17 October 2011


With regard to the last post, having further reflected on the matter I think I left something important out. It's one thing for strangers to rip each others writing apart. Any reasonable writer expects that from editors and critics, desires it even. But for friends to do it, first requires the development of a great deal of trust.

I do have one friend like that - Ashley Ream. We know each other well enough, are confident and secure enough in the knowledge that we respect, like and admire each others writing that when we tell each other that something we have written sucks our reaction is to wince, sometimes curse, then start thinking about why it might actually suck. (Sometimes we decide the other was wrong, sometimes right, but we know each other well enough to take each other seriously and not take offense at what we have to say to each other.)

But it took a while to get to that point with each other. Trust doesn't develop quickly, no matter how much you like someone or how sympatico you are with them.

The mea culpa part of this post is that I now realize that I jumped the gun, possibly by several years, with the friend whose work I criticized. That was a big mistake on my part. It was stupid and I'm sorry for it.

While I certainly stand by what I said in my previous post, there was an important element left out. Let that be a cautionary tale.

14 October 2011


It seems possible that a recently expressed honest opinion of mine may have lost me a developing friendship that I had high hopes for.

Like many of my friends, this one is a writer and a lot of our talk has been about writing, other writers, books, ideas, etc. Our talk was always straightforward, honest and filled with our opinions about the subjects at hand. I encouraged this person (who shall remain nameless and genderless) to send me some of their writing. (I offered to send some of my works in progress in return as I am always on the prowl for intelligent, honest, blunt criticism of my own work.) I got sent a short story.

While I liked the writing in general, I didn’t particularly like the story. My opinion – I know, we’ve all got them just like assholes – was that it didn’t work for a couple of big reasons (macro-level) and it had some other stuff wrong with it for more specific (micro-level) reasons. I said as much, giving the two major reasons and offering to go over the others if that was wanted.

It wasn't wanted. My friend did not take my initial criticism of the big picture problems well, not at all. To the point where I’m concerned that it may have ended our friendship.

This has made me think a lot about what us writers want from each other, or not and how to be clear about it.

All of us want praise, of course, who doesn’t? It’s encouraging, stimulating, pumps us up and pushes us forward.

But praise is easy to come by, whether it’s honest or not, whether it’s informed or ignorant. I’m very happy that I’ve got supportive family and friends. My life is better because of it. I’m certain that I have more self-confidence in everything I do in life because of it. It’s an important component in making me who I am. And because of all that it even helps make my writing better.

It’s not enough though, not nearly enough, to help make my writing as good as it can be. I need the addition of criticism for that – solid, intelligent, insightful, honest and blunt – sometimes hard to take - criticism.

Believe it or not, sometimes I write crap. (Hell, a lot of what I write is crap, at least at first.) So does every single other writer. The only difference between a good writer and a lousy writer is the ability to keep working through the crap, to recognize it for what it is and to make it better.

And that part of the process can be very painful because one of the reasons why we all keep writing is that we know in our hearts that we are good at it, that what we write is good, and that it’s worthy of being read by other people, by strangers. So when something we write is crap, or someone else thinks that it is, that punches us in the gut.

I am not saying that my opinion is the be-all and end-all when it comes to recognizing crap, or problems with a story or a manuscript or anything else. It’s just my opinion. Try and nail down the opinions of any dozen of us writers, and you’ll probably come up with several dozen different conflicting opinions.

But listening to those opinions, weeding out the ones that are due to some sort of twisted personal problems or that stem from an ill- or misinformed reading, or all too obviously have their heads up their asses, then giving consideration to the ones that are left, is the only way any writer ever gets any better.

Sadly, getting honest, well-informed, blunt, pulling no punches opinions and criticism out of someone is an extremely rare and precious commodity.

I’ve never been a member of a writers group. That is because in my experience they almost all exist as a means to provide support, encouragement, incentive and praise to their members and to do that they fail to provide the really hard to hear criticism that all writers also need.

If I ever do hook up with a writers group, it will probably need to be one in which none of the members know each other outside the room where they meet. (Or maybe we should all be masked and disguising our voices.) Where we aren’t trying to maintain or create friendships. Where the only thing we want to do in there is help to make each other’s writing better by being as shitty and unpleasant and brutally honest with each other as it takes.

One of the most important lessons of my life as a writer came when I was a new hire on a business magazine in Hong Kong. I came up with what I thought was a great idea for a story. It was a monthly magazine and I worked my ass off on that story for three weeks. I got some great interviews, I unearthed some remarkable facts that hadn’t come to light before, and then I sat down and wrote the hell out of the thing. I turned it in to the editor in the full glow of knowing that it was the best thing I’d ever written – prize-winning material.

I got it back a half hour later with a note scribbled on the first page: “This is shit. It’s not why I hired you. Rewrite.”

I wanted to walk into his office and quit. I wanted to throw things, break windows, slug somebody, anybody.

I took a walk. I had a bowl of soup noodles with fish balls into which I ladled nearly an entire jar of extra-spicy chili paste.

When I got back to the office I took several very deep breaths, picked up my article and walked into the editor’s office to ask him what was wrong with my piece.

He looked at me and said, “I don’t have time to explain. Figure it out.”

I went back to my desk, mumbled and swore and grumbled and cursed my editor and every generation of his family all the way back to the apes.

Then I got to work and I figured it out and it was a much better article for it. (But he was still an asshole and I would have appreciated some clue as to what he thought was wrong with it.)

So what is it that we writers actually do want from each other? And how do we make it clear that’s what we really want and aren’t just paying lip service to what we think we should want?

08 October 2011


What is a writer to do when faced with the realization that the best way to tell a story he wants to tell is in a style that he isn’t all that comfortable with and doesn’t even particularly like to read?

I don’t like magical realism. I forced myself to finish the first 50 pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and then I threw it across the room in frustration and disgust. I loathed it. So sue me. Other than Eduardo Galleano I haven’t been able to get through any of the other much lauded South Americans, either.

I am not entirely consistent. One of my favorite books of the past few years was Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea (who is Mexican – Tijuana – by way of Chicago) and it certainly takes a few spins around the room with magical realism. I have never been able to read what is widely regarded as his masterpiece – The Hummingbird’s Daughter. Although on my recent road trip I listened to him read it – he does a wonderful job, which is rare for a writer reading his own book – on my car stereo and enjoyed it thoroughly. It worked for me as a story that someone was telling me in a way that it didn’t work for me to read.

The book I am currently working on has given me fits and starts. Initially it was going to be the middle one of three thematically linked novellas. I finished it, I thought, at about 40,000 words. (Long for a novella but too short for a novel.) But that grand scheme didn’t work out.

Now I’m faced with rewriting it as a full length novel that will stand alone. And I can’t simply expand it. It’s not going to work that way.

Worse yet, it has occurred to me that the story involved can best be told in a way that at least flirts with magical realism, and maybe even has to actually climb into bed with it and get down and dirty.

What’s a writer to do? Sometimes a story will dictate its form and if you want to do an adequate job of telling it, you have to succumb to its demands.

It’s times like this when I have thoughts of going to trade school and becoming something useful, like an electrician.

05 October 2011


Kingman, Arizona to Home (Los Angeles, CA): Finally made it. The weather didn't cooperate, it poured rain and blew wind from Victorville all the rest of the way home. There were wrecks littered along the road, but they couldn't stop us. A stop at Total Wine & More in Rancho Cucamonga nearly bankrupted us though. It is the Disneyland of Booze. I'm not sure how much I'm supposed to be drinking on the varied dope they've got me on, but there's plenty to drink in the house should I be so inclined. And I am so inclined.

Here's my latest photographic victims:

Needles, CA. A couple who'd just driven down from Washington State.
Ludlow, CA. They were repaving part of a gas station.
Victorville, CA. A clerk in a convenience store. At first she thought I might be a secret shopper, since they take pictures.
Rancho Cucamonga, CA. Candy, on the left, is terrifyingly knowledgeable about wine and other booze. I blame her for the amount of money we spent in the place. But I recommend her should you ever be in Rancho Cucamonga and want the perfect tour guide to the wonderland of booze.
Home. This is what I look like after two weeks without shaving. Because I am so very skilled at finding ways to cut myself shaving, and the drugs they've got me on have thinned my blood, I have been warned to only shave with an electric razor for fear of nicking my nose and bleeding out on the bathroom floor. I ordered a well-reviewed electric razor online and it was waiting for me when I arrived home. I think it is now just about charged up. But I figured I'd humiliate myself first by posting this picture. It's good to be home.

04 October 2011


Gallup, New Mexico to Kingman, Arizona: By now, if you've been paying attention, you should realize that we are taking, essentially, Route 66 across the country. Well, we're on Interstate 40 but for most of its way it either parallels what is left of Route 66 or runs right over it. Some towns, like Seligman, Arizona, seem to survive entirely off nostalgia for the old highway.

Here's some of the people I encountered today on my hourly stops.

Ofelia's Knife City, AZ. I asked Ofelia - at least I'm pretty sure she was Ofelia - if she would pose with her favorite knife. She said, "They are all my favorites. They make me money." So I posed her at the cash register instead.
Winslow, AZ. Stopped for lunch at La Posada Hotel, one of the great quirky hotels anywhere. Run in part by , a painter with a twisted sense of humor. Here's a woman in front of a painting of Nancy Reagan, part of the First Ladies series.
Seligman, AZ. Inside the Route 66 souvenir shop pictured above. A group of tourists from Quebec, Canada were shopping for t-shirts. They were a little concerned when I wanted to take their picture, they'd just finished a three day hike into a nearby canyon and hadn't had a shower yet.

03 October 2011


Amarillo, Texas to Gallup, New Mexico: A late start due to needing to get a blood test and the results. I first went to one clinic that refused to release results to anyone other than a doctor. I think that's illegal - the patient is entitled to the results. I tried arguing with them but failed. So I then went to a nearby hospital and threw myself upon their mercy. They were merciful. This trip being almost entirely about transportation, rather than recreation, the only highlight of the day was a stop at Tito & Mary's in Albuquerque for enchiladas Christmas style. Yum. Here's the people I met at my hourly stops.

Tucumcari, NM, this man and his dog were driving the truck with his motorcycle and most of his family's belongings in it. His wife and the kids were following in another car. He was laid off in Indiana and is moving the family to Phoenix where he'll go to Harley Davidson mechanics school. We chatted a bit about the 1930s, which seemed far too apropos a topic.
Milagro (Miracle), NM didn't seem all that miraculous. This couple ran a rather beat up old gas station and convenience store without much on the shelves.
Albuquerque, NM, the waitress at Tito & Mary's brings a chile relleno and a plate of enchiladas.
Grants, NM, long-haired clerk at the RediMart.


Midwest City, Oklahoma to Amarillo, Texas: A relatively short, four hour, day of driving. With a wee bit of fudging on the one hour rule, we only stopped twice. (Not to worry, I keep my legs flexing and moving while sitting in the car.)

Katie, waitress at T.C.'s Country Kitchen, Clinton, OK.

Shamrock, TX at classic Route 66 Conoco Station.

02 October 2011


I now interrupt my regularly scheduled blog to indulge this morning’s bout of grumpery.

The post-season is underway and I’m rooting, in order, for the St. Louis Cardinals, then in ascending order for the teams with the lowest payrolls, until you get to the Phillies and the Yankees – the highest payroll teams – who can kiss my ass. I respect teams that develop their winning ways, not buy them.

As always, the post-season makes me think of things that I like and don’t like about baseball. Here’s four things I’m cranky about:

Pete Rose – Put him in the Hall of Fame, un-ban him. So what if he got caught gambling. The only difference between him and the no doubt hundreds, if not thousands, of other players who undoubtedly bet on baseball is that he got caught. The Hall of Fame is filled with unsavory characters – Ty Cobb anyone? Stop this nonsense now and let Pete Rose in.

Saves – What’s the big fucking deal with saves? They’re bullshit. It’s all pumped up faux-drama to increase ticket sales. Sooner or later someone in SABR is going to crunch all the numbers and come up with the statistical probability of a team losing or winning a game that they lead by three runs in the ninth inning. My guess is that pretty much any big league quality pitcher could come in fresh for the ninth with a three run lead and the majority of the time – unless they were backed up by a team of little league players – their team would win the game.

Roger Maris – He’s the current single season home run record holder in my book. No one who hasn’t been juiced on steroids has beat him. People moaned about him doing it in 162 games, while Babe Ruth did it in 154. The more important statistic is that he did it in fewer at bats than Ruth did. Split the category – home run record on steroids / home run record not on steroids. And while we’re at it, Hank Aaron is still the career leader in home runs, at least until maybe Albert Pujols breaks that record. And while we’re still at it, toss Barry Bonds in jail, at least for a week or two, just on general principle.

Designated Hitter
– Do I even have to argue this one? National League games are more fun to watch. There’s more drama, more managing to be done. Isn’t it about time baseball admitted the error of its ways?

I now return you to my regularly scheduled blog. Next – the continuation of Across America One Hour at a Time.

01 October 2011


Wagon trains averaged about two miles an hour across the country. We're averaging something just under 70. That should pick up across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona where the speed limit is 75.

It doesn't mean it's fast though, not as fast as I'd planned. I'd figured on three days of hell bent driving to get back home to Los Angeles. It's going to take six. One of the things about having a blood clot is that you have to be careful to move your leg around - at least once things are stabilized enough to risk that. So, we are sticking to no more than six hours a day on the road, with stops every hour along the way to get out and walk around for a few minutes.

Day one, Clarksdale to Little Rock, Arkansas

We left the hospital around 11am. This is where I'd spent the past seven days and 15 hours:
First stop was at Hertz at the Memphis Airport so that Eva could return her rental car. It was actually about an hour and 15 minutes. (There was also no person for me to take a picture of. I'm going to try and take a picture of a person, or people, at each stop hereafter.) Palestine, Arkansas - Man with his father's 1959 Ford Fairlane We spent the night in Little Rock where there is a very pretty riverfront park and the Clinton Library and Center.

Day 2, Little Rock, AR to Midwest City, Oklahoma

Russellville, Arkansas. Bikers at a gas station. Dora, Arkansas. Squash Blossom Natural Grocery. Lake Eufaula State Park, Oklahoma. Robertson's Ham, Bacon & Sausage, Seminole exit off I-40, Oklahoma. We had dinner with some old pals, writers Meredith and Win Blevins. The owner of the restaurant where we had dinner - Chile Mercado Mexican Grill. Tomorrow it's on to Amarillo, Texas.