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Frank DiPalermo

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 The unpublished writer and the seasoned writer are side by side throughout, and this goes for meals, as well.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

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