I attended my first writer’s conference in 2001. I didn’t really know what to expect but I was excited to meet other writers and I assumed that we would have a lot in common. After all, we shared an obsession with writing and we were all trying to get published for the first time. One thing I was sure of was that I would find new friends with lots of shared interests.
That first morning, I put on a new dress and stuffed my manuscript in a shoulder bag which I quickly decided was far too heavy to carry around all day. I took it with me anyway and stood in line to purchase tickets for one-on-one consultations with agents and publishers. The tickets were expensive and the consultations were to last only ten minutes, but we shelled out the money anyway. As I surveyed the crowd, I was sure I would find kindred spirits here.
We entered the hotel ballroom that had been converted into a large waiting area and I was hit with a wall of desperation, the barely controlled energy of a thousand people frantically hoping to be discovered. Some prayed silently for a chance to be in print. One woman fingered a rosary. Others talked nervously to anyone who happened to be nearby. I took it all in, wondering how long I could tolerate this frenzied energy before I passed out.
To keep myself conscious, I asked people standing around me about their writing projects. One nervous man confided that he was writing about a love affair with goats.
“Do you think that’s too much?” he asked me.
I wracked my brain to think of something positive to say. “It all depends on the writing,” I said finally.
He was satisfied with that and left me to find someone else with a different opinion.
An elderly woman with a soft voice tapped my arm, “And what are you writing about, dear?” she asked me.
“My twelve years living in Tokyo.” I answered. “How about you?”
She looked at me with sudden disapproval. “I don’t like foreign books. I’m only interested in my family history. I can’t imagine wasting time on anything else. But I can’t talk about the details of my manuscript,” she whispered. “Someone might steal my ideas.”
“Well, I’m sure no one knows your family history as well as you do,” I said.
She nodded curtly and narrowed her eyes in suspicion before drifting away to speak to someone else.
I can’t remember the topic the next person was writing about, but I do remember thinking to myself that it was the last subject in the world I would ever write about.
That’s when I noticed that the woman in front of me had a small cockroach crawling in and out of her dreadlocks. I contemplated how to handle this situation without making a scene.
Finally I touched her on the shoulder and said, “There’s a little bug in your hair, let me remove it for you.” I brushed the cockroach onto the floor, certain that no one had seen it.
Suddenly the woman’s companion, a pale, nearly hysterical man began screaming, “That’s a cockroach. Oh my God. There was a cockroach in your hair!”
The woman shook out her dreadlocks and thanked me. “Well, now I feel right at home,” she joked.
I laughed and nodded. No one else laughed.
I wanted to talk to her further but it was time for her to enter the consultation room where bells sounded every ten minutes, reminding the writers inside that their consultations were over. She hurried inside, abandoning me beside her anxious companion who was suddenly embarrassed and refused to speak to me.
Later that day, I met a large, muscular man who resembled a drill sergeant. He was writing about his experiences as a recovering psychotic. By recovering, he meant that he still heard voices and saw visions but he managed to cope with them. I was leery at first, but soon discovered that he was the sanest person I had ever met. “I know exactly where my insanity lies,” he told me. “Not many people can say that.”
Next I met a gray-haired man who flirted with me and tried to steal the credit card out of my purse while pumping me for writing ideas. He laughed apologetically when I confronted him. “Writer’s conferences are the best places to steal ideas,” he told me, as if I should have figured that out already.
That’s when I took refuge with the poets. We sat in one corner of the lobby, segregating ourselves from the crowd of writers who were talking loudly on dozens of different topics. A few historical fiction writers sat down with us, basking in the calm of our relatively quiet group.
Since then I’ve managed to find several good friends who are writers and I’ve come to the realization that what writers share doesn’t have much to do with writing at all. What we have in common is the fact that we are all storytellers at heart. We all have an important story to tell. We have an intense desire to be heard. And each one of us has the right to our own unique, creative voice, no matter what topic we write about.
I take my hat off to all published and aspiring writers. We share a unique journey in which we create, inform, entertain and inspire. Like the storytellers of old who traveled from village to village delighting people with their words, we are an extremely valuable segment of society and just maybe, we have more in common than we think we do.
I didn’t expect my life to change when I entered the sparsely-furnished, literature classroom at the Universidad de Veracruz in Xalapa, Mexico. The long-haired, political-activist professor who arrived late was a bit of a surprise, but that would pale in comparison to the stories and novels he was about to introduce us to.
We didn’t have any books. Instead the professor handed out faint, mimeographed pages containing the stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, master of magical realism and literary journalism. We read them aloud while our professor became increasingly animated in his enthusiasm, pausing only to push the hair from his eyes. As the stories came alive, we realized that this level of learning could not be contained to a bare and dusty classroom. Some of us accompanied the professor to a series of cafes around town, drinking beer until we were tipsy, talking for hours and filling our hungry souls with the delicious adventures of shipwrecked sailors, old Caribbean soldiers, ethereal beauties and the ghosts who coexist with the living only because they are too stubborn to succumb to death.
The world of magical realism was an epiphany and I suddenly realized that life was not the black and white, cut and dried reality I had learned in hometown America. A whole new world opened up in which the supernatural, the spiritual and the physical all coexisted in an exotic mélange that changed my view of life forever.
This epiphany was to set me on a lifelong pursuit for adventure, travel and opportunities to experience different cultures; a continual thirst to see the world through different eyes and to write about it. For the first time I had been given license to be the person I really wanted to be. The magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez had given me the freedom to soar.
When I ran home after class and told the senora in the house where I lived about my discovery, she handed me a succulent plateful of carne de res, arroz and the bright red flower petals known as colorin. I told her how wonderful it was to read about a world that was turned upside down but that made so much sense at the same time. She looked at me with a dry expression, “Es normal,” she said. “That’s how we all see the world.”
Her comments made me smile. I borrowed an antique typewriter and with senora’s blessing, I started writing my first, full-length novel on her kitchen table. The family’s elderly, maiden aunt, Tia Pilar showed up even before I was finished with page one. “I will keep you company while you finish your task,” she explained. “We will be like sisters every afternoon.” True to her word, she showed up each day to sit nearby fingering her rosary, while my own fingers tapped on the typewriter keys. She only stopped coming when I had finished the last page.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez opened my young mind to the unlimited possibilities of imagination, creativity and diverse cultural experience. It was one of the greatest gifts I have ever received and in a very real way it changed the course of my adult life forever. So today, as I pay homage to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I dust off my tattered copies of his books, open One Hundred Years of Solitude and begin to read. Here once again is the band of ragged gypsies who arrived in the mythical, Caribbean town of Macondo, bringing with them the learned alchemist, Melquiades. In turn, Melquiades brought the first magnets that anyone had ever seen in Macondo.
The gypsy dragged the enormous magnets behind him through the streets of the town while “pots, pans, tongs and braziers tumbled down from their places,” and followed him down the street.
“‘Things have a life of their own,’ the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. ‘It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.’”
My friend Carlos grew up in Mexico City but now he lives on Maui. He works as a window washer. I see him at some of my jobs, brandishing his squeegee and an assortment of multicolored rags. We’re always glad to see each other as it gives us a chance to speak in Spanish which really means that we get to tell funny stories and jokes that just don’t sound the same in English.
But this time Carlos was more serious. “Why do you do this hard work all day long? You could teach Spanish. You learned Spanish in Vera Cruz where people tell risqué jokes and colorful stories all day long. You could teach Spanish a la Veracruzana. And if you teach all the bad words, you must charge much more money.”
I had to agree. “I used to teach school but I can make more money taking care of houses for people. That way I can keep my daughter in school.”
“Then you are an angel.”
“Either an angel or an idiot, I’m not sure which one,” I said.
Carlos shook his head. He was much too polite to use the word idiot, even in English.
“I’ve written four novels, too,” I said. “But none of them are published yet.”
Carlos continued washing the windows. “So how do you become successful? How do you become as famous as the writers we see in the bookstores?
I shrugged. “Some of those writers had to write five books before they got the first one published.”
“That’s it!” Carlos was polishing the window with a linen rag and he pointed the rag towards me as if he was going to polish me too. “You write the fifth book. You must go home and do it today!”
“I’m working on the fifth book.”
Carlos shook his head. “You must work harder. Go home and finish the fifth book. I feel certain that this is the answer.”
He stepped back to admire his windows which I had to admit shone like diamonds and then he turned to me, obviously pleased that he had managed to mend my shattered life as part of his days work.
“Go home and write,” he said.
“I guess it’s either that or teach dirty jokes in Spanish,” I said.
My gentle friend laughed as he packed up his rags to leave. “Some angel!” he joked.
As I watched him leave, I smiled for the first time all day. And just as he suggested, I went home to write the fifth book.
From time to time we all wonder why we were put on this earth and I love the way everyone comes up with a different reason. From the day I picked up a yellow pencil and scratched out my first sentence, I was convinced that I was put on this earth to write, to be a storyteller. From that day on I scribbled stories and fifteen-page, magnum opus novels. I terrorized the neighborhood children with delicious ghost stories, until the adults begged me to stop. After that I only told my scary tales to our partially deaf dog. At least she never developed chronic insomnia. I outlined adventure stories in my head when I was supposed to be paying attention in class. I scrawled notes on everything. And for the past thirty-five years, I’ve even been writing novels in my sleep.
So after thirty-five years of serious writing, four years of extensive research, loads of supportive friends, five publishers, three, almost successful book deals and one unethical agent whose name I can’t remember, The Wife of John the Baptist is finally published and available on Amazon!
I know, I know John the Baptist isn’t supposed to have a wife but after all that research, what I discovered was that he probably did have a wife. As a man of the rabbi class, he was expected to marry before his thirtieth birthday. And according to Jewish tradition, ‘a wife was necessary to keep a rabbi out of trouble’. Who can argue with that? Besides the character of John’s wife in my novel is charming, wonderful and hopelessly flawed and I just love her.
So I’m very excited to announce that The Wife of John the Baptist is finally available at amazon.com in paperback and Kindle. This book means everything to me and I can’t wait to share it with the world. Since word of mouth is so important, I wonder if you would be willing to share this information with all the readers in your life. And if you want to buy a copy, that would be awesome! I’ll even autograph it for you. Aloha! K.
The dawn of a new year always makes me think about what I would do if I could do anything I wanted for a year. What would I do if it was my last year on earth? What would I put on my bucket list? Or instead, what if the new year was the beginning of a new and long life, one unfettered by the past? What would I do? Hmmm seems like both lists are the same. So in honor of that thought, here’s what I will do in 2014.
I’ll give up my house and my car and live like a computer-toting, wild-writing gypsy.
I’ll travel everywhere. And I’ll fall in love every day. I’ll fall in love with carnival-like people who wear strange-colored clothing and tell the most surprising tales. I’ll fall in love with fantasy-inspiring places, from blue green mountains to gray and decrepit city blocks. I’ll fall in love with mind-expanding ideas whispered to me by mysterious, coffee drinking geniuses and I’ll fall in love with the simplest of experiences. Maybe a flower growing from the crack in a city sidewalk or a woman singing as she bakes bread in a flour-dusted bakery. At night, I’ll dance in the protective blanket of the dark. Then in the thin light of early morning, I’ll set the dawn-gold lion of my imagination free from his cage and write.
To travel and write is to fall in love with the world.
I’ll sit in cafes and at bus stops and listen to fascinating people. Everyone has a good story to tell. I’ll be patient, coaxing and encouraging until people give up their stories, their histories and their secrets. I’ll let the scents, tastes, sounds and colors of the past wash over me through their words until I feel that I’m really living their history. Then I’ll write everything down, but not their secrets. In this way, I’m a bad journalist; I keep people’s secrets.
I’ll watch plays in London and New York. I’ll go to Italy and eat, go to Russia and drink, go to Japan and eat and drink. I’ll visit all of my friend’s houses around the world and surprise them by coming in their front door and saying, “I have missed you so much.” We’ll laugh and cry and talk for days. Then I’ll be off again.
I’ll look at art everywhere: Amsterdam, Rome, Paris, London. I’ll feed orphans in India and dream about hobbits in New Zealand. I’ll go to the opera in Milan. I’ll find the fun in every place and find what is meaningful.
I’ll dance everywhere. And learn languages. And study painting. I’ll paint pictures and give them away to people who have hidden beauty inside of them.
I’ll help strangers anonymously by leaving them money in tiny Japanese gift envelopes. The less money I spend on myself, the more I can help others. I’ll see people reading my books on subways and trains but they won’t know I’m the author of the book they are reading. I’ll watch their faces for signs of emotion, rejoicing when they laugh and when they cry.
I’ll go to a church I’ve never been to and sit in the back or sing in the choir. It doesn’t matter what the religion is; the voices will be heavenly.
With the true heart of a gypsy, I’ll see the world as it really is and fall in love with it. Then I’ll set the dawn-gold lion of my imagination free from his cage once more….
… and write.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin
When I was nineteen I went to Mexico for a year. I thought I would learn a little Spanish and return home the same person I was before. But living overseas changes the traveler and I returned home a different person.
I lived with the Lorenzo family. Senor and Senora Lorenzo were school teachers. They worked hard all week but every weekend there was a party to attend. There were weddings, Quinceanera and family parties. When the music started, grandparents, parents and children all danced together. And they often danced until 3 am. When the children were tired, the parents picked them up and continued dancing while the children dozed on their shoulders. For the Lorenzos, any celebration was an excuse to dance. I couldn’t imagine my family in America dancing together for any reason.
The first words I learned in Spanish were cantar, bailar, disfrutar, Sing, dance, enjoy. And I learned to celebrate life with abandon.
Next I went to live in France and I learned to enjoy the simplicity of eating and conversing with others. I learned to never talk about politics or anything upsetting at the table. The French believe it’s healthy to only talk about pleasant things while eating. Consequently, they spend an extraordinary amount of time talking about food and its preparation. Not too surprising, the first words I learned in French were les miette or bread crumbs and the names of various kitchen utensils.
In Japan, I learned the grace of living in a crowd. The first words I learned were Sumimasen, Gomen nasai, Arigato Gozaimasu. Excuse me. I’m sorry. Thank you. And eventually I found the stillness within, necessary for being at peace amid the chaos of Tokyo.
When I finally moved back to American soil, I chose Hawaii, the most exotic state I could think of. At first, personal transformation happened much more slowly in the familiar American setting.
But Hawaii has a generous spirit and it is here that I learned about courage. Not just the courage to take my young daughter and move to a state where I knew no one, but the courage to find true happiness by joyfully anticipating change.
Will Amazon take over the publishing industry? I wouldn’t bet against them. Currently Random House is the largest publishing house which means it has more than the lion’s share of control over which books get published and which don’t. But Amazon has taken a big bite out of that share.
Last year alone, 764,448 self-published titles were produced (not all with Amazon). Random House only published 289,729 books. Gains on ebook sales are up 300%. And traditional publishers are still re-releasing some older books rather than take chances on new authors. That means there are plenty of excellent quality books that cannot get published the traditional way. Not so long ago, authors who were tired of rejection put their manuscripts away in a drawer and no one ever read them again. Due to the self-publishing revolution, that has all changed and the book marketplace has become a richer place because of it.
As Amazon and other smaller online publishers take the place of traditional publishers, book bloggers have taken the place of all the corner book stores. They sell titles online instead of on our local streets. And what a thriving community it is. Personally, I can’t wait to see what the next ten years brings.