The faculty at this year’s Kachemak Bay Writers Conference wasted no time in challenging participants with the big questions. At the opening dinner keynote speaker Barry Lopez asked us to consider the role of a writer in “an imperiled world,” as he characterized the condition of our planet, given the current political, economic, and environmental reality. He exhorted us to create something beautiful with our writing, as that was the only way to defeat “the enemy” driving our society towards destruction. The words of Keats, learned so long ago in high school, immediately came to mind: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
The first panel session, Writers in the World, continued to probe the concept of literary citizenship, discussing various ways in which writers can fulfill this responsibility. Camille T. Dungy emphasized that we are writing for others: it’s not a monologue but a dialogue. Our responsibility as writers is to engage readers in a conversation or to keep them engaged and invigorated. Ann Pancake spoke of the potential of literature to effect transformation and change in troubled times, reminding us that writers have the power to envision future alternatives and imagine a way forward that turns current paradigms on their head. Valerie Miner proposed various ways a writer might fulfill the obligations of literary citizenship: reviewing a book from the perspective of its contribution to the dialogue; editing an anthology (what books don’t yet exist that you believe the world needs?); recommending books to one another; attending literary events; and proposing conference panels on relevant topics, to name a few. Enthusiasm becomes infectious, and so whatever we do should be something that really matters to us.
I had been looking forward to exploring style elements of memoir writing with Debra Gwartney, finding out from Eva Saulitis what the heck the pantoum form of poetry was, and joining the lively discussion of 43 ways to approach revision promised by Peggy Shumaker, and it was discomfiting to be called to account in this way. By the end of the first day, questions such as “Why do writers do what we do?” and “How does awareness of living with other beings show in my writing?” were lodged in my mind.
Being a writer demands that we keep one eye fixed firmly on the big picture while focusing the other on the details. In his extensive world travels, Lopez has spent time amongst the northern peoples of Alaska and Canada. Once, he asked an Inupiaq storyteller what caribou do, only to learn that in their culture you cannot say what caribou do, only what an individual caribou might do at a certain time under a particular circumstance. This story will always remind me how easy it is to make sweeping generalizations about our world, about the people and creatures that inhabit it. Like the caribou everything is, in the end, unpredictable. It’s our responsibility to notice and describe the particular, to tell the stories that need to be told, to create something beautiful that contributes to the larger narrative.