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Night of Writing Dangerously

The Night of Writing Dangerously, Julia Morgan Ballroom in San Francisco

On a cold and rainy Sunday night in November, under the soft light of cut-glass globe chandeliers and the watchful eye of an owl on the mantel, two hundred plus writers scribble on notepads and tap away on computers. Jazz music slinks through the room, interspersed occasionally with an upbeat dose of electronica or a melody from the Muppets. Every so often, the clarion ring of a bell sounds, and the writers look up from their laptops and notepads to clap and cheer. They’ve braved rain, delayed flights, and seasonal colds to attend the Night of Writing Dangerously at the Julia Morgan ballroom in San Francisco, a spirited extravaganza best described as part writing-fest, part community-builder, and part fundraiser (individuals must raise at least $250 to attend). The ring of the bell celebrates another scribe who has written 50,000 words, the audacious goal of writers who participate in National Novel Writing Month, or, as it’s fondly known, NaNoWriMo.

Writers come to the NOWD in swanky dress reminiscent of an earlier era. To fuel writers for the 7-hour writing marathon, lots of treats are on hand: drinks, cookies, donuts, and candy – lots of candy. “The candy buffet always attracts a lot of people,” jokes Sarah Mackey of the Office of Letters and Light, the tiny but mighty Berkeley nonprofit organization that puts on National Novel Writing Month in November and ScriptFrenzy in April, in addition to the Young Writers Program in the schools and other writing programs throughout the year.

This year’s NaNoWriMo is bittersweet. At the end of 2011, executive director Chris Baty, who started NaNoWriMo in 1999, steps down from the Office of Letters and Light to pursue full-time writing. Asked how he is experiencing this final Night of Writing Dangerously, the articulate and affable Baty seems almost at a loss for words. “I was always caught up with the administrative tasks,” he says. “I’m finally getting a chance to step back and see the impact that this has had on people. It’s overwhelming.”

The impact of NaNoWriMo on the world of writing is profound and widespread. This year, 300,000 writers worldwide participate in the month-long endeavor to write a 50,000-word novel. Writers have flown in from Southern California, Atlanta, Kansas City, Pennsylvania, and even Canada to attend the Night of Writing Dangerously; a contingent from Edmonton filled an entire table. One dedicated writer came from Stockholm, Sweden. Birgitta Persson, 64, loves the idea of supporting a program that gets people to write. “I think it’s fantastic,” she said, gesturing to the room full of writers, “that people can work together to accomplish something like this.” In Sweden, Persson explains, most money for arts and culture projects are funded by the state. Persson says she will take the energy of the NOWD with her and look at what similar programs can be started in her home country.

For Bay Area residents Penny Edwards and Katina Johnson, both second-year NOWD attendees, the comfort of being around other writers is what draws them to NaNoWriMo. “Whether you’re a seasoned writer or beginning writer,” says Johnson, “the struggles are the same.” Both speak of the incredible energy found in a room full of people writing at the same time, an energy that NaNoWriMo has harnessed with eye-opening results. Sunday’s fundraiser brought in $50,000 for the nonprofit, funds that will go to the Young Writers Program in Bay Area schools. Baty explains that 50% of the Office of Letters and Light’s budget comes from individual fundraisers, so NaNoWriMo and the NOWD are their biggest fundraising events of the year.

Chris Baty chats with writer Katina Johnson

Office of Letters and Light executive director Chris Baty chats with writer Katina Johnson.

But raising money seems to be the last thing on Chris Baty’s mind as he circulates through the ballroom, taking time to talk to nearly each and every attendee, humbly asking for their advice as he prepares to embark on his own novel writing adventure. “We never make time for our own creative endeavors,” says Baty, who has devoted the past twelve years of his life to helping others achieve their novel-writing dreams. Writing a novel requires a tremendous degree of commitment, stamina, and faith, and the act of doing so opens the mind to even more creative possibilities. Baty has learned that anyone who wins NaNoWriMo – who reaches the 50,000 word goal – is left with a deep sense of satisfaction. “People are able to say, now that I’ve done this, what else is in me? What other amazing things can I accomplish?” That is the true intangible value of NaNoWriMo. It enables individuals to realize and celebrate the massive creative potential that exists in us all.

In honor of Veteran’s Day, here are the stories of two of my high school classmates, one a veteran, the other an active duty military officer, about what their military service means to them.

Jason WongJason Wong was a Captain in the U.S. Army and worked for the Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command. His military experience started with ROTC in high school and college. But he joined the army only after getting a law degree and working for a few years at a law firm, which he found unsatisfying. He quit the law firm and joined the army as a prosecutor. “This country’s been very good to my family,” said Jason Wong of his decision to serve in the Army. “This was my chance to give back.” Jason’s great-grandfather emigrated from China to San Francisco as a paper son. His grandfather was a small business owner in Hawai’i, and his father was the first person in their family to go to college.

Now a small business owner himself, his experience in the military continues to shape him. He recently hired a veteran at his Seattle office. “Most Americans don’t realize the sacrifice service men and women make,” he says. “It’s something you’d just have to experience to fully comprehend.” An avid cook, Jason sends care packages of baked goods and handwritten letters to friends who are actively serving overseas. “I know what baked goods and letters from home are worth,” he says.

Lieutenant Colonel Chris HamiltonLieutenant Colonel Chris Hamilton serves in the U.S. Air Force. His grandfather was a Gunnery Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps and a Korean War veteran. Chris initially joined the military to help pay for college. “I wanted to get near the space program,” Chris says. “I only planned to stay in for four years.” But the military offered Chris the chance to get two master’s degrees and a wide range of work experience. “I’ve had opportunities I couldn’t get in the civilian world,” Chris says.

“People do it [join the military] for different reasons, but deep down inside, they want to do something bigger than themselves,” says Chris. “And the military is a chance for you to do that. It’s an equalizing force. People come from all walks of life, but when you get there, everything is based on your performance, not who you were before you joined.”

Chris and I talked briefly about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which was repealed in September 2011. He says by the time Congress repealed the discriminatory law, the military had already long accepted gays in their ranks. “The active-duty military reflects the young population of this country,” he says, “not the decision-makers in their 60s and 70s,” and thus has the same tolerance towards gays as the great majority of young people in the rest of the U.S. “Military folks,” says Chris, “are just like everybody else.”

Last night, a Facebook friend of mine, who I’ll call Norman, posted a link to a CNN article about the recent backlash against the Occupy movements that have swept America. The article writes, “They call themselves the 53%…as in the 53% that pays federal income taxes.” In his Facebook post, Norman declared, “I *am* the 53% that pay taxes, and one of the .001% that has served in our military.”

Honestly, given the cryptic, shorthand nature of Facebook posts, I’m not even sure what Norman’s view on either Occupy Wall Street or the 53% backlash really is. Norman is an old high school classmate. We’re not close friends, and I don’t spend enough time on Facebook to have an accurate sense of his political inclinations.

What I do know is that my frustration with the 53% is so strong that I risk rendering myself incoherent.

53% supporters seem to believe that protesting economic inequality somehow equates to not wanting to work and pay taxes. Stories of “personal responsibility and work ethic” fill the 53% blog. Assuming that Americans who protest economic inequality don’t want to work and pay taxes is baseless and prejudiced.

One protestor defends his stance by saying, “I took jobs I didn’t want, suck it up.” Is this really the kind of world we want to live in, a world where everyone hates their job and just “sucks it up”? Where the brilliant potential of every human being is dimmed in a job they hate? That’s not the world I want to live in, nor the life I want to lead, and it is not the kind of world we have to settle for. We humans – we Americans – can do much, much better than that. Don’t believe me? Try reading Yes! magazine http://www.yesmagazine.org/, especially the Fall 2011 issue, for a take on what’s possible, a sharp contrast to the 53%’s perception of what’s not.

In a literal sense, I am the 53%, too. I’ve always paid my taxes on time. Any friend or colleague can attest to my strong work ethic and sense of personal responsibility. With regards to economics, I simply want, for myself and my fellow citizens of America and the world, to work in fair conditions, to be able to make enough money to provide for myself & my family, and to have access to affordable health insurance. Anyone who tells me that is too much to ask for has lost sight of the American dream.

Best-selling novelist Monique Truong, author of The Book of Salt and Bitter in the Mouth, will be the headliner at a literary evening at California College of the Arts on Saturday, November 5 from 4-6 PM.

The Brooklyn-based Truong, whose latest book has just been published in paperback, has received numerous literary honors, including the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Literature Award, and the Association for Asian American Studies Poetry/Prose Award. Her novels have topped the favorites lists of New York Times, the Village Voice, Barnes & Noble and others.

Monique is an alumna of the Hedgebrook Writers in Residence Program. Hedgebrook is the only writers’ colony in the country exclusively devoted to women. A select forty writers are awarded fully-funded residencies each year, chosen from a competitive international pool of applicants. Hedgebrook is committed to promoting women’s voices. The event is sponsored by the Hedgebrook Alumnae Leadership Council: Bay Area as a fundraiser for Hedgebrook.

Saturday, November 5 from 4-6 PM
Writers’ Studio, California College of The Arts
195 De Haro Street, San Francisco
$10-20 suggested donation

After reading Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry’s (thebookdoctors.com) Essential Guide to Getting Published, I was more than a bit daunted and overwhelmed.

But yesterday I attended the Book Doctors’ 4-hour publishing workshop at Stanford – a live presentation of much of the information in the book, enlivened by the vibrant personalities of Arielle and David. Their candid yet always kind presentation uplifted and inspired me, a first-time novelist just entering into the fray. Rare and treasured are the speakers who can present boatloads of information with such passionate wit, clear-eyed wisdom, and profound sincerity, as Arielle and David did.

The workshop is just that: a participatory event where speakers and listeners work in unison to get the most out of their precious time together. About an hour was devoted to hearing pitches from the audience and providing instant feedback. I was duly impressed. Arielle and David cut to the chase and did not sugar-coat, pointing out what was good and what needed work, but always with the utmost respect and care.

At the Book Doctors’ workshop, not only do you get possibly the most valuable and specific advice about publishing you will ever receive as an unpublished writer, you will also be entertained. Arielle and David, a husband-wife team, work flawlessly in concert to instruct and keep their audience engaged and amused. Their expert advice is liberally seasoned with stories, because – as any good writer knows – the magic is in the details, and the fun is not in the facts but in the tales of the lives of real people. Isaac Bashevis Singer said that writing must not only instruct and enlighten, but entertain. The Book Doctors do just that.

If you missed Arielle and David this time around, don’t fret: they’ll be back at Litquake in October. Check their website for their full schedule of events.

Imagine, all in the same room, the following distinct and memorable voices: Ruth Forman, Elmaz Abinader, Faith Adiele, M. Evelina Galang, Staceyann Chin, ZZ Packer, David Mura, Diem Jones, Junot Diaz, and Willie Perdomo. Imagine the energy generated by such talented and passionate writers, and you’ll have a good idea of what took place last night in Berkeley. This formidable lineup of award-winning, nationally recognized poets, memorists, fiction writers, and performers commanded the stage at Berkeley City College for the Voices of Our Nation (VONA) faculty reading, which occurs during VONA’s annual summer writing workshop for writers of color.

Moving across the Bay this year, from the private enclave of University of San Francisco to the downtown campus of Berkeley City College, seemed like a “leveling” for the program as a whole, a term emcee Marc Bamuthi Joseph used to describe the evening’s event, which was free, open to the public, and wildly inspiring for the listeners and speakers alike. VONA attendees and alumni made up a good portion of the audience. I myself was invited by a writer friend and a six-year VONA alum.

The college’s auditorium was filled with the raucous, celebratory energy of writers. For me, the following bits of literary magic resonated most deeply: the inimitable precision of the poetry of Ruth Forman. The miraculous eye for detail of Elmaz Abinader. The powerhouse performance of Staceyann Chin. The wry truth-telling of ZZ Packer. The honest eloquence of Willie Perdomo. And the chance to hear Junot Diaz read “shitty first draft” work.

If you’re a writer or a reader, an admirer of truth-telling and a fan of passionate discourse, and you’re not familiar with VONA, check out their site at www.voicesatvona.org, and mark your calendar for next summer’s faculty reading.

cover of House ArrestHouse Arrest (2011, Red Hen Press) is a truly original and compelling novel, full of courage and complexity. First-time author Ellen Meeropol gives us a diverse cast of sensitive characters with rich, storied lives that are unfurled slowly, almost delicately, as the novel progresses.

Emily Klein, an agency nurse in Springfield, Massachusetts, provides care to home-bound patients, who help fill the painful void left by Emily’s parents. When the novel opens, Emily has been assigned a new patient, Pippa Glenning, a young runaway from the South in her second pregnancy who is under house arrest, awaiting trial for the tragic and mysterious death of her first baby. Pippa is the youngest member of the House of Isis, a spiritual family group that worships the goddess Isis.

Despite their differences, Pippa and Emily reluctantly become friends, and Pippa dares to ask Emily for help. Because she is pregnant, it is Pippa’s responsibility to dance in an upcoming ritual – the same ritual during which, one year earlier, Pippa’s first child accidentally died. But the house arrest monitor makes Pippa’s participation in this midnight ritual impossible. While Pippa is beginning to question the ties of the House of Isis family group, which is breaking down under the strain of the recent tragedy, she is nonetheless dedicated to her goddess, Isis, and determined to dance. Will Emily help Pippa, risking her own job in the process?

Meeropol is a skilled, subtle writer. Each of her characters, even minor ones like Gina, Emily’s friend and co-worker, and Sam, the ex-husband of Emily’s cousin and roommate, is so well-drawn, so human, they come to life vividly on the page. The home-care visits and Emily’s interactions with her patients sing with authenticity.

Meeropol describes the various settings of the story in a masterful way. From the snowy rhododendron grove where the Isis ritual is held to Emily’s bleak childhood home in Maine, rich sensory detail conveys haunting emotions, in language that manages to be both elegant and economical.

Political intrigue is woven in delicious bits throughout the story: the mystery of Emily’s parents and her estrangement from her family in Maine, why Pippa left her family in Georgia, the prejudice and violence against the House of Isis. But the story is not so much a political thriller as a tale about loneliness, challenging notions of family and friendship and belief. The struggles of Emily and Pippa, and what they mean in the modern world, will stay with you long after the final page.

Read my interview with Ellen Meeropol.