One way to jumpstart your writing is to participate in a writer’s retreat. There are a bunch out there—Yaddo, Bennington, MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf. I chose the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.
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. (That was the view out the window of our Squaw Valley house.)
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 The unpublished writer and the seasoned writer are side by side throughout, and this goes for meals, as well.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 Carlson and Andy Dugas:
Some writer advice (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.
Some more talented writers—Susan Moke, Vlada Teper, and Noel Obiora:
Learning that my writing heroes struggle in this same way renewed my energy and courage for editing my novel. Once I was back in New York, writing in my little camouflaged office, I didn’t feel so alone. I didn’t feel like a failure. Because writers with bestsellers and movie deals were doing what I was doing: 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. This is a matter I have to think on—how much of my time I spend on blogging, and the cost of that to my writing. I happen to value dialogue and a connection to a writing community quite a lot, so there’s no easy answer here, but I (and probably you, too) ought to periodically revisit this question.
Finally, some 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 back to NY 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, and see you in the comments section!