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Getting it write

Writers at Work at Westminster kicks in next Sunday

Writers at Work, a nonprofit literary arts organization, was founded in 1984 by a small, visionary group of Utah writers and arts patrons. Its mission statement declared the need to cultivate the literary arts to "foster critical thinking, self-expression and interpersonal communication."

Every summer since 1985, a distinguished faculty of writers, agents and editors gathered in Park City to teach and inspire a growing number of conference participants. Interest continued to grow, however, and last year, conference organizers moved its location to Westminster College.

The result is an even more catchy, alliterative name — Writers at Work at Westminster.

The organization continues to operate under the guidance of an all-volunteer board of directors. At the first fellowship competition, held in 1986, such emerging fiction writers as Rick Bass and Pamela Houston burst onto the national scene, with the help of visiting agents and publishers attending the conference.

The tradition continues next week, Sunday-Friday, July 9-14, with workshops, panel discussions, craft lectures, readings and other events, including a Young Writers at Work program, which was added in 1993. The curriculum is designed to meet the needs of writers at all levels, to give them expert reactions to their manuscripts and to allow them to write in class. Perhaps the most coveted portion of the program is the opportunity for certain writers to have one-on-one conferences with experienced professionals.

In telephone interviews with the Deseret News, several of the guest writers talked about their plans for the conference, and their own careers.

Ron Carlson, a Utah native who teaches creative writing at Arizona State University, will take a keynote role as visiting author. Carlson has written five books of fiction, as well as numerous short stories. His new novel, to be published next year, is the autobiographical "The Speed of Light."

Carlson, who "grew up by the river and railroad tracks on the west side," says he is still "crazy about Utah." The book, he said, is "a little novel about three kids growing up in Salt Lake City in the late 1950s. In fact, 1959 was the last year for the friendship of these three who are caught in the midst of a rite of passage. One chapter is about a child who resuscitates his pet alligator."

He is not trying to write himself out of a job, however. "I think of teaching as an investigation, parallel with the investigation I'm making with my writing. The ticket for any writer who teaches is to have compelling writing projects, because he'll find a way to get them out."

Jervey Tervalon, a New Orleans native, teaches creative writing at California State University at Los Angeles. The author of two novels, "Living for the City" and "Understand This," he is also a poet, screenwriter and dramatist.

He will teach a session titled "Exploring the Fictional Moment." "Sometimes, we're trying too hard to get to the end of the story or paragraph," said Tervalon. "Successful writers are happy being wherever they are. They have the confidence to know that the story is elastic and they don't have to advance it at any particular moment."

Tervalon tries to put himself in the situation. "If a person allows his own voice to come out, it will be idiosyncratic, but it will be vital. He should not try to imitate another writer. Imitation is deadly."

Laurie Foos, who lives and writes in Massachusetts, is the author of "Ex Utero, Portrait of the Walrus by a Young Artist," and "Twinship." She writes both short fiction and novels in an offbeat sort of way. "I like to take risks," Foos said. "Not intentionally. My mind is just skewed that way. My process is very much one of discovery."

At the conference, she will talk about character and plot development. She especially enjoys injecting humor into a novel, even though she considers herself a "terrible joke-teller." She has noticed when she reads her work publicly that "sometimes, things are much funnier than I expected them to be."

Her next book is "Bingo Under the Crucifix," which is centered on family dysfunction as it affects women.

Scott Olson, who teaches English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., is especially interested in nonfiction. "I started out writing fiction in college, but while working on my second book, I was bemoaning to a friend the fact that I was having trouble turning notes about places into fiction. He said, 'Your notes are great. Why not let them be your book?' A light bulb went off, and I've been doing that ever since."

Next year, the University of Utah Press will publish "Gravity, or The Allure of Distance," a book about his road trips. While in Salt Lake City, he plans to teach about how to "find the edge in your work and turn it into a grace of good writing and good reading. The best nonfiction is the kind that is surprising."

Joel Long teaches creative writing at Copper Hills High School in West Jordan. His recent book of poetry, "Winged Insects," won the White Pine Press Poetry Prize. He will teach a method of writing that "releases control to rhythms and sounds of language and images." He quoted Mark Strand, who said, 'If a poem sounds right, it is right.' Poetry, he said, "brings with it sound and song. A big part of it is a chant — sounds playing off each other. The sound absolutely has to carry it."

Dionisio Martinez, a Cuban poet who teaches and writes in Tampa, Fla., will try to convince students that they "can write the impossible." He believes that "the uniqueness of the voice is terribly important. It gives it a particular spin."

Martinez especially likes the prose poem — in which he "lets the lines go all the way out" — because it causes the reader to do some of the work. "All the thoughts are contained in it, and you as a reader have to put in the pauses to make it make sense. I like being a part of the reader's thinking. It makes me think the book will be a little more alive."

His next book, "Climbing Back," is based on the biblical prodigal son, in that virtually every poem has one. "I have not figured out if there is a prodigal son in each poem, or if they are all about the same guy."

Conferencegoers will also be treated to the views of veteran literary agents, such as Nancy Stauffer Cahoon, and editors like Carol Houck Smith, who regularly find talented young writers in Utah.

Cahoon, whose preference is for literary fiction by writers west of the Mississippi, said, "An agent is paid to know Simon and Schuster likes a particular kind of literary fiction. I guide the writer to a group of editors who will be sympathetic with their work. Authors and publishers work best when there is a shared sensibility of what the writer has accomplished."

And Smith said, "I usually know very quickly in reading a manuscript whether someone is a marketable talent. I make my decisions quite strongly by voice, if it is persuasive. I'm not so much into plot as the motivations of the characters."

WRITERS AT WORK will feature 20 visiting writers during the week of July 9-14 at Westminster College. Passes for the afternoon panels may be purchased for $75 for the week, and $395 covers the cost of the entire workshop. Readings are scheduled at 4 and 7:30 p.m. each day. For more information, call 292-9285.