Friday, May 01, 2009

The Grand Dame of Dire Warnings

from Jacqueline

This week I met up with one of my old writing mentors (actually, she’s not old, it’s just that we go back a few years), Bay Area author and former San Francisco columnist, Adair Lara. I first met Adair years ago, when I took one of her one-day “Writing The Personal Essay” classes at Book Passage Book Store in Corte Madera – one of the best and “happening” independent bookstores in the country, nay, the world. It was one of the first writing classes I’d ever taken, and I loved it. I later joined Adair’s longer course, meeting every week for twelve weeks at her big yellow Victorian house in San Francisco. Then I went back for more. I just loved the way she taught, the way my writing began to take shape, and the way that all those tips and bits of advice seemed to be having an effect (bring the camera in closer ... scan the scene ...). It was Adair who first said I should be writing fiction (who, me?), which of course I ignored for quite some time. Then, after I’d started MAISIE DOBBS, my first novel, it was Adair who encouraged me to continue, and also told me to get on and write with my left hand after I’d had that nasty riding accident that almost cost me my right arm (I think I might have heard her add “wimp” in there somewhere). Adair has recently – at last – published a book on writing: NAKED, DRUNK AND WRITING. Nifty title. The sub-title suggests it’s for writers of memoir and personal essays. I would say otherwise, because I have learned everything I ever knew about writing, from writing memoir. If you’re a writer of anything on the page, this book’s for you.

One of the things I enjoyed about Adair’s classes was her very creative list of suggestions of things to write about, just to get the juices going. Many authors of books on writing do the same sort of thing, they suggest you write about this or that, but Adair’s list was always that much more creative – and fun. Here’s an example:

Start with this quote by Wendell Berry: “You have throwed in your lot with them sons a’ bitches against me.”

Another suggestion:

Your name wasn’t on the list.

I read that one and felt like a five-year old with the hand-me-down party dress all over again when I read that one.

Each week, when it comes time to write my posts – invariably first thing on a Friday morning, and invariably I get to it late – I sit here until I think of something I want to write about. Sometimes it can be very simple, sometimes it might be more complex – an event or situation that has been bugging me for a long time. There was a lot of the latter going on during the last administration. So, here’s what I’m going to go on about for a couple of paragraphs this week – and I’ll start with a story.

It was my birthday yesterday, I turned %$. My mother called and belted out her version of that well-known song, which opened with the words:

Happy Birthday to you
Stay away from swine flu
Don’t go to Mex-e-co
Happy Birthday to you!

It was one of her more innovative ways of issuing a dire warning. So here you are: My Mother, The Grand Dame of Dire Warnings. It’s nothing short of a miracle that I have made it through life to the age of %$, with all the terrible things that could possibly have happened to me along the way – to say nothing of my brother, who, being younger than me (he’s (%)), was considered even more vulnerable.

Years ago, when I’d only been in California for about a year, wildfires pulverized the Oakland hills rendering the whole area reminiscent of some sort of cosmic holocaust. My mother called me, worried sick (I thought she would have a heart attack while talking to me), telling me to keep away from fires. “I am away, Mum. Four hundred miles away, in fact.” That week I sent a map of California, showing that where I was then living (in southern Cal) was not at risk from the Oakland fires.

One of my mother’s major concerns, always, is that when you set off somewhere in the car, you will run out of gas. I have only ever run out of gas once in my life, and that was accidentally-on-purpose. I was twenty-five, on a date with a really great guy, and I was driving (he had a motor bike, and having been out on that bike all day, we decided to take my car when we went out to dinner). I sort of remembered that I was low on gas, and sort of thought I could make it home, but heck, running out wasn’t such a bad thing ....

I was in England visiting my parents a few weeks ago, and because I cannot stand to be in the car when my mother is driving, I always rent a car so I can drive us out for our fun excursions. Those fun excursions always start with a bit of a barney. Here’s an example, two seconds into the drive:

“Have you got enough petrol,” says my mother, leaning over to my side of the car to see the fuel gauge, and completely obscuring my view of the road with her head.
“Of course I’ve got enough petrol,” says I.
“Well, don’t get uppity, I only asked, after all, you’re not used to driving on this side of the road.”
“It’s only because I care, you know.”
“Mum, what has the side of the road got to do with petrol? And when, in my %$ years, have I ever run out of petrol? And with all the miles I drive in a year.”
“Five minutes in the country, and you’re getting uppity.”
“What do you mean? Uppity?”

And so it goes on.

Here’s another one of Adair’s writing suggestions, and I’m glad I read it:

If you have just lost a parent, write on this subject:

I forgot to tell my mother ...
I forgot to tell my father ...

I hope I never forget to tell my mother that her care and concern have always filled my heart to bursting point, that I care that she cares. Even though I’m not a kid anymore, I get it – I’m still her kid. Even at %$

Here’s to a lovely weekend.


  1. Are you sure we don't have the same mother? Every time I get in the car to go somewhere, she is certain she will never see me again. However, it was my dad who was paranoid about running out of gas. He taught me to never allow the level in the tank to get below 1/4 full.

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. from Jacqueline

    Thanks, Patty. You know, my dad's the same - says it's bad for the car to get below 1/4 full (and of course, it is bad if you run on empty all the time, especially with fuel injection ...). My dad also bemoans the demise of the starting handle. He says that if your ignition went out, you could always get the car started with that starting handle! My back is hurting just thinking about it.

  3. must be a mens' thing. my husband also thinks it's bad for the engine if you run below 1/4.

    jackie, you will always be a kid, as long as you have parents and it is wonderful!

    happy birthday from me as well. hope you had a great one, even if it was your %€ (don't have a dollar sign on my keyboard)


  4. Jackie,
    You are young at heart, and if you ask me, you will live to be !)!

    Paul, ^!

  5. jackie, that would be äß in my language.


  6. And don't worry, %$ isn't bad at all. Wait till you turn ?#@%&!*+^ like me.

  7. oh dear, patty, i never knew

  8. you don't look a day older than §"

  9. HA! You should be doing stand-up comedy. LOL.

  10. i do, patty.

    how come the comments ticker still shows just 2?


  11. Wow, I leave the room for five minutes, and look what a conversation's been going on! Thanks for your birthday good wishes (and your prediction regarding my longevity, Paul). Seems we're all nudging towards our golden years - and I have to say that, fortunately, the years are pretty good and golden already. I'd hate to be a teenager again, and I loathed my twenties, so this feels just fine to me.

    OK, so you do stand-up, Sybille?

    And I know you're not &*%@! Patty. You can't be.

  12. yes jackie, but only as the village idiot. though my oldest brother is a much better idiot .....