My parents couldn’t read past a third-grade level. Books were few and far between in our house. Despite this, we were well versed in the art of storytelling, thanks especially to my mother. She filled my youth with tales of spirits roaming the hills and valleys of her girlhood pueblo in Michoacán, Mexico. There were malevolent duendes who once sprinkled scorpions into my aunt’s long hair, close encounters with demon dogs, and, of course, La Llorona, the legendary weeping woman, perpetually haunting rivers and creeks, wailing into the night and searching for children to abduct.
My mother told stories that had been passed down to her by my grandmother about the harsh early years of the Mexican Revolution. She recalled the long months she spent living alone with my older siblings when my father crossed into the United States to work. In the quiver of her voice, the cadences of her speech, I would often taste the salt of her tears. I would feel the mud of her dirt floor caking and hardening around her bare feet. I could sense my older siblings’ fears and see the better life they envisioned in that strange, foreboding landscape where witches roamed, the wealthy subjugated the poor, and salvation existed only in narratives and dreams.
For me, then, writing began as a way to escape. I had no other choice. At first, this was a solitary endeavor; conjuring stories was something I did in order to be left alone. It didn’t occur to me that the act of making stories could be communal, that I’d find solidarity with strangers as committed as I was in the belief that writing might just save us all.
That changed when I attended the Community of Writers for the first time in the summer of 2003. I was insecure, awkward, worried about the kinds of stories I was writing and where (or whether) they would fit. My characters were predominantly Mexican American, my landscape the perpetually misunderstood Inland Empire, a place for those, according to Joan Didion, “who come from somewhere else, who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways.”
Established in 1969 by Blair Fuller and Oakley Hall, the Community of Writers is commemorating its 50th anniversary this year. Its initial aim was to bring together writers “to improve their craft and thus, in an atmosphere of camaraderie and mutual support, move them closer to achieving their goals.” Among the granite peaks of the High Sierra, among Jeffrey pines and massive California live oaks shaped by decades of snowfall, rain, and wind, Hall and Fuller and their crew commandeered the lodges and bars left empty by skiers in the summer months and started a literary community.
The result is the oldest writing conference in California. In its half a century, the Community has hosted a long and impressive roster of writers. I’ve listened to craft discussions by Amy Tan and Richard Ford. Anne Lamott lectured us about overcoming insecurity, and Dorothy Allison taught me to write from a place of fear. Janet Fitch marked up my first manuscript, hugged me, and said I was on the right path. Across the communal dinner tables, under the bright, beaming stars, I’ve shared bottles of wine with agents from ICM and InkWell and editors from Knopf, Random House, and Little, Brown. Those are impressive names, but most important is a workshop that remains committed to its “truly egalitarian spirit,” executive director Brett Hall Jones, daughter of Oakley Hall, says. “Since the beginning, this community was created from a place of love and humor.”
Perhaps it’s ironic that the conference would establish itself in such unlikely geography, many thousand feet above sea level, the air so thin it evaporates sweat, not far from Donner Pass, where American pioneers migrating to California encountered strife and starvation as they fought to maintain their notion of that word: community. Over its long history, the Community of Writers has managed, through grit and innovation and love, to cultivate a unique literary sensibility that is wholly of the West, as wide and vast and varied as our landscape, in a place where disparate voices, of all ages and walks of life, can come together.
What I learned at the Community of Writers is something simple but essential: that I needed to establish community with those around me, that my job was to strengthen my craft and cultivate lasting relationships with the people who’d welcomed me, who kept welcoming me. I learned that contact and connection matter if we’re to become the writers the world requires us to be. In her poem “The Speed of Darkness,” Muriel Rukeyser wrote that “[t]he universe is made of stories, / not of atoms.” So, story remains. It is the blood of our collective being, the reason we must hone and create, especially now, in the face of deep isolation, profound loneliness, fear, and distance. Because in the end, what else are we but a community of stories ourselves?
Alex Espinoza is the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair of Creative Writing at UC Riverside. He is the author, most recently, of Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime.