Ode to a Writing Conference: The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley

I’ve only ever been to a few writing seminars or conferences, though I do try to attend readings, discussions with writers, or events like Literary Death Match when I can. I’ve also attended AWP (the Association of Writers & Writing Programs) and always make it out to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. However, writing retreats and multi-day writing conferences like Bread Loaf, the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the New York Summer Writers’ Workshops always intimidated me. It seemed like a large investment in time and energy for an unknown payback from the program.

So although I had opportunities to apply, or invitations to attend, I always decided against it. Until the Community of Writers.

I heard about the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley through one of my professors, Janet Fitch, at USC. She had attended the conference as an aspiring writer, and now was on the Writers Workshop Staff. I ran into her in the hallway one evening as she was headed to class. She gave me one of the handouts she was carrying and told me I should really think about attending the conference. I looked it over that evening, poured over the website, and became increasingly more excited as I read on.

I applied almost immediately and was accepted soon thereafter. It was a seven-day summer conference, so I had to ask for the time off at work. Luckily, I was still in my Master’s program, and had a bit more time than I might have in the working world. I convinced my friend to watch my dog and started researching the weather in Northern California. From my experience as a first-time Community of Writers participant, here are my tips to others:

  1. Bring something to write on. Okay, so this might sound obvious, but in the paperwork, it suggests that you might not need a computer, and you might choose not to bring one in order to better immerse yourself in the conference. That said, most people I spoke with had computers, and several used them to type up notes, do writing exercises, or free write. Nowadays with iPads and Macbook Airs, I say bring your computer if you have room. I did some writing on mine while I was there.
  2. Sign up for the carpool option. If you’re driving up, contact the conference about carpooling. They’ll put you on a list, and then take an active step to contact people in your area. It’s almost an 8 hour drive from Los Angeles, and you don’t want to do it alone. Besides, I had a great time with the women I drove up with – and we didn’t know each other before we met up that morning. It was a great way to break the ice and meet some of the other participants in the conference – and when you arrive, you can all figure it out together.
  3. Apply for the work scholarship, if you need it. Did I mention I was in grad school when I went? Although the conference is reasonably priced considering its length and accommodations, I still wanted a way to cut down on the overall price, and so applied and participated in the Financial Aid program. I worked at the conference and had some of my overall fee reduced. Not only did it help me out financially, but working at the conference also allowed me to meet and get to know the organizers and staff better. It also made me feel more part of the community. It wasn’t back-breaking work nor did it take up a large part of my time – so I still had time for networking, social events, and for myself.
  4. Go to all the events! Or as many as you can. I loved them. One of the staff would talk in front of the audience, or there were writer panels. I saw most of them (because I was working), and I’m glad I did. I believe I took away at least one great tip or nugget of wisdom I hadn’t thought of before from each one.
  5. Take time for yourself and enjoy the surroundings! Squaw Valley is beautiful, especially around the time of the conference. Enjoy the outdoors! There are organized hikes… or you can go off with a few people and explore on your own. It’s a great way to bond, and clear your head. Walking produces wonderful story ideas, right?
  6. On the enrollment form, check that you’d be okay living in a house with other people. My accommodations were excellent. I was put in a large vacation rental house with 7 other people. I shared a room, some people had their own rooms, but we all became close over the week; it was a great environment to be in, and write in! We were all writers from different backgrounds and places, coming together for this conference—everyone was nice, polite (regarding space and cleanliness) and we had a great time. One of the women in particular I still remain good friends with to this day (we drove back down to Los Angeles together and bonded in the car ride).

So now the why. Why did I love this conference so much? Because of the people. I met so many wonderful people at the Community of Writers, from the staff who work there to the writers who come to learn and have their writing workshopped. I’m still in touch with several of the people from the conference, and we all had a similar experience. The workshops are set up well, the writing in each workshop is of commendable quality, and everyone at the conference is looking to be inspired and… well, to write.

That’s the best thing about the conference, and I’m sure other conferences as well. For me, this was the first time I traveled somewhere with the purpose and focus of working on my writing while surrounded by others with the same goal and purpose. It was different than grad school as well, perhaps for the same reason camp is more intense than school. You know it’s fleeting, and so it’s more cherished. Whatever the reason, it was refreshing to know that everyone around you was a writer. I always felt everyone I met knew what I was going through—that they’d experienced writer’s block and days when the writing flies onto the page. They respect what you do and are supportive of why you do it. The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley was just that – a community of writers – and until I went and experienced it for myself, I didn’t fully understand how important community can be to writers—as much of what we do is solitary.

To end this longer-than-intended post, I highly recommend, if you haven’t before, heading to a writing conference or retreat. Go out of your comfort zone! Pick one that works for your schedule and has a staff of writers you admire and/or want to write like, and go for it! As with everything in life, it is what you make of it, but it is an experience I believe every writer should try, even just once.

What about you? Have you gone to a writing conference before? Loved it? Hated it? Anything in between? Share your thoughts below in the comments section.

Posted on: March 28, 2013adoylewriter