Writers take their craft-related cues from other writers, but when it comes to sitting down and banging on the keyboard, they work alone. Few other professions are as self-guided, solitary and needfully isolationist as writing, whether fiction or nonfiction.
There is comfort in numbers, though. Helping to inspire, support and instruct novice and veteran writers is an international offering of well-attended workshops, conferences and retreats, where writers can discuss their craft with and learn from their contemporaries.
Some are simplistic, maybe involving a casual weekend away in a rustic hotel to attend a few talks. Many are genre-specific, such as the frantic, conventionlike Romance Writers of America gatherings held each year in a different major city.
Others are lofty and academic, with storied pasts involving accomplished authors whose names make attendees quake. For instance, the rarefied Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Vermont (Toni Morrison, Richard Yates) and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley (Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, Amy Tan).
Closer to home is the second annual SummerWords colloquium, Thursday through next Sunday (see sidebar at right), put together by American River College's creative writing staff.
"We wanted to do something scrappy, like ARC is. We're all accomplished writers who are actively writing, publishing and doing readings, who somehow happened to have amassed in north Sacramento," said ARC English professor Christian Kiefer, one of SummerWords' key organizers and a poet- writer-musician. His 2012 novel, "The Infinite Tides," recently became available in paperback.
"Our program has no business being as great as it is," Kiefer said. "We're a university-level English department that happens to be at a community college, and it's totally accessible to all. Our goal is when somebody in Redding or Timbuktu says, 'I went to American River College,' the response will be, 'Isn't that the place with the great creative writing program?' "
For a community college, especially, the lineup of talent participating in SummerWords is impressive. The keynote speaker will be award-winning novelist T. Coraghessan Boyle, author of 24 works of fiction (novels and short-story collections), founder of the creative writing program at the University of Southern California and now its writer-in-residence.
"Why I'm participating is very simple," Boyle said on the phone. "Because Christian Kiefer asked me. He's my former student, and I admire him as a writer and musician."
Heady praise coming from an A-list author whose stories have appeared in most major magazines of literary significance, including the New Yorker, the Paris Review, Harper's and Atlantic Monthly.
In reply, Kiefer said, "Had I not stumbled into his creative writing class at USC when I was 19 or 20, who knows what I would be doing now? Tom has had a profound effect on my life as an artist."
Also appearing for SummerWords will be memoirist (and ARC alumnus) Anthony Swofford, author of "Hotels, Hospitals and Jails" and the best-selling "Jarhead," which made it to the big screen in 2005.
"ARC is where my education as a writer began. Its English and creative writing departments are special to me," he said.
Swofford is working on a novel ("I can't talk about it") and co-developing a series for HBO. "It's set in Sacramento," he said. "The main character is a woman who's a returning Afghanistan veteran and a police officer."
Swofford and his wife, Christa Parravani, will co-teach a session on memoir and nonfiction writing. Parravani's debut book is "Her," about the death of her troubled identical twin, Cara, and the fallout from that tragedy.
Boyle, Swofford and Parravani will join a top lineup of novelists, short story writers, creative writing teachers, screenwriters, poets and journalists who will host workshops and Q&A sessions, and discuss and read from their works.
Boyle will be onstage Friday night at the Crest Theatre, giving "a performance that will remind people I'm not dead yet and literature's not dead yet," he said. "Authors are incredibly boring when they start reading, but I'm different. I turn people on in the way you might be turned on at a concert or a film, and I predict the audience will enjoy it."
How effective are writing programs such as SummerWords and the one he directs at USC?
"Every artist has to find his or her own way, and no one is going to transform your life and make you into a productive writer," Boyle said. "But a writing program provides a place to do it, the time to do it and, if you're lucky, a mentor. I don't teach my students anything. I only direct and suggest. What they learn is through association and reading."
Swofford's first writing workshop was at ARC, followed later by the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa.
"I grew up with the fantasy that writers are guys wearing berets and smoking clove cigarettes and living lives like Hemingway or Faulkner lives that seemed very different from mine," Swofford said.
"But when you're in a workshop, surrounded by other people much like yourself, you realize that writing is work and it's a craft. It's understanding what others have done so you yourself can do it."
Parravani attended a creative writing workshop sponsored by Rutgers University in New Jersey.
"I have an MFA degree in photography (and one in creative writing) and decided to stop taking pictures and start writing," she said. "I found a mentor (at Rutgers) who helped me with the vision of my book. Had I not made the decision (to enroll), it would have been incredibly hard to have given myself enough time to write 'Her.' To do it in a room with other people was invaluable."
Decades ago, the young Boyle attended the two-year Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, the template for writing programs since 1936. What did he come away with?
"It was great because it got me out of New York, where I was a young degenerate," he said. "It gave me confidence and the feeling of acceptance. I had three professors (including novelists John Irving and John Cheever) who basically said to me, 'Kid, you're on the right path keep it up.' That's what I needed."
Writers on tap for ARC's SummerWords event
Here's a rare chance for established and aspiring writers and poets, avid readers, librarians, students and the actively curious to get inside the craft of writing and learn from masters of the art.
The creative writing faculty of American River College is sponsoring the second SummerWords, from Thursday through next Sunday. It's a seminar of hands-on workshops in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and screenplay writing; panel discussions; conversations with authors and journalists; expert advice from agents and creative-writing professors; and readings by published writers and poets.
The keynote speaker will be award-winning novelist T. Coraghessan Boyle, who will give a presentation at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento; (916) 442-5189.
Boyle will also appear on campus at 10 a.m. Saturday to discuss the craft of writing with SummerWords participants.
Among other award-winning writers and poets participating in SummerWords are:
Memoirist-novelist and ARC alumnus Anthony Swofford, author of "Exit A," "Hotels, Hospitals and Jails" and the best-seller "Jarhead," which was made into a movie in 2005.
Poet-writer and ARC English professor Christian Kiefer, whose 2012 novel, "The Infinite Tides," recently became available in paperback.
ARC creative writing professor Michael Spurgeon, whose first novel, "Let the Water Hold Me Down," will be published July 1 by ARC's new Ad Lumen Press.
Sacramento poet laureate Jeff Knorr, author of three books of poetry. He teaches creative writing at Sacramento City College and directs its River City Writers series.
Writer-photographer Christa Parravani, author of the memoir "Her."
Short-story writer Jodie Angel, whose new collection, "You Only Get Letters From Jail," is due in July. She teaches at UC Davis and Sacramento City College.
Tickets to SummerWords are $95, and include "An Evening With T.C. Boyle" at the Crest. The ticket price for Boyle's Crest event alone is $25.
For the SummerWords schedule of events, and to buy tickets, go to www.summerwords.com.
With the exception of Boyle's Crest event, all SummerWords sessions will be held on campus in the new Student Center and in the Library Building. ARC is at 4700 College Oak Drive, Sacramento.
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.