From a Big Sur writing retreat part IV

Nog and sap

Anticipation in the house was almost palpable at Christmas time. Decorations, the large real tree, the Burl Ives and Bing Crosby holiday records; these were all lugged out of the big blue storage trunk the first week of December. Back then Thanksgiving actually included decorations that kept the event separate from Christmas. Once Santa rode through the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, however, it meant all bets were off. The yuletide season could begin. About a week later, we’d drive the Volkswagen bug to the local tree lot and spend our sweet time walking through a grand display of spruce, Douglas firs, blues and more. The smell of fresh cut wood and sap filled our nostrils. For me, that pungent odor meant Christmas. There’s nothing like it. And then Mom would come home from work with egg nog. Usually we drank it for two reasons – either we were decorating the tree or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer would be on that night. Just the smell of egg nog brings a sense of warmth to my heart. I feel that tingling sense of excitement I felt when I was seven. Toys, candy, special food, Christmas specials on television, advent calendars with tiny pictures inside; the smell of egg nog makes me think of all these things.

Today I buy it for my children in the hopes they also feel that tingling reaction. It means good things are coming your way. It means love is in the air. I think they feel it too. Maybe they’ll tell me about it someday. I’m looking forward to it, just as I am that first egg nog with a grandchild.

From a Big Sur writing retreat part III


I wasn’t sure it was a good idea at the time, and I couldn’t have been more than six. Uncle Vince, a family friend who wasn’t my real uncle at all, once held my brother and I by our ankles over the roof of a K-Mart while it was still under construction (the place, like most other crumbling box stores, happens to be a Home Depot now). Now here I sat in his lap while he drove us around Sand City. Luckily, traffic in the late 1970s wasn’t so bad, not like it is now.  There was no Costco then, no Target and no grocery store with its annual name changes – just a ton of sand.

“You wanna drive?” Uncle Vince asked.

He held a can of Budweiser in his right hand and had a rolled cigarette stuffed in his dark Italian beard. I was perfectly content to sit there and pretend to drive. Really doing it kind of terrified me. His breath smelled of hops and yeast and tobacco. Uncle Vince favored my brother. Josh wanted to work on cars when he grew up, Volkswagen bugs in particular, just like Vince did. Who knew I’d be listening to Agent Orange a decade later, dreaming of cheap thrills, fast cars, losing control and losing my mind? I was smarter at six.

“Can I do it again if Pat doesn’t want to?” my brother asked from the back seat.

Before Uncle Vince could answer, or get mad like he often did, I reached out and grabbed the ribbed steering wheel with my small, pale, and nervous fingers. I knew it wasn’t a good idea, but I seemed to be the only one in the car with an ounce of common sense. The sun shined overhead, and Mom’s bug zoomed lonely and loudly over the sand drifts blowing across the road. The interior of the car reeked of Budweiser.

I held the steering wheel harder than I needed to, but I wasn’t about to let go.

My brother cried out in joy. “Good job, Pat!”

“That-a-boy,” Uncle Vince said.

I couldn’t care less what they thought. I’d been forced me into it.

Central Coast Writers – they seem cool

Get a group of writers together and you never know what might happen. The term “herding cats” springs to mind. But the term “universe of awesome” also comes up in my head. There are so many different types of people who write, from those who think they’re the next Douglas Adams to those who think the majority of their submitted work is laughed at by some editor with arched eyebrows and a penchant for whips – before ultimately ending up in the shredder.

Having been involved in writers groups in the past, I had no intention of submitting myself to that particular kind of torture again. The groups scared the hell out of me. Upset writerly types can be painful. They can be persistent as shit and they remind me why I love writing to begin with, because writing is solitary. But I’m asking myself a lot of questions now that I’m sinking in the quicksand of middle age. Did I make the right life decisions? I already know the terrible answer to that question. But bulleted under that question is another question (it’s somewhere near the “Should I have chosen Prozac instead of Effexor?” question. Did I give up on writing groups too soon?

I think the answer to that is yes. Following a recent writing retreat at Esalen in Big Sur, I felt the need to reach out a bit more, especially to others with interests similar to my own. They don’t have to write the same stories, read the same books, but they all love writing and stories. The retreat, it turns out, gave me a little more than I bargained for: comradery, totally unexpected comradery. Rather than travel the world to as many holistic retreats as I can find (ones with “healing baths” rise to the top of the list), and realizing that any over zero is more than I can afford, I thought I would try out a local writers clique.

Writing groups, organizations, circles, whatever, cover the globe. It’s like that paint logo that drips over the planet. They are everywhere. Groups of writers meet to read and share their stories, travel writers meet to see who’s going where, journalists meet to make sure they’re still unbiased and still drunk; we all like to meet. This realization, stemming out of Big Sur, got me all souped-up to try out the Central Coast Writers (CCW) group, which meets monthly at Point Pinos Grill in Pacific Grove near Asilomar. I tried to go in with no preconceived notions about the predominant age I would find (I had a suspicion people who maybe hung out with my mom would be there), the predominant level of accomplishment (that I should care nothing about anyway), or the predominant income (I was thinking riches, being that they meet next to a golf course) and am happy to report I found nothing I expected. I did, however, find a pretty cool group of people.

Articles on, and websites for, writers groups have quietly broken the Internet. A Kardashian loudly breaks it, but writers are only loud in their stories – unless you’re a drunk Ginsberg or an armed Hunter S.  Here’s an article, here’s another, and another, and so on. There’s a reason people write about them, just as there’s a reason people join them. Writers groups are worth the time. Maybe they’re not all that great, but the CCW, as far as my initial taste went, seemed like a solid chunk of literary folk. The articles include a number of great reasons to join a writers group. You make friends (which may be called networking), you hear about opportunities that could change the course of your career, and the list goes on. While many writers may try groups out here and there, often leaving after a bad experience, remember to try again after a few years, with a different team of writers. You may be surprised. If you happen to live in the Monterey Peninsula I would say take a try with the CCW, who meet at the Point Pinos Grill restaurant on the third Tuesday of every month.

The garlic fries are pretty damn good there.

CCW website: click here.

From a Big Sur writing retreat part II

Seaside-2sunshine and gulls

It’s skies are crawling with gulls. They sit on every streetlight – along Fremont and up the city’s spine, Broadway (now also called Obama Way). For Seaside, tucked nicely between Fort Ord and Monterey, it’s a fitting new name.

I kissed a girl for the first time at Martin Luther King Middle School, saw my first dead body, and played with my babysitter’s perky boobs under Seaside’s watchful gaze. Wallets were stretched thin in that community when I was a kid. For many families, that’s still the case. The city is infected with gentrification, but it’s growth is slow, which is good for the families struggling for enough food to make lunches and dinners each week. Forget about lunch.

The odors of Vietnamese food spreads to the corner of Fremont and Obama Way. The sugary smells of donuts from Red’s has the next few blocks covered. And the sun shines over Seaside more than it does over any other city in the Monterey Peninsula.

I’d like to think there’s a reason for that.

From a Big Sur writing retreat part I

He-Man and other childhood milestones

I remember a lot of things, but not the sound of her voice. I remember when she took me to K-Mart and bought me a He-Man figure the weekend they came out. I can still feel his plastic muscles in my hands. I remember when she told me the truth about Santa Claus, but not what it felt like to hug her. Her laughter, her many moods; they fade. But I can remember the book of the month sci-fi hardbacks that arrived like clockwork, the army of cats we owned over the years, and the unforgettable smells they both made.

The rentals I recall, not how long we lived in each one, but I can pinpoint each one on a map. I remember the sex talk and how nervous it made her – only I can’t remember why she felt inclined to give the talk when it was too late. Did she know?

I remember the last time she used the belt on my back, that being Irish gave her a fiery temper, but not how I felt inside when she smiled and said she was proud of me. It could be I shut it all down, threw it in a dungeon somewhere dark, and then destroyed the map that would lead me back to that place. There has to be a reason why I cannot remember parts of it, only I don’t know what it is. I never thought to ask myself about it. At least not until now. Now I seriously have to know.

Esalen stream of consciousness DAY ONE


My coffee overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Rain drenched Big Sur coastline. Soupy slate blue sea smashing against the craggy, fog covered edge of California. Smeared across Esalen are crowds. Milling quietly to and fro.

The grassy field where the man had his hula hoop.

Nervous energy in the air, but it could be just me. It probably is just me. Tried to write in my Dollar Store journal when the sun started to bust through a cloud, but got zip. It started raining again. Lightly but wetly. Wet ink on the damn page. The place has a full on communal, spiritual feel – which Google warned me about.

Crashing surf is all over the place. So noisy. Relax on into it. Go ahead. A man in a paisley smoking jacket with gray hair took up a hula hoop on the bright green lawn at the edge of the Huxley Building and dropped it just as quickly while couples wandered aimlessly in Columbia coats holding coffees. Another older man with a graying pony tail dressed like Clint Eastwood from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. A young dude in a Hawaiian shirt and driving cap turned backward playing an acoustic guitar to his Macbook. I sat a few tables away from him, which may have been a mistake. Time to go back to my room for some beef jerky. This place is far out. Maybe too much for me.


Writing in curmudgeon

Cover-2.jpgJD Salinger almost nailed it. He didn’t like art on the covers of his books. It took away from the tale by creating what might be a false sense of the story inside, by telling the reader (by default) what they should see in their heads when they crack the spine. Even his name confused his gender, were he not already known.

But shouldn’t a book be about the story, not whether the author is male or female?

If the idea of male dominance still exists in today’s literary community, which is arguable, then let’s end the argument by taking Salinger’s idea a step further. Take away the cover art and the author’s name. Go with “by a writer” instead of our own names.

Every writer in the world would have to agree to do it, so it’s obviously doomed to fail. Writers, like children and politicians, fight endlessly. Writers want to be known, they want the accolades, and they aren’t putting their stories out there for the sake of the story, but for the sake of their ego and checkbook.

Boil it down and there’s cash at the root.

Writers write because they would go mad if they didn’t write, right? Their intellects would vaporize, leaving nothing but gray jelly behind, if they didn’t tell a story. Being a story-teller has nothing to do with sales. It has nothing to do with awards. If you want to write, then do it. Don’t write because you want to be famous. Don’t tell a story to make money. In today’s world, platforms exist for authors that make publishing as easy as clicking the word “upload.” If you want to be a writer, don’t worry about sales or fame, because it might never materialize. Write because you don’t like the idea of gray jelly. My latest book, “Mantula,” currently in the editing process, exists because my son and I had a blast making up a fictionalized story based on a photo I took of a dead tarantula. I didn’t write it in the hopes it would sell. I don’t even care if anyone other than my son and I read it. I wrote it because at that point in time it was a story I needed to tell. To me there’s no better reason to write.

I also read about the publishing industry for fun, which leads to an unending stream of frustration. I read magazines that focus on literature because it’s something I’m passionate about. For better or worse, many now focus on sexism in the writing world. Articles focus on male writers, hinting at the demise of the male dominated writing community, or bemoaning what the article’s author believes to be an unbalanced field favoring men.

If the “world of male dominated literature” is coming to end, I will still write. I didn’t start writing because I felt privileged. I like to tell stories. That’s why I started writing. I read VIDA: Women in Literary Arts counts and shake my head, both out of regret that we live in a world where balance is needed and out of a nebulous suspicion that I’m being hustled, fed an “underdog” story by an organization that doesn’t want to put itself out of business. It could be I can’t see past the privilege of male authors, but I’m beginning to doubt it. Sell me on a good argument, though, and you might turn this consumer into a believer. Only it hasn’t happened. I think I’ve looked beyond my privilege. And I still don’t see scales tipping toward men in the literary community. I see anthologies seeking only female authors. I see contests for female writers. I see articles written only by and only about women, and I read about the largely female workforce behind the scenes in the publishing world.

I grew up reading female authors thanks to my single mom, to this day I read literary magazines managed by a largely female crew (with articles that cover women in literature out of a perceived 1980s-era view of sexism), I read literature articles that largely focus on gender over literature (thanks Huffpost books for politicizing the “Books” section, not to mention alienating male readers by making us feel less liked than female readers). And I’ve taught my children to prefer stories over anything else (my son wanted to be Katniss for a while. So did I).


Screenshot from HuffPost Books.

Since when has literature been more about the author than the story? Since Hunter S. Thompson? Since the dawn of the Me Generation? With HuffPost Books, which I still land on, but rarely click further, I counted 14 separate posts about women writers (and specific women writers in particular). Four women authors were mentioned in the headlines by name on this particular day (March 31st, 2016) while the only male writer mentioned by name was Shakespeare. I don’t care about these things as long as the articles feature something worth reading (I can only read so many JK Rowling pieces), but it did seem odd that a story on the male-dominance in literature was mixed among the female-dominated story line up.

Then there’s a recent Jezebel article on a male literary icon accused of inappropriate behavior with a whole host of women –  like Bill Cosby with the Literati. It leads with the headline, “Is This the End of the Era of the Important, Inappropriate Literary Man?” But not all literary men are either or both. And if there is an end to such an era, another will begin (the era of the inappropriate literary woman for example). This article would have been better met had it remained laser focused on the individual. There will always be a larger problem. We are all human and humans are inappropriate. The news is important for so many reasons, but to herald the end of the inappropriate literary man is not one of them.

This shouldn’t even have to be typed out, but here it is. Not all male writers are sexist. Not all male writers believe their stories are any better than any other writer. A lot of us read books written by our favorite males, Kerouac, Coates, Steinbeck, King, Palahniuk, Rushdie – and we also read books written by our favorite females, Rice, Rowling, Angelou, Nin, Christie, etc., And, just like female writers, males have important stories tell, even a few that have nothing to do with their gender.

While readers may wonder if female authors really do get reviewed less, if they do win less awards, and if they do feature more male characters, perhaps they should also wonder what drives books to do well, and in turn which makes some authors write a certain way. The answer is easy: sales. It takes people buying copies, it takes the right people talking about them at the right time to buzz it along, but mostly it’s about the money. Maybe education needs to come into play here. Teach us readers that what we like to read is wrong. Like any cantankerous child, we won’t do what you tell us to do. We may even do the opposite. Reading is about the story, and great reading happens when readers really dig a story.  Again, we’re human.

Telling mass market readers we need to rewire ourselves to be less ignorantly sexist, to appreciate less masculine story-telling, however it’s presented, will be the death knell of popular literature. The publishing world, in this respect, follows sales, and shouldn’t be in charge of telling readers what they should and shouldn’t read.

If you’re a male and you feel the literary world frowns on you, write about it. If you’re a male and you don’t care what the literary world thinks or if you ever get a book deal, keep writing anyway. If you’re a female and you think the literary world isn’t your friend, write a damn good book about it. If you’re a female and you think now is the time to be noticed, keep writing until you get a book deal.

And if you’re male, female, trans, or anything really; write a compelling book with a wicked plot and I’ll buy it. I don’t care who you are. But I may want a signed copy of your work.