By Daniel A. Olivas
Writers Workshop in a Book: The Squaw Valley Community of Writers on the Art of Fiction
Edited by Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez
219 pp. (paperback), $14.95
Though scores of summer writing conferences have been established throughout the last several decades, one of the oldest and most respected is the Squaw Valley Community of Writers in Northern California. Founded in 1969 by novelists Blair Fuller and Oakley Hall, the Community has sponsored workshops in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting, playwriting, and nature writing. For almost forty years, published authors have dispensed hard-earned knowledge about the craft to conference attendees who harbor the dream of someday seeing their names emblazoned across the covers of bestselling novels or story collections.
For the first time, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers shares the wisdom of some of its contemporary staff members. Edited by Lisa Alvarez and Alan Cheuse with an introduction from Richard Ford, Writers Workshop in a Book (Chronicle Books) includes essays on many aspects of fiction writing from eighteen well-published authors. Regardless of whether reading this book will inspire a beginning writer to commence or finish a full-length manuscript, it is a fine and truly entertaining addition to the ever-growing bookshelf of “how to” tomes.
In the first essay, “How to Write a Novel,” Diane Johnson informs us that “most people in their lives think at one time or another of writing” a novel. Indeed, she read somewhere that “90 percent of college-educated women, at one stage or another of their lives, actually begin one.” Of course, very few actually get around to writing a novel because there are many obstacles including the fact that “it’s an awful lot of work.” But if you are willing to put in the time, Johnson offers very practical threshold decisions you must make before moving forward: “First you have to plan it. What will happen in it? Who will tell it?” Johnson identifies and explains the “[s]mall and large choices” you must make as you plot out your novel. Her advice is sound, honest, to the point, and decidedly unromantic.
Alan Cheuse’s piece is as wonderfully audacious as its title promises: “’Here’s Lookin’ at You, Kid’: A Brief History of Point of View.” Cheuse notes that with movies, there is essentially one point of view which “employ[s] the simple equation of camera lens and eye of the audience member, or the so-called God-like point of view.” Literature, of course, has offered through the millennia many more options for POV. In examining the history of the point of view in literature, Cheuse begins with ancient Greek epic and then moves to biblical authors and then Chaucer, Dante, Herodotus, Cervantes, up through the ages to such writers as Joyce, García Márquez, Rhys and Atwood. All the while, Cheuse dissects how these authors used POV in their works and cautions that “[m]ost new writers slip and slide between third-person subjective and the general…” This essay is quite a heady (and fun) ride.
Some of the essays consist of war stories which are entertaining but also offer their own lessons. For example, Amy Tan recounts in “Angst and the Second Book” how after the publication of her wildly successful first novel, she was confronted with the similarly wildly high expectations for her, as yet, unwritten next novel. One writer told her that the second effort was “doomed no matter what you do.” Why? Critics will complain that “it is too much like the first,” and readers will complain “that it is too different.” Tan’s battles with self doubt and doomsayers are comforting in some ways because she lets us know that bestselling authors must do what beginning writers do: persevere despite the multitude of reasons to give up and move to something more practical.
The essays run from the basics to the spiritual. Sands Hall and Al Young dig into the nitty-gritty of scene construction, dialogue, theme, voice and language. Anne Lamott and Louis B. Jones plumb the mysteries of writing. Other pieces recount the rather odd convergence of circumstances that resulted in the writing of a first novel (Michael Chabon), or the fear of finishing a novel (Mark Childress). These and the other essays make one realize that such a book could not be dedicated to other professional pursuits such as the law or operating a chain of restaurants. Creating fiction is, indeed, a singular way of life.
Though one of the editors of Writers Workshop in a Book is Latina, there is not one essay by a Latino writer. But this likely will change in future editions based on the upcoming Squaw Valley faculty members and guest speakers that include Dagoberto Gilb, Michael Jaime-Becerra and Alex Espinoza. Such authors could delve into their use of "code switching" (moving from English to another language and back again) in a way that allows their characters to ring true while not leaving behind those readers who do not speak Spanish. Also missing is any meaningful discussion of the publishing industry's often ham-handed approach to writers of color. Despite these omissions, Cheuse and Alvarez have brought together fascinating, instructive and meaningful advice from some of our finest contemporary writers.