ALASKA WRITERS CONFERENCE
A first-hand account of what it was like to attend the Alaska Writers Conference in 2015
When the opportunity came to attend the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference in Homer, Alaska, I pounced. It was my first writers’ conference. I had no idea what to expect. I resolved to go with an open mind, open heart, and be a sponge—listen, don’t do the talking—in one of the most beautiful settings on earth, at Lands’ End Resort at the end of the Homer Spit. Kachemak Bay on one side, Cook Inlet on the other, bordered by blue and white mountains too beautiful for description. What’s not to like?
According to the University of Alaska, Kenai Peninsula College program schedule, “This is an annual collegiate conference that provides an opportunity for writers and readers to discuss contemporary literature and the art, process, and techniques of creative writing.” Authors, poets, writers, and industry professionals from Alaska and the Lower 48 gathered to educate, share their experiences, their writing, and inspire us. And indeed they did.
The conference was four days of workshops, panel discussions, readings, guided writing circles and informal conversation covering topics ranging from writing memoir and fiction to demystifying the literary agent and publishing processes, writing evocative dialogue, and the importance of writing and studying poetry.
The featured author this year was Andre Dubus III, author of six books, including House of Sand and Fog, and The Garden of Last Days, both optioned for major motion pictures. Mr. Dubus wrote his memoir, Townie, which he said was the most difficult to write. When is a memoir not difficult to write? I wondered when he made that comment.
Mr. Dubus is an entertaining, inspirational speaker. It helps that he’s hilarious, with a frank, in-your-face way of speaking. He learned our names and connected with each of us on a sincere, personal level. His message was relentless: keep your personal truth in your writing, especially in memoir; giving up is not an option. He worked with several writers, myself included, advising how to access our truth, the importance of distancing ourselves from a painful past, and when to seek counseling if past events continue to trouble our souls when we write about them.
It’s impossible to list all of the wisdom, advice, and information I gleaned from this conference. So many writers—so little time. I focused on the memoir sessions, since that is my genre. I was advised to read David Lazar’s Truth in Nonfiction, along with hundreds of other books recommended to us during the conference. I networked and introduced myself to regional writers and publishers. That is crucial to publishing my Alaska-centered writing.
We did free write exercises and nervously read them into a microphone to our writer audience. Intimidating when you spot the heavy hitters; exhilarating when they react. I can’t explain the adrenaline rush after reading your free-write piece to an audience of writers—when you look up and see raw emotion in response to your words. I had never experienced that before. It was humbling. That’s when I realized our words have impact. Our words are powerful and vital to our human condition. The takeaway: Read your writing to others—at coffee shops, bookstores, whenever readings are scheduled. Spontaneous human emotion will keep you writing!
I learned so much—the importance of being with our own kind, other writers, who understand and “get” us—that we aren’t alone on our writing journeys. Writers on all levels—beginners, experienced and published—exchanged wisdom and lessons learned through our experiences. Each word we write is a step on our journey of discovery, no matter the genre. The message is consistent: Be true to your heart and have courage to write your truth.
I learned we writers are empathetic and deep feelers. We share on intimate levels that ‘civilians’ don’t always understand. I highly recommend an immersion with other writers now and then. You’ll emerge confident and inspired. Before the conference I was in a writing slump and felt like throwing in the towel. Now? No freaking way will I give up!
Mr. Dubus said if I give up, he’ll kick my (he said the three-letter word).
I said, “How will you know?” He handed me pen and paper. “Give me your email address. You’ll get a monthly reminder demanding a progress report until it’s published.”
I was taken aback. “You’d take time to do that?” He said yes he would—if he can’t support other writers, what good was he? I smiled and slid my email address across the table. He put it in his wallet. We’ll see what happens.
Lois Paige Simenson lives in Eagle River, Alaska. She’s a playwright, with Glaciers and Demons, which received a staged reading at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez; and two plays recently produced by Perseverance Theatre at the Anchorage Center for the Performing Arts. Lois has a blog, The Alaska Philosophaster, at Alaskazanylips.com. She is working on her memoir, The Butte Girls Club.