Sunday, August 25, 2013

Surf Goddess...or Bionic Woman?

"I'm going to learn to surf," I told my husband. "All the cool people surf. Cameron Diaz and Eddie Vedder and that other guy..."
"Laird Hamilton?"
"Yeah, him. And Eddie Vedder."
My husband rolled his eyes and went back to working on his thesis. "Sounds like fun," he said.

But I was serious. Land-locked, rural dweller that I am, I aimed to surf in my forty-seventh year.

At heart I'm an ocean girl. Born at the rim of the mighty Pacific, drawn to her shore like a King Salmon finding its way home, I sneak away every year and recharge in the grey mist of the Long Beach Peninsula. Surfing isn't such a stretch, really. No so different from rolling up your pants and wading into the waves.

One thing about the ocean in Washington, though. It's damned cold. And at my age, there's less romance in proving you're tough.

So I decided to learn to surf in Hawaii. I studied up, practiced my yoga, and found a surf school run by women.

And on Fathers' Day, I surfed.

North Shore Oahu. Chun's Reef beach. Perfect sun, rolling breakers, my blue-and-white board under my feet. Here's how I felt:

Luckily, we captured some photos. Here's how I actually looked:

And then things got hairy. A wave or two later, I looked like this:

And wound up slightly worse for wear:

Swear to God, a surfer dude offered me a beer before he took this picture. When I told him I don't drink any more, he said, "Dude, that truly sucks. Also, you're gonna need a stitch or two before you go back out." 

Yep. I was IN. A real freakin' surfer.

Funny thing, thirty seconds before I cratered, we'd been sitting on our boards watching the waves, and I'd thought, 'I'm doing this again. Not just again, but a lot. Enough that when someone asks what I do, I'll say I'm a writer and a surfer and trail runner...'

Because getting up on the board and knowing I could do it again felt like this:

And if that means an occasional visit to the ER/dentist/endodontist/periodontist, what the hell? At least I can muster a decent attitude after I'm all stitched up:

And the word is, nine-months-to-a-year from now, I'll have a bionic front tooth. Hopefully it'll be surf-proof.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


                                   Next day at the Polynesian Cultural Center--all stitched up and ready to Luau!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Last Honey Bee

I've made no secret of my raw admiration for journalists, especially those who risk their lives to write stories that change our world.

Though the news is often horrifying--Auschwitz, Watergate, babies dying from melamine-contaminated formula--our collective response is anything but. When faced with our failures as humans, we form world coalitions to halt genocide, demand transparency from those we've elected, and impose stricter regulations on food suppliers.

It's an age-old cycle: Exposure. Shock. Response.

But there's a less virtuous cycle, too. We humans adore our distractions, and I'm guiltier than most. But amid the manufactured outrage, the tawdry circus of Weiner photos and starlet mug (I said MUG, dammit) shots, a few journalists bravely paw through the muck for stories that truly matter to humanity.

Enter the humble honey bee.

Known as Apis mellifera, the western honey bee has for centuries pollinated our berries, vegetables, nut and fruit trees.

And bees are disappearing.

So quickly, in fact, that whole sections of food production are threatened. Scientists have been screaming and waving their arms for nearly a decade. Now journalists have taken up the call. TIME magazine has even decided the plight of the honey bee is as cover-worthy as a mom breast feeding a six-year-old.

Bees are important, though. And losing them will change our world. Last winter alone, the USDA reports that a third of all colonies collapsed. Add in the loss of other natural pollinators, and humans are facing a genuine crisis.

We love watching celebrities make fools of themselves. But we NEED to eat. And without bees, that'll be darned challenging.

Oh, sure. We'll have wheat and corn and other wind-pollinated crops. But without honey bees, human existence will be poorer. We need to understand what's happening, and why. And we need to take steps to fix the problem. Exposure. Shock (one hopes). Response.

My first job as a member of humanity is to make sure our species thrives. So the next time I reward a pointless, inane article with my valuable 'click,' I should ask myself why I'm not rewarding journalists who've exposed a real problem and demanded a response.

Maybe I should ask when I last saw a honey bee...

And whether I'll ever see another.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Before We Get to the Good Stuff (or: Better Sex, Part 3)

Earlier (okay, much earlier) I talked about writing as a two-stage process--What to Write, and How to Write It--and whined about my personal struggles with story structure. Then I claimed that the second part comes easier for me, which, by extension, implies I think my prose is hot stuff.

Except, not so much.

In fact, I've spent the last several months (beginning, I'm pretty sure, the day after I said I think I'm an okay writer) wondering how my craft will ever rise to the level of my literary heroes. I'm currently drafting my next thriller, and while I adore the characters and story, some days the words splattered onto the page are mule excrement.

Moments of doubt? Yep. And the Grand Canyon is a nice little ditch.

The result: My usually measured-but-steady pace has slowed to what could be generously termed 'glacial'. I start a scene bursting with action, conflict, and--wonder of wonders--critical plot points. But then, like sand in the gears, doubts sift into my writing. My fingers slow. My mind drifts. My eye catches a clunky phrase and won't let go. It's not so much writer's block as writer's ooze.

So I devour articles that promise to unleash my creativity. Join groups that track my daily word count. And if (when) my internal editor whispers that my prose sucks, I bash her over the head with a coffee cup and keep writing, writing, writing.

But when I'm not writing, I think.

I think about the story, sure. About how my characters will react when I heave them off the next cliff. About clarifying murky plot points. About boiling down the story to essentials, then seasoning the soup with rich detail.

Mostly I've spent the last few months thinking about what kind of writer I want to be. Should I try to crank out 'online content' every two months, or toil away on a deep-bellied tome that takes a lifetime to perfect? Maybe there's a place I should aim for, somewhere in the infinite, always-shifting middle.

That's right. I'm trying to decide whether I want to be McDonald's, Mahogany Steakhouse, or heaven help me, The Olive Garden.

I mean, there are ten thousand writers out there, and probably many hundreds of types of writers. And while I can learn something from--and I mean this sincerely--every single author on the planet, there are a scant few who exemplify the artist/technician/professional I want to be someday.

But there are a few. Robert Crais, Don Winslow, Elmore Leonard (the grand master), and a brilliant new author named Steve Ulfelder. Then there's Dennis Lehane who, in my opinion, is the best noir writer of my generation.

And here's what Dennis Lehane says about self-doubt: 

"Catch me on a good day, I think half of my books aren’t too bad. Catch me on a bad day, I think I’ve never written a good line."


After subjecting himself to the unsparing critique of fellow writers in college, Dennis Lehane began his career cranking out a book a year writing traditional--if deeper than average--crime novels. After achieving some success, he took five years to write The Given Day, a seven-hundred-page literary treatise on civil unrest and the dawn of the American Labor movement that confused his fans and confounded his critics.

The Edgar-winning sequel, Live By Night, took him four months to write.

Lehane has taught creative writing, composed episodes for a couple of television series, and written short stories. I think there's a stage production in there, too. And a movie or four. Meanwhile, he's an active participant in the writing community, a trustee of his local library, and a fierce advocate for literacy.

This isn't a guy who serves up McNuggets, cashes the check, and retreats to his private island.

Maybe Live By Night came easy, but it also came eighteen years into his career. And in those eighteen years, I doubt there was a single moment he sat at the keyboard and tried to generate 'content'. Though I haven't met Dennis Lehane (yet), based on interviews--and the breathtaking precision of his prose--I'd wager he's sweated over every word. That he's paused. Cursed. Backspaced. Typed-and-retyped a sentence forty different ways until it felt right.

I'd guess he sees himself as inhabiting the trenches, fighting to make every word his best and pushing other writers to produce their best. In this interview, he said:

"It's good not only to realise that you can't please all of the people all of the time, but that you don't want to. There's a certain type of reader that you don't ever want to write for. And that really helps."

I'm a long way from being the writer I want to become. But in the last few weeks, I've settled into a quiet acceptance that the way I want to tell stories requires a deep commitment to word choice, to precision and cadence. I've accepted that my chosen course means any success will be at once ephemeral, singular, and hard-fought.

Click on the reviews for Lehane's best book, and you'll find one-star reviews. Check the sales for McNuggets, and you'll see they're selling like...well, McNuggets.

What kind of writer do I want to be? The kind who tells deep, thrilling stories with fine prose. With my best prose. And that takes more than word counts. That kind of work takes effort and thought and perseverance. It means honing my ear, reading other authors. It means writing and re-writing my sentences until they sound exactly, precisely right.

And creating fine prose requires something else--at least in the beginning: Time.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


source for photo: