The University of Alaska Anchorage hosts a series of readings every summer. All of the writers who participate are either Alaskans or faculty from their MFA program. Recently, I went on two consecutive nights to hear writers read from their work. The styles were wildly different, and nonfiction, poetry, and fiction were all represented. But all the readings were examples of good writing. That got me thinking, what is good writing?
Whether it was a particular flower, the look of a scar, or the name of a TV show, these writers used specific details to put us in a certain time and place. (As Chekov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”) Then they gave us something to care about. These writers used those details to show us something universal. Maybe we haven’t had a sister who was raped, but we’ve tried to help a loved one through a crisis. Maybe we haven’t been to that mountain, but we want wild places in our own lives. Whatever the situation, good writing allows us to follow one person to universal truths. We find ourselves thinking about important ideas like wilderness or love. And by the end of the story or poem or essay, we are moved or changed. That is good writing.
I’d like to say I do the same in my own writing, but that won’t be tested until I am published this fall. We’ll see what readers think. In the meantime, I can aspire to that goal. While Ellie and Billy take their journey on the Chilkoot Trail, I hope you’ll go with them on the trip. And hopefully you’ll also think about your own coming of age, about love and life. If you do, then that’s good writing too.