There’s something infectious about 150 or so creative people, all chattering at once. This is a weeklong annual conference of writers, established and aspiring, who come from all over to this valley near the north shore of Lake Tahoe, some every summer, year after year. If ideas and genius are tangible molecules floating in the air, I can only hope they’ll land on me.
The operative word is “community,” chosen on purpose by the founders in 1969, when the novelists Oakley Hall and Blair Fuller gathered to build an institution that’s thrived ever since. Some of the writers have passed — sort of. I say “sort of” because their spirits linger. Some are declining gently into old age. Their children carry on, and their children’s children. It’s an honor to be here, to be included in what has evolved as a family.
It’s also difficult not to be intimidated by those who have been here before, studying and discussing the craft of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and screenwriting: Peter Matthiessen, Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, Robert Hass and Anne Rice, to name a few. In 1985, Amy Tan arrived with stories that became “The Joy Luck Club.” This year, Janet Fitch’s novel “Paint It Black” is her second movie. Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” is every writer’s classic.
Dinner is served on a patio dwarfed by granite mountains still sporting patches of snow. Setting sun illuminates the tops of mountains and then disappears. Night brings music or readings by the multitalented participants.
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Everyone says the realities of writing are the same for all, a maddening struggle that requires thick skin, resilience, endurance, persistence and multitudes of revisions. It only starts as a solitary undertaking. Once a manuscript is ready and is accepted by an agent and then an editor, a team effort begins, one that can take years and is not enhanced by impatience.
In 2013, I came as a student in nonfiction, based on my essays for The Bee. Every morning, the same 12 students met with a different writing professional to present constructive and respectful criticism on two manuscripts that we each had read the night before. It was an intense, exhausting experience. In the afternoons and evenings, everyone met for panels, discussions and readings. As a guest for the past three years, I’m more relaxed and just as grateful for the enlightenment.
Dinner is served on a patio dwarfed by granite mountains still sporting patches of snow. Setting sun illuminates the tops of mountains and then disappears. A place of inclusion, it’s a chance to talk with diverse writers from all over, from ethnicity to career to ambition and inspiration. Night brings music or readings by the multitalented participants.
California writers carry stories. Alex Espinoza is one such writer, as well as a professor and director of the writing program at Cal State L.A. Alex grew up in a neighborhood that offered little opportunity to a kid with three strikes: nonwhite, gay, with a disability that kept him from sports. He pursued what was left — an education.
Alex says that this conference, with its West Coast mentality, embraces differences. He arrived at Squaw as a student in 2002, as he recalls, a little skeptical at first, and found a sincere interest in what he was writing. He says good writing happens everywhere, “writing about places no one else is looking at.” Squaw nurtures an “understanding that writing takes failure, to find the right path.”
This is the last night, a party at a private residence. Lisa Alvarez, who co-directs the fiction program, sits at the feet of a very old woman, Oakley Hall’s widow, Barbara Edinger Hall. Alvarez looks up with a love that is palpable. Love is what binds these people, love of the process and craft of writing, love of each other and relationships that have grown with each passing of 48 creative years.