[My remarks at Anchorage Rotary yesterday, as follows, and my thanks to Jon Deisher for making it happen.]
I have to start with a story, because you know that’s what I do. A guy walks into a bookstore, the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona. He tells the owner, Barbara Peters, that he left his book on the plane, and it was really good and he wants to finish it. Great, she says, thinking instant sale, what was the title? He can’t remember. Who was the author? He can’t remember that either. What was the story about? Well, it was a mystery. Finally she says to him, can you remember anything at all about this book that you loved and can’t wait to finish? Well, the cover was red.
This is my job. I’m the one who wrote the book the only distinctive thing about which this guy can remember is the color of the cover.
The ending of the story? She found the book for him.
Writing is a solitary and much misunderstood profession, largely I think because we have a job that keeps us locked alone in a room with a computer. No one sees us working so no one ever believes we really do work. To this day, old friends will come up to me and say, “Great to see you! Are you still writing?” At the Homer airport as I was waiting to board the plane to Anchorage to give this presentation, Jeff, seen elsewhere on this website as the guy who did the initial dirtwork on the Storyknife lot, came up to me and said, “Dana! Great to see you! Are you still writing books?”
Well, yeah, Jeff, that’s how we both get paid. We writers are soooo misunderstood.
The first thing my writing ever earned me wasn’t a book contract, it wasn’t a royalty payment, and it wasn’t a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. No, the first thing my writing ever earned me was a residency at Hedgebrook, the only retreat for women writers in the world, on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. For two glorious weeks, every day I wrote in my cabin all day long, and in the evenings I joined my fellow writers in residence at dinner in the main house. The first evening I got up to help clear the table, Nancy Skinner Nordhoff, the angel who built Hedgebrook barked at me, “Sit DOWN.” And then she smiled and said, “You’ve already done your work for the day.”
Hedgebrook was the first place anyone ever acted around me like writing was a real job. Also, Hedgebrook taught me that I wasn’t the only person alive who was having trouble getting published, and who thought that adverbs were important. My stay at Hedgebrook was then and remains today the most valuable experience I’ve ever had as a writer.
And three months later I signed my first publishing contract.
I was one of Hedgebrook’s first residents when it opened back in 1989. Then, it was trying desperately to become known. Now, today, it can have as many as 1400 applications for the 40 spaces available in a six-month semester. They are, as you might imagine, very excited about Storyknife as an alternative possibility for their overflow.
Storyknife will consist of six cabins and a main house on four acres of view property five miles outside of Homer. The writers will spend their days at work in the cabins and gather each evening for dinner and shop talk at the main house. Their stays will be anywhere from two weeks to two months, with everything provided. All they have to do is get themselves to Anchorage.
Storyknife will have two full-time employees, the executive director and the manager/chef. All other services will be local contract hire, housekeeping, groundskeeping, and repairs and maintenance. There will be a selection committee of three, at first, although in the future I want Storyknife to follow Hedgebrook’s example and use its alumnae as a first-level selection committee, which of course we can’t do until we have some alumnae. There is of course a board of directors, which includes Catherine Stevens and Jeannie Penney. I tried to get Cathy Rasmuson but she’s determined to stay retired, although she did promise to host a fund-raising event and I’m going to hold her to it. She has also been a generous contributor, even before we were 501c3, and I only wish she and Ed were here to hear me say that.
I am president of Storyknife and will remain so for the first three to five years of its existence, after which I will become a board member emeritus. One of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever got about Storyknife specifically and about running nonprofits in general I got from Dennis McMillan of Foraker. He said that having the same people run the same organization for too long led to mission fatigue, and my plan is to build a nonprofit that outlasts me.
Storyknife is going to cost about $1 million to build, and as near as I can figure it today, with admittedly no operational history to use for data, $3 to $5 million to endow. The land is paid for, it’s been cleared, it perks, it is situated miraculously in a good water area, something for which the south Kenai is not particularly well known, and I have a builder who is ready to go. You should know, too, that I have created a trust whereby all of my property, real and intellectual, which includes all the rights to all of my books, goes to Storyknife.
In conclusion. I think it’s a legitimate question to ask why in the world I want to do this. I’ve written 32 novels, I’m working on my 33rd, I have plans for another dozen in the works. Isn’t a shelf full of books, and Edgar and Nero awards, and the Governor’s Arts Award for Artist of the Year, and the Woman of Achievement Award from the Alaska YWCA, not to mention a good living, isn’t that enough for one lifetime?
My aunt died in December. She was 85 years old. She raised four kids, none of whom turned out to be drug dealers or serial killers. I said that to her once and she laughed and said, “So we’re not setting the bar very high.” I still think it’s a pretty good bar myself. But her passing marks the end of a generation, the generation that built this state. My aunt worked for Mudhole Smith when he opened up the Kennecott Mine to tourism. My father came to Alaska on a Liberty ship in World War II, worked his way up to master mechanic, and led a Cat train to the Rampart Dam site on the Yukon River in 1957. My uncle was working on the Million Dollar Bridge outside of Cordova when the Alaska Earthquake hit in 1964. My mother was one of the first if not the first woman deckhand on a fish tender in Cook Inlet in the 1960s.
They’re all gone now, along with Ted, and Jay, and Elmer, and almost all of the other giants who built this state. Compared to that, a shelf full of books doesn’t seem like near enough. Storyknife is, I guess, my attempt to achieve some kind of parity. Although I’ll never manage it.
There is also this. Littera scripta manet. The written word survives. If someone hadn’t had the bright idea to write down Homer’s words three thousand years ago, we wouldn’t still be studying the Iliad and the Odyssey in high school. There is a lifestyle going on here in Alaska today that will not survive the people living it. Maybe three thousand years from now, a high school English class will be reading the works of a writer nourished and encouraged by her stay at Storyknife, and will learn thereby who we were. It’s one version of immortality, anyway.