Mokelumne Hill

Words (Between the Lines of Age) by Neil Young (click to play)

Guileless imposter crashes the writing party.

This was the Six-Word Bio that I wrote to introduce myself at the Gold Rush Writers Conference I attended last weekend. Thirty months into playing this game and I still feel like a rookie on the bench trying to make the team. The Sons of Anarchy bikers that roared up the main drag of Mokelumne Hill belonged at this retreat more than me, some pseudo-sophisticate suburb-dwelling wannabe. I continue to question: why do I want to rack myself with this angst-filled ambition? I didn’t grow up with the conviction that I was born to write – it just seemed like a fun thing to do with the second half of my life. Fun indeed.

There is one conviction I’ve acquired on this bumpy ride: Write a Book is not merely something to put on a bucket list and blithely check off after penning a prize-winning novel. Writing is an unsettling, self-loathing obsession. The more I learn, the more disoriented yet determined I become. Without fanfare, the salt-of-the-earth Calaveras County writing community pulled me off the bench and pushed me into the game to catch some tangible nuggets of truth about this complex craft. The ghost of Mark Twain would be tipping his cigar.

Cut the crap. I’ve been choking on words, gagging myself with unnecessary frippery. Just tell the story – plain and simple – so said the flash fiction teacher who challenged us to write a he-said-she-said dialogue, snap. For someone who loves to gab, flowing dialogue feels strangely elusive, but perhaps I’m making too much of it. Maybe good writing is like a well-made bed: wash the sheets so they smell like a summer breeze, tuck the corners in nice and neat, fluff the pillows a bit, and smooth a soft blanket on top. If it’s piled up with fancy cushions and quilts, it’s too much work just to crawl under the covers let alone sleep in it.

Leave the heavy lifting to the pros. I had scarcely embraced the mantra of brevity when along came a Jesus in glasses and brown blazer extolling the genius of Flaubert’s page-long sentences. What?? Turns out Jesus is a brilliant novelist and witty professor that made me want to go back to college and become a disciple of literature. Christian Kiefer showed us how richly-descriptive settings add dimension to the plot. He can get away with existential prose because he earned his Ph.D. in American Lit and because he’s one of those gifted artist souls – but most of us mere mortals cannot.

Even creativity needs a plan. I thought I would be one of those authors who does some research, sits down with a character, and starts writing to discover what kind of trouble their protagonist is going to get into. Then in waltzed a writing professor who taught us that an outline moves the story along much more efficiently than letting the characters dictate our telling. The clever author of  “Women of Ill Fame” altered my creative process when she put us on the spot to spend twenty minutes scribbling an outline for our novel. Oh no, I’m not ready! I assumed the research needed to come first, but voilà – a bona fide foundation for my story miraculously unfolded under pressure. Create the plan and the juices will flow while the research fills in the blanks.

Less is plenty. Enough is a mouthful. Let grandeur bubble forth from the sea of simplicity. And never fear if my blog appearances are sporadic – I’m just splashing around in a setting-plot-dialogue swamp, swimming to shore on occasion to catch my breath and spit out some choice words.


Writing BooksI Will Write My Book by Joe Henry

‘Il dolci far niente’ is stale, and the time for dreaming is ‘finito’. Dreams are essential for a fulfilling life, but if those dreams never come true, how gratifiying is that? And how can dreams become reality if we forever wallow in ‘the sweetness of doing nothing’ instead of taking action to bring those dreams to fruition? In every life there are pivot points – words that speak to us, events that spur us to action, emotions that ignite a passion so burning that it can’t be snuffed. I was spinning on a pivot point this past weekend, doing my best to stay upright in my wobbly pirouette, and it’s a relief to find that I’m still standing now that the twirling has stopped. An air of dizziness still surrounds me, but that’s more like my everyday blonde trying-to-do-too-much condition.

The San Francisco Writers Conference took place this past weekend, and I spent four fantastical days immersed in the literary world. It was exhilarating, but at times I truly felt like an imposter faking my way, a would-be singer lip-syncing, a giddy freshman lost on her first day of high school, a spy caught in a web of intrigue. The first two days were utterly overwhelming, and once or twice I simply wanted to walk out on the difficult, daunting world of writing.  I was grumbling, “You don’t need to do this! Why are you torturing yourself?” In response I was muttering, “You need to do this for your soul. But why?”

Why do writers feel compelled to write? Why We Write is the perfect book for frustrated writers, and I keep it on my desk to pick up whenever I slam into a wall. It has a great quote by David Baldacci: “If writing were illegal, I’d be in prison. I can’t not write. It’s a compulsion. When the sentences and the story are flowing, writing is better than any drug. It doesn’t just make you feel good about yourself. It makes you feel good about everything.” I’m no Baldacci – if writing were illegal, I would probably never lift a pen, coward that I am. But I understand the compulsiveness of it, and I’m starting to feel glimmers of feeling good as a result of it. Another trusty companion book, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, comforts me with this quote: “Very few writers know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, ‘It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do – you can either type or kill yourself.’” I feel ever so much better knowing that if I never wrote again I certainly wouldn’t kill myself and would continue to live happily. At least I’m not a tormented artist. But I do feel inexplicably compelled to write.

After the first two head-spinning days of the Conference, there was a slow build of inspiration and profound clarity on the third day. Bonding with other writers – including published authors who continue to seek guidance and wisdom – was reassuring. Consulting with editors who found good in my work – and gave me “A-ha!” advice on the bad – was illuminating. Meeting big scary literary agents – who of course are just regular people like the rest of us – was insightful because they want to find a good story to sell (almost) as much as we writers want to write that good story. It began to feel like we were enveloped in a cocoon of encouragement and support. After being buried alive in a pile of Writing Advice, I dug my way up and poked my head out the top to greet the light where it all came together in one cohesive, simple message: “JUST WRITE!” The last day of the conference created a feeling of empowerment as I realized that there really are no rules, no rhyme, and no reason to what makes a bestseller or a book worth reading. After taking copious notes and learning an abundance of valuable knowledge, I came to the conclusion that the most important thing is to write with passion and write with ferocity… every single day. Now that this vast collection of writing and publishing information has been assimilated in my twirly little mind, I can forge ahead.

Whatever your dream – to run a marathon on the Great Wall, start your own business, grow a vegetable garden, sail around the Greek Islands, appear in an off-Broadway play, lose 100 pounds, get off the grid, cure the common cold, learn to sculpt, be on a reality show, design an ipad app, cook a soufflé, become a Red Cross volunteer, party at Burning Man, find your biological mother, see the earth from space, become a doctor, survive in the wilderness for a month, be a ninja, knit an afghan, hang out with Bruce Springsteen, jump from an airplane, live in Italy, or even win the lottery – just remember that it won’t happen simply by sitting around dreaming about it. Praying may help, but it won’t cause it to happen. And believe it or not, it won’t magically occur with the Law of Attraction theory of “putting it out to the world” (as much as I believe in that theory too).  To make our dreams a reality, we must PLOT it. Make a plan, strategize, do the things to put the wheels in motion. We must dream up the idea, create the storyline, and above all stick to the plot!


This Lady’s Not Home by Melissa Manchester (click to play)

We have precious little video footage of our kids growing up because it seems we always wanted to be engaged in the action instead of recording it. Modeling behavior rubs in – one of the things I admire about our grown kids is that they live in the moment, fully immersed in present company, technology and iphones be damned. But for all of its attributes, full immersion is exhausting. Between houseguests and our European vacation entourage, I have been thoroughly Haertlized for the past six weeks… and if you know the Haertl Family, you know that means constant engagement. Nonstop action and jampacked fun left no time for writing, let alone introspection. Now that I’m relatively unengaged, I’m desperately seeking solitude, frantically trying to unwind and disengage my active persona so I can plug into the quiet. It’s time for my actions to stop speaking and my words to take flight. Yoo hoo – has anyone missed me yet?

I’m trying hard to be a writer, but lately I’ve just been a tour guide and an innkeeper. Don’t get me wrong – sharing the joy of travel and entertaining loved ones at the Haertl Hilton are two of my favorite pleasures. But even the Energizer Bunny needs to be recharged once in a while, and I certainly need frequent plug-ins because I am no spring chicky.  Taking time to renew and restore myself is a true necessity in life. If I don’t put my booty in timeout isolation now and then, I’ve got nothing left to give anyone, least of all myself.

As a mother of youngsters, one of my ongoing priorities was to befriend wonderful babysitters. I adored making mudpies, building forts, climbing jungle gyms, and getting lost in storybook land with my little darlings, but I was a much better mother with unconditional love to give if I was able to run away from home every so often. My nest may be empty now, but the coop is still full. Friends and family flock to the Field of Dreams guesthouse we built  – which has been occupied for the past year by our Blind Side linebacker – which relegated our guests to the upstairs of our pet-crazed Animal House. Since I find great happiness in chaotic company, I’m beginning to worry that I’m too sociable to be a writer.

My admirable friend who is cycling across the country somehow manages to be a prolific daily blogger, even in the midst of 10,000 riders at RAGBRAI ( How does he do it? He must have much better focus than I possess – my scattered mind is easily distracted by every little whisper and flit, which makes me want to slam my keyboard shut and give up writing altogether. Reading the likes of Charles Murray’s article on capitalism’s image problem and Peggy Noonan’s editorial on The Dark Knight Rises in the Wall Street Journal is both inspiring and daunting. How do they do it?  Nonetheless, I still harbor the dream, craving alone-time and trying to carve out secret hideaways that I can hole up in to write, so there may actually be a glimmer of hope for my life as an author. Writing is a reclusive, therapeutic pastime, quite suitable for hermits and prisoners. It may be necessary to put myself in solitary confinement if there is to be a novel in my future. Consequently, I just hung out the DO NOT DISTURB sign while this innkeeper is temporarily closed for maintenance and repairs. This lady’s not home today.

[Note from the Management: This closure is quite temporary. Friends and family are always welcomed with open arms at the Haertl Hilton.]