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Pennies Striking Dust 

The short, almost happy life of the Los Angeles Writing Club

Thursday, Aug 7 2003
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Illustrations by Daniel May

A story that could only be written by a certain kind of heartbreakingly talented woman with red hair and freckles, it told the fatal last ride and otherworldly release of Bo T. Blackeye: rodeo clown, widower, a man still leveled, as we are, by the plain mention of a sentimental oak.

 

The Los Angeles Writing Club began just like a relationship. The small talk, the sharing of clever opinions while roaming cordlessly around the house, the panicked attempt to seem capable of interesting gossip. Later the instant intimacy, the thwarted romance, the hurt feelings, the prima donna desertions and the interest waning like lust, all in a matter of weeks. But first the phone call. How would you like to write a short story every two weeks, recapture all the essential hardship of writing without the material gain, then meet with a small group of strangers in order to be criticized? My conscience recognized this voice as belonging to the King of the Universe (Do you even remember why you first wrote? Is it all about the money then? Who would want to read you, whore of Babylon?). And that is why today I have no shame. I mean about saying yes to the Los Angeles Writing Club.

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The sad fact was that I’d been wandering in a desert. I was feeling barren even with a pregnant wife and three children, and I was praying for money or work. Twenty miles away, the city of happy creatives shimmered — an oasis with designer kitchens. That city was a desert too, but it was sprinkled by the kind of holy rain that L.A. is famous for — pennies striking dust, a wishing well in reverse. I could sense this reality just beyond my own reality, the way a lonely person knows that it’s date night outside.

To draw one more creative breath, writers always have to be falling in love with someone or something new. And our spouses and friends genuinely hate us for that, even for confessing to it as if we secretly adore ourselves. But foolishness in hard times is really the heart of wisdom, because it always happens that not five minutes after you promise you’ll say yes to anything, to get a teaching credential, to be a beginner again, to look like a complete loser, the telephone you were beginning to think was just a prop rings.

 

It was “Clive,” a novelist — the British kind of novelist who always looks exhausted but never is, who sees fascinating paradoxes wherever he goes and shares them, in a calm, incisive squishy-squeaky accent. Clive had been a fine chef and a classical guitarist before getting a quirky novel published in the 1980s the first time he tried. He was phoning from home, a ghostly ruin in Koreatown with vines floating in his pool, which image placed him higher up than me on several scales at once. I saw him as one of those expatriate geniuses who acquires houses in L.A. like they’re birdbaths, and flamboyantly lets them rot.

Now, he was looking for feedback and discipline in his work. He had started the writing club on an impulse — as if he’d noticed in the mirror that it was time to take up jogging. Though in every other decision, he was almost amazingly formal. That title, for instance. The Los Angeles Writing Club. It could have been monumental arrogance, or sober restraint, or dumbbell English. But a British accent always gets the benefit of the doubt.

In response to a written protocol that would intimidate a rector (“Each participant gets eight minutes, including questions to the writer and the reading of any excerpts . . . a timer will be used . . . revolving chair by alphabetical order . . . the onus of retaining focus is on the chair!”), the other four of us did the only thing we could do. We started exchanging self-deprecating e-mails, hoping to lower the bar. Unless that was just good manners on the part of “Macy” (a woman) and “Hollis” (her husband) and “Rhys” — all of whom clearly had names from the right side of the tracks, genderless Hollywood names, the names of people wittier on their coffee breaks than I am in three months at my desk. I saw at once that I would need to make them love me.

Then, just as quickly, it hit me that I would. And they would make me love them too! We would be good for each other: made brave by discipline, made graceful, possibly even flawless, except flawed enough to have something to be graceful and brave about. Every blank page would be a kind of second youth; it held the potential to redeem every ruined page that had ever come before. Which hints at why editors are able to seduce writers into rewriting things over and over and over: They know that we never stop hoping.

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