To The Mountaintop
A Weekly writer heeds the call to letters.
Thursday, October 3, 2002
Photo by Jeffrey Mallory: Write Place and Time--The Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference, held in early August, draws scribes from all over the West to the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics.
Writing is ironic. Born of a desire to communicate, it requires silence and solitude to take form. The minds of writers may teem with whole cities of voices and stories, but in order to get the ideas on the page, most writers need to be alone, in a quiet room, for a very long time. Writers living in the western states, far from the publishing world of New York, may feel even more isolated. That our landscapes themselves seem to tell epic stories of distance and yearning only heightens the sense of separation felt by many West Coast writers.
In 1969, Oakley Hall, an acclaimed author and teacher of writing, decided to create an event where once a year western writers could gather, and in workshops, panel discussions, lectures and readings, turn the lonely work of writing into occasion for dialogue. In August, I attended the 33rd Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference. I had been contemplating a change in my writing life, and I wanted some company as I made my decision.
The atmosphere was both friendly and intense. Men and women obsessed with words suddenly found themselves surrounded by others just like them. At over 5,000 feet and just five miles from Lake Tahoe, the natural setting is dramatic. (The 1960 Winter Olympics were staged here.) I saw few writers taking pictures, though many took notes. During an afternoon hike led by a naturalist, writers jotted down the names of species, aware of how the sounds of language shape our perception of the world. Standing at the base of a venerable Jeffrey Pine, whose sun-warmed bark smelled of caramel and cognac, we wrote what the naturalist said about its cones: "Gentle Jeffrey, prickly Ponderosa." And when we looked back up at the tree it seemed changed.
Writers are those who have devoted their lives to storytelling, knowing that it is not merely a form of entertainment but a vital aspect of human culture. "The strongest memory is weaker than the palest ink," argued Carmel author J. S. Holliday at the conference''s opening lecture. Holliday, whose works include two superb studies of the Gold Rush, the classic The World Rushed In (1981) and the recent Rush for Riches (2000), made the case for the importance of historical research, not only for non-fiction writing but for fiction writers as well. In a phone interview after the conference, Holliday added that many California stories remain to be told.
"There are so many stories!" he says. "Agriculture, the lumber industry, hydraulic mining. Men steamboating up and down the Sacramento River! These are robust, dramatic settings for writers."
Or as Janet Fitch put it during one of the conference''s panel discussions, "There aren''t enough books about people who have jobs!"
Fitch is the best-selling author of the Oprah pick and soon-to-be-released movie White Oleander and a former conference participant. One of the conference highlights for beginning writers is the chance to interact with those who are further along the successful writing path we hope to travel. We want to be told where the writing comes from, how it gets done, what it takes.
Another conference alum, Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Kavalier and Clay, says that his short stories emerge out of "a vague throb of regret or remorse." Fitch beats the drum of persistence: Just Keep Writing. Holliday says he is "a great believer in residual value." You never know what bit of information may come in handy. "Write things down!" he says. Editor Joy Johannessen, whose clients include Ursula K. LeGuin, reminds us that another crucial aspect of writing is learning what to throw out.
The necessary process of revision, by myself or by an editor, is a valuable skill I have learned to appreciate in my two years as freelance contributor to the Weekly. Holliday concurs that "there is no better training ground for writers than journalism." Now, after nearly 80 articles on subjects ranging from music and art to murals and mushrooms, this will be my last contribution to the Weekly for a while. A big project awaits me in my study, and it is time for me to devote all my attention to it.
But before I do, I want to express my gratitude to the Weekly for giving me so many opportunities to write about the things I care about in our community. I also want to thank all my interview subjects for the generosity of their time and the depth of their commitment. And I especially want to thank you, my readers. No community of writers could exist without you, the people who give the words of writers life beyond the page.