisher, he had the nerve to insist that bookselling is a “pull” process, not a “push” process. A book sells only because people want to buy it, in other words, not because publishers tell distributors to push it to booksellers, who then push it to customers. Hm.

I’m extremely happy with my editors and publishers now, but I had a lot of frustrations with that first book, so I thought I’d share that tidbit with y’all, and I thought I’d paste here today a reprint of what I find more interesting than the business. It’s what I think about style and syntax and the beautiful in writing, something I wrote originally for Writer’s Digest. I was thinking of it because I’m back to translating a few lines of Beowulf each day, and in the article I wrote about Proulx’s use of accentual meter. Someday I’d like to write about syntax in Beowulf. The arrangement of meaning is so different than what we’re used to today, it makes the concept of a story a different thing.

Using Landscape

Whatever genre you’re writing, the loveliest, most ambitious moments of your work will most likely involve landscape description. This is true across a staggering number of genres, including poetry, fiction, and most genres within creative nonfiction, including travel and adventure writing, nature writing, and memoir. So how does landscape description work, how do great writers use it, and how can you improve?

How to describe a place. Elizabeth Bishop is a very accessible poet for writers in all genres. In her poem “At The Fishhouses,” she often chooses one fine detail to evoke a larger space. “The sparse bright sprinkle of grass,” for instance, creates a hillside. She was a painter as well as a poet, and she uses silver moonlight in this same economical way:

All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,

swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,

is opaque, but the silver of the benches,

the lobster pots, and masts, scattered

among the wild jagged rocks,

is of an apparent translucence

like the small old buildings with an emerald moss

growing on their shoreward walls.

The point is not economy, of course, but focus. Readers become lost if a scene is described with too many details, especially if the emphasis is unclear and we don’t know which details to focus on. But here the scene is unified by silver, then emerald. We watch brush strokes and don’t become distracted. Our attention is held, also, by the shift in the quality of light, from opacity to translucence. This is theme developing, leading toward the moment we’ll reach into “absolutely clear” water and taste it on our tongues, encountering a kind of knowledge.
The poem is available online at Look carefully at Bishop’s use of color, quality of light, fine detail, and three-dimensional space. Try memorizing the poem, also. You’ll see the landscape in a new way, reciting with your eyes closed.

Use landscape to build theme. Cormac McCarthy, in his magnificent novel Blood Meridian, describes “the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear” (p.47). He moves from a concrete landscape to an abstract one which speaks to what the novel is about. He draws this primarily, I think, from William Faulkner. In the famous opening paragraph of Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning,” the boy smells cheese, believes he smells canned meat because of his hunger, and is overwhelmed by the constant “smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood.” Blood here is an abstract noun, and even in the landscape of a store turned courtroom, Faulkner roots his abstract descriptions of theme in the physical, beginning first with the real smell of cheese.

Faulkner is also good at stream of consciousness, at letting us see the thoughts and feelings of his characters, and Blood Meridian is so interesting because McCarthy refuses to give us any access to thoughts or feelings. It’s only through description, mostly of landscape and also of violence described as landscape, that we learn about the characters and themes. In McCarthy’s most recent novel, No Country For Old Men, he relies instead on characters’ thoughts, offering almost no landscape description, and the novel as a result is thin and disappointing.

The Objective Correlative. When T.S. Eliot used this term, he meant something larger (such as a sequence of dramatic events that, taken together, evoke an emotion in a reader), but in creative writing workshops it has come to mean this: by describing an exterior landscape from the point of view of a character, we are indirectly describing the interior landscape (the thoughts, feelings, and sensibility) of that character. This is the same, really, as what we mean most of the time by “vision” (how a character views himself or herself, the other characters, and the world), and since these are inevitably the most important moments in our stories, telling our readers what our stories are about, it’s also the same as “theme,” and because we’re saying something important indirectly, it’s also the same as “subtext.” It’s impossible to write a successful work in any genre without at least one of these moments. I mean that. If you don’t have a moment like this, of vision and theme and subtext, your work is not worth reading, and landscape description is the easiest way to create these moments.

Try this exercise. For two pages, describe a place that you haven’t seen in at least ten years, a place that remains vivid in your memory. Use this place to indirectly describe one of the primary sorrows, regrets, or fears of your life. Don’t name any of these emotions or tell of the events, just describe the place.

How to see.
Annie Dillard, in her classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, attends to landscape and vision with an intensity that produces startling results. She even discusses the “newly sighted,” the blind who underwent surgery and could see for the first time, and had to learn to see shadow and distance. Dillard is fierce, and her writing is sometimes over the top, but she’ll probably change how you understand seeing, and she’s also important for understanding American Nature Writing.

Landscape description is a vital part of most writing, integral to character and theme, and not an extra or confined primarily to genres such as Nature Writing. Nature Writing is actually extremely limited. It almost always features, within the first few pages, a nod to a mind of innocence, a child-self. I believe this comes to us from the British Romantic Poets (such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and, earlier, Blake), through American Transcendentalists (such as Thoreau and Emerson). Dillard gives her own nod to the child on page 13. The general and somewhat naïve idea in all Nature Writing is that through immersion in nature, we can come to, or return to, a more innocent (and also good) self.

How to write a beautiful sentence. There’s no one standard for beauty in writing, of course, but I believe our sense of the beautiful is embedded mostly in syntax (the arrangement of words in a sentence). In this sentence from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, for instance, one of the two principal sources of beauty is an interruption—“slight as an image in an eye”—because it makes us pause and modifies everything that follows, making us hold all parts of the image together at once:

A narrow pond would form in the orchard, water clear as air covering grass and black leaves and fallen branches, all around it black leaves and drenched grass and fallen branches, and on it, slight as an image in an eye, sky, clouds, trees, our hovering faces and our cold hands.

There’s beauty, also, in “water clear as air,” because the adjective is following the noun, because “pond” hasn’t been repeated but has become more elemental in the word “water,” and because the sentence could have ended with “orchard.” Everything that comes after “orchard” is an amplification, an extension. The beautiful exists mostly in the ways we extend sentences, whether by colon, appositive, simile, relative clause, or even placement of adjectives after their noun. Look back at the sentence from McCarthy, for instance, which extends first with the adjectives “stark,” “black,” and “livid” coming after “mountains,” then with a simile (“like a land”), then with a relative clause (“whose true geology”). All of these constructions are the same as an equal sign: they all amplify, tell us more about something, make sure we don’t miss it.

Writers use other tricks of syntax, also, to create the beautiful. Robinson’s repetition of “grass,” “leaves,” and “branches” in slightly different form is reminiscent of Coleridge’s “And overspread with phantom light,/(With swimming phantom light o’erspread….” The lines themselves swim, and we become a bit mesmerized and recognize instinctively, from the high level of cohesion, that this is poetry, but Robinson snaps us out of it with “and on it” and then that wonderful focusing phrase, “slight as an image in an eye,” that prepares us for the final image and brings us almost to a dead stop. Then the mad rush of the comma series “sky, clouds, trees,” brought to the satisfying metrical conclusion of “our hovering faces and our cold hands.” This is accentual meter from Old English, Anglo-Saxon poetry, with two heavy stresses on each side of a pause (called a caesura). Even if there weren’t a white space before the next section, we would feel the conclusion and the emphasis.

I think the usual conception is that beauty is in the content, in the nouns and adjectives. Let’s look then at Annie Proulx, a master stylist more famous, among writers at least, for her content-rich prose in The Shipping News than for her cowboys. Proulx uses Anglo-Saxon diction and meter, also, in a line such as “liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds,” and she heaps nouns and adjectives into sentences without verbs, as in these sentences describing her main character, Quoyle:

Head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the color of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face.

This is beautiful prose, in which the verbs “shaped,” “ruched,” “bunched,” “kissed,” and “jutting”) have been turned into adjectives, becoming content, but it’s not what we think of as the beautiful, and Proulx ends this opening section with a sentence much closer to Robinson’s:

His thoughts churned like the amorphous thing that ancient sailors, drifting into arctic half-light, called the Sea Lung; a heaving sludge of ice under fog where air blurred into water, where liquid was solid, where solids dissolved, where the sky froze and light and dark muddled.

“Drifting into arctic half-light” is a lovely interruption and the primary signal to the reader that we are now entering the beautiful. “Sea Lung” demands with its semi-colon (which should have been a colon) that we focus on what’s to follow, all taken together in one image, and there’s a wonderful swimming in the image, as distinctions dissolve between the states of solid, liquid and gas, earth and sky, light and dark, and, finally, Quoyle’s past and future. Landscape description is the most powerful way to build theme, and here we see “lonesome Quoyle” unloved and unaccepted, longing for these things. The heaving sludge of ice could be his own heart, not only his thoughts, and in this novel that finally is a love story, the question is what’s going to happen to him. Will he find love? This is what makes us read on, and landscape is where we look for clues.

by David Vann

Friday, April 24, 2009

49 writers weekly round-up

This week's demand from one of my publishers that I do final author proofs on a full-length manuscript in less than 48 hours BEFORE any proofreaders touched it made me more than a little cranky. Then I heard talk of another Alaskan potentially becoming an author. Normally that would lift my spirits, but instead it made me crankier. Yes, supposedly Levi Johnston is shopping a book proposal. That's the Levi Johnston whose claim to fame is fathering a child, unwed, at age eighteen, a child whose grandmother happens to be Alaska's ambitious governor. Please. If some publisher pays big bucks in this economy to thrust this project on the reading public, you may just have to take me out back and put an end to my misery.

Fortunately, there's some uplifting news this week. Teresa Sundmark wrote to remind us that yet another Homer author is making a big splash. Miranda Weiss's memoir Tide, Feather, Snow comes out next week. Ketchikan librarian Charlotte Glover spotted the ARCs a few month ago at ALA. Now we'll all get to have a look.

Another fun event: tonight's Wrangell Mountain Center Spring Party and Fundraiser, billed as "The Lone, Un-Annual, Unique and Eminently Worthwhile." Promised are beer by Moose's Tooth, catering by Everyday Gourmet, live music by Sticky Wicket, wine, a silent auction, a slide show on Wrangell-St. Elias and the WMC, activities for kids, good folks, good times, and a good cause. The event begins at 6:30 pm, Friday, April 24th at 11101 Magnolia Street, Anchorage, residence of Walt and Maria Shell. Admission is a paltry $10 per adult, and kids are free. For more information, call Jeremy Pataky at 244-7717 or write The Wrangell Mountains Center is a private, non-profit institute dedicated to environmental education, research, and the arts in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Summer programs include accredited college-level field courses, arts programs for children and adults, educator workshops, residencies for visiting artists and writers, natural science short-courses, Elderhostels, writing workshops, support services for research scientists, and the popular Kennicott Summer Arts and Lectures Series.

Then there's all the good work being done to promote writing and literacy by the folks at Alaska Sisters in Crime (AKSinC). They're looking for help coordinating and planning a Columbus Day weekend retreat in Seward this fall, a two or three gathering of readers and crime fiction fans, publishers, criminal justice personnel, librarians, and more. Depending on funding, they hope to publish a small drawer-book of short mysteries written at this retreat for hotels to have in guest rooms.

Also in the works at AKSinC is an eMentorship program, with several published authors signed up to mentor students from schools around Alaska, and the anthology A Stranger Comes to Town: Mystery Writers Explore Alaska making its way to print. And through the Alaska Reads program, Anchorage author Halene Peterson Dahlstrom will travel to the Bering Straits School District the week of May 4. Alaska Sisters in Crime has purchased copies of her Rinnie of Alaska mystery series books for the participating school's students and libraries.

Also from AKSinC comes word that Vicki Delany's newest novel, Gold Digger: A Klondike Mystery, has just been released by Canada's mystery publisher, Rendezvous Crime. The book is set in Dawson, Yukon, in 1898, during the Klondike Gold Rush, and is the first in a new series.

Speaking of the gold rush, the Anchorage Museum is producing two world premiere gold-rush era plays, one by Tom Moran and one by Joan Kane, to accompany the summer exhibit Pay Dirt! Alaska’s Golden Landscapes. Both one-act plays are directed by Ron Holmstrom. Performances will be May 30 through July 30. Auditions for five-day-a-week paid acting roles are at 6 p.m. Friday, April 24 (tonight!) and 1 p.m. Saturday, April 25 at the Anchorage Museum, 121 W. Seventh Ave. Be prepared to read from a script.

Then there's author Arne Bue , who has been busy taking online classes to beef up his website. He'd really like your feedback. His goal, he says, is to make it at least half as good as Dana Stabenow's.

On the note of authors helping authors, via agent Nathan Bransford's blog comes word of an article by bestselling author David Hewson exploring the "possibility of an author self-publishing collective loosely based on the old actor-led movie studio United Artists." Interesting concept.

There you have it. I feel better already.

A last-minute P.S. from Andromeda : We've announced this Saturday screenwriting workshop several times, but now we have a more specific location. Here are the details: Sponsored by the Alaska Film Office and Alaska Pacific University, a Screenwriting Workshop for Alaskan writers wishing to learn industry format and standards for original works or adaptations will be held on April 25th, from 2:00 to 5:00 PM on the APU Campus in the Carr-Gottstein Building, Room 102. Veteran screenwriter Dave Hunsaker will be the workshop leader. No fee. For further information, please call 269-8491.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The 49W one-liner poll : Recharging

With the last spots of ash-dusted snow giving way to 40 degree temps (and very messy trails), we initiate a new feature here at 49 writers: the one-liner poll. Here is what three well-known Alaska authors say in response to this question:

What Alaska activity helps you recharge after a long or difficult day writing?

Melissa DeVaughn, outdoors writer and author of The Unofficial Guide to Adventure Travel in Alaska

Depends on the time of year and my mood. In winter, it is running the dogs. Getting outside and being on the trails by myself with those guys lets me unwind like nothing else. I especially like the days when I don't see another soul on the trails.

In the summer, it's riding my road bike. I especially like finding long, steep, winding hills in and around Eagle River where I can ride without cars whizzing by.

If my mood doesn't include anything physical, then I prefer a really nice glass of red wine by the fireplace or deck (depending on the weather, again) and hanging out with my kids doing things they like.

Jill Fredston, avalanche expert and the author of Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches.

Nearly every time I leave my desk in defeat and head outdoors for a hike, ski, row, or simple walk, I return to work with ideas crowding my head. Spending time outside is more some way that I am than something I do.

Sherry Simpson, essayist and author of The Accidental Explorer: Wayfinding in Alaska.

I'm with Henry:

"When we walk we naturally go to the fields and woods; what would become of us if we walked only in a garden or a mall?....I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Back from the land of fake volcanoes...

Earlier this week, midnight in Las Vegas, standing in front of the enormous faux volcano in front of the Mirage Hotel, I realized ... this is nuts! We have a real volcano back home, and here I am waiting to watch a fake volcano explode. But it was weird, wacky fun.

Having just flown back from a weeklong trip to Las Vegas (just passing through that magnificent, disturbing, bizarre place) and the Grand Canyon, I am late to post anything of substance today, and I see that a spammer has made unwelcome contributions to our comments. Will tackle that first and catch up with ongoing conversations here asap!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Once I sold Amway. That's the sort of confession I generally save for those party games where you're supposed to reveal something you usually keep to yourself, something that no one would ever guess about you, something that reaches partway but not completely into your stash of embarrassing self-knowledge. I like to think that as a writer I have a pretty big stash, and that I'm not overly ashamed about rummaging through it. But maybe that's an illusion, the sort of thing we talk ourselves into because it goes with our turf.

David Vann got me thinking about Amway. Partly it was what he said in yesterday's post about engagement being more satisfying than leisure, which has no small connection, I think, with the rogue sheep Lappie. But also it's his book A Mile Down, which I just finished with that mix of satisfaction and sadness that happens whenever something good comes to an end. In this case, gratitude was part of the mix - gratitude for this meeting place of writers, without which it might have taken me a long time to meet David Vann and his good work.

Of course A Mile Down is not about Amway. As the subtitle aptly notes, it's "the true story of a disastrous career at sea." But as anyone who's had a brush with networking marketing knows, Amway is not really about soap. It's about dreams. Which would make another apt subtitle for David's book, although the original is surely much better from a marketing standpoint.

We're funny about dreams. Some people pine for them with a wistfulness that becomes it own satisfaction. Some labor long and hard at work they don't love, dreaming of leisure, only to learn David's lesson too late. Maybe in the end it's a combination of age and disastrous misadventures, not necessarily at sea, that swings us back around to the obvious: doing what you love is its own satisfaction.

I thought of this all in the context of a very nice review of my new book in Sunday's Fairbanks News Miner. The nicest thing about the review is that it discusses the book in a thoughtful and meaningful way that helps readers figure out if it's something they'd like to read. In short, it's a real review, and as we all know real reviews are an increasingly scarce commodity, especially in Alaska. But it's also the first review that said much about my career as an author, my body of work, if you will, which sound ridiculously pretentious. "Deb Vanasse has published a fairly impressive number of books during her 30 years in Alaska" - that's the opening line.

What I found interesting was how reading that opening affected me, which is to say not much. When I first got serious about writing, I longed for day when someone would offer that kind of "proof" that I'd made it. But from where I sit now, it's more of a shrug, an acknowledgement, a reminder to be grateful for all that has fallen my way, and then getting back to work on my latest project. Because the joy is not in someone affirming we've made it. The joy is in the making.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Rogue sheep: a guest post by David Vann

A few local tales from here in Northland, New Zealand. Lappie the sheep. A few years ago, my wife and I went for a hike, and Lappie was watching. Waiting for us on our return. He’s famous on Kahoe Farms. Has a wicked headbutt to the knees, not afraid of people at all. The other sheep run, bunch into a corner, wonder why the escape isn’t working out. But Lappie wanted a piece of us, waiting right on the path. So we crossed a stream to the other side, ran along that path before he could cross. Cowards. But we’ve been hearing more stories of Lappie this time. He was brought to another farm to get a couple of sheep pregnant, which he’s of course happy to do, but unfortunately someone brought another male. Instant fight, so they separated Lappie from the other male, a fence between them. In the night, Lappie broke through the fence to get to that other male, then killed him. Like something out of that movie, Black Sheep, which I’m dying to see.

Kahoe Farms is a fantastic place to stay, if you ever visit New Zealand. Half an hour north of KeriKeri, run by our friends Stefano and Lyndsey, the two most generous people you’ll ever meet. Lyndsey crazy about books, tearing through everything, Stefano crazy about football (soccer) when he’s not making the best pizza I’ve ever eaten. We’ve gone to a couple of his games, tense and exciting, and I went to one of the practices, thinking I’d work up to playing in a game. I ran a ridiculous amount, loving it, and couldn’t move for the next four days. Then I went for a short jog up a very steep hill, trying to work back toward another practice, and my legs became far too tight, something stretching couldn’t fix. The next day, I was sitting up and suddenly it felt like the central muscle in my left thigh had torn away from the surrounding muscles. Unbelievably painful, and lasted for days. I am no Lappie. Lappie would have me for lunch. So I went to the fabulous Jim, who can work miracles on muscles, and now I just run on the beach here in Taupo Bay, go boogie-boarding, go for hikes. I don’t play soccer or run up hills anymore.

Which brings me to age. I use an author photo from when I was 31, but I’m 42 now, a liar like most authors. No harm done. One odd thing about my age is that I’m older now than my dad ever was. He died at 39, just before his fortieth. But it seems like he was older than I’ve been yet. Two marriages to my one, two kids to my none. More money, a dentist, hated work more, sacrificed more, experienced less of what he wanted. I grew up in a lucky, easy time. But it’s odd to pass a parent.

There are a few mercies to age, such as the fact that the older keep looking younger. Fifty used to look geriatric to me, and now it’s the look of my friends and looks close enough to youth. A kind of natural sedative to keep us all from tearing at ourselves.

I’m getting dangerously close to a discussion of the meaning of life here, and of course I have nothing to offer in that discussion, really. I can say for certain that leisure is not the key to happiness. My wife and I floated around the Caribbean long enough to find that one out. Engagement is far better, and there’s nothing that’s ever engaged me as fully as writing, which is why I still do it every day. Beyond that, though, the rest is more confusing. You’re on your own.

Friday, April 17, 2009

49 writers weekly round-up

As poetry month unfolds, there's news of a new platform for connecting with poets and publishing poetry. Publisher's Weekly reports that self-publishing site Lulu has purchased and overhauled, where poets can access reviews and reference tools in addition to sharing their work. The staff selects a Poem of the Day and also sponsors daily, monthly, and yearly contests with cash prizes.

Speaking of prizes, several opportunities are comping up. Annual Gival Press Novel Award is offered annually for a previously unpublished original novel. With a May 30 deadline, the annual Gival Press Novel Award offers $3000 plus a publication offer to a previously unpublished orginal novel. Submissions are also being taken between May 1 and June 30 for the $15,000 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, offered to writers who have published a collection of fiction or at least three short stories in nationally-distributed magazines or literary journals. For unpublished short stories, there's a May 31 deadline for the $500 Elizabeth Simpson Smith Award.

If you're wondering if it's worth competing for these prizes, check with Megan Nix, a second-year UAA MFA Nonfiction student who recently won the top Editor’s Prize from Fourth Genre, one of the preeminent literary journals devoted exclusively to nonfiction. Of Megan's "Swim, Memory," judge Jocelyn Bartkevicius wrote, "This lovely and moving essay depicts fragmentation in the prelude to and aftermath of Katrina. The segmented form takes readers all over the map, from close-up to historical views of New Orleans, and as far north as Nashville, all the while producing a compelling forward narrative motion. Never sentimental, the essayist nevertheless creates scenes about animals, people, and place with a sensitivity tempered by subtle irony. This writer has an original voice, an eye for crackling detail and surprising juxtapositions, and a remarkable way of working reflection and fact into a story about the chaos and confusion of fleeing and returning to tragedy.” In addition to the $1000 prize, Megan's essay will be published in the Spring 2010 edition of Fourth Genre

No prizes forthcoming, but for you teachers out there, I've just posted teaching guides to five of my books. You'll find them under "For Educators" at my web site.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Guest-post: What does the State Writer Laureate Do?

The Question, and Something of an Answer
by Nancy Lord

So what does the state writer do?

Since being appointed Alaska State Writer (or Alaska Writer Laureate) last October, this is definitely the question I’m most often asked.

The simple answer is, whatever she or he wants. The aim generally is to promote Alaska writing and writers. But let me say more.

First, let me say that I’m having a good time as state writer. It’s an honor to have one’s work recognized and to be welcomed around Alaska as someone wearing figurative laurels. It’s even better to be able to share with audiences the work of Alaska’s writers, to encourage storytelling, and to engage young and old in the craft of writing.

Second—since everyone seems curious about this—understand that the position is honorary (i.e. unpaid) but that the Alaska State Council on the Arts, which makes the appointment, has in recent years funded a small budget for in-state travel. ASCA also provides grants to help community arts organizations host the state writer for workshops, conferences, etc.

Third—interesting facts: Alaska is the only state that has a writer laureate position. Forty other states have poet laureates and one (Idaho) has a writer-in-residence. Alaska had a poet laureate from 1963 until 1996, when ASCA decided to broaden the position to include all kinds of writers. Before 2000 some laureates had undefined terms (longer than two years). I’m the lucky thirteenth laureate.

In recent years the state writer has been asked to develop a particular project. Anne Hanley wrote a twice-monthly newspaper column, and John Straley focused on encouraging young people to tell their stories. Because I’ve had a lot of experience with libraries and library fundraising, my project involves visiting libraries to do multiple events—workshops, readings, and talks about the Homer experience of funding and building a new library. (Many—maybe most—libraries in the state are interested in expanding. Underrecognized fact: libraries are getting more, not less, use, and in economic challenging times play a major role in providing not just affordable activities but help with personal finance, job hunting, and business development.)

Here are a few things I’ve done so far as state writer:

• Presented a writing workshop at the women’s prison in Eagle River. We wrote six-word memoirs: “I stood, I fell, I stood.”

• Advised an architectural student on the design of a home for Alaska’s laureate—on the Mendenhall Glacier. (This was an exercise only—no connection to reality. The architect was interested in aesthetics; I was interested in whether the building would blow away and end up at the bottom of a crevasse.)

• Made a ten-day “tour” in Southeast Alaska, visiting the communities of Juneau, Sitka, and Petersburg and especially their libraries.

The Juneau Library did a very cool thing: to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its downtown library, they invited all the city’s published authors to breakfast together in the library, with me as guest speaker.

In Sitka, the high school students had some really good questions, including “What would you be if you weren’t a writer?” (My answer: a cultural anthropologist.)

In Petersburg I discovered some impressively inventive young writers and also got to drive an electric car.

One conclusion: library people are among the nicest I’ve ever met. And smart. (Reading lots of books surely helps.)

• Was one of five judges at the state finals of Poetry Out Loud, a high school competition. Heather Lende, another of the judges, wrote a terrific column in the Anchorage Daily News about this.

• Participated in a program “Alaska State Writer Laureates: Alaska’s Land and Literature” at the UAA Campus Bookstore, with former laureates John Haines, Richard Dauenhauer, and Anne Hanley. It was really nice to talk with some of those upon whose shoulders I stand, and especially to see the “fan club” of young people who were conversant with (and enthusiastic about) John Haines’ poetry. This program will shortly be available as a podcast on the university’s website Go to “quick links” and click “podcasts.”

And here’s what’s coming up: a week-long gathering of state poet/writer laureates in Rhode Island. About 20 of us will be giving workshops on Block Island and then touring RI to visit schools and libraries with readings, workshops, panels, etc. This should be great fun, to meet colleagues and to share Alaska writing with them and the residents of another coast. Look for a posting next month about this. I’ll see what I can learn about “how they do it Outside.”

In addition to being our Alaska State Writer and a regular here at 49W, Nancy Lord is the author of Beluga Days: Tracking the Endangered White Whale. This fall, University of Nebraska Press will publish her latest book: Rock, Water, Wild: An Alaskan Life.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Looking for a place to write? Tell us...

Do we need a "Writer's Room," as so many bigger cities have -- a public place where, for the price of a daily latte (that's about the rate in NYC any way), a writer can have some quiet space, a desk, and maybe a sense of community?

Writer and filmmaker Mary Katzke would like to know. She is scouting around Anchorage, thinking about renting a "room of one's own," and wondering if there is enough demand to create a group workspace.

Don't worry about commitment, yet. Just help us brainstorm.

Where would an ideal space be? (Downtown, over a Kaladi Bros. or near another coffeehouse, close to ...?)

What would you be willing to pay? ($100/month? Less?)

Can you envision committing to 6 months at a time?

What are the benefits and disadvantages? Could it work, even in a recession? Is there any way to get subsidies or any other kind of support?

This is not the same question I've raised in the past about a desire for a get-away cabin (that's what I really want to see happen, but it's a different kind of fantasy). This is a more practical question about how many people would like their own away-from-home office space. Even if you're not in Anchorage, let us know if you'd had experience with writers' rooms in other cities. Chime in here and/or contact Mary (preferably both) at

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Perspectives on publishing: an interview with Arne Bue

As part of what's becoming a ongoing series of posts on publishing alternatives, here's an interview with Arne Bue, a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his wife, Shirley, in Anchorage. He is the author of Baxter Bog Interlude, The Lid, and Banto Carbon and the Prehistoric Proboscis, all published as Adobe eBooks.

How did you decide on e-publishing as the best way to bring your books to market?

One of my sons, in Homer, Alaska, runs an eBay store. My wife and my daughter-in-law both had written books, never published. I’d written a few, also. I acquired Adobe Acrobat 9 Standard and taught myself how to publish these manuscripts in PDF. The intent was to put them in my son’s eBay store; however, eBay will sell digital products like that only through their Classified program, which we didn’t like too much. So, we put the books up for sale in eBookMall. We set me up as the “printer” and my son’s eBay store BAXTER BOG CARDS & COLLECTIBLES, as the Publisher.

What advice do you have for others interested in e-publishing?

Others can do it at home, actually. By using Microsoft Word, Paint, IrfanView, and OpenOffice, in conjunction with Adobe Acrobat 9 Standard, others can get it done. Adobe provides instructions in their ebookinstructions.pdf booklet. One may also use their published books as content a self-created website. As you can tell from my web page, I’m not an expert web master; nevertheless, I used the free program Kompozer, and it’s online classes regarding css to put together a basic website for these published ebooks. Self-publishers can get their ISBNs and copyrights online easily.

How have readers found out about your books?

Google can teach one how to create a Sitemap, which I did. Also, by reading up on web site optimization, one learns the proper use of meta tags and page titles. Google, Yahoo and MSN and others, use their “spiders” to find your website, and eventually it’ll show up when one uses these search engines. The key is to find the best search words to include in the meta tags and page title. You can also use paid advertising, which I have not done, or use a few free classifieds online, which I have done.

Without editors and independent reviews, how hard is it to get perspective and improve on your work?

Impossible. I actually haven’t written for ten years or more. I’m nearly seventy now, and I still enjoy writing and reading. When I was writing, I was active in a writer’s group comprised of wonderful writers, some UAA professors, a librarian, others. We’d exchange manuscripts and ‘work each other over’ so to speak. Also, I attended, ‘back in the day’ a few years worth of the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference in Santa Barbara, California. Writer’s groups are VERY important, in my opinion.

Have you been pleased with your sales so far?

No. I am a poor marketer. My publications online do not sell well. Getting an agent or publisher, for me, was impossible. But I do enjoy reading and writing and creating. Creating an ebook and web page is both an effort and a pleasure. Your associates who have agents and publish books are the chosen few, and I applaud them.

Monday, April 13, 2009

On cabins, clamming, and vapid adventure: A guest post by featured author David Vann

First a request. I’d like to rent a cabin on Caribou Island this summer, if that’s possible, from June 15 to August 1st, if any of you know of something that might be available. I’m also happy to help out with cabin-building, Curt, if you’re working on that this summer. I’d be curious to see how a cabin goes together.

Here in New Zealand, it’s fall but still mostly sunny and warm. My wife Nancy and I went out for tuatuas, which are small white clams. Wading out into the surf, twisting our toes into the sand to find a bit of shell, then reaching down. Nancy was committed, out in the deeper water, plunging down with a hand even when a wave was coming. Being fragile and delicate, I stayed in the shallower water, and I was reminded of razor clams in Alaska, digging down after them. I think we did that in Valdez, though I could be getting the place wrong. Might have been Homer or something. This was the mid-seventies, and there was so much to eat in Alaska. Dinner was everywhere. The clams enormous, and the salmon and halibut far more plentiful than now. It rarely took more than six casts to get a limit of six salmon, and we regularly caught halibut over 100 pounds. I remember cruising into small bays in southeast and seeing hundreds of salmon below in the clear water. The bays filled with them. Sad to have that go away.

A few years ago, I tried to pitch a retrospective of McPhee’s Coming Into The Country, but my editors weren’t interested. I wanted to see what had changed, what remained the same, where the debate had gone to, but magazines are very limited in the stories they run. There has to be a character at the center, and the story has to be timely. The biggest and most important stories almost never have those two things. I resent New Journalism for its manic insistence on character. When 18,000 people die in an earthquake in Turkey, for instance, I just don’t give a crap what one fruitseller saw and experienced that day. One person’s experience doesn’t matter in that case, just as one person’s experience doesn’t matter in what’s happened to Alaska since the seventies. The story is bigger than character, and it’s timely even if it’s not currently in the news.

I guess that’s starting to sound like a rant. I like writing for magazines, but I’ve had a few frustrations. I spent months in Egypt recently, for instance, captain of a 65-foot reconstruction of a ship from the reliefs on Hatshepsut’s tomb. We recreated her famous voyages to the land of Punt from about 3500 years ago, and this ancient boat sailed unbelievably well. Seven knots downwind, safe and easy to handle, steered well. An amazing thing, and an adventure, cruising along the Red Sea. It was for a French film and will show on NOVA here in the fall, but I couldn’t sell the story to a magazine, because it was too “historical.” Vapid adventure is okay (and I’ve done plenty of those), but adventure that means something — showing that the ancient Egyptians were a seafaring people, not limited to Nile boats — is somehow not interesting.

I’m writing for adventure magazines now because of my childhood in Alaska. Every Christmas as a kid, I’d write a collection of our family stories for that year, all the ways we almost died on rivers and at sea and in the woods. My father wasn’t as cautious as he could have been, and I’ve followed in that grand tradition.

Sorry this has been such a rambler. Doing a blog is a new experience for me. I did one for Esquire re my Tin Can nonstop solo circumnavigation attempt (which was cut short by weak crossbeams linking the trimaran hulls), but this is my first one that’s so free-form.


Friday, April 10, 2009

49 writers weekly round-up

Have we mentioned lately how much we appreciate all of you readers? And not only because you send us great stuff for the round-up. But we do love that great stuff. For instance, Sundrose brings to our attention that Homer author Daniel Coyle's new book The Talent Code is coming out soon, and he's got a great new website to promote it. Author of three previous books, including the NYT bestseller Lance Armstrong's War, Coyle also writes for Outside magazine, Sports Illustrated, and the New York Times Magazine. His latest sounds like a great read for writers: "Drawing on cutting-edge neurology and firsthand research gathered on journeys to nine of the world’s talent hotbeds — from the baseball fields of the Caribbean to a classical-music academy in upstate New York — Coyle identifies the three key elements that will allow you to develop your gifts and optimize your performance in sports, art, music, math, and just about anything."

And in case you missed it (I had), reader Betty Monthei points to a recent CNN story, "More authors turn to Web and print-on-demand technology." Speaking of which: in February we linked to Dana Stabenow's post on Jungle Red Writers about the Internet promotion campaign she put together for Whisper to the Blood. It created quite the stir among authors, so Dana edited, amended, and added to it, creating Promoting Your Book Online, available for $4 on Amazon's Kindle. As Dana notes, following her suggestions will save authors a lot of sweat equity in building their own cyberspace presence.

Nancy Lord, who pubbed in the Northern Review's first (and last, until now) literary edition, reminds us that the call for submissions for the Review's special literary issue has a deadline of April 30. The Northern Review is a multidisciplinary journal of the arts, social sciences and humanities published twice a year by Yukon College in WhitehorseThe Northern Review's second special literary issue will be published in Fall 2009. The first literary issue, Number 10, was published in Summer 1993. They are interested in receiving previously unpublished short works of fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction about the North and/or set in the North. They are also interested in receiving scholarship on northern literature. The review process will be double-blind, with no names on submissions, except on the cover page. Include your email and snail-mail addresses and phone number on the cover page. Authors may submit more than one entry for consideration. Submit to (sent as attachments, not in the body of the email). Inquiries to the managing editor

Three Alaskan MFA students have been recognized as winners in several statewide writing contests. Scott Banks took first place in the Northern Lights Essay Contest for his essay “Light Exercises" and second place in the Harold McCracken Endowment Poetry Award for his poem “I Wore Cowboy Boots to Work Today." Martha Amore won second place in the Harold McCracken Award for Outstanding Writing about Alaska & the North Country for her essay "Pike." Also, Vivian Faith Prescott received an honorable mention in the Harold McCracken Endowment Poetry Award for her poem "The Last Word."

I Can Do It! I Can Publish My Book! I Can Do It At Sea! Okay, it sounds a little cheesy, but we try to bring you all news connecting writers and Alaska, and this cruise fits. Sponsored by self-help publisher Hay House, it's billed as an Alaska Writer's Workshop at sea from July 11-18. A $10,000 advance is promised to one lucky workshop participant. ($10,000...only one will get it...high stakes for competitive and frustrated authors bottled up on a boat...there's a plot here... and a reason why I write fiction instead of self-help)

Finally, the Alaska Writers Guild is sponsoring a two-day workshop on “The Art and Business of Writing" on August 22-23 at the Coast International Inn in Anchorage. Manuscript Reviews with the faculty will be available during the workshop for an additional cost.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

I'm passing you on to another great story...

Sitting here eating matzoh for breakfast, with tonight's big seder still ahead. Because this is a Jewish holiday, I am passing over the opportunity to blog at length, and instead sending you to some other links.

First, you might remember that we interviewed filmmaker Mary Katzke recently about her "About Face" documentary, to be screened on April 27 at 5:30 at Bear Tooth. Even more recently, the film was selected for an upcoming premiere at "Hot Docs," a major Canada film festival.

Last weekend, the Daily News ran Debra McKinney's touching feature story about the film's subject, Gwen -- the Alaska woman who was scarred as a baby when her mentally ill mother placed her into an Eagle River bonfire. It's an excellent piece of journalism. But its power becomes even more clear when you check out the many, many comments left online at the Daily News -- including some comments left by people who still remember the original news stories from two decades ago or who actually saw baby Gwen at the hospital or elsewhere in Anchorage.

Readers weighed in with encouragement for Gwen, thanks to Mary, and continued interest in the personal saga. We all want to know how things turn out, how people heal and forgive (or don't), what it all means in the big picture (spirituality was invoked often in the online comments). As a member of this community, it makes me happy to see any kind of film or book project bring people together. As a writer, I am inspired to know that people just plain love stories. Technology may change, the economy will rise or fall, but we are narrative-oriented creatures with endless cravings for good beginnings, middles, and endings. We want to share, inspire, touch, question, understand. Amen to that.

Oh. That wasn't very short, was it? Matzoh all gone and I'm still typing.

Finally -- if you are not attending a seder tonight (or preparing for Easter, or howling at the moon and invoking the sun to continue melting our ash-spotted snow), you might want to attend "Effigies: Poems of the Inupiaq North" with poets dg nanouk okpik and Cathy Tagnak Rexford. Brew by Moose's Tooth, art also on display. Tonight, April 9th, 7:30 PM International Gallery of Contemporary Art 427 D Street.

I am sorry not to attend. We've had a bounty of poetry readings and other literary events in Anchorage this month, and I hope this one is a smashing success to all involved.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Buddy System: 100 Days

I had other plans for today's post, but what is the point of a blog if you can't be spontaneous? This isn't an actual newspaper or litmag. Sheesh.

My cyberfriend Micheal T. of Philadelphia, whom I met through a Facebook-group post about the cello and about whom I know fairly little, emailed me today to confirm that he is approaching completion of his New Year's resolution: 100 days of practicing the cello. (Or at least 99. We agreed that one slip-up in 100 didn't count.) A complete beginner, he has discovered that about 100 days was sufficient to get him through Suzuki Book One. At mid-life, learning a new instrument (or language) at any pace is significant -- one might even say heroic.

Way back in late December or January, I suggested to Michael that we have a little "daily cello practice smack-down," and he won, no question. We had agreed to buddy-up and egg each other on via emails and Facebook, and I said I'd send him a copy of my novel if he succeeded. We also enlarged our support system into an online weekly discussion thread that now has about 14 members, who report weekly on how well they practiced, what they're having trouble with, and so on. It's been just enough to keep me slogging away at an instrument I adore, but can not -- and will not -- ever play with any finesse.

The world does not need me to play the cello. The world in fact (certainly my dogs), might be happier if I did not play the cello. Even my husband and children would fail to grieve if I stopped sawing at my scales most nights after dinnertime. But I love it (except when I hate it), and that passion has found a way into my writing, so those few shrill practice hours a week can't be a complete waste.

My point today, though, is not about the glory of the cello and the pains of the untalented amateur, but about the necessity of a buddy system.

If you are a writer, do yourself a favor, and find someone to whom you may confide your ambitions, whether it is to write a poem a day for 100 days, to finish your novel within the year, to write at least two mornings a week, to apply for three new grants or residencies. Be specific. Create goals that you can control. (Better to say you 'plan to write an hour each weekday' or you 'plan to send out 20 queries to prospective agents' than you 'plan to be published by December' because the latter is less controllable.) Establish a check-in procedure. Include some affordable reward options. Include a little slack.

The ideal buddy may not be your spouse or best friend. I've had (and lost) friends who did not respect my desire to write or to be self-employed, and I've known writers enmeshed in extended families that actively discouraged their success because a writer in the family is a ticking timebomb, ready to explode with secrets. If that sounds like you, look elsewhere. But look.

And if you are alone, make yourself the ideal buddy. Write down your goals, leave yourself reminders, reward your own efforts, and keep visible reminders of your successes along the way.

It's never too late to learn to play the cello, as Michael T. reminded me today. It's never too late for anything that really matters.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Your turn: New tricks

I painted the refrigerator last weekend. I'd taken food in and out of that fridge every day for the past two years, pondering things like how one of my characters wrinkles her nose when she's miffed and how another's voice ratchets up when a certain subject is broached, and somehow failing to actually notice that the fridge was almond while the other appliances were black. Quite the embarrassment for A Writer Who is Supposed to Pay Attention to Details. At any rate, the situation is now rectified, though in the process I have affirmed that appliance-painting is not my special calling.

I guess with the coming of spring we all pay more attention to things. It's not just the long light of the sun that makes the familiar seem worn and dusty. It's also the new energy that rushes in with the season.

Thumbing through the writers' magazine I brought to my physical therapy appointment (apparently I managed to tear my rotator cuff when I broke a bone I didn't know I had, something called a greater tuberosity), I skimmed an article on free software for writers. Free! But then I thought about the energy it takes to tackle new tech stuff, and my idea - right or wrong - that if in the economy of energy I spend too much on learning new tricks, I have little left for real creative work. But the alternative is getting stuck in the same dusty routines, when there are new approaches, methods, and technology that would improve what I do.

It's just that it takes so much energy to try them all out. So I thought I'd ask you, in honor of almost-spring. What new tricks, techy or not, are worth adding to your writing routine?

Monday, April 6, 2009

From a Far-Off Alaskan: David Vann

"There's more art in this world than we think," begins David Vann's memoir, A Mile Down, and right away you want to ease up next to him and find out more. And when you do, you're both astounded and humbled. You want to run out and tell all your friends about this author who's adventurous and approachable and authentic and very, very good.

It's not just the critical acclaim, though there's plenty. A Mile Down climbed multiple bestseller lists, including those at the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. And Legend of a Suicide, his short story and novella collection set in Alaska, wasn't just reviewed in the New York Times - it was chosen a NYT Notable Book of the Year, placing it among the paper's top 100 picks for 2008.

Our featured author for April, Vann checks in from New Zealand to tell about how Alaska got wedged in his soul. Ease on up and toss in your thoughts about Skilak or Caribou Island or Adak or bestselling books or about who really smokes the best salmon.

I wrote a terrible poem once titled “Through the Undergrowth,” about running around the rainforest in Ketchikan as a kid. The false second rainforest floor of branches and such built up so high I’d sometimes fall through. The poem was about that submerged world between the two floors, but really it was just nostalgia. I still think of the rainforest the way I saw it at 4 years old, a place even more wild in my imagination than in fact.

I still think of myself as Alaskan, though I haven’t lived there full time since I was five. I visited all the time until I was thirteen, when my father died, and then there was a long gap, and then I visited every summer in my mid-twenties. Somehow, self and imagination and story are still lodged in Ketchikan. Also any sense I have of who my parents were before me and why things went wrong between them. Everything that really shaped my life, in other words. It’s all there. So even if I haven’t been a resident for a long time, I’m not willing to give up belonging.

So I’m happy to have the chance to blog here, and I apologize to those of you who have always lived in Alaska if my claims to it seem not strong enough.

Regarding my writing, I’m working on a novel now set on the Kenai Peninsula. It’s titled CARIBOU ISLAND and will come out from HarperCollins in 2011. If any of you have stories from Caribou Island or Skilak Lake that I could use, I’d of course love to hear, though I’m perhaps not getting off on the right foot here, asking to steal your material. My story collection, LEGEND OF A SUICIDE, which came out in December, is also set in Alaska (Ketchikan, other parts of southeast, Adak, Fairbanks).

I’m in New Zealand right now, with my wife Nancy. We have residency here, though we don’t get to visit as often as we’d like. A little over two months this time. Renting a glass house on Taupo Bay, overlooking a beautiful beach and headlands. It’s fall here now, sunny days interrupted by fierce wind and rain you can’t possibly imagine, ha. Temperatures plummet into the sixties. I’ll try to fit a few sheep into my blogs, and I’ll throw up a challenge: I think the smoked salmon is better here than in Alaska.

I’d love to hear stories from Adak, by the way, since I was born there and don’t remember it. The whole place was up for sale a while back, which was an odd thing to see, one’s birthplace for sale. Only $3 billion, and they threw in the port and the Adak National Forest.

Friday, April 3, 2009

49 writers weekly round-up

First, many thanks to Marybeth Holleman, our featured author for March, for her insightful posts. With the turning of the calendar arrives award-winning author David Vann, whom we're featuring during April. By clicking on his photo in the sidebar, you can link to previous posts by and about David. We've also posted a photo of his most recent book, Legend of a Suicide. Look for guests posts from David beginning next week.

Denali Park is absolutely one of my favorite Alaskan places, so I was thrilled to get news from author Tom Walker that the park has instituted a Writers-In-Residence program. For this, the inaugural year, poet John Morgan has been selected as the first participant. He will enjoy ten days at the East Fork Cabin, known as
the "Murie cabin," and will give a reading and public program at the end of his stay. Writers interested in this program can contact Ingrid Nixon, Chief of Interpretation, at the park next winter.

While our governor engages in a little cat-and-mouse with the federal government and our state legislation over economic stimulus funds, other states are taking an energetic and proactive approach to stimulating the economy by means of the arts. As the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices reports, "In seeking a competitive edge, several states are incorporating arts and cultural exchanges in their economic development approaches. The arts are a potent force in the economic life of cities and rural areas nationwide. Many states have invested in the arts as a strategy to attract the "creative class" and reverse brain drain." Dream on, Alaska.

Thankfully, we have more control over efforts to stimulate our own personal economic situations. Check out the great suggestions in Bookend LLC's recent post on What Authors Can Do to Sell Books.

In keeping with National Poetry Month, one of readers reports that the Kenai Community Library will be holding a Poetry Night, with twelve people reading poems on April 23, from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

Speaking of poets, Ken Waldman checks in with news that he'll be in Sitka from April 10-14, Petersburg from April 15-16, Juneau from April 17-20. In all communities he'll be doing a mix of events, including concerts accompanied by Anchorage guitarist and fiddler, Peter Johnson. In Sitka, he'll be at Kettleson Library, Friday evening, April 10, for a solo reading. Saturday morning, again at Kettleson, he'll be doing a children's show. Saturday evening, he and Peter will do a concert. Monday and Tuesday they'll be in schools and will do a kids' writing workshop on Monday night at Kettleson. In Petersburg, he'll do a solo reading at the library on Wednesday. Thursday, he'll visit the middle school and then he and Peter and will do a concert Thursday evening. In Juneau, he'll emcee a kids' concert at the Alaska Folk Festival on Saturday morning, will do a short set with Peter that afternoon, and will lead a workshop about the business of being an artist on Sunday afternoon. Not to mention that Ken's gearing up for five library shows in and around Anchorage for the summer reading program, plus the Beluga Days concert series at UAF. Also, he'll soon be celebrating his second children's CD and his first children's book.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Fill-in-the-gaps project: a hundred book reading list

I've got my list ready -- or most of it, anyway -- and sheesh, it took longer than I expected, even though I'd started this list in longhand form months ago. My plan was to keep the list to myself (do I really want the world having a permanent record of my reading gaps?) but then I mentioned the list on Facebook, and another blogger, Moonrat, picked up the idea and ran with it.

And I'm really glad she did. Because by naming the project, getting the above logo designed (by Ren Feathers via Emily Cross), and inspiring others to jump on board, now there are quite a few lists out there. And if you're a list person like me, you enjoy getting a peek at other people's plans.

In my own mind, I plan to call the project "Fill-in-the-gaps" instead of "100 Books" because I Googled the latter and "100 Books" is an overly common tag. If you decide to make your own online list in any fashion, feel free to save/copy the logo above (Emily Cross has other nifty versions available).

Coming up with the first 50 or 60 titles was easy. I used many different "100 Best Novels" and prizewinners lists, and I also combed essays by other writers, notating which novels are most often named as influential (Nabokov and Tolstoy probably come up the most).

Another detail, of interest only to fellow list-makers: Last night I kept adding some final titles and erasing them. Adding titles because I own them already and plan to read them soon; erasing them because they don't quite fit the concept for me. The list isn't just "hard" or "chore" books, it includes books I'll have no trouble diving into as well; but it isn't everything I plan to read, either. For me, these are books that fill a gap somehow, that move me toward feeling more well-read. So there are some high-pleasure, can't-wait-to-read-books I put on the list because they are written by authors I am trying to read from first book to last (Meg Wolitzer, Zoe Heller, Lionel Shriver), and this helps me get there. But then there are other high-pleasure books I left off, because they're not moving me toward any particular goal. (I said this was a minor detail.)

Anyway, here's the list so far, with older books up high and newer books down low. I'm not reading them in this order, and in fact I already finished two (asterisks) since I started the list in January.

Old-timey classics
1. Dickens, Bleak House
2. Melville, Moby Dick
3. Dostoevsky, Crime & Punishment
4. George Elliott, Middlemarch
5. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
6. Another Henry James (Wings of the Dove?)
7. Hardy, Jude the Obscure
8. Flaubert, A Sentimental Education
9. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night
10. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
11. Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies
12. Theodore Dreiser, American Tragedy
13. James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
14. James Joyce, Dubliners
15. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage
16. Nabokov, Lolita
17. Nabokov, Pale Fire
18. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
19. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
20. Edith Wharton, Age of Innocence
21. Conrad, Heart of Darkness
22. Any Faulkner
23. Any D.H. Lawrence novel (plus Italian essays)

Modern classics
24. Any John Cheever
25. Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
26. Bernard Malamud, The Fixer
27. Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
28. Philip Roth, The Breast
29. Philip Roth, Exit Ghost
30. Saul Bellow, Herzog
31. John Fowles, French Lieutenant’s Woman
32. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
33. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
34. Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg Ohio
35. W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz
36. Norman Mailer (any would do, but I chose Castle in the Forest)
37. Shirley Hazzard, Transit of Venus
38. Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
39. James Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
40. Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
41. Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
42. Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
43. Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
44. Charles Baxter, First Light
45. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust
46. Allan Hollinghurst, Line of Beauty
47. Paul Bowles, Sheltering Sky
48. Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
49. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim
50. Evan Connell, Mrs. Bridge
51. Anne Frank’s Diary (re-read)
52. Any Ruth Murdoch
53. Any Sarah Waters (Fingersmith?)
54. Any Rose Tremain
55. Any Joyce Carol Oates
56. Any Updike
57. Any Peter Carey

Recent worthy dusties, nearly all on my shelves
58. Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow
59. Lorrie Moore, Birds of America
60. Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow
62. Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles
63. Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
64. Ian Frazier, Cold Mountain
65. Edward P. Jones, The Known World
66. Cormac McCarthy, The Road
67. Catherynne M. Valente, Orphan’s Tales (my son has been trying to get me to read forever)
68. Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke
69. Joseph O’Neill, Netherland
70. Marilyn Robinson, Housekeeping
71. Robert Bolano, Savage Detectives
72. James Meek, People’s Act of Love
73.*Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
74.*Seth Kantner, Ordinary Wolves
75. Lionel Shriver, Game Theory
76. Meg Wolitzer, The Ten O’Clock Nap
77. Zoe Heller, The Believers
78. E.L. Doctorow, The March
79. Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game
80. Michael Ondatje, The English Patient
81. Steven Millhauser, Martin Dressler: Tale of an American Dreamer
82. Dean Koontz, Life Expectancy (to read with my daughter)
83-87. Next 5 Booker winners
88-92. Next 5 Pulitzers
93. David Marusek, Mind Over Ship (Alaskan book!)
94. Richard Powers, The Echo Maker
95. Junot Diaz, Drown
96. Sherman Alexie, Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian
97. Toni Morrison, Beloved
98. David Vann, Legend of a Suicide (Alaskan!)
99. Stuart Archer Cohen, Army of the Republic (Alaskan!)
100. Jon Clinch, Finn

There -- done.

Note -- I read nonfiction, but decided to keep this list 100% fiction. Go figure.

Blessed are the list-makers

Here are just a few links of other people's 100-book, 5-year lists. I know there are more out there. Emily Cross has hinted she might be willing to organize this on its own site -- I hope so!
Amanda's list (I like how she broke down the stats)
Moonrat's list (the one that started it all)
J.C. Montgomery's list
Aerin's list
Freddie's list
Megan's list
Vasilly's list
Iasa's list (fewer dead white guys on this list -- lots of good ideas for folks tired of the most known classics).

And more list-makers (I'm adding these as people comment or otherwise notify me)
Stephanie's list
Briony's list
Kate's list

There are more, as I said, but these were the easiest to snag -- just to inspire any other folks out there who are thinking of spending a few days list-making. And even if this thread is a little old, don't be shy about adding your own link address in the comments -- I'll continue to update until someone picks up this little project and does something grand with it.

Has anyone noticed that the vast majority of these lists are by women? Are we more ambitious readers? Or just more ambitious list-makers? You tell me.

UPDATE: Oh joy. The "grander scheme" has emerged. Emily Cross has designed an official "Project Fill in the Gaps" mini blogsite that will track all these lists in one place. If you're a listmaker, go there to join the fun. Or if you're just looking for a classic to read, you might find some ideas and inspiration as future posts get added.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The 100 Books Project, Part I

My name is Andromeda, and I haven't read...

War and Peace by Tolstoy.

Moby Dick by Melville.

Lolita by Nabokov.

ANYTHING by Joyce Carol Oates, Ayn Rand, Saul Bellow, Salman Rushdie, the list goes on and on. (The shame, the shame!)

Nor even the relatively recent bestseller Cold Mountain by Ian Frazier. (Even though the book has been staring me in the face from my living room shelves for several years. I haven't even seen the movie, fergodsake. I don't want to spoil the book!)

No this isn't an April Fool's joke. Or maybe it is -- but the point is, I am the April Fool. Oh, friends, the list is long, and it is hard, and beyond the books I haven't read there are books I did read but couldn't appreciate at the time. (I know I read Faulkner in high school. I just wasn't paying attention.)

As mentioned before, I am a big believer in remedial self-education. And an even bigger believer in lists. Which is why I started a list at the end of 2008 (one of my anxiety-triggered December birthday lists) of the books I wanted to read, plan to read, really should read, in the next 5 years. Including classics. And contemporary prize winners. And books I already bought that are shooting me lasar-beams of guilt every time I walk by them. And books recommended many times by family and friends.

I composed a list of nearly 100 titles (still adding) and mentioned on Facebook, I believe, that I wanted more recommendations. The idea went into hibernation, but it just popped up like a nasty boil this week on another blog, and is now threatening to go viral (don't I wish). But before we talk about the "100 Books Project" as it now seems to be called, I want to ask you:

What book are you ashamed you haven't yet read?

What book do you think, once read, might make you a better person? (Better reader? Better writer?)

What book do you think you might want to read, but fear will turn out to be a dreadful bore? (Hint, its initials are M.B. No, I'm just kidding. Come up with your own answer here.)

What major doorstop did you recently finish reading and was it worth the effort? (I just finished Anna Karenina. See, I'm trying to fill those gaps.)

Give me some feedback, and tomorrow I'll unveil my almost-completed 100-title list and tell you what other crazy people are doing to spread this latest literary virus around.