Literary Nirvana: Where We Sit & Write – A Travel Log

“… two girls grew up at the edge of the ocean and knew it was paradise, and better than Eden, which was only a garden.” 

Eve BabitzSex and Rage

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Where we write, and sit to do it, influences our work. It may be slight or it may infuse the piece with its atmosphere. I am a writing space nomad, uncomfortable committing to a specific place – even within my own home. I need the air of other rooms and places to keep my body happy while my mind rummages in the Renaissance or through the beer soaked green of a 1970’s rock concert. My need for other views is shared through my tribal connections, my writing group.

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To serve our mutual need and create an intense space/time plan for those difficult projects, we booked a room at a hostel. Budget is as much of a priority as atmosphere which is not hard to find in Northern California, particularly when several of the Hostelling International sites are lighthouses.

ImageOur first venture was to the Montara Lighthouse which features private shared rooms, a meeting space that can be reserved, a beach, linens, and many, many places to sit.

There are downsides to choosing a hostel setting. First, privacy to write may be limited. The public spaces are public. If you write on anything with minimal battery life, then you may be relegated to the most public of the public spaces: the lounge areas. The good news is that the Montara Lighthouse has several surge protector strips set-up for just this purpose.

If you’re an early riser, you can almost have the place to yourself. Despite it being a holiday weekend at a full hostel, I didn’t see a soul until 8 am. But by 9:30, even the twenty-year-old guys were up and scratching their stomachs. There are many views to take in.

Of course, the international and multi-generational atmosphere is part of the charm. It’s a great place to find inspiration for characters and scenes! I found a cherubic two-year-old from a country I’d never heard of “reading” in the lounge – if you write for children and don’t get to view them in their natural habitat, this may be your place.

Our group had a “private” room with a digital lock – a single room with three beds and one chair, plus a spot to hang clothes and tuck-away luggage with a window that opened. The beds are all twin size and plastic wrapped, two were set-up as bunks, and linens were provided. If one pillow isn’t enough for you, bring your own. The rooms are spare, no decoration except for your sparkling personality…

From 7 am to 10:30 pm, tea and espresso drinks are available along with light snacks for modest additional fees. They also have nightlights that Velcro onto the bed frame, important for those late night readers. Of greater import, under “note to self,” remember to sleep on your stomach to keep the snoring down!

The kitchen is always available, self-serve, self-clean, and fully stocked with utensils as well as things folks left behind, i.e. there may be sugar for your coffee. The view from the dining table is California Coast Dreamy.

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Now, the serious downside – you must vacate your room between 11 am and 3 pm. Very hard to get any writing accomplished without a place to write. ImageIf the weather is good, there are plenty of gorgeous spots outside to sit but be prepared to be disturbed by passers-by, fellow travelers, children, dogs, cats, bold raccoons, cold gusts of wind, sweeping low fog, etcetera. Now that I know this, I’ll only take writing groups IF I can reserve a building throughout the day, and this is an option.

 The Montara Lighthouse is located in a semi-suburban coastal spot with plenty of restaurants and grocery stores, making meals delightful. My recommendations are The Moss Beach Distillery for atmosphere and views, San Benito House for lunch and beer, Barbara’s Fish Trap for fried fish and more beer, Its Italia for brunch, and  four Zagat rated options. There’s a spa at the Ritz Carlton, but that may negate the point of choosing a hostel.

If you are more inclined to cook, then the locally grown fresh produce and an active fishing fleet will supply your most luscious organic fantasies. Check-out Yelp for the Half Moon Bay Crab Boats, Princeton Seafood Company and Creekside Smokehouse. Produce can be found along Highway One and you may view available options through the Harbor Village Farmer’s Market blogspot.

The California coast is a freeway for whale migration and the best spots to view them happen to be where lighthouses are located. If you book during prime whale watching season, you couldn’t be in a better spot. We observed a grey whale and her calf swimming right near the cliffs along the kelp forest – by far the closest sighting I’ve ever had from land.  There’s also a private beach and the likelihood of seeing seals and other aquatic life. As the hostel is located in the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, tide pooling is also an option. Check the tide before you go.

All of these distractions turned out to be useful since no one in our group met their writing goal. However, it was still a rich creative enterprise which produced blogs, poems and spectacular plans. This “field trip” also drew us closer and provided an entirely different experience of the Bay Area.  It was magical in ways none of us expected, but the next time we venture forth, I’ll be sure that there are plenty of private places (with extension cords) to sit and write…

Image “This morning I saw a coyote walking through the sagebrush right at the very edge of the ocean ― next stop China. The coyote was acting like he was in New Mexico or Wyoming, except that there were whales passing below. That’s what this country does for you.” 

 Richard BrautiganA Confederate General from Big Sur

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Literary Nirvana: The Social Art of Writing

Sitting spread eagle on an antiseptic floor across from my Sensei, painfully aware that the woman next to me could easily lick the aforementioned floor if she chose, I began musing about writing motivations. Having shunned exercise classes in favor of walking to the local café – only to write very little as eavesdropping in Mill Valley is too delicious, writing in public places is out of the question. But here I was, pushing my middle-aged self to do something completely out of character, striving to get my nose an inch closer to the floor twelve inches below…all because the person next to me could!

My first karate class was fBlog-Karate Girlocused, challenging and fun. Much like my writing classes at Vermont College of Fine Arts or seminars with the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators, where I have also been motivated to do things I never considered. What induced me to take-on their challenges? Being in a room with other people. Being a social being. Being human. And, yes, stellar teachers. Who are all human.

Writers, although human, tend to be placed in the less-than-social Linnaean sub-category of humanity. We need time alone to work, to think, to get into the heads of our characters and settings. Our writing spaces are our altars and privacy is sacred. How else can we hear our own voice? But we all know the importance of feedback, of having a writing community, of a social network within the tribe. To call upon a term rarely utilized within our group – colleagues.

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If we didn’t know this before attending a conference, seminar, or MFA program, we certainly learned it.  Through exposing our work, we know the value of constructive feedback. But how many of us are able to maintain a consistent focus, work flow and quality when removed from these nourishing environments?

As many of you have no doubt acknowledged, a good writing group is important. Since graduating, I need meetings more than once a month. Since establishing a weekly group, my production and publication have been more consistent. Instead of being a critique only group, we meet to set goals, share publishing opportunities, and do group writing exercises.  Last week, we booked our first weekend retreat to a lighthouse.

A thriving writers’ organization, The Grotto in San Francisco, is based on this Blog-Stay Up With Mevery human need to have writing colleagues come together in a consistent space and time. If you review their roster, you’ll see that it’s working. Although I’d heard about it at the San Francisco Writers Conference, one of their many stars Tom Barbash, whose novel Stay Up With Me is a sharply crafted series of short stories, dished details over a counter discussion at The Depot Bookstore. At The Grotto, writers have a desk, keep a schedule, and enjoy a group area to share their work and information. I bet, they also keep each other inspired and improve their individual works out of collegial competition. It’s human nature.

A rather painful post-MFA lesson is that self-imposed deadlines do not work, at least not for me. My clever writer’s brain wriggles around them! Irony of ironies, it is not the deadlines that make one accountable. It’s having to communicate with the people you’re accountable to which is motivating. I bow in your general direction if you have mastered this discipline without any outside accountability.

In my first karate class at Goju Karate, I not only pushed bodily parts that did not want pushing, made guttural sounds out loud and machinegun kicked my beloved former boss despite all personal sense of decorum, but was reminded about the motivating nature of the competitive spirit. Although sore today, I’m inspired to keep going, stretching until my nose smudges that blond floor, and honoring the discipline this practice will take. For me, having a community provokes me past my personal limitations. Sometimes passion needs a push. The art of writing is not exempt.

 “Competition has been shown to be useful
up to a certain point and no further,
but cooperation, which is the thing
we must strive for today,
begins where competition leaves off.”
― Franklin D. Roosevelt

Literary Nirvana

Welcome to one and all!

A year out of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program and I’m finally putting fingertips to keyboard to pen this blog. One might think that walking out of a writing program, degree in hand, and landing a job as a manager / buyer of an indie bookstore would inspire reams of gigabyte worthy publications, antidotes about celebrity book purchases, musings on the geopolitical state of Amazon.com, etcetera… But, alas, no.

What it did inspire was a year of juggling several additional jobs at a time and trying to keep the “Creative” part of my “Writing” degree at the forefront of my efforts.  I suspect I am not alone in this post-grad adventure into the real world.

In the San Francisco Bay Area writers are blessed not only with expensive housing and great weather we love to look out at while sitting at our desks, but so many support groups and organizations that we can be triple booked on a Thursday night! Last Thursday, amidst the tidal wave of LitQuake events, the North Bay pitched-in with a special edition of Why There Are Words featuring stellar readings by local authors and those from afar. Close to my heart was Molly Giles’ life in flash fiction while crossing the Golden Gate Bridge entitled Bothered.

If your writing has climbed up the sticky tree to play in the kiddie-lit clubhouse, then look no further than the NorCal Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators to fill-up your creative candy jars. As an Adjunct Professor of Children’s Literature at a Dominican University of California, I feel qualified to state that the speakers and sessions provided at their Fall Conference, Spin a Magical Story, would have been worth flying out for.

The presenters and exhibitors included authors such as Newberry Award Winner, Katherine Applegate, and VCFA’s own Jennifer Gennari, illustrators, agents and editors – and much wisdom was shared by all. Nina LaCour opened with an excellent treatise on character noting that, “Character must exist outside of the page.” A great character is more than the words you use to create it – how true! Children’s literary agent, John Cusick of Greenhouse Literary, handed out machete-worthy advice on dicing our manuscripts to keep the pacing at a “Roller-Coaster Arc” and recommends Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel.  Editor Bethany Strout of Little, Brown’s Books for Young Readers gave an excellent list of flashback and flash-forward technique examples including a new work on one of my favorite historical fiction personalities, Eleanor of Acquitaine, in E.L. Konigsburg’s A Proud Taste of Scarlet and Miniver. She also recommended Grace Lin’s Starry River of the Sky. Stefanie Von Borstel of Full Circle Literary outlined opportunities in children’s nonfiction literature, noting the importance of knowing your Core Curriculum standards (research them through your states’ Department of Education) as well as publishers’ and teachers appreciation for back matter such as glossaries and source information.

The final speaker of the day, Kelli Chipponeri of Chronicle Books, editor of a hot Steam Punk meets Goth fantasy by Colleen Gleason featuring the progeny of two more of my literary loves, Sherlock Holmes and Brams Stoker in The Clockwork Scarab, spoke about World Building and gave examples for creating your book’s “Bible” – the details that will guide your writing through a complicated novel. Although the focus was on fantasy novels, her advice on creating a dossier of your characters and a vernacular for the period you’re writing in would apply well to historical and science fiction works. There is an excellent example of a sci-fi/fantasy television series bible for BATTLESTAR GALLACTICA which provides an outline authors of all genres may want to peruse. If you’re a die-hard BATTLESTAR fan, yet another club I’ve joined, you’ll see both the solid through-line the bible provided the series and why it stayed true to the end. You’ll also see where the fluid parts are and will be able dissect where and why changes were made.  

Competing for my literary refill time was the Historical Novel Society’s meeting and several LitQuake events in San Francisco! How does one choose? Particularly when you’re trying to finish that novel, preferably before NaNoWriMo so you can work on that other project – a conundrum for the writer in literary nirvana…

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