When I baptized myself in the Truckee River on day two of the Squaw Conference, it wasn't a full immersion. I needed a simple promise, not a full epiphany. I needed something more relative and not so manic. A solid and sustainable promise is what I needed.
I put my feet in the water and forgave myself. I washed away the notion that I've wasted my time in regards to writing, that I've squandered my talent. I haven't. I haven't stayed focused and I haven't put in the work, but any regrets for time passed, I sent afloat down the river. Dorothy Allison told me personally that it took her twenty years to build up the courage to write Bastard Out of Carolina, and ten more years to actually write it.
Honestly, I don't know if I could have written anything complete and of real value before. I haven't been brave enough. I'm talking about the kind of bravery that allows one to edit out all the crutches and bullshit. The type of bravery that lets "the bones rise to the top" as Dorothy told it to me. Also, I hadn't copped to the work it takes to hone talent, and it takes a lot of work. Writers -- underdeveloped ones -- seem to think that natural talent will magically form into books and stories. Trained musicians and dancers don't think that way. Their lives seem rooted in practice. Why would it be different for a good writer?
Courage didn't suddenly fall upon me. It has taken years to coax myself to this point. No time has been wasted at all. Now a new promise begins.The Truckee River stayed alive for me in photos, but the valley did not. It hid its full shimmer from the camera. The valley holds out for personal visits only, apparently. The magic of the Aspen trees especially didn't come across in still pictures. In person, the leaves shake and reflect light like round, strung-together mirrors. They sounds like the shelled anklets of far away African dancers. But when photographed, they are still and flat. I will question what I saw the Aspen leaves do when I go through all the photos, but that sound -- that rainstick rustling -- stays with me.
So, the river: I think of bodies of water as protective women in my life; the Pacific Ocean, a mother. The river, an aunt. That second day, I rode my bike along the river path. The Truckee was gentle and pretty and lined in long grass. She's an intimate river. The water rolled with a soft, thick ripple when it was not speeding over scattered rocks, creating small white water.We talked this week about rivers as symbols in literature, a line dividing things: Cities, classes, past and present. I might have made up the past and present thing because maybe that's what the Truckee is for me.
There were many places to turn off the bike path and join the river, and I went to a small opening with good rocks for sitting. I flung off my flip flops and considered jumping in, but I wanted to keep it a calm visit and I decided to have the feet baptism.The first thing Dorothy Allison said to me after reading my story was, "Are you willing to put in the work?"
I had learned early in the week that my one-on-one conference would be with Dorothy Allison, of all people, and I alternated between nausea and ecstasy after hearing the news.
"Yes ma'am," I said, and not confidently.
We spoke with our faces twelve inches apart, and we bore holes with our eyes, hers into mine and me syphoning from hers. She speaks in a fading drawl which revives when she reads stories aloud. She emphasises words with a raspy, loud inflection, an almost whisper-yell.
She said, "You have STO-RY and VOICE and PAS-SION, but your mechanics are breakin' your knees, crippling you as a writer." We stared. She waited for a hint of resistance from me, but I waited, opening my eyes as wide as possible to let her in.
"First thing you gotta do," she said, "is when a character speaks, make a new paragraph. For a whole YE-AR anytime someone talks, a new paragraph! Make what they say count."
"Yes ma'am," I said.
She did not appreciate all the sentences I began with "and" and "but". She objected in general to my frivolous use of "and".
She said, "So often women are afraid of the declarative sentence. STATE. IT."
I thought, Hell Yes.
My mechanics problem stems from not putting in the work. I don't read enough. I don't read out loud enough. I sure as hell don't write enough. The basic question loomed: Was I willing to work.
She placed my story on the table. She asked me if my mother was still alive. Was I still angry? I didn't have to pretend that the story was all fiction. The conversation we had from there is a private one. She got me tearing and choking over truths. She shared a couple intimate details about her step father, but mainly she told me it was time to write the story.
"Be RUTH-LESS," she said.
Dorothy hugged me hard with her big, soft body. She told me to keep in touch with her because she wanted to hear how it comes along. I believe she meant it. Then I went outside and cried my eyes out for a half hour.
The staff at Squaw -- well-known writers, agents, editors from publishing houses --spent a lot of time erasing the line between them and us. They were generous and discerning. They were honest. After workshop, we went to panels and talks and, our favorite, readings by the staff writers. The most comforting lectures were when published writers described their intimate relationship with Self Doubt. It never goes away, they told us. It can be paralyzing, they said. Amy Tan's closing talk was all about this. She detailed how she thinks her brain is shrinking, and she fears that she has peaked, that not one more word will ever come to her. Karen Joy Fowler, who wrote the The Jane Austen Book Club, hilariously described how she procrastinates. She was on a panel called Sustaining Momentum. She leaned into the microphone and said,
"Having me on this panel is like having King Henry VIII lead a panel on the Keys to a Happy Marriage."
She described how she used to spend hours spinning her wedding ring atop her desk, going for personal bests. Her husband then bought her a ring that wouldn't spin. Karen said she had a friend remove Solitaire from her computer, but only when she wasn't present to prevent Karen from tackling the friend as she did so.
Besides Dorothy, the other staff writer I connected with was Dagoberto Gilb. I'm reading his latest book The Flowers, which is written from the perspective of a Mexican-American middle school boy from LA. The language of the book is exactly how a kid like this speaks. When I got to know Dagoberto, I realized this was his voice, he speaks just like that. He and I confessed our fears of embarrassing ourselves in front of all the MFA'ers and the college-educated people, but we both know that this doesn't keep us from telling a damn good story.
During one of my workshops, the staff facilitator of the day schooled us on greek terms. He said shit like,
"The syntax demonstrates parataxis," and immediately I thought, Whatever! But really I didn't know what that meant until he schooled us.
I came out out of the work shop and to Dagoberto I said,
"Today I learned that I don't know shit about shit."
He said, "I just LED the workshop and I realized I don't know shit about shit either."
Dagoberto had a stroke three months ago. He's in his fifties only, I think. Three weeks before Squaw, he started walking again.
He told me, "The left side of my body died."
When we were at a party though, he had me dying, laughing, about how when he was reading from The Flowers at the conference, he thought he was going to fall a couple times.
"I was reading, thinking at the same time, OH FUCK! I'm gonna fall! WHOA! DON'T FALL! And sometimes my face does shit I don't even know about. I DON'T EVEN KNOW ME, MAN!"
We laughed, near tears, and he took a drink from a big, red party cup.
"Like now," he said, "I'm fucking crushing this cup and don't even realize it. FUCK!"
We doubled over. Then for one moment, and not longer, he got serious.
"But I won't let myself fall. I'm not falling, man." He was staring passed the cup that was at his lips. I knew he could clown easily about what had happened to him, but I knew more that he was not a man about to fall because of it.
Buy his books. He ain't traditional -- I love that -- but his work is important. Though his syntax displays plenty of hypotaxis and shit.
I want to write another post about the camaraderie of Squaw, but I'll save it. I've written enough for now. I did tell Dorothy that my friends love her, you too, Trasherati. Mainly, I wanted to tell you guys that I did love the ever-living fuck out of every minute of all seven days.
Here's Dorothy Allison.
Dagoberto Gilb. My good friend and mentor, Lisa Alvarez (Rebel Girl). Amy Tan is behind us.
I'll post more photos on flickr soon.