Don Rogers: Writers week gone virtual
Olympic House was empty but for some maintenance workers and all those ghosts.
I passed through rooms I last remembered alive in talks, panels, readings, busy conversation between events. Nooks where the dozen members of my workshop Group 7 dug into two excerpts each morning with a different author, editor or agent guiding us.
Now they were stacked high with chairs and tables or hollow shells that echoed. A couple of matter-of-fact voices receded unseen down a hallway.
The pandemic knocked out what was to be the 50th in-person anniversary of one of the top writers conferences in the land all these summers at the Squaw Valley Alpine Valley Ski Resort. This year’s virtual replacement was in session as I walked here, alone.
Over there in 2018, downstairs by that pillar, writer-editor-teacher Andrew Tonkovich checked me in and exhorted me to be generous in offering critique.
Louis Jones, in an aside upstairs, counseled that the week likely would prove roiling for a first-timer, lots of ups and downs. Just let it settle, he advised. Then get back to work. The novelist would know. He came as a participant in 1989 and later married today’s executive director, Brett Hall Jones. Now he co-directs the fiction program.
This conference is a big deal, and I may be overawed by the talent that has walked these halls, filled these rooms, held court on the sun deck. The Pulitzer winners and such who learned here, taught here, were discovered here, and took wing from here. Maybe one or two of Group 7 will join that pantheon someday.
Ah, in this room packed with furniture my group took my prized excerpt, my artful construct, to the studs. I kept my head down, scribbling notes, no doubt turning scarlet, heeding instruction not to speak, the better to hear. It was chilly that morning. I remember my coffee in a paper cup, hot, and me, all my writing sins laid bare, naked.
My notes suggest I may not have been so roughed up as I felt. Tender ego goes like that. Still, almost nothing of the work I brought has survived subsequent rewrites, which so far have stood up relatively well in subsequent workshops.
I’m so grateful to this group. This might be the single greatest learning experience in my writing life. Right there, the room soundless as any closet, still ringing with where that work had gone wrong. What a gift. I’m serious.
THE PAST, THE FUTURE
I’ve gone as a participant, and I’ve gone to soak up all I can in the sessions open to the public. I love it and learn a ton every time, as swept up as any teenage Londoner during Beatlemania.
But my memories, these ghosts, have had only the briefest time to gather. Imagine how much founders Oakley and Barbara Hall and Blair and Diana Fuller stored away in their lifetimes; the others have passed, but Diana, who brought in the screenwriting program, still attends. Or the Halls’ daughters and late son who grew up with the conference. Their young-adult children taking their turn as helper elves. Family and others who might as well be family running things now.
What might they see walking these halls?
But of course this day they were working. The conference was going full tilt. Just not here.
Last year they scrambled together a virtual replacement, and this year they put on a more complete virtual experience. I dropped in for Festival Day on Saturday for online readings and discussions missing at the Olympic House.
A friend who got in this year — it’s not easy — spoke of lost sleep and tremendous learnings during her week, only missing a certain substance and serendipity when these rooms are full. But I noticed advantages to the virtual offerings, too.
My favorite is a program called “First Aid.” Fiction and Memoir First Aid, Poetry First Aid. Sands Hall read my first page and inside 15 minutes over Zoom gave me an idea that lifted my first chapter and became the key to the climax of part one of my budding novel. My fiction writing life is only hobby, sure, but still it’s huge to me, and the epiphany was thrilling, no less so than powder under my snowboard.
Another little thrill was dropping by the cabin overlooking the resort where it all began, and the nerve center now. A young guy called out to me through a screened window, an elf under earphones. I’d found the right place.
Sorry about the mess, Brett said. I didn’t see mess in the classically rustic wooden interior of probably the first cabin built in the neighborhood in the 1950s. I saw lived in, worked in, energy.
Another elf under earphones, moderating a virtual event or workshop session on a laptop, lit up the living room with a broad smile. I had a brief, great chat with Brett and Louie, mindful of how much they had going on. I saw life, which I hope fills the Olympic House again next year. The ghosts will make room.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com or 530-477-4299
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