Gravitational pull
I hadn’t been to Mexico since 1976 when I attended a summer session in Guadalajara after completing an undergraduate degree in zoology. I signed up for Mexican History and Intermediate Spanish but spent most of the time hanging out with a Chicana from L.A. We had spotted each other the first day across the patio and immediately headed toward one another. Call it a gravitational pull.

Three birds with one conference
IMG_20180213_091615_174I never meant for so much time to pass before returning to Mexico, but thirty-two years can pass in a bat of an eye out of hell. Speaking of an eye, I had had mine on the San Miguel Writers Conference for a while, mostly because it was in San Miguel de Allende, known for its picturesque streets, vividly colored buildings, and significance in the war of independence from Spain. It was a place for inspiration, and I was all in for that. I wanted a three-fer with this conference: learn new things about writing, explore a beautiful city, and write.

Frida, a pink bedstead, and mangoes
IMG_20180212_165427I rented a small room with a kitchen less than a ten-minute walk from the conference hotel. The only drawback was the lack of natural light which lent a slight mustiness to the air. But the Frida Kahlo portrait on the wall above the pink iron bedstead and the ripe mangoes I kept in a bowl on the counter freshened the space. Each morning, I ate a mango, bade Frida adios, and headed off to the conference.

What I learned – the good
The session on scene mechanics was a good reminder to me to turn my exposition-heavy first draft of a new novel into real-time events. The overview class of the different movements of modernism in art and literature gave me new ways to experiment with my writing, and the flash prose class provided masterful examples to study.

A panel on writing and activism featured the journalist Felipe Restrepo Pombo, whose first teacher was Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Art is a political act by nature, he said. The act of writing is an act of empathy. Politics and empathy are evident in his introduction to The Sorrows of Mexico, a collection of reportage by seven Mexican journalists on such issues as the drug cartels, teenage prostitution, and the disappearance of the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa.

What I learned – the bad
I had hoped to get more from the travel writing class, but the best nugget was dropped in the first minute of the session when the instructor shared the fascinating finding that the brain is most active when one is wandering around an unfamiliar city. A good thing to know for those of us negotiating the  streets of San Miguel for the first time. Also a good thing to know that would’ve been worth mentioning is how travel writing is different from other types of essay writing. Otherwise, why call the session travel writing? And this too: How does one avoid being patronizing, colonialist, or racist when writing about another country and culture? A most appropriate perspective given that overwhelmingly the session participants were white Americans in Mexico.

What I learned – the ugly
I attended the agent panel because sometime in the near future, I will be seeking an agent for my new novels (I have two in the works). I took few notes because I was fidgety and distracted by a glaring omission in the makeup of the panel, one I’m sure was evident to few others in the room. It was an all-white panel. Of course, they were speaking to a mostly white audience. Nevertheless, I pointed out the exclusion of writers of color. Whenever people are challenged on a point about race and diversity, they get defensive and focus on the wrong thing – like saying everyone gets rejections or that white writers featuring protagonists of color in their work are having a hard time getting published too.

I went to the class on humor writing, hoping to find some comic relief. Also, because I occasionally teach a class called “Dissolving or deepening tension with humor,” I wanted to see what I could learn from someone else’s class. What I learned is that two people will approach the same subject differently. Whereas, the instructor of this class used examples from P.G. Wodehouse and Dave Barry, mine come from work by Lorrie Moore and Antonya Nelson. A gender difference, yes. But also a difference in terms of where the focus is on the spectrum of humor – the one-liner at one end and conceptual humor arising from incongruous behaviors at the other end. I’m all for the one-liner – as long as it doesn’t offend.

But here’s an example of humor the instructor used from a Bill Bryson book:

And I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years, haven’t yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?

Am I alone in thinking that this is racist? Am I alone in thinking that using this as an example will encourage others in the room to follow it and perpetuate racist humor? Should I have mentioned this in class or brought it up with the instructor privately later? Probably. But this class followed the agent panel where I had stood up in front of fifty or sixty people and pointed out the lack of diversity in the room that was reflective of the publishing industry in general. So, yeah, I was done with that for the day.

After lunch
IMG_20180213_120346I left the conference after lunch each day and walked around the city, browsed the markets, peeked inside shops. Three of the eight evenings I enjoyed dinner with friends. The other evenings, before writing in my windowless room under Frida’s gaze, I made dinner in my little kitchen, or I found a quiet little place to eat alone and watch the foot and car traffic pass by.

There are a lot of Americans in San Miguel, which is to say, white Americans. They buy homes and retire there. The women wear Mexican scarves and blouses to blend in with their surroundings. The men unironically wear t-shirts that say Make America Mexico Again.

Gravitational pull redux
A friend has rechristened the city San Miguel de América because of the ubiquity of the expats, which is why when I spotted a group of young, brown American men in front of 28061751_10159906829100363_3149448228190315555_ome as I walked to my casita one afternoon, it was like seeing family. I greeted them, pointed them to the centro and headed on my way. The next day, I was delighted to run into them at the mercado and we greeted each other again. The day after that a friend drove me to the hot springs. I was relaxing in one of the pools, my face to the sun and my eyes closed, when I heard someone say, “Hey, that’s her.” It was the young men again. This time we exchanged names and chatted and hung out because some invisible force was bringing us together. Like the gravitational pull that led me and the L.A. Chicana to each other in Guadalajara in 1976.

On my last afternoon there, a Sunday, I found a space on a bench between two solitary Mexican men in the main plaza. They wore cowboy boots and hats. Their faces were weathered, their mustaches showing gray. The one on my right drank a Corona. Each nodded to me as I sat down. Mariachi music reached us from a nearby café, church bells pealed. Strolling gente left bits of conversation fluttering in their wake. In our individual and shared solitude, the caballeros and I watched life in San Miguel de Allende.IMG_20180218_160008


We’re downsizing. We’re cramming books, clothes, and kitchen paraphernalia into boxes and bags for multiple trips to Goodwill. Ruthless and unsentimental has been my modus operandi. But then I came to the file cabinet.

I blithely tossed reams of paper into the recycling bin – mostly early drafts of stories. I did feel a pang at chucking those self-conscious, overly written, and earnest bits of narrative. As for the other filed-away relics, it’s been hard to sort out what to keep and what to toss. Ruthless and unsentimental doesn’t work for the miscellaneous chunks of my life stuffed in these hanging folders. TOSS or KEEP is practically an existential dilemma. What would you do with these?

Parenting articles like this one that remind you of your ineptness or cluelessness: Fresh Warnings on the Perils of Piercing – Did I read this before or after younger daughter snuck out to get her navel pierced at age 14? TOSS?

Notes from family meetings 1994, samples from Agenda Item 3 – Issues: When going to the bathroom in the middle of the night, no need to wake up your parents; don’t hit, kick, or punch people; don’t forget to flush the toilet; change your underwear; take a bath at least twice a week. KEEP

Pet rat respiratory treatment bill, followed by pet rat euthanasia bill 2003. (RIP Tiffani, sister of Biffani who preceded her in death, the first of the sibling rats to succumb to lung infection.) KEEP TOSS KEEP

A story by daughter Ana written when she was five that started like this: Once upon a time there was a mother chicken. She stepped on her eggs and two chicks came out and there was a storm and they got hit by lightning and they died. KEEP

The list of questions I asked Jane Hamilton when I interviewed her for Talking Fiction on KCMU public radio in 1995 when she was on tour for A Map of the World. KEEP

Color illustration of frog anatomy from the Lionel Toy Corporation dissection kit I received for Christmas when I was eleven. How had I kept this all these years? TOSS KEEP

A graduate school paper I wrote in 1979 called “Dialectal Variation and the Ethnocentric Bias,” which opens like this: Political and economic power has been the determinant of language dominance and status in almost any given situation involving colonizer and colonized. Indigenous cultures frequently were relegated to an inferior state and in their subservient role as a colonized people began to question the value of their own language, the most overt reflector of cultural ideas. I listed the Philippines as an example. The professor gave me an A+, called it a magnificent paper, said I should try to get it published. I never did try. It seemed a farfetched idea – me published. KEEP

Daily daycare report for daughter Natalie when she was three: Natalie heard Anthony and Jonathan talk about what they wanted to be when they grow up (astronaut and fireman) and she said she wanted to be Ernie when she grows up. – As in Bert and Ernie. I love that she wanted to be a Muppet. KEEP KEEP KEEP

A note signed by my husband and children congratulating me on my first ever literary grant award – $7500 from the Seattle Arts Commission in 1997, a heaping serving of support and confidence. KEEP

A copy of a letter I wrote to my father soon after his cancer diagnosis in June 1992 that included these words: Even though you’re my father, there’s lots I don’t know about you. KEEP

Things I jotted down from a Sherman Alexie poetry workshop that reads like a poem:
Have no self-consciousness, no ceremony when you write
Don’t have agendas
Think line by line
Don’t be afraid to destroy your poems over and over again
Be in the business of remodeling  KEEP

I recently spent eight days in the Philippines. That’s eight days out of 64 years of my life. I’ve made a list of over a dozen topics I want to write about. Is it arrogantly absurd that the topics number more than the days I was there? How do I swoop in and out of a country and expect anything I write to have depth or meaning? Will I conjure things that don’t exist? Will my desire for connection slurry into wishful thinking?

Will I simplify? Objectify? Distort? Will my privilege cause me to sentimentalize or condescend? Will my memories fade over time or will they concretize into a stilted moment without context?

At night I lie awake, brain waves spiking with thoughts of how oceans separate families, how war and economic oppression drive migration, how colonization obliterates, enriches, and confounds cultures. How a Spanish galleon connected the two lands of my heritage – the Philippines and Mexico. How that most succulent and luscious of fruits – the mango – made its way from Manila to Acapulco and when I slide its sweet pulp in my mouth, slurp its juices off the pit and pull its threads from my teeth and swallow, I am eating my own history.

How social media can make an ocean a little less wide and deep, and a history more accessible. How it enabled members of a family to reconnect after years of being lost to each other.


This summer I’m going to one of my favorite places – the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. I’ve signed up for a workshop on writing flash non-fiction – the perfect fit for my flash Philippines sojourn. I will write myriad little flashes from my blink-of-an-eye experience.

In the meantime, here are some photos – static moments of being that hold glimmers of stories that I will someday write.

Here’s the sign that greeted me at the Manila airport. I apologized inwardly for having taken so long to get there.

MabuhayHere are day and night time views of Manila from the condo we rented for a few days in Malate. We looked out the balcony first thing each morning and last thing at night. We could hear the traffic of this pulsing, nerve-wracking, electrifying, and fascinating city all the way from the 50th floor.

Here I am with my daughter Natalie, an excellent travel companion. I’ve already posted elsewhere the good pictures of us together, so here’s one on the volcano island in the middle of Taal Lake. A goat appears to be coming out of my ass. I am a mythical creature in a spirit land. With Natalie

Here’s the precious gift my sweet cousin Malou gave me. This pen belonged to her mother, my father’s sister, the sibling who survived the longest of the children of my Filipino grandparents, Rosendo Miscolta and Donata Tiongkiao. I never got to meet Tita Melia. She passed away a month before my visit. Malou had my name engraved on the pen and now a triangle is etched on my heart. My father did crossword puzzles. I learned that Melia did too, maybe with this pen. And guess who does the NYT crossword every day? Hint: Me.


Here’s me riding in a jeepney in Las Piñas as James Lazarra, a proud Las Piñero, tells me about the history of his (and my father’s) hometown.

In Jeepney

Tionquiao, also spelled Tiongkiao, is a common name in Las Piñas. On my father’s side, I am a Miscolta and a Tiongkiao.  If you’re a Tiongkiao, your origins lie in Las Piñas, James Lazarra says.


Here’s me on what seems to be a duck ramp. I scooted down to scoop some seawater into a small vial. The next time I’m in San Diego, CA, I will sprinkle Las Piñas water on my father’s grave. I also scraped some soil from the plant bed at the entrance to the jeepney company. I will sprinkle this Philippine soil on his grave as well.

Water sample

These are views from James Lazarra’s office just above Plaza Quezon and Padre Diego Cera Street in Las Piñas. My father and grandfather walked these streets.

And here I am gazing at the street below. Thanks to Natalie for capturing this moment —  more than a glimmer,  more than a flash. On the brink of forever.

Looking at street


“Like reading a soap opera script,” opines sacintl, a user name that faintly suggests the word “succinct,” in keeping with her six-word review of my story collection Hola and Goodbye. Sort of like Hemingway’s six-word story (For sale: baby shoes, never worn) – tragic and sad, but without the tenderness.


We are advised not to read our Amazon reviews. After all, a writer’s job is to write, and a reader’s is to read and have opinions. And some of those opinions may dismiss your 350-page story collection in six words.

The best strategy is for the writer to dismiss the dismissive review and move on, to not obsess over it, to give it as much thought as the reviewer likely did to our work.

So, I will say that it was curiosity, not obsession that drove me to click on sacintl’s name to see what else she had reviewed. (I say “she” because, well, call it a hunch.)

sacintl also reviewed Dingo Medium Rawhide Bones, rewarding it four stars and an exclamation mark: “Dog loves it!” Ah, if only her dog had reviewed my book.

In sacintl’s estimation, Hola and Goodbye falls between Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Hawkins’s book earned one star from sacintl who called it “boring.” Doerr received a respectable three stars. Both Hawkins and Doerr have tens of thousands of reviews so their average rating can absorb the occasional stinting on stars from a succinct, dismissive reader. I, on the other hand have twelve reviews.

If I were to be obsessive about sacintl‘s review, I might offer up this definition of “soap opera” from Wikipedia: A soap opera or soap, is a serial drama on television or radio that examines the lives of many characters, usually focusing on emotional relationships to the point of melodrama.

Does Hola and Goodbye examine the lives of many characters? Yes, yes it does.

Does it focus on emotional relationships? Yes!

To the point of melodrama? Noooo, I say.

Again, if I were to be obsessive about sacintl’s review, I might point to the blurbs from Nina McConigley, Lysley Tenorio, and Luis Urrea, or the review in the L.A. Review of Books by Kim Fay, or the inclusion of Hola and Goodbye in Rigoberto Gonzalez’s list of “11 New and Necessary Latino Books to Read.” But no! I refuse to be obsessive.

Back to sacintl’s other reviews, here’s one for Stewart Freeze Dried Treats 21 Oz. Beef Liver: “Dog approves! Great product – my dog loves them! (Four stars)

Maybe it’s a dog vs. cat thing. Amazon says that customers interested in cat supplies gave my book five stars.

So, here’s an idea. If you are a cat lover, please consider reading and reviewing Hola and Goodbye. A few words will suffice. Succinct is nice, sacintl not so much.



November 1 is the one-year anniversary of the publication of Hola and Goodbye! I’m marking the occasion by matching some favorite photos of events I did over the past year with excerpts from stories in the book.

One of the first events I did was at the North Carolina Writers Network Conference where I sat on a panel called “A Conversation about Culture.” Panel NCW 2

Here are some lines about two people conversing (or not) from the story “Irma the Practical.”

It was a small café, inexpensive and without intimacy. However, the candlelight flattered and the scratchy music from a radio filled the more than occasional silence between them. An agreeable silence, Irma thought and even ventured to say so out loud.
“Yes,” Donald said.
“It’s as if words are not necessary between us.”
Donald nodded, and Irma placed her hand on the table, the easier for him to take it in his own.


For my book launch at Elliott Bay Book Company, family and friends traveled from Southern California to celebrate with me.Family

Here’s a line about family from the story, “When Danny Got Married.”

Let’s face it, even at thirteen I knew my family was a hodgepodge of conquered peoples.


When I read at the Women’s Museum of San Diego, I got to see San Diego writers Marivi Soliven Blanco and Thelma Virata de Castro.  W Marivi and Thelma2

Here are lines from the story “Fleeing Fat Allen” in which the word “museum” appears.

Henry stands in the middle of the kitchen, popping his knuckles. “Would you mind,” he says, slowly, each word coming with a pop, “staying with Lyla while I run some errands?” He points to her in the adjoining room, and we both look, like visitors at a museum display.


At AWP in Washington, D.C., the inimitable and always beautifully dressed Rigoberto Gonzalez stopped by the Latino Caucus table where I was signing books. W Rigoberto

Here are some lines about attempts at dressing beautifully from the story “Natalie Woods’ Fake Puerto Rican Accent.”

Ofelia is buttoning Norma into a ruffled dress just like her own, gifts from Vin who hasn’t an ounce of taste, a trait Lyla fears has been passed onto their daughters. They stand side by side for Lyla’s inspection. She smiles encouragement as she removes the clip-on bows they have affixed to one another’s heads. “What movie are we going to see?” they ask together, grimacing at each other’s unadorned hair.


At the Independent Publishers Awards in NYC, I celebrated with other POC winners. IPA WOC

Here are some lines about winning from the story “Strong Girls.”

“I want to fight,” Ofelia said, her broad nose made broader by the flare of her nostrils. “That big oaf Freddy was just the start.” Her eyes burned with anger at the Freddys of the world. “I want to win,” she said.
I didn’t agree with her that Freddy was that big of an oaf, but I realized that I, too, wanted to win, and I pictured myself in a letterman’s jacket, medals pinned at the left breast, a place in the yearbook.


At my hometown library in National City, my cousin was a good sport about my stealing his moniker Señor Wonderful for one of my stories. wJohnny

Here are some lines about sports from the story “Lovely Evelina.”

The last ones left after all the teams of friends had been chosen, Chuck and Warren became friends by default. Warren was in the chess club and science club, and, astoundingly enough, on that most celebrated of clubs at Truman High – the football team. He seldom saw action on the field though, other than stampeding through the goal posts prior to the game as the cheerleaders formed a pom-pom waving, scissor-kicking gauntlet to honor the rush of cleats and testosterone. Warren always told Chuck how exhilarating that was, and Chuck smiled as if in agreement, thinking only of what it might be like to wear a tiny pleated skirt and matching ribbed pullover while turning cartwheels in the cool autumn air.


At the International Latino Book Awards in Carson, CA, I had a moment on stage with a plant at a microphone. LatBA with plant

Here are some lines about a plant from the story “Bonita.”

One day she was sent home from work early. It was the day Nestor came home and found her watering the ficus.
“What are you doing?” he asked. There was fear in his face, which made Bonita tremble with her own fear and a glimmer of some awful force inside her.
“The plant,” Nestor said, his hands gesturing accusingly at it, at her, his voice rising with each word,” is not real!”


It’s been a fun year and I appreciate the support from family, friends, colleagues, my writing group, and bookstores, libraries, and organizations that have been readers or helped find readers for this book. And of course, much gratitude to Carolina Wren Press.

If you haven’t read Hola and Goodbye yet, please give it a try. If you’ve read it, consider posting a review on Amazon or Goodreads. As Irma says to her vacuum-salesman husband in the story “Irma the Practical,”

“Be forceful,” she told him. “Show that you believe in your product.”
“I am. I do.”

Hola and Goodbye

I’m going to the Philippines in November for the first time. It’s past time. The scenes in my first book When the de la Cruz Family Danced that were set in the Philippines were wholly imagined. They could’ve been based on first-hand experience if four decades ago I’d chosen differently

When I finished college, my father offered to buy me a plane ticket to Manila. I declined.  I had made plans to spend the summer in Mexico learning Spanish. I had saved for months. My mind was made up. My heart was set on Mexico. The Philippines seemed far and foreign, while Mexico was close and more familiar, more accessible and, I confess, more desirable to me at the time.

I’m Filipino and Mexican, and though I often felt I never quite belonged to either community because of being mixed, it was easy to feel a greater affinity to things Mexican. We lived fifteen miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. My grandmother who had emigrated from Mexico in the 1920s spoke only Spanish, so the sounds, if not always the meanings of the words, were familiar to me. Tamales were our celebratory food and menudo made a frequent appearance on Sundays. The background music of my childhood included boleros and mariachi standards mixed in with Motown and the Beatles.

And yet, we were not without Filipino ways. Steamed white rice was a staple at dinner each night and we welcomed pancit and lumpia for special occasions. My mother hired the old Filipino piano teacher who gave lessons to the other Filipino kids in our neighborhood. The lessons ended when it became clear we didn’t have the musical talent of the other Filipino kids.

Dad in the PII seldom heard my father speak Tagalog and he rarely spoke of his life in the Philippines. I know that he wrote regularly to his two sisters in Manila, and in 1970 he finally made his first return trip in over twenty years, probably fairly certain it would be his last. When he died in 1993, so did the connection to the family in the Philippines. None of us – my mother or we children – had ever had any direct communication with my father’s sisters and had only seen a few photos of them. They were strangers to us. And we to them.

When I declined my father’s offer to send me to the Philippines all those years ago, I didn’t think it would take me so long to get there on my own. There was always a reason not to go: money, time, work, family responsibilities. I might’ve delayed further if not for one of my daughters.


Photo courtesy of James Lazarra

Natalie traveled there last year soon after a brief trip to Mexico as part of her self-directed, cultural heritage tour. In Millennial fashion, she had used social media to find clues to the whereabouts of our relatives in the Philippines. She found James Lazarra, a local historian in Las Piñas, my father’s hometown. James tracked down my father’s one surviving sister and her family in nearby Muntinlupa, and the first reunion in forty-six years of a U.S. Miscolta and the Miscoltas in the Philippines occurred last December.

This year Natalie was determined to go to Manila again. “Are you coming?” she asked me. I was unable to go last year because my second book had just come out and I had months of events ahead. And even though this year has been busy with travel for book and writing-related events, which meant time off from the day job, I knew I had to go. I needed and wanted to go.

So Natalie will show me the sights – Intramuros, Luneta, the bamboo organ of Las Piñas. We’ll hike the volcano in Tagaytay. And she’ll introduce me to my aunt and cousins in Muntinlupa.

Family (2)

Photo courtesy of Natalie Miscolta-Cameron


Photo of Intramuros (top of page) by Natalie Miscolta-Cameron



My hometown of National City, CA claims a modest but eclectic list of notables. The Return of the Killer Tomatoes, starring George Clooney, was filmed in National City. The serial killer Andrew Cunanan was born in National City. Olympic sprinter Gail Devers graduated from my high school, Sweetwater Union High, and Rosie Hamlin, lead singer of Rosie and the Originals who wrote and sang the 60s hit “Angel Baby,” lived in National City when she was a girl.

I visit National City often because my sisters live there or nearby. This month, I was there to do an event at the National City Library, a place that is close to my heart, a place meaningful to me for its steady friendship during my childhood and early adolescence, a place that should join the list of notables above.

The current library is located at the southwest corner of Kimball Park, a city park named after one of the Kimball brothers who founded the city in 1868. Anyone who has read my novel or short story collection will recognize the name Kimball Park, the fictional city NC Librarywhere my characters reside. The current library is a beautiful thing – a two-story, airy building with lots of natural light. Regarding its users, this Yelp reviewer noted, Cute Filipino and Mexican girls study here.

Here’s another helpful Yelp reviewer: The National City Police Dept is across the street so if your car gets stolen, you’re just moments away from filing a report.

And another one: Minus the noise and ghetto vibe… this library is very clean… Ghetto vibe? The reviewer is definitely not a resident of National City.

But you get the picture. The National City Library is rad. It was built in 2005 to replace the original located at the northwest corner of Kimball Park. That one was a small, low-slung, flat-topped, single-story brick building, built in the fifties or sixties. It became a habit for me and my sisters when we were growing up. Each Saturday after catechism class at St. Mary’s, we’d walk across the street to the library to browse and check out an armful of books, then go home and read until our eyes ached. I read a lot of books from that library. I miss it, even though the new one is beautiful and beloved by its users.

It was a great honor to be invited to speak there by librarian Mervin Jensen as part of the Friend of Library pagelibrary’s series called The Face Behind the Art: Celebrating National City Artists. I was thrilled 1) to be called a National City artist, and 2) to be talking about the books I’ve written that actually sit on the shelves (when they’re not checked out) of the National City Library.

The best thing about doing an event in the city where much of your extended family still lives is that you’re guaranteed an audience.

Siblings, cousins, and nieces came.

My eighty-eight-year-old aunt and some of the friends she lunches with at the Senior Center came (including Hope who adorably introduced herself as my aunt’s best friend).

A former high school classmate, now a National City Councilmember, came.

Fellow series artists, painter Edward Juarez and photographer Memo Cavada came.

The editor of the local Filipino Press came.

Even people I didn’t know came because they were library patrons interested in books, including mine.

I had fun. That library felt like home. If you’re ever in the area, go see it, one of National City’s notables.


IMG_20170814_190921 (3)

With photographer Memo Cavada and painter Edward Juarez


Last week at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, I took notes at the craft lectures I attended. I typed them up, one sentence per line. Some of the sentences began to wander out of order, began to find each other to make these stanza things. I’m not a poet and I apologize to the poets for the form these notes assumed.

Thanks to Dan Chaon, Sam Ligon, Melissa Febos, and Annie Proulx for their insightful and valuable words.


A few of my notes from Dan Chaon’s craft lecture
“Observation, Detail, and the Uncanny”

As a child, I had a fear of shoes. They always looked like they were screaming.
Something familiar suddenly becomes strange.
The piano is grinning.


An object takes on a kind of glow. A sense of aliveness.
The metaphor leaps into you.
You do not choose the song that loops in your head.


What’s real is the sleepwalking part. The dream is the awakeness.
Writing is making meaning out of something that is random.
Uncanniness is a break in our experience of the logical world.


Be in a place where you’re not driving the boat.


A few of my notes from Sam Ligon’s craft lecture
“The Art and Craft of the Artisan Craft Cocktail”

The mysteriousness of writing is what people refer
to when they say writing can’t be taught.


We don’t want to understand the mysterious part.
Once we solve the craft problem at hand, it’s not going to apply again.


Habits can be cultivated, including the habit of art.
Process can’t be taught except for the part that can be taught.


How do we become invisible in our work and still be all over it?
Do what you can get away with.


I cling to a need to know what I’m doing.
I also cling to a need not to know.


Craft is a sinking raft.
Let go and swim.


A few of my notes from Melissa Febos’s craft lecture
“In Defense of Navel Gazing”

The bias against personal essays is a sexist mechanism to subordinate women.
Sexism hurts everybody.


You are allowed to tell your own story.
Writing about our own wounds is the only way to be free.


The artfulness of writing is craft.
Content will not substitute for craft.


Memoir is the opposite of narcissism.
Memoir is annihilating the self-image that pleases you.


Don’t avoid yourself. Let the stories in.
Refusing to write your story can make you a monster.


I don’t believe in writer’s block.
I only believe in fear.


A few of my notes from Annie Proulx’s

If you want to create shapely sentences, write them by hand.
It’s not a bad idea to mix beautiful writing with pedestrian paragraphs.


When you get stuck on a piece of writing, walk in a beautiful place.
There’s a connection between walking and working out words in your head.


Know about what you write rather than write about what you know.
It’s important for writers to read. It’s the old way of learning how to write.


Tackle big themes. It’s terribly important to know history.
Writers have a responsibility to the period they live in.


Never think you’re the cat’s pajamas.


I was a runner for thirty-five years. Over those three and a half decades, I sustained minor injuries– shin splints, turned ankles, a wrenched knee – but nothing that sidelined me for long. I ran during both my pregnancies. I ran as soon as I could after I gave birth. I ran in rain, snow, heat, and in gales of wind. I thought I would always run.

I was never a fanatic about running. It was a discipline I acquired after meeting my husband. I’d been fickle about it before I met him, taking it up every so often and then abandoning it out of the blue or letting it peter out.

And I was never fast, though my skinny limbs and a good stride could give the illusion of speed. At my best, I averaged an above-average 7:15 minute-mile in a 5K race. My husband was the fast one. But it was his dedication to the sport that inspired me. Or maybe I was guilted by his example into putting on my running shoes and getting out the door. Eventually, though, I developed my own running habit so that even when my mind could rationalize skipping a run, my body insisted on one. Running had become part of who I was.

Last year in early June, my mother was preparing to die. I flew to San Diego to be with my siblings so together we could see our mother through her last days. I stayed in my mother’s house as I always did whenever I visited, and each morning I would take a short run, making loops in the park across the street and around the soccer-football field. Even after nights without sleep because it was my turn to stay up with mom, I went running.

After my mother’s funeral, I returned home to Seattle and went for a run. Or I tried to. A pain in my hip forced me to stop after a mile. I thought the pain was a result of having waited too long to replace my running shoes, so I went out and bought the newest version of my favorite brand and model. The new version came in teal with hot pink 19206381_815508098604_1566557480_naccents, colors that were outside of the normal color spectrum of my running attire. But the shoes were a good fit.

I put them on and went for a run, and again I was stopped by the pain in my hip. Rest it for a week or two, I told myself. Let it heal. I rested it from running and substituted biking. But when I tried again to run, the pain was still there.

Over the next months, I underwent a sports rehab regimen, tried acupuncture, was x-rayed, visited a physical therapist, and had massage therapy. Mild arthritis, said the doctor, but it shouldn’t interfere with running. Strengthen your core, said the PT and the chiropractor. While I continue to do the strengthening exercises, there seems to be little change. Sometimes I think the pain has become worse.

I’m biking more and have taken up the elliptical at the gym. I do yoga and lift weights. I miss running.

Was it just coincidence that after my mother died something happened to my body that prevented me from running? Or did this particular part of my body take the brunt of the hit, absorbing the loss of my mother, storing the grief?

For the first anniversary of my mother’s death, I returned to National City to spend time with my siblings. I packed the running shoes that I had stored in their original box after I realized I wouldn’t be running for a while. Though the shoes were meant for running, I used them when I exercised on my sister’s rowing machine each morning.

I stayed at the house again, but it’s my sister’s house now. I helped her weed the garden. She and I, the wayward Catholic, attended a mass said in my mother’s name. My siblings and other family members and I took a picnic lunch to the cemetery. We observed the moment of our mother’s passing a year ago by playing her favorite song.

Marking the first year without our mother was about letting go, but also about holding on to her. She’s a part of each of us, of who we are.

But now who I am is someone who doesn’t run anymore.

Maybe I held a little hope that I would get my running back after a year. That by some coincidence the pain in my hip that appeared so suddenly after my mother’s death would just as suddenly disappear a year later. That it would heal given a year of rest and well-intentioned rehab.

Maybe it was just magical thinking. Maybe the healing will never be complete.19357623_10158772257355363_1804667943_n.jpg







When you’re waitlisted for the residency you applied for and you’re convinced that being waitlisted is as good as a rejection, you come up with Plan B because your characters are begging for attention, anxious to be nudged from their torpor. So you arrange time off from your day job, secure in the knowledge that your favorite project at work, having jumped an initial hurdle, is now off and running. You go in search of a room you can call your own for five days using the money (plus some) you had set aside for airfare had you gotten the residency.

Room requirements aside from a desk, a bed, a shower, and a fridge and microwave? Minimal travel time from Seattle and a view of the water.

A motel in Bremerton, little more than a ferry ride away, was exactly the thing. I found the Flagship Inn online and read the Yelp reviews. These are the comments that sold me on it:

I’ll be honest, it’s not much to look at when you pull up; it does have some paint peeling on the exterior and its old…. like when you get inside you feel like you just stepped onto an early 80s Golden Girls set.

When I drove up, my first thought was: “What was I thinking?” It looks like something from the pre-Interstate era (which it probably is)…

This is not an up-to-date motel…

Who wouldn’t want to stay here? Plus, each room has a balcony with a view of Oyster view from deskBay, one of the many inlets in the zig-zag of the Kitsap Peninsula. On a clear day, the Olympics are visible. Every day gives a view of water, trees and clouds. The view invites long hours indoors because the street side of the motel is in a commercial zone rampant with fast food restaurants and discount retail.

The balcony caught the late afternoon and early evening sun. It’s where I ate my lunch and dinner. Other amenities included DVD/VCR unit, library in lobby of movie videos, fax machine (!), none of which I availed myself. There was also a tiny exercise room and I did make use of its clanking elliptical.

After my workout each morning, I grabbed oatmeal, fruit, juice, and tea from the continental breakfast bar and ate in my room while I alternately enjoyed my view of the bay and read the news. It was the week of Sally Yates on the stand, James Comey on the L. A. freeway, and Sean Spicer in the bushes.

DeskAfter breakfast, I settled in for the slow slog at the computer. I’ve never been a writer who gets in the zone and bangs feverishly at the keyboard. I do a lot of fidgeting and staring into space or, in this case, out the balcony at the view, every so often tapping a word or two or ten.

I wrote and read for most of the day, breaking to make a salad for lunch and a sandwich for dinner, and leaving the room once each day for a not very interesting walk along the four-lane thoroughfare that fronted the motel. Around ten o’clock each night I turned on the TV. One of the other motel amenities was the daily TV guide – an 8” by 14” sheet of paper delivered each morning by the housekeeping staff. I had little use for it, but it was among the several small gestures of hospitality from this quaint establishment. Oh, and there’s free Wi-Fi and the water pressure in the shower is excellent.

It was a good week. I wrote some new pages, revised many others, and worked through some structural problems for the first section of a new novel. It would’ve been a great View from balconyweek if not for that phone call halfway through from a colleague at work informing me that our beloved project was being shut down. My room with a view of water and trees and clouds and a glimpse of the Olympics was a comfort as I first ranted out loud and then furiously began tapping out a list of arguments for saving the project before eventually refocusing on my novel. But too soon, it was time to leave the world of fictional characters and conflicts for real ones.

Goodbye, Flagship Inn. Goodbye, view. It’s back to the day job.