This place is like Disneyland for writers. Only with Disneyland, you have one, maybe two, days of hyperventilating dawn-to-dusk overstimulation before your parents stuff you back in the car and make you go home. And here it goes on for a week.
I’m up in the Sierra at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, day three out of six. As my husband put it in an email, “Sounds like your idea of heaven.”
There are maybe 160 writers here, many from the Bay Area but also many from as far away as Boston and Atlanta. It’s a conference, not a retreat. From 9 in the morning until 10 at night we are talking writing.
The days start with a round-table workshop from 9 to 12. A dozen of us read and critique short manuscripts from two people each session, led by a different staff person each day – a professional writer, agent, or editor.
The afternoons are filled with three hour-long talks or panels on different aspects of craft. Yesterday we heard Diane Johnson (“Le Divorce”) talking about endings. Then came a panel that included Mark Childress, Dagoberto Gilb, Louis B. Jones and Leslie Daniels talking about creating characters. The previous day there was a fabulous talk by Janet Fitch (“White Oleander”) on dialogue.
Then there are more talks, or readings. Dinner. An evening presentation on still more aspects of writing; two evenings ago it was Childress and Anne Lamott in conversation about the life and craft of writing.
And did I mention that the Squaw Valley Community of Writers is in Squaw Valley? Meaning we are in a wildflower meadow, surrounded by great grey knuckles of Sierra peaks. I’m staying in a rented house with three other participants, and every morning Iook up from my bed to see pine trees.
There are a couple of outstanding and unusual things about this gathering. I suspect it is not an accident that it is called the “Squaw Valley Community” rather than “Squaw Valley Conference.” The atmosphere is friendly, supportive, collegial rather than competitive, pretentious, one-upping. Pretty different from what I remember of my undergraduate writing classes at Harvard!
The level of both critique and writing has been impressively high. In my workshop, people have commented on the work with both insight and respect. No bloody knives. It’s interesting how people writing in vastly different styles (experimental hard-boiled crime; light-hearted coming of age while travelling in Italy etc.) are able to see the other’s work for what it aspires to be, and offer helpful, supportive criticism.
We heard from two panels of agents and editors talking about the publishing industry today, but on the whole the focus is much more on the craft of writing rather than the business of writing.
Tomorrow my own chunk of novel gets the spotlight in our workshop. The next day, I have a one-on-one critique session with writer Elise Blackwell.
But even without anyone having said a word yet about my work, I’ve already learned a ton about dialogue, setting, etc. Just listening to our group critique other people’s chapters that first day allowed me to look at my own chapter in a completely new light. I could go home right now and have fodder for weeks of rewriting.
And this is just day three of six….