Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Write well and prosper

Hope your Winter Holidays have been full of light and find you surrounded by your loved ones!

2012 at Pen Parentis was a series of overcoming obstacles - we threw a neighborhood event on a boat during a thunderstorm, the restaurant that had hosted us for three years closed its doors, a hurricane swept our November event out to sea...but at the end of the end, we came through. More than 250 neighborhood children and their parents attended our free Books Ahoy! event this summer, armed with umbrellas; we found a new partner to host our Salons (Wall&Water at the Andaz Wall Street is a Conde Nast 2012 Gold LIst location that treats us as VIPs); and we are hoping YOU will help us replace the amp and pre-amp that got fried by hurricane-weakened power lines at our December event. To make a donation through our fiscal sponsor just click here, and accept our warmest thanks (Fractured Atlas will send you a tax receipt!) 

May 2013 bring happy children, the inspiration for a new piece that causes you to gasp at your own daring, and the time to actually write it down.

Until next year -!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Rediscovering the joy of writing - against all odds

As a reminder: Birgitte Rasine, a California-based member of Pen Parentis, is guest-blogging for us. Here is the first  installment from her travels to South America with toddler and writing in tow....

We writers have never had it better, easier, or more convenient to write.   Laptops are lighter, smaller, thinner, faster and more powerful than ever before.  We can write anywhere, anytime.  We can send entire manuscripts to our editors from anywhere in the world instantly—assuming wi-fi of course. 

So what do you do when you’re in a country where electronics are stolen on a daily basis, you can lose your life for an iPhone, you’re constantly traveling, and you’ve got your toddler and husband with you?

First, you choose the places where you take your laptop very carefully.  You pack it up in your oldest, scruffiest backpack, one that ideally you can lock with a small lock.  You never take it out in public.  In airports, you wear a poncho over your backpack to put one more barrier between you and the people who want to make the load on your back a little lighter (here, pro thieves actually purchase full price airline tickets in order to get into the waiting rooms in airports or the planes themselves—apparently the potential loot is worth the ticket).

Cell phone?  Sure, but make sure you lock that brand new iPhone in your suitcase or a safe, and get an outdated old “native” model with a local number.  You’ll blend in better that way.  Also, be sure to study the facial expressions of the locals walking down the street—and wear that look everywhere.

In some places, you simply don’t take your laptop—or smartphones, tablets, or other devices—at all.   Take it from a travel veteran: do leave home without it. 

So we writers might ask, OMG how am I going to write?  I need to keep writing!  I’m on a writing retreat (slash family vacation)!

It’s really very simple—and you can thank your stars that your profession is truly one of the oldest in the world: that of a scribe.  All we need to practice our craft are our minds, a writing utensil, and a surface to capture our words.  Translation: paper and pen.  That’s it. 

So when we traveled last week to the Caribbean island of Providencia, which required flying from Bogotà to the island of San Andrés, spending the night in a hotel, then continuing on to Providencia in a little 15-seater (it was either that or braving the wild open sea for 3 hours in a catamaran), I left my beloved laptop in Bogotà.  I’m working on a short story and a novella, so I printed out the short story and made notes (for a trip of 5 days with family, I knew I could realistically focus on just one work). 

I wrote everywhere.  In the airport, on the plane, in the hammock after lunch while my 2-year-old slept cuddled next to me, but above all, I woke up early and went down to the shore to be inspired by the early morning light of the Caribbean sun.

Hard to focus?  Yes.  Constant background noise and interruptions?  Absolutely.  But all of this forced me to reach deep into my mental reserves and hold on to that cord of inspiration, hold the hand of the muse that lives within all writers and blocks out all interruption and noise.  Some may call it meditation, others willpower; I call it the writer’s zen.  Given the challenge, if you rise to it, you’ll find an extraordinary source of internal tranquility you can tap at any time, any place.  It’s yours to take with you wherever you go.

And yet… there was plenty of inspiration in watching people milling about in the airport, rushing about their daily lives in the streets on the islands, and all of the mundane interactions I watched unfold as we traveled from airport to airport to hotel to beach to wherever else we went.  It was for this reason, for the incessant changes in surroundings and the nearly constant background din I knew would be the status quo of our trip, that I chose to bring along my short story rather than the novella.

I never missed my laptop.   Instead, I rediscovered the joy of writing longhand, something I rarely do anymore, and of being able to take my writing with me anywhere without concern about the unfortunate incompatibility of electronics with sand, sun, salt water, or rain—in the tropics it rains hard and without warning—and above all, about having my work stolen along with my laptop.

It was, in a word, idyllic.  Now as I type this blog on my computer back here in Bogotà, something seems missing… it could be the salt air, the turquoise waters, and the total, absolute timelessness of the islands.

Birgitte Rasine

p.s. Now about the international conflict that the island of Providencia is caught up in—and that I hinted at in my first blog post.  The islands of San Andrés and Providencia are Colombian territory, and have been since 1928 as per the Esguerra-Bárcenas Treaty.  It’s this treaty that Nicaragua has been disputing since 2001; on November 19 of this year, the International World Court of Justice at the Hague granted to Nicaragua an exclusive economic zone extending 200 nautical miles from its Caribbean coast.  This means the fishing population of Providencia and San Andrés will be essentially cut off from their livelihood.  Colombia is opposing the decision of the Court, at the highest levels of international governance, and there is potential for an international confrontation between the two countries.  We already had our tickets… and weren’t sure what sort of situation we would arrive in: would it be a pleasant island vacation or an international conflict? As it turned out, at least for now, the locals on the islands are fairly relaxed about the situation.  But we’ll have to wait and see.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Guest Blogger: Birgitte Rasine, Preparing for Colombia

Hope everyone has their tickets or reservations to Tuesday's Andaz Pen Parentis Authorfest!  It's going to be a great time! If you haven't yet reserved: click here and please note, it's standing room only at this point!  In the meantime, please read on for the first guest blog from Pen Parentis member Birgitte Rasine who is leaving today for a writing trip to South America with her toddler in tow:


First things first: a big warm thanks to Milda De Voe for enthusiastically embracing the idea of blogging from the field as my family and I embark on a 2-month-long trip in Colombia.

Yes, we’re about to ship off to one of the world’s most beautiful, exotic, and in some minds, dangerous countries.

It’s not the first trip—I’ve been to Colombia a number of times, and loved it more each time.  But it was never a writing-retreat-slash-black-piranha-wrestling-in-ancient-rivers-slash-Caribbean-island-vacation-turned-potential-international-conflict.  With a toddler.

It’s the end of the year, and three years since my husband and I were able to have a real vacation (get-togethers for weddings and Christmas in Florida don’t count!).  So we decided to take two months in South America.  For him, it’s a chance to soak up several weeks of extreme fishing in the Orinoco river, for me it’s a long-deserved break from clients to do nothing but write, and for our daughter, it’s everything she has only seen in books—and the iPad.

(I’ll reveal what the Caribbean island is and why it’s involved in an international conflict in a future post.)

As any parent knows, the B.C. (“Before Children”) era simply does not compare with the A.B. (“After Birth”) period.  One is freedom, tranquility, restaurants and romantic evenings out.  The other is sleepless nights, food-strewn carpets, and classes in advanced psychology and negotiation skills.  And yet, somehow, nothing but nothing compares with being able to give your child the experience of a lifetime, many times over.  This trip is one of many that I want my daughter to experience, to open up her already inquisitive, nimble mind.  Discovery of the world simply cannot wait.

A little about me before we head off.  I’m a Czech-American author descended from a loooong family line that apparently goes back to the eleventh century.  I write shorter fiction (short stories and novellas) inspired by the painful romance of real life.  And the occasional non fiction work, like “The Serpent and the Jaguar”, a book about the Mayan Calendar and sacred time. 

As I sit here writing, my 2-year-old tucked in next to me on my usually ample executive chair, wriggling all over my lap while I endeavor to hit the right keys, I reflect on how stable and safe everything here in Northern California is (generally).  In Colombia, life is intense.  A kiss from a beetle can give you Chagas disease. Untold parasites in standing water everywhere.  Paramilitary trucks just around the bend of a rural road.  But the light is brighter, the air cleaner, the food richer and tastier, and the people are some of the most social, warm, hospitable on the planet.  Your senses sharpen, your memory is young again, and you forget where you came from.

I can’t wait to share it all with you.

Birgitte Rasine

Monday, December 3, 2012

why we love guest bloggers

It is amazing to me to get to hear the stories of writers who are parents from far-flung places. I am so grateful to our members who have volunteered to add their voices to this blog!

These last two weeks, thinking about how the daily routine of guest blogger and Pen Parentis member Geoff Kirsch up in Alaska must differ from mine, have humbled me and reminded me that yes, we are all from vastly different backgrounds -- but then I went to a nowhere-but-Manhattan event (I was guested in to a fundraiser for a local orchestra with a live performance by a Broadway star, held in the art-strewn historical Tribeca loft of a couple so well-to-do their kids were having a pillow fight with silk throw pillows and no one even noticed over the loud murmur of cocktail conversation) and I realized in talking to the thin outer skin of the upper crust that all of us: from these unbelievably rich people, down to my ironic and dry Facebook friend from high school whose last status update mentioned the fact that her local food kitchen had given her a sack of donated rice that was full of small bugs, and also served many in the community whose eyesight wasn't as good as hers--all of us who are writer/parents have two things in common: we love our kids and we don't have enough time in the day to do our writing. This is what binds us together despite other differences - we have to get over the guilt that in writing anything other than a shopping list or a note to a teacher, we are stealing time from our kids.

That's hard.

But here's the thing: I truly believe it's worth it. Creative expression is a valuable talent, and those of us who can actually string words together to form images that stay in people's minds have a mandate to use that talent. What we create changes the world. Just look at how passionately people talk about the ideas they got from books. Teaching our kids that art is valuable is probably part of why people like us were meant to have kids in the first place.

So go write. Just make the time. Make it.

Next up, we have another guest blogger: this time a fascinating writer from California who is taking her toddler to South America in order to write. She leaves on Wednesday.

I can't wait.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Ten tips on writing - by Geoff Kirsch (part 2)

Part 2 of our Hurricane Hiatus guest-blog by Geoff Kirsch...

Like I said last week, I was recently asked to share my writing expertise with students in a high school memoir writing class. I thought I’d share the ten tips I offered them to you as well. You know, if you want to take advice from a guy who moved out of New York to become a professional writer.

Here they are: 

  1. Everyone has a story to tell; it’s just a matter of figuring out how to tell it. That might not be through writing at all. Sometimes, the best way is with music, or painting, or molecular gastronomy. However, since I know nothing about molecular gastronomy…

  1. When you’re writing, just keep writing and don’t stop writing, ever. I’m not saying wear a diaper, but you know, if you’ve got an hour to write, spend that whole hour adding words to the page. Editing comes later, and that’s a whole other batch of tips.

  1. Don’t drink and write. There’s a time and place for drinking—when you’re 21 for instance, and even then, not while you’re writing. In fact, be careful of anything you make part of your writing process. It took me 10 years to quit smoking cigarettes and on a heavy writing day, I still drink a good 300 ounces of coffee. Seriously, half my daily calorie intake comes through half n’ half. Don’t even ask what my Splenda habit’s like.

  1. If you can’t beat it, work around it. There’s always a way around it—creative problem solving goes a long way to establishing “voice.”

  1. The world has plenty of writers already, but it only has one “you.” Your experiences, Your perceptions of the life you lead and the world you live in—that’s the rest of what goes into “voice.” Also a trademark punctuation mark—mine’s the “dash;” I also like semi-colons. 

  1. Allow yourself the luxury of a crappy first draft. No one will ever see it but you (except maybe your wife, but honestly, it’s nothing she hasn’t seen before—and, she’s seen a lot worse). 

  1. Don’t set out to make your living as a writer. I learned that the hard way. Write because you love it, not because you’re trying to feed your family with it. In order to get good enough to actually earn money, you need to be able to try and fail and try and fail, and that’s frustrating enough from a creative standpoint, let alone if you’re trying to bring home the bacon or, for vegetarians, the tofu-based bacon substitute.

  1. Show, don’t tell. Except graphic sex scenes. Those are next to impossible to write well, and believe me, I’ve tried.

  1. Appeal to as many of the five senses as possible. More than any other artistic discipline writing is uniquely able to conjure sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. I wrote a short story once in which a jilted wife takes revenge on her ex-husband by stuffing sushi in all the curtain rods of the house leaving him to search in vain for the source of the worsening stench… Anyway, I’ll never forget what my MFA thesis advisor said: “Geoff, your writing smells.” To this day, that’s nicest compliment anyone’s paid me. 

  1. It’s a lot easier to make people laugh than to make them cry. The trick is doing both. When and if you master it, please teach me.

 (note from Pen Parentis - you can read the curtain rod story and several others on Geoff's website at - Enjoy and have a happy Thanksgiving! Collect lots of material for your next story and eat yourself silly. Thank you all for being there for us, and especially Geoff for guest-blogging in our time of need. See you on December 11th for our next Salon, provided you can move by then. Be safe and write well!)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

10 Tips for Writing by Geoff Kirsch (part 1)

While we are on Hurricane Hiatus, Geoff Kirsch from Juneau Alaska, will be guest blogging. See last week's post for his bio. 

10 Tips for Writing

One of my favorite (and most hated) qualities of pre-school aged children is their penchant for bluntness.

Over the past year, my daughter and her little parliament of classmates have called me out on being bald, wearing the same clothes every day and “having claws” (read: grossly unclipped toenails). More than a few have asked me why my belly is bigger than their daddies’ bellies. I’m forced to admit the truth: while their daddies run incredibly long distances for fun—a pastime I will never understand—my hobbies include laying on the couch, laying on the reclining chair, laying in bed and working out schematics for the model log cabin I’m planning to build with all the leftover hotdogs from my son’s birthday party.          

Earlier this week, the apple of my eye point-blankedly told me I didn’t have a job. I said that wasn’t true, that I was a writer, to which she responded: “no, I mean a real job.” So I printed her a copy of my curriculum vitae, which, not to brag (well, okay, maybe a little) has names on it like “Comedy Central” and “Huffington Post,” as well as a “Published Books” section. I still don’t think she was impressed—even after she checked my references.

But it made me think. And I mean stop pondering the feasibility of frankfurter bun roofing panels for a second and really think. Was my little girl on to something? After all, she was right about the toenails.

Do I have a job? Can you call it a job if you do it in your pajamas (and, every once in a while, less than pajamas)? What if you get paid—as I once did (pretty decently, too, actually)—to write jokes for Michael Winslow, the noises guy from “Police Academy”? 

Here’s the answer I came up with: who cares? The IRS considers what I do a job, and that’s all that really matters. Plus, I’ve spent the last 15 years doing it, at the expense of almost every other career I’ve started and subsequently quit to get back to writing (or unemployment, as I said, depending on your point of view).

Like it or lump it, I don’t know how to do anything else. But I do know a thing or two about stringing together words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into pages that elicit a reader’s response and, most months, cover the two Montessori pre-school tuitions it takes to get at least a few wakeful, daylight hours in which to do all that stringing.

Anyway, I was recently asked to share some of this dubious expertise with students in a high school memoir writing class—an excellent experience, in all seriousness; those kids produced some surprisingly top-notch writing. 

Those ten tips for writing - both about yourself and in general - coming up next week.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The post-hurricane blog

Remember that old thing you learned in English class about the "types of literary conflict" where one was Man vs. Nature?

Yeah. We're losing that one.

I suppose you've heard by now that the November 13th Pen Parentis Literary Salon was canceled. Our lovely host, the Andaz Wall Street, is not yet open for business after Sandy. (I keep thinking of Sandy as a Tarantino character who initially looks all wild and cool but then kills without remorse for so many scenes that you ultimately can't like her anymore.)

She killed our November salon. It feels like a personal defeat - In four years, I haven't ever canceled. Not when the restaurant "forgot" to tell the new manager that we existed. Not when Arlaina or I had personal emergencies that took us out of town. Not when there was a January blizzard. Not ever.  But this time, the whole neighborhood is suffering and we are just another bit of collateral damage. So okay. We step back and we rebuild. Again.

I know there are those of you out there who have lost more than just an event (my home lost heat but we are bundled up and will be fine) and for you who need them, I have these resources from the Fractured Atlas Blog including very good advice from ArtsReady, a nonprofit that takes care of artists affected by natural disasters.

In the meantime I'm going to work on our December 11th event - you'll recall that our December events are huge and fun and fundraiser-ish...we hope this one with Amy Sohn, Josh Henkin, Robin Black and the author of Triburbia, Karl Taro Greenfeld will blow you out of the water.

So to speak.

While I am off working on this in our unheated offices, I have a huge treat for you. Guest blogging for the next two or three blogs is a really cool member of Pen Parentis - Geoff Kirsch, who is a writer and part-time stay-at-home dad in Juneau, Alaska. He has published one book-length piece of humor, Run For Your Life Doomsday 2012! His work has also appeared in/on Comedy Central, Huffington Post and Adventure Cyclist and other national magazines. I'm really excited that he offered to guest-blog, not only because he's a wonderful writer but also because, well, he's from Alaska and he's a member. That's just...awesome.  

I totally can't wait.