Summer Reading

I have, at last, finished the first complete draft of a new novel. It’s been almost a year, feels longer, but then, in that time I moved twice, first to Maury, then Paris.

And it feels different because my process has changed as I’ve learned how to actually write a novel. First time around, I thought I was working hard. I would read a chapter, polish a bit, read it aloud, and think, that’s pretty good. I had done a lot of research and wanted to be sure everyone was aware of that, so the facts spilled onto the page and overwhelmed the story. I asked a few friends to read a draft and they were kind, much too kind, and my fantasy-prone mind started screaming OVERNIGHT SUCCESS!So I started submitting to agents and got clobbered like a rookie pitcher who can’t get his curveball over the plate. Hitters feast on fastballs. Agents pass on pretty good.

I look at that effort now and see everything that was wrong and that I could not see at that time. I started again and it was better, and I had the good fortune of finding a writing group: Salut! Paris Creative Writers. At my first meeting, I received my first real criticism: gentle, but pointed. Their suggestions were so obvious to me that I could only conclude I still wasn’t working hard enough. I knew to do what they said, but I hadn’t done it. So I revise, and again, and again, and I’m always amazed at the clunky prose I find the fourth time through. But it’s getting better. Fewer clunkers, sharper story, history transformed into a personal journey, a complete first draft and extensive notes for the next.

It will need to sit for a while before revision, so I’ll catch up on some of Barbara’s recommended reading, watch the Giants and France in the World Cup, work on another project, explore Paris, and resume the blog before returning to the book. Expectations have changed. The goal now is to learn how to write a good novel. And I get all that stuff about the process being the reward, but I have not evolved to a state where I no longer need recognition. I’m very much aware of how unlikely it is to be published, but I will submit it to agents, because what’s the point of writing if no one reads it?

Bits and Pieces of Paris

The river is high, about five meters now, expected to rise another meter by Saturday. The embankment is underwater, Métro stations are soggy, nearby RER stations are flooding. None of this is particularly surprising because every day seems to bring some rain. Damp winters are expected but the persistent precipitation this year is extraordinary. But with convenient public transportation and numerous indoor activities, Paris keeps me busy.

Night Readers

I took in a reading by Nathan Englander at Shakespeare and Company. The book was a new novel: Dinner at the Center of the Earth, a tour de force of literary talent with multiple points of view, time frames, and locations, all skillfully woven together into a spy story and a meditation on peace in the Middle East. Or its absence. Englander’s prose is crystalline, his speech, a rapid-fire stream of consciousness that can accommodate four ideas in one sentence. If he wrote as fast he talked, there’d be a new novel every week.

Christopher Dickey addresses Democrats Abroad

Went to a meeting of Democrats Abroad the other night. It was, as expected, an hour of recounting the horrors of the past year, followed by an optimistic preview of Democratic prospects for the mid-term elections. The most striking, and perhaps discouraging aspect of the evening was the amount of gray hair in the audience. I might be wrong, but I think it possible that I was not the oldest person in the room. I doubt that’s a reflection of the Democratic Party in general, most likely just a function of how many old liberals have been able to retire to Paris.

Paris Creative Writers

Now for something I never thought I’d do: I’ve joined a writing group. I’ve avoided them in the past, thinking they were another form of group therapy, something I’ve also managed to avoid, but the need for feedback on a new book that’s been a struggle so far, and the desire to make new friends finally overcame my prejudice. This is a good thing. I like the members, there are about seven or eight regulars: from Australia, England, the US, all unpublished but skillful writers. Their criticisms are never cruel and sometimes helpful, it’s interesting to read pieces of other work in progress, and it pushes me to work harder to bring something new each week. This is causing some changes in my process. On previous books, I blazed through a first draft to the end of the story, then went through multiple revisions. Looking back, I think I never went far enough, needed more multiples of those revisions. The writing group is forcing me to revise and polish as I go along because first drafts are simply too rough for anyone to read. Now I’m revising each chapter down to the sentence level multiple times before presenting to the group. There are still flaws—must give my colleagues something to criticize—but I think working this way allows me to be more self-critical and helps me get closer to the precise prose I’m seeking. And I just read an article in which Zadie Smith talks about a similar approach so I’m thinking fame and major awards can’t be far behind.

©2108 Ron Scherl

Moving On

I never planned to spend the rest of my life in Maury but when I came back in March, I thought I’d live here for a few years, save lots of money, then move to Paris. I knew what I was facing, the town would not have changed much from five years ago, but that intrigued me because I had begun work on a rewrite of my novel about that time and planned to write now from the perspective of today as well as of that time: to report on what really happened and comment with five years of hindsight. Being here could only help, but I’m now far enough along that future revisions won’t require geographic proximity.

Autumn Vineyards: Maury

As temperatures began to drop, and posters for the next Bingo night began to appear, I started to look north. At first, finding a place to rent in Paris appeared to be a task of insurmountable complexity. I contacted everyone I know with any connection to the city but failed to turn up a lead. I worked my way through hundreds of ads throughout the city and learned that the good ones go fast. I would have to be there to jump on something quickly, a five-hour train ride might cost me the place of my dreams. Well, probably not, my dreams are bigger than Paris apartments—that’s why the cafes are crowded—and kitchens are almost an afterthought—that’s why there are two bistros and a brasserie on almost every street. But I wasn’t going there to sit at home, but to be part of this city that I’ve always loved, despite the fact that more often than not, I’ve been there in unhappy times. San Francisco and Paris were the only two places I could see myself living and the remarkable news is that rents in Paris are about half of what they are in San Francisco. I could make this work.

I spent a lot of time looking at ads and learning my way around the numerous agencies and aggregators online. I booked a trip and when I tried to start making appointments I got a wake-up call. Before I would even be allowed to make an appointment I would have to submit a complete dossier which consists of references, letters of employment, and pay stubs showing income of three times the monthly rent. Or, I could provide a guarantor who is French and has the same credentials. Or, as a last resort, some owners would accept a year’s rent paid in advance. Maybe I couldn’t make this work.

Paris: Le Marais

Then, for some reason, Craig’s List popped into my head and there it was: a small house in a courtyard of the 15th arrondissement. I responded immediately and the owner was positive but said she had four appointments booked and how soon could I get there. I was still five days away from my scheduled trip so I called a Paris friend and asked her to go see it. She attested to my sterling character, her boys poked around and asked questions as if they were going to be living there, the owner was charmed and now I was real to her. She checked out my blog and said she would wait to meet me before making a decision. I got to Paris about 4 PM on a Sunday, we had a deal by 5, and I moved in Tuesday for ten days before returning to Maury for a couple of weeks to pack, sell my car and close the house.

I’ll be back from time to time to see the few friends I have here, to visit with the Walkers when they come and, I hope, to work on another book with them. But I don’t belong here. I’m a city guy and the thought of living in Paris after so many years of dreaming about it is perfectly right.

Paris: Statue of Henri IV

©2017 Ron Scherl

Getting To Know You – Quickly

It’s quite a challenge: an 826 Valencia podcasting field trip with high school students who have written letters to the president-elect. The object is to take these letters and turn them into two minute essays the students will record and 826 will podcast. The challenge is to get to know this student in a hurry so that I can advise and encourage in a way that means something to her, and so that the words that result are hers. It can’t be about what I might want to say to the man.

So I sit down with an African-American teenage girl and try to find a few areas of experience that will support her opinions without losing her anger. I start by reading her original letter, a rambling rant against demonstrated intolerance characterized as “crazy”. This doesn’t have much to do with mental illness, it’s used as a synonym for hateful bigotry. She tells him he doesn’t know what her life is like and he’s too stupid to try to learn. He doesn’t like Latinos and because of that he shouldn’t be president. She’s not interested in being diplomatic or showing respecting the man who will soon be president. He has forfeited the right to respect by rejecting her and her friends. The challenge is how to shape this prose into a coherent statement without sanitizing it into meaninglessness, how to support the anger with examples, how to teach her a bit about writing without losing her distinctive voice. I’m not dealing with grammar and punctuation here, rather with enhancing an argument by incorporating examples and comparisons to support her position.

She talks about her Latino friends and their families with compassion, but without ever losing the hard edge that defines her relationship to the world around her. There isn’t an ounce of sentimentality in her narrative. We talk for a few minutes, I suggest a few additions, then she surprises me by beginning her rewrite with a moving mini-story about a family trying to cross the border and the hardship and violence they face. She writes of the pregnant mother using the last of her money to hire a coyote and the death of the coyote in a violent confrontation with border patrol. She goes on to write about a Latino family as if they were her own and I encourage her to dig a little deeper with details of where they live and what they served her for dinner, but she’s not interested, loses focus, and turns her attention to her phone. When she’s through, her anger returns and she finishes the essay with a statement of hopeless impotence. I ask her if she might want to end with a bit of hope for the future, a hope I do not feel but wanted to inspire. She did not. I tried to be positive, telling her that when things don’t go our way we have to take action, express our dissatisfaction and try to make things better. Action can give us hope for a better future. She didn’t buy it.

It is America’s shame that we are having this conversation in 2017, more than fifty years after the long-delayed passage of the Civil Rights Act. It is our failure that our children fear for their freedom because a man with dictatorial inclinations was elected to the highest office in our country by attacking the press and promising to exclude those he doesn’t like. This is not an ordinary election, this is the most serious threat to our democracy we have seen.

It is now 10:00 AM on January 20, 2017, the president of the electoral college is now the President of the United States.

 

 

The Letter

The good folks at 826 Valencia decided to continue a tradition of asking students to write letters to a newly elected president and publishing them in book form. It was one of the writing options this week and one of my kids chose it.

J: Will he read it?

R: I don’t know.

J: Will he answer?

R: Probably not

J: Then why should we do it?

R: When you have ideas, opinions, concerns, it’s important to express them. Writing this letter is a way to make your feelings known.

J: I don’t want to.

R: Let’s give it a try.

We began by brainstorming using an outline prepared by the staff. The first item was “Tell the President-elect something about yourself”.

J: I don’t want to.

R: Why not?

He just shook his head.

R: Why not just tell him your name and where you live?

J: I don’t want to. He’ll come and get me.

R: I don’t think that’s going to happen. I was trying like hell to be positive.

J: Yeah, but you don’t know.

R: I’m pretty sure.

He turned away.

R: Let’s move on to the next part. What do you want to tell the new president?

J: Don’t build a wall.

R: Good. Let’s tell him why you think that.

J: Because I’m Mexican and Mexicans should be free and I have cousins in Mexico.

R: That’s good. You can write that.

But he doesn’t write.

R: What’s wrong?

J: He doesn’t like Mexicans. He says bad things.

R: Do you think all people should be treated the same?

He looks at me and nods his head. My question too dumb to merit a verbal response.

R: Then you should write that. It’s important for him to hear.

But he pulls the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head, then sinks to the table.

I so want to reach this kid.

R: J, it can really help to say what you feel and by writing it down, you let other people know and you’ll find they feel that way too. A lot of people with the same ideas getting together can change things, so being able to speak and write about how you feel is powerful. That’s why you come here to practice writing and this is important to write about.

His head stays down. I don’t know if he’s tired, not feeling well, really upset, or just lazy. I keep trying to reach him but I’m not getting through and we’re running out of time.

Is there anything else you want to tell him?

Yeah, he shouldn’t be president.

Now, more than ever, we have an obligation to help kids like this. Donate, volunteer at 826 Valencia.

©2016 Ron Scherl

The Day After

The kids are frightened. So am I. This election brought fear and despair, a violent anxiety took root in my gut and remains. It was a struggle just to summon the will to leave my apartment and when I did it seemed odd that people were going about their daily business and the sun had risen. I’m scheduled to volunteer at 826 Valencia on Wednesdays but I felt drained and hopeless, not certain I wanted to live in a country that could elect that man. But I went, not making a decision with purpose, just walking to the bus and then the Tenderloin Center on auto-pilot, propelled by a sub-conscious desire to do something. I expected to find like-minded people at 826 and, of course, I did. But I didn’t want to try to put a happy face on a cataclysmic tragedy: these kids: African-American, Muslim, Hispanic—at the beginning of their lives—were going to suffer much more than me. They will have to grow up under a government elected on a platform of ignorance, racism, and misogyny. They can look forward to a Supreme Court dedicated to limiting their freedom in order to protect wealthy white men. I am closer to the end of my life than the beginning and I can choose to leave this country. They are so young and already faced with the significant obstacles of “otherness”. Now what?

Well, 826 is a special place. Kona encouraged us to talk to the kids about the election, let them express their feelings and encourage them to write about them; help them to develop their voices, let them know someone is listening. I had been thinking of my task as helping them unlock their imaginations but this was a more important job. They need to know their feelings are valid and they must be heard.

I was working with two Hispanic kids and a young Muslim girl. They began by feeling me out. “Who did you vote for?” I told them I had voted for Clinton and they said they did too, or they would have if they could vote. They said their parents voted for Clinton and they were afraid of Trump. He doesn’t like Mexicans. He’s a racist. He’s going to build a wall so no more Mexicans can come here. One kid looked at me and asked if he could write about anything he wanted. I smiled for the first time that day. “Of course.” He wanted to know if he could just call him Trump, not President. I said that was fine and he wrote about the wall and all the Mexicans stuck on the other side. He wondered if Trump would build a wall around the whole country and what that would mean. It frightened him.

Another child said she didn’t want to talk or write about it because the election made her parents angry and she was frightened when they got angry. She just wanted it go away and wanted to finish her story about a very small banana split. The third child arrived late and began by asking me how I felt about the election. I said I was very, very unhappy and she said she was too. She said her parents were worried but they didn’t want to talk about it.

I said this was a difficult time and we were all a little scared but we were there to help and support them and that would continue. My voice broke and for a second I thought I would not be able to stop the tears that were imminent all day. I got through it, had to because I had to push my lazy problem child to start writing.

I didn’t expect to finish this piece on an optimistic note—it’s not my usual inclination—but I have to search for sanity in a world I see as dangerously unbalanced. On the ground level, programs like 826 can often feel like entering a battle naked and unarmed. It can seem impossible to do enough to make a difference. But it’s not. The ability to communicate is power and if we can help these children learn to express themselves, if we can foster their confidence and support their ambitions, their time will come and they will be equipped with the tools they need to succeed. They need to know now that their voices matter and surrounding them with adults who listen and take them seriously is a beginning.

826 Valencia

Haven’t spent much time in the Tenderloin – maybe the occasional semi-voluntary visit to the latest funky chic Indian bistro – but then it was drive in, dive in, drive out. But now that I’m volunteering at 826 Valencia’s Tenderloin Center, I’m in by Muni, walking around, working with the kids and walking back to the bus – with eyes open, in the light of day. It’s something to see.

First impression is horrifying: a woman squatting to urinate on the sidewalk, the stream flowing downhill until it meets a sleeping man, open drug dealing, people living and presumably dying on the streets, bags of clothing stashed in doorways already crowded with people, the smells of human waste. The whole panoply of suffering is on display all day long.

But if you’re not here in the afternoons when school lets out, you don’t see the kids. And you don’t realize that families live here, strong, hard-working families who simply don’t make enough money to live anywhere else.

So when the kids get out of school in the afternoon, they walk past all the misery to King Carl’s Emporium in the Tenderloin Center. It’s a store with lots of cool things to inspire adventure and spark the imagination, all personally selected by Carl, a puffer fish who is always around though never seen.

Tenderloin Writing Lab
Tenderloin Writing Lab

But they’re not here to shop. After a day at school, they settle in to the writing lab for an hour to write stories. It’s a wonderful thing. They write about dogs and pumpkins and wanting to go to Yemen to see their cousins. They write about getting a pit bull for protection, how many pies can be made from a pumpkin big as a house, and the discomfort of sharing your bed with a horse who’s really a cat but takes up as much of the bed as a horse would.img_1132

We try to let their imaginations roam while also teaching a bit of structure. We talk about the importance of describing what they’re thinking about, how to build the arc of a story, and a little bit of sentence structure. We correct some spelling errors and throw in a few periods and capital letters. Then they get to play in the treehouse.

826 Valencia, which was founded in 2002 by Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari is all about helping under-resourced students develop creative writing skills and supporting teachers to inspire creativity in their students. The goal is to smooth the path to academic and career success for kids not born with a wealth of advantages. I hope the kids are getting as much out of it as I am.

Bay Area Book Festival

Writers talking about writing: sometimes it’s interesting, sometimes it ain’t.

When you come across a writer who thinks clearly and speaks well, it can be a rewarding, sometimes inspiring time. So I spent an enjoyable hour with Dana Spiotta and Jonathan Lethem, inspired to read their books, which was exactly the point of it all, but also feeling optimistic about my own work. Maybe it’s just the projection fantasy – seeing myself on that stage – but it’s enough to get me back to work on the next novel.

Dana Spiotta and Jonathan Lethem
Dana Spiotta and Jonathan Lethem

But sometimes things run off the rails – as they did with a panel of European writers – and often it’s because writers in the audience are looking for THE ANSWER. “Who are your major influences? Do you outline or fly by the seat of your pants? Is it necessary to have an MFA? Do you? Here’s where the moderator needs to step in and limit the scope of the conversation.

Talking about the ideas in a novel, OK. Talking about the craft of writing, not so much. Because, like most creative endeavors, writing is about 10% inspiration and the rest is hard work. So there’s really not much to talk about: you’re inspired to write, or you’re not, either you sit down and do the work, or you don’t.

Bay Area Book Festival
Bay Area Book Festival

Now publishing is something altogether different and that took me to a seminar entitled the Lifecycle of a Book, featuring an agent, a small publisher, a publicist, a social media guru, and a marketing specialist. Andy Ross, the agent, found humor in the enormous odds against getting anything published in the traditional way. I didn’t.

Brooke Warner, the publisher, responded by presenting a new hybrid publishing model in which the author pays production costs and receives a larger royalty, as well as editorial, distribution, and marketing services. This is middle ground between self-publishing, where the author pays for everything then has to figure out how to get readers to find the book, and traditional publishing, where the author trades most of the income for these services, although the amount of promotion and publicity publishers do seems to be diminishing and is now seen as a shared obligation. The other speakers filled us in on how much authors will have to do for themselves and how much it’s still going to cost.

If I had left this a little earlier, I might not have been shut out of Adam Hochshild’s sold out talk about his new book on the Spanish Civil War. I might have learned something useful there.

©2016 Ron Scherl

North Beach Flaneur

Walking north on Kearny from downtown, the landscape changes at Sacramento Street: building heights go down, sunlight finds the street, pedestrians are older, and noodle shops replace office towers. Portsmouth Square is the open space in this densely crowded Chinese neighborhood, a living room for multiple generations, but it sits above a parking garage, easy to miss when walking under the pedestrian bridge on Kearny.

After passing the Chinatown Campus of City College and the House of Nanking, North Beach begins at Columbus, with Coppola’s Café Zoetrope, followed by two poles of the bar culture: the Comstock Saloon and Mr. Bing’s, both closed in the morning. Up the street to Jack Kerouac Alley, the corner of Vesuvio and City Lights, and across Columbus: Spec’s and the new Tosca. This was the center of the world when I first lived in North Beach: browsing books, reading in the basement, and drinking Negronis and Americanos before making the almost sobering trek up Vallejo Street to a room in a house long since replaced by pricey condos. Vesuvio was open for the morning drinkers but not for me today. City Lights is still the welcoming, quirky bookstore it’s always been and an hour uncovered two non-traditional histories of Paris (research) and a noir titled Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette, an author new to me.

I took my books to Café Puccini for a coffee among familiar faces to which I couldn’t add names, probably never knew them. The faces were older, of course, softened by age and memory. I tried to place them here, or another café or bar, but no luck. I nodded and moved on.

Molinari’s, the last Italian deli; the unique and indispensable Mario’s; Il Pollaio; Washington Square, the neighborhood lawn; Liguria bakery, sold out as usual by 11; the line at Mama’s, an unexplainable phenomenon that has persisted for decades; the rebuilt Joe DiMaggio playground; Gino & Carlo’s.

Liguria

Mario'sPlaygroundLunch at the new Original US Restaurant. More than an exercise in nostalgia, this is food from the Italian grandmother you always wished you had. All the other old neighborhood restaurants are gone but the family somehow managed to put this back together, covered the walls with photos of the old place and the family who made it special, and brought back a small piece of the neighborhood.

USRan into Supervisor Aaron Peskin and asked him if he was enjoying being back in City Hall. “I’m having fun,” he said with a wicked smile that left no doubt. Aaron loves to stir the pot by extending the progressive agenda as far to the left as possible. He’s good at it, and it’s a useful service to our complacent, liberal city.

People complain about obscene rents, Airbnb, the lack of grocery and hardware stores, shoe repair replaced by yet another restaurant for tourists, and all the usual urban ills, but there’s still a neighborhood here if you’re willing to look for it.

664AWalked past several doors that used to mean home, then back down Columbus to the bus that would take me there.

The Boy in the Film

I’m not sure why this image haunts me. At first I thought he resembled me at that age but now I’m not sure. This picture was made at the Mémorial du Camp de Rivesaltes, from a film about camp inmates that is projected on the wall of the museum.

I’m not much of a believer in fate; the idea that I might have been drawn to this place, to this story because of some unknown personal connection doesn’t resonate. I’ve never uncovered any evidence of any member of my family having been at this camp, and I simply do not believe in reincarnation, which nixes the thought that it might in fact be me. It’s tempting but I’ve already written this book and I’m not in it.

So what’s going on here?

My best guess is that the superficial resemblance cemented an emotional connection to the camp that informs the novel. That connection began with my first visit to the site, deepened with the photos I made that day, and went further with the research that followed. It became personal with the challenge in the eyes of this boy looking directly into the camera.

I’m not sure how old he is. I would have thought about fifteen but the dark pouches under his eyes belong to an older man. He is shirtless, which would suggest summer heat on the Rivesaltes plain, and while his face is thin, we cannot see his torso and can’t know for sure if he has had enough to eat. He looks healthy and his direct gaze projects strength.

I’d like to think he survived. Perhaps he was one of the more than six hundred children who were saved from the camp by the heroic efforts led by Friedel Bohny-Reiter of Secours Suisse aux Enfants. Perhaps he made it to a home in the region and was raised by one of the many anonymous families who risked their own lives to save the children of strangers. He could have grown up to be an artist, a musician, or a writer. Or maybe he settled nearby, married, raised a family, plowed his vineyards, and sent his fruit to the coop. Maybe he still does.

I am not the boy. I am the camera.

©2016 Ron Scherl