Story last updated at 2:49 p.m. Thursday, June 27, 2002

Conference encourages community
by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: entertainment
  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Derick Burleson, Kim Staffor, Heather Lende and John Straley discuss the challenges of writing from within small communities Monday.  
The big buzzword at this week's Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference wasn't plot, characters or even compound modifiers, though it's likely they were all mentioned at one point or another.

The buzzword was community.

In Alaska, explained Kathleen Putman, one of the conference organizers, writers, whether published or aspiring, rarely have the opportunity to gather as a group and discuss issues key to their craft.

"I think Alaskan authors understand about being isolated," she said, adding that the Homer conference is one of only a couple in the state.

With that purpose in mind, the five-day conference gathered 140 participants and 33 presenters into the conference rooms of Land's End Resort and began building a community of writers.

According to Carol Swartz, director of the Kachemak Bay Campus of the Kenai Peninsula College, which sponsored the event, the writers' conference was made possible in large part by a $200,000 endowment from Caroline Musgrove Coons. Coons, a longtime Alaska teacher and writer who moved to Homer in 1969, gave the money to the college for the purpose of encouraging creative writing in the Kachemak Bay area.

photo: entertainment
  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Dale Gardner, an aspiring writer from Anchorage, jots down an idea for a story to tell during a panel discussion.  
Since the endowment was made in 1998, interest has been accumulating and this year reached a level high enough to bring to Homer a major national literary figure.

That keynote speaker was Russell Banks, author of a dozen novels and short story collections focusing on the lives and mishaps of "normal" men (See related story, this page).

Participants of the workshop went on to a packed schedule of workshops and panel discussions ranging from writing for children to script-writing. Twenty-two of the 33 guest speakers came from Alaska, and nine from Homer, including Sharon Bushell, Dan Coyle, Tom Kizzia, Nancy Lord, Jan O'Meara, Lance Petersen, Jim Rearden, Tom Bodett and Eva Saulitis.

The opening panel, titled "To Build a Community," included writers Derick Burleson, Heather Lende, Kim Stafford and John Straley, kicked off the conference.

Stafford, an Oregon writer and director of the Northwest Writing Institute, opened with a story about Coons, told to him by one of her former students from a northern Alaska village.

Coons took the children on a walk in the dead of winter. The children followed their teacher out of the classroom, past the stores and houses, and past the airport, the last building in town.

The children thought she was crazy, leading them out of town like that, Stafford said. But when they got up on the ridge, she told the students to turn around and look at their village. The former student told Stafford that it was at that moment, looking at the village from afar, that he became an artist.

"I'm hoping that maybe you'll turn around and look at your village (after the conference) because so much of our culture is just going on," Stafford told the audience. "We writers are a village."

The panel then launched into descriptions of their own interactions with the communities they live in, and the positives and negatives of writing about those places.

"I'm very invested in most of the things I write about," said Heather Lende, a regular contributor to National Public Radio's Morning Edition, columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, and obituary writer for the Chilkat Valley News in her home in Haines. "The fact that I'm in the middle of it for most of my writing helps give it meaning."

Stafford said no matter how much a person thinks they know about something, whether it's a place or a person, they only know about it from their perspective.

"I wrote a book about my father, and asked my mother to read it," he said. "When she finished, she said through her tears, 'You are describing someone I never knew.'"

Lende said she walks a "fine line" between having an opinion and being part of a community.

"Just by writing, you are bold enough to think that what you have to say has relevance to your community," she said.

The writers' conference continues through today. Director Swartz said around 60 percent of the participants came from outside Homer, and the conference further promotes the town's emphasis on arts while strengthening and expanding the Alaska community of writers and the literary arts.