Recently one of my mentors passed away: Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley, professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Oscar was my mentor through my Master of Arts in Cross Cultural Studies and my Ph.D. at UAF. As a writer, I often need someone in my corner telling me, “Go for it. You can do it.” Oscar was such a person. Oscar encouraged me to look outside the box, to explore other ways of knowing, other ways of looking at the world. My experience being his apprentice prepared me for the second year in my MFA. During the second year, students in UAA’s MFA are required to create and participate in a community relevant project.
Anchorage Daily News photo
So when I found myself living in Puerto Rico at the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen, I decided that the perfect master’s project would be to start a writers' group. After all, I had a captive audience; I lived behind a guarded barbed wire fence. I knew there would be people like me who felt a bit uprooted. Puerto Rico, despite being an American commonwealth, is very foreign.
My husband, Howie Martindale, is in the same MFA program, also the poetry genre, so as soon we arrived in our temporary home in Puerto Rico, we announced the new writers' group in the base newsletter. The base command took the creation of our writers’ group very seriously, considering it essential to the moral and well-being on the base. Our first members consisted of an enlisted corpsman, a local Puerto Rican man who worked on base, the base librarian, and the nearby military school’s librarian and her teenage daughter.
During the year and a half we spent in Puerto Rico the writers’ group members changed as some members moved away, were transferred, or got out of the Coast Guard. New members included a retired Puerto Rican U.S. Army officer, a young mother from Hawaii, and the wife of a Border Patrol pilot.
For me, the writers’ group accomplished several things; it helped dull my homesickness for Alaska, helped me learn to be a mentor, and provide a much-needed community service to the air station.
But my mentoring stint didn’t stop at an adult writers’ group. After a few months of facilitating the adult writers’ group, I started a teen writers' group. Several teens had inquired about joining the adult group but I had felt, at thirteen and fourteen, they were too young. As it ended up, in the teen group I had five teenagers; one male and four females. It was a blast! I had no idea I would be so inspired by teenagers but their enthusiasm was incredible. During the first session, I sat open-mouthed, listening to their conversations as they went back and forth about their day in school. I had forgotten what it was like to be a teen. For each session, I baked cookies and for one hour we ate cookies, talked about school, their lives, and then wrote a bit. They’d leave with a writing prompt for the next week.
Shortly after the teen group started, a young girl, age twelve, approached me about attending the teen group. I knew that my teen group wasn’t for her, so I asked her if there were other young writers that would be interested and before I knew it I had started a group for ages 9-12. We met once a week for an hour. The younger group was very different from the teens. They had enough energy to power a diesel light plant in my hometown of Wrangell. It took all my parenting-teacher skills to facilitate this group. But it was worth it. Again, I got a firsthand insight into the quirky working minds of that age group. I still remember one young writer's story about an escape pod from Puerto Rico to New York.
All in all, I mentored nearly thirty writers. I had no idea that my MFA project would grow into something that fit me so well. Creating and facilitating a writers’ group is something that you can do, too, Dear Reader. Especially if one is looking for an MFA project idea. I used a free space at the local library for the adult group and the younger groups were held in my home.
Now, as I move to Kodiak, Alaska, I’m considering starting a teen and adult writers’ group on the Coast Guard base. One of my young writers, now age thirteen, is being stationed in Kodiak too. Since she learned we were being stationed together, she’s been pleading with me to start another writers’ group. Am I ready for another round of mentoring? In my mind, I can hear my former mentor Oscar Angayuqaq Kawagley telling me, “You can do it. Go for it.” Yes, Oscar, I think I will.
This Week's Blogger: