Pay It Forward – Storyknife Edition

Sometimes a dream starts thirty years in the past.

In 1989, Dana Stabenow was sending out her first novel to publishers in New York City. Back then, the process was pretty arduous and disheartening, all done by “snail mail” and the wait for acceptance (or rejection) was long. So, when Dana’s friend Katherine Gottlieb saw an article about Hedgebrook, a new retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island, she encouraged her to apply. Even though Dana scoffed at the idea and had to be cajoled, she did finally apply and was accepted.

During those blissful two weeks at Hedgebrook, Dana made some close friends, worked on her novel and a short story, rode the facility bike to the small public library, perhaps drank some wine, and maybe, began to believe that she’d be a writer. In fact, she sold her first novel the following year.

Thirty years and more than thirty published novels forward, the dream planted deep in Dana’s subconscious is about the blossom. Storyknife Writers Retreat, a women writers residency founded by Dana overlooking Mt. Iliamna, Mt. Augustine, and Cook Inlet just a tiny bit outside Homer, is going to open for business. Starting in April 2020, six new women writers will be in residence each month until October. Each weekday, the chef will bring a basket lunch to their cabins, and in the evening the writers will sit down to a prepared meal together. That shared meal is meant to foster community among them so that when the leave Storyknife, they take with them more than just some new writing, they take a support system.

Storyknife Writers Retreat is named by that original small community of two, Dana and Katherine.  In 1993, Dana received an Edgar Award presented by the Mystery Writers of America. Katherine presented her with an ivory carved Storyknife pin made by Rick Lonsdale just before Dana went onstage to receive her award. Storyknives are used in the Central Yu’pik tradition of storyknifing. The Storyknife (yaaruin) is a traditional tool used only by girls for sketching pictures on the ground or in the snow. Katherine is President and CEO of Southcentral Foundation, the nonprofit health arm of Cook Inlet Region, Inc., a MacArthur Award recipient, CIRI shareholder, Old Harbor tribal member, and Seldovia tribal member. Her gift of a traditional storytelling tool used only by girls has gone on to be the name of a writers retreat that will foster women’s stories.

The building of Storyknife, its six cabins and main house, has also been about building a larger community. Some of the funds came from foundations like the Homer Foundation, Rasmuson Foundation, the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, and the Atwood Foundation, but the majority came from individual donors. People who wanted to honor special women writers, or hometown librarians, or teachers. Some gave funds dedicated to their mothers who encouraged them. Others to honor women community leaders.

Since Storyknife’s groundbreaking this May, so many people in the Homer community have come forward to help make it a place where women writers feel cherished. Patrice Krant brought the Kachemak Bay Quilters on board to create a custom quilt for each cabin. Annette Bellemy has organized six different women potters to make an individual set of dishware for each cabin. Rita Jo Shoultz donated her time and her plants to making gorgeous gardens around the facility. Suzanne Singer Alvarez created incredible hand-made stepping stones. People have donated artwork, books, and even purchased items from Storyknife’s Wish Lists for each cabin. One of the local book clubs, the Cosmic View Book Club, got together to donate an entire set of durable pots and pans. As a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, Storyknife will continue to be supported by the community it brings together, donors, benefactors, readers, and writers.

In 2020, Storyknife begins full programming with 42 writers in residence with the help of many people, including its incredible board and founder. What will it in turn create? A community of women writers who support each other, who help each other write and lift each other up. A diverse community, purposefully emphasizing inclusion of Native Alaskan and Indigenous writers, who are told that their stories are important, essential. Novels written by women with strong women lead characters, because we all know how important representation is. Plays and movies written by women that give us new ways of the seeing the world. Poetry written by women that touches our hearts. Memoirs, essays, short stories, all brought into the world because women writers were told that they deserve the time and space to devote to their craft, that they deserve something beautiful because they and their work are important.

Respectfully submitted by Erin Hollowell, Executive Direction, Storyknife Writers Retreat