Friday, April 20, 2007

A Week To Remember, A Week To Forget

from Jacqueline

I’m goofing off this week, and not a bad week to be running away from everything. I’ve had enough of the news, and I won’t say anything more than that, because so much has been said already about this tumultuous week. Actually, I may yet say something – my posts are a sometimes a bit stream-of-consciousness, so you never know, words may not fail me. But back to my truancy from everyday life - I am in Las Vegas. Now, before you think I have lost my last marble, I am here because months ago I treated myself to tickets to the only event that would get me back to Las Vegas – the World Cup Dressage Championships. It’s where people like me who work so hard at our riding and look a bit like this:

gain inspiration from watching people like this:

And when you watch dressage at this level, you are watching something so graceful and perfect, and yet something that takes more time than you can imagine, a huge commitment and just about sweating blood to achieve – and they make it look so easy. Hmmmm, bit like writing. A bit like when you read one of those books by a favorite author, those wonderful inspiring writers you love, and you think, “This must be like cutting butter with a hot knife for him/her.” But deep inside, you know it isn’t like that, because later, somewhere, you’ll hear that same writer speak at an event, or you’ll read an interview, and you’ll discover that they almost weep in front of the blank page each day, or they’ll go over that one paragraph (word, sentence or chapter) one hundred times before they let it go. And you know that, even though you have always wanted to be a writer, always wanted to do this, at the same time you have to go to the wire for it, if you want to do it well, if you want to hit that bar you’ve just raised on yourself.

Last week I started a class at UCLA with my favorite instructor, Barbara Abercrombie (again). It’s a class on Advanced Non-fiction writing, and it just so happens that I know most of the students in the class, because we’ve all attended Barbara’s classes before and we’re like a gang. Monica Holloway, who’s just published her book, “Driving With Dead People,” calls us the Barbara groupies. As we were going round the class on the first day, doing the introductions, it came to my turn, and Barbara said, “This class is Jackie’s writing gym – she comes here to work out.” Of course, we all laughed, but she hit the nail on the head, the class is where I try out things that I don’t get the chance, or don’t even think to try, in the course of my novel-writing. I flex my muscles in Barbara’s classes, and it hurts.

During yesterday’s class, before I had to zoom off to catch my flight to Las Vegas, I listened to three of my classmates read their work, and I felt a bit like I did while watching those amazing riders go through their paces today – in awe at the elegance, skill and control. This is a great group of writers, and I am just thrilled to be in a class with them for six weeks. The level of writing is striking, measured and honest – and up goes that bar again, out of my reach until I work hard enough to stretch that far.

So, here I am talking about my riding and writing in the same breath again, thinking about the ways in which they mirror each other. At one point today, I was watching a competitor and her horse execute a perfect piaffe – that’s a rhythmic trotting on the spot, a bit like ballet for horses – and I thought, “Oh, I want to be able to do that.” And I know it means hours upon hours upon hours of work, and maybe in a year, or a couple of years my horse and I will be there. Maybe. But it’s something to aspire to, and as the saying goes, “If you’re not going forward, you’re going backwards.”

Anne Lamott, in a class she was once taught, was asked what a writer had to do to be successful (or something of that nature, I can’t remember the exact question), and she simply lifted her arm and mimed opening a vein in her wrist. That struck a chord, because no matter how lightly we might come to our writing, even on the good days, we have to give a bit of blood (yeah, and as mystery writers, we give a bit more, eh?).

I cannot imagine not making that effort. I cannot imagine finishing a piece of work and thinking, “This is it, I’ve gone as far as I can.” I can’t imagine not pushing a bit harder, and thinking with resolve, “I can do better than this.” And then sweating buckets reaching out for something more.

Despite the fact that I am on a mini-vacation in a place where New York and Paris share street-space with Egypt, I can’t stop thinking about the real world out there. This is only my opinion, and as my opinion, I know it belongs to me, but this is my post, so I will say it anyway: This was a crucial week for America. This was a week when we were hit by the two-by-four. Have you ever heard that saying? That when you don’t listen to that little voice inside, God (the universe, the higher power, whatever you’re comfortable with) hits you with the two-by-four? I’m not an American, so part of me thinks that maybe I should keep my nose out of the Amendment that allowes the people of this country to bear arms – arms that were supposed to keep out my Redcoat-wearing ancestors – but I sent in my tax return this week, so I think I’ll go there anyway, as they say.

Every country has its share of angry people, they have their dispossessed, their lonely, their desperate and aggressive souls. And they have their criminally insane, and their desperadoes, their resentful people, and let’s face it, we’ve all had a chip on our shoulder at some point. But not every country allows any person without training or an arms-bearing appropriate job, to buy a machine gun or semi-automatic weapon with just a clean credit history and no previous convictions. I can understand Our Jim needing to bear arms – but I trust that he’s trained and I trust that he is solid and calm under pressure (now then, Paul, I can hear a quip coming). Members of our military bear arms, and I trust they are trained, and sane, even if they are being sent into hell. If you’re a hunter, I know that you don’t need an AK 47, unless you have a real downer on mallards, and, as much as I don't personally like what you do, I hope you learned from your Dad and I hope he learned from his, how to use and not abuse a gun. But there is no reason for anyone else out there to have a gun – unless they are so very scared of every other person out there with a gun, and if they are, then that is admitting right there that this country has a serious problem with itself. Thirty-thousand people killed every year by guns – that is a disaster, a tragedy of unbelievable proportions – especially as most gun-related deaths take place in a domestic environment. If another country killed that many of our people, we would be bombing the you-know-what out of them by now. And instead we’re scared to change things, because a bunch of well-meaning men wrote an Amendment that essentially gave the new Americans the right to tote a musket. If the present-day American bearers of arms had to fill a musket each time they wanted to kill someone, you wouldn’t have over thirty people killed in the time it takes to cook dinner. I paid my taxes, I have a right to say all of that and more. If we don’t take action, if we do not look deeply into the core of what it means to be a decent – and free – citizenry, if there is not heated debate about what happened in Virginia this week, then we must await the real two-by-four. Until we do that soul-searching, until our self-destructive gun laws are changed or adapted, whatever it takes, the people of America will never be free.

Now a different kind of story about weaponry, just to show how strange the world can be. My friend’s son is in the British armed forces, and has been deployed in short order to Bosnia, Africa, the Falkland Islands, and Afghanistan. He’s currently training new recruits, but expects to be sent to Iraq in a year or so. During a recent deployment, he and his men were required to take a commercial flight to their destination, and as soldiers in transit have a dispensation to take their rifles onto the aircraft – after all, they are all trained, and their mothers have said they are nice boys. Before boarding the aircraft, they were asked by security to relinquish their knives. Needless to say, passengers were treated to the sight of a platoon of soldiers in uniform doubled over laughing. They all handed over their knives and boarded the airplane with their guns. As my Uncle Jim, who went ashore in Normandy in 1944 and saw his best friend killed right in front of him, would say, “What’s it all about, eh?”

Now I’m escaping again, back to Las Vegas.

For those of you who live in the Los Angeles area: The Southern California Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and the Library Foundation would like to invite you to attend "An Afternoon with T. Jefferson Parker and Christopher Rice." It's FREE but we ask that you RSVP. Just call (213) 228-7500 and tell them you're with the mystery group.
THIS SUNDAY, APRIL 22, 2007, 2:00 P.M.
Richard J. Riordan Central Library
Mark Taper Auditorium
630 West Fifth Street
Downtown Los Angeles

Parking will be provided at the 524 S. Flower Street Garage. $1 with a library card or $8 flat fee.

T. Jefferson Parker is the author of 14 novels including the New York Times bestseller The Fallen and the Edgar Award-winning novels California Girl and Silent Joe.

To send this post to a friend, click on the envelope icon below. And may you have a lovely weekend.


  1. Thank you for this post, as always. I remember someone asking me once why I was still -- 30 years after I started -- taking riding lessons, since I'd competed and run a show barn and all of that stuff, and I said "'Cause you never stop learning, and you never stop needing an outside eye." It's the perfect metaphor for writing for me as well.

    When you get the piaffe, I hope you'll post a video clip. Good luck with it, and the non-fiction class.

  2. Jackie, those are beautiful images (both photographic and literary) of your writing and riding. I'll bet you look like a danseuse when you ride.

    And while I agree with your comments on the too-easy accessibility of guns in this country, I can't apply them to the Virginia Tech tragedy this week.

    If he hadn't had access to guns, this lost young man would have found another way to lash out. A bomb. Chemicals. Knives. Serpents. There's no end to the creativity of horror.

  3. from Jacqueline

    Thank you, Louise and Lisa - I just keep riding and writing, on and on, one more step forward, with luck, each time.

    Louise, in Britain there is currently an horrendous outbreak of knifings. It is the subject of much debate, however, the fact remains that angry (dispossessed, lonely ...) people with knives are limited in how many they can kill in a rampage before someone stops them. Most gun deaths happen at home, when someone has blown a gasket and reaches for a weapon - if that available weapon is the vase on the table, then they may main before they kill. When the weapon is a gun, both parties are up a gum tree - one dead, one likely ending up dead at the hands of the law, either via a lethal weapon or lethal injection. We cannot get around the impact of gun ownership on this society - and I am not saying, "Don't own them" - as much as I would like to. I'm saying, "Look at this phenomenon, look at this loss of life, this terrible cost of freedom, and let's see what can be done." Gun registration, deeper background checks, monitoring of ownership, re-registering with change of ownership, right down to severe gun control - they should all be up for conversation and debate. Remember, "conversation" means "learning together" and this week has shown that we have one heck of a lot to learn, together.

  4. Jackie, you said so many things I agree with it's hard to limit my comments. I love the Anne Lamott vein-opening analogy, and I agree with you and Lisa that the need for study and feedback never stops. I just had lunch with my Gang of 4 writing group last week (Mims are you out there?) and always come away invigorated and filled with ideas.

    Let people have their guns, just take away the bullets.

  5. from Jacqueline

    Thanks, Patty - what would we do without the people who prod us on?

    And I love what you said about the bullets. I mentioned my friend's son in the post, however, his father was once in a missile regiment, based in Germany. It was a "joint services" posting, along with American service personnel. One team had control over the missiles, the other the launchers, and no one side could put their finger on the launch button without the other side's finger there too. Made sense to me.

  6. Great post, Jacqueline!
    I know how much you love your horses and riding - so you just enjoy yourself in Vegas! Great analogy between writing and riding.

    As for the gun debate: I often wonder if Americans weren't so fear driven and had a better sense of responosibility with their tempers and weapon ownership, they wouldn't be so hasty to lunge or shoot when their temper got the better of them. Then again, if you priced each bullet at $100 each, and a onetime lunge/swipe use of a knife, they might think before using them. We wish...

    Meanwhile, the gun laws in Australia are demanding and right up there and in your face. My dad shoots competition pistols and black powder (think musket, and has to jump through hoops every year for licence, registration and permits, inspection of his lockup/safe facility at home by a cop, etc. If that happened here, there would be a huge outcry of breach of civil rights. My mum complains of the stupidity of the government in trying to regulate kitchen chopping knives, etc, and the loss of the few guns in use by the public. My answer always is: "mum, we're Australian. We're always the larrikin. If you take away all of the guns, we'll use or make something else and use that for self protection or to overthrow the government. We're flexible.' :-) That's where that lump of 2x4" comes in handy - or a brick in a sock...


  7. Jacqueline, what with your horses and Patty's chainsaws, I'm beginning to have a greater appreciation of the finer points of writing. Thank you for what you do.

    As to guns, amendments and arguments notwithstanding, I can never get over the feeling that gun stores are a very bad idea. No, make that a very sick idea.

  8. Marianne and Mims, thanks for your comments.

    Yours was interesting, Marianne, in that there was a similar situation in the UK, regarding the impact of hand-gun laws on competitive shooting. Target shooting (using a pistol) was about the only sport in which Britain consistently won Olympic gold medals - it was all but a shoe-in, they were that good. Then the Dunblane massacre happened, when a lunatic killed a class of schoolchildren in Scotland, and the already-strict gun laws became even more stringent overnight, to the extent that if the target-shooting team wanted to continue with their sport, they had to move overseas. The response to any dissent about it was essentially "Kids or gold medals?"

    And I have to say, I find the idea of gun shops enormously creepy. Even those air guns worry me. A couple of years ago, my dog had to have some x-rays, and while the vet was pointing out arthritis in her spine, I saw these very obvious dots on the x-ray, just above her abdomen, and asked what they were (they hadn't been there a year earlier). The vet informed me that it was shots from an airgun. "We see it all the time - kids see a dog walking along and take a pot shot at her - you see your dog flinch, and generally there's no blood, or only a few drops that you barely even notice. The shot goes in, stays there and remains harmless - except for the fact that someone shot your dog." I sat in the car and wept at the thought of some nasty little kid with a gun taking a pot-shot at my kind old labrador. Made me wonder what that kid might graduate to, with good credit and a clean police record.

  9. Oh, Jacqueline, I'm so sorry that happened to your dog! :-( The amount of morons and junior morons in waiting that do these stupid, stupid selfish things and just turns my stomache. They seem so more common these days. And if caught, they try to brush it off as 'it was just a joke' - yeah, they weren't the ones in pain, were they? Then it would have been a different story. Sigh. We've been following the NASA siege, and subsequent murder suicide between two engineers that happened today. We had to watch it on BBC news, 'cause not one local station carried it. Gack, think I'll crawl back into my shell for awhile...

    Zen hugs to everyone!