By Lilly Milman
Journalist and author Susan Orlean closed out the 10th annual North Words Writers Symposium in Skagway by giving aspiring writers tips on finding interesting stories, maintaining a proper work ethic and resisting perfectionism.
The symposium took place between May 29 and June 1, during which attendees participated in writing workshops, panel discussions, and various tourist activities in the area.
Orlean is known for her stories about ordinary people and unusual histories. Her talk focused on how she came to write her most recent book, “The Library Book,” a non fiction account of the Los Angeles Central Library fire of 1986, which destroyed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. She explained how her journey in writing this book reflects her process in general.
For her, she said, stories come from two places: “One, the very ordinary thing that I’ve never stopped to examine. And, two, the exact inverse: the thing I had no idea existed.”
The idea of cultivating one’s curiosity is integral to writing, Orlean told the attendees at the symposium’s closing dinner June 1 at Poppies Restaurant.
“Look at this thing that you take for granted, and look deeply at it,” she said in discussing story ideas. “You will find a way to find someone interesting.”
Orlean commented on potential stories she found in Alaska, expressing fascination in how “the unusual becomes usual” in Skagway.
“The fact that people go (out of town) to Costco and load up for six months … that’s an amazing story,” she joked.
Orlean, who grew up in Cleveland and later lived in Portland, Boston and New York City, now splits her time between Los Angeles and New York’s Hudson River Valley. She has been regularly contributing toThe New Yorker since 1987, and her most famous book “The Orchid Thief” about an endangered flower was made into the 2002 film “Adaptation.”
During a question and answer period, Orlean cautioned against over-editing. She recalled wanting to change sentences while recording the audiobook for “The Library Book” and advised her fellow writers to fight against the desire to create flawless work.
Orlean posed the question: “Are you a communicator or are you a navel gazer?” She answered herself: “Nothing that I’ve ever written couldn’t have used 10 more times in the typewriter, a hundred more times. It doesn’t matter to anyone if I’m sitting alone in an office tweaking.”
After Orlean’s speech, three-year North Words attendee and retired University of Alaska Fairbanks history professor Terrence Cole stepped up to explain how the conference continues to affect him as a writer.
“Mostly, historians don’t do this,” he said of his experience writing creatively at North Words.
Cole came prepared with gifts for visiting novelist Jonathan Evison and Orlean. Evison joked that he cannot wait to be invited back next year while Cole handed him plush toys of a moose, an otter and an owl. In the final moments of the evening, Orlean wiped away a few tears as Cole presented her with a card signed by all of the writers and an art print.
North Words has the potential to keep growing. After his own toast earlier in the night, Sitka author John Straley handed organizer Jeff Brady a check for what he described as “one-third of (his family’s) Permanent Fund (dividend)” to be donated to the Skagway Development Corp. for future North Words events.
Brady addressed the room to say this year’s retreat, which drew about 40 people from outside Skagway, was “one of the best yet … they keep getting better.”