Yeah Write | A Fishing Town’s Writing Habit
Strange things do still happen under the midnight sun, like the time just before summer solstice every year when Homer, Alaska—bonafide fishing town at the road’s bitter end—becomes a straight up writing town. Even under normal circumstances, it’s thick with literary talent, home as it is to Rich Chiappone (who fishes as much as he writes), Erin Hollowell, Nancy Lord, Miranda Weiss, and others. The memory of Eva Saulitis must be mentioned, as well, and given their geographic proximity, the poet Tracy Philpot and adventure writer Erin McKittrick, both across the bay in Seldovia, garner some association with literary Homer. Each year, this week, Kachemak Bay Writers Conference (KBWC), put on by UAA’s Kachemak Bay Campus, attracts crowds of writers, readers, agents, and other book people from across Alaska and Outside for days of workshops, panels, readings, talks, manuscript critiques, editor consultations, and camaraderie. There are informal beach fires and impromptu bar crawls, a morning boat cruise with authors, and a series of free evening faculty readings open to the public. Backdrop to it all is the panoply of the bay itself, with its wildlife and people, its light and sounds.
The conference has bookended and boosted my own experience as a writer in Alaska. I lived in Anchorage for two years before heading out to Missoula, Montana to earn an MFA in creative writing. Back from grad school on summer break in 2006, I attended the conference for the first time, possibly as the youngest participant that year. I struggled to keep my old tent upright on the beach in strong winds, and finally resorted to my Jeep to sleep. It was an amazing time that sparked lasting connections with Olena Kalytiak Davis, Jonas Lamb, Eva Saulitis, and others—new friendships that fortunately stuck. I didn't make it back again till 2015, when I was lucky to be invited aboard as faculty (which comes with a room at Land’s End that stays upright even during full-blown gales). I couldn’t stay away last summer, either, despite the 1,100-mile roundtrip drive between McCarthy and Homer. It was the 15th anniversary of the conference, and the keynote was poet Natasha Trethewey, joined by Dan Beachy-Quick, Forrest Gander, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Peggy Shumaker, and many more.
Returning to the KBWC almost a decade after my first foray, it was clear that the word was out. The groups of almost 120 participants seemed to include more young people while representing more zip codes, with about 15 percent coming from out of state. It was clear, too, that it was not the first rodeo for many. About half of this year’s group has come in the past. The 18-member faculty each year includes some regulars plus stellar lineups of visiting faculty hand-picked every year by conference staff. This year’s keynote is Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley, joined by other faculty members including Kate Carroll de Gutes, Don Rearden, Susan Fox Rogers, and many more. In addition to serving a broader swath of people, a deeper sense of discourse and discussion about literature seems to be occurring, too. The workshops aren’t limited to predictable, traditional topics—the program represents a more sophisticated engagement with the craft of writing. It’s organized with an eye toward trending topics and emerging genres, like the graphic novel, for example, and foregrounds the importance of community.
Having experienced the conference’s significant impact on individuals and the literary arts overall in Alaska, I was thrilled when the galvanizing mainstay who founded the conference, Carol Swartz, was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame earlier this year. Those awards honor women whose contributions in any field have positively influenced the state. The first induction came in 2009, beginning an annual induction each March—Women’s History Month—of more classes of women into the virtual “hall”. That website, www.alaskawomenshalloffame.org, posts biographies of the women selected from the nominations received each year.
“I was definitely humbled and honored,” said Swartz. “The diversity of roles that women have played in the history of our state is extraordinary, and it’s represented by each years’ class. It includes women that have passed away as well as women that are still here.” This year’s class of women was recognized alphabetically during this year’s induction ceremony, putting Swartz last on the list. “I sat there very inspired. It’s an extraordinary honor. It’s still settling in, actually. I feel older than I did before it, to be honest,” she said, laughing. “It’s a great tribute to what people can accomplish with other people. It’s a testimony to that. I hope it serves as a way of inspiring young women to make a difference—it’s all about making a difference in Alaska, which really is one of my core values.”
Carol has made a huge difference since she moved to Alaska in 1980. She started working for the college in 1986, serving as its first Director. Her many accomplishments and accolades are detailed in her Hall of Fame biography. She’s accomplished a great deal, both in and beyond literary Alaska.
For five years before starting the KBWC, Swartz was already bringing writers from other places in Alaska and the Lower 48 to Homer to give workshops and readings. The conference itself was born with input and help from Nancy Lord, Sherry Simpson, Eva Saulitis, and Rich Chiappone. That initial core group was joined in time by Peggy Shumaker and Erin Hollowell, all motivated by an appreciation of literature. It’s that appreciation that connects the people who come to the conference, Swartz says, a group comprised of students, authors, readers, and writers of all genres and stripes.
One standout outcome of the conference involved then-unpublished Eowyn Ivey’s meeting with literary agent Jeff Kleinfeld, who eventually took her and Eva Saulitis on as clients. Though the conference was pivotal in Ivey’s long journey from inspiration to publication (and literary fame), the purpose of the conference is definitely not to pave the way to publication—not in the least. “The craft of writing is a solo activity. Giving writers opportunity to develop a community and meet others and inspire each other’s writing success is really the magic that happens at the conference,” said Swartz. The benefits extend beyond the page, too, of course, given literature’s power “to strengthen people’s understanding of the world through words.”
Last year, several faculty members linked good writing with a genuine engagement with the world. The things we write aren't the end that writing is entirely interested in, necessarily. Also at stake is the ability to ask useful questions, to live attentively. Alison Hawthorne Deming remembered Alaskan John Haines' explanation: "I write in order to understand the terms of my existence," he said. Nancy Lord described writing as an excuse to learn new things. Lifelong Alaskan-turned-New Mexican Sherry Simpson described actively learning her new landscape in a writerly way: "the world is teaching me a new grammar and I am learning a new syntax of me," she said. That harkens a bit to Dan Beachy-Quick's idea that "what you have to do in life is make the mind you can live with."
On one of the panels, Richard Hoffman said that a writer “has a relationship with the becoming text. It's something you enter into." I think that’s true, in all its facets. This conference is a reminder, too, that we also enter the act of writing in relationship with communities of fellow writers (including those we know only by way of the page). All writing embodies a communal endeavor and concern, even when it’s accomplished in solitude. I won’t make it all the way to Homer this year, but I’m there in spirit, buoyed knowing all kinds of sparks—from bonfires to bon mots and everything between—will fly from the Homer Spit’s tip.