The Happiest Summer Camp on Earth (If You're a Writer)

January 8, 2022

I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday this and next month.

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I was very happy to get into UC Irvine’s MFA program not just because it was prestigious, but because they were covering my tuition and my expenses. I was glad to have taught high school for five years because it gave me the experience needed to write my first novel, but I was done teaching high school. The grind was too much. Some teachers seemed to be able to take it without slipping into despair but I wasn’t one of them. I didn’t have many expectations for what it would be like to be in a conventional workshop after taking Marvin Mudrick’s narrative prose class and Robin Bell’s poetry workshop at UCSB, but then I found myself having Thomas Keneally and Oakley Hall as instructors. It made it easy for me to write what I was interested in and that was usually about people I knew, and who I didn’t want to forget. Oakley and Tom never tried to climb into my head to mess around with the various parts of my mind that made it possible to entertain myself by getting things down on paper. I wanted the privacy to succeed or fail on my own, and I rejected anything that sounded guru-like to me.

I once met with an agent who had an office on Melrose Lane. She had read my most recent manuscript and wanted to give me her idea of how to revise it; she was so condescending and racist I said to her, “I’d prefer never to write again than do anything you suggest.” I was proud of myself for having stood up to the kind of mindfuck that can happen if you don’t stomp it out like a grease fire. At UC Irvine I remember workshops where sometimes egos would get out of control, and I’d see desperate wannabe boy/girl geniuses willing to scale the heights by stepping on fellow workshoppers. When it happened to me, I wasn’t ready for it. I had been chipping away on a draft of my first novel Understand This, a novel told in different voices, and I guess I was so excited to get it done and down on paper that I segued from the present to past tense too often. Someone in the workshop brought up my lack of control. For a moment it felt like the whole class was going to fling their empty Starbucks cups at me for my grammatical failure, but Keneally stopped it cold.

 “It’s all convention, why are you so worried about it?” he said in his Australian accent, and that stopped me from being pelted for bad grammatical usage in workshop. Though I had a tough skin, I was grateful for him.

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But then there was the Squaw Valley Writers Conference. I know the name is totally racist and sexist, but my God it was over-the-top fun for me. It was a joy being surrounded by my kind, for the better and worse — the worse being the need to get some agent interested in you and the best being the sheer weirdness and joy of how writers are in the wild. The first time I met Michael Chabon was when he was driving by with some other guys. Chabon stopped for me and he waved me over.

“Oakley asked us to go to a house and get a guy to leave. He’s drunk in the hot tub and making a scene and he’s naked and scaring people and we could use more muscle.”

I got in the car wondering what I had gotten into. The five of us walked to the house and the door was open and the dude was in the hot tub naked and demanded that we get into the tub with him. I hung back while they negotiated with him. Someone else in the posse mentioned that the naked guy freaked the women out and he had to go. It didn’t take long before he dressed and removed himself from the premises.

Once things calmed down I got around to asking who the guy was, and somebody said he’s the managing editor of the Orange Country Register.

Squaw was like that and I loved being there. It was the highlight of the year for me.

I remember standing around in a very long line, talking to a friend while we waited for dinner to start, when Richard Ford turned to me and said, “I’m meeting my editor. Come on, she’s got a nice expense account, you guys should come.”

The editor looked surprised to see us with Ford and was even more surprised when he waved for us to follow them into a high-end sushi bar at the posher side of the ski resort. The editor didn’t seem so enthused about us being there. We ate and drank on the company dime and listened to the editor and Ford talk lit biz. Richard was the old grizzly schooling young cubs how to not to just survive the literary life but make our way in it. 

Once when I was walking to the coffee hangout at Squaw, he saw that I looked glum and asked, “What’s wrong with you?” I was surprised he noticed, and I was some distance from him.

“My editor passed on my novel.”

“Oh,” he said. “My editor is coming to my cabin to fish. Send me your manuscript. I’ll make him read it.”

I looked at him in disbelief. I don’t think I ever said more than a few words to him, but he gave a shit about me. I sent him the manuscript and, true to his word, a few months later I received a letter from his editor with much praise and a rejection but I really didn’t care. It was just good to have somebody like Ford looking out for me.

The other great thing about Squaw Valley was you never knew who would come through. One year a black woman showed up and, as I’d usually do if I saw black folk at Squaw, I introduced myself. Since this woman was stunning, I tried to turn the charm on and my charm was found wanting, or maybe she was shy, but eventually we had coffee sitting with a view of the beautiful mountains. We didn’t talk long before it became clear she was serious about her writing, and she gave me a story to read. I kind of dreaded receiving the story because often enough attractive people are awful writers and I’d have to figure out what to say about her potentially awful prose, but I was stunned. Her story was about a couple trying to navigate an amiable divorce, and he stops by her apartment with papers, and they sit down to coffee, but the guy pulls a gun on her, and she flees into a liquor store, and he finds her cowering behind a rack of potato chips. He pulls her dress over her head and leads her out of the store and that was it. I was stunned about the how concise and understated the piece was. It wasn’t something made up. It was something real, a real and lived experience. That was it, though. She left the conference early and I never saw her again, but then someone asked me about her. I said she was a talented writer. “You don’t know who she is, do you?”

“No,” I said, I didn’t remember her name either.

“That’s the woman from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

Suddenly I remembered and the few times I watched that show it was because of her and of course her character’s name was Hillary. I couldn’t ever get away from Hillaries.

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Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.

Photo of Al Young and Richard Ford, great guys and friends to writers making their way.

Author’s note: The Squaw Valley writers is now the Community of Writers Conference.