Ciao from Lucca, Italia!

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Greetings from beautiful (and, today, rainy) Tuscany. My colleague, Helena Hill, and I arrived two days ago with one of the eleven women joining us on this writing and painting adventure for the next ten days. All but one of the rest of the group are expected within the hour. 

We are at a 400-year-old villa run by the inimitable Karolina Lenart, a fabulous chef, and her husband and family. We were welcomed warmly with a lovely pasta lunch and wine. 

Yesterday morning I walked down from our rented flat in Lucca (we came two days before the retreat) to the cafe below to be greeted by Boris the bulldog and the friendly, and, thankfully, English-speaking staff.  I gobbled a sticky and sweet rice pastry with my cappuccino as I wrote. Boris was friendly but not so much that you were assured he liked you. Coincidentally we encountered another bulldog this afternoon at the villa— Bonito. See if you can guess which is which.

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The overnight flight from LAX was uneventful and I even managed to sleep about five hours, though fitfully. I was pleasantly surprised to find I had the entire row of three seats to myself. I also watched two movies and listened to almost four hours of my audio books—Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow and Pam Houston’s new memoir, Deep Creek, Finding Hope in the High Country. I finished Pam’s book early this morning when I awoke at 2:30 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep.

Honestly, every human being who cares about the natural world—and perhaps more importantly those who don’t—needs to read this book. It is a lovely treatise on the value of hard work amid the reality of nature and death and grief and loss, humanity and animals and the environment, human folly and hope and despair. It’s funny how someone whose life experiences are so vastly different from your own nevertheless can feel like a deeply connected sister or best friend. 

Our flat in Lucca was vast by European standards—three bedrooms and two bathrooms in the heart of Lucca town. Lucca is a medieval walled city filled with colorful buildings, fine leather shops, boutique clothing and pottery shops, restaurants and gelateria. Oh, and churches, towers and cathedrals. 

Tomorrow—Casa Fiori, painting and writing, on our Call to Adventure.  

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Thanks for a Great Signing! Plus New Website for Weeping Willow Books

With Haydee Perez

With Haydee Perez

(Haydee Perez photo)

(Haydee Perez photo)

Shout out to Mary Sheldon and Penny at Tecolote Books in Montecito, and to all the folks who came out for my book signing on Saturday, July 22. It was a lovely afternoon, and I appreciate your support so much.

And hop on over to the new Weeping Willow Books website and check out our books and forthcoming titles, including our anthology, Unmasked, Women Write About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty. You can sign up to receive our monthly newsletter here.

Celebrate Your Public Library

My essay, “I Found the World in a Library," has just been published as part of the anthology, Library Book: Writers on Libraries, compiled and edited by Santa Barbara’s Steven Gilbar. 

Each essay in the collection, which celebrates the Santa Barbara Central Library’s 100th anniversary, explores the author’s personal stories about the Santa Barbara Library or how libraries have shaped their lives. I wrote about my hometown library, Hackley Public Library in Muskegon, Mich., which greatly influenced me as a child and sparked my love of reading and, by extension, writing.

Authors who have contributed include both native-born and Santa Barbara-based writers, like Fanny Flagg, Sue Grafton, Pico Iyer, and Gretel Ehrlich, as well as all the living Santa Barbara poets laureate Perie Longo, Chryss Yost, David Starkey, Sojourner Kincaid Rolle, and the current laureate, Enid Osborn. Nationally known authors Neil Gaiman, the late Ray Bradbury, and Ursula K. LeGuin are among the contributors, and the foreword was written by Santa Barbara’s T.C. Boyle.

Copies can be found throughout the library system and at local bookstores Chaucer's, The Book Den and Tecolote, as well as on Amazon. Proceeds go to the library. What a gift it is to have access to free books! Read more about the anthology here.

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.

Escape from Moving Madness

Avila Beach is one of my favorite writing haunts, a place my Santa Barbara writing buddies and I escape to twice a year, usually for a week of writing bliss. This month I could only come up for a couple of days since we're in the middle of a move (I've been awash in boxes--packing and unpacking--for two weeks), but I am grateful nonetheless for the little space it allowed me. Above and below are some photos I took as I walked the beach yesterday.

In the Willow Cabin at Hedgebrook

The past few weeks have been by turns exciting, sorrowful, grief-filled, stressful and exhilarating. From flying to Paris for a two-week holiday, only to find out my younger sister had died suddenly during our overnight flight, to coming home to a house still filled with unpacked boxes from Rob’s move to Santa Barbara over Christmas, to preparing for a week at Hedgebrook, it has been a tumultuous time.

Today is my fourth day among the quiet cedars and oaks of Hedgebrook, a retreat center for women writers on Whidbey Island in the Pacific Northwest. In January, I was accepted into a Master Class with poet Carolyn Forché, and so far it has gone beyond my every expectation. There are six women here, from all over the country: Chicago, California, Texas, Washington, Oregon, Washington, D.C. We each have our own cabin, with practically every convenience. There is a tiny half-bath, which means one has to go to the shared bathhouse for showers, which was my only small concern. But the bathhouse turns out to be a warm and inviting spa, with heated floors and lovely showers and a claw-footed tub for long, luxurious soaks, lit by candles, if one so desires.

We meet in the afternoons for lectures and to share work, and Carolyn has insisted that each of us write for three hours every morning—uninterrupted. This has been my greatest challenge, of course. It helps that there is no Internet in the cabins (unfortunately, my cell phone and iPad work great, which makes it very easy to cheat, and I have—just a tiny bit). I have tried to follow the directive, though, and after three days I’m pleased with the work that has resulted. Raw, unedited, emotion-laced, my writing these past days is nevertheless exciting if only for the fact that I have long stretches of time to decompress and go deeply into it. I’ve written about my sister, and added pieces to a novel I started years ago, and I’ve written new scenes for my memoir.

I have also managed to post something on my blog each day, and hope to continue. We’ll see what happens when I go back to real life next week.

I am in the cabin called Willow. It was randomly assigned to me, but the willow has special significance to me, and so the selection seems to have been divinely wrought. I grew up in Michigan, where weeping willows are both abundant and inspiring. I have always loved them, and over the years the willow has appeared in nearly all of my stories in some fashion or another. When one of my clients independently published his memoir last year (Dick Jorgensen’s lovely O Tomodachi), I created an imprint under which to publish it: Weeping Willow Books.

Carolyn has given me some very helpful suggestions on my memoir, Face, and so I have decided to stop excerpting pieces of it on the blog—for now anyway. I want to revisit it with her advice in mind, and then will decide what to do from there.

I also have two other book projects on the front burners, including an anthology for women writers. More about those in coming weeks and months.

Meanwhile, I will keep writing about our travels, and my life, and books. I hope you’ll continue to join me here. If you’d like to receive my posts in your email inbox, you can sign up at this link. I’ll also see you on Facebook and Twitter. As always, keep writing!