About this time last summer, I was up in Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Having grown up in California I’d been there many times before. The majestic allure of lake, The Jewel Of The Sierra, as they say, never fails to delight my senses.
This visit, however, was entirely different. I wasn’t there to hike or ski or sail or partake in any of the better-known activities the area has on offer. No, I was there to write, and read, and listen and learn. Through a few strokes of good luck and, I suppose, a good application, I was invited to join the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, a community that has been nurturing writers since 1969.
An MFA in a week, they lovingly call it.
My frequent flyer miles went towards my airfare, family with a house in Squaw graciously allowed me to stay as their guest, and I was awarded a scholarship for this writers workshop. It couldn’t get much better.
Until it did.
On the first evening, I was standing in line for a glass of wine when the fellow next to me started chatting. He probably recognized my doe-in-headlights stare, giving me away immediately as a newbie. And, as a fellow writer, he probably inherently assumed my introvert’s shyness that is shared by so many of us creative souls.
We talked a bit about the standard stuff.
How are you enjoying the mountains?
Have you been here before?
Where do you call home?
That sort of thing.
Then he asked which genre I was signed up for for the coming week and I replied, “Non-fiction, memoir actually.”
“Oh, that’s great, I’m leading a few workshops on non-fiction,” he said then asked, “which group are you in?”
“Number 9, I think.”
“Oh hey, that’s one of my groups. What’s your name?”
A wide smile graced his gentle face as he extended his hand for me to shake.
We had a giggle over that…Martin and Martina meet at the bar…sounds like the start of a joke. But then it turned out he was in fact the leader of the very session during which my writing would be reviewed.
“Important stuff you’re writing about, but we’ll talk more about that on Sunday. For now, let’s have a drink!” We raised our glasses and continued chatting.
Then a woman he knew joined us, a very funny one whom I could have listened to all evening. Both from Southern California, they quickly fell into conversation so I politely drifted outside to give them some privacy. Soon, they too were out on the patio and, again, Martin drew me in.
“Martina, this is M.G., another of our faculty this year.”
“Martina? Martina Clark?”
“Yes,” I replied, surprised that she knew my name.
“Oh my gosh! I just finished reading your piece. I’m your one-on-one advisor. We don’t really even need to meet, we just need to find you an agent!”
I was speechless. I felt as though I could have left right then and there and everything would have been worth coming for, a million times over. But, of course, I didn’t. The workshop hadn’t even really begun in earnest so I came back again each day of the very busy week.
Being embraced by the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley was definitely a game-changer for me. I finally felt justified in calling myself a writer and that I should no longer be hesitant when making that claim. If I’d been invited to spend a week with such amazing authors (Amy Tan, Richard Ford, Mark Childress, Janet Fitch, Karen Joy Fowler, M.G. Lord and Martin J. Smith to name but a very few) then I am doing something right.
A month after that, I also attended the Travel Writers & Photographers Conference, now in its 22nd year, at Book Passage bookstore in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Again, I felt a sense of solidarity with many of these people.
I’d taken my first ever travel writing workshop with Don George, the heart and soul – and chair – of this conference, well over two decades ago and had actually attended the first ever conference they held, well, 22 years ago. So, for me, this was not just another workshop, but a sort of coming home to complete the circle.
I’d started out on this adventure of freelance writing in the early 1990s and then life got in the way and I ended up in international development work. That said, those career decades also afforded me the chance to gather a remarkable amount of material that I can now write about, so no complaints there.
But coming back to the conference, seeing Don George again and being back in the fold of travel writing, particularly on the heels of my amazing experience at Squaw, felt like a giant hug.
And now, as you read this, I am yet again headed to a writer’s conference. This time I’m on the other side of the country – a train ride away from Brooklyn where I’ve lived for the past decade – out on Long Island at The Southampton Writers Conference. From sea to shining sea, I am honing my craft.
This workshop will also count towards the MFA I am about to begin in the fall at Stony Brook University; the MFA which is my gift to myself at the age of 50 for waiting so long to truly embrace my writer-self.
Incidentally, Amy Tan was also at the Travel Writers Conference, and if she shows up in Southampton, I may have to kiss her hand!
It has been a wild ride, this past year, of investing myself fully in my writing and I don’t even know where I’m headed since this leg of the journey has only just begun. What I do know is that I’m feeling so blessed and grateful to finally, at very long last, be on this path.