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September 2009

Monthly Wrap: Lessons from Squaw Valley

by Susan Henderson on September 11, 2009

A lot of you asked me to pass along what I learned at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, so I’ll try to boil it down to the information I’ve used the most since I got home.

The view out the window of our Squaw Valley house.

The view out the window of our Squaw Valley house.

First, let me briefly describe what happens at Squaw, for those who aren’t familiar with it. For one week, you live in the Olympic Village, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. Everyone’s divided into a workshop group of about 12 people; and for three hours every morning—always with an established writer, editor, or agent as the leader—you workshop each other’s stories and chapters. The rest of the day is filled with panels, staff readings, and one-on-one manuscript evaluations. The unpublished writer and the seasoned writer are side by side throughout, and this goes for meals, as well. I remember a writer, who had just placed an order for one of the cheap bagged lunches, telling me, “I signed up for the roast beef sandwich, and so did Ron Carlson!”

Ron and Andy.

Ron Carlson and Andy Dugas

Some thoughts (not necessarily direct quotes) from the only day I took notes:

Ask yourself what, specifically, does your character want right now? Then, have the story conspire to keep her from getting it. (Carol Edgarian)

Don’t give your characters time for the problem at hand. Each of them had to stop what they were doing to deal with it. (Ron Carlson)

A novel is like a symphony or opera. If you have a day scene, you’ll want a night scene. If there’s a solo, it’s time for a trio. Fast song, slow song. Inside, outside. Internal scene, crowd scene. But also remember the importance of repeating earlier musical pieces, taking a thread and picking it up again. (Janet Fitch)

Take the story out of the head and into the body. (Ron Carlson)

Dialogue should read like a sword fight: One thrusts, the other reacts. (Carol Edgarian)

End with a sense that you know what the character’s trajectory is. (Carol Edgarian)

Don’t end with the narrator in a confused or philosophical state. (Ron Carlson)

Only focus on one day’s work, not on something so daunting as “a book.” (Amy Tan)

Leave the editor at the door. Don’t worry if it’s good enough. Just write the next substandard sentence. Let your spelling and tense go to hell, and keep going. (Ron Carlson)

What’s it like to get all of this advice from your heroes and peers? To have 12 pairs of eyes on your work? To hear hours upon hours of do’s and don’ts from every corner of the business? It’s inspiring. Humbling. Overwhelming. It helps very much if you’ve made some good friends who will laugh and cry with you.

My Squaw Valley roommate, Wayetu Moore, and my gossip buddy, Frank DiPalermo. I adore them both!

My Squaw Valley roommate, Wayetu Moore, and my gossip buddy, Frank DiPalermo. I adore them both!

If you ask me what was the most valuable thing I learned at Squaw, the answer is easy, and it’s not about craft but about the heart of the writer.

Every day, I write for hours in my little camouflaged office, writing and crumpling up papers and writing some more. I dream of communicating something important and then hate myself for falling short. There are always reasons to give up: It takes so much work to get it right; what looks right one day often looks horrible the next; there’s rarely any pay; it’s hard to keep the momentum; I don’t have the toughness for rejection. And yet, I can’t stop myself.

So guess what the superstars at Squaw Valley spent most of their time talking about? This very thing: The struggle with the blank page, with chaotic first drafts, with self-doubt, with deadlines they fear they won’t meet.

Susan Moke, Vlada Teper, and Noel Obiora

Susan Moke, Vlada Teper, and Noel Obiora

Knowing my writing heroes struggle in this same way renews my energy and courage for editing this book. Now that I’m back in New York, writing in my little camouflaged office, I don’t feel so alone. I don’t feel like a failure. Because writers with bestsellers and movie deals are doing this, too: thinking, typing, crumpling, and just committing to finding the story and the best way to tell it.

Before I go, let me get back to Ron Carlson of the roast beef sandwich bagged lunch. He talked to us a lot (and me, specifically) about how it is the writer’s responsibility not to spread herself too thin. And I considered long and hard the many hours a month I spend blogging, and the effect it has on my time and my writing. So this is my very last Monthly Wrap. And soon, I’ll run my very last interview. But I can’t, and won’t, give up the Question of the Month because I like hearing your stories, and because I’m a happier person and a more productive writer when I take time off to play.

*

Thank you to my September guest, Judi Hendricks, to everyone who played here, and to the three outrageously fine authors I read this month:  Ron Currie (EVERYTHING MATTERS), Dylan Landis (NORMAL PEOPLE DON’T LIVE LIKE THIS), and Binnie Kirshenbaum (A DISTURBANCE IN ONE PLACE). I felt like I won the literary lottery!

And finally, shout-outs to some really lovely, talented people at Squaw Valley, who either led my workshops or lent me things when my suitcase got lost (Remember the LaGuardia bomb threat evacuation?) or flew with me, or gave some crucial piece of help on my book, or wowed me in some way or another: Sands Hall, Louis B. Jones, Lisa Alvarez, Andrew Tonkovich, Janet Fitch, Mark Childress, Michael Pietsch, Susan Golomb, Peter Steinberg, Rick Kleffel, and Glen David Gold.

Have a good one!

{ 35 comments }

Judith Ryan Hendricks

by Susan Henderson on September 9, 2009

In 2001, Judi Hendricks published her debut novel, BREAD ALONE, which went on to be a bestseller. Now she’s out with her fourth book, THE LAWS OF HARMONY, about a woman trying to flee from grief and betrayal. We’ll talk about this new book, the persistence of memory, and the lessons she learned from the community of writers at Squaw Valley. I hope you’ll join the conversation.

Judi Hendricks

Judi Hendricks

Kids are playing on a rooftop during a party when one little girl falls to her death. Your book begins long after this tragedy, but this death is always stirring beneath the surface. Can you talk to me about weaving the past and present together in your narrative and whether you were tempted to set your novel back at that original incident?

For me, the past and present are inextricably woven together, which is why I always write many more pages than the eventual length of the book—because I have to know the history, and I can’t know it until I write it. Having said that, however, there’s a point where you have to sort of pull the two layers apart so you can look at each of them alone before putting them back together in a different way, a way that makes sense for the telling of the story.

THE LAWS OF HARMONY is a story that really hinges on the past—and I love the way you put it… that the death is always stirring beneath the surface. That was exactly my intent as I was writing, and it’s exactly how the main character (Sunny) perceives it. Loss is the great common denominator here—we’ve all known the loss of a person, of a home, a job, of love, of a dream. For Sunny, the loss of her sister becomes the prism through which she views the world forever after. But I never thought of setting the book in that time because, while Mari’s death is the inciting incident, the story isn’t about the death; it’s about the effect of that death on Sunny’s life. It’s about how we all experience loss and somehow find ways—no matter how flawed—to keep moving.

Years ago she told me she wished she would get Alzheimer’s, that her memories were unbearable. (p. 118)

The Laws of Harmony (Harper Collins)

The Laws of Harmony (Harper Collins)

In the scene where Nana buys Sunny a chocolate-colored dress, Sunny is shown another world, another way of living; and you see how this delivers both a crushing blow to her feelings about her current life and opens a window to how she might dream differently about her future. Talk to me about this scene. And do you remember a moment like this in your own life?

This is one of my favorite chapters because writing it clarified so many important relationships in the book. It helped me understand where Gwen came from and why she rebelled against her parents and their lifestyle. At the same time I saw that there was still a lot of love mixed in with the misunderstanding and pain. These are people who want to be close to each other, but they just can’t figure out how… sort of like Gwen and Sunny later on. I discovered the tension between Gwen and Rob, their different backgrounds and his dependence on alcohol and drugs to get him through intense situations. This chapter also revealed the mirror image parent/child relationship between Sunny and her father, the way she tries to look out for him, keep him from getting in trouble. Then there’s the bonding of Sunny with her grandmother, which seems to sustain her in different ways over the years, even though they never see each other again. And finally Sunny’s connection with Mari, who at this point is just a toddler, but seems to have a preternatural understanding of her world. The scene where she cries because she doesn’t recognize Sunny all dressed up for the wedding foreshadows that Mari will never know her sister as an adult.

My own experience with a glimpse into a different world came when I was about ten years old. My mother was the oldest of four children, and the only one who had kept to “the straight and narrow path.” On the rare occasions when her sisters and brother were mentioned in my presence, it was with much tsk, tsking and knowing looks between her and my grandmother. I was never privy to details, but I got the message that my aunts and uncle were not examples that I should emulate.

The doll from Judi's aunt.

The doll from Judi's aunt.

It had been years since I’d seen any of them and I wasn’t old enough to remember what they even looked like. Then one day my Aunt Barbara showed up unexpectedly at my grandmother’s house when we were there… bleached blonde hair and dark red lipstick, top down on her convertible, loud, funny, and with a wallet full of cash. She scooped up my little brother and me, put us in the back seat and drove to the nearest toy store, where she told us to pick out anything we wanted. I still have the doll I got that day. Then she took us out for ice cream and told us all about her job—she was working as a blackjack dealer at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe. My brother and I had no idea what she was talking about, but it sounded pretty darned exciting. Next we drove to the bus station to pick up her boyfriend, who’d just come down from San Francisco to meet her and then they were off to Mexico for a week. When we got back to my grandmother’s house, things were very quiet. I could tell my mother was angry, but I couldn’t figure out why. It was never discussed… my family’s usual method of dealing with anything outside our comfort zone.

Interestingly when my aunt died of lung cancer ten years ago, my mother professed not to remember that day. Maybe she didn’t. I’ve never forgotten it. I wasn’t quite ready to run off to Tahoe and learn to deal blackjack, but I now knew there were other possibilities than the “straight and narrow.”

So here’s an honest answer: I grew up on a commune in New Mexico. I spent my first eighteen years surrounded by an ever-changing cast of characters. Group work, group play, group meals… group sex, on occasion. Even our outhouse was a five-seater. It made my brother the kind of person who’d strike up a conversation with a guy who’s mugging him at gunpoint. It made me into somebody who thinks three people is a mob. (p. 218)

In many ways, you’re writing about contrasting worlds; and yet, when Sunny runs from one to the another—hoping to flee broken relationships, financial struggles, loneliness, disappointment—the hurts and problems run right along beside her. I’d love to hear you talk about this battle—the weight of the past versus the force of what a person dreams for herself.

French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote, “Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.”

Nobody understands that better than Sunny Cooper, my protagonist in THE LAWS OF HARMONY. At the age of 8, living on a hippie commune, she witnesses the death of her younger sister and the subsequent fracturing of her family. This is the memory that she can never outrun.

When I was twelve years old, I saw a painting by Salvador Dali … the one with the melting clocks. The title meant nothing to me then, but I was fascinated by the painting. Now it’s the title that I find most compelling. The Persistence of Memory.

The past—and how we deal with it—shapes our lives. Some of us get stuck there, repeating our mistakes, sometimes our parents’ mistakes, too—as if by reliving them we could change what happened and finally make things right. As Sunny finally learns, real freedom comes only when we acknowledge what is possible and what is not.

It rained in the night – the kind the Navajos call a female rain – slow and steady, soaking into the earth. As opposed to a male rain, which is hard, fast, and runs off immediately. (p. 300)

Judi's dog, Blue.

Judi's dog, Blue.

What did you learn about reconciliation while writing this book?

Actually, nothing. To me, true reconciliation is like the Aurora Borealis—I know it’s out there, but I’ve never seen it. Many people claim to have achieved it, but once the tears and embracing are out of the way, I’ve noticed that people tend to go right back to the attitudes and behaviors that caused the problem in the first place.

While reconciliation is the often longed-for resolution in a story, it’s not always realistic. As I got closer to the ending of THE LAWS OF HARMONY, I kept trying out different scenarios between Sunny and Gwen, none of which were successful or satisfying. Then it dawned on me that I was trying to force a resolution between these two women that was impossible… at least at the point where the book ends. You can know in your gut what you should do, and it may even be what you want to do, but you can’t make yourself feel something that you don’t feel. If Sunny and her mother are going to be reconciled it’s got to happen later, farther down the road. About the best they can do by the end of the book is a hopeful truce.

I love the way food is so much a part of this novel. You can feel the emotional lift the characters get as they eat brownies with blackberry ganache. And when Sunny has the blues, the perfect remedy is a chicken soup called avgolemono. I’m curious if you can describe this passion for food to someone who’s a lazy cook and disconnected from this type of joy, right down to the canned spaghetti sauce and instant coffee. And would you mind sharing a recipe?

I’ve always thought of food as more than sustenance. For me, it’s like music, the way it serves as a touchstone for life events. What we were eating the night Geoff proposed… Which Thanksgiving was it when Aunt Helen dropped the turkey on the floor? We were all eating my gram’s lemon meringue pie when my best friend whispered to me that she was pregnant.

The first novel where I noticed food being incorporated in a realistic and interesting way was Mario Puzo’s THE GODFATHER. There’s a wonderful scene where one of the Mafiosi is making spaghetti sauce and he’s explaining how he adds a little sugar to cut the acidity of the tomatoes. In the mid 80’s my brother-in-law turned me on to Robert Parker’s SPENSER novels; the main character, a literate tough guy, does a lot of cooking and eating.

Now, some twenty-five years later, I sense that cooking and writing run on parallel tracks. Both can be very solitary pursuits, but the object of both is to touch other people, to offer them something, to communicate. My career as a novelist seems to have had its roots at the McGraw Street Bakery in Seattle, and I think that’s appropriate. Because a book, just like a loaf of bread, is a process, not a product—slow, arduous, messy, and utterly unpredictable.

Recipe? Certainly. The only difficulty is choosing just one. This is one of my favorites:

ROSEMARY PINE NUT SHORTBREAD

8 oz butter
2 C flour
¾ t salt
½ C powdered sugar
1 t vanilla
½ C toasted pine nuts
2 T finely chopped fresh rosemary

Melt butter in microwave or in saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients to make a stiff dough. Pat evenly into a 10 x 14” baking pan. Chill for 20-30 minutes then bake at 350° F till firm & golden brown (15-20 min.) Cool in pan 2 minutes, then use a knife to cut into bars. Let cool at least ten more minute before removing with small spatula. Great with fruit and/or goat cheese.

“She’s like a cat,” I say. “Always attaching herself to the one person in a room who’s least likely to want her around. (p. 467)

Judi learning to ride a motorcycle while researching The Laws of Harmony.

Judi learning to ride a motorcycle while researching The Laws of Harmony.

What have you learned about yourself and this business after publishing four novels? And what’s the best lesson you could you share with writers who are at the beginning of their careers?

One thing never seems to change: every time I begin a new book, it’s like the very first time, and I have to learn all over again how to write. But the experience of writing has been completely different for each book. I think maybe this is because of the organic relationship between writer and book, the way they affect each other, the invisible push and pull of the story.

What it comes down to is that each book is a unique adventure for all concerned. The writer—just like her characters—is not the same person at the end that she was at the beginning. The book that you finish is not the book that you started. That’s what’s so amazing and engrossing and frustrating and exhilarating about the process of writing. And that is why, so long as I can see the computer screen and prop myself upright in my chair, I’ll probably never stop.

I recently saw a film called EVERY LITTLE STEP. It’s a documentary about the 2006 revival of the musical A CHORUS LINE. It was a fascinating glimpse into a world that I’ll never know—the world of young performers trying to make it on Broadway. And yet, certain aspects of it were all too familiar. You’ve got a line of people stretching for blocks; I think 3,000 people auditioned for 18 roles. Every one of them has a story. Every one of them is talented. Every one is driven. The thing I loved about the film was that it follows not only the ones whose dream came true, but also it looks long and lovingly at some who were eliminated, some in the early rounds, and a few at the very end when it was down to two people for a role and the reason one was chosen over the other was often incomprehensible to me.

One of these was an actress named Rachelle and she was a heartbeat away from one of the plum roles—as Cassie. The part went to another young woman instead. I felt so let down. Had I been her, I would have fallen on the floor and kicked and screamed and cried. Instead, she packed up her stuff, patted the shoulder of the guy who’d just given her the bad news and walked to the door. To add insult to injury, the people making this documentary have got the cameras on her, the microphone in her face and they’re asking her how she feels. The one thing she said that resonated big-time with me was, “It’s a hard business. You really have to like yourself.”

So the best lesson I can share with writers at the beginning of their careers—and one that we all need reminding of occasionally—is sort of that: Be gentle with yourself.

I hear myself laughing inside the helmet, like a little kid with the training wheels off for the first time. (p. 271)

I know you were a participant in the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Can you tell me about that experience? I’d love to know who you studied with and how that shaped your writing or your dedication to the craft.

I was encouraged to attend Squaw Valley Community of Writers by Andrew Tonkovich, who was my writing instructor at UCI extension. Some of the things I remember most clearly had nothing to do with writing… it was blisteringly hot. The resort was being renovated, so workshop meeting times and places were somewhat fluid. There were construction noises and great clouds of dust during the day… and yet, I have nothing but happy memories of my time in the valley. I got lucky, ending up in a house with two guys who both had cars, and one of whom was an excellent cook. The three of us spent several long evenings drinking wine and discussing writing until someone would finally jump up and say, “I’ve got to go read my workshop papers for tomorrow.”

That summer I was working mostly on “creative non-fiction.” I did have the first chapter of a novel which would later become BREAD ALONE, but I’d never written fiction before and didn’t quite know what to do with it. I loved the workshop system they used, where you had a different instructor at every meeting, so I was privileged to learn from Mary Morris, Louis B. Jones, Lynn Freed, Bharati Mukherjee and others. In the afternoons I got to listen to Diane Johnson talk about dialogue (this alone was worth the cost of the program) and James N. Frey (No, not the James Frey of the fake memoirs) talk about plotting the damn good novel. In the evenings the instructors would read from their own works and authors like Amy Tan and Max Byrd regaled us with tales of the writing life. It was the first time I’d ever had a true sense of a writing community. I was thrilled to return in 2001 to read from my just-published novel.

While I learned at least one thing from every single writer (published or not) that I met there, the one who had the most influence on my work was Andrew Tonkovich. The year I attended, they had not yet started a nonfiction program, but in his classes at UCI Andrew had showed us how to use fiction techniques—setting, point of view, dialogue, etc—to write compelling non-fiction. It was in his class that I came to the realization that it was all one. All writing. Andrew gave us the tools and the freedom to use them for anything we wanted to write.

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Question of the Month: Lesson

by Susan Henderson on September 7, 2009

What’s the most important writing lesson you’ve learned, and where did you learn it?

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Wednesday, Judith Ryan Hendricks will be here to talk about her newest book and what she’s learned after publishing four novels. I hope you’ll be here to welcome her!

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