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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.

The view out the window of our Squaw Valley house.

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 The unpublished writer and the seasoned writer are side by side throughout, and this goes for meals, as well.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

Ron and Andy.

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:

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:

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.

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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!

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Susan Henderson SUSAN HENDERSON is the author of UP FROM THE BLUE (HarperCollins, 2010) and founder of the blog, LitPark, a literary playground for writers.

27 Responses to “Writer Retreats: My Experience at Squaw Valley”

  1. John Yewell says:

    Thanks for this great description Susan! (Full disclosure, we were housemates at Squaw last year.) I am off again for the 2010 workshops in a few hours. Excited to be going back …

    • It’s a great checklist to use when you’re doing edits. My favorite is Ron Carlson’s thoughts about keeping the characters in their bodies, which I didn’t do justice here. But basically, he said that any time you find your character ruminating about anything, see if you can express those thoughts in the body and with action, rather than running a little monologue. Not easy, but hugely helpful.

  2. Billy Bones says:

    As I hope you know by now, I always enjoy your posts. But today I will offer you my ultimate compliment. I have bookmarked this page.

  3. dwoz says:

    That notes list is “stop me dead in my tracks” amazing.

    jeeezzzuuuussss.

    All completely obvious, and all completely elusive as well. Elusive as in, “yeah, damn. My book is FULL of that mistake” elusive.

    I’m very familiar with the MacDowell Colony, having grown up living just down the road from it, and both parents having been fellows. In fact, I used to run those brown bag lunches to the writer’s cabins for a summer job. (although, at MacDowell we used baskets.)

  4. Great rundown, Susan! Filled me with “saudade” as they say in Brazil. Why didn’t I sign up this year? Next year for sure.

    Carlson was the man, from his one-on-ones to his presentations. Everyone reading this should run out and buy “Ron Carlson Writes a Short Story.” It changed the way I approach the form and I am a happier writer for it. My readers (all eleven of them) are happier too.

    Janet Fitch’s insights on scene (unity of time, place, and characters plus irrevocable change) taught me more in ninety minutes than I’d learned in four years of college, countless workshops and writing groups, and a lifetime of trial-by-error.

    One wonderful thing worth noting about Squaw is that it is all about craft, all about writing. There are no pitching sessions, no how-to-write-a-killer-query seminars, no pay-to-play agent introductions. Not to say that networking doesn’t occur, but it is always within the context of the socialization that occurs outside the workshops and panel discussions, and almost always devoid of “pitch.”

  5. Amy Wallen says:

    Oh Susan, you brought back so many memories for me! It was almost 12 years ago that I was at Squaw and I have to say ditto on everything you say. All those same great inspirations, Mark Childress, Janet Fitch, Sands Hall, Andrew Tonkovich, Lisa Alvarez, yes I’m repeating them because they all deserve it, all passed along sage advice to me. Mark Childress and Janet Fitch even blurbed my first novel when it was published, so their generosity continues! Andrew Tonkovich and Lisa Alvarez continue to be big influences in my life, and when I teach I have a list of notes on how to critique inspired by Sands Hall that I read to my students.

    And, Ron Carlson’s bit of advice about spreading yourself too thin, you told me that a few months ago, and I have to say that it still is with me and has made a world of difference since.

    Thank you for sharing, and it’s wonderful to share this with the world. YOU are one of the people I would add to my list of inspirations.

  6. Amy Wallen says:

    And I have to add one thing: Isn’t Frank just THE best gossip buddy? He’s mine too. Not to mention he’s not bad to be seen with. :)

  7. Noel A. Obiora says:

    Susan, you describe Squaw Valley so well, and the advice you wrote down…just having a list of those near-by as one writes would make any piece better. Let me add one thing to what you wrote about Squaw Valley: I feel the work they do before the writers get there is even more impressive. The team of Brett Hall Jones, Louis B. Jones, Lisa Alvarez and co., take these scattered musing of incoherent truth searching for form or focus, plot or character and match them with an established writer whose work so perfectly fits what the invited writer needs or should be striving for. I had the good fortune of working with Dargoberto Gilb and Glen David Gold; what I learned in 30 minutes with those two changed my work.

  8. Rachel Pollon says:

    Always glad to read this kind of advice. Thanks for sharing, Susan.

  9. Are they still serving granola and yoghurt for breakfast? When I was there decades ago, we ended the retreat with an amateur talent show. Do they still do that?

    Sounds like the basics haven’t changed – I got a lot out of my time there and always planned to return, but life interfered. Thanks for catching me up on how Squaw is doing.

    • Hi Robyn! I don’t know about the granola and yoghurt because I always got the hard-boiled egg, but they still do the talent show, and the same faculty comes back year after year, which shows a lot of faith and commitment to this program.

  10. [...] so that night, we go out for phở with Frank DiPalermo, and then I stay at Frank’s house and fall asleep with his dog, who’s usually not [...]

  11. Krista Minard says:

    Hi Susan, I ran across your blog when I was googling around looking for info on Squaw–I’m headed there this coming weekend for the 2011 program. I’m a total newbie, still flabbergasted I got in, and looking forward to an inspiring, rigorous fiction intensive! Your list of tips made me smile and cringe. I’ve already sent my manuscript off because I was one of the lucky ones who’s getting workshopped the first day (!) and already I’m thinking, hmmm, did I get inside my characters’ bodies . . .?

    Anyway, thank you for a great, informative post!

  12. Hi Krista,

    I was on a writing sabbatical this summer and am just now reading through my mail. Thank you for your note. How did you like Squaw? Who were your teachers, and what did you learn? I’m hoping to go back next year and will live vicariously through you in the meantime.

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