Stabenow seeks to build women writers retreat

Norman Vaughan, the explorer and Iditarod musher, used to say, “Dream big and dare to fail.” That could be the motto of Homer writer Dana Stabenow, who grew up in Seldovia.

In 1990, Stabenow was down to the last $1,100 of a grubstake from her North Slope oil work savings, trying to break into writing. Just before her 37th birthday, she sold her first novel, “Second Star.”

Now, 29 novels later, with her 20th Kate Shugak mystery novel released in February, Stabenow is trying something equally ambitious: build and endow Storyknife, a writers retreat for women in Homer, at a cost of $1 million for the retreat and $20 million to endow it. Last week she announced the project and the start to a capital campaign.

“I really have no idea what to expect,” Stabenow said of Storyknife. “I may be the only person in the world who thinks this is a good idea.”

With her house and property paid off, and royalty checks and book advances steady, Stabenow, now 61, is at a place in her life where she can commit to a year raising funds for her dream. She’s also created a living trust of her literary estate to fund Storyknife as her legacy.

Storyknife will be built on property next to Stabenow’s home in a neighborhood just north of Homer near Diamond Creek. Homer contractor Scott Bauer, who also built Stabenow’s house, will plan and construct the retreat of a main communal dining house and six cabins on six acres. In a meadow overlooking Cook Inlet, the land has stunning views of Iliamna and Redoubt volcanoes.

Writers will meet daily for dinner and work during the day on their craft. They’re responsible for making their way to Anchorage, but otherwise everything else is taken care off. Residencies will be from two weeks to two months.

“Storyknife residents will not be allowed to wash so much as a teacup,” Stabenow said. “Their job is to write.”

With her house nearby, the one thing the Storyknife residents can’t do is knock on her door to visit or say “thank you.”

“They can demonstrate gratitude by staying in their cabins and working their butts off in their writing,” she said. “Somebody could finish a book in two months. Somebody could actually leave Storyknife with a finished book they could actually sell. That would be wonderful for them.”

Stabenow wants writers to come from all over the English-speaking world. She’ll reach out to Alaska Native communities and corporations to encourage Natives to apply. Stabenow intends that part of the Storyknife residency is an Alaska experience, such as halibut fishing, kayaking, bear viewing and flight seeing. 

“That makes Storyknife part of the community,” she said. “That gives them an incredible Alaska experience.”

With 50 writers or more visiting Homer a year, the retreat also would become part of the local visitor and arts economy. It would employ a resident cook and manager, with contract jobs for housekeepers and grounds-
keepers. Storyknife also would have an executive director.

The name Storyknife comes from the English translation of the Yupik word “yaaruin.” Traditionally, Yupik girls used a wood, bone or ivory stick to draw stories in sand or snow. When Stabenow was up for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for best original paperback, for her novel “A Cold Day for Murder,” her friend Katherine Gottlieb gave her an ivory storyknife pin just as they were heading to the awards ceremony. An image based on that pin is the logo of the Storyknife Writers Retreat.

“She’s the inspiration for the name of the place,” Stabenow said of Gottlieb. “Storyknife is pretty much my totem.”

The model for Storyknife comes from the Hedgebrook Farm women writers retreat on Whidbey Island, Wash., that Stabenow attended early in her career. Homer writer Nancy Lord, Anchorage writer Mary Beth Holleman and Oregon writer Debra Gwartney, visiting next month for a class at Kachemak Bay Campus, also attended Hedgebrook.

Founded by Nancy Skinner Nordhoff 25 years ago, Hedgebrook Farm brings both new and established women writers to an island retreat.

“(Nordhoff) had that idea of radical hospitality,” said Katie Woodzick, external relations manager for Hedgebrook. “If you take care of the caregiver, you give them a cottage of their own and you feed them. … They’re able to tap into their work quickly, creating a space that feels like home so women can go deep into their writing.”

Stabenow attended Hedgebrook in October 1989, after she had written several novels but kept getting rejected.

“All good things as a writer happened to me after Hedgebrook,” she said. “It was the first time anyone acted like writing was a real job.”

After her residency, Stabenow’s first editor, Laura Ann Gilman at Ace Books, showed interest in her first novel, eventually buying it in March 1989. Gilman also bought Stabenow’s first Kate Shugak novel.

With Hedgebrook the only retreat for women writers she knows of, Stabenow said she thinks the world needs more such retreats. Woodzick said more than 1,000 women apply annually.

“That’s a good thing, something that’s needed — having something just for women,” said Lord, who did two residences at Hedgebrook. “We’ve all seen the statistics, the rate at which women are published and reviewed compared to the number of women who are writing and reading.”

Many women writers also work as wives, mothers and elder caregivers, Stabenow said.

“All I want to do is take them away for a minimum of two weeks so they can concentrate on
being a writer,” Stabenow said.

For the capital campaign, Stabenow has set up a website,, with a project description and a link to contribute through PayPal. Within hours of the website going live, it had already received a $50 donation. Donors receive premiums based on the level of contribution, from names on a plaque to selecting a woman to receive a Storyknife residency.

Some people have asked if they can contribute in work and other ways.

“I don’t want to turn anybody down, but it has to be practical. Right now we need money,” Stabenow said. “I’m hoping we get that Homer heart into it.”

Woodzick said Hedgebrook is glad to see an alumna carrying on the vision of another women writers retreat.

“We’re super excited and proud of her,” Woodzick said. “We want people going out into the world and creating more Hedgebrooks. … We’re so elated and so proud that Dana is referencing us for the inspiration for it.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at