Sherry Simpson is a professor in the Creative Writing and Literary Arts Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She also teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University. Though her writing is often characterized as "nature" or "outdoor writing," she is more interested in exploring the ways in which people use nature, wilderness, animals, and cultural icons to define themselves and understand the world. She grew up in Juneau and attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she studied biology and journalism. Before earning a MFA degree at University of Alaska Fairbanks she worked as a reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the Juneau Empire, and KTOO-FM public radio, as well as writing columns, articles, and reviews for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska magazine, The Paper, the Anchorage Press, the Washington Post, Newsday, the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, Summit, Backpacker, and other publications. Among her awards are the Chinook Literary Prize from Sasquatch Books for her first collection of essays, The Way Winter Comes: Alaska Stories, which was also a finalist in the Bakeless Nonfiction contest; the Andres Berger Nonfiction Award; the Sierra magazine Nature Writing Contest; the Ben Franklin award in the essay/photographic category for Glacier Bay National Park; and numerous reporting awards from the Alaska Press Club and the Northwest Regional Society of Professional Journalists. Her essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including: In Fact, a collection of the best writing from Creative Nonfiction journal; On Nature: Great Writers on the Great Outdoors; American Nature Writing; Another Wilderness; Going Alone; and Living Blue in the Red States.
A few years ago, a teacher was talking with students who were convinced that the right mentor would make all the difference in their writing. "OK, then what's your plan for your fourth year?" she asked. For a writer, every year is the fourth year, again and again.
My role as a teacher is to help students prepare for a lifetime of fourth years. I don't believe I can teach someone to be a writer, nor am I interested in telling them what to think or what to write about. All I can do is help them learn how to teach themselves writing.
For new writers, it's important to discover the possibilities in their drafts, and as a mentor I like pointing to the places where doors open and the writer hasn't stepped through yet. My job is to ask questions. Once they've explored this landscape of possibilities, I expect them to push themselves beyond the known world into the ideas, situations, and experiences that engage their thinking and deepen their work. I work best with students who are willing to ask questions of themselves rather than settling for what memory or opinion or ideology announces. With more experienced writers, I like focusing on the process of revision, from the sentence level to the driving ideas. The disciplined study of craft also becomes a vital way of uncovering a work's dimensions.
Mostly I hope that students will leave our program trusting their instincts, questioning their ideas, and taking themselves seriously enough to continue learning, thinking, and writing through their fourth year and beyond
Sherry's "Must Read" list: