Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dispatch From Jackson Hole (Part 1)

I crest Teton Pass and head for the valley floor, my Hyundai gathering speed as I head for what I hope will be a life-changing event.

In the distance, the southern edge of Jackson, Wyoming seeps from behind a butte.  This is my hometown and I haven’t been back in 17 years.  In the coming days, I will drive slowly past my childhood home like a tourist gawking at Graceland, I will hug an old family friend—a taxidermist’s widow whose log cabin is filled with undusted mounts and Bible verses laser-etched on plaques, I will link up with a high school classmate who was once a self-confessed stoner but now embraces New Age tranquility, and I will reacquaint my tongue with the legendary cheese crisp at Merry Piglets Mexican Restaurant.

But that’s not why I’m descending on Jackson Hole.

I’m here for the annual writers conference and I’ve got an empty notebook, a full ink pen, and four days to absorb as much publishing advice as my spongy brain can hold.  I push the gas pedal to the floor and the pine trees blur past the window.  I’m so excited about the conference, I nearly send my car plunging over the side of Teton Pass.

*     *     *     *

Brady Udall (author of The Lonely Polygamist) confesses he got his big break in publishing—a two-book deal—“out of sheer blind luck.”

Cristina Garcia (The Lady Matador's Hotel) said her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, started out “as a poem that went a little haywire.”

Young adult author Natalie Standiford (How To Say Goodbye In Robot) once wrote syndicated novels for Mary-Kate and Ashley—which was tough, she said, because the tween fiction had to be approved by the Olsen Twins “and, as you know in fiction, characters have to have conflicts and be flawed.  But Mary-Kate and Ashley weren’t allowed to have flaws….Okay, they were allowed to have minor flaws—one could be messy and one could be neat—but otherwise their characters had to be flawless.”

The three authors were on a panel called “How to Build a Novel,” one of the opening salvos of the Jackson Hole Writers Conference, an annual event in the northwest Wyoming town known for its haute cuisine, cowboy chic, and bronze statues of gymnastic elk on every third street corner.  Jackson is also the nesting place of a fervent core of artists and writers who congregate year-round at the Center for the Arts, a $35-million multi-level building full of light and (during the conference) literary buzz.

Natalie Standiford, Cristina Garcia and Brady Udall reveal the secrets to "building a novel"

At the Thursday panel, Udall tells the audience, “You know, ‘How to Build a Novel’ is really a facetious title because there’s no one way to build a book.”

This is why he and the others are here: to convince us that the art and act of writing are nebulous destinations without clear lines on a map.  Every writer takes a different road; the panelists can only tell us about the particular route they took.  Our mileage may vary.

But there are some invariables to the equation.

“For one thing,” Udall said, “when you as a writer put a 400-page manuscript in front of an unsuspecting reader, you’re requiring a commitment from them.  You’re asking them to stick with you to the very end of the book, a major amount of time on their part.  You better be ready to fulfill that long-term promise.”

Standiford chimed in: “I would also add that as a writer, you have to have a tolerance for messiness.”

Udall:  “Writing is a very complex and difficult thing.  That’s why we love it and hate it so much.  I’m always looking for ways to make it simpler.”

As the authors continued to talk about point of view, plot-driven novels versus character-heavy novels, and procrastination, I looked at the heavy red curtain stretched across the stage behind them where someone in the lighting booth had projected the skyscraper skyline of Manhattan across the drapes.  The student sitting next to me, scribbling in her notebook at wrist-breaking speed, smelled of woodsmoke because she’d been camping in Grand Teton National Park and hadn’t showered before the conference.

New York, say hello to Wyoming. 

*     *     *     * 

Over the past two decades, the Jackson Hole conference has built a reputation among writers not only as a place to draw inspiration from jagged mountain horizons and fields of wildflowers but also as a four-day retreat where they can hone their craft under the tutelage of marquee-name authors like Louis Bayard, Janet Fitch, Benjamin Percy and Terry Tempest Williams.  This year the headliners included novelists Udall, Garcia, Standiford, George Singleton, and Brad Watson, poets Laurie Kutchins and Cecily Parks, and Rocky Mountain mystery writers Craig Johnson and Lise McClendon.

The conference also usually brings in agents and editors from New York, roughly plopping them down in the high-elevation resort town where, like fresh road kill, they quickly attract the attention of writers who smell an opportunity to network with the power-brokers of publishing.

Thanks to the intimacy of the Jackson Hole Writers Conference, authors, agents and editors are accessible to students nearly 100 percent of the time—between craft classes, during one-on-one manuscript critiques, and at the cocktail party, the barbecue and the “wine-and-cheese walk” into the Bridger-Teton National Forest east of town.  This is not even including the after-hours elbow-rubbing that goes on.  Walk into the Cowboy Bar at 10 p.m., and you’re likely to find a wide-eyed writer leaning forward in one of the bar’s saddle seats as he pitches his surefire techno-thriller about a nuclear conspiracy to an editor from Scribner’s or Ecco.

Hob-nobbin' and elbow rubbin'

Surprisingly, only a small portion of those attending the conference this year were from Jackson—less than 10 percent, said conference organizer Tim Sandlin.  “This has always been a national-level conference,” he added.  “Still, you would think the locals would take advantage of the opportunity since they don’t have to shell out $150 a night for lodging.”

The Jackson Hole writing community is small but passionate, said Sandlin, himself a novelist whose fourth book in the “GroVont trilogy,” Lydia, was just released to the delight of his “Sandlinista” fans.  “There’s a thirst for writing classes here.  It’s amazing—I’ll offer a poetry class here at the Center and thirty people will sign up by the next day.”

Sandlin has been shepherding the event for the past 20 years.  The conference took a year off in 2006 after being run by the University of Wyoming Outreach Office for 15 years.  “We were down to 40 participants at one point and it just wasn’t working well for us,” Sandlin said.

So the non-profit group Jackson Hole Writers took over, regrouped and re-evaluated the direction of the workshops, readings, and manuscript critiques.

This year, attendance was about 150, including paid registrants, scholarship students, faculty and volunteers.  The goal, Sandlin tells me, is to infuse participants with “total enthusiasm and have them jazzed to go home and write for a whole year, then come back again next summer.”

*     *     *     *

We’re in a dance studio at the Center for the Arts and Udall is talking to us about hypnotism—not just the county fair sideshow variety, but the way writers weave words that put us in a trance.  It’s a spell that can last for centuries if we do it right.

“I love that you can sit down with a book by Mark Twain and be hypnotized by someone who’s been dead for 100 years,” he says.  That’s the power of story.”

Udall continues: “When you create a world, you’re essentially accumulating detail.  The key is to know how to gather detail and to know what’s good detail and bad detail.  You need to know which details work best for you and your story.”

To demonstrate, he gives us a five-minute writing exercise.  As we’re sitting there on chairs in front of the ballet barres of the Dancers' Workshop studio, he asks us to write a scene set in a park, at a beach, or in a library.  I think for a moment, then write in a fast, hot vomit of words:
      The body was splayed under a tree, looked like it had been dropped from a low-altitude airplane. Only half the clothes remained and one limb was missing, so that really threw the two of us for a loop when we came upon the scene in Mt. Highlands. The state park was, for the most part, tranquil that day. Confetti leaves, sun aslant, a brook talking in a quiet voice—the usual stuff.
      Standing next to the body, we looked up, expecting to see an irregular hole ripped through the canopy of leaves.
      But there was nothing. Just the lace of branches.
      Then a bird screamed and flew down to the body and we were brought back to ourselves. We were in marriage counseling, trying to work it out before everything fell apart.
“Now,” Udall says, “go back and circle which details work best and underline those that don’t.”

I go back through the sentences and when I’m through my notebook is a mess of lines and circles.  But mostly lines.

Surprisingly, I’m not discouraged; in fact, I’m encouraged by the fact I might have the start of something here on this page.

*     *     *     *

I am staying with a friend of the family, a widow in her seventies who now has a roadmap of wrinkles and weak lungs—evidence of age which I have a hard time reconciling with the vibrant apple-cheeked woman I knew 25 years ago.  She has a small house on the east edge of town, a creek tumbles over rocks just outside the front door.  I fall to sleep each night to the lullaby of water.

I look around and realize I’ve been in this bedroom before, on a night when my parents came over play cards and I was excluded from the circle of adults.  I told them what I normally said in instances like this: “I’m going to find a quiet place to read, if that’s all right?”

“Fine,” my mother said, without looking up from her fan of cards.

So I went to the back bedroom and opened up my book: Willard & His Bowling Trophies by Richard Brautigan, a novel whose key elements I remember today as 1) sex, 2) Johnny Carson, and 3) a paper-mache bird named Willard.  I was 13 years old and this was my introduction to Brautigan.   The sex was earthy and vivid and like an illuminated manuscript to my hot little brain.

At least that’s how I remember it.  Looking up the Amazon listing, Willard appears to be more along the lines of The Big Lebowski than Porky’s.  Still, I was hypnotized by Brautigan even at 13.

On that first day, after the conference has shut down for the night and I’m back in the bedroom, I think about what Udall said.  Brautigan runs through my head, but so does the idea of finding the right details to cast a spell.

There are stories in this room.  I look around.  By the bedside, there is a small lamp.  Its base is a deer leg.  Half the hair has worn off the shin.  I imagine one of my hostess’ daughters had a nightly ritual of rubbing the deer leg for luck.

I pull the gold chain.  The room fills with light, illuminating the stories of the widow and her late husband, a taxidermist.  I think of the hours it took to make the lamp, whether he shot the deer with the intention of making furniture from its body or whether this was just a leg from a customer who told him to “toss it in the trash.”  I wonder how the taxidermist’s wife felt about light coming from the limbs of animals.  I wonder if she ever started to resent the glassy-eyed stares of all the silent inhabitants of the house.  I wonder….

I open my notebook and start to write.

Photos by Sara Campbell

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