On Writing Badly

"Every worthwhile book contains many faults, and every worthwhile writer commits them."—Eric Partridge

Do you see the bird's claw prints? They are interspersed with those made by some human who trod along the sand at the headwaters of the slough at Avila Beach recently. They are so large I assume they are probably those of a great blue heron, but I can't be sure. What I love about them is their size—nearly half the size of a (wo)man's foot. The other thing is I was frustrated that I couldn't find a spot where the heron's footprints weren't "marred" by the human prints. I wanted the image to be perfect, to reflect a perfection that doesn't exist in nature, or, really, anywhere. 

We all try to make things perfect. Mostly we fail. Writers strive to create the perfect story, essay, novel, memoir, and what we end up with (most times) is flawed prose. Still, we persist.

John Steinbeck, who is one of my favorite writers, struggled (as most of us do) with his early writing. In fact, his first book, Cup of Gold, was a flop that never earned back his $250 advance, according to the Writer's Almanac. Steinbeck wrote to a friend: "The book was an immature experiment written for the purpose of getting all the wise cracks (known by sophomores as epigrams) and all the autobiographical material (which hounds us until we get it said) out of my system [...] I think that I shall write some very good books indeed. The next one won't be good nor the next one, but about the fifth, I think will be above average."

That was 1929. In 1935 he started work on his masterpiece Of Mice and Men (one of my all-time favorite books), which he didn't finish until 1937. During that time he and his wife, Carol, lived in his family's vacation cottage near Monterey Bay. She worked as a secretary and his family gave him a monthly stipend of $25. In spring 1936, he wrote to a friend that the work was going well and he was excited about its prospects. Then his new puppy chewed up the manuscript. He wrote to a friend: "Minor tragedy stalked. My setter pup, left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my ms. book. Two months work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically. I didn't want to ruin a good dog on a ms. I'm not sure it is good at all. He only got an ordinary spanking with his punishment flyswatter."

Steinbeck's good humor shines here, but so does the sense of inevitability so many writers know: It can always be rewritten—and improved. In my experience, the result is usually better. In Steinbeck's case, the final version of Of Mice and Men was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club pick before it came out and got rave reviews. It soon became a successful Broadway play.

What is the lesson here? Trust that the work will become what it's meant to be, get out of the way, and don't be afraid to revise.

Women on the March—Laughing All the Way

It’s International Women’s Day. A part of me loves the idea of drawing attention to the contributions women make to our world. Another part of me would be happier with more concrete changes to the laws and policies that continue to oppress and discriminate against women around the globe.

I haven’t heard a single male politician make a statement that acknowledges or advances women’s rights today—save the president, and we know his tweet this morning was as disingenuous and ludicrous as the rest of his Twitter proclamations.

Gloria Steinem was in Santa Barbara last week, and she spoke about the need to continue to fight for women’s rights, despite the very clear objectives of the conservatives in Congress and the White House. While we keep an eye on Washington, it’s almost more important now to turn our attention to the states, she said, where anti-women contingents have been successfully reversing—or trying to reserve—many of the health, job, and safety net protections we have fought for for more than four decades. And we have to abolish the Electoral College.

Steinem was a sponsor of the Women’s March on Washington in January, a march that brought out nearly five million women and men throughout the nation and in major cities around the world. We can’t let up. She spoke about the need for women to come together and support each other—no matter our race, ethnicity or creed.

“Intersectionality is a good word,” she said, “but I prefer intertwined.” She linked her fingers together: “You can’t uproot one without the other.”

The issue is violence against women and its interconnectedness with all other “isms,” she said. Sexism and racism are linked—it's all about dominance and control, what she called “supremacy crimes.”

Despite the 2016 election results, Steinem said she believes we are more on the path toward a real democracy than we were when she spoke in Santa Barbara two years ago.

“Are we awake now?” she asked, to murmured laughter and applause.

She was asked about the perceived conflicts between women of color and feminists. How do we bridge concerns and needs? “We listen to each other and ask how we can help each other,” she replied. She pointed out that the Women’s March was organized by young women, mostly of color. “I just did what they told me.”

“Remember that anger is healthy. To be hopeful doesn’t mean you have to be saccharine,” she said.

“Also, women have to learn how to treat themselves as well as they treat others.” We can’t allow others to tear us down, and we can’t do it to ourselves.

“Get up in the morning and say, What outrageous thing am I going to do today that will serve social justice? And think, How can I reach out in my community? It's going to take both individual and group efforts.”

While she didn’t deny the political threats women continue to face, she also encouraged us to be mindful of the great strides and progress that have been made.

Remember to laugh, she said, because that’s how we know we are free.

"The Journey is the Destination"—a Life Lived Out Loud

Our good friends Eva and Yoel Haller invited Rob and me to a special Santa Barbara International Film Festival luncheon last week to celebrate a new film about an extraordinary young man named Dan Eldon. "The Journey is the Destination" tells the compelling story of how Dan, in his brief lifetime, inspired people to work for peace and social justice in parts of the world where both are in short supply.

Dan was born in London in 1970, and the family moved to Kenya in 1977, where his British father headed the east Africa division of a European computer company and his American mother, Kathy Eldon, was a freelance journalist. He attended the International School of Kenya, where he met students from around the world and developed his insatiable appetite for travel and adventure. While Kenya remained his home, he traveled widely, and, following in his mother's footsteps, became a journalist.

From an early age, Dan worked to help others. When he was 14, he raised money to pay for open-heart surgery for a young Kenyan girl. At 15, he helped support a Maasai family by buying their hand-made jewelry and selling it to fellow students and friends.

After graduating high school in 1988, Dan attended college in California and Iowa, but ultimately returned to Africa to pursue a career as a freelance photographer. His work caught the attention of Reuters' editors, and Dan was hired as a staff photographer covering Somalia's terrible famine in the early 1990s. As the situation worsened, violence drew American intercession and the attention of the international community. Despite the danger, Dan continued to work in Mogadishu, hoping his images would bring attention to the unfolding tragedy in Somalia. In July 1993, American forces mistakenly bombed what they thought was a meeting of warlords, and many innocent civilians were killed. Dan and three of his Reuters colleagues were killed when a gathering mob turned on them. He was 23.

Dan's mom, Kathy, founded a nonprofit organization—Creative Visions—to honor Dan's legacy. "The Journey is the Destination" is the realization of Kathy's long-held dream of telling Dan's story. A book of the same name features the drawings and artwork he jotted in his journal.

We met Kathy at the luncheon last week, as well as Maria Bello, the actor who portrayed Kathy in the film. It is a deeply moving and ultimately uplifting film, which also screened at the Toronto Film Fest and opened the DC Independent Film Festival this week.

Creative Visions continues to honor Dan's memory, supporting individual artists working to effect positive social change. You can find out more about Creative Visions here, and read more about Dan's story here. Kathy has also written several books about her own journey, which is just as inspiring. See her story here.

Dan's extraordinary life reminds us that all of us, each of us, has the power to bring about positive change in our world. If you have a chance, see the film. And support Creative Visions.

An 11-point Plan to Open Dialogue, Support the Oppressed, and Resist

With Joan Bolton at Santa Barbara's Women's March in January. Don't you love her sign?

With Joan Bolton at Santa Barbara's Women's March in January. Don't you love her sign?

Last weekend I attended a Huddle Up event sponsored by Santa Barbara members of the Women's March Support Team and ActionNetwork.org. We had a great conversation about ways to keep the resistance movement vital and moving forward.

Below is my list from the discussion—I think #4 is probably the most important, and I'm interested in doing this in Santa Barbara. Let me know if you want to help me organize something.

1) Use the power of your purse and boycott products and companies that support the administration. You can find the list at grabyourwallet.com.

2) Say thanks by tweeting or writing a company and Congress members whenever they take a stand—Apple, Lyft, the two GOP women senators who voted against Betsy DeVos, etc.

3) Keep talking to Congress—attend town hall meetings, call, write postcards, etc.

4) Create dialogue and conversation with those who support the administration. It’s tough, but we have to learn to understand each other and find common ground.

5) Stand your ground: express your beliefs even as you welcome others to the table.

6) Encourage faith communities to speak out. There’s been a noticeable lack of comment from the very people who claim to care for the poor, disadvantaged, immigrants and others who are discriminated against.

7) Support refugee populations—monetarily, materially, spiritually (my favorite blogger Jon Katz says his tiny community in upper New York state set up a way for people to buy needed goods through Amazon for refugees getting settled into the community. It’s been a huge success).

8) March! There is a Tax Day March on April 15, and an April 29 march in Washington, D.C., for jobs, etc.

9) Organize. Ask local businesses to host events to raise money for various causes: ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Southern Poverty Law Center, etc.

10) Support your local mosque. Reach out and ask if there’s anything you can do to support the Islamic community. Organize a town hall with various religious and community leaders to talk about how best to communicate with Trump supporters and to resist the administration’s policies.

11) Write! Raise your voice.

For our mothers, for our sisters, for our children.

Remembering My Dad, and a Republican Party That Was

Today would have been my dad’s 91st birthday. A lifelong Republican, he would be astounded and appalled at the state of our nation and world if he were alive today.

The rise of the Orange Menace would have left him deeply puzzled. And ashamed. His GOP cared about small businesses and worried over the size of government, but it always acknowledged its relevance and necessity. His GOP was never mean-spirited or bent on punishing the poor for being poor, as this Republican Party has been since the 1990s. His GOP would never have considered abolishing two of the nation’s signature social safety net programs—Social Security and Medicare—that raised a majority of our elderly out of poverty and eased the ravages of old age.

His GOP understood that a functioning democracy required people of good faith on both sides of the aisle to hold the interests of all people in equal measure. His Republicans knew that governance required negotiation and compromise, and placing the common good above their own craven grabs for power and money.  

How far we’ve strayed from that principle.

I am slack-jawed at the recklessness with which the GOP has moved to abolish the health insurance of more than 20 million people in this country. The chaos that will ensue in both the health care and insurance industries will be equally devastating.

Are there no grown-ups in this party? People who can put all Americans’ interests above their own? Who do they think they are helping?

These truly are dark days.