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Home  >  Reading and Writing  >  Creative Contests  >  Creative Writing Contest
15th Annual Creative Writing Contest, 1996  -  Wendy Erd - 1996 Grand Prize Winner
By Doug O'Harra « Prev   Page 2 of 2  

 Anchorage Daily News

 Wendy Erd writes at a small desk in the bedroom of her home on the bluff outside Homer. The window opens on a patch of dense second-growth spruce -- "the dark woods" that Erd prefers unkempt and overgrown, a place she won't allow her husband to clean up or thin out.

She works on unlined sheets with a pencil -- really just a large pad of recycled scratch paper. Later she revises at her computer. But for first drafts of poems and nonfiction stories, she prefers the feel of a pencil in her fingers, the tactile contact of lead on paper.

Erd, 45, has fished in Bristol Bay for a dozen years now with husband Peter Kaufmann. That leaves the fall and winter for writing. Often the stories and poems emerge slowly, requiring many revisions. But sometimes they arrive complete, scribbled on the page in a single session.

That's what happened last fall with the poem "Waiting", winner of the Grand Prize in the 1996 University of Alaska/Anchorage Daily News Creative Writing Contest.

"The majority of it came in one sitting," Erd says. "Isn't it lucky when that happens? To me, that's what makes it worth all the struggling time."

Erd wasn't an ambitious writer when she arrived in Homer more than two decades ago. She loved writing and reading, but her commitment to her own writing ripened slowly.

Growing up in suburban Palo Alto, Calif., she'd attended a community college near home, then spent several years at the University of California at Davis, where she concentrated on English classes but never declared a major. It was 1971 when Erd decided to travel to Alaska with Kaufmann, who'd just graduated with a degree in zoology.

"Peter really was the instigating force, because when he was a kid in grade school, they showed some travelogue about Alaska, and he was hooked," she says. "We were just on one of those adventures where you head north. We just came to see what Alaska was like and never left."

Anchorage, they decided, was too urban. A new friend suggested they check out Homer. The canneries were hiring, and droves of other young people were arriving and moving into the woods.

"We left and drove straight to the end of the Spit at Homer and signed on at a cannery," Erd says. "We were cresting on that wave of people coming in and taking over all those old cabins on the hill."

Erd and Kauffman never left Homer. Over the years she's worked "a million jobs" there, Erd says -- gardener, janitor, tutor, even education curator at the local museum. For a while, she ran her own New Leaf Landscaping business.

She and Kaufmann both spent about eight years as seasonal field workers for the state Department of Fish and Game, before a stint on Kalgin Island in Cook Inlet convinced them to try commercial fishing on their own. Twelve years ago, they bought a limited-entry setnet permit for harvesting salmon from a beach in Bristol Bay.

Off-season in Homer, they lived in a homestead cabin without running water. Eventually, they moved into their own home on the bluff overlooking town. It's peaceful there now, even when they disagree about how to manage the woods surrounding their house. (They finally agreed on "his" and "hers" sections -- his trimmed and open, hers wild and dark.)

As the years have passed, Erd says, writing has gained in importance for her. About four or five years ago, she began pursuing it seriously -- "with intent."

The trips she and Kaufmann took to Asia in the winters served as catalysts. Amazing experiences and exotic sights demanded to be written down.

"I've always been writing, and I've always really loved writing," she says. "I think maybe (the traveling) combined with just the fact of having my winters where I can really concentrate."

Last year, she attended a two-week residency at a writer's colony in Vermont. But mostly, Erd has nurtured her talent alone, often as a way of reflecting on her own experiences.

"I don't think my writing background comes from academic (sources), as much as on my own," she says. "If you were to look in the files of all the stuff I've written, I would say it's two-thirds nonfiction and one-third poetry."

In the early 1990s, she began entering her stories and poems in the Kenai Peninsula Writers' Contest sponsored by the Homer News. A couple of stories and a poem won and were published. Another poem was published by Homer-based Wizard Works in a book of poems about Alaska birds called "Flights of Fancy."

She sold a few stories to the Anchorage Daily News, including an essay about her experience in a Chicago supermarket as one of the Alaska commercial fishermen who went Outside last year to market salmon. Another story about visiting Vietnam will appear next year in a collection about women traveling abroad.

"Waiting" -- Erd's third published poem -- arose from a writing exercise. During a workshop in Homer last fall with author Pam Houston, she was given an assignment. "The prompt was, take a headline or a byline from a paper and -- not reading the story that goes with it -- write your own story," Erd says.

Later at her desk at home, she was intrigued by a headline in the Anchorage Daily News: "Nervous Japanese Await Quake."

The city of Kobe had just been rocked by a massive earthquake and Japan was expecting another. The poem came quickly and easily, drawing on Erd's own memories.

"The imagery came from traveling in Japan," she says. "We've been there a couple of times."

Erd shies away from discussing the meaning of the poem. She likes thinking that readers will find their own significance. "That's one of the wonderful things about writing: Everyone reads and finds their own secrets there."

Erd and Kauffman now are preparing for another season at Bristol Bay, though they've put their permit up for sale and are considering retiring from fishing. "It's so exhausting," Erd says.

Come fall, she may try to write about Bristol Bay. She's got other work in progress as well, much of it almost finished.

"I have a lot of poetry that I haven't sent anywhere," Erd says. "I've been focusing more on the writing end than on the publishing end. And I'm never satisfied -- I'm my own harshest critic."

About the Author: Doug O'Harra is a staff writer for We Alaskans, the Sunday magazine of the Anchorage Daily News.
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