Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How to Write, Part 1

For Will Blythe--
The best way to make money from writing is to write about how to make money from writing and charge for it.

Over the years, friends and passers-by have asked me for advice on writing. I have my own narrow views, informed by years in formal classes, story conferences with other writers, and burying my head in the standard how-to texts when I should have been writing. (Henry James, by way of example, can tell you precisely how to structure your prose if you want to write like Henry James. I'd rather write like Barry Hannah, but have no chance of writing like either of them.) Popular emerging literary criticism from the time I studied in graduate school particularly cherished the word "informed", so I honor it here.

One school would analyze the writer's prose aggregate of grains of sand sparkling on the upright cusp of a woman's arched bottie as she rises from the nude beach on the Riviera to chill in the mouth of the sea. Another would say that the one doing the counting is the author of the text, since there are no original ideas, let alone original grains of sand.

There's no magic pill--only snake oil--for cobbling together a string of descriptors to circumscribe the sputtering belch of a four-barrel Holley 4150 carburetor as it chokes down cool morning air on a summer's day in Augusta, the Dodge still mounted on bricks in a driveway strewn with the detritus of broken screws, oily rags, the tattered head of a stuffed giraffe, trampled wisteria blossoms and frenzied army ants, a pair of oily, frayed bluejean legs splayed out from beneath the gray bondo and rusted frame, one cuff tucked into a Vietnam jungle boot while the other simply ripped to the calf, exposing....

This is the thing, not the idea of the thing. It's about taking action against the desire to think about the action. There are two shot glasses on the nightstand filled with amber liquid. One is labeled "Heaven" and the other, "Instructions for Heaven". From which would you drink?

And with each day's march across the page, you pile up things in the order in which they appear across the screen of the mind, set to the cadence of the heart and, after a while, you have a nasty jumble of stuff, just like the tangle of cord from the stowed earphones of a portable music player in a packing box already bursting with co-polymer fishing line, red shoelaces for your white basketball Jordans, a corded telephone handset (for the moment the cordless batteries expire without warning), the knotted ball of rubber bands you knew you'd need in a pinch, and the pink and mauve thread you've saved to append stray buttons to the double-knit, scotch-plaid leisure suit which someday may rise from the ashes toward your statement of retro chic.

Most people who ask for advice lack the salt to spend the days and years it may take to cultivate their own voice--if ever. You have to write like everyone else that wants to be a writer until you're sick of it and the voices you hear from television or the crappy novels you've read finally percolate away. You have to be willing to end up being just an average writer. There just aren't enough average writers these days anyway.

After college (after one of the colleges) I worked as a cub reporter in Newark, California-- home to Morton Salt. At the bottom of the watery curve of San Francisco Bay there are wide flats of mud and foam. The seawater flushed in with every tide and the flats were caked with with heavy salts. Morton simply reigned it in. At the end of the harvest cycle, the water had evaporated into the California sun and through endless summer days the rust-hued machines crisscrossed the basin, piling up crystalline mountains of salt, blinding-white grains blowing across the road in the trailing breeze. Nature takes time.

Reading widely can help. One summer I bored through several dozen Harlequin romances, charting the structure, noting when the wealthy stud with the fencing scar finally admits his undying love to the hapless trucking company secretary. (It's around page 168).

"There is no rule on how to write," Hemingway said. "Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it's like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges."

A writer's job is to endure, Faulkner said. That means staying in the chair until the blasting and evaporating -- the erosion of the poorly wrought sentence down to bedrock -- does its thing.

My first and kindest writing mentor told me that everything I wrote could be cut by 75 percent. (You won't see barely enough of it here.) He didn't mean that I had become Thomas Wolfe incarnate, piling up huge constructions and plotlines of rectilinear animal motion. He did not mean that I wrote too much; he meant that I said too little. I wrote the way most high school students speak--and continue to speak well into their mid-lives (or at least until they have to work for a living). Like, you know, what I mean to say is that the sentence, to tell the truth, was, like, doing this and I was, like, thinking that and you know, it was fucked up.

Hemingway also once said the best advice he could give to an aspiring writer was to "go out and hang yourself", and repeat as necessary until you have some notion of the human condition. This advice is not applicable if you wish to become a technical writer, where suffering and writing constitute the same act.

"Life, friends, is boring, we must not say so," wrote John Berryman--expert writing advice from a brilliant poet with severe mental illness who leaped to his death from a bridge. It is not necessary to be mad or a drunk to write brilliantly, however many brilliant writers are both. Not all great authors stick their heads in ovens or walk with purpose out to the salty sea. Madness and suffering may fire the imagination, or help release the weasels in the brain, but it doesn't always equate to getting it down on paper. Under the Volcano is a uniquely fine example of a punitive alcoholic mind organizing the universe alcoholically--an exquisite novel of a lifetime, penned by a drunk who died choking on his vomit.

Hemingway, to follow the thread, is said to have shot himself because of creeping alcoholism. Please. The fellow suffered at least four major concussions following recurrent car/jeep/airplane crashes and you can't chalk it all up to two-fisted rivers of whiskey. Ray Carver's mean-edged, alcohol-tinged prose transcended into billowing clouds of winged grace in his last ten sober years on earth. Read and re-read "Where I'm Calling From" or "Cathedral".

'Nuff said on that subject.

I over-write all the do-dah day. The road of excess, Blake reminds us, leads to the palace of wisdom. You can't get to less until you've slathered the crap out of that prose turkey, basting with genuine butterfat. See? I wrote this piece in three hours and loose change. And I cut a third and re-wrote half the sentences before calling it quits. It would become something else entirely if I devoted (the perfect word) more time to it.

Whether you and I will accomplish a grain of victory in this writing life is another matter. There's alchemy, luck, and too many things we'll never control. I'm shooting for small, lovely moments. An email kiss from a stranger. The delight in dropping a period at the end of a sigh.

Maps to success, overarching plans, guarantees for commercial fanfare are best left to the publishing self-help mavens who routinely hear the cascading laughter of coins tumbling into the cash drawer. They know what it takes to sell books.

But getting out of bed, settling down to pen or keyboard, turning up the music, turning off the music, working at dawn or through the quiet hours of night, doing it with any consistency during a life that bears little evidence of progress when mapped by our critical mind-and hitting the "save" button with regularity-will foster progress and, quite possibly, character.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

On The Pyro-Quack Tour

Only those who have felt the searing pain of a pinched sciatica nerve radiating down their leg will know. Imagine, if you haven't, the incessant brutality of a half-inch drill bit driving deep into your ankle while you toss and turn in bed for weeks without sleep. Then add a flesh-ripping ache, akin to a stream of magma down the nerve along your calf, and the crawl of a thousand ants between your toes.

Now multiply it by minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years without remedy.

Even the more prescient threats of consequence in adolescence couldn't spare me. I wouldn't have listened, anyway. Russ and I had a game in junior high where we'd run headlong at each other and slam our shoulders together. We'd grunt like musk oxen in libidinous angst.

In high school I toted a sousaphone or bass drum in countless miles of parades. Carried the bass drum down a faux New York avenue during my cameo in Hello Dolly. Played tackle football without pads and endured a year of college rugby--all seemingly without consequence. In the 1980s, I'd train for hours with Jacques, lifting weights on the porch overlooking the sea at Santa Cruz, running for miles a day to get in shape for slam dancing on weekend nights at the Catalyst. Oh, we slammed.

And at 32, I was doing chair dips at my beach house in Aptos, using my body weight to pump up my triceps muscles when I felt a faint ping in my lumbar vertebra and spent the following day on all fours, tears pouring down, grinding my teeth at a sensation that someone had buried a screwdriver in my ankle.

Chronic pain is not for wimps. I have known people who walked with dignity and inner peace through life-claiming ailments and wonder what got into them. In our family, a sneeze is foreplay to cancer. We rent billboards when we catch the flu.

For a month I lay bedridden, ice packs pressed against my spine, my knees elevated. Physicians prescribed muscle relaxants, pain killers (God bless them!), and physical therapy. In the end, I received my doctor's approval to drive cross country to attend grad school in Alabama.

Less than a month into the semester, the disc slid back across the nerve endings and cannibals began once again to tear out chunks of my leg and gnaw on the wounds. Toss in the brain weasels that set to work once I'm in pain, add a healthy dose of heart-stammering culture shock, relentless Southern heat, and the heavy teaching/learning load of grad school, and I was ready to experience what I grimly called "Youth In Asia".

What I found, instead, were the Yellow Pages listings for chiropractors in Tuscaloosa, selecting (as anyone else might find suspicious) the office with the largest paid ad. And if grandiosity was the sign of professional acumen, then the long line of people streaming out the chiropractic office door and onto the sidewalk of the muggy fall day in T-town, then I had surely picked the winner.

Doctor Death had a new, candy-apple Corvette parked out front with a personalized Alabama Heart-of-Dixie license plate: "NoPain".

And I doubt he felt any.

Meanwhile, patients were shuffled through the office like cattle herded along to the abbatoir, whistling faint songs of hope as we trudged. In you went; the nurse took a healthy swipe off of your credit card, set you face-down on a movable table where you waited for Doctor Death to prance in and slam away as you cried out for justice.

He was at least 6 feet 9, 265 pounds, and came in stealthily, hammered you into the table, then pulled you to your feet with his large, hammy fist, and showed you the way to the corridor where you exited out a rear door, assembly-line style. He never asked how I was doing.

In truth, I wasn't getting any better, although I did learn that when visiting writers came through the university, it helped to drink heavily with them so as to sit through the readings. On Friday nights, we went to Storyville and pounded the cheap cocktails and I went home to rage angrily at the pain (and at my partner, Alabama, moronic student essays, and anyone in earshot).

Once I told Doctor Death that he was hurting me more than he knew and he replied that my pain was part of the healing. Every few days I'd squeeze in raw agony into the VW and drive over to line up with dozens of patients who were ahead of me in the slashing heat of mid-day. I couldn't tell if he was helping them, either. Meanwhile, my student loan account was hemorrhaging.

Eventually, I just gave up and tried to live with it.

Now over the years I've met some genuine healers who hold chiropractic licenses. Some helped, some admitted they couldn't help completely, several changed me for the better. A fellow out in Grass Valley helped heal emotional trauma from childhood. I've been needled, rolfed, stretched, yanked, had my cranium held by an herbalist, and burned by glass cups a healer put on my back in the Yucatan.

I'll offer Doctor Death up to karma. When I decided to stop driving to his office, my back felt better than ever.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Break a Leg

It's what my family calls the Hyman Curse. I'm not convinced that we've been singled out. I hear too many horror stories from other people to consider my siblings and progenitors sole proprietors of the domain of self-inflicted misery. There's a faint tinge of victimization to wander that route of presumption. But I do believe to my bones in the notion that we relish in our misfortunes in a grisly way and I know I developed the knack of sabotaging a fabulous opportunity in my youth.

  • My mother visits the emergency room an inordinate number of times a year with a broken toe (from walking into furniture or walls) or a viscous wound inflicted by a carving knife. She'd prefer to bleed into the sink, but my sister insists on proper medical care.
  • My brother wandered into the path of three baseball bats swung at once by an on-deck little leaguer, bloodying his mouth. A trooper, he passed out only after safely at the hospital as the ER physician came forth with a syringe of pain killer, thereby crashing to the floor and knocking out his teeth.
  • And my sister performed a hideous dismount from a wet deck on a Mexican Riviera cruise, failing to earn a 10 from the Russian judge or a reasonable settlement with the shipping line.
And yet, none can hold serve against my unparalleled predilection for misfortune. There are accident prone people--and there go I. I'd hold my record of spoiling family vacations, sundering romantic dinners, or destroying formal occasions with spilt blood and bare gristle--my own.

You could blame it on karma, on self-subversion, on one drink too many, on the coriolus effect or --my preference--on others. Given a way, I gladly have the will.

When I was still a toddler, a nasty shard of wood from the Coney Island boardwalk sliced completely through my foot. It's a tale firmly rooted in the Hyman folklore.

In my fourteenth year, our family took a well-deserved vacation to a lovely resort in Goleta, outside Santa Barbara. We rented a cottage near the beach in a delightful grove of eucalyptus trees with a wide, rolling lawn in the shade. My father got the fire going in the hearth while my mother changed into lounging clothes and settled into the couch.

I went out and rented a moped for an hour. It was a simple vehicle, dramatically underpowered, and it was like piloting a bicycle. The resort staff recommended a trail that rose up from the sea and wended through a refreshingly cool pine forest. The trail darted between shadows and light, and bent around a corner where a boulder had rolled off the hillside and plopped itself in the path...

That afternoon my parents spent their long-awaited afternoon in the emergency room as a doctor took a stiff brush to my bloody leg, removing twigs and gravel embedded by my fall. And I spent the rest of the trip sitting outside in a lounge chair, my leg swaddled in bandages. A harbinger.

My first summer home from college I sold shoes for Kinney's and hung out with my buddies by night at a gas station where one worked in the garage. We talked late into the night, listening to music and trying to pick up girls, their hair half over their eyes as we pumped gas and checked under the hood. My folks had packed their bags for a week on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, a dazzling blue gem cradled in the mountains at the Nevada border. I was to stay home one night, finishing up my shift at the shoe store, then fly up the following day to join them.

That night my friend Dennis suggested I try a little white pill marked with a cross that he said I'd enjoy. It was the only time in my life I would try speed. But I did enjoy it thoroughly. I felt invincible, jolly, and filled with great ideas. My hands trembled. And we talked all night, blasting out Moody Blues from the stereo in the darkened garage long after the gas station closed.

We raced to the airport on motorcycles in the dawn and after my folks picked me up at the Tahoe airport, I couldn't wait to change into my trunks and dive into the water. This was in the days before jet skiis, but a local merchant was renting an early version of the craft and my father--reluctantly--allowed me to rent one for an hour.

I crossed the lake, grinning wildly, a rooster tail of spray gushing out behind the little boat as I stood in it bounding across the swells. From the shore, people were pointing at me, so I grinned back, took one hand off the wheel to wave back. But they were insistent, troubled, and I looked back at the rooster tail to see it had blushed red in my wake.

Blood pounded out of the open wound in my ankle where the engine housing had come undone and a sharp edge of sheet metal sliced into me. Dearest amphetamines. I dared not speak their name as I spent the following week in a camp chair on the beach, observing everyone else splashing in the lake, changing my dressings twice a day to drain the pus.

Then there are the screaming verbal exchanges between my father and I across countless weddings and bar mitzvahs as he struggled to maintain martial order and I picked fights to demonstrate my rebellion, or the times I took a cocktail to smooth out the ennui of professional appearances and ended up face-down in the bathroom after one led to another.

Recovery has delivered God's cornucopia of blessings, but has not abated the Hyman Curse. In my fourth year free of substances, I went ass over teakettle from my mountain bike, stopping too quickly to avoid a rock in the path, and broke my arm. Last fall, in my darkened home, I stepped on an upended, three-pronged electrical plug, plunging it like the devil's trident into my arch. It took more than a month before I could walk comfortably again.

My mentor James Hall once wrote a short story, The Claims Artist, in which the protagonist, a writer with a flagging career, finds it easier to make an income by cutting off a finger here and there, collecting handsomely from his insurance company. In the end, he's a famous scribe, with a legion of groupies carrying his foreshortened authorial body across the Southern California strand -- in a basket.

It sounds like a reasonable ploy, if only I could afford health insurance.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Life on the Farm

Somewhere on these forty acres is a dope farm. I choose not to visit it. Once I take a puff of the stuff, I stop living for, oh, any number of years.

I had an extended love affair with marijuana. For a non-addicting substance, it called the tune for decades of my life. I'm not going to make a federal case over the weed; millions can take it or leave it. I cling fast to two opinions on the stuff: It ought to be legalized and taxed so we can rehabilitate our failing schools and, two, I can't smoke it without making it my God.

When I went off to college in the 70s, you couldn't walk down the hallways of the dorm without parting the clouds of smoke. I held out as long as I could. A month, maybe. My roommate was a police science major, so there was no dope in our room. But a weed-weasel neighbor had one of the only televisions in the dorm, so I went over every night. The neighbor, also a journalism major, rode his bike across campus every day with a green Army surplus sack filled with baggies of Michoacan, which he sold to pay tuition.

It was the cheap pot then, baggies three or four inches thick in the $10 bag, complete with eye gouging seeds that popped when you lit it. The night I gave in, I took a few puffs, and went back to my room, puzzled that nothing had happened.

But the third time I tried it, it felt like the small planet into which my unhappy adolescence had been confined burst open into endless plains of blue skies dotted with puffy, jolly clouds, and I stepped out of this world and right into the other. "Feel it yet?" my friend asked, and I flopped to the floor of the dorm and giggled like a baby.

In recovery, they say that at first it's fun. Then it's fun with problems. Then it's just problems.

The fun lasted a decade or more. Under its influence, I completed three college degrees, worked as a successful journalist and college professor. I published stories, essays, and poetry. Traveled across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Mexico, and most of the continental states. I had no idea when the fun period ended and I was ferried across the peaceful seas to the land of fun with problems. A subtle transition.

I lived like the bubble boy, encased in a film of comfort shattered unaccountably by foreshortened emotions. Without it, I could go off like a bomb at the smallest misconception of what happened around me. With it, I was solitary, indifferent to opinions outside my confined thinking, inaccessible finally to the concerns and loves of those most connected to me.

I wouldn't think of going to dinner, a movie, a concert, a ballgame--hell, a poetry reading--unless buoyed by the buzz. I put a tiny plant in the widow of my apartment in Tuscaloosa, frightening my partner with my moronic daring. Federales pointed automatic weapons at my head when they confiscated my stash one dusk on a sand dune south of the border. I disembarked from a ferry between Holland and the U.K. with a Marlboro box filled with hashish, thinking when the English customs officer asked if I had something to declare: "Why yes," I imagined saying, "I declare that the hash in Amsterdam is simply fine."

I'm leaving out the worst, of course. But without my stash, furniture went out the window, girlfriends packed their possessions into their cars and made off into their lives. I kept on keeping on.

Everyone has war stories. And everyone in recovery has gone to great lengths to repair the wake of emotional destruction that trails behind years of addiction. For a long time, the stuff simply kept me alive. When I think today of the suicides of my grandfather and my uncle, I know that the herb treated something dramatically wrong with my brain chemistry. But it eventually stopped working, and when the voices in my head were louder than the cozy veil that descended after I smoked, I had to consider treatment or suicide.

So you can imagine the subtle and cunning machinations of my thinking recently when my landlord moved off the 40 acres and rented the large house up the hill to a pair of couples who have medical marijuana licenses and are growing pounds of the weed on the property. It's how they make their living, and it's legal for them to do so here in California, where the monstrous deficit is mismanaged daily by the governor, a man who smoked pot in the 1970s. I'm not oblivious to the irony of living in a town called Grass Valley, or that it's renowned for its medical marijuana dispensaries.

We made a small pact, my new neighbors and I. They grow and process it where they want, smoke it as they will, and keep it out of my sight. But with the herb came problems. The couples fought and one of the men, sporting a freshly blackened eye, announced he was taking his girlfriend and moving out.

Recently I spied a new fence, to keep the mule deer and wild rabbits away from the tasty leaves--over by what had been my landlord's workshed. I see it out of the corner of my eye as I wend down the long driveway into horse country. In the quiet of the morning the leaves open out to the sun and the seeds of sabotage start to whisper.

But the cry of redemption, connection, love of friends and family and, finally, loving the man I have come to be is sung louder than any call from the shadows. And I know that to enter that fence is to wall myself off from grace, from you, and from my better nature.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Writer's Block

Where it is hot and dry, the ants begin to move at night.

In the July morning of this year in my life they have found something cool and refreshing in the metal case of my laptop computer, marching with purpose up the legs of the wooden table, across the unfinished birch grain and up, up, onto the black metal case, marching across the control key, the caps lock, the A and Q keys, strumming their own stories by the dozens.

I know how they feel. Last week I drove to the coast near Fort Bragg to escape the relentless, pounding three-digit heat, lazing in the 60-degree ocean breeze, stumbling quite by accident into a sleepy tribe of sea lionesses and their cubs who blended gray and mottled across the rocks and seaweed. Driving home again on roads choked by July Fourth traffic, the temperature gauge in the car rocking upward again into the 90s, I bit my tongue against declarations of rage against the sun, society, so many oversized and gluttonous trucks and campers trailing their appended smaller cars, migrating into volleys of shimmering air. And today, hot and parched, the ants are writing their own story.

To say they have nothing to share is nonsense. My first and best writing mentor, James Hall, would have us pack up our notebooks and drive off the campus in the hills of Santa Cruz into town to find stories. He told me to take a basket of dirty clothes to the laundromat on Mission Street. The assignment: watch someone schlepping their dirties in and out of the machines and create a line of dialogue that told their story. Then, we had to return home and write a short fiction that deserved the nugget of dialogue. The only rule: we were not to mention the laundromat.

There are few gems in the hundreds of books on writing, but they are precious and include John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, Henry James' The Art of the Novel, Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town, Rust Hill's Writing in General and The Short Story in Particular, and Leon Surmelian's Techniques of Fiction Writing: Measure and Madness. Of the last, I have James Hall's personal copy, bequeathed to me when I graduated the writing program.

None of these tells you what to do when you experience writer's block because, if you're a writer, there is no such thing. There are days when the prose comes easily. And there are the others when it feels like hell to lay down a poorly made phrase. Writing takes a lot of writing, and writers are self-limiting by a lack of imagination, by sloth, by immersion in crippling pop culture and the deluge of distractions and poor taste. Mostly sloth.

Here's the only trick that has worked every time I feel disconnected from the page: I read. I read it all and it tickles the crevice in the brain dedicated to calling out rhythms of language. James Hall had us read across the genres. We'd read a pop novel like Hotel, or a crime piece from Elmore Leonard, a Zane Grey western--all along with the customary Joyce, Melville, and Crane.

When I taught fiction at the University of Illinois, my upscale Chicagoan students resented having to read outside of contemporary short stories. Some hated reading entirely, which was surprising for a classroom of students who elected to enroll in fiction writing classes. Some saw the class as a pottery workshop or some other "quick-A" experience they could complete without compromising their frat parties, akin to a classroom version of the window of a bank or credit union where you'd drive through, swipe a credit card, and drove off with cash--or caché.

And in this first week of July, having taken a month off from my daily writing, it felt like begging for my life to lay out a few lines of prose. So I picked up Willa Cather's My Antonia last night and fell into the comfort of honest language.

The ants, you know, produce music as they walk--an effect created by rubbing of thorax parts to their rhythm of march. It's called stridulation.

One of my teachers, novelist Wright Morris once wrote:

"In the dry places, men begin to dream. Where the rivers run sand, there is something in man that begins to flow. West of the 98th Meridian–where it sometimes rains and it sometimes doesn’t–towns, like weeds, spring up when it rains, dry up when it stops. But in a dry climate the husk of the plant remains. The stranger might find, as if preserved in amber, something of the green life that was once lived there, and the ghosts of men who have gone on to a better place. The withered towns are empty, but not uninhabited. Faces sometimes peer out from the broken windows, or whisper from the sagging balconies, as if this place–now that it is dead–has come to life. As if empty it is forever occupied."

And so, like those tireless ants, I have begun again to march across the keys if only to breathe life into my life, to open out the broken windows and sing my dreams.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

And What It's Like Now

When Grace said I'd have to move, that her cancer had progressed to where she could no longer climb the stairs to her home and needed to reclaim the two-room cabin I was renting from her in the mountains, I cascaded into a depression. I found her cabin through an online ad and had moved in the previous summer. It had glass double-doors that looked out over a meadow and lovely brook beneath the towering pines. At dusk, deer came to the back door to graze on the ivy.

I have moved more than 50 times in my adult life, chasing jobs across the states, following dreams and half-baked notions, and often packed up and gone with the wrong-headed idea that my life would suddenly change if I could rearrange the furniture. "Be it ever so humble," a friend in recovery says, "there's no place like somewhere else." So when I had to scour the ads once more for a place, my heart filled with dread that my days in the quiet, nourishing woods were done.

And it appeared so when I visited the converted single-wide trailer on a horse farm near Meadow Vista with leaky faucets and a noisy generator, then the mother-in-law apartment above the workshop-garage in Colfax with tiny slits for windows, and finally the solitary house in the heavy brush near Applegate with hot and cold running mice.

On my slender income from writing I had a limited selection, so my heart raced when I saw the photograph of the pink house on its hillside in the online housing ad. It's a tiny place, with a single room for living, a separate bath and storage, set on a 40-acre parcel of rolling hills and oak trees overlooking the San Joaquin Valley. On my visit, trout cut the evening air with leaps at passing gnats, splashing back into the pond just outside the front door. Bullfrogs cried out for love in the dusk and red-tail hawks traced circles into the fading light. I signed my lease.

In late May, I sat on the sprawling front porch in the advancing wind of a thunderstorm and counted my blessings. The rain marched up the canyon. Black clouds scudded overhead and lightening forked down into the valley. The air carried the taste of dust. Stars winked out overhead as the clouds moved in.

Not many people can say they earn their livelihood through their writing. So, while I have lost nearly 80 percent of my clients since December to the recession, and while I cannot afford much, let alone pay bills and taxes or the insultingly high fees for healthcare, I counted my blessings as the hail banged down on the metal roof of the little pink house and wondered how I had become so damn lucky.

This morning the red-throated house finches, the jittery flickers with their white tails, the wild turkeys and their scurrying young, the magpies with black and white chevrons, the hares with jackass ears a mile long, and the mule deer hang around the yard between the glistening leaves of the oaks in the soft, quiet wind. And I am home.