Writing in Rural Alaska by Cinthia Ritchie
Seward, Alaska, is a small town of about 1,800 people. The main industries are fishing, the
railroad and tourism. It’s a working class town filled with working class people. In the winter, when the tourists go home and the streets become quiet, everything closes by 5 p.m.: The cofeeshops and most of the restaurants, and there’s nothing to do but sit in smoky bars and drink or wander around the Safeway buying wilted fruits and vegetables that you don’t need but nevertheless want.
It’s a slow town, a laid back town. Women don’t want makeup or color their hair, and in the
summer when locals don sandals (thick, sturdy sandals with durable soles) and brave their feet to the cold ocean breeze, it’s a shock to come across the occasional painted toenails.
I moved to Seward because of my job as a journalist, but mostly I moved there to write. It’s the perfect writing town. In the evenings the air shadows everything in blue, the most perfect lavender blue, and walking along the shores of Resurrection Bay with the dog, I would often cry from the beauty of it all. Sometimes jellyfish washed up on the shore as I squatted down and stared at their fragile iridescence, I’d yearn for something indistinct yet plausible, something just out of reach.
Because my company was based in Anchorage and I was working as a stringer, I could schedule my reporting duties around my writing, and most nights I sat at my desk in front of large windows overlooking the mountains, and I wrote until I couldn’t move my fingers, wrote until there was nothing left inside of me. Often the sun would be rising up over the mountains just as I was going to bed, and I’d lie in the yellow light of early morning, exhausted and depleted and happier than I had ever been.
Living in a small, semi-isolated community, a place surrounded by vast wilderness, and by a silence like no other, is both a haven and a curse for a writer. A haven because there is nothing to do but write, nestled there along with the energy of the mountains and the bay, the sight of harbor seals and bears. Yet a curse because so much solitude, so much silence forces you to look deep inside of yourself, deeper than you have ever dared, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll like what you see.
I finished my first novel, Dolls Behaving Badly, while living in Seward, and I rewrote the last edits, too, index cards spread out over the living room floor as an eagle soared outside the window. It was surreal, and magical, and some of that magic leaked into my book in the form of ghosts and an optimism I didn’t believe yet nevertheless followed.
After I handed in my last edits, I moved back to Anchorage, to Alaska’s largest city and the grit and noise, the traffic and big-box stores. I’m happier here, in a sense. There are more opportunities for writers, more fellowship, more support, and if I want mountains, I can be out in the wilderness in twenty minutes driving time. Still, it’s not the same. There are birch trees outside my window now, not mountains, and the light is different and so is the air. There is little magic and no hushed solitude, no long days of writing nonstop and talking to no one but the dog.
I’m working on my second novel now and while it’s going well, I can’t help missing Seward,
missing the mountains pressed up to town and how enclosed I felt, and how safe. I don’t know if I’ll ever have such solitude in my life again, or so much writing time, and I miss it. It’s like an ache, like the yearning for a lost love, one you miss with a nostalgic loss made ever the more bittersweet because you know that no matter what you do, you can never go back recapture it.
You don’t necessarily want to recapture it but still, you miss it, you long for it all the same.
Excerpt from Dolls Behaving Badly
Thursday, Sept. 15
This is my diary, my pathetic little conversation with myself. No doubt I will burn it halfway through. I’ve never been one to finish anything. Mother used to say this was because I was born during a full moon, but like everything she says, it doesn’t make a lick of sense.
It isn’t even the beginning of the year. Or even the month. It’s not even my birthday. I’m starting, typical of me, impulsively, in the middle of September. I’m starting with the facts.
I’m thirty-eight years old. I’ve slept with nineteen and a half men.
I live in Alaska, not the wild parts but smack in the middle of Anchorage, with the Walmart and Home Depot squatting over streets littered with moose poop.
I’m divorced. Last month my ex-husband paid child support in ptarmigan carcasses, those tiny bones snapping like fingers when I tried to eat them.
I have one son, age eight and already in fourth grade. He is gifted, his teachers gush, remarking how unusual it is for such a child to come out of such unique (meaning underprivileged, meaning single parent, meaning they don’t think I’m very smart) circumstances.
I work as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant. This is a step up: two years ago I was at Denny’s.
Yesterday, I was so worried about money I stayed home from work and tried to drown myself in the bathtub. I sank my head under the water and held my breath, but my face popped up in less than a minute. I tried a second time, but by then my heart wasn’t really in it so I got out, brushed the dog hair off the sofa and plopped down to watch Oprah on the cable channel.
What happened next was a miracle, like Gramma used to say. No angels sang, of course, and there was none of that ornery church music. Instead, a very tall woman (who might have been an angel if heaven had high ceilings) waved her arms. There were sweat stains under her sweater, and this impressed me so much that I leaned forward; I knew something important was about to happen.
Most of what she said was New Age mumbo-jumbo, but when she mentioned the diary, I pulled myself up and rewrapped the towel around my waist. I knew she was speaking to me, almost as if this was her purpose in life, to make sure these words got directed my way.
She said you didn’t need a fancy one; it didn’t even need a lock, like those little-girl ones I kept as a teenager. A notebook, she said, would work just fine. Or even a bunch of papers stapled together. The important thing was doing it. Committing yourself to paper every day, regardless of whether anything exciting or thought-provoking actually happens.
“Your thoughts are gold,” the giant woman said. “Hold them up to the light and they shine.”
I was crying by then, sobbing into the dog’s neck. It was like a salvation, like those traveling preachers who used to come to town. Mother would never let us go but I snuck out with Julie, who was a Baptist. Those preachers believed, and while we were there in that tent, we did too.
This is what I’m hoping for, that my words will deliver me something. Not the truth, exactly. But solace.
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