July 18, 2013

Squaw Valley Overview

I spent last week attending the writers workshop run by the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Yesterday I reported on some highlights, and today I'm going to cover the basics of how the conference is run.

First off, as I discussed a couple months ago, I did have to apply and be accepted in order to attend this program. Then I had to pay a sizable fee for tuition and housing. I feel fortunate that I was able to afford this (and even pay extra for my own room and private bathroom), and I'm happy to say that I also feel I got my money's worth. Scholarships are available, and from talking to people I got the impression that financial aid was offered to a fair number of participants. Details about all this stuff is available on the FAQ.

The conference was held at the Squaw Valley ski resort, with all the events taking place in one large building that serves as the main dining and drinking area for skiers during the winter. Lodging is either at the Squaw Valley condos (The Village) or in vacation rental houses nearby. I had very convenient housing in the condo building closest to the meeting area, so my commute was the shortest possible, about a two-minute walk. Some people were a mile or more away and had to either walk that or drive in each day. I shared my condo with two other women, and we had a good time hanging out in the evenings.

Each morning from 9 to noon was spent in workshop. I was with the same group of 12 workshop members all week, but every day we had a different staff member lead our discussion. This gave us the opportunity to benefit from a variety of perspectives and discussion styles. The organizers clearly took great care in arranging the schedule of group leaders so that every workshop had a chance to work with an editor and an agent as well as several types of writers.

For each workshop session, two manuscripts were up for critique, and the bulk of the morning was devoted to discussing these, though often the leaders also gave some time over to a small lecture or writing exercise. The schedule of manuscripts was set in advance, and again there was a deliberate system behind which participants were paired with which professionals.

I'm sure effort also went into assembling a workshop group that included a variety of backgrounds, writing styles, and experience levels. As I said yesterday, my group worked together very well despite having such a mix of people. Over the course of the week, we got to know each other's tastes and opinions, and many of us left with ideas about who we'd like to exchange work with in the future.

After workshop, there was an hour break for lunch, which we had to provide for ourselves. The Village has a bunch of restaurants below the condos, and every day I went to one sandwich place, where I often ran into other participants.

The afternoons were a packed schedule of talks, panels, and readings, pretty much one session an hour until dinnertime. During these events, I absorbed a lot of useful knowledge, heard some excellent writing, and got to know more about the staff members who were presenting. It wasn't necessary or even advisable to attend everything, but it all sounded so interesting that I skipped very little. There were one or two events a day that in retrospect I would have preferred to miss, but overall, these sessions were very interesting and worthwhile.

Dinner was served buffet style, outside, and was a chance to unwind and chat after the intensity of the day. Naturally, we mostly talked about writing some more. But with many people taking advantage of the wine and beer available for purchase, there was a more relaxed atmosphere to the conversation, especially as the week went on and friendships grew stronger.

After dinner was one more slot on the schedule. The evening event varied over the week and included readings and talks. This wrapped up around 9:30, and while by that point I was always ready to chill out or sleep, I then had to do my homework, which I had usually barely started.

Homework was reading and commenting on the two manuscripts to be considered in the next day's workshop. These were stories or chapters of usually 15 to 20 pages. Two of those make a lot to read and give written feedback on, especially since I'm a slow reader and perhaps an overly verbose commenter. I spent 3 to 4 hours a day on homework, which meant staying up late, waking up early, and sleeping very little. If the conference had lasted even one day longer, I'm not sure I would have made it, but I survived with no naps at all until the final afternoon.

So that's the overview. Let me know if there's anything I didn't explain or that you want more information about. In my next post, I'll get into the individual feedback I received, and then I'll describe some of the best panels and talks.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In a fragmented essay, Ted Gioia explores The Rise of the Fragmented Novel: "The beauty of the new fragmented novel is that writers can have it both ways. These books pay deference to complexity, that deity of the lit critic, but they are also marked by an intense devotion to plot, pacing and other elements of traditional craft. Highbrow and lowbrow elements are pleasingly blurred. Experimentation proves that it is compatible with accessibility." (Thanks, The Millions!)

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