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Conference Insider: North Words Writers Symposium

Capped at just 40 attendees, this intimate four-day conference offers readings, workshops, and glacier hikes in beautiful Skagway, Alaska.

North Words Writers Symposium
North Words Writers Symposium
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On the final day of the North Words Writers Symposium in Skagway, Alaska, attendees and staff take the train to Laughton Glacier Station and hike a mile and a half to a U.S. Forest Service cabin for lunch. Then, says conference co-founder Jeff Brady, those interested have the opportunity to grab their backpacks and trekking poles and hike another mile and a half to walk out on the glacier.

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“It’s always my best memory,” Brady says. “After we’ve had two days of good, intense discussion about writing, we connect to the outdoors. One of our big draws is that we’re in a beautiful place, and we can talk about the mechanics of writing and what works and what doesn’t, but we can also get out and appreciate what’s around us.”

The Symposium, now in its 11th year, provides 40 writers with four days of workshops, readings, faculty consultations, and field trips in this southeast Alaska town along in the Inside Passage and bordered by snowcapped mountains. Attendees come from across the country to learn about, and discuss, the craft of writing with bestselling authors such as Susan Orlean and Pico Iyer.


What you’ll learn

Brady and other Symposium co-founders find that capping registration at 40 participants allows for the establishment of an intimate connection between published writers and those who are trying to get their work seen. Not everyone attends with the desire to publish, he notes. “Often, there are people who just enjoy writing and want to improve,” he explains.

Various workshops examine the craft of fiction writing, poetry, Alaskan literature, and narrative arc. In 2019, a workshop titled “Over-Heroed: Has the hero/heroine’s journey been trodden too much?” examined how to create dynamic characters in the midst of difficult situations. Attendees also learned how to harness the power of literature to inspire activism in “Writing to Make Things Happen: Moving readers from their seats to the streets.”

A panel titled “History, Herstory, Ourstory: Whose past is it anyway? Who has the right to tell it?” challenged participants to think about issues surrounding cultural appropriation. “It’s a very Alaskan topic revolving around the ownership of stories by native people,” Brady explains. “What’s the etiquette for writing about someone else’s culture? It’s a delicate thing.”


He describes the lively panel exchange between professors Ernestine Hayes – a member of the Kaagwaantaan clan of the Tlingit nation – and Alaska historian Terrance Cole. “It was a really passionate discussion and very powerful to witness,” Brady says. “Afterward, everybody hugged, because it’s North Words.”


North Words Writers Symposium
The North Words Writers Symposium.

Featured presenters

The Symposium always includes a bestselling keynote speaker who presents at the closing banquet and participates in a book signing. Other faculty members generally hail from Alaska or other parts of the Pacific Northwest. In 2019, these included novelists Don Rearden and Jonathan Evison, poet and professor Emily Wall, and multigenre author Nancy Lord.

Faculty members Ernestine Hayes and Terrence Cole participated with others in a panel titled “From Start to Finish and the Other Way Around: The many ways to tell a story.” All faculty participate in an evening reading at the National Park Service auditorium followed by a book signing and celebratory toast.

Advice for first-time attendees

On the first night of the conference, attendees are welcome to sign up for a consultation with a member of the writing faculty. “These consultations last for a half hour, but if that isn’t enough, people often meet again at another time on their own,” Brady says. An evening reception follows registration; in 2019, attendees also participated in a Reader’s Theater, watching selected scenes from a historical mystery penned by a local playwright.


New attendees might want to prepare a reading up to eight minutes on Friday afternoon. “We hold it at the Presbyterian Church, in a little cedar sanctuary which has the best acoustics in town,” Brady says. Attendees will also want to bring clothing and shoes suitable for outdoor exploration and a passport for the train ride (all passengers are required to have a current passport in order to visit the glacier).

The Symposium begins taking applications on its website in November, and the 40 spots available fill quickly. “It’s a great way to see Alaska and to connect to writers up this way,” Brady says, citing an abundance of readings and seminars across the state. “We’re proud to be a part of the Alaskan renaissance of the past decade. Something really cool is going on up here. It’s amazing.”



Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). Instagram: BetterwithKidsBooks