There are eleven of us in the class, including me, and these are our manuscripts. Can’t wait to dive in, and discover through story all that is important and meaningful and fun to my fellow workshop-mates. And I’m wondering, of course, what nugget Mr. Boswell will impart, who will listen and who will ignore, and what I’ll bring home from the experience. I expect a great deal, and am confident he will not disappoint.
So pleased and proud to announce that Woodland Reads has chosen my first novel, THE BRIDGE AT VALENTINE, as its 2014 community book.
Come to Woodland on October 30 and give us a listen! Books available for purchase at The Gifted Penguin (716 Main Street, Woodland; Terry’s Hallmark, at 375 W. Main, Woodland; and The Avid Reader, in Davis).
It happens every so often that on a day when I most need to see, or read, or hear something heartwarming, I’m given a gift that reaffirms my faith in man.
Steve and I were in Honolulu recently, where Steve and seven of his friends were preparing to tackle the Waikiki Rough Water Swim – a 2.4 mile race with over 900 competitors. The day before, on August 31, I had gone down to the beach around 10 a.m., while Steve stayed behind in the room, wrapping up a project for one of his clients. (He planned to join me later.) Not long after hopping into the water, I noticed a young man – slight, but athletic-looking, in dark swim trunks – and his small black dog; they too were heading for the water. The dog led the way, dragging a long red leash. Once in the ocean, the man soon passed the dog, swimming leisurely, allowing the dog to catch up. Every once in a while the dog shook its head, bothered, I guessed, by water in its ears.
The man swam toward the wharf, and then cut across the reef and angled back toward the beach – it seemed a long way to go. When the man reached shallow water, he stopped swimming, stood, and took the dog into his arms, so that the dog faced him, resting its paws on the man’s shoulders. In that moment I knew this was a good man; that he loved his dog, and his dog loved him. After a few minutes the man released his pup, and they returned to their spot on the beach. The man then made a sweeping motion with one hand, and the dog sat. Once he himself was situated on his towel, the man offered the dog a snack and a drink of water; afterward, the dog rolled in the sand and kicked up its legs. A testament to happiness.
I watched all of this from a distance of 50 yards, wanting to get out of the water and compliment the man, but hesitating. My inner voice said, “Don’t do it, Renee, he’ll think you’re a nut-job…or worse yet, a stalker.” But the whole point of A YEAR IN COMPLIMENTS is to go out of my way to say something nice to someone who deserves recognition – and if anyone deserved a compliment, it was this man and his sweet black dog. So I got out of the water.
“Excuse me, sir. May I speak to you a moment?”
Startled, he blinked and sat up. “Yes?”
When I kneeled to speak to him, the dog scooted over. I let her smell my hand, and then patted her, and introduced myself to the man, telling him about my blog*, and how I’d watched him with his dog. I told him how much his kindness had touched me, and he smiled, relaxing, telling me the dog’s name was Hime – Japanese for princess. She was a Lab/pit rescue, he said. He got her when she was around one, although he wasn’t sure of her age, since she wasn’t microchipped. He’d had her for six years.
“She was afraid of everything when I first brought her home – every little sound.”
He nodded. “She had a lot of scars.”
I rubbed Hime’s belly while she stood next to me, and she sneaked a lick to my mouth. “What’s your name?” I asked the man. He said it was Masa, and that he lived in town. He worked as a sushi chef.
Not wanting to take up more of his time, I told him I’d let him go. We shook hands, and after I left, I looked back, seeing that Masa’s ball cap now sat on Hime’s head, and that Masa was talking to her.
*I didn’t have my smart phone with me that morning; hence, the “stick” reproduction, above.
Today’s compliment goes to Caroline Leavitt, The New York Times bestselling author of IS THIS TOMORROW, PICTURES OF YOU, AND CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD. Caroline is a generous friend to writers, hosting us on her blog, CarolineLeavittville, and saying lovely things about us, and our books. When my first novel, THE BRIDGE AT VALENTINE, hit the stands in 2010, she called it an “…imaginative and fiercely moving new debut,” and then followed the review with a Q&A on her blog. When my second novel, THE PLUME HUNTER, came out in 2011, she posted a Q&A about that book, too, as she has done for hundreds of authors, never once balking or worrying that there are only so many compliments to go around.
If you know Caroline, and have followed her on Facebook or Twitter, or through her books, you know she’s not only generous, but supremely talented – one of her essays landed in Modern Love, which is on every writer’s wish list. (Many are called; few are chosen.) She’s also a lover of boots and turtles and The Boy (her son), as well as movies, Hoboken, and her longtime partner-in-crime. Have I said she’s a terrific person?
If you don’t know her, introduce yourself. Check out her website and her blog, and read her novels – but support her, please – because as my dad says, she’s one of the good ones.
Over the years, I’ve picked up some pretty great writing tips from various writers and workshop teachers. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve learned:
- From Larry McMurtry, the importance of creating compelling characters
- From Truman Capote, the importance of providing compelling narrative
- From Ron Carlson and Wallace Stegner, the importance of a compelling setting
- From Frank McCourt, the importance of voice (think: Angela’s Ashes)
- From Will Allison, the importance of self-awareness (on the part of your protagonist)
- From Ron Carlson, the importance of infusing your story with work
- From Robert Olen Butler, the importance of infusing your story with yearning
- From Lynn Freed, the importance of appreciating that characters don’t always need to respond to one another in the midst of dialog (How are you? Fine. How are you? Blah, blah, blah…)
- From Annie Proulx: the importance of telling the story you most want to tell
These last two months, I’ve learned something new. I’ve been working with eight other writers in a workshop taught by Jodi Angel, author of YOU ONLY GET LETTERS FROM JAIL, and I’ve learned that I’m not only capable of writing in first and second person (I’ve never written in anything but third), but in a genre I’d never considered: science fiction. I’ve also learned that I can create entire (if compact) stories based on prompts (“windows,” as Jodi calls them), and that in attempting to present work that is sincere and polished, I have several pieces of flash-fiction that, after some minor revision, I’ll be able to submit and publish. Mostly, though, I’ve learned to push myself harder than I ever thought I could, and this has come entirely at Jodi’s urging.
And so today I compliment Jodi Angel, the only workshop leader who’s ever asked me to go beyond my norm, my comfort zone, my stuck-and-staid self so that I might become not only a better writer, but a truer version of myself. Thanks, Jodi – I’m looking forward to getting to it.
This is Steve, just after he started his first year of college. The kitten he’s cradling is the offspring of a feral female, and I had to coerce him to hold it; cats are not his thing. That said, he was good to that kitten, gently coaxing it from its hiding spot under the house so I could hold it too. That’s one of the reasons I love him.
We met when we were fifteen, during our sophomore year in high school. Steve came to Rio Americano as a transfer student from San Jose, and I remember well the first time I saw him. I was sitting at a Formica table in the cafeteria with a passel of girls, and he and Bob Daneke walked up to us, lunch trays in hand. Bob introduced Steve, and Steve and I looked at each other, glued in that proverbial eye lock that foreshadows fireworks and a soundtrack. But we didn’t have any classes together and no mutual friends, so we didn’t speak, or say “hi” in the hall, or do any of the things that young adults do when they’re attracted to one another.
Then one night we showed up at the same party. Kids were drinking and dancing and swimming and smoking, but we stood apart from them, cautiously assessing the goings-on. Somehow we found ourselves alone in a cabana, a brightly lit room with sliding glass doors. We stood next to a counter with a dead telephone, too shy to speak to each other. A good minute passed, and then Steve picked up the phone’s receiver, said, “Hello?” and then handed it to me. “It’s for you,” he said – the most brilliant come-on ever. I laughed, and he smiled, and as soon as he got his driver’s license, he asked me out on a date. (A separate story that involves French fries, coffee, and a pancake house called Sambo’s.)
We’ve been together for forty-six years, and today, on Steve’s sixty-first birthday, I want to compliment him on his wits and his wisdom, his ethics and morals and courage – all the things that make him the person I so love.
Happy birthday, Steve.
Just before leaving the house to help Steve at his office this morning, I received a call from my neighbor Patrice. Someone had hit a hawk with a car near our pasture, and she wondered if we could check on the bird and perhaps pick it up. Steve wasn’t home, so I hopped into the car to have a look-see. Turns out a woman driving by had seen the hawk flailing, and had pulled over, wanting to assist. I saw her standing at the side of the road, and told her I would run home and grab a box, hoping we could load up the bird together. We scooped him up in short order, and when I got home, I took this photo. This guy is mottled and looks pretty small, so I’m guessing it’s a juvenile red-shouldered hawk, since our neighbor Linda has a red-shouldered hawk nest in her front yard. I’m also guessing he’s got a broken wing, and possibly a broken leg, as he can’t fly and won’t put his foot down. (It’s a sad fact that only about 10 percent of young birds make it through their first year.)
As it happens, my neighbor Rhonda works as a volunteer at Gold Country Wildlife Rescue, maybe six miles from the house. I called her and asked if I could bring the bird in, and she said, “Yes, absolutely.” Gold Country is a non-profit, volunteer organization dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of injured, sick, and orphaned wildlife, and has served the local community, at no charge, for over 20 years. That’s pretty darned impressive, so today I want to compliment the staff and volunteers, and tell them how appreciative we are as a community that they’re working hard to help wildlife.
If you’re an animal lover (and I bet you are), I hope you’ll consider donating a couple of dollars to Gold Country Rescue. Like every non-profit they need your help, and you can send a check (info here) or donate through PayPal. Red-shouldered hawks will thank you!
Compliments today to the tenacious western bluebird who decided to go another round in the box built just for her. Steve and I have been watching her comings and goings the last few days, and checked the box last night, after investigating the wood duck box near the pond (four of fourteen eggs hatched). We’ll peek again in a week or so, and see what we’ve got inside.
Here’s Jena in Costa Rica, where locals warned her to securely lock all valuables, not because of human thieves, but because of Capuchin monkeys, who steal cameras, clothing, and money to buy snacks. If there are no vending machines in their ‘hoods, however, Capuchins will steal lollipops from the tiny fists of toddlers, to which Jena can attest. She witnessed the aforementioned thievery first hand, and no doubt lit out after those monkeys, because like her sister she is brave and more than a little big-hearted.
Jena is a rescuer of dogs, specifically American Staffordshire-mixes (hello, Miley!), and of birds trapped in air-conditioning vents in the attic of her house. She is the best friend of all best friends, traveling thousands of miles to support women she loves in times of celebration and suffering and need. She is a loving wife, protective mother, and devoted sister, giving without hesitation her time, attention, and devotion. And she’s the original Goonie – a little geek, a little nerd, a One-Eyed Willy on a pirate ship.
My compliments to you, sweet daughter, for who you are now, and have yet to become. Happy birthday, Jena!
I met John Brantingham in 2003 at Squaw Valley Community of Writers; he was one of my roommates, and we hit it off, finding common ground in our apprehension as early writers about how we’d fare at the workshop, and then as the years passed and our skills progressed, in our struggles to get published. We’ve come a long way in 11 years and have rejoiced together as our stories and books found homes.
In thinking about John and all I admire about him (his ability to craft crime fiction, poetry, literary fiction and travel pieces equally beautifully), I have to include his talent as a teacher, and his sense of humor. Today on Facebook he posted a photo of his “really long classroom,” along with many generous and tender goodbyes to his students. One young man said of the photo: “This room needs a bowling alley or dance floor during finals,” to which John responded, “I was going to put couches in, but realized the number of ways that could go wrong.”
Thanks, John, for your kindness and caring, and all that you do to support students and writers. We’re honored to call you Friend.