By ALYSSA DE ANGELUS
Dozen of writers sit shoulder to shoulder in AB Hall, nibbling on some fruit and muffins from the breakfast spread that sat to the left of the entry door.
The ventilated air is warm, and the ratio of participants is female-heavy. Each writer inhales before stretching their legs to announce their name, origin and writing specialty to the class.
Soon, the flow of introductions makes it over to a cluster of writers sitting on a floorboard adjacent to the cloth-covered rows of seats.
“I am just Pico,” said Pico Iyer, renowned travel writer and North Words Symposium keynote speaker.
Without skipping a beat his spouse followed in presentation.
“I am just Pico’s wife,” Hiroko Takeuchi said.
The crowd is full of smiles.
“I am just sitting next to Pico’s wife,” said the next in line.
Instantly the room erupts with laughter.
This was North Words Writers Symposium – a jungle gym for literary material. You like haikus? Faculty member Emily Wall tasked workshoppers with writing chalk poems across the streets of Skagway.
You like inappropriate innuendos in music form? There were some of those too.
But beyond stringing beautiful words together, this weekend was an exploration of ethics and personality.
The first panel was perhaps the most relevant topic at hand – Real and fake facts: Should journalists, memoirists and essayists share the same standards, and what should those standards be?
Iyer argued that fiction is a product of fact and imagination working together to give the reader an unforgettable adventure.
“Reality has to be shaped, stilled and sometimes rearranged to be compelling to the reader,” Iyer said.
Not long after, Frank Soos, short story writer and essayist, took a slightly different approach, wondering if there is a happy medium between obsession of correction and disregard for honest detail.
“Years ago when Judy Blunt alleged her mother-in-law smashed her typewriter with a hammer all of her family said, ‘that’s not true’ and I thought at the time how much would have been lost if she said, ‘it was as if my mother-in-law hated my writing so much she would have liked to smash my typewriter?’ I don’t think it would have lost anything.”
Hours later, panelists explored the implications of fearing societal perception, questioning just how far they would go to ensure their writing is non-offensive to other races, religions and sexes.
Colleen Mondor, author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous game of Flying in Alaska” admittedly says criticism is hard and she chooses to hire diverse writers to read her work prior to publication. One writer in the audience believed it to be better to have left out an entire narrative of Tlingits in California, than to include them with more traditional native stories.
More than anything, Willy Vlautin – award-winning book author and guitarist of band Richmond Fontaine – impressed two important rules when engaging with writing.
First and foremost, history matters. Second, you must remember the characters that you care about because those are the characters you’d like the audience to fall in love with as well.
“Nothing messes up a story more than trying to yank the character where you want them to go,” Soos said.
“It’s like knitting a sweater, going back to where the character starts to spin out of control.”
Friday eventually wrapped up with some volunteer readings at the Presbyterian Church and a hoedown at Alderworks.
Unfortunately the much-anticipated annual trip on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad to Denver Glacier on Saturday morning was canceled due to a rock slide, however, two hiking destinations were provided for a nature writing workshop among peers before the keynote dinner at Jewell Gardens.
Iyer, standing up to present his keynote address paused to apologize to the crowd.
This year Iyer thought he had exhausted stories that were directly applicable to writing style.
Instead he opted to talk about his perception of the modern world and how he enjoys looking at life, especially in his wealth of travel experiences.
“Sometimes in the age of information we know less about the rest of the world than ever before,” Iyer said referring to his eye opening trip to Iran after reporting on the country for years.
“And sometimes it’s the countries we care about the most like Iran or North Korea or Syria or Yemen or Cuba that we know about the least because we know a lot about their leaders and their nuclear policies but we know very little about regular folks and how day-to-day life is,” he said.
For Iyer, writing is his way of exploring the misunderstood parts of the world.
“Now I remember when Captain Scott – unlike us – did see the Northern Lights and he said, ‘there is no glittering splendor to dazzle the eye,’” Iyer said. “The appeal is to the imagination and I love that sentence. Really I just want to end by saying after all these years of doing nothing but writing I can genuinely say nothing has made me richer and happier and clearer than writing. It hasn’t helped my bank account, but I think it’s helped.”