A Homer author’s vision five years ago of a community for women literary artists got a major boost last week when the Rasmuson Foundation announced it will award $400,000 to the Storyknife Writers Retreat.
Called a “top off” grant, the money will kick in once Storyknife is within $400,000 of its $1.2 million fundraising goal. Storyknife founder and best selling writer Dana Stabenow said her foundation has some other grant applications out as well as active fundraising to collect the last $200,000 needed before the Rasmuson grant kicks in.
“It was just a dream then,” Stabenow said of when she came up with the idea in 2013. “It’s a lot closer to reality now.”
When finished on a large lot near Stabenow’s Diamond Creek area home, Storyknife will offer six cabins for writers staying from two to four weeks at a time. They will gather for evening meals and conversation in a larger guesthouse, but otherwise focus on their writing. Storyknife pays for lodging and meals; residents will provide their own transportation to and from Homer.
Eight residents have already attended Storyknife at Stabenow’s guest cabin, “Frederica,” named for anthropologist and writer Frederica deLaguna. Only women, or transgender people who identify as women, can apply to attend Storyknife.
Storyknife will seek applicants from Alaska Native and Native Americans, said Storyknife Executive Director Erin Coughlin Hollowell. It will also create an advisory council of Alaska Native writers, and has several Alaska Natives on its general advisory council, including Pearl Brower, Katherine Gottlieb and Janie Leask.
“We are going to be assuring equity of Alaska Natives and indigenous voices by curating those voices, by inviting those voices to be part of it,” Hollowell said.
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 received 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.
Stabenow is the author of the popular Kate Shugak mystery series as well as a small bookshelf of thrillers, historical novels and science fiction adventures. Early in her career, Stabenow attended Hedgebrook Farm on Whidbey Island, Washington, a retreat for women writers. She had not yet sold a novel, and credits Hedgebrook with giving her the motivation to persevere in her career.
Founded by Nancy Skinner Nordhoff, Hedgebrook treats its writers like goddesses. They get their own cabins and breakfast and lunch delivered to them. For the evening meal, the writers gather together for conversation and community.
“It was seminal,” Stabenow said of Hedgebrook. “The first dinner was my single most important memory of any I had at Hedgebrook. I got up to clear the table. Nancy … looked at me and said, ‘Sit down. You’ve already done your work for the day.’ That was the first time anyone acted around me like writing was a real job.”
Storyknife will be the second women-only writers retreat in the U.S. after Hedgebrook. Hollowell said Nordhoff has been advising Storyknife organizers on creating a retreat. Through December, Nordhoff also will match any donation to Storyknife.
“She’s helping us because we’re their sister organization now,” Hollowell said of Nordhoff.
Storyknife has a larger goal beyond giving women space and time to write, Hollowell said.
“We are helping women writers get the time away from their daily lives, but also forming the community that’s so important to creating a writing life,” she said. “It gives you people you can bounce your ideas off of and send your manuscripts to.”
Stabenow said she has kept contact with many of the women she met at her Hedgebrook residency. One friend, Kathleen Alcalá, is on the Storyknife board of advisors.
Storyknife has been raising money by selling naming rights to the buildings, rooms of the main house, even the well and septic field. Deborah McNeil, a Danamaniac — the name of Stabenow’s fans — saw that naming rights were still available for the well and she and the Plumb, Level, and Square Fund came up with $25,000 for it. If Gottlieb allows, McNeil wants to name the well in honor of her. It was Gottlieb who encouraged Stabenow to attend Hedgebrook.
“She’s kind of the wellspring,” Hollowell said.
The main house is named Eva after Eva Saulitis. Another cabin is named for Halibut Cove artist Diana Tillion. A fundraising effort is going on to name one cabin after author Sue Grafton.
If fundraising success continues, Stabenow and Hollowell said they hope to break ground in April 2019, with the next group of residents attending in April 2020. Because of construction noise, the residencies won’t happen until the project is complete. Initially residencies will be offered seven months a year, but as Storyknife increases its funding base, Hollowell said the goal is to offer it year round by 2028.
After the capital phase of the project, the next phase is to create an endowment that will fully fund the residencies. Stabenow said they anticipate an annual operational budget of between $100,000 and $200,000 a year. One possibility is for people to fund fellowships, like for an environmental writer.
Stabenow also has created the Storyknife Trust, the repository of her real property and literary estate, which will be left to Storyknife after Stabenow dies.
For more information on Storyknife, visit https://storyknife.org.