Don Rogers: The other Olympian in Squaw
The granddaddy of writing conferences in the West is accepting applications for its 50th year.
I think more Pulitzer winners than anywhere have passed through the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley as students and teachers, or both. This goes for poetry as well as prose, one conference after the other.
Yes, I’m totally enamored and think you should be, too. Here is one of the giants helping produce the highest form of the highest art: literature.
Film and video games and social media expressions may be far more popular these days, music and the visual arts more accessible, dance and theater for the more discerning.
But the novel at best reflects the genius of polymaths and knits the top artistry, philosophy and storytelling all together.
This is how I see it, anyway. I come to this conclusion as a reader and a dabbler in this alchemy for the ages compared to journalism and rank punditry, that lowbrow fare of my profession, part of my day job.
Oh, I value journalism, especially the kind practiced at newspapers. There’s even some art in this shambling, rambling daily sprint to deadline against powers that be who don’t want you to know while armed with only a generalist’s understanding of a whole host of topics running deeper than their experts can tap.
Which is why we need literature, too, especially those book-length lies we tell to scratch at larger truths.
But writing novels, never mind poetry, is no way to make a living. Only a fool can crave publication for the payoff. You’d do better trying out for the Los Angeles Lakers. In heels.
A few aspirants break through, sure. Enough to keep alive those sugar plum dreams for the next generation of Amy Tans, Anne Lamotts, Anne Rices, Richard Fords, Jennifer Egans, Michael Chabons (“Picard”!), Janet Fitches, Lev Grossmans and so many I’m leaving out who have come through Squaw Valley.
The one I’m thinking of as I write, though, is a guy named Seldon. Seldon Edwards. He spent 30 years writing one of my favorite books ever, “The Little Book.” It became an overnight sensation in 2008.
I had no idea until stumbling into his picture on the guest list for this year’s conference that he attended Squaw Valley’s first three ever.
Authors and teachers Oakley Hall and Blair Fuller, ski town neighbors, started the conference directed now by Hall’s daughter Brett Hall Jones. This one stands among the gold standards — Bread Loaf, Iowa Writers Workshop’s summer session, Sewanee, Aspen Words — but this is a family affair rather than any extension of an institute or a university. Husband Louis Jones, a novelist of course she met at Squaw, and sister Sands Hall, an author and performer, are key contributors, along with sister Tracy Hall and a passel of the next generation, indispensable elves.
None of these conferences, including Squaw Valley, is easy to get in, maybe two or three of every 10 applicants. The deadline is March 28, by the way. It’s well worth trying.
We all can join the public craft talks and readings during the conference July 6-13 this year, and they’ll be celebrating half a century with special guests and events, as they are now with gatherings on both coasts.
If you do get in, congratulations! It’s a big deal, and you are in for an experience you’ll remember a lifetime. At least that’s what authors who came back have said.
The best outcome from taking part is humbling. That is, you learn every hole and flaw in your work in kindly, head-spinning detail, along with some encouragement and ideas that never occurred to you but might make all the difference.
The second best outcome: the faculty shares your manuscript with all the delight of the next found pearl and maybe it reaches an agent, who of course loves it. This happens sometimes, too, in the conference inside the conference.
But if there’s any hidden magic at this weeklong Hogwarts, I suspect it’s in the critiquing. Sure, the authors, editors or agents who give your manuscript quality time offer great feedback. But even more so the markups and analysis you do for your workshop mates and they for you.
Call this a golden rule for literature. Reading closely for others can’t help but help you in turn. Here is the gift that keeps on giving, a key lesson for life as well as writing.
To think, 50 years of this — how many Pulitzers, how many literary triumphs?! — the brainchild of a couple of buddies over drinks in a ski town in a whole ’nother age.
I hope Squaw, the resort that has hosted the conference through the years, can remain just wise enough on the cusp of its own renaissance to help keep this intellectual and artistic namesake alive and contributing to the greater world.
The Community of Writers is Olympian, too, after all. As much so in its realm as the Winter Games themselves.
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.
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