At fourteen I wanted to be a novelist.
At sixty, I thought I’d better get to it.
“Do what you love doing,” my Buddhist son encouraged. So I cashed out of my commercial writing agency—which had improbably propelled me, a son of unschooled immigrants, to the 1%—invested our nest egg, and enrolled in a fiction-writing program.
After two years I had a compelling concept for a novel but remained clueless as to how to implement it. I quit school, engaged a writing coach and made some progress, but feared I was running out of time and money. On a long shot I applied to the nation’s top writers’ workshops.
Based on a 5000-word manuscript, the Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference accepted me. Founded in 1969 by novelist/educator Oakley Hall, a renegade from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Squaw is the only major United States writing conference not affiliated with a college. Surprised and certain I’d be a misfit—the oldest participant, the only Midwesterner, et cetera—I wavered, but figured a week in the Sierras above Lake Tahoe couldn’t be a waste. I was right; that week in August, 2009, and another in 2010, transformed my life as well as my writing.
Unlike other writing workshops, Squaw rotates staff every morning, so our group of twelve dealt with six mentors in a week. That first chill morning in the Olympic Village we worked with author Janet Fitch, whose prescriptives for writing dialog I still labor to apply. But the greater discovery was that she laughs at corny jokes, on a mountain hike she gets dirt under her fingernails like everyone else, and she spent eleven years writing and revising “White Oleander” before Oprah boosted it to a blockbuster.
Our group ranged from a college senior to octogenarians. Most were from the coasts. Many had earned MFAs in fiction writing. We critiqued two manuscripts a day, and learned as much doing that as from the staff—which says a lot, given that the staff included authors like Karen Joy Fowler (“The Jane Austen Book Club”), whose tips for reaching readers at different levels of sophistication still inform my work.
The week’s highlight comes when a staffer does a one-on-one critique of your manuscript. Glen David Gold (“Carter Beats the Devil”) critiqued my 5000-word excerpt, and in twenty minutes I learned more about novel-writing than in two years of classes—and left with a clear roadmap for revising my book.
I also learned that his first novel took seven years. Jamie Ford told me he spent four years after Squaw revising “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.” Writers I met at dinner or the bar published their first novel in their sixties; others published six before making any money; several never saw their first in print, but went on to publish others. That kind of commitment seems still to drive alum Amy Tan (“The Joy Luck Club”), a major Squaw supporter who, despite fame and fortune, still works with a writing coach.
My second year at Squaw, a senior editor at a powerhouse publisher critiqued an excerpt and asked to read my whole novel when it’s ready—a rare and potentially game-changing opportunity. Fantasizing about James Patterson-type millions flooding my depleted pockets, I promised she’d get it in January, 2011. But a year later I’m still rewriting, applying lessons from Squaw. I’ve put five years into the project and gone seven without an income, while our omnibeneficent free markets have sent me home to the 99%. Still, I’d rather make it better than sooner. At Squaw, I learned about commitment, values, time and money, as well as writing. (Burt Michaels)
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