Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Guest Blogger Miranda Weiss | A Column on Columns

When Tide, Feather, Snow, my natural history memoir, came out in 2009, I thought there could be no greater thrill than to have strangers from all over the country contact me about the relationships they had with my book—relationships that had nothing to do with me. Then, seven months later, my first daughter was born.

I continued to write, sometimes sporadically, but not publish much for the next few years. During that time, after my second daughter was born and I was immersed in raising an infant and toddler, I was writing—personal essays, a very drafty draft of a second memoir, but with two very young children, I didn’t have the wherewithal to do anything with the pages.

Last spring, my youngest daughter turned three and learned how to ride a two-wheeler. I watched her ride down the street away from me and felt something had switched. Motherhood wasn’t as demanding as it had been. I was eager to write and publish. And I knew I needed to start modestly and with deadlines. I needed to have someone—aside from my children—waiting for me to give them something.

I pitched a summer series to one of Homer’s two weekly newspapers, the Homer News, and found myself as a reporter for three months. My beat: the Homer Spit, a four-and-a-half mile long finger of land that juts into the middle of Kachemak Bay and is home to Homer’s harbor, the town’s largest hotel, and the port that serves as the gateway to Cook Inlet. Each summer, the Spit turns into the region’s center for tourism, fishing, shipping, and dramatic biological and geological processes. I wrote about octopus and erosion, halibut and landing craft, and about how the Spit shapes kids who grow up out there. Each week I had to come up with 800–1,000 words and an image too. Each week there was space I had to fill.

As the series drew to a close, I panicked. What was next? I was writing again—nothing grand, not the pages of a next book—but something that felt like it was leading me somewhere. At the same time, I still felt I wasn’t ready to make a commitment to another big project

Late in the summer, as I was reporting on the last piece in the Spit series, an editor I had worked with at The American Scholar contacted me and asked whether I would be interested in writing a weekly “letter from Alaska” column for the magazine’s website. Yes, was the answer. Whatever the Spit columns loosened in my head allowed me to write my weekly columns as well as pitch and write relatively furiously over the next months, publishing in Alaska Magazine, Alaska Dispatch, Edible Alaska, and The Economist.

This is a column in praise of columns, a shout out to small spaces to be filled with writing, especially when you need them most.


Miranda Weiss is a science and nature writer who lives in Homer. Her natural history memoir, Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska, was a bestseller in the Pacific Northwest. Her Northern Lights column about life in and around Homer appears weekly on the website of The American Scholar. In addition, her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Economist, Alaska Dispatch News, and elsewhere.

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