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Essay from The Salmon Voices Series

The following essay appeared in the Alaska Dispatch as part of The Salmon Voices Series. The series was supported by The Salmon Project, an experiment in telling and hearing the stories of Alaskans and our salmon. The project hopes to highlight and deepen Alaskans’ strong personal relationships with salmon as food, a source of income, and a way of life. 


Our 6-year-old wasn’t happy about leaving the fishsite this fall. What kid wants to give up daily skiff rides and building driftwood forts and beach fires for alarm clocks and classrooms?

To ease his reluctance, I let him pick out his first real fishing pole when we were back in Kodiak. His little brother, Luke, inherited the rusty push-button rod with Star Wars sound effects that no longer casts but is still good for poking at things.

Grandpa wasn’t sure that Liam was ready to bring in a silver, and it’s true I spent a good part of our first trips to the river untangling his hook from alders and steering Luke and the dogs away from his erratic casting.

But when Liam backed a 12-pounder onto the gravel, and we drove that silver straight to Grandpa’s, and when, every day during journal time for the first month of first grade, Liam drew fishing scenes — I could see the river, the flight and fall of each shining lure, the beauty of those salmon, the praise over dinner — all becoming a part of my son’s story.

For the remainder of the fall, after school and every weekend morning, Liam begged to be taken fishing. And often we went, even though it meant lifting our old lab into the bathtub to wash off the slime and stink of rotting humpies he’d rolled in. And drying out Luke’s boots over and over. Or wading out on a submerged tree, seven months pregnant, way over my boots, to untangle his lucky lure.

We want to love what our loved ones do.

As parents, we want the stories that shape our children’s lives to be made of good things — effort and success, nature and wonder.

I’ve watched our boys’ attachment to our setnet site on the west side of Kodiak grow with every season. To see it is to glimpse my husband’s childhood here — what made Peter the man he is, why he defines himself through this work and place.

We deliver our fish to a cannery that’s been there since 1910. People have been harvesting salmon here for millennia.

Salmon “embody our home places,” writes Tom Jay. “Salmon are the deep note of our dwelling here.”

Kodiak setnetters pick salmon one by one, pulling each fish from nets stretching one hundred and fifty fathoms into the ocean. How many thousands have passed through Peter’s hands?

From a mile across the bay, he recognizes reds or pinks or dogs by the shape and path of their leap. He knows salmon in a way I never will, though they are the calendar around which we arrange our year — moving to the cabin each May and returning home in the fall. Salmon are our mortgage payment, the food in our freezer, peace of mind in good seasons and worry in the lean ones.

While I was growing up, our family spent September afternoons fishing in Barling Bay, near the village of Old Harbor. At six or seven years old, I preferred to set down my fishing pole and tried instead to usher dying salmon back into the river. “There you go little fellow. You’re free. Live, live,” I’d urge each gaping, decrepit fish as it floated off sideways into the current.

Sometimes when I consider what I can do about climate change and ocean acidification and its impact on the future of wild salmon, I feel about as effective as that little girl.

Will depleted, warmer oceans continue to support a species so dependent on open ocean feeding and specific water temperatures?

Has Alaska — one of the last great strongholds for healthy stocks of wild salmon — merely delayed the sort of loss that occurred in Europe, New England, California, and the Pacific Northwest?

“What does it mean to be alive in an era when the Earth is being devoured, and in a country which has set the pattern for that devouring? What are we called to do?” Scott Russell Sanders asks in “Writing from the Center.”

“We can begin that work by learning how to abide in a place. I’m talking about active commitment, not a passive lingering.”

We know that clean, undamaged rivers and streams are vital for healthy salmon returns; history has shown that no amount of hatchery effort can fix runs destroyed by ruined habitat.

While Alaska’s remoteness and small population seem to have spared our salmon the fate of so many other Pacific salmon runs, is our fidelity to wild spaces, and our long knowing of salmon within these places, enough to compel the “active commitment” that will keep Alaskans vigilant?

Of the 50 states, only Alaska commits in its constitution to managing natural resources like salmon for a sustained yield. This foresight at statehood was based on the belief that replenishable resources should be managed not for maximum short-term economic gain, but for perpetual gain.

We can advocate for salmon by asking that our political leaders, stakeholders, and fish managers protect our wild salmon populations and habitats, especially with growing pressures to extract resources from salmon watersheds as oil revenue declines.

How can we encourage future stewardship of wild salmon among Alaskans?

In “A Sand Country Almanac,” Aldo Leopold wrote, “We grieve only for what we know.”

For many young Alaskans, salmon are already a part of the seasonal rhythm of each year through subsistence, community, or commercial fishing. But supporting environmental education programs in our schools, like the rearing of fry in classrooms to study salmon life cycles, can make the link between salmon and sustainability more tangible.

I know salmon as a livelihood, and as part of this fishing community, but also as some of my best childhood memories — wading through bright green beach rye into open, bear-trampled spaces, where my footsteps sent the glint of tail or fin dashing out from the cover of riverbank, mom handing out sandwiches and passing around a thermos lid of Russian tea to warm us up after a long cold skiff ride.

Salmon are the story of both my birth family and the family I’ve made. They are incentive for living a life that is materially simpler and raising children with an ecological conscience.

When we drove out to the American River on a Sunday morning in December, it was a different river from the one we visited so many times in the fall, when Liam was caught up in the fervor of fishing, envying the grownups’ waders, and looking earnestly for a glimmer of silver within crowds of mottled pinks.

Now the road was quiet, the sunlight between mountain shadows slanted and butter pale.

It was just starting to snow, and the river mirrored the metallic silver of low clouds. By midwinter, such rivers are generally far from our thoughts.

“You remember all those humpies that were spawning here in September?” Peter asked Liam. “All those eggs are in the river now, and in the spring the pinks will emerge and migrate out to the ocean, even though they’ll only be a few inches long. They’ll head out like a fleet of tiny submarines.”

Liam nodded, but he was more interested in an old lure he’d spotted snagged on a logjam.

There are plenty of years to bewitch him with science, to teach him little wonders like scientists estimating historic runs by trees in Southeast Alaska that grew faster in years of abundant salmon, or the feats of homing and imprinting that guide salmon back to natal streams.

Walking with our boys beside the river, I think of our biggest commitments — joining a marriage, raising children, choosing to call a place home — and the sanctuary of this river, hiding millions of salmon beneath still water and gravel, and the work of tending to and protecting what we love.


habits, creativity, & small treats

I’ve been setting my alarm an hour or two earlier every day to carve out more writing time. Five days into my new habit, it’s hard to say whether I’m motivated more by word count or by the promise of coffee.

As Iris Murdoch said, “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.”

I’d heard that it takes three weeks to form a habit, but a quick Internet search refuted the whole 21 days claim. Still, I thought I remembered a specific number of hours-to-proficiency. Here it is (from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success): “for true expertise: ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything.”

As long as I stick to my morning writing routine, I should produce something really good 27 years from now.

Looking through a few books on writerly habits, the best ideas I’ve found are probably these 3W’s: waking up early, walking, and word count. For today’s writers I might add: avoiding that other www.

Mason Currey asks in Daily Rituals: How Artists Work—“How do you do meaningful creative work while also earning a living? Is it better to devote yourself wholly to a project or to set aside a small portion of each day?”

And when that isn’t actually a choice, how best to nurture a creative writing life?

In a recent interview in the Georgia Review, Julie Riddle said, “If I wrote when I felt like it—when I felt mentally sharp, energized and inspired—I would rarely write. I’ve learned that if I sit down each day and just start, regardless of how I feel, good things will happen.”

Good things will happen.

I’m feeling hopeful about the potential of writing before sunrise after reading about so many morning writers: Edith Wharton, Sylvia Plath, Ray Bradbury, W.H. Auden, Virginia Woolf, William Stafford, Wallace Stegner. I’d like to see a display of all the books written while other people were sleeping.

It’s encouraging to remember that slow and steady progress is exactly that—progress.

Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific writer, but she points out that even if all she keeps from a full day of writing is a single page, single pages add up over the years.

Gertrude Stein thought half an hour a day was enough writing time. Flannery O’Connor’s routine was to write for three hours daily with the goal of three good pages. Henry Miller wrote for two or three hours each morning, as did Willa Cather and W.B. Yeats. Yeats, a slow writer, said he never did more than five or six good lines a day.

After time and discipline, walking was most often mentioned as a complementary writing habit. Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginia Woolf, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, Yeats, Charles Dickens, and William Wordsworth all relied on walks to enrich their creativity. Wallace Stevens composed poetry walking to and from work and often walked through his lunch hour as well.

As an added incentive, studies show that spending even twenty minutes outside in good weather (what does that mean in Alaska?) leads to better working memory and moods.

I find that once I’ve started an essay, I carry it with me—revising in the car or the shower or at work. I think about it when I exercise too, that just happens less often.

“Once your unconscious mind has really begun to focus on a given project…things that fit your project seem to pop up everywhere you look. Suddenly, the world seems to overflow with what you need,” writes Stephen Koch, in The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop.

He also writes about the value of a daily word quota—calling it the next best thing to an enforceable deadline.

Somerset Maugham set himself a daily requirement of about 1,000 words. Steven King suggests at least 2,000. Mary Karr makes herself to write a page and half or to work for six hours, whichever comes first. Tom Wolfe set his quota at ten pages a day, triple spaced. If he finished in three hours, he could call it a day. “If it takes me twelve hours, that’s too bad, I’ve got to do it,” Wolfe said.

Here’s the thing. To write November’s weekly posts, I haven’t been taking walks. I’m not a fast writer; when I have a deadline I usually choose to trade that time for obsessive revising. I may never set a word quota. For now, it’s enough to force myself out of bed and down to the glow of the laptop on the kitchen table.

My new morning writing habit may not lead to a finished essay before 2014, but it does ease the ache of not writing. As we enter the darkest month of the year and this season of giving thanks, it helps me start the day in a spirit of gratitude—for words, for an hour of quiet, and for a cup of strong coffee.

small things

Lost teeth like little pearls, pockets full of rocks and a forgotten butterscotch, smudged handprints on the windows, knee-high hugs—all of this smallness I will miss, certainly, when my wild little boys one day bend down to hug me, mornings their knees bang table legs as they pour gallons of milk into cereal bowls.

Navigating the dark house at night, we unearth mines of marbles and matchbox cars. Smallness defines these years—years of demands howled or sweetly pleaded. Years when all distractions can be justified, because they need me more than the empty page, though I’m sometimes surprised at how easily work and motherhood elbow writing into narrow spaces, by the weight of so many small things.

In Ellen Gilchrist’s essay, “The Middle Way,” she wishes “the young women of our fortunate world find ways to balance their lives. I hope they learn to rejoice and wait.”

Though I try to sustain Gilchrist’s view, I sometimes swing toward Tillie Olsen’s mourning “the thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot,” and letting “writing die over and over again in me.”

I know I’m not alone in this, I’ve seen the standing-room-only crowds at AWP panels of parent-writers.

Hemingway pretty much summed it up when he said, “I like to do and can do many things better than I can write, but when I don’t write, I feel like shit.”

I cope with that feeling by piecing together, and making peace with, small windows of writing time.

Bill Roorbach writes, “You can get a lot done in the ten minutes a pile of Legos buys you with your three-year-old. You can still think while changing a diaper. You can still take a note or two for future reference before collapsing in a heap…But normal times, no baby at your breast, no death in the family: Call your writing work. Claim all the odd minutes that are built into even the busiest days for writing.”

At last summer’s Kachemak Bay Writer’s Conference, keynote speaker Naomi Shihab Nye reminded us that writing is a portable art. “Don’t wait for the weekend,” she said, “use all small increments.”

Keeping notebooks is one way of easing the feeling of letting words slip by.

In The Muses Among Us, Kim Stafford writes about the value of carrying a notebook to capture observations, dialogue, and stories. “I make the hearing and recording of them my mission as a writer,” says Stafford, “dreams get away if we don’t tell them, or write them down. Thoughts do the same. The writer’s greatest chance may be devotion to the passing fragment. It is small, but it is pure, and it may hold a compact infinity. You heard it for a reason.”

Entire books and essays can emerge from a small, deliberate practice. So can peace of mind.

When I was working on Gaining Daylight, the essay “Fifteen Times over the Bridge,” began as a quick daily walk that became a conscious act of observation and written reflection that helped the whole day feel less fragmented.

I just read The Forest Unseen, by biologist David Haskell. He spent a year watching a one-square-meter of old-growth forest in Tennessee, comparing the project to Tibetan monks creating a mandala—both are a way of seeking “the universal within the infinitesimally small.”

I see a similar pursuit in short-form genres like flash fiction and nonfiction. Anthologies of nonfiction pieces under 2,000 words like Short Takes or In Brief show us that oftentimes, brevity encourages creativity.

And there’s haiku, the definition of which sounds strikingly like life with small children: it “leaves no time to explain an experience” and instead “conveys an experience directly without commentary.”

I’ve seen the power of haiku described as the act of witnessing, of offering resistance to “the remorseless powers of forgetfulness.”

And isn’t that what troubles me when I’m not writing? The feeling that amid all this happy, exhausting chaos, I’m missing or forgetting what I should be capturing in words?

As I was looking for examples of beauty in small pieces, I opened Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry by Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison to this:

Treasure what you find

already in your pocket, friend.

On a hike last Sunday, Liam found an owl pellet in the dry grass on the peak. He carried the soft black handful carefully home. Later, head bowed at the kitchen table, he sorted vole bones small even for his nimble fingers, finding a tiny skull with teeth the size of splinters, while I marveled at the wonder of worlds in miniature, the owl and its meal, the boy and his curiosity, and what can be made of a day, what can and can’t be saved with words.

Six reading tips for writers (another guest blog post for 49 Writers)


“I leaf through now one book, now another, without order, and without plan, by disconnected fragments,” wrote Michel de Montaigne, father of the essay, claiming, “If I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retention.”

Last week I made a similar admission, wondering if my hurried, compulsive reading habits make me less effective when it comes to reading like a writer.

I vowed to read more deliberately, then proceeded to research for this blog post the way I usually do—a frenzied skimming of fourteen library books on reading plus a few more from my own bookshelves, going through sheets of sticky notes the way our four-year-old does when he gets ahold of them. Here are a few ideas worth remembering:

Slow down  

In Reading Like a Writer, A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want To Write Them, Francine Prose recommends close reading, comparing the technique to watching someone dance and later, secretly trying out a few steps in your own room. “Skimming just won’t suffice if we hope to extract one fraction…of what a writer’s words can teach us about how to use the language.”

Her advice is to “stop at every word to ask yourself what sort of information each word—each word choice—is conveying.”

That sounds a little tedious, but maybe close reading could help temper the writer’s despair brought on by reading something so good you’re crushed you didn’t think of it and convinced you never will. Instead of envying the lyrical beauty of Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds, I could reread the book and ask of each page—why this white space, why this phrase, why did she build the passage this way?

Read like a carpenter, that’s my new motto.

Read widely

In The Creative Habit, dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp suggests that we can mine more out of every book by “reading fat…not only reading, say, a novel, but reading related texts surrounding the novel, which may be books by the writer’s contemporaries, or commentaries on the novel, or a biography of the writer, or the writer’s letters.”

I think this kind of connect-the-dots curiosity comes naturally to most writers. After Phillip Lopate published half a dozen autobiographical books in several genres, he felt he’d used up the material of his past. So he chose the New York waterfront as his next subject, taking frequent walks there and reading everything he could find related to the shoreline—history, literature, marine biology, urban planning—to create his next essay collection.

For memoirists, immersive reading can add “social, political, geographical, and cultural context,” says Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir. “In order to ground your story in the world that surrounded it, you will have to be willing to extend your examined life beyond the purely personal.”

Read to emulate

When you recognize a weakness in your writing, seek out works by authors who write in the same vein, only brilliantly. Then try not to get too depressed. I’ve heard of writers physically copying out sections to get the feel of a writer’s style.

When I struggled with voice during my MFA program, I studied writers whose voices I loved—George Saunders, Mary Roach, David Sedaris, Brian Doyle. As I read I noted when they appeared on the page, how they translated information and presented their observations, and then I tried applying their techniques to my writing. I also wished I was funnier.

Read to borrow

 To study the art of borrowing from science and natural history, I like reading essays by Annie Dillard and Anne Fadiman. For such writing, research and note taking are a way of stockpiling details and sentences that might someday provide the seed of a story idea, the perfect epigraph, or a needed metaphor.

“What a good artist understands is that…All creative work builds on what came before,” writes Austin Kleon in Steal Like an Artist.

The poet Stephen Dunn uses notes from his reading as a source of inspiration. “I like being surrounded by snippets of pithy thoughts or beautifully balanced sentences. I often imitate or depart from them as a way of beginning a poem.”

Read like your readers

Insight and feedback from a trusted reader can be incredibly valuable—revealing what you left out because it was familiar to you, or the questions you’ve avoided answering. Having readers may be the most helpful feature of an MFA program.

Roland Barthes said that as we read, we rewrite the text of the work within the text of our lives. It’s sometimes surprising and humbling to learn what readers bring and take from your writing.

Believing that there is a reader who needs your book can give you courage to write bravely, and to keep writing through the self-doubt we’re all familiar with.

It’s why, when I read something that I love, I try to send a note or an email, knowing how heartening it can be to hear from a reader. Last week I found a great, new-to-me Alaska blog: Hooked, thanks to a message from Tele Aadsen about the 49 Writers post.

Read craft books, even if they can’t deliver the secret to success

As a teacher, I appreciate craft books for writing prompts and lesson ideas. I’ve also found that reading craft books outside our genres can be useful when a piece isn’t working. Screenplay manuals can help with pacing and dialogue. Fiction writing techniques can improve plot or character development in nonfiction stories as well. And a poet’s toolbox might lead to better description and word choice.

I’ve heard craft books disparaged for being too formulaic or too encouraging. But I take hope wherever I find it, even in triumph-over-repeated-failure stories like Steven King’s wall of rejection letters, or Alexander Fuller’s story of sending her agent a 9th novel (after 8 others had been rejected) and hearing back that maybe writing was a waste of Fuller’s time, and representing Fuller was a waste of the agent’s time. Fuller sat down and wrote the bestselling memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dog’s Tonight, which sold to publishers within days.

Sometimes I read craft books just for such stories. And I read for truths like this one:

“If you accept that writing is hard work, and that’s what it feels like while you’re writing, then everything is just as it should be. Your labor isn’t a sign of defeat. It’s a sign of engagement…

The difficulty of writing isn’t a sign of failure. It’s simply the nature of the work itself.”

-Verlyn Klinkenborg

It’s good to be reminded that writing is about persevering. The wonder of reading—because there is magic in opening a copy of your first book, in falling for a writer’s work, in holding the worn favorite of a late parent or of a child, now grown—is only magnified by a writer’s knowledge of how much faith and tenacity brought that book into the world.

writer, reader (a 49 Writers blog post)


My first real job was teaching kindergarten in New Mexico. From the highway, Newcomb is a gas station, a school, and some teacher housing. Only flickering house lights under night skies reveal the trailers flung out for miles across the mesa.

It was two hours roundtrip to the nearest public library, a drive I made weekly to load the car with books for my classroom. Sharing the wonder of all those stories was one of the best things about teaching. I don’t want to think about how much of my salary went toward Farmington Public Library fines those years.

Now I work in a college library, surrounded by more than I could read in a lifetime. And yet I’d still rather not think about how much of my salary goes toward buying books.

The other day when I asked my husband about adding some bookshelves upstairs he said, “Every time I build new shelves you just fill them up with more books.”

I reminded him it’s my responsibility as a writer to buy and promote the works of other authors. I didn’t mention that thanks to Alaska Book Week recommendations in the Juneau Empire and Alaska Dispatch in October, I’ve added a whole new batch of Alaska titles to my wish list.

Neil Gaiman recently gave a Reading Agency lecture in support of libraries and spoke of our obligation to read aloud to our children, “to do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves.”

He quoted Albert Einstein’s answer on how to raise smart children. “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales,” Einstein said, “If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Such advice reassures the mom in me. But not necessarily the writer, who has heard over and over that if you want to be an author you need to “read, read, read,” but isn’t sure that Where’s Waldo? counts.

My reading list these days is dictated by two little boys, so it’s heavy on Seuss and snakes and chapter books about giants, cowdogs, and eating worms. I don’t mind. Especially on summer nights when sunlight floods their bedroom at 10 p.m., I’m happy to read chapter after chapter, knowing it’s a luxury we won’t have during winter months of early dinners and darkness and school night bedtimes.

Meanwhile, my own book stacks grow faster than houseplants, reminding me how MANY things I want to read, and I’m always trying to fit too much into my short windows of time. I play audiobooks in the car, even though Kodiak’s limited road system and lack of traffic or stoplights necessitates ‘reading’ audiobooks in five minute segments spread out over months. I carry three books to the bathtub, four to bed, and pack half a dozen for a weekend trip. I find myself reading as fast as I can, skimming to get to the end.

Binge reading means I can stand in front of a bookstore or library shelf and recognize various titles I’ve read without being able to pull up details of plot or characters.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

While I’d like to believe in a kind of literary osmosis, I’m not sure that I’m reading deliberately enough to absorb anything into my own writing. I read like a manic beachcomber, shoving shiny words and images into crowded pockets, worrying that I’ve overlooked something significant.

“The more you read, the better you write. That’s just self evident,” says Anthony Horowitz.

That sounds good, but how important is the what and the how of reading when it comes to transference? Would slowing down, or reading with pen in hand and making time for reflection help my reading feel less compulsive and more cohesive?

In Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies, he writes that all acts of creation are “an arranging and interpreting of the given. Not so much a bringing-into-being as a recovering of what is in some way already known. The writer, then, places himself in a condition of silent receptivity.”

When we sit down to create a scene, “We research our sense memories, applying our attentiveness inward with the same diligence we would apply to the reading of a difficult text…We must, for we cannot have all of the images and sensations we need at our command at once; memory works by association, by accumulation, and by unconscious reconstruction.”

I’ve resolved to read more conscientiously, to pay attention to the confluence of my reading and writing.

But I’ve also decided to trust that all of this is what makes me—the hour reading aloud at the foot of the bunk bed because I believe in the power of stories to nurture imagination and empathy in my boys, mixing pumpkin into pancake batter at midnight because I believe holidays should start with a special breakfast, while this unfinished blog piece rolls through my thoughts and I try to puzzle out what exactly I’m looking for every time I open another book. It’s that one sentence or image or paragraph that reminds me why I wanted to be a writer in the first place and why I will always be a reader—to move or be moved by a quiet truth so masterfully written it becomes a revelation worth sharing and savoring and seeking out, a place to begin.

possible bookclub questions

“Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.”

-Pico Iyer

 Some book club discussion ideas…

I love book clubs because they combine so many of my favorite things—reading, talking about books, seeing friends and being reminded of the insights and points of view that make these women so dear to me, and sometimes even dessert or wine. I occasionally wish that more of the women in my book club had time to actually have read the book, but since most of us don’t see one another as often as we’d like, we usually end up talking about many things that aren’t book-related. And there’s value in that too, in catching up and commiserating and celebrating together. These ideas for book club questions aren’t as traditional as those for a novel, though honestly, sometimes the suggested novel questions about characters and plot are hard to discuss because you read the book five months ago and you’ve already forgotten who that character even was.  My hope is that these questions spark some good conversation between good friends.

1.“December” is about the loss of a childhood friend as much as it is about Old Harbor. What friendships influenced you as you were growing up? How does loss affect our memories of a place or a period of time?

2. Many of these essays explore the good and bad of a region like Kodiak, Alaska, and our choices to live where we do. Do you feel that landscape, seasons, or weather shape us as people? What season sustains you and why? Has this always been the case? What place do you think of as your true geography?

3. In essays like “The Simple Life,” “Unsinkable,” and “Cardinal Points,” the author grapples with the responsibilities of a new way of life and also envies the knowledge that her husband grew up with. Do you feel equal in your roles and work as a partner? Do you mind?

4. What does it mean to “belong” to a place or community? What do we gain by staying put? By leaving? What are the unique challenges or joys of your own community?

5. An aunt, after reading the book, wrote that she was reminded of the isolation of being a young, new mother in a city in California. The isolation that felt imposed by a remote island may have been as much the challenges and demands of being a new mother. What has surprised you or stretched you most as a parent or partner? Do you feel that you’ve given things up to be the parent or partner you are now? What have you gained?

6. Already, the voice of some essays written three years ago feels as if it was written from a different life. How does perspective change as we accommodate ourselves to different stages of our lives? How much does that affect our voice? What stays constant in our perspectives as we age?

7.  Writing “A Lake by Any Other Name” and “The Outlaws of Amook Island” felt a little like solving small mysteries. If you set out to answer a question, what might it be?

8. “Fifteen Times Over the Bridge” began as a need for space and thinking time. Where do you find a meditative space for yourself?

9. Writing nonfiction sometimes means sharing fears or admitting to personal details like depression in order to write honestly about an experience. Has there been a time you were able to relate to someone by risking or sharing something personal? Have you ever found comfort in a piece of writing or an unexpected shared experience?

10. Which essay did you find easiest to relate to and why? What did you empathize with despite possible differences in age and life style?

11. Imagining your home from the perspective of someone who lived here 100 or 200 years ago, what do think their lives would have been like? How have things changed or remained unchanged? What experiences do you still share? What elements of that history do you find most interesting?

12. Many of these essays reflect on small town life and the way it changes or stays the same over time. Besides family, are there any constants (people, things, places) in your life that you trace back to childhood which have managed to remain largely the same?

If your bookclub comes up with new ideas, please share, and thank you so much for reading.

good advice from Bill & Dave’s Cocktail Hour

Bill Roorbach writes, “Number one question at every panel I speak on and every workshop I teach, and in the many emails seeking solace, and etc: How do you find time to write in such a busy life?  And how can I?”

read the full piece here


I appreciated the end of his column:

“I mentioned infants and I know from experience that kids and parenting require enormous amounts of time, all the free minutes along with all the other minutes.  I also know that the pressures of parenthood can fall more on women than on men, especially in the early going.  Couples have a duty to make their schedules together, but make their schedules nevertheless.  You can get a lot done in the ten minutes a pile of Legos buys you with your three-year-old.  You can still think while changing a diaper.  You can still take a note or two for future reference before collapsing in a heap.  And when you have to go to work, you get a sitter, or drop the baby in your spouse’s lap.  Just as you would to teach a class.

And mourning.  That’s a whole ‘nother subject.  Let’s just say there are times a person can’t write and during those times you’re allowed to forget it, so long as you know it’s all going to come back around, time healing all, as they say.

But, normal times, no baby at your breast, no death in the family:  Call your writing work.  Claim all the odd  minutes that are built into even the busiest days for writing.  Write down your work schedule weekly and in advance.  And stick to it as you would stick to your class or other work schedule.  Your kid says, Will you drive me to town?  You say: Wish I could, but I have class.  No guilt, no recrimination, right?  Your kid says, Will you drive me to town?  You say, Wish I could, but I have to work.  Same.

Once you start believing in yourself, the rest of the world will follow.”

Shaped by Wind & Water: Reflections of a Naturalist

by Ann Haymond Zwinger

My aunt and uncle in Flagstaff sent this book. I knew I’d like it by the second page, when I read, “Many women I know live the same kind of life, predicated on interruption, that I do–the push-me/pull-me dance of balancing family life and professional life: keeping in touch with family, doing another wash, marketing and cooking, juggling overlapping schedules, and getting done what needs to be done…When I began writing, I often railed against the unnecessary and incessant stoppages that clotted my day. Writing…is not something one can pick up and put down easily. Fieldwork and research and putting it together as natural history writing is, of necessity, time consuming…I have never had the luxury of a set schedule and blocks of time to write…I’ve learned to trust my mind’s ability to work on its own, to explore ideas and mentally file and order them while I make a chocolate roll or sew on a button. I do know that blocks of time are necessary for many of the tasks of writing; I appreciate them when I have them and yearn for more. But I also could be persuaded that in a life of unavoidable interruptions there might be some hidden blessings: when I finally do have the chance to work, my mind immediately focuses in and expands my moment in sunshine. The self-indulgence of “writer’s block” is a luxury that never wrote an essay and, interestingly enough, something I seldom hear women writers complain about.”

“My best thinking is done following the map of my mind on the page.”

Eva Saulitis, On Writing the Book-Length Memoir

“…An essay arises out of a question, and that question is a variation of the question at the heart of every creative work, short or long:  what does this mean?  What does it mean that there’s a creature called a wolverine on this planet?  What does it mean to get cancer?  What does it mean to lose a child?  What does hate mean?  An essay is a map of the trail a writer takes in pursuing her question.  The question is unanswerable, or it has a myriad of correct answers.  Or its answer is “none of the above.”  A mind following such a map to its edge, to where the map ends, is a mind changed in the process, and that’s what the essay records.  So I started with a question.

The question at the heart of Into Great Silence was “What does it mean that the Chugach transient orcas, the animals I have been studying for half my life, are going extinct?  How can I possibly live with this?  Can I personalize this extinction so a reader understands on a gut level what we’re facing? Takes personally the fact that we exist in what some call a new age of extinctions?  Can I turn a scientific study into art?  And can I do this without my book being a total downer?  You can see already questions generating more questions, which is what happens both in literature and in science…”

Read her full piece at 49 Writers

color hungry

It’s been overcast and rainy this month, which has me a little hungry for light and color. I’ve been going through old photos, thinking how MUCH color I seemed to have noticed while we were traveling. A place like India makes it easy. But it also makes me wonder what it is about our own houses and spaces that causes us to stop seeing or appreciating the shades of things we’ve brought inside. The familiar comforts, yet it erases too, if we’re not careful.

I was thinking about our first summer at the fishsite, when the cabin was just a frame, the weather was cold, fishing was heavy, and we were coming to understand that we had five years worth of projects on that summer’s list: insulating, plumbing, putting in a kitchen, flooring, windows, steps. We were discouraged. I was lonesome. It wasn’t an easy season. But I’ve never appreciated my gardening attempts as much as I did that July when the first flowers bloomed.




Here’s my painter-friend Amy visiting Uyak a few years ago.

When she posted this photo of her desk the other day, she noted: ‘beginning again’


That ran through my head all day.

Beginning again.

Each morning, beginning again. And throughout the day, remembering to appreciate the beauty around me, railing a little less against winter’s dark and grayness. When I’m tired, or short tempered, or grumpy:  letting it go and beginning again.