Taos Magic

Most summers I attend a writers conference. I want to be inspired by other writers, meet new people, and learn from an established writer whose work I admire and who has a reputation for being a good teacher. This summer I especially wanted an atmosphere that was serious, but not intense, a vibe that was relaxing, but without late-night revelry, and a size that was not overwhelmingly large, but not excessively cozy. I also wanted a place I’d never visited and a schedule that allowed time to see the local sights. The Taos Summer Writers Conference was the perfect fit. Plus, it came with magic.

The Place

The week-long conference, which took place this year July 13 to 20, followed by weekend workshops, is held at the Sagebrush Inn, whose southwestern style buildings are home to a collection of Native American arts. The inn and conference center are located about three miles south of the downtown historic district, which was originally a fortified plaza built by the Spanish.

Taos is in north-central New Mexico at an elevation of 6,969 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The town is close to Taos Pueblo, the Native American village and tribe from which it takes its name. The name Taos derives from the native language meaning “place of red willows.”

The sky is an exuberant color, sometimes a flat blue, other times richly animated with clouds. The air is dry and pungent. It made me think of that Carlos Fuentes title Where the Air is Clear. The air, according to some, hums due to “secret experiments in Los Alamos, top-secret military flight activity, electromagnetic vibrations emitted by Taos Mountain, or low-flying alien spacecraft.” Or maybe, it’s just plain magic.

The People

Sharon Oard Warner and her staff have created a well-run conference with a welcoming environment. I didn’t meet her during the week, but only glimpsed her as she did all the things one must do to make a conference operate smoothly. I failed to thank her in person or even in an email for the wonderful week I had. Perhaps, this public post will compensate in part.

Conference participants were friendly, interesting, and passionate about writing. Meals, excursions, and book browsing offered possibilities for meeting people outside of my workshop. Among them were the retired psychiatrist and his wife, a former high school counselor, whose Scottish accents were a delight to the ear; the French language and culture professor from Granada, Spain who is madly in love with Taos; the retired University of New Mexico academic who each day was gorgeous in a huipil and large, brilliantly-colored, dangling earrings; and the former mathematics professor turned tree farmer and writer.

At the end of the conference, on the shuttle from Taos to Santa Fe where I would spend the weekend before heading home, I discovered I was sitting next to Malcolm Collier, grandson of John Collier, a social reformer, Native American advocate, and friend of arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan. Malcolm’s parents, John Collier, Jr. and Mary Collier, were early practitioners of the use of photography in ethnographic studies. I sat next to a bit of history. More Taos magic.

The Sights

The conference provided twice daily shuttles to points of interest, which I took advantage of four out of the five days. Mid-week, I opted to stay in my room and write, though I missed out on the downtown art museums, including the Harwood, which was hosting Hopper Curates, an exhibit of work by selected artists collected by Dennis Hopper, actor, former hippie, Taos resident in the ‘70s, and himself a painter and photographer.

I did visit Taos Pueblo whose adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years; the D. H. Lawrence Ranch in the San Cristobal Mountains where Georgia O’Keeffe painted the famous Lawrence Tree, the Mabel Dodge Luhan House where a docent gave a fascinating account of Mabel’s life; and San Francisco de Asis church, made famous in the art of Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams. I touched the walls of each of these structures where surely magic resided.

The Treats

Breakfast was complimentary at the Sagebrush Inn and was served by an attentive staff. Also complimentary were morning yoga classes provided by the conference.

The charming bookseller-writers from Moby Dickens Bookstore, David Perez and Veronica Golos, brought a great selection of books from which to browse and buy. David conducted a round-table discussion about bookstores and bookselling and then offered up some advance reader copies of recently and soon-to-be released books. I got my hands on The Assembler of Parts by Raoul Wientzen and Long Division by Kiese Laymon.

Stunning poetry by keynote author Natasha Trethaway on the opening night of the conference was followed on subsequent evenings by faculty readings. I didn’t make all of them, but I didn’t miss one of my favorite writers, Antonya Nelson, who I was happy to learn has a new book coming in spring 2014. It was great to hear Seattle’s own Priscilla Long read from one of her Science Frictions essays. I could completely relate to Demetria Martinez’s piece and was moved by Joy Harjo’s reading and singing. Magic.

The Workshop

I signed up for Robert Boswell’s advanced fiction workshop. We had a great group—smart, interesting writers who gave thoughtful comments on the work submitted for discussion. Boz, as he is known, is a superb teacher who is insightful and generous with his knowledge. First of all, here are some of Boswell’s must reads:

Billy Budd by Herman Melville
“A Death in the Woods” by Sherwood Anderson
“Friend of My Youth” by Alice Munro
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“In the Gloaming” by Alice Elliott Dark
“Labor Day” by Alice Munro
“A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri
“The Progress of Love” by Alice Munro.

Here are some nuggets from the workshop:

  • Write for the next draft, not for the New Yorker.
  • Resist the desire for completion. Hold onto the story. Layer in something more. Make the world more tactile and visceral.
  • Details have to grow out of the story, not be imposed on it.
  • Humor has to serve the story, has to have some dark underpinning. Otherwise the result will be “cute.”
  • Interrogate all your words and sentences.
  • Make gestures meaningful.
  • Dialogue is expensive—use it economically.
  • A novel needs a couple of kinds of conflict. There’s an overriding arc, but you can’t depend on it to drive every chapter. There needs to be a surface tension in each chapter. Ask, what’s driving me through this chapter? What’s driving me into the next chapter?
  • Narrative shape is what makes a series of events a story. Something of consequence has to happen.

And here’s the last bit of magic from my week in Taos:

  • A scene is magic. Create it by locating the reader in the scene to create urgency. The reading speeds up, but time slows down.

Robert Boswell’s new novel Tumbledown has been receiving high praise. Seattleites, Boz will be reading at Elliott Bay Book Company on September 17. See you there.