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”) confessed 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, held each year in a 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.
At the Thursday panel, Udall admitted to 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 unsuspecting readers, 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 nodded. “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—as they drift among craft classes, one-on-one manuscript critiques, the cocktail party, the barbecue and the “wine-and-cheese walk” into the Bridger-Teton National Forest east of town. And I haven’t even mentioned 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 or Ecco.
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’d 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 30 people will sign up by the next day.”
Sandlin has shepherded the event for the past 20 years, using his connections to lure big-name wordsmiths to the valley. 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 nonprofit 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 told 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.”
* * * *
Two dozen of us are in a dance studio at the Center for the Arts taking notes as Udall talks 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. We’re to write a scene set in a park, at a beach or in a library. I think for a moment, then fill the page with a fast, hot vomit of words:
The body was splayed under a tree as if 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, “look at what you’ve written, then 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.
* * * *
It’s Day Two of the conference and Writer’s Digest editor Chuck Sambuchino is preaching the gospel of How to Get an Agent. As Sambuchino is quick to tell us, he literally wrote the book on literary agents so he knows his shit.
“What can an agent do for you?” He ticks off his points on his fingers, delivering his sermon with machine-gun-fire intensity. “Number One, they build intense relationships with editors in New York City.
“Two, they negotiate contracts for you. I work for a publishing house and, trust me, contracts are not written for your benefit. Agents are like your attack dog, fighting for you at every single possible point.
“And Number Three, agents make sure you get paid.”
Ah, money. If any of the 100-plus writers attending the conference claim they’re “not in it for the money,” they’re only fooling themselves. Of course we want the lucrative publishing contracts, the auctions with Knopf and Viking vying to outbid each other, the foreign rights and movie sales. We want the six-figure advance.
Sambuchino is here to tell us how to make it easier to grab a slice of that pie in the sky. The man published more than 600 articles in the past 10 years, wrote 10 plays, edited books and just sold the film rights to his humor book “How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack.”
Did you catch that? Hollywood is making a movie based on his book about surviving vicious garden gnomes. Surely, Sambuchino is doing something right.
“Don’t waste an agent’s time,” he says. “If you’re going to pitch your novel to an agent, remember this: shorter is better. Ten sentences, max. And conflict—the most important element of any pitch is conflict. A good pitch will tell us right off the bat what’s at stake for the main character.”
* * * *
George Singleton (“Work Shirts for Madmen,” “The Half-Mammals of Dixie”) tells us how he goes about writing a successful short story. “I put two characters in an uncomfortable situation. The best stories start in the middle of conflict—in medias res, the turning point of the characters’ lives. I like to throw my people into the deep end of the pool and yell, ‘Start swimming, baby!’”
As an example, Singleton recites the opening line of his story “Crawl Space”: My first house was built by newlyweds on the verge of divorce.
I think: Now that’s a sentence which makes me want to read the next line and the next and the next.
Singleton goes on: “Listen, there are two kinds of writers in this world: one who sits in the woods with a sniper rifle and carefully scopes in all his targets and waits there for a long time patiently watching for the kill. And then there’s me. I shoot wildly in the air with buckshot, hoping I hit something.”
In an earlier talk at the conference, Singleton split our sides with a rambling, buckshot-style autobiography that was one part stand-up comedy routine and one part sage writing advice.
“I’m here to tell you I made mistakes early on, really stupid stuff,” he told the students gathered in the auditorium. “But my point is, if I can get published, anybody can. In fact, everybody’s getting published these days. Those two mules pulling the stagecoach around the Town Square out there just signed a book deal with a publisher.”
Singleton started writing when he was 20 years old. “I wrote and wrote and wrote. It was like a disease. I’d get up early and type stories and hand them in to my college professors. They all told me, ‘George, you need to write in first person, not third.’ But I said no, I wouldn’t do that because then everybody would think I was writing a memoir and not fiction. Two different professors—Richard Bausch and Fred Chappell—told me the same thing. But I still said ‘No’ because I was hard-headed. I was a young punk. These guys were all 95 years old (even though they were really only about 30) and I was convinced they didn’t know what they were talking about.”
Even though he eventually gave in, took their advice and started writing award-winning short stories from the first-person point of view, Singleton still comes across as grouchy and, yes, hard-headed. He’s anti-establishment (“English departments are, to me, nothing but little dogs fighting over little bones”) and self-deprecating (“Don’t buy my novels, most of them aren’t worth reading—stick to the short stories”). But he’s also gracious, generous and, despite the faux prickly exterior, a genuinely nice person. He’s the kind of guy who’d go out of his way to feed sugar cubes to those mules parked by the elk-antler arches on the Town Square.
George Singleton is about the farthest away from a swollen-ego author you can get. And for three happy days he’s here with us, dispensing advice like a literary Pez:
You must be stupid to succeed in your writing… You’ll get plenty of rejection letters, if you’re sending out your work to real publishers and real agents. Anyone can get published online these days. Anyone with a bank account can publish his own Great American Novel Complete With Typographical Errors Because No Editor Was Involved. But to get published for real takes time, patience, commitment, stubbornness and the brains of a hammer.
* * * *
We stand in a semi-circle at a picnic site a short distance up the Cache Creek drainage. We sip from plastic cups of chardonnay and eat cubes of cheese as we listen to cowboy poet Jaymie Feary recite part of a classic poem, “Anthem” by Buck Ramsey.
And as I ride out on the morning
Before the bird, before the dawn,
I’ll be this poem, I’ll be this song.
My heart will beat the world a warning—
Those horsemen will ride all with me,
And we’ll be good, and we’ll be free.
Behind us, we hear a snort of horses. We turn to see a chuckwagon-dinner caravan go by, the covered wagons packed with tourists as they head up the trail to the cookout.
The writers—the ones not from Jackson—whip out their cameras and smart-phones and snap photos.
Then local writer Susan Marsh reads from an essay included in her anthology “Stories of the Wild”:
The first forest ranger in this country, Rudolph “Rosie” Rosencrans, arrived in Jackson Hole in 1904. He surveyed and drafted the first maps of the Buffalo Valley, part of the original Yellowstone Forest Reserve…. Rosie left a record of his daily work, glimpses of a ranger’s life a century ago. His diaries are on display in the historic Blackrock Ranger Station at Moran. I spent a day last winter looking through them, entranced by the stack of lined yellow pages that once passed through Rosie’s hands. On his frequent trips from Blackrock to Antelope Springs, Rosie must have used the long-abandoned trail in Spread Creek, a shortcut through the foothills. In his diaries I searched for mention of the trail…. Rosie wrote with a fine-nibbed fountain pen in elegant formal script. He wrote of boundary marking, fence-building, trail-clearing, and backcountry patrols…. The wild frontier of Rosie’s day has now been rendered safe. Technology has left little chance of such a drowning; mail arrives by electron. The rivers are contained by dams and dikes. We have tamed those parts of the world we use, and have left the wilderness to reclaim abandoned trails.
The words cast a spell as certain as soft birdsong. It’s a warm, breezeless evening and we’re reluctant to leave this verdant relief of wilderness just east of Jackson. We linger, drink our wine and, yes, network with agents, editors and fellow writers. In the spaces between birdsong, conversations are punctuated with, “If you have a minute, let me tell you about the novel I’m working on…”
* * * *
It’s the last day of the conference—a Sunday morning when most of us should be in church praying for mercy and guidance in our writing careers. Instead, we’re all hot-wired with nerves as we sit in the auditorium and await our turn on stage for the Student Readings, the showcase finale of the conference.
In five-minute rotations, we stand at the microphone and read from our work. In order to be fair to everyone, a conference volunteer keeps track of time on a stopwatch. When the alarm goes off, we stop where we are—even if it’s mid-sentence—and give way to the next nervous, vibrato-voiced reader. It’s like speed-dating with words.
Jackson resident Matt Daly recites two poems, one about badgers and one about magpies, evocative verse about the natural world:
Beyond the magpies, an empty robin’s nest decays
on the ground. It is fine and woven and it is graying.
A woman steps up and reads from an essay about “a family vacation gone horribly wrong” when her toddler fell from a second-story window. Our hearts are in our throats by the time the five-minute alarm goes off.
A man gets up and reads from his self-published book, a novel with the tantalizing title “The Screaming of Horses” (“Now available on Kindle and Nook,” he plugs before he sits down).
For my five minutes, I’ve picked a piece of flash fiction set in a Wal-Mart parking lot about a guy who encounters “a man with a useless arm.” I think it’s a pretty funny story, but I can tell the audience thinks it’s more “weird” funny than “ha-ha” funny. I’d hoped I might at least get a chuckle out of George Singleton, but—just my luck—two readers before me, he gets up to go to the bathroom and never comes back. This is probably best for all concerned.
* * * *
And then it’s over.
After the last book has been signed, the last handshake-and-hug dispensed to fellow students, and the last hopeful wink to an agent sent across the room, I head north out of Jackson. The highway runs past the Dairy Queen, a laundromat, and a wildlife art gallery with a bronze herd of deer running down a slope. Then it rises sharply and the Tetons are on my left, the peaks I grew up with, my comfort-food of mountain ranges.
A park ranger’s pickup is ahead on the side of the road, lights flashing. As I approach, I see the ranger standing at the back of the truck. He’s in his late 20s, sunglasses, tan uniform, florescent-yellow safety vest. He stares at the ground as if calculating a math equation. He scratches the stubble of his jawline and shakes his head.
An elk, neck wrenched at a geometric angle, is crumpled on the shoulder of the road. A hoist with a large hook juts from the back of the park ranger’s truck. The ranger looks back and forth from the roadkill to the hook.
There’s a story here, I think, my imagination already coming up with plot, character and conflict. I accelerate, hurrying home to my keyboard.
David Abrams’ short stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Missouri Review, and The North Dakota Review, among other publications. He is currently working on a novel loosely based on his experiences during the Iraq War, and his blog is The Quivering Pen. He and his wife live in Butte, Montana.