AWP–where everybody is a writer

Every year, AWP–Association of Writers & Writing programs–holds the biggest writing conference in the country. For the first time since 1998, it was in Oregon, at the Portland Convention Center, so I had to go. Could I afford it? No. Could I afford the time off from work? No. Was my touchy stomach up to the different diet? No. Do my feet have blisters on their blisters? Yes they do. But I don’t care. It was worth every blister, every $20 bill that went flying out, every frou-frou sandwich with ingredients I couldn’t identify, even worth that mouth-burning hot pepper I thought was a crabapple.

AWP was like a massive party where everyone I’ve ever known in my writing life-from Antioch, Fishtrap, the Tucson Festival of Books, Portuguese writers, Nye Beach Writers, Willamette Writers, my Facebook friends, editors who have rejected my work, editors who have accepted my work, and famous writers on whom I have massive writer-girl crushes—were all in one place. I’m not normally comfortable at parties, but I had found my tribe, and I was high on the love—and way too much iced tea.

I was able to walk up to booths and say “I have a story in that issue,” and have the editors say, “Yes! It’s so great to meet you.” To have young writers call me an inspiration. Me? To get a big hug from a grad school classmate I hadn’t seen in 16 years.

I heard there were 12,000 people there. There were more than 700 exhibits with publishers, editors, writers, and college writing programs selling thousands and thousands of books and giving away pens, candy, postcards, poems, and more. There were approximately 500 panel discussions spread over three days, plus all kinds of “offsite” gatherings. It was not possible to do everything, but I’m so pleased about what I did do. I saw my heroes from Creative Nonfiction. I attended a session led by poet Kwame Dawes. I heard readings by Ilya Kaminsky and Tess Gallagher. I saw Oregon poet laureate Kim Stafford in the parking garage and Luis Alberto Urrea wandering around the bookfair. We were all citizens of Writer World, a place where I finally felt at home.

Many of the attendees were so very young, but we older folks were well represented, too. All races and nationalities attended, including men in dresses and girls who dressed like boys. I saw some wild outfits I can’t believe anyone would wear in public. It amused me that everyone put on what they thought looked good. But never mind. We were all obsessed with words.

Unfortunately, one can’t wander around Writer Land forever, living on fast food out of paper containers. After the conference ended Saturday afternoon, I wandered through the exhibit hall. The tables were empty, and workers were busy rolling up the carpet. Where did my people go? It was time to go forth and tell our stories.

I think I did well coming home with only seven new books, a mug and a hat I bought at the Saturday market from a funky old lady named Anita who makes them by hand from scraps of vintage fabric. I spent Saturday morning walking around the Willamette River, which I could see from my room at the Marriott. I had to keep taking pictures because the view kept changing. Sunrise, sunset, boats, birds, bridges, Mt. Hood. Glorious. Exactly the vacation I needed. WordPress is not letting me post photos right now, but I will.

Unfortunately, my buzz was disrupted by worrisome news about my dad, so now I’m on my way to San Jose when I just want to be that writer girl. It sounds like it’s going to be a tough time. Say a prayer, okay?

And buy some books! With so many writers producing so many books, somebody needs to read them.

 

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Now we know the smoke alarm works

Pellet Stove 12518BIt happened Saturday night. I was lolling on the love seat watching a video (McLeod’s Daughters, an Australian series on Amazon Prime that I can’t stop watching). I smelled smoke, but the pellet stove was offering nice orange warmth beside me, so that’s not so weird. Suddenly sparks flew past me like shooting stars. My eyes are a little freaky, with lots of floaters, so maybe it was nothing. I glanced at the stove. Yikes!

Flames were coming out where there shouldn’t have been flames, out the air holes at the top of the stove. Smoke gushed upward as the kitchen smoke alarm started wailing. My show had just reached a critical moment, but forget that. What should I do? Fire extinguisher? Ancient, and it would ruin the stove if it worked. Water? Probably not the right thing. I turned the stove off, unplugged it, and threw open the sliding door. The fire subsided. Whew.

Annie had been sleeping in front of the pellet stove. A spark fell on her leg. I screamed and brushed it off. She ran outside. If the fire hadn’t gone out on its own, if it had caught the carpet on fire, I guess I would have been running, too, standing outside barefoot in my grubby clothes holding the nearest guitar, my purse, and my trembling dog. Where was my cell phone? Probably plugged in with a nearly dead battery.

(Now don’t anybody tell my father about any of this, okay? He’s phobic about fire, and would lose his mind.)

Okay. So the fire was out. Time to assess the damage. I burned my thumb and index finger grabbing the hot rod that’s supposed to help clean out the ash, but was otherwise uninjured. Annie was fine. There were numerous black marks on the ratty mauve carpet where burning pellets had landed. The whole house reeked of smoke. But we were all right. I couldn’t sleep, so I cleaned out the pellet stove, making sure all remaining pellets were in the hopper where they were supposed to be. I didn’t turn it on though. What if it caught fire again while I was asleep?

I had to be gone most of Sunday. In the morning, I turned the stove on low, figuring I could watch it while I was getting ready. It seemed fine. But all day, I wondered if my house would still be there when I returned.

Our Willamette Writers meeting yesterday afternoon was at the Newport Library, where a display about emergency preparedness sits near the stairs. “Are you prepared?” the sign asks. Well, sort of. If I die, all the paperwork is in place for my brother to take care of my “estate.” If the tsunami comes, I’m above the danger level. I usually have some canned food hanging around, and my uber-prepared neighbors have assured me Annie and I can hang out at their house while Lincoln County sorts out its electricity, water, etc. But what if the reality is much worse than what I describe in my Up Beaver Creek novel? What if everything is just gone?

I do not have an emergency bag ready to go. I giggle remembering the E-kits we girls were required to have in our lockers at Blackford High School. I don’t remember what all it contained now beyond deodorant, sanitary napkins and pins. Maybe a needle and thread for clothing emergencies. This is different.

Last fall, I listened in horror to the news reports from California about Paradise and other communities where wildfires consumed thousands of homes. Most people had a little warning, but some had no time to pack, and some didn’t make it out alive.  With all the fires, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes that have happened in the last year, it’s obvious we all need to think about what we would do.

If my fire had spread beyond the pellet stove, I would have had virtually no time. My classical guitar, my favorite, was close, as was my purse. I’d want my laptop, which was at the other end of the house. What about my unpaid bills and my financial records? I couldn’t carry a whole file cabinet. What about the photos stored in albums and on the hard drive of my desktop computer? What about clothes? Jewelry? Shoot, I don’t go away for a weekend without taking half my possessions with me.

While I was at church yesterday, I wondered if I would have to wear my St. Patrick’s Day green sweater for weeks if all my other clothes burned.

What about my pills? I’d be in trouble without them.

If I was home, I’d need to get the car out immediately. If the garage door opener didn’t work, I’d have to figure out how to disconnect it. I’ve done it before, but I don’t remember. I think I needed a ladder.

What if everything was suddenly gone? No backsies. Look, Marie Kondo, guru of cleaning out clutter, I’ve gotten rid of everything. For so many people, this is not funny because it has really happened. I was not prepared. I was lucky.

This time.

This Napoleon pellet stove insert is a lemon on the order of the bright yellow 1974 VW Rabbit I drove while I was living in Pacifica in the ‘80s. It was in the shop more than on the road, and I sold it before I paid off the loan. The poor fool who bought it took it to San Francisco for a test drive. He called to say he’d parked and turned it off, and now it wouldn’t start. I’d warned him the starter was bad. He still bought it! Yeah, it’s that kind of pellet stove. If it weren’t two months past its warranty, I’d demand a refund and/or a different source of heat. But if I keep the pellets where they belong, it should be safe enough.

Meanwhile, I think I need to start packing my emergency kit. Nobody knows what will happen or when. I have been ignoring that library display for too long.

The Red Cross offers a list of supplies to have on hand and a quiz to see how well you’re prepared at https://www.redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies/survival-kit-supplies.html.

Here’s another resource: https://www.ready.gov/build-a-kit

If you don’t want to do it yourself, you can buy an emergency preparedness kit at amazon.com. They really do have everything.

Are you prepared? Want to join me in getting our act together? Let’s do it.

Annie says, hey don’t forget my Milk-Bones.

Me and Tom Hanks Selling Our Books

WW authors at Wordstock
Kerry Blaisdell, Jack Estes, John Dover, and Sue Fagalde Lick at the Portland Book Festival      Photo by Gail Pasternack

 

It’s 5 p.m., and the Portland Book Festival is winding down. Where once one couldn’t move for the crowds, now there’s space between the bodies. Formerly known as Wordstock, the festival has once again drawn thousands of book lovers to the Portland Art Museum and surrounding venues. Everywhere you turn, someone is giving a talk, reading from his or her books, offering services for writers, or selling books. People bring their babies and their kids, hoping to turn them into readers. Food carts line up selling tamales, pizza, donuts, and other goodies.

In a world where half the people say they never read books, it’s wonderful to see so many celebrating the written word, even if they wander around in a word-stoned daze, making it hard to move. We stand in line for the readings and talks, for food, for coffee, to buy books, and to use the restroom.

Now, with the festival ending in one hour, it’s getting easier to breathe, but it doesn’t bode well for sales. With several other Willamette Writers authors, I have drawn the last shift for selling and signing my books. My book bag is heavy coming in, but I hope it will be much lighter going out.

We stand behind the table, behind our piles of vastly different books and exercise our best selling techniques. Debby Dodds flashes her technicolor smile and plays her connections with seemingly everyone in Portland to sell her young adult novel, Amish Boys Don’t Call.

Jack Estes, whose wonderful books are about soldiers, shouts out, “Do you know any veterans?” because, well, who doesn’t, and tomorrow is Veterans Day. Sometimes the question backfires. People are like “What? Why?” Plus, people don’t give Veterans Day gifts. Maybe they should.

John Dover, creator of the “jazz noir” Johnny Scotch series, plies his local connections and offers readers a good time with his books and stories. Kerry Blaisdell hands out free calendars to lure people to her urban fantasy novel, Debriefing the Dead.

Me, I pass out postcards with the cover photo from Up Beaver Creek. “Would you like a pretty picture, something to look at and de-stress?” Mostly women accept it. A few turn it over, read my pitch and come back to take a look at the book. Success.

Since our table sits under the Willamette Writers banner, we give out information about the organization, about the various branches, our program for young writers, and our literary magazine the Timberline Review.

But it’s a tired crowd, with going home on their minds. It’s getting dark outside. Their bags of books are already too heavy. Many don’t even glance in our direction. Some dart in to grab the leftover Halloween candy set between the books. And some stop to chat. And chat. And chat. I want to scream, “Move on. You’re blocking my books. I don’t want to carry these damned things home.” Just as I wanted to scream when I was on the other side perusing the booths, “Pass on the right!” and, “If you’re going to stand still, get out of the way.” But I don’t scream any of those things. I smile and offer up pretty pictures.

My photo technique works. I sell a book. The buyer hands me a credit card. It’s the first time I’ve used the credit card app on my phone. Will it really work? It did when I practiced at home, but . . . Look! It works! I hand her my phone. “Finger sign here, please.” How crazy is that? In a minute, I get an email saying $15.00 has been deposited into my account. Magic. Somebody else buy a book. Let’s do it again!

Up until this year, I have not accepted credit cards. Cash or checks only. But that’s old-fashioned. Now we all have our little card readers on our phones. Zip, zoop, sold.

That one sale is it for the night, which is as good as any of us except Debby does, but as John Dover notes, this is not about sales. It’s about shaking hands and making connections. It’s about getting people to take our cards and our swag so that they might go home and order our books or at least remember our names.

It’s also about being with other authors after the solitary process of writing our books. We compare notes. Best and worst selling experiences. Bookstores that treat authors well or treat them badly. Places we might give talks. Favorite flavor of Ghirardelli chocolate squares. (Mine is mint.)

And it’s fun. I think of myself as shy, but I have spent the day talking to strangers, putting myself “out there.” “Hey, you need another book!” I hear myself shouting. I’ve turned into a huckster.

Afterward, walking the six blocks to the parking garage, my bag is no lighter than it was coming in. I couldn’t resist purchasing one more book from a Facebook-only friend I finally met in person. I don’t mind. My feet hurt, but my heart feels good.

It has been a long day, which started with standing in line with approximately 2,000 people for over an hour in 36-degree weather outside the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall to see and hear Tom Hanks talk about Uncommon Type, his new book of short stories. The ticket price included a copy of his book. We grab our books from the thousands piled on tables in the theater lobby and cuddle them like kittens. Tom Hanks does not have to stand behind a table with postcards and chocolate bars trying to get people’s attention. It helps if you’re an Academy Award winning actor.

Tom Hanks’ hour-long talk was fabulous. It was funny, sweet, loving, and wise. I’m in love. We all are. Last night, I dreamed about Tom and his big gray dog walking up my driveway. I greeted them like old friends, casual, not star-struck at all—until my sweet Annie dog turned into Cujo and attacked his dog.

I’m so sorry, Tom. Would you like a pretty picture of Beaver Creek?

***

  • Fun fact: Back in the early 90s, Tom Hanks spent a night camping in an Airstream trailer on my grandfather’s property at Seacliff Beach, California. Or so says my father, who is not impressed with all this book nonsense, but thought it was pretty nifty that I got to see Tom Hanks.
  • The Coast branch of Willamette Writers meets this coming Sunday, Nov. 18 at 2 p.m. at the Newport Library. Rachel Barton will lead a free poetry workshop. Everyone is invited to join us for lunch at the Chowder Bowl at 11:30 that day where we can chat and fill up on chowder. PM me or email me at coast@willamettewriters.org if you’re coming to lunch so we can save you a seat.
  • I just discovered this is my 500th post! That’s a lot of blogging.

 

Crash brings everything to a sudden halt

IMG_20180520_181911600_HDR[1]You never know when God will holler “Stop!” He did it in spades yesterday afternoon when a head-on collision brought everything to a halt on Highway 101 just before the turnoff to my house in South Beach.

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon, great beach weather, with lots of tourists making local traffic thicker than usual. For me, it was a regular Sunday. I led the choir at church in the morning, had lunch and mowed the front lawn in the middle of the day, and returned to Newport for a Willamette Writers coast branch meeting.

The meeting with writer “Tex” Thompson was great. We left at 4:15, happy and full of ideas. At the meeting, I had drunk a big cup of lemon-ginger tea. Despite my hummingbird bladder, I decided I could wait for the bathroom till I got home. After all, it’s only a 15 minute drive, 12 if all the traffic lights are green. My friend Wiley and I talked about how we might walk our dogs or mow more lawns when we got home. Plenty of daylight left.

Just south of the Yaquina Bridge, traffic came to a halt. Not good. I checked Newslincolncounty.com on my cell phone. The crash was near 98th Street, my exit. Probable fatality. People in a car in a ditch. Life Flight called. We weren’t moving any time soon.

We sat in our cars, trucks and RVs, filling the air with exhaust fumes. We took our vehicles out of gear and eased our feet off the brakes. We turned off our engines, stunned by the silence. Once in a while, we turned our engines back on to move forward a car length as people pulled out of line, turned around and headed back to Newport via the empty northbound lane. Impatience? An appointment? A full bladder like mine? On that section of 101, with one lane in each direction, ocean on one side, hillside on the other, there is no place to go, no possible detour.

Time clicked by. An hour. Two hours. I was so close to home I could have walked if I had somewhere to put my car. I told myself repeatedly that my inconvenience was nothing compared to that of the people involved in the accident. One person was dead, maybe more. The others were badly hurt. Life had changed forever for them while eventually I would get home, eat dinner, and watch American Idol.

Meanwhile, I had time to study the houses, trees, and signs I usually whoosh by at 60 miles an hour. I got glimpses of late-afternoon sun sparkling on the blue ocean. Roadside rhododendrons bloomed in every color. My God, I thought, it’s beautiful here. Not so much for the accident victims. For them, it will always be: This is where it happened.

A few northbound cars trickled by. Police cars and ambulances passed. An “incident response” truck flashed a sign that said “Highway closed one to two hours.”

People got out of their cars to stretch. One guy ahead of me launched a drone. It looked like a white box with legs. It hovered above the car for a while before he brought it back down. Two teenage girls walked back and forth chatting as if this was a parade.

I thought about leaving my car long enough to go knock on somebody’s door and beg to use their bathroom. But what if the line started moving?

It’s illegal in Oregon to do anything with your cell phone in your car, but we weren’t moving, and all the cops were busy. I kept checking my phone for more information. I answered a text. I read a few emails. I took pictures and started making notes for this blog. This was a perfect opportunity to meditate, but I’m not good at sitting still.

When cars are on the highway with no brake lights, they’re usually in motion. Now it was like the video got frozen with a bad Wi-Fi signal.

Last year in California, I waited four hours on the 205 freeway near Tracy while a truck vs. bus collision blocked the road. I hated sitting there surrounded by eighteen-wheelers, with no way out. People died there, too, while I suffered only a full bladder and bollixed schedule.

Everything we count on is so fragile. We all know—in our minds—that if something happens to the bridges that box in our part of the coast, we will be stuck. If an accident, a mudslide, or a gathering of wild elk blocks the road, we’re stuck. I had water, three leftover brownies, blankets and a good book in the car, but I never planned to get stuck between the library and home for hours. Nobody ever plans these things.

I had left the lawnmower out, assuming I’d mow the back lawn. I had left my computer on, figuring I wouldn’t be gone long. I had told my dog I’d be “right back.”

Every time the cars moved forward a little, I felt myself becoming furious at the one guy ahead who didn’t move, which meant I didn’t get to move. It was only a few feet, but I wanted to move those few feet. Move, idiot! I was losing my sense of humor.

Finally movement. 82nd Street. The airport. Cones, flaggers, a tow truck and a smashed car, a pile of what looked like clothes on the pavement, 95th Street, oh my God, 98th. I got in the left-turn lane and contemplated the solid line of northbound cars blocking my way. A man in a red car got out of line to make room for me to turn. And then there was my street, wide open, my neighbor’s house, my neighbor’s dog, my house, my dog. 6:40 p.m. Praise God and hurry to the bathroom.

Oregon state police reported  the following:

Preliminary investigation revealed that a blue 2007 Toyota Corolla, driven by Shane Larson, age 44, of Tillamook, and also occupied by Tyann Walker, age 32, from Beaver, was traveling northbound when the vehicle crossed into the southbound lane of travel on a relatively straight section of the highway.  The vehicle struck a southbound silver 2014 Buick Verano head on.  The Buick Verano was driven by Sean Compton, age 50, from Springfield.  Following the initial collision, the Toyota Corolla traveled over an embankment west of the roadway and rolled onto its top.  The Buick Verano spun across the northbound lane and came to rest with the rear of the vehicle against the guardrail facing west.  

Larson and Compton were transported by ambulance to Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital in Newport.  Larson was later transported by Life Flight helicopter to Good Samaritan Hospital in Corvallis due to the extent of his injuries. 

Walker suffered fatal injuries and was pronounced deceased at the scene.        

Please pray for all involved in this horrible end to a day at the beach. Be careful out there, never assume things will go as planned, be grateful when they do, and don’t drink anything and drive.

 

 

Book nerds gather at Wordstock

img_20161105_134332574_hdr1You know all those socially-challenged people who would rather read a book—or write a book—than anything? Well, about 8,000 of them gathered in Portland, Oregon Saturday for the mega-event known as Wordstock. Unlike at the famous rock concert with the similar name, folks at Wordstock were stoned on books instead of drugs. The stage performances were all about words instead of music, and the only naked people were the sculptures at the art museum. Still, it was pretty mind-boggling. Alice Hoffman over here, Sherman Alexie over there, Richard Russo across the street, workshops all day, books to buy everywhere, oh my God.

img_20161105_122427661_hdr1Wordstock’s hub was the Portland Art Museum, but within easy walking distance, other events happened at seven other venues on the South Park blocks, including the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall, the glorious First Congregational United Church of Christ, and the Oregon Historical Society. Red Wordstock signs appeared everywhere. The people I met leaving the parking garage were also going to Wordstock. Of course. Everyone was going to Wordstock. Well, there was that guy yelling in Spanish at a mannequin in a store window. But everybody else.

I was a Wordstock virgin, compelled to go this year not only because I always wanted to but because I’m now co-coordinator of our Willamette Writers chapter in Newport. We had a table at the Wordstock book fair. If I volunteered a couple hours, I could sell my books.

Portland is a long drive from here. Three hours each way if I’m lucky. Much of it was in the dark, and it was raining the whole time. Blinded by the deluge, I prayed my way home and still can’t believe I survived. I also can’t believe the guys in pickups who passed me going 75 mph on Highway 20. God watch over the people in their path.

So, as a newbie, I had a lot to learn about Wordstock. For example:

* Once you pay your $15 (do it in advance online) and get your red wristband, you can attend any of the talks in any of the many buildings. Just walk in. This blows my mind. I thought you needed to pay more for an extra ticket. Nope.

* Get the program online at Literary Arts or in the Willamette Week newspaper and plan ahead. There is way too much to see and do. Picture a massive buffet at which everything looks delicious, but you can only choose one plate-full. Which do you want more, the lobster or the raviolis?

* Don’t open that door to the stage balcony between shows. I decided I wanted to sneak a peek at one of the theaters and got locked in. Locked double doors on each end of a concrete-floored hallway. Luckily there were stairs. Eventually I wound up in an alley. As the doors shut behind me—locked—I gazed at the wrought iron gates that separated me from the street. What if they’re locked, too? I pictured myself gripping the bars like a prisoner and hollering for help. But they opened.

* Expect to get wet. It’s November in Oregon. You will get wet walking between buildings. You will get wet acquiring food from the food carts. You will get wet trying to find a place to eat that food. Wear your raincoat; think about bringing an umbrella. And don’t even think about complaining about the rain.

* It will be crowded. Did I mention there were 8,000 people there? That’s almost the whole population of Newport. Most of these people are too busy gazing at books, authors, their programs or their phones to watch where they’re going. If you try to take an alternate route, a red-shirted volunteer will herd you back into the stampede. Note that many of the attendees are kids, who get in free.

* If you live far away, stay overnight so you can start Wordstocking the minute it opens and stay to the end. None of this sneaking out to beat the traffic and the darkness, neither of which is actually possible.

* You’re in an art museum. Take time to enjoy the art, too. Featured this year was the work of pop artist Andy Warhol, famous for his Campbell’s Soup Cans and prints of famous people. Wild and colorful stuff.

It’s all pretty amazing and a little daunting for this small-town author who skipped her church bazaar to attend Wordstock (which my phone keeps autocorrecting to Woodstock). Of course I spent more money than I made selling books. I thought I was going to die on the road. But will I go next year? As long as Literary Arts keeps putting it on, I plan to be there. Unless it’s snowing. Maybe even then.

It was all writing all the time

On normal days, I juggle several lives at once. I’m a writer with new writing to write, old writing to sell, and published books to market. I produce three blogs that require my responses to a steady stream of comments, especially my Childless by Marriage blog. I seem to have become the Dear Abby of the childless set. But I’m also a musician with a “day job” as a church choir co-director, plus numerous solo gigs, jams and open mics, and a constant need to practice on the piano and guitar. I also have a massive house and yard to maintain in addition to taking care of myself and my dog—and she’s not much help. Bills, laundry, groceries, doctor appointments, walking the dog, worrying long-distance about my elderly father, trying to find time for my friends . . . you know, real life. Sometimes I get all tied up in knots trying to do it all.

But sometimes I get to run away. Sometimes I get to focus on just one life. That’s what I did last weekend when I drove to Portland for the Willamette Writers conference. I have been part of Willamette Writers since shortly after we moved to Oregon. I co-founded the Oregon coast branch with my friend Dorothy Blackcrow Mack. This year, as part of the new Timberline Review staff, I was there to represent the magazine and celebrate our first issue, to teach a poetry class, and to pitch my unpublished books to editors and agents. I helped judge the Saturday night open mic, too. In between, I participated in workshops that got me inspired, educated and anxious to write, write, write. Tom Robbins was there. I got to study with Jennifer Lauck. I hobnobbed with Bryan Doyle. As equals! Well, almost. I also ate, ate, ate. Those cookies with peanut butter in the middle? OMG!

It was all writing all the time. I could forget everything beyond the Doubletree Hotel. Yes, I kept getting text messages about church choir, and yes, I had to play a funeral Monday morning, and yes, I needed to call the vet, take the car to the shop and a dozen other things, but for three days, all I had to do was eat, sleep, write and talk about writing.

It’s amazing and a bit alarming how many people want to be writers. Hundreds of writers attended this conference, most paying a big chunk of money in the hope of getting that nugget of information or that successful meeting that would rocket their manuscript onto the bestseller list. It happens. Every year, we have success stories, people whose careers were launched at the Willamette Writers Conference. That’s why people keep coming.

It’s a weird conglomeration of folks. Writers are not necessarily social people. They’re more comfortable alone with their books and their computers. The conference setting forces them to “network” and we don’t all do it well, but we do our best. We sit down next to another writer and ask, “What do you write?” Thus the conversation begins.

A central activity all weekend is “pitching” our books to agents and editors. People walk around looking like they might throw up or faint because they’re so nervous as they approach the “pitch marketplace,” a room full of “buyers” sitting at little tables waiting to hear their pitch. This year, we had eight minutes. We were herded in one door and escorted out the other when the organizer shouted “Time!” Handed an evaluation sheet on the way out, we staggered down the hall, some euphoric, some suicidal, most somewhere in the middle. Three out of four agents wanted to see my work. But this is not my first conference. It’s just like speed dating. Maybe there’s a spark, but it might fizzle the next time you meet.

Eventually the conference ended with a last speaker who urged us to “never give up.” Then it was time to take off my lanyard with the card that identified me as part of Timberline Review, as teacher, editor, author. I felt so naked without that identity when I finally walked to my car and left the hotel. I immediately took a wrong turn because I couldn’t read the street sign until I got too close to turn back, then ran into a five-mile backup behind an accident on I-5. Ah, reality.

Yes, I got weary of lining up at buffets and in the ladies room. Yes, I was sick of taking the elevator up and down. Yes, my body was starting to whine about sitting too much. But oh it was nice to live just one life at a time.

Unleashed 19 Years and Counting

Nineteen years ago, Fred and I moved from San Jose, California to the Oregon Coast. Literally driving off into the sunset, we caravaned north with a rented truck carrying most of our possessions and a Honda Accord carrying me, the dog and my instruments. We had some problems along the way. You can read about it in Shoes Full of Sand. (Only $2.99 for the Kindle version.)

I have been here almost a third of my life. When we arrived, I was only 44, had all black hair and no arthritis. Fred was a youthful 59, and our dog Sadie was only a year old, full of energy.

So much has changed over the years. Fred and Sadie are gone. It’s just me and a dog named Annie, who is already 7 ½ years old. Both of Fred’s parents and my mother have died. So have both my uncles and all of the older generation of my family, except my father, who by some miracle is still going on his own in San Jose at age 93. My brother, who started as a recreation leader the kids called Mr. Mike, became a lawyer and then a judge in Mariposa County Superior Court. His kids are adults now.

I have often thought about going back to California. If I were on my own that first winter, I would have. The rain and wind never stopped. I was cold, miserable and homesick. But Fred loved it here, and we stayed. Now, in this unusually dry summer, I crave the rain. When the temperature gets over 65 degrees, it’s too hot for me. But when it’s in the low 60s, I lie out on the deck and soak in the sun. Come December, the days will be short and sunshine will be only a memory.

Much has happened since we sold our house in San Jose and moved to Oregon. In the U.S., we’ve gone from President Clinton to Bush to Obama. The attacks on 9/11 made terrorism a household word and led to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as undeclared conflicts in other parts of the Middle East. We started a new century. The Internet took over our lives. We got e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. We bought Kindles, Smart phones and iPads. TV screens became flat and wall-sized. Gluten-free became a thing. Saying “a thing” became a thing.

Back in San Jose, the population zoomed to over a million people, crime soared, and traffic became an impenetrable wall. The house where I grew up, a three bedroom, one-bath house with no dishwasher, no central heating and no WiFi, is valued at more than $700,000. Studio apartments there cost more than my mortgage here. Santa Clara Valley became “Silicon Valley.” It’s too crowded, and more people keep coming.

I have kept busy over the years: Five books, an MFA, transitioning from writing articles for newspapers and magazines to writing essays, poems and blogs, something no one had dreamed of in 1996. A job playing, singing and leading church choirs. More new friends than I can count, friends who feel like family. I co-founded the coast branch of Willamette Writers and am now president of Writers on the Edge.

Did it turn out the way we planned? Not all of it. I wanted to write, play music and walk on the beach. We wanted to live in a small town with no crowds where people get to know each other. We got all that. I am blessed. But I never expected to do it alone. With Fred gone, maybe I should have gone home. But to what? To who? The Oregon coast is my home now.

What will happen in the next 19 years? I don’t know. I don’t think I want to know. Today the trees are standing tall, there’s blue in the sky, I have a meat loaf sandwich waiting for lunch, and Annie’s asleep on the couch. Later today, I’m going to jam with other musicians, and later still, I’ll watch the finale of the Bachelorette. Will she choose Nick or Shawn?

What were you doing 19 years ago? Where did you live? What has changed for you since then? Please share in the comments.