Don Rogers: A writer seeks his wand
July 19, 2018
Lucy sits with her plate at our tin table on the Olympic House deck, just when the sun no longer would be in her eyes. I take her for a participant, smiling, excited, eager to talk. As we all are.
Three of us on one end get down to it. I'm laughingly bemoaning my opening, the hardest part of the whole novel. The first effing sentence. I'm throwing my hands out. They understand.
Lucy and Joe, I think I hear he's a lit journal editor who works remotely from South Dakota, discuss how long they give a book before moving on. The beginning is so crucial. Miss that and yer done, basically.
But hold on.
"So, 'Olive Kitteridge,'" I start.
"Careful now, Elizabeth Strout is my client," Lucy says. The author of the Pulitzer winner. How did I pick this title out of the constellations, with the very agent? Oh, oh. My first Only At Squaw Valley Writers Conference moment.
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But I shove ahead, never learning. The first chapter couldn't be more boring, I declare. Lucy's eyes widen, though the smile is still there. I go on: Office politics in a small-town pharmacy? Really? That's chapter one? Yawn and snooze. Besides, nothing blows up.
Still, for no reason I could fathom, I had kept reading. "Olive Kitteridge" turned out to be a depth charge. All at once I couldn't get enough. I still think about these people in rural Maine, months and months after finishing. I love this book.
How does that square with editors and agents making their hasty decisions?
Well, because Lucy has good instincts. That's her job, of course. She got "Olive Kitteridge" from the beginning, right from the first sentence. Boom.
For me, this is out-of-body stuff. I'm at Hogwarts.
Days later, a writer in an afternoon workshop reads a scene aloud: A child in a car crash suddenly sees the accident from a kestrel's vantage. She has the wings, the cry, the eyes, but she's not the bird, still herself.
This is how it goes in the morning sessions, the heart of the conference. We each critique two 5,000-word manuscripts, then discuss them as a group for three hours while the writers hold silent for theirs. A different author, editor or agent guides us every day.
We bring ourselves to the work, seeing as differently as kestrel, coyote, deer, snake. A dozen perspectives, picking up what we pick up, hoping some of it will prove valuable. Our errors can be as useful to the writer as pegging it like Lucy with "Olive Kitteridge."
In my hour of reckoning, I'm the dung beetle, crawling over and through my work while listening and taking notes, head down, there but not there, detached but very much present. This is my crap they're turning over.
Someone says I need to read more; later, I list for myself the nearly four dozen books I've devoured on the topic. I recognize truths, ouch, and also assumptions about my assumptions, an exquisite irony. But I led them there with my writing. I'm grateful after this gantlet. Better to hear it now, in this setting.
Still, I'm also laid low, low as I can go. Of the praise? Heard none of it. I was on the moon. Maybe as I return to Earth in the coming days, weeks, months …
Louie, a program director, warned me. This is what the conference does, deliver giddy moments, blows you never saw coming, bumps and bruises and lifts, a storm. I am all churned up.
No doubt I've contributed to churning among my companions who laid their work and souls bare, whom I hope got at least as much as I did from staking themselves naked under the sun, braced for ants off blazing sand.
In the shade, I check my email while puzzling out another manuscript. One of our workshop leaders, Peter, leads New Yorker's fiction e-newsletter this week. New Yorker is the All That of the fiction world. And he's atop the list. Wow. I know that guy!
I make instant friends one evening with alumni back to reconnect and read from their recently published novels. I like them and their excerpts so much so fast I hustle to buy Bruce's "The Whole of the Moon" and Jimin's "A Small Revolution."
I'm as amazed at my workshop group's talent and range, how they speed me up or slow me down, bringing such wonders to the page. Some will be back soon enough to read from their novels.
Cap Radio's Beth Ruyak drops by our table the last dinner. "I want you never, ever again to let a moment you want to ask get away" she tells a local author who confessed she chickened out of pitching the "Insight" host. No, be brave, always ask, Beth encourages.
The last morning I'm walking to the tiny house bookstore — there in memory of a local iconoclast, Paul Radin, who befriended the Community of Writers back in the '70s, riding in on horseback, the legend goes.
I'm thinking about the "noble flaw" for a chief protagonist in my story who starts out flat. The workshop leader for my manuscript, Edie, suggested this. A conversation with my son gave me an idea and I'm hoping to run it by the novelist and UMass prof, who has no lack for company among 120 participants and a couple of dozen faculty.
Oh, here she comes walking to the bookstore, alone, as if summoned. She says the idea's brilliant.
Hey, brilliant. I can work with that.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.