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 The unpublished writer and the seasoned writer are side by side throughout, and this goes for meals, as well.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!

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… read them below or add one }

notmoro September 11, 2009 at 8:03 am

Hi, Susan –

I’m sorry to hear that this will be the last monthly wrap. I’ve been quietly reading along for the last few months, and have and found your insights invaluable. I’ll miss that monthly dose of perspective. But I do understand how draining the effort can be. I’ve kept a writing blog for the last year or so, which I’ve occasionally used in conjunction with a little writing workshop I teach at my local library; while it’s been a useful tool, the energy it takes from the writing I ought to be doing can outweigh its usefulness. But then I like to think of blogging as sort of a transient activity—a blog evolves (or goes on hiatus, or vanishes only to be replaced by something else) as the writer’s needs change.

Thank you for all the good work you’ve done here! Looking forward to future questions. 🙂


Darlin' Neal September 11, 2009 at 10:01 am

Love this, especially those wonderful quotes you share, Sue!–Darlin’


Darlin Neal September 11, 2009 at 10:02 am

Love this, especially those wonderful quotes you share, Sue!–Darlin’


SusanHenderson September 11, 2009 at 1:01 pm

I found the quotes so helpful, too. Some days, it’s the practical advice that strikes me, and today it’s Amy Tan saying, ‘just focus on one day’s work, and not the entire book.’


SusanHenderson September 11, 2009 at 1:03 pm

That’s so nice of you to say, Jess, and I hope you’ll let us hear your stories for future Questions of the Month. That’s my favorite thing around here, just all the different voices.


Kimberly September 11, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Wow. I’m going to tape up all of those quotes over my computer screen right now!

We will, no doubt, talk about all this in person sometime, but as for the “don’t spread yourself too thin” thing: I hear ya, sister! Loud and clear!

Great week in the park!


Andrew O. Dugas September 11, 2009 at 3:48 pm

Your notes serve as much needed reminders as I approach my next revision with the enthusiasm of a snake charmer.


eileen_rita September 11, 2009 at 8:48 pm

This looks and sounds like such a wonderful adventure for a writer to take. Thank you for sharing the experience.
I’ll continue to look forward to your Question of the Month, because I always feel inspired after visiting here.
Happy writing!


SusanHenderson September 11, 2009 at 9:39 pm

Oh, I’m glad about that!


SusanHenderson September 11, 2009 at 9:40 pm

Andy, hi! It was so great to hang out with you at Squaw. Maybe you’ll do a NY literary death match sometime…


SusanHenderson September 11, 2009 at 9:43 pm

I know I’ve been under house arrest lately, but I promised almost a year ago that I’d go to KGB this Sunday. Want to go with me and sushi and saki before or after?


5speener0 September 12, 2009 at 9:03 am

Amy Tan’s quote was the one that stood out for me too. It’s one step at a time, one day at a time, it’s hiking up a hill on a backpacking trip and looking down at the feet moving forward and upward, instead of looking up at how far you have left to go, then…looking behind you once in a while and seeing how far you’re come.


5speener0 September 12, 2009 at 9:07 am

Oh, Susan, I can almost see the tears as you let go of something that you love doing, in order to have balance in your life and time to do another thing that you love doing. Hugs, kisses and many thanks for what you’ve built here. We still have the archives, and for relative newbies like me, there’s so much there that we have not read. Hidden treasures to uncover.

A smart decision and a good one.

You are a wonderful soul–it shines, even all the way down into South Carolina, where I’m into my third cup of Sat. morning coffee and headed to read a little more of an Amy Tan book. 🙂


openid-10495 September 12, 2009 at 5:47 pm

Visited through Patry’s blog. Glad I visited. I’ve heard wonderful things about Squaw Valley–thanks for sharing some of the word of wisdom!


billybones September 13, 2009 at 10:10 am

Thanks for sharing. Everything is super helpful.


SusanHenderson September 13, 2009 at 1:52 pm

Always happy to see you here, Bones.


SusanHenderson September 13, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Glad you’re here, Lisa. And anyone who’s a friend of Patry’s is a friend of mine.


SusanHenderson September 13, 2009 at 1:55 pm

It was not an easy decision, and I worried most about letting people down, but my husband’s ecstatic, and I think my book will be that much easier to finish now.

Thanks, as always, for your support, Despina.


SusanHenderson September 14, 2009 at 12:00 pm

Really interesting article Mr. H just sent me that talks about one reason writers and editors may feel so used when people ask them to read manuscripts.

(Having a killer writing day, by the way!)


jessicaK September 14, 2009 at 6:45 pm

Wow………..That’s all I can say after reading this. What advice. What wisdom. What beauty. Good for you for embracing what you need to do to keep on. And you? You inspire me and surprise me every time you come here and share something about yourself. Thank you so much for that!


SusanHenderson September 15, 2009 at 2:07 pm

Aww, thanks, Jess.


SusanHenderson September 15, 2009 at 10:11 pm

This is my little guy with the blue guitar, playing Pink Floyd’s “Pigs (Three Different Ones)”:


notmoro September 17, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Hey, that is bloody impressive! Well done that man. 🙂


SusanHenderson September 18, 2009 at 7:35 am

Thanks for watching, Jess!


Aurelio September 20, 2009 at 4:45 pm

LitPark has been a great blog, but I understand and relate to your need to pare back and focus. I’ve been doing much the same thing with my net time in general. I’ll miss the monthly interviews and such.

But I prefer picturing you in your little office, steeped in words.


Meredith Resnick September 20, 2009 at 9:20 pm

A great post. Thanks, Susan.


SusanHenderson September 21, 2009 at 8:56 am

Thanks, Meredith!

And for those of you who don’t know her blog, today’s a great day to check out her interview with literary agent Jennifer Lawler:


SusanHenderson September 21, 2009 at 8:57 am

The writing’s going so great. What a difference is makes to have an uncluttered head! Thanks so much for your support, it means a lot.


zett September 21, 2009 at 5:09 pm

Thank you for sharing some great advice! Sad for us that you will be blogging less, but I am a full supporter of you focusing more on your novel.


SusanHenderson September 21, 2009 at 6:54 pm

And you know I’m 110% behind your novel, too. Love you, Zett.


jodyreale September 29, 2009 at 9:16 am

Words can’t express my envy. Any place with Ron Carlson AND roast beef? Forget about it. Lucky dog.


SusanHenderson September 29, 2009 at 10:22 am

Ron is hysterical. He was constantly saying the funniest things, but his delivery is so serious that we all had to wait a few beats to be sure we could laugh.

Glad to see you here, Jody!


Juliet September 29, 2009 at 4:46 pm

You are such an inspiration and encouragement to all of us, Susan. Thank you for sharing not only your experiences, but your heart.


SusanHenderson September 30, 2009 at 8:44 am

Right back atcha, beautiful.


SusanHenderson October 8, 2009 at 8:21 am

Thanks to Lori Oliva for linking here. She’s got some video of the beautiful David Foster Wallace over on her blog: Worth watching.


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