Inspiration for the Writing Life


Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Retreats, workshops, conferences and literary gatherings are everywhere today, blissfully in-person after the dark days of all-online (which doesn’t really cut it.) What’s the reason?

It’s all about inspiration.

Inspiration is to writers what thermals are to seagulls: you perch on the rock forever, or you soar into the unknown.

I learned this after being a writer (newspapers, magazines, & loving every minute) for about four decades.

It happened after my then new husband, Bud the Great Encourager, strolled into the kitchen with a scrap of paper advertising a 6-week workshop with a then little known writer named Anne Lamott.

“You should try writing stories for the grandchildren,” Bud said. “This would be a great place to start — and you’ll love the teacher.”

He did not lie.

By the end of those six weeks I had become convinced I could write anything in the world I chose, something readers of Lamott’s subsequent, wildly popular books will understand.

In those weeks I had been edited for craft, scene, dialog, you name it. I had met fellow writers who remain my friends and literary partners to this day.

And who doesn’t love Anne Lamott?

At the time (early 1990s) Lamott had published several novels and the nonfiction Operating Instructions (which I gave to every new mother I encountered for the next decade) and was at work on the widely acclaimed Bird by Bird.

Operating Instructions had to do with the birth of Lamott’s son Sam (in 1987.) After Bird by Birdcame Tender Mercies, and the books that have inspired generations of writers since.

The workshop itself inspired yours truly.

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Soon after that workshop came a two-week Napa Valley Writers’ Conference directed by the late great Jack Leggett in the mid-1990s. Leggett had retired to Napa after founding and directing the famed Iowa Writers Workshop that nurtured many of the best writers of the 20th century. I had met him briefly, soon after marrying his old friend Bud. (The two were equal encouragers.)

“You need to come to the Napa Valley Conference,” Leggett said, within moments of our being introduced. “Bud says you’re a really fine writer.”

Having never written anything much beyond newspaper and magazine articles and a few really bad books on commission when I needed the money, I said something clever like, “Uhhhh.” I had also never heard of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. But wisely I withheld that information and said, instead, “It sounds wonderful.”

It was. That literary gathering was all about craft: character development, dialog, scene, structure, language . . . Write, edit, critique, repeat.

By the end of that great adventure I had finished drafts of several short stories (Thanks, Annie workshop!) and begun work on what would be my first not-bad book, Dying Unafraid.

It was inspiration on steroids.

Well, it was also excellent teaching, a lot of advice and support from fellow conference attendees and hard work — all on the wings of inspiration.

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Thirty years later I sneaked off, one recent weekend, to A Writing Room retreat to absorb a little inspiration and miscellaneous good stuff — and okay, it was an excuse to visit some old friends in Albuquerque & Santa Fe.

Writers’ gatherings have changed little over the years, if the few I’ve attended are any indication: good opportunities to meet and mingle with potential writing partners and kindred souls, limited opportunities to hobnob with the big name speakers, plenty of mutual support and food for thought.

And all for what? Some of us want to get published, or make money (good luck with that) or be on TV; most of us just want to be better writers. Workshops and retreats (in person and ubiquitously online) inspire us to try.

The Writing Room event presented all of the above, created anew for the 21st century. Inspiration with a distinctly 21st-century flair.

Full disclosure: I paid the fee but mostly audited the course; this is only a butterfly’s-eye view.

Writerly inspiration today is low on craft, high on introspection and self-discovery. Early sessions invited attendees — there were some 350 from across the U.S. and elsewhere, plus uncounted others participating online — to dig within for what’s most important and what it will cost to achieve.

We still want to be better writers, but today’s gatherings focus on mindfulness and the creative core, vulnerability and persistence — as tools for the journey.

My arms-length participation in the recent event had a lot to do with personal push-back against the weekend rules: No outside news, no politics, no communication with problematic friends and family members, and quit with the social media. Excellent advice for a few days of serious writing; problematic for my scattershot self.

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After the event, though, I spoke with a number of attendees who had paid attention to the rules (except for the social media thing) and been far more serious about attendance and participation. They were, by and large, excited, uplifted, enthusiastic — and inspired.

Said one: “I was apprehensive about coming, but I’m going home feeling like I can achieve my goals. Yes, it’s been a memorable weekend.”

Several spoke of having gained confidence — in themselves and their future as writers. More than a few attendees were struggling with adversity, emotional distress or recent illness. (The stuff of great stories.) They’d been met with ovations.

One told me, “I have several hundred pages of a memoir, but had all but given up on ever finishing. When I shared about it this weekend, though, the response was really encouraging. It gave me the confidence I need.” She was “excited about sitting down and really getting to work on it.”

Co-hosted with author/creative guide Jacob Nordby, A Writing Room Retreat was led by artist/podcaster Sam Lamott.

For this writer, the inspiring words of the keynote speaker — Sam’s indomitable mom Anne Lamott — still rang true.

What Can I Say, After I Say I’m Sorry?


Photo by Kristina Paparo on Unsplash

A recent Miss Manners column — you DO follow Miss Manners, don’t you? — featured her response to a Gentle Reader who had been called out for being, well, too polite. This was because Gentle Reader delivered a cupcake with an apology for a minor misdeed.

Excuse me?

If only I had a nickel for every cupcake apology/thankyou/etc I have delivered over the years. Not to mention the yellow tulips . . .

But Gentle Reader writes that he or she had been accused of etiquette that was “merely performative.” (Which, Miss Manners notes, is indeed what being polite is all about.)

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We should be worried, gentle readers.

I yearn for a return to politeness. Courtesy. Peformative etiquette. The right to deliver cupcakes when you need to apologize.

Considering the contentious times we live in, what if a hostile, angry anti-etiquette movement emerges? Protesters showing up at every sickroom door, accusing well-wishers of showing off by bringing cards or bouquets. Mass-produced Stand Up for Rudeness! signs.

They’re probably already at work. Don’t Be Glad, Be Mad! (I can think of a lot of others, mostly too impolite to print.)

Photo by Mark Jones on Unsplash

The anti-etiquette folks believe our actions “should reflect our true feelings, however offensive they may be.” Or something like that. The bottom line is: courteous people are making the discourteous people mad.

We are in deep trouble, folks. Some true feelings really might need re-thinking. I’m particularly worried about ‘Honest Nastiness’ — protest posters for which are probably already in mass production.

My own true feelings are usually “Geez, I am really, really sorry for that stupid whatever;” nasty hasn’t ever worked for me. But what if the Honest Nastiness true believers organize? And join forces with random anti-cupcake people?

The inevitable next step? Those are the same folks who support open carry.

Which brings us to scenes of little old ladies (me, for example) delivering cupcakes to innocently wronged friends only to be confronted by crowds waving Pro-Rudeness signs — and packing heat.

Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash

This is going to make it hard to say I’m sorry.

Considering how often I mess up, buy cupcakes and apologize, and how nervous I get in the presence of firearms, I’m in the deepest trouble of all.

Please consider joining me in the Return to Gentleness Movement. Unless the idea is offensive to you. In which case . .

I apologize. Could I bring you a cupcake?

Constitution & Citizenship Day!


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Want to join the celebration? It requires nothing but a pause.

Constitution & Citizenship Day celebrates the United States Constitution, which was signed on September 17, 1787 in Philadelphia. Along with the Bill of Rights, it’s the foundation of our democracy.

There’s a fascinating history of the celebration, including “I am an American Day” which was made official by President Truman in 1951. (Some of it’s more nationalistic than comfortable today.)

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So we don’t get a day off, or an excuse to go beach-bumming.

We get, instead, a chance to reflect on Bill of Rights items currently under threat. Reproductive justice, anyone? Freedom to enjoy life without guns everywhere? Gender equality?

Maybe you thought the Equal Rights Amendment (first proposed in 1923) had passed? Nahh. One would think that in 100 years we might get equal rights for, ahem, women; but the ERA is still being battered and batted around. One nonprofit is spearheading interfaith efforts to make it official.

Plenty of Good-Citizen work to do, or support, as part of your celebration.

Happy September 17!

Super Moon, Super Blue Moon


The Super Blue Moon, after shining spectacularly over San Francisco Bay and the surrounding mountains and countryside, continued doing its spectacular thing as it soared majestically over my skyscraper neighbors. The sight above was glimpsed from the roof of my building.

A spectacular summer’s end for the moon.

My summer began with this moon over Decatur, encircling itself with a gauzy Georgia haze.

And later, an August moon shone over Montana’s Bridger Mountains, clearly trying to outdo itself.

Speaking of which . . . when it appeared above St Mary’s Cathedral, as seen in mid-summer from my balcony window, the moon or the phone or an eerie phenomenon (I choose that last) created a nifty blue dot as a prophecy of moons to come

And sure enough, the Super Blue Moon, in all its brilliance, rolled across the late August sky.

Good night, moon.

Solving the Abortion Rights Problem


Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash

I don’t know why nobody’s thought of this before.

Recent news of the Florida Solution (isn’t Florida coming up with great policies right and left?) to its peacock problem suggests the perfect answer to the testy abortion debates. Universal Vasectomy!

(We will set aside the peahen here. Peahens have never had access to reproductive choice so what do they know? We could ask growing numbers of women in choice-less states. But it’s mostly the peacocky guys making laws anyway, and they pay little or no attention to the reality of us peahenny women.)

Clearly, if Universal Vasectomy were put into place the whole abortion problem would go away, and women could set about accessing the reproductive care that they — and presumably peahens — deserve. 

This policy, as described in a New York Times article, “would allow peacocks to continue acting like dominant males, displaying their dazzling feathers and assembling their harems, though they could no longer fertilize eggs.” Does this make sense, or what?

The same issue of The Times carried another article which sums up the need for UV: An 89 year old man voting against Ohio’s sneaky attempt to restrict abortion was quoted thusly: “If men was having babies there wouldn’t be none of this nonsense.”

OK, how is this going to work, you ask. Easy peasey.

All we have to do is set up a national trap-and-release program for all males of the species. Each will then be given the choice — imagine! individual choice! — of either assuming full responsibility, in perpetuity, for any fertilized egg that may result from any future sexual adventure for the rest of his natural life — or, Snip! 

There will admittedly be costs involved, for things like reimbursement to physicians administering the simple procedure (I suggest that thousands of women MDs who have endured harassment or worse will eagerly sign up for the program.) Solution: take it out of the defense budget. Who’s going to notice a few billion there? Especially after the need for dazzling- feathers displays concurrenty diminishes, a peripheral benefit. 

Once this innovative program goes into effect in the U.S., countries around the globe will recognize it as widely satisfying and at the least cost-effective, and quickly follow.

Voila! World peace.

I rest my case.

Should You Eat That Eel?


Not for dinner! An eel at the Academy of Sciences aquarium in San Francisco (Author photo)

The eel in the aquarium is among my favorites. He (or she, as the case may be) just has an enigmatic grace wondrous to behold. You can’t watch an eel and not calm down a little.

But take him home for dinner? Nahhh.My husband loved eel. He was prone to pay exorbitant prices for it; and to my protestations would say, “It’s only an Anguilliform!”

Which is true.

Eels are also catadromous, meaning they migrate from freshwater to salt; and they can swim forward or backward, all sensible traits. Two drops of eel blood, however, and you’re dead. This never increased my fondness, but it explains why raw eel isn’t a menu item. The blood cooks out; I still prefer not to think about it. And lobster is cheaper!

Still. An eel in an aquarium is a joy and a blessing. 

The Price of Politics Today


KQED’s Marisa Lagos with Representative Adam Schiff, July 21 (Author photo)

“I can’t stand that millions of people hate you,” Eve Schiff said to her husband Adam not long ago. (Yep, Adam & Eve are married.) “You just have to accept it,” Schiff observed.

Why? When did hate become something to “accept and move on (from”) in the once kinder, gentler U.S.?

Not to mention cruelty. When the moderator kept to that topic Schiff told of another episode, something that bothers him a little more: a package came to his DC office containing two bullets; each had the name of one of Schiff’s young children written on it.Is that one more thing we simply accept?

“There’s nothing I can do about it,” Schiff said; “other than to get a new job. The first time I mentioned getting death threats to (former Speaker) Nancy Pelosi she said, ‘Welcome to the club.’” Pelosi knows a little more about this stuff than most of us would like, having had her 83-year-old husband bashed in the head in the middle of the night by a crazed guy who didn’t like her politics. He wanted, actually, to wait for Rep. Pelosi to come home (though she was in DC and crazy guy David DePape was at her San Francisco home) so he could break her kneecaps.

Surely it’s time for us kinder/gentler citizens to stand up for a return to civility. Even at the risk of getting knee-capped.

Decades ago, when my children were growing up (in the pre-internet age,) I was working as a freelance newspaper and magazine writer. I often covered city and county commission meetings or hearings on highly controversial issues. New highways, housing developments, policies that would directly affect communities and citizens alike. I remember more than a few events that came close to fistfights, and one that did get violent before police removed an inebriated objector. This was before anyone had to worry about guns.

I remember people calling other people names, swearing lifelong enmity, vowing to get an opponent removed from office or defeated at the polls.

But cruelty? Death threats? Anonymous messages suggesting terrible things might happen to families and children? Enough already.

Surely it’s time for the majority of us — and I know we are in the majority — to stand up for civility. Confrontation is out, since we have become a culture of guns and one friendly word can get your head blown off.

But we can write letters to editors. We can let those who support cruelty know that it won’t be tolerated. Calls and emails from outside a politician’s district might get tossed aside, but enough of them at least get his or her attention. Calls and emails to your own representatives might not get personal responses, but they get tallied. 

We can support the nonprofits working to protect and build the vote. VoteForward. GOTV (Get Out the Vote) campaigns. We can work hard to replace evildoers with civil-doers. 

We can vote.

Watching an Urban Mall Die

Downtown America stares into a challenging, unknown future

Westfield Mall’s main entrance on a Saturday afternoon

To be clear: I love San Francisco. I love Union Square. I love Market Street, the whole every-shifting stretch of it from the Ferry Building southward through the gritty blocks of too many drug deals and doorways inhabited by the down and out. Of course I particularly love the beautiful parks and hilltop views of the Pacific Ocean or San Francisco Bay, the museums, the stately homes and funky ones, the great food and most of all the people. San Francisco people, despite the influx of too many rich and techie, are still a wondrous mix of every color, creed and national origin — not to mention political opinion, which few citizens of San Francisco are shy about expressing. To be further clear, I never loved malls. I spent a lot of time in them in the 1970s and 80s, the glory days of retail when I was writing for (among other somewhat more interesting magazines) National Real Estate Investor and Shopping Center World. I would often spend a week or so before a major mall opening just hanging out, gathering details, interviewing store managers and PR people. Fun times for a writer!

Looking down on near-empty escalators from the top of Nordstrom’s multiple floors

In the glory days of malls there were innovations such as waterfalls and lush greenery. In downtown San Francisco, Westfield (originally San Francisco Centre) boasted a spiral escalator connecting the multiple floors of anchor store Nordstrom with the Market Street entry floor and a top-floor restaurant. On opening day in 1988 this was the nation’s largest Nordstrom store. And despite my anti-mall proclivities, I loved Nordstrom from the moment of my arrival in San Francisco in 1992. But it’s closing now. There’s a lot of sadness, though little surprise. Inside, there are theoretical sales designed to keep a few customers coming, but for the most part the closing is in full swing. Plywood sheeting and yellow tape are scattered everywhere. It’s hard to imagine that the smaller shops on each floor will survive. Or Westfield Mall in any form.

Many of the smaller shops have ‘gone dark’

Westfield Mall is hardly an exception. Since the glory days of the 1980s, when some 2,500 malls dotted the urban/suburban landscape, that number has dwindled to around 700. One estimate is that only about 150 will still be around in another decade. Which leaves both sadness and an uncertainty tinged with a tiny excitement. Something new will evolve. As in many other cases, the pandemic helped hammer in the nail of Westfield’s coffin. But more nails were provided by the city’s struggle to find solutions to homelessness and drugs on the street. Increased security presence can’t really stop the ever-growing problem of thievery.

Not-so-busy Security guys

I’m not saying goodbye, only farewell. Downtown San Francisco will return. And here’s a rebuttal, meanwhile, to all that bad press: The waterfront is still a wonder. The Ferry Building and its surroundings remain a great place to spend the day. The parks and museums and tree-shaded hillsides are still unequalled for urban strolling. Shopping areas like the Fillmore, Polk Street, Hayes Valley, Potrero, the Mission, the Castro are scattered everywhere and are still enchanting. The Presidio is a national treasure. History is just around every corner. Do you really travel the globe just to visit another mall exactly like the one at home? Downtown San Francisco won’t come back as it was. Change happens. Change doesn’t happen overnight. But when the city’s core does revive it may well be more interesting, more vibrant and more inviting than the 1980s mall scene ever imagined.

Walking out the door, into the cool, sunshiny summer air, I had no shopping bags but a lot of memories. Give us time. San Francisco has risen, all new, from the ashes before.

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