Students write funny things about the workshop

The Ruin of a Writer

It’s Saturday afternoon and I sit at my computer, pounding away at a fragmentary ideaWHAT IDEA? that just might blossom into an essay or a story. I am oblivious to the bright sunshine that has finally broken through San Francisco’s weeks and months of gloom,HAVE IT LAND ON YOUR DESK OR ARM OR CAT? to the screeching children racing their bikes past my window, to the pale adults in shorts and T-shirts walking their dogs. OFF IN THE KITCHEN? ACROSS THE ROOM?Last night’s dinner dishes lie, crusted with vindaloo GREAT DETAIL Xsauce, in the sink. The sheets and towels in the washer wait damply to be dried. A stack of New Yorkers STILL IN BLUE WRAPPERSbeckons, undread. The refrigerator’s contents have dwindled to a chunk of cheddar, a bagged Caesar salad, seven kinds of mustard, and assorted condiments; even the milk expired last week. LEARNING TO DRINK COFFEE BLACKBut I am too busy writing to contemplate such banalities.

 

This writing class has ruined my life. I have become a woman obsessed—with words, with characters, with meaning. Everywhere I turn, everything I see and do is “material” demanding to be captured, massaged, and transformed into a new and different reality that I alone create and control. On the rare occasion that I read The New Yorker, it is with a jaundiced eye, readily dismissing world-renowned writers whose arc-less stories fail the “Adair test” promulgated by my teacher.

 

It’s even become a problem at work. My second floor office overlooks the courtyard and front door, nourishing my nosy nature with a view of all comings and goings. The other day as the CEO’s assistant left for lunch, I switched a conference call to mute and started typing. “Sarah slams down the phone and grabs the white leather jacket she just bought on credit with the still-pending bonus, her lovely, serene face contorting in anger. ‘Damn him,’ she mutters under her breath, wondering how many more times he’ll postpone her review. ‘Lunch’ she snaps at the receptionist, bolting out the door. Only this time, Sarah thinks, I might not come back.”  A few minutes later the real live CEO stopped by my office to chit chat on his way downstairs. My face flushed with guilt and embarrassment as I nonchalantly switched the screen to Lotus Notes, asking “What’s up?” It’s bad enough that I was writing on company time …but about my own boss?  VERY FUNNY PARAGRAPH! LOVE THAT!

 

How did this happen?

 

To be honest, I’ve wanted to be a writer since the third grade, when Mrs. Burnett, a pretty, blonde teacher who was about to be diagnosed with cancer, tacked my Christmas poem to the bulletin board.

 

“Christmas is the time of year

When everyone is full of cheer

When mailmen are busy bees

And people put up Christmas trees.” NICE

 

My heart swelled with pride every time I saw it there, adorned with a big gold star, best in class. The dyeDIE? was cast. That year I wrote and illustrated poems for Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, every possible occasion. 25 years later, when my mother died, I found them all in her bottom desk drawer. She was my first and most devoted audience.

 

The next year in Miss Thompson’s class, I branched out into short stories. My first effort, “The Moonies,” recounted the adventures of a lunar rock band that looked and sounded strangely like the Beatles, who had just burst on the American scene, turning masses of females into screaming ninnies—Miss Thompson and me included. I beamed as she read my story aloud to the class as an excellent example of creative writing, emphasis on the creative. Notebooks full of stories followed.

 

By eighth grade I had discovered the power of fiction based on fact, penning a series of humorous stories about a mischievous little boy named Dennis (as in the Menace) modeled on my younger brother David.  Dennis could not avoid trouble, nor did he want to: hiding in the doghouse even after the police had been called to find him (cleverly titled “In the Doghouse”),  yanking off Santa’s beard at Goldwater’s department store, downing all the left-over Manhattans after my parent’s New Year’s Eve party.  Poor David, I made him famous—or infamous. For years everyone called him Dennis.NICE

 

In high school I shifted to journalism and the 5 “Ws.” I was especially good at illuminating the uniqueness in ordinary people—like my best friend Katrin, a petite, perky, red-head who fought bulls in Nogales on weekends or the husky, quiet Bill who designed album covers for New Riders of the Purple Sage. As an added bonus, the journalism teacher was busy having an affair with the assistant principALle, leaving the editorial staff unsupervised. Tales of our blender and pot parties became legend.

 

In college my writing predictably assumed a more serious, academic posture; with weekly poli-sci, psych, and philosophy papers to write it was tough to get “creative.” In those prehistoric, pre-computer days, rough drafts were handwritten and then typed on the Olivetto with little margin for error, White-out notwithstanding. Under the relentless eye of Killer Miller, my notorious advisor, I was forced to focus and edit, turning that rambling 20-page draft into 10 pages of (hopefully) original, insightful analysis.  I also made the acquaintance of the critical essay—the art of a persuasive argument with a beginning, middle, and end—and a hook. This structure worked miracles in print but later proved inadequate in persuading children under 18 of anything.

 

For most of the intervening 25-plus years, writing has been part of my job—as a management consultant, a marketing communications professional, and an editor-in-chief and a think tank of futurists. Proposals, reports, presentations, business plans, press releases, marketing collateral, scenarios, monologues, manifestos, books, articles, interviews, op-eds—I’ve written and edited them all. Along the way I’ve mastered a few tricks, battled for serial commas, and word-smithed to my hearts content. But I’ve also successfully avoided writing anything in my own voice with two exceptions: an annual Christmas letter, beloved by friends but despised by my family who are, necessarily, the protaganists in the sitcom of our life; and an office version of The Night Before Christmas featuring a different topical Santa each year (e.g., George Bush as Scrooge) delivering presents to my coworkers. For decades, I’ve justified the dearth of creative output with the same two excuses:  I have nothing to write about and no time in which to write it.  Disengenuous? Undoubtedly.

 

And now this writing class has ruined me— I have too much to write about and not enough time. I live a life—and in a place—that is rich with characters and experiences. I have no children presently at home to conveniently interfere with creativity. I have a voice that is slowly but relentlessly revealing itself to be something different than I imagined—or frankly, hoped (No Didion here, sorry to say.) I have writing partners that offer critical feedback and unconditional support. Adair, our mentor, not only knows how to write but how to teach.  I have discovered that any idea is worth pursuing even if it sputters out; you never know when that discarded fragment will resurface and shine in a different context. And I’ve realized that experimentation, not perfection is the objective; focusing on the latter is the biggest obstacle to progress for a writer.

 

Happily, I’ve also learned that the laundry can wait, the dishes can wait, even my husband can wait.  But beware, like Sarah, I may not be coming back.

 

Snapshot  #1    Saturday, February 20, 2016

UPSTAIRS ON SCOTT STREET

 

Buttery, flaky, almond –encrusted coffee cake –my mouth waters, and I can almost smell the sugar from where I am sitting on the far end of the overstuffed sofa.

 

This entire yellow house on Scott Street is a pastry of a building….one large-multilayered cake filled to bursting with sweet things, crunchy moments , buttery artifacts of intellect, energies diverse, creative and self-rising. Spaces hard to get to because there are so many layers, so many steps, you think you might die before you get to the layer you seek.

 

A flaky delight of a wooden, mellow yellow birthday cake, a wedding cake of a house, layered with words, successful and failed.

 

The House on Scott Street, a house of language and vaulty ambitions.

 

A sound dresses the cake with an icing of softly clicking computer keys, a torrent of pens scratching on blank paper, yield a mountain of ecstatic language, coated in the molten lava of keystrokes and pen swipes.

 

The Yellow Mansion of Many Minds on Scott Street, crawling with the lit candles of ideas of the hundreds who have come to be baked into it.  A quick snapshot of a place as a pastry, where every crumb is nourishing. No result actually matters in itself, only the process of letting the countless ingredients self-choose, tossing themselves into the wide bowl.

 

 

SNAPSHOT #2

THE DINNER PARTY ON PAGE STREET

Our upper flat is homosexually clean…LOVE THAT PHRASE and by that I don’t mean it’s clean of homosexuals, but rather it’s as clean and perfect as a place can be. Gorgeously so.

 

Because I am not a gay man, and because I am by nature a messy woman, my home can never look like this.

I am chastened when I walk in, because I know I would never employ a toothbrush to clean the corners of the fireplace mantel the way my darling ex  Paul does when he sets out to clean.  If you ask me to clean a space, count on it being messier when I finish than it was before I began. And you never want me to iron one of your shirts. Never ever. I have ruined shirts. Expensive ones.

 

Sweet and helpful women come to our house twice a month and retrieve us from the detritus of our lives.

 

Anyway, last night, the upstairs flat looked as usual gorgeous. And the 8-person dinner party soon assembled.  The table was set with all the best, measured-to-place china , with flowered salad plates in the center of each. From the kitchen came smells of mid-Eastern food, most delivered from Palmyra, our favorite go-to place on Haight Street, and a couple of dishes that Stephen decided to cook himself: a fabulous moussaka, and a rice and lentil dish extraordinaire! Many wines fueled the conversation, and it was loud and steady all the way through the two Whole Foods – bought cakes that were the flourish of dessert: A Chantilly Cream, and a Chocolate Explosion.

 

An Epicurean evening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Adair Lara

Adair Lara 95 Scott Street San Francisco, CA 94117 415-626-9157 Adairlara.com Adair.lara@gmail.com Adair Lara is a writer, teacher and author in San Francisco. A former magazine editor, she wrote a popular, award-winning personal column for the San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years before leaving the paper to write and teach full time. She has appeared in dozens of national magazines. She is the author of 12 books and is a popular voice on Facebook, with 5000 friends who are mostly writers and teachers of writing, many well-known. Her most recent book, which has become a cult favorite in the writing blogsphere, is Naked, Drunk and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essays (Ten Speed). She is at work on another, with the working title Make Your Memoir Suck Less, on voice in the memoir. She holds sold-out workshops in her house on writing essay and memoir and other forms of autobiography, and consults with authors individually, in person or long-distance. Her essays appear in many national magazines, and have been anthologized in dozens of textbooks. • BOOKS • • Naked Drunk and Writing (TEN SPEED) 2011 • The Granny Diaries, Chronicle Books (2008) • The Bigger the Sign, the Worse the Garage Sale, Chronicle Books (2007) • You Know You’re a Writer When, Chronicle Books (2007) • Oopsie! Ouchie!, Chronicle Books (2004) • Normal is Just a Setting on the Dryer, Chronicle Books, 2003 • Slowing Down in a Speeded-Up World, Redwheelweiser (2002) • Hold Me Close, Let Me Go, Broadway Books (2001) • The Best of Adair Lara, Scottwall Associates (1999) • At Adair’s House, Chronicle Books (1995) • Welcome to Earth, Mom, Chronicle Books (1992) • History of Petaluma, a California River Town Scottwall Associates 1982 • Anthologies (a sampling) • Over the Hill and Between the Sheets Springboard (2007) • The Secret Lives of Lawfully Wedding Wives Inner Ocean (2006) • Too Young to Be This Damn Old by Inc. Sourcebooks (Paperback - Mar 1, 2006) • The Thong Also Rises: Further Misadventures from Funny Women on the Road (Travelers’ Tales Guides) by Jennifer L. Leo, Ayun Halliday, and Laurie Notaro (2005) • A Sense of Place Shapiro (2004) • Sand in My Bra & Other Misadventures: Funny Women Write from the Road, Travelers’ Tales (2003) • Coming Alive From Nine to Five in a 24/7 World: A Career Search Handbook for the 21st Century by Betty Michelozzi, Linda Surrell, and Robert Cobez (2003) • The Nine Modern Day Muses: 10 Guides to Creative Inspiration for Artists, Poets, Lovers, and Other Mortals Wanting to Live a Dazzling Existence by Jill Badonsky (2003) • How to Say It Style Guide by Rosalie Maggio (2002) • Romancing the Ordinary by Sarah Ban Breathnach (2002) • Paris: An Inspired Anthology and Travel Resource Three Rivers Press (2000) • Simple Pleasures of the Home: Cozy Comforts and Old-Fashioned Crafts for Every Room in the House by Susannah Seton (1999) • Mama Get the Hammer! There’s A Fly On Papa’s Head! by Barbara Johnson (1994) • A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 More Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit (Chicken Soup for the Soul) by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (1994) Awards: • 1990: Associated Press, Best Columnist in California. • 1997: Humor Columns for Newspapers over 100,000, National Society of Newspaper Columnists • 1998: First place, general interest columns, National Society of Newspaper Columnists. • 1999: Second place, commentary, American Association of Sunday and Feature editors contest, competing against papers with circulation over 300,000. • May 17, 2002 was declared Adair Lara Day in San Francisco by proclamation of Mayor Willie Brown Book consulting My students also include Robin Wolaner, founder of Parenting Magazine and author of “Naked in the Boardroom” ; Terry Gamble, author of several novels including “The Water Dancers”; Susan Parker, who wrote columns for the Chron and came out with “Tumbling After,” Peggy Vincent, author of “Babycatcher,” David Gottfried, author of “Greed to Green,” and James Frey, whom I told not to worry about making stuff up, no one would notice. (Ok, made up that one). JT Leroy may have taken my class, who knows? John Brooks The Girl Behind the Door The Girl Behind the Door (Simon & Shuster 2016) Without Adair's guidance, sharp wit, coaching, seasoned interviewing skills, succinct editing and experienced counsel, there is no way that my memoir would ever have been published. David Gottfried, author of “Greed to Green” Adair's keen editorial eye and sharp sense of story arc helped me pare a 500-page manuscript into a tighter, plot driven read. Her coaching and enthusiasm opened doors to locating an agent that had previously been bolted. Mary Patrick, author of Family Plots The Upside of Down -- will be published in September by a Melbourne publisher called Transit Lounge. Adair, I would not be in this position were it not for you. Your support, comments, feedback and encouragement were critical and came at a time when I was wondering why I was staying up late at night working on this book. Susan Biggar The Upside of Down -- will be published in September by a Melbourne publisher called Transit Lounge. Adair, I would not be in this position were it not for you. Your support, comments, feedback and encouragement were critical and came at a time when I was wondering why I was staying up late at night working on this book. Jacqueline Winspear, author of the Maisie Dobbs series When I first met Adair, I wasn’t at all sure where I ultimately wanted to go as a writer – although I did, and still do, harbor a deep wish to be an Adair Lara. Joining her personal essay workshops opened so many avenues of possibility, although Adair kept suggesting I try my hand at fiction. Eventually, I took the leap, sharing the first chapter of my novel, Maisie Dobbs with Adair, who pushed me to continue. Without her insightful guidance and encouragement, Maisie Dobbs might be just a couple of chapters collecting dust in a drawer.” Sunshine Mugrabi Based on your suggestions. I’ve cut the manuscript by about 20,000 words and three chapters. It’s down to about 93,000 words, 35 chapters. I’ve cut pocket bios, tightened dialog, looked for inconsistencies, listened for clinkers, tried to strip out redundancy and make the narrative taut and linear, while retaining the lyricism and improving pacing and rhythm. Your critique really helped me see how to cut and focus. I’ve carried your printed suggestions around for the past three months, the pages now tattered and coffee stained. I’m grateful for your thought- provoking suggestions and encouragement. Hey Adair: Hope you got my gushing call the other day. I LOVE what you've done for my book in too many ways to mention. Peggy Kennedy When I first met Adair, I wasn’t at all sure where I ultimately wanted to go as a writer – although I did, and still do, harbor a deep wish to be an Adair Lara. Joining her personal essay workshops opened so many avenues of possibility, although Adair kept suggesting I try my hand at fiction. Eventually, I took the leap, sharing the first chapter of my novel, Maisie Dobbs with Adair, who pushed me to continue. Without her insightful guidance and encouragement, Maisie Dobbs might be just a couple of chapters collecting dust in a drawer.” Lolly Winston, author of Good Grief This was my first writing workshop and it snowballed on me. First you talked about needing conflict/struggle in your story and I thought, "Well, crap. There goes my non-fiction piece about living in an RV for ten years. No conflict. Won't work." (I know - these are my thoughts and they're supposed to be italicized but the email font won't do it!) After the first day I was thinking maybe I should just try essays and forget my project. Then, on the second day, you honed in on specifics and I got inspired. I'm just going to write. I don't care if it gets published. I'll have my story and it will be mine to keep. Thank you for your humor, your insight, your warmth and your knowledge of writing which you so willingly Peggy Kennedy author of Neverland Hey Adair: Hope you got my gushing call the other day. I LOVE what you've done for my book in too many ways to mention.
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