March 2012: Seeking Treasure on the Beach

On a cold February morning with bright sun burning through the clouds, I ventured down the stairs to a Lincoln City beach where I had not walked in nearly 16 years. When we first moved to Oregon, this was one of my getaways. My dog Sadie and I would sneak down a hidden stairway in the woods, pad down a leafy path between houses and come out at the NW 26th Street beach access. Usually we’d be the only ones there. Not this time.
           
As the finale of Lincoln City’s annual Antique Week, the organizers had hidden glass floats and little glass starfish on the beach. Anyone who found them could keep them. The weather had been intense.  Just the day before, it was too dangerous to walk on the beach, but now treasure-seekers crowded all seven miles of Lincoln City’s beaches. They brought dogs, and they brought little kids in shorts and tee shirts. One couple even brought a stroller that constantly got stuck in the sand. Kids and dogs darted in and out of the icy water, but the largest contingent of beachcombers sought those pieces of glass art buried somewhere on the beach.
           
Saturday’s surf may have washed them all out to sea, but we looked. I had little hope, seeing how many people had come before me, armed with walking sticks and bags, people with stronger knees and less fear of falling on the rocks.
           
As I walked south, the sun blinded me. I soon realized that if I looked only among the rocks and cliff edges for glass floats, I wouldn’t see the waves crashing high and loud, their undersides a soft green, their tops a froth of white. I wouldn’t see the logs lying on the sand like giant sculptures, the clusters of seaweed variegated in browns, reds and greens, the smears of soapy bubbles, or the dead black oystercatcher on the sand.
           
I looked for floats on the return trip when the sun shone on my back, but I spent most of my time taking pictures of other things, the waves, the logs, the seaweed, the foam, and the people.
           
It was too crowded and too cold for my usual meditative walk. The icy wind burned my ears even as a child ran across the wet sand  into the water. The old grandma in me shook my head as he dared an ocean that killed people every year when they unwittingly took one step too far or got caught by sneaker waves. It was barely 40 degrees out. This was not Malibu. It was Lincoln City, Oregon, a whole different kind of beach.
           
I walked to 15th Street, where people can drive cars down. A young man took pictures of his new bride sitting on a rock. A father took pictures of his kids playing at the edge of the water. Teenagers photographed each other walking on rocks over which the waves swelled and ebbed. And one dark-skinned fisherman set up his pole just to the right of the sign that said No Motor Vehicles Past This Point.
           
I didn’t find any glass treasures. My knees ached and my heart pounded by the time I got back to the top of the stairs, about 50 steps straight up. Someday perhaps, when the crowds have gone,I’ll come upon a glass float that has washed up on the beach from farther away than the local chamber of commerce. I’ll see it sparkling in a clump of seaweed or between the rocks or peeking out of the sand. But the treasures I found that day at the beach are enough for now.

 Writer Aid: Writing for Real People

I feel as if I’m at a crossroads in my writing between literature and what regular people read. Having spent many years in the newspaper business, I straddle the world of journalism and the world of MFA grads who teach college classes and write for literary magazines. I know about journals like Ploughshares, Poetry, the Missouri Review, Creative Nonfiction, Crazyhorse, and other such publications that publish poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. These are wonderful journals, books really, thick with good work, but I suspect the only people who read them are writers and English teachers.  These writers also produce books, thousands of wonderful books that the workaday world never reads.

Why don’t they read them? The same reason my stack of to-read books grows while I grab bestsellers from the library. It’s like eating tofu instead of hamburgers. Literature can be boring and hard to understand, and you can’t buy it everywhere. Hamburgers may not be as healthy, but they taste good, and you can get them anywhere. As a writer, I appreciate the tofu books. I even strive to write them. I want to be published in all of the above-named journals, but if I want my friends to see my work, if I want my sister-in-law or my cousin to read it, I need to look elsewhere. My years in community newspapers taught me that if you publish in Snowy Egret (I did), that’s nice but no one reads it. If I publish a piece in the local daily or weekly, everybody sees it.

It’s a bit like popular music versus Beethoven’s symphonies. Music teachers love the Beethoven, but most of us are more likely to buy CDs by Sugarland or Lady Gaga. When I’m looking for something to read strictly for pleasure, I look for reasonable-sized books with pretty covers and an engaging voice that pulls me in right away. I want books that help me forget my problems, not books that make me feel worse about them.

We need to think about writing for real people. What do our friends and relatives read? What are they looking for when they read a book, magazine, newspaper article or blog? I know what I’m looking for. I seek writing that feels good to read, helps me with a problem or question in my life, and/or gives me stuff to do, such as travel, follow a recipe or sing a song. The rest is tofu.

Write whatever you want. Don’t let marketing frighten away your muse, but when you decide to publish something, think about who will want to read it and whether they like tofu or hamburger. It’s important for writers to find ways to attract as many readers as possible without writing junk. I believe it’s possible to combine the excellence of literature with the approachability of commercial writing. I aim to keep trying until my cold, dead fingers fall off the keyboard.

Sue’s News

My stories on Antique Week and Salt Water Taffy appeared in Oregon Coast Today in February. The latter proved especially fun—and delicious. I had to sample the merchandise, didn’t I? It’s fun hanging out in candy stories, and writing about them beats writing about depressing things like the economy or the war in Afghanistan.

What’s next? I’ll be taking a couple weeks off from OCT to visit family and to teach at the Catholic Writers Online Conference March 17 to 31. Anyone can attend from home, and you can choose how much you’d like to donate for conference expenses. You don’t even have to be Catholic; nobody’s checking baptismal certificates.

 My Childless by Marriage blog has been all abuzz with talk about the effects of childlessness on a woman’s body. Before you say, “What effects? There aren’t any,” think again.

At the Portuguese Grandma Stories blog, we have some beautiful poems by Lara Gularte, and at the Writer Aid blog, we talk about giving up Facebook for Lent. It’s harder than you think!

My birthday is coming up, a big one with a zero in it. To celebrate, I am giving away books. You can enter the giveaway drawing now at Goodreads.com for a chance at a copy of Shoes Full of Sand. On March 9, you will be able to download my Kindle ebooks, Shoes Full of Sand and Azorean Dreams, for free, and I’ll give away a copy of Stories Grandma Never Told, Shoes Full of Sand, or Freelancing for Newspapers, your choice, to one lucky commenter on ANY of my blogs that day.

Book Report

The Fence my Father Built by Linda S. Clare, Abingdon Press, 2009. So many books begin with a young woman whose father or mother has died, leaving them property in some rural town far different from their normal city life. They discover a new world, a new family of friends, a problem that nearly does them in before they solve it, and usually a handsome man to love, too. Same thing here, except that our protagonist, Muri, also finds God in the end. Even if it is the same old story, it’s a beauty. Muri and her two kids head out to eastern Oregon and find her aunt and uncle living in a trailer behind a fence made of old oven doors. Their neighbor, Linc, the most powerful guy in the little town of Murkee, is suing them for the rights to the creek that runs through their property. The people are beautifully painted, as is the desert landscape. Even if I started out thinking this was corny, I wound up bagging everything to finish it and read the last bit through tears. Pretty good. http://godsonggrace.blogspot.com

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride, The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1996. James is black, one of 12 black children born to black fathers and a white, Jewish mother. Growing up, he never understood how the pieces of his racial and ethnic history fit together. In this memoir, he shares his mother’s story and his own by alternating chapters from each of their lives. This alternation gets a little confusing sometimes, but it’s a beautiful story of love and overcoming hardship. Although it’s all true, The Color of Water reads like fiction. Memoir writers, take note. I had to keep reminding myself that he didn’t make this up.  In the years since this book came out, McBride has moved into fiction with Song Yet Sung, about an escaped slave during the Civil War era, and Miracle at St. Anna, about the Buffalo Soldiers of WWII. He is also an accomplished composer. jamesmcbride.com.

Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor by Jana Riess, Paraclete Press, 2011. Riess, who has written several serious books on religious subjects, as a well as one called What Would Buffy Do?, decides to spend a year trying out different spiritual practices. She fasts ala Ramadan for a month, keeps a Jewish-style sabbath for another. She tries centering prayers, fixed-time prayers, mindfulness, not eating meat, keeping a gratitude journal, studying the scriptures, and more. Technically, she flunks all of them, but she and her readers learn a lot in the process. For example, why do we pray? Why are we so hooked on our schedules that we can’t drop everything to spend a minute with God? I expected this to be a humorous book. It’s not. Instead, it is an honest exploration of the ways we try to get close to God. It flows like light-hearted memoir, but Riess includes extensive research, many wonderful quotes, and serious questioning of serious matters. I feel inspired now to dip my toe into some of these practices, and I want to keep this book handy as a reference.

Beachcombing for Japanese Glass Floats by Amos L. Wood, Binfords & Mort, 1971. Originally published in 1967, this book makes me so nostalgic for the old days, the old clothes and the old pre-computer ways. I’m happy to report that this book reads beautifully, its passages often poetic, and even though all the photos of things that are colorful in real life are presented in black and white, I don’t mind a bit. Wood, an engineer for Boeing who went on to write another book on beachcombing and one on hiking Northwest trails, gives us the complete picture of Japanese glass floats. He tells what they are, how they’re made and how they’re used, how they get to North America, where to find them, and what to do with them once you do find them. He offers an extensive list of markings one might find on the floats, and waxes philosophical about the lure of casting aside city life to explore an isolated beach, even in a storm. The Newport library had the1971 edition, but there is reportedly a 1985 edition that offers more pictures, more trademarks, another chapter and a bibliography. The price to buy a copy these days shows that this book, like the Japanese floats, has become a treasure to collect and keep.

End Notes

March already? Must be. It’s still icy cold here, but the daffodils are starting to bloom, and buds have sprouted on the leafless limbs of my trees and shrubs. Daylight savings time begins on March 11. By then, I will no longer be in my 50s. Aiiiieeeee! Oh well, I’m still 12 at heart. Happy birthday to Mary Lee, Roy, Teresa, Hannah, and everybody else celebrating this month. We made it another year.
California family, I’ll see you soon. Save me some sunshine.

Hugs,
Sue

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