Technical writers or non fiction writers scribble to pay the bills and for the love of the analytical or the exercise of truth or deception.

Fiction authors write to illuminate their world or escape it.

Whichever kind of writer, it's all about staying alive and helping or entertaining others.

The Writing Life

Like most writers, I have a love of reading and the power of words. When I was younger, I read everything I could get my hands on, but I don’t consider myself well read. I consumed books like a starved person, so quickly I hardly knew what I had read. By some strange process of osmosis, I learned from everything I read, but I cannot give you an erudite discussion of characters, plots, or authors. I can only tell you it’s lodged some where in the core of my being and informs my writing.

In addition to reading, I’ve spent a life time writing---from that first elementary school composition to my college days when I studied French literature and wrote explications de texte. Along the way, I fell into technical writing--to put food on the table and pay bills. In the 90s, I had the good fortune to take a dialog class with Sol Stein, former owner of Stein & Day publishers in New York and a prolific author. That led to his California-based writers’ group, Chapter One. It was a rigorous, ego-bruising experience, but I was intent on learning everything I could about fiction writing. A few years ago, I also had the good fortune to study with another writer, Louella Nelson, an experienced romance writer and teacher of fiction writing. She provided a different perspective and balance to my writing.

My novel, DREAMING OF LAUGHING HAWK, a mainstream, Sixties era novel, is available on Amazon in print and ebook (also available in Canada, Europe, Japan, and Brazil). Download a free sample. If you like it, I hope you'll download the book and post a review on Amazon.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Valentine's Day Vampire Club

Sign up for the Write-Edit-Publish Valentine challenge (flash fiction, poetry, art, nonfiction . . . ) and publish your entry on your blog by February 17-19. Here's my take on Valentine's Day. Feel free to offer a full critique.

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We started as a small book club discussing our favorite novels once a month at a local coffee shop. Rain, snow, hungry kids, dirty dishes, work deadlines—we all showed up for the opportunity to escape our ordinary lives and vicariously live through the eyes of book characters. With time and familiarity, we moved on to wine and potlucks where we shared gossip and culinary skills.

     Now we have hit another milestone. Those of us who have compatible blood types have decided to donate blood on a monthly basis to Marla, our favorite vampire and longtime member who has been diagnosed with bone cancer. Not only that, we have spent two months toiling over a quilt for Marla. It will be a Valentine’s Day gift. Obviously, many of us have no acquaintance with a sewing machine, but our little general, Rosa Gonzales, is an outstanding seamstress. We each sat down with Rosa and submitted our ideas for a personal quilt square dedicated to Marla and then Rosa took our ideas, good and bad, and imperiously translated them into her vision of a love quilt.

     We are all sitting in my living room and sipping wine, waiting for Rosa’s arrival and the great unveiling. All we have seen are the individual sketches for quilt squares and the yards of velvet, satin, and raw silk that Rosa purchased for the fabrication of the quilt. I hope this turns out well.

     The hors d’oeuvres are vanishing and the wine is pouring freely. Everyone has broken up into little clutches—some huddled near the fire place, some seated on the couch, others standing in the hallway between the kitchen and living room. I’ve abandoned my hostess duties and am playing with the family dog while listening to the ebb and flow of all the conversations.

     “I’m so glad we’re finally going to be rid of our nigger president.” Her voice carries loud and clear over all the chatter. It is as if the air has suddenly been sucked out of the room. The easy-going ambiance is broken by the Mouth, Jenna, who never knows when to stop flapping her yap. “What? What? “I’m not being politically correct enough for you all? Ha. Ha.”

     I’m guessing most of the people in this room are Orange County Republicans who probably agree with her, but we all have an unspoken agreement to keep politics out of our relationships. I want to smack Jenna down but I don’t think I’ll have to because Rosa Gonzales, a fierce Democrat and Obama supporter, is standing at the front entrance. Her short brown arms are wrapped around a huge bundle and her face is contorted in a furious frown.

     “Oh,” someone says to defuse the situation. “Here’s Rosa. I can’t wait to see the quilt.”

     But Rosa stands her ground. In a low, gravelly voice that sounds like it’s packing a knife, Rosa levels her gaze on Jenna. “I hope you love this quilt as much as I loved making it. Most of all, I hope Marla loves it and that our love blesses her with special healing, but I will not unwrap this quilt with this hate hanging in the air. It will poison our gift.”

     Jenna rolls her eyes. No one speaks.

     “There will be a perfect and sincere apology and a group prayer to cleanse this room and bless the blanket.”

     Jenna glares.

     Rosa turns toward the door.

     “Wait, Rosa,” I say. “Jenna will give her apology.”

     Now Jenna is glaring at me.

     “Or she will leave if she chooses. We are all anxious to see the blanket and we want it to be blessed with love. This blanket is going to be a special gift to Marla. Nothing must get in the way of that.”

     Rosa hesitates at the door assessing the weight of the silence.

     Jenna bows her head. “I’m sorry.”

     I’m thinking it’s a good thing that Jenna doesn’t have a compatible blood type because who could predict what kind of purification ritual Rosa might insist upon.

     Rosa walks into the center of the living room. “Light a candle and form a circle.”

     We obey and I move a small table into the center of the circle for the quilt and the candle. We join hands and bow our heads while Rosa blesses the room, and then we each offer a prayer for healing.

     Then comes the unveiling. Rosa unwraps the quilt and four of us each take a corner. Everyone gasps at the beauty of the unfurled quilt. It is an exquisite work of art. Everyone admires the jewel tones of the embroidery on each of the personal quilt squares, each one signed with the name of the originator. The quilt is an incredible tree that seems to vibrate with leaves, flowers, and birds. It is soft and plump with life. It seems filled with sunlight.

     “You have all made the magic with your blood, tears and prayers,” Rosa says. “It is love and it will heal.”

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Movie Review: Revenant

Alejandro Inarritu's Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is an amazing movie despite whatever criticisms you may have about Inarritu's creation.

This revenge western is based in part on real-life hunter/trapper Hugh Glass played by DiCaprio. The story is set in 1823 in the wild territories of the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska. Hugh Glass works for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company guiding beaver trappers into hostile territory.

The trappers are led by Captain Andrew Henry when they are brutally attacked by Arikara Indians. They lose several men and those that can flee for their lives with what few furs they are able to salvage. It's Glass's job to get them safely back to the fort. It's a treacherous trip and he is opposed by the main antagonist, John Fitzgerald. As they trek through the cold unforgiving wilderness, trying to escape the Indians and find their way back home, Hugh Glass is mauled by a bear. The mauling is a brilliant feat of visual effects that feels like the real bone-breaking ordeal. Glass is near death and unable to speak. They consider a mercy killing but Captain Henry finally decides to leave behind Hugh's half-Pawnee son, Hawk; a young man named Jim Bridger; and John Fitzgerald to see that Hugh gets a proper burial as soon as he dies.  Figuring he has already lost most of his furs, John Fitzgerald is eager to take on this responsibility for the monetary reward promised to him by Captain Henry. Fitzgerald kills Glass's son and leaves Glass for dead and half-buried in a shallow grave. Intent on surviving to revenge the betrayal by Fitzgerald and the death of his son, Hugh Glass manages to drag himself out of his grave and begin his journey homeward.

Revenant was shot in Canada and Argentina. Inarritu gives us some of the most stunningly beautiful scenery juxtaposed with the detailed brutality of man and nature. I find it hard to believe that any human could survive the situations faced by DiCaprio's character, but you get totally sucked into the beautiful imagery and extreme savagery. Survival feels all too real. The physicality is overwhelming. You are on the edge of your seat for all 156 minutes. And though DiCaprio speaks mostly in grunts and groans, his acting is mesmerizing. You can't believe he survived the filming of Revenant.

One final note; "revenant" means ghost or spirit in French. Hugh Glass's dead Pawnee wife haunts the story, showing up whenever he is in extreme danger and his survival in doubt. Also, for good measure, they have tossed in the subplot of the Indian chief in search of his kidnapped daughter. It all plays to the good of the Hugh Glass character, which is the primary and most fully developed character in Revanant. It's all about Leonardo. Go see it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Birthday Wish

This January 13th would be my father’s 94th birthday. He died in 2012 after several years of steadily diminishing health. Following his wife’s death, he developed gangrene which was completely overlooked by nursing staff. Family was too preoccupied with one unexpected death to closely monitor my father’s nursing care. One month later he was dead. In many respects, I was glad he could finally be free of a failing body and mind. He was a rock in my life. I cannot imagine who I would be without him. I often wish he was still around. In some ways he is.

I remember my mother saying to me that I was the best of her and my father. I assume they felt this way about my two younger brothers also, but the first born is a special case. New parents put all their hopes and dreams into that first child. I suppose from my mother I inherited artistic gifts and she had a set of mantras she was always hammering into my head—such as never be like the rest of the sheep. Always think for yourself. Stay away from mean-spirited, catty girls. And on and on. She was gentle and accepting. My father was the disciplinarian, but the parent who was the most affectionate with his children. He transmitted all the family values and expectations. But then when I turned 12 our lives fell apart. My mother abandoned our family for reasons no one could understand. My brothers were totally confused, I was angry, and my father was deeply wounded. My mother left a note on the kitchen table and she was gone with the wind. It was a very painful, traumatic time for all of us. No one escaped without scars.

In the 1950s, women almost always got custody in divorce proceedings. I thank God that my father was the one who sought and got custody. There was no way my mother could have supported three kids financially, emotionally, or in any other way. My father’s mother had died when he was a toddler and he was separated from his brothers and father and sent off to be raised by his maternal grandmother. I think that scar on his life made him fiercely protective of his children. It was a difficult undertaking for him to be a single parent, but he didn’t run away from his responsibilities. I cannot imagine what life would have been like if he had run away. I cannot imagine who I would have become if abandoned by both parents as some children are.

And so on this anniversary of his birth date, I think of all the things that I inherited from him—flaws, strengths, outlooks on life. I wonder how he shaped my life for the better, how his history runs through my veins. I wonder how both he and my mother are ever present in my life. And then I remember a stunning comment my mother made to me when I was in my late 30s. She sighed and said: “When you born, that was it. As far as your father was concerned, you were the one.”

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Movie Review: The Martian

With the proliferation of outer space movies, one might guess this trend is a harbinger of things to come in the future of the human race. The day will arrive when we’ve finally succeeded in messing things up so well here on Earth that we have to wend our way through all the debris in space and find a new home. Forget about the spirit of adventure: space exploration is all about survival.

The Martian is a feel-good movie. Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a NASA botanist who is injured during a violent sandstorm on Mars. The mission must be aborted and Watney’s team of fellow astronauts, who assume he has been killed, reluctantly leave him behind. Finding himself injured, alone, and with a limited food supply, Watney must figure out how to survive and how to communicate with the Space Center. When the Space Center discovers that Watney is alive, there is a huge effort by NASA and international scientists to figure out all the tricky logistics of getting Watney safely back to Earth. The Martian is about survival in an alien place under the most difficult circumstances. Drawing on his own wit and ingenuity, Watney methodically works through all the options available to him but it is the help of those back on Earth that gives us hope for the human race.

It’s an enjoyable, realistic space movie. Best of all, it gives you a glimpse into the future. Go see it.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Eyes Have It

Of all the sensory organs, it seems to me that the eyes can take in the most interesting information and negotiate a translation of vision in wonderful ways with our brains.

If you are an artist, your eyes break down what you see into shapes, colors and patterns. They look for the subtleties of hue and the balance of visual composition. The brain takes all this in and configures this information into an image. There is little interaction with other senses.

If you are a writer, your eyes take in the whole scene but the brain also pulls in and processes the information of touch, smell, sound, taste, and that elusive extrasensory perception. While artists can’t resist the visual in viewing their environment, writers can’t resist the invisible – the things that contradict the visual.

So the other day I was staring at my art teacher from the back of the classroom and not paying too much attention to what she had to say because she kept repeating herself. The teacher is a tall older woman with long blond hair, sparkling blue eyes, and a ready smile. That’s how I would begin to paint her. Happy. Alive.

She loves bright colors and is an expert at analyzing color. She is animated and energetic, but when she crosses the room she often limps and winces from pain. Sometimes she becomes faint because she is diabetic and probably careless about diet. I look at her and imagine the young, giddy, wild girl she used to be. It keeps bubbling through her gestures and voice, but I also know she is a magnet for misfortune. Bad things happen to this woman, have happened to this woman all her life, despite her essentially happy persona. Her mind is like a butterfly: it flits from one thing to another. She may form an intention for classroom instruction or for some aspect of her personal life, but she is easily distracted. The color of a scarf, the glitter of an earring, an unexpected sound, physical discomfort, or a misfiled thought can completely derail her. That deer-in-the-headlights look makes me want to take a soldering iron to her brain and see if I can straighten out some of the wiring. I see the beauty of her spirit wrapped in fragility and more misfortune on the horizon because she never sees anything coming. She talks about the importance of right brain dominance in creativity but clearly she needs a left brain correction. She is a vulnerable, joyful child playing peek-a-boo with life and repeatedly skinning her knees. There is no one to protect her, not even herself.

It was then that I picked up my paint brush, deciding it was easier to focus on the visual and turn off the other senses.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Movie Review: Trumbo

Trumbo is an interesting movie by which to view our American society. In times of fear and paranoia we make bad mistakes.

In 1947 Dalton Trumbo was a famous and highly successful Hollywood screenwriter. He was also a member of the Communist Party. In an era of cold war paranoia, he and other writers and actors became targets of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Trumbo refuses to testify and spends 10 months in jail for contempt. Hollywood studio chiefs set up a blacklist and many writers and actors find themselves out of work and unable to support themselves. They lose their homes, some lose their families and some lose their lives. They are branded and ostracized. We are not given much detail about the complexities of the Communist Party in the United States or Trumbo’s party activities. We do, however, have a picture of a defiant, principled man who decides to take on and circumvent the Hollywood blacklist.

Trumbo manages to get work with one producer (played by John Goodman) by working under a pseudonym and cranking out screenplays for peanuts. He is resilient and persistent. Eventually his undercover screenwriting wins Oscars for Roman Holiday and The Brave One but without recognition. After all his trial and tribulations, he is vindicated when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger are willing to defy the blacklist and give him recognition for his writing (Spartacus and Exodus).

There is some good acting here. Bryan Cranston does an excellent job playing Dalton Trumbo. Diane Lane plays his long-suffering, patient wife Cleo. Helen Mirren is superb as the mean-spirited Hedda Hopper. Most of the characters, however, are just quick sketches—John Wayne, Edward G. Robinson, Dirk Douglas, Otto Preminger and so on.

Trumbo is an interesting true story. Maybe it could have gone deeper and had more meat on its bones, but it offers a good lesson about paranoia and prejudice that we see played out in the news today.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Short Fiction: Call Me Michael

I want each painting to be a challenge, an attempt to learn more about watercolor and grow as an artist. I hesitate when I say artist and wonder if I dare call myself artist.

I cobbled together this painting of a tall ship and a lighthouse for my nephew. He’s pleased with it but I’m letting the painting sit on my easel while I contemplate what further changes need to be made. I think it needs a story so here it is.

* * *
We are five couples staring across the bow at a most magnificent golden moon and sipping wine and cocktails. We will be spending the night on this tall ship replica—in rather cramped quarters, I might add. We each coughed up beaucoup bucks, but it’s supposed to be a romantic experience so I do not complain even though my stomach has been a little queasy at the rocking of the boat and the evaporation of my paycheck. Every now and then my husband glances at me to see if I have turned green. I stick to my medicinal beverage—straight scotch on the rocks. It keeps my mind clear and it doesn’t give me a gut ache like everything else. I stare at the golden orb and wonder at the immenseness of the universe while everyone around me is talking and laughing. The heavenly scents of dinner are coming from the galley, but I don’t really care. I just want to float heavenward and set foot on the moon before I drift off further into the universe.

This scotch is getting to me. I feel as though I’m about to slip out of my body: I listen to the conversations around me and find my mind bombarded by a clairaudient voice. My husband is talking shop with a man named John. He is unhappy about his work situation and mentions the difficulties he is having with his boss. My husband nods sympathetically and offers some benign advice. I take a swig of scotch and the words come tumbling out of my mouth. “You are going to be fired.”

The man blanches and my husband frowns his disapproval at my brashness.

“Prepare yourself as much as you can and start looking for another job. This will be a blow to your ego but in the long run it is for the best. You will find a new path in life.” I wonder how this man has overlooked so many signs.

“Honey.” My husband reaches for my drink but I snatch it away. “You need to slow up on the scotch.”

I sigh. “I apologize, John. I’m just saying get all you ducks in a row. Now.”

I look up at the moon and I’m ready for lift off. My husband is annoyed with me. Everyone is looking at me as if I just dropped in from outer space. I try to turn off this channel I’m tuned in to. I get up and help myself to some hors d’oeuvres. The conversation around me resumes. I look up at the moon again and wonder that I am not entranced by this romantic scene. Instead I am overwhelmed with a darkness and you can say it’s the scotch, but it’s the tragic unhappy things I see and hear and feel in my bones. The sensations flood my brain and the Voice says something is coming. I don’t want to know and I challenge the Voice. Why not something good?

The Voice says: "You shall see the good too as big and golden as the moon in the sky, but first the battle. I am Michael of the sword."

I am startled, bewildered. Michael who? I set down my glass. Enough scotch. But the moon hangs like a golden promise in the sky and I feel the darkness lift.