Monday, August 10, 2009

Home From Squaw

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.

Miss you.

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.


Rebel Girl said...

love YOU

Madame One Tree said...

I feel as if I have been waiting forever for you to come back and talk about this.

Your telling put the rustle in the leaves where the camera did not. I hear them.
Your encounter with Dorothy Allison: I feel courage lurking around my ankles, testing the climb into my heart. Maybe I will try, too.

Marigoldie said...

Mechanics -- the easy part. It'll come.

And I've never been able to enter a writer's conference without feeling like a big dumb hillbilly. Good writers come from all kinds of places but I always trust and envy the ones who got close up to the shit.

Michelle said...

Oh my dear, this is so wonderful. I am so, so happy that all of this happened, that you made it happen and let it happen.

And Dagoberto! I can't believe it. This is the second time in a week I've seen someone mention his name, rare. The lore where I'm from is that he was working a construction job near the UTEP campus and one day screwed up his courage to take some of his stories into the English Department. That kind of fucking bravery SLAYS me. He came to speak to a Chicano lit class I took in college, and the copy of Magic of Blood he signed "to my comadre in Cruces" is still one of my prized possessions.

It's funny, because the thing I have to beat back when I go to a writer's conference is the urge to turn into an ego-driven parataxis-sprewing asshole. What I'm saying is, it's a defense mechanism. We're all scared in the same grasping, primal way when we have to open up like that. I think so, anyway.

Blessings to you, lady. I am so proud of you, and your bravery and openness to the process is lifting all of us up.

k-brow said...

Just wanted to say, I love your blog! From writing about food, to cycling, and now this...
It was a brave thing you did, this writing workshop. I love the pix, too. Thanks for reminding me of how beautiful Northern CA is, even if the shimmer (believe me, I recall the shimmer) doesn't come through. May the shimmer be with you.

kristen said...

fantastic. it sounds like you'll have this experience to draw on for weeks to come. and dude, dorothy allison! right on!!

Maven said...


Kristin C. said...

it sounds like such a beautful happy for you that you had the opportunity to do this!

Melinda said...

"Amy Tan is behind us."

Yeah, just like that. I had a sandwich for lunch. My head itches. Amy Tan is behind us.

This was everything I was waiting to hear and more.

jagosaurus said...

"She said, 'So often women are afraid of the declarative sentence. STATE. IT.'

I thought, Hell Yes."

This whole thing made me tear up. Hell Yes It Did.

nec said...

I'm so glad that you loved the fuck out of it... and pleased that you made promises. Keep the momentum going :o)

Anonymous said...

YAY! Standing ovation! YAY!YAY!YAY!

madness rivera said...

Thanks so much, friends.

AWESOME story about Dago, Michelle. Thanks for sharing that.

Melinda, you crack my shit up.

Julie said...

Can I just tell you, you are my hero in so many ways. My jaw just dropped when you said you workshopped one on one with Dorothy Allison... she is on a very short list of women writers who have changed my life. Bastard was a watershed book for me, and informed a lot of the ways I think about being an adult, and a writer, and a survivor. A year ago, I quit my job to write a book. I've been swimming the uncertain waters of freelance work and self doubt ever since. I desperately want to go back to school to think about screenwriting, and filmmaking, and take a writing master class, but the money isn't there. I've recently reached a point with my book where I'm ready to start shaping and honing and getting feedback, to find out if it is anything worth reading to anyone besides me. It's a book about mothers and daughters, a kind of compendium about love. It flirts with non-fiction, personal essay, autobiography and memoir. Just reading your post... your words about stating things, about writing and courage... are things I need to hear in this moment. Thanks, as always, for your honesty in your blog, and your candor. I'd love to talk more about this via email, if you're up for it... swap talk about your writing and mine, if you're interested. You can get me at I couldn't find a way to privately message you on your page here! Meanwhile, I'm thick with envy over your Dorothy Allison encounter, and researching more about what Sqaw is all about. Take care!

nancy said...

What a wonderful mad person you are! I've just come here for the first time to see what you are about. I love this post about the writing retreat and wish I had been there! My writing is on hold and I would love to have a kick in the butt. I'll be back to browse further.

DJ said...

It sounds like you had an amazing transformative time. I got goosebumps reading about it.

madness rivera said...

Julie, I'm gonna email you in a few, but I want to say that anyone who takes a year off and goes for it is my hero.

Hi Nancy, thanks for checking me out!

3pieceonline said...

I thought you were great from the stories about your family but now I can only say BRAVO!


Persuaded said...

I followed you over here from Hil's place... and after reading only one article I'll subscribing to your blog. You're just that good. oh yeah;)

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