A Few Things I Learned at Squaw: Part 1

19 Jul

It’s taken me a few days since my return to figure out what I wanted to write about my experience at Squaw Valley. Overall, it was a good one and I learned a lot, but not what I expected to learn.

One of the things I learned is that the Boston-area is a great place to live as an aspiring literary writer. In addition to the universities and programs like the Harvard Extension School, where you can take any number of creative writing courses (for a pretty hefty price tag), there are several non-profit organizations that offer creative writing workshops that are high quality and much more affordable: the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, the Boston Center for Adult Education, and my absolute favorite and (in my opinion) the best option, Grub Street.

One thing I heard from other participants at Squaw was that they were so happy to finally be part of a community of writers at Squaw. I definitely felt like I was part of the Squaw Community — a unique and inspiring one, for sure — but it’s not my first or only community. I have a number of good friends in the Boston-area with whom I attend readings, literary events, classes and workshops. We talk about craft, story ideas, problems we’re having with our work. We push each other to improve and call each other out when we’re not working hard enough. It’s really a wonderful thing.

Going to Squaw did allow me to meet fantastic people who are also very talented writers, and whom I now count among my friends. I feel lucky for that, but sad that some of them live so far away (thank God for email and Facebook!).

Another thing I learned is that the publishing industry is ruthless. I’ll admit that I went to Squaw thinking it would be a fun, weeklong summer camp for writers with overfull wine glasses and parties and late night conversations–and those things happened, of course–but we also went to a few talks and got to actually talk to literary agents and editors (and in my case, get workshopped by an agent…welp!) and it was astonishing to learn just how competitive it is to get an agent, and then get published–forget getting people to actually read your work . I remember at one point looking around the room at the 100+ fiction and non-fiction writers and thinking to myself, “Holy fuck, all of these people are writing novels.” And that’s just a small segment of the people who applied and got accepted to Squaw, and an even tinier fraction of the people who are sitting at home writing novels right now. Thousands and thousands of people. Maybe tens of thousands. Maybe a million. What we’re trying to do is insane.

So I went through a couple of emotional days of crisis where I drank wine and couldn’t sleep and wondered if I should quit. It was one of those lame existential things where I lamented my lack of genius/talent and felt sorry for myself. I dwelled on the negative and discounted the positive comments people made about my work. I figured that I probably sucked.

And then I got over it. It’s arrogance, I know. But I think you need to have some of that to make it. You need to have that thick skin everyone talks about. You need to be ready to go to battle for your work. I didn’t realize just how hard it would be. But now I do.

Which brings me back to community. I think there are people who go to conferences to be discovered. They arrive with a finished manuscript, they mingle with agents, they are ready. I don’t know for sure, but I’m pretty sure that very few people actually do get discovered at conferences. A majority will most likely leave the conference without a contract. Some might be lucky enough to get positive feedback from an agent, maybe an email address.

But even if you leave a conference without a contract, you’ll leave as a member of a community. And that means something. I’ll digress for a moment to admit the following: I haven’t started a novel. All I have to show for myself is a handful of decent stories that I’m still polishing, hoping to get them ready to send out for publication. I’m plodding along at a turtle’s pace. But when I am ready, I know that I’ll have a community of writers there to support me. And that’s the most important thing.

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2 Responses to “A Few Things I Learned at Squaw: Part 1”

  1. Tracy Staedter July 20, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    Yes, we are lucky. There are so many great writers who lived or are living in the Boston area. What a fantastic community to be immersed in as a writer!

    • E.M. August 9, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

      I didn’t realize how lucky until I went elsewhere. It’s something to be proud of!

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Tracy Staedter

Science writing, editing and workshops

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