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Channeling F. Scott, Ernest, and The Big Mo

Last week’s blog mentioned some challenges presented by Mexico that required adaptation. For me, the challenge above all others was to write a good book which, after all, was the reason for coming.

Three forces shaped my time and influenced the results. The first of these was my writing group, the core of which consisted of Donna Meyer, Roy Sorrels, Barbara Covarrubias and yours truly. Donna had been, some years earlier, in the original cast of the European production of the musical Hair. When she turned to pursuits that called for a bit more clothing, she took up writing time travel novels and other worthy subjects, enjoying some publication success. Roy Sorrels wrote crime novels. Having spent significant time in New York City in the 1970s, he could write on that subject with authority, and did. To supplement his income between checks from his publisher, he wrote “Letters to the Editor” for Penthouse Magazine, which paid as I recall $100 for each such salacious letter published. Barbara wrote romance novels, lots of them, and I wish I could recall the pen name she published under. Married to a bullfighter, her life was equally romantic. Collectively, this trio could claim something on the order of forty to fifty published works, while I, the newest member, could claim . . . zero?

But they embraced me nonetheless. We met weekly, with each furnishing the other a few pages of what we were working on. The group adhered to what I soon learned to be the unwritten rule of critiquing another’s work: lead with the positive or, as one member put it, start nice then tell us what you really think. And it worked. Because praise preceded “what you could have done better,” you were open to those suggestions. Listening carefully to their observations on my material heightened my appreciation for the nuances important to readers. To one, a more encompassing physical description of the setting would have influenced the tone of the conversation taking place within it. To another, a line of dialogue suggested unsaid emotion that resonated with him or her. To yet another, a gesture would have captured what a dozen lines of prose had missed. This was great feedback, not easily come by, and I was taking from these sessions far more than I was able to contribute.

The second influence was the large collection of major fiction works sent by Pat Conroy, alluded to in an earlier blog. Reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, when he describes Rosemary: “Her body hovered delicately on the last edge of childhood--she was almost eighteen, nearly complete, but the dew was still on her,” brought home to me the romance of the language I was having daily intercourse with. Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls contains that classic description of Pablo executing the guards, then marching the town’s fascists to their deaths over those cliffs, each fatal walk so reflective of the soul of the man taking his last steps. I too was taking steps, and I began to appreciate the drama, the sheer terror, of the written word in the hands of a master.

The third force driving my own writing, giving me The Big Mo I felt I needed to do good work, was sharing that work in public. In those days, a Sunday ritual at Belles Artes was for authors, actual and wannabes, to read their stuff to a crowd of fifty to seventy-five patient and forgiving gringos. While I have never suffered the panic some feel at public speaking, and while my training as a lawyer no doubt paid dividends, sharing personal fictions is more intimidating than I imagined. But infinitely more satisfying as well. Here was an audience, the very thing every writer strives to reach. And they were listening. To me. It was thrilling.

Next week, I’ll describe two scenes from San Miguel that left indelible impressions on me. By turning those experiences into stories, I felt I took a couple of steps toward the writer I wanted to be.

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