Tag Archives: Jack Kerouac

LA’s Epic Rock & Roll, Fashion & Art Party: Interview with Author Nora Novak


Whenever she’s asked why so many Millennials and Generation Z men, women and teens continue flocking to the music and style of the 1960s and 1970s, Los Feliz Confidential author Nora Novak has a ready answer: “I think Millennials are recognizing a sense of excitement and freewheeling attitude of that era by listening to classic rock, and streaming movies and documentaries that portray the ‘good times’ they find appealing in a way not found in today’s device-dependent, stressful and more violent world,” she says. “I think the boomers, the internet and the media have had a hand in this, unlike previous generations.”

Nora, who grew up in and currently lives in Newport Beach, is the author of one of the finest scenester memoirs in years, and winner of a 2017 Southern California Book Festival Award. Los Feliz Confidential takes us right inside the classic home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz where Nora and her boyfriend hosted some of LA’s wildest parties of the 1970s and early 1980s. But their wildness was classed up by the fetching, willowy blonde hostess, whose elegance, glamour, style and love of music turned these parties into something extravagant. With her visual descriptions and deeply honest portrayal of her own feelings, goals and hopes, Nora lures us into a narrative so rhythmic and rich that you can practically hear the songs of the period spinning on her turntable — and the lyrics weaving in and out of the narrator’s heart. If you can’t remember the titles of these memory markers, no worries: she lists them in a back, a clever piece of “soundtracking” the book.

But Los Feliz Confidential is much more than a musical all-nighter put to words. Nora takes us through her rich, complex world that she creates on the fly, as a trendsetting scenester and traveler completely in touch with her native Flemish roots. The fact she was born in Belgium, grew up in the U.S. with her Old World parents but never lost her connection to Flemish culture (but rather dove into and celebrated it), adds to both the perspective and depth of the book. She takes us around the world on her fascinating (and sometimes wild) adventures, one of which she shares in the interview. She also takes us into the crazy all-hours fun of 1970s Los Angeles, and into the glam rock, punk rock, hard rock and early New Wave worlds that she made part of her own. We meet her friends, and again throw ourselves on Sunset Boulevard and into the clubs and scenes that many look back on with deep reverence, while younger generations seek to know more about this time period where freedom, platform shoes, liberation, shoulder pads, creativity, long hair, imagination, art, style, and great music prevailed.

Los Feliz Confidential and Art Damaged Author Nora Novak.

Turning all these experiences and elements into a treasure trove of a memoir was no easy task, but Novak has the chops to pull it off. She’s a fine artist, designer of her fashion line (Noraluxe Loungewear), art gallerist, actress, model, and also the author of the novel Art Damaged. She comes from a very talented family as well. Her mother, Emma Albertina Bogaerts, a lifelong storyteller, is the 105-year-old (not kidding!) newly published author of Emmy: Memoir of a Flemish Immigrant, now available in English and being shopped to publishers in Europe. Nora’s brother, Mark Leysen, is an award-winning art director and fine artist, as well as the author of Klown, his third novel (Traveling Shoes Press) about a late-night talk show host who runs for President. It definitely echoes the present state of the world.

We caught up with Nora recently. To get your Black Friday book shopping chops going, here is what she says about life, L.A., making scenes, and Los Feliz Confidential.

Word Journeys: Los Feliz Confidential is an epic scenester read – the incredible LA music-fashion-art scene and how you and others showcased and helped define it in your travels and daily lives. Could you talk about the amazing chemistry that exists between music, fashion and art, and why it was so definitive of a generation? And still is?

NN: Because that generation (talkin about my ge- generation) experienced an explosive time of cultural change, social mores, pop art and particularly British rock that spawned new looks in fashion as a lifestyle. There was an innovative and artistic energy that changed the way people dressed. The 70’s rock-infused fashion had an element of sensuality and glamour with an edge that I certainly favored and is still being recycled today. Innovative new artists, designers, bands and clubs emerged in L.A. and provided a more artistic expression in fashion. It all played out with the music creating a dazzling decade that many look back on for inspiration today.

A good example is Stephen Spouse collaborating with Debbie Harry in the 80’s and Jeff Koons collaborating with the new Louis Vuitton line today. Music blasts at every fashion collection. I think music, fashion and art have always had an evolving synergy.

WJ: Take us through your writing process for Los Feliz. How did you pare down your countless experiences into a tightly written 200-page book? What themes and points did you emphasize? And tell us about your decision to basically “soundtrack” the book, with songs listed for each chapter.

NN: First of all, I wrote what I could remember! I could have added many more stories, but I chose to keep it moving like the fast pace I was living at the time. I wanted to emphasize the difference of how immigrating here made me feel and my fearless sense of adventure. I tried to be give my stories a visual sense of the fashion and look of things, the easiness of life at that time. Everything I wrote about had music running through my mind, reflecting the time, so I naturally made many musical references. When I finished I was compelled to write a Playlist for each chapter, which I really enjoyed doing.

WJ: What are three of your favorite tales that you share in the book? And the funniest?

NN: Well (spoiler alert!), I do share an interesting story about my relationship with a Jordanian arms dealer and his Ambassador brother. There’s a tale about my first skiing experience – which also proved to be my last – and a humorous girl/girl story. I think the story about an ENT treatment given by my boyfriend’s surgeon dad is hilarious but for me it all seems humorous now. I’m still laughing!

Nora Novak’s fine collage work includes “The Girl from Antwerp”

Cinema Verite at Cannes? It’s red carpet time.

WJ: You are the daughter of a very take-charge, dominant father and a warm, artistic mother. How did that parent combination shape you as both a person and an artist?

NN: My father, although a stern and unpleasant man, instilled a strong sense of discipline and a somewhat sardonic outlook. However, he was responsible for my love of art and photography, for which I am grateful. My mother, on the other hand, emanated femininity, graciousness, a pleasant demeanor and sense of humor. The combination definitely shaped me as an individual and shows up in my work as an artist, as I generally incorporate female photographic images in my glossy mixed-media collages.

WJ: What struck me about your journey is how you took part in the lifestyle and excesses of the day, yet you always seemed to have a sense of who you were and what you wanted. How did you maintain that compass, if you will, of how to go forward?

NN: I readily enjoyed the excess and decadence of the times; it was a Bacchanalian era for rock ’n’ roll. Everything seemed so glamorous and indulgent, and was completely accepted in the L.A. that I knew. I did have goals though, like a working schedule and a sense of enough discipline that probably prevented me from becoming another Hollywood fatality. Many didn’t make it.

WJ: You write of your affinity for Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music. What was it about his voice, music, lyrics, and presence that captivated you? What do you feel musicians today can learn from their predecessors in terms of delivering from heart and soul vs. making a hit?

NN: Bryan Ferry evoked a sultry, seductive kind of singing unique from other rock stars. Not to mention his suave, good looks, elegant style, sophistication and harmonica playing that simply resonated in a big way for me. I thought his music and lyrics quite beautiful and loved his sexy album covers. It seems like everyone can sing today with a huge range and big powerhouse voices, but at the end of the day, it’s generally the more unique voice with soul and a great tune that becomes the hit. The late Amy Winehouse comes to mind.

WJ: You’ve also been creating works of art. Tell us about those.

Nora Novak’s “Nico”, honoring the late New York scenester and Velvet Underground singer. Part of her Femme Fatale collection.

NN: I started a new series, my “Femme Fatale” collection. I just finished three mixed-media collages, that can be seen on my website noranovak.com and will be exhibited soon. I’m thinking about starting another book next year, possibly a sequel to Los Feliz Confidential, picking up where it left off moving into the crazy 80’s.

WJ: Lightning Round: Who are your five favorite authors? Musicians or bands? Artists? Fashion designers?

NN: My favorite authors? When I was young, I would say John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac. I that progressed to Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski, and more recently Irvine Welsh and Edward St. Aubyn. Musicians: It’s still Bryan Ferry, Iggy and the Stones and Amy Winehouse, miss her. Artists: Jan Van Eyck, Kees Van Dongen, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol and Julian Schnabel to name a few. As for designers, Dries Van Noten, Roberto Cavalli, Dolce and Gabbana, love the vintage Halston — and my own Noraluxe Loungewear line, of course!

WJ: Final question: If a musician came up to you and said, “Hey girl, I want to play you one song that speaks to who you are,” what would that song be? And who would be playing it?

NN: Well, I would love it if that musician was Bryan Ferry. I’d request his cover version of Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, but wait; can I get one with Iggy on vocals, Mick on harmonica and Keith on guitar, and they can play whatever they want?

WJ: Let us cue it up! Thanks so much, Nora, for a fun and enlightening look into an era so wonderfully captured in Los Feliz Confidential.


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The Intersection of Literature & Free Expression  

The motto that symbolizes freedom of written expression

The motto that symbolizes freedom of written expression

Whenever I travel to San Francisco, one of my favorite cities in the world, I make sure to pay homage to the roots of my craft near the intersection of Columbus & Grant, where North Beach and Chinatown intersect.

It is a simple little tour, really: just three places. The first, City Lights Books, is a wonderful patchwork of angles, stories, perches, step-ups, cellars and basements loaded with books you may not find anywhere else. It is also home base to celebrated poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who spent the 1950s writing poetry collections, turning a half-dozen unknown writers into the famed San Francisco Renaissance crew (or West Coast Beats), and taking on the U.S. Supreme Court when they censored his publication of Henry Miller.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the maestro of poetry and City Lights

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the maestro of poetry and City Lights

Now 95, Ferlinghetti is a hawk of a man, tall, imposing and imperious when crossed. He and my old friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, still read together once every October. Every time we write a page, article or book with anything we want to say, and then publish it, we’re reminded of who won that landmark censorship battle that culminated in 1961. It wasn’t the Supreme Court.

City Lights is my favorite bookstore, the bookstore that City Lightssparks me every time I walk through its doors. Now 60 years old, it is what an independent bookstore is all about — distinct character and personality, books carefully chosen by a well-read staff, a sanctuary of the written word, and the hub of a great writing community and movement. It is the best store to buy Beat literature in the world. Its selection of poetry, novels and literature reflects an open-minded, story-crafting, intelligence-promoting approach that is, well, the only approach that should ever matter in a society.

My favorite City Lights moment came in 2001. I walked into the store with Marty Balin, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame lead singer (and founder) of Jefferson Airplane, as well as Jefferson Starship. During their San Francisco concerts in the wild 1960s, bands used to ask poets to open their shows — celebrations of light, spoken word, dancing and music. Ferlinghetti was the Airplane’s designated poet on several occasions. As we walked inside, there was Ferlinghetti, perched in the checkout area. Marty and Ferlinghetti hadn’t seen each other in twenty years. Immediately, I felt like the luckiest fly on the wall as they caught up and discussed music, literature, and reminisced about those early concerts at Longshoreman’s Hall, the Matrix and The (original) Fillmore.

If the walls of Vesuvio's could talk, who would ever leave?

If the walls of Vesuvio’s could talk, who would ever leave?

Across the street from City Lights is Vesuvio’s, the colorful two-story pub that served as Jack Kerouac’s watering hole during his trips to San Francisco. Hemingway had Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, Henry James had the White House Tavern in New York City, and Kerouac had Vesuvio’s. He percolated large parts of On The Road, The Dharma Bums and other novels while sitting inside. Now, the place is lined with classic photos from the Beat generation, along with posters of Mae West, Janis Joplin, and other adornments that were part of the bar Kerouac knew. It looked like a few patrons and bottles of ancient booze on the shelves had never left, too.

The patron saint of Kerouac Way, which splits City Lights & Vesuvio's and leads to Chinatown.

The patron saint of Kerouac Way, which splits City Lights & Vesuvio’s and leads to Chinatown.

After that, we took our haul of books a hundred yards to Vital Tea Leaf, located in the middle of Chinatown. (Gotta love the way ethnic neighborhoods run into each other in San Francisco, so effortlessly, without fences or borders.) Our old friend, the 83-year-old proprietor with a sailor’s tongue and a sage’s wisdom, greeted us with hugs at the door. We then spent the next 90 minutes tasting teas made of nectar and gold (so it seemed), and listening to him mix insightful history and preparation tips with playful poking at customers as they walked inside. I find Chinese tea opens up the creative pores in a way that makes verse and prose pour from mind, body and soul; it is always my chosen drink when writing. So, I loaded up with pu’erh, milk oolong, cloud mist and lapsang souchong (the smoky tea), heard our host’s stories about each (cloud mist grows at 8,000 feet, for example), and headed off to write a few of my own.

To me, Columbus & Grant is not only the junction of ancient and modern literature, or the crossroads of shih and Beat writing and poetry. It is also the shining beacon that reminds me of two endangered species — the independent bookstore and freedom of written expression. As we move into National Poetry Month, we’re reminded of the treasures men and women have written for thousands of years. And the inalienable right and freedom to do so. That’s worth honoring in the best way possible — by writing.Kerouac sign




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Catching Up … Conferences, Poetry, Kayaking & Kerouac’s Spontaneous Prose

While clearing off a busy desk … Am starting to prepare my presentations for the Southern California Writers scwcConference, which will bring editors, agents, publishers and authors together Feb. 15-18 at the Crowne Plaza Hanalei in San Diego. This is one of my favorite writer’s conferences, full of very current writing, promotion and marketing tips. Not to mention the read & critiques, where peers and faculty members offer up constructive feedback to help work get published.

• • •

Had a moment this week that made me take pause — and remind myself to keep in touch with people I’ve befriended and deeply respect. About 10 years ago, I attended a New Year’s Eve party in Twin Falls, Idaho like no other. The party was hosted by revered Idaho poet Bill Studebaker, whose poems of passion and place are known worldwide. His “On The Bank of Love Creek” is one of the finest love poems I’ve ever read.

Poet, kayaker & lover of life, Bill Studebaker

Poet, kayaker & lover of life, Bill Studebaker

During the festive night, Bill played Gene Autry recordings from 1915, showed us photos of he and his son kayaking in glacial melt in Greenland (imagine if you roll the kayak!) and engaged in a midnight Amazon blow dart fight across a crowded room with his friend, archaeologist Jim Woods. (Fortunately, the blow darts were not tipped with poison!) Finally, he tried to talk me into kayaking with him the next morning, New Year’s Day, on the icy Snake River in Twin Falls — right beneath where Evel Knievel made his failed attempt to soar across the canyon on a motorcycle in 1976. “What will the air temperature be?” I asked.

“It’s supposed to get up to five above.”

“Uhhh … no thanks.”

After that bash, Bill and I stayed in touch, exchanged poetry and shared a lot of laughs. His sense of humor knew no bounds. Nor did his sense of adventure with his kayak, or his 30 years of dedication to his writing students. He was an expert kayaker, sometimes careening down 40- and 50-foot waterfalls. As I got going with Voices, my novel that will be out later this year, I decided to memorialize the New Year’s Eve party, and Bill, by re-enacting it with my main characters. (See Chapter 23 when the novel comes out.)

This week, I decided to get in touch with Bill after some years of being out of touch, to let him know that the infamous party, and his graciousness, were coming back through my novel. Also, I wanted to see what new poems he was writing, and share a few of my own. Sadly, I learned he died a few years ago in a kayaking accident on the Salmon River.

Regrets? Right now, I sure have a few.

• • •

Just finished a very enjoyable project: writing an online companion to the Jack Kerouac novel “The Dharma Bums”

The original Dharma Bums cover, and Gary Snyder, the inspiration of main character Japhy Ryder, circa 1956

The original Dharma Bums cover, and Gary Snyder, the inspiration of main character Japhy Ryder, circa 1956

for Barnes & Noble. Those who have known me for awhile know I am an unabashed Kerouac fan. I’m also a huge proponent of the spontaneous prose technique he mastered – right down to effusive 1,200-word sentences in novels like “The Subterraneans.” While I was teaching at Ananda College last year, I even designed a course on Beat writing, starring Kerouac, for my senior creative writing class. With “On The Road” just released as a movie co-starring Kristen Stewart, Kerouac books are once again flying off bookshelves. It’s quite impressive: he wrote these books 55 to 60 years ago.

The Companion piece took on many shapes and forms. It’s far more interesting than the Cliff Notes we used as crutches for countless novels in our school days. The point was to show the contributing factors to “The Dharma Bums”, how it was put together, its philosophy and narrative style, and discuss the central characters.  For me, this last part was particularly enjoyable — and personal. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, the last surviving person Kerouac used to build his characters in the autobiographical novel, gave me some invaluable assistance. Snyder was the model for Japhy Ryder, the hero of the book. Over the years, as we’ve talked to each other, Gary has shared fond memories of Kerouac, with whom he hung out extensively in 1955-56 – and which is chronicled, though fictionalized in many places, in “The Dharma Bums.”

Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac

So,  for everyone who wants to know Kerouac’s secrets, here are the 30 essentials of spontaneous prose — as presented by Kerouac himself, in a 1953 article entitled “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose”. If you want to write with abandon, or need to break yourself out from writing too conservatively, cut loose with a few of these:

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never to get drunk outside yr own house
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10.  No time for poetry but exactly what is
  11.  Visionary ties shivering in the chest
  12.  In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13.  Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14.  Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15.  Telling the true story of the world in interior monologue
  16.  The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17.  Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18.  Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19.  Accept loss forever
  20.  Believe in the holy contour of life
  21.  Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22.  Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better
  23.  Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
  24.  No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25.  Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26.  Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27.  In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28.  Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29.  You’re a Genius all the time
  30.  Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven






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On Dharma Bums, Eternity, Legacies & Champions: Publishing Highlights of 2012

Happy New Year!

Time to clean off the desk after a busy, eventful 2012…

Headshot- for proposalFirst of all, a big congratulations to my sweetheart, Martha Halda, whose memoir, A Taste of Eternity, is now at book proposal and agent stage.

Martha first thought of writing this book while recovering from a horrendous 1999 car accident in which she was pronounced clinically dead three times — and had a profound Near Death Experience that has defined her physical and spiritual life since.  To give you an idea of how far she has come from that accident? After her family was initially told she would be an invalid for the rest of her life, she went on to complete the 2002 Dublin Marathon, and lives a healthy, robust life today.

Now, she’s written the first three chapters of A Taste of Eternity, and looking forward to a 2013 publish date. Martha has also started a blog, in which she’ll share a few stories from the book and how her daily life continues to be touched by those precious minutes she spent directly in God’s hands.

• • •

Between Christmas and New Year’s, I picked up a very interesting project: to write a Cliff Notes-type “specimen” for Barnes & Noble.  The book in question? One of my all-time favorite novels, The Dharma Bums. Once again, interest in the Beat generation and author Jack Kerouac is flying through the roof, this time because of the December 21 film release of On The Road, Kerouac’s breakthrough novel. When Kristen Stewart is one of the three lead actors (she plays Marylou), the movie figures to draw attention for younger moviegoers. Many will likely turn to the rich soil of Beat literature, which continues to speak to the young, disenfranchised, soul and purpose seekers.

However, The Dharma Bums project excites me for another reason. In the decade since the last time I read the 1958 autobiographical novel about Kerouac’s the dharma bumsawakening to nature and Buddhism, I’ve gotten to know the real-life Japhy Ryder, the novel’s protagonist. With this book, Kerouac turned mountain man-Buddhist-poet-conversationalist extraordinaire Gary Snyder into a cultural hero and the leader of the “rucksack revolution”, a good 15 years before Gary won the Pulitzer Prize for Turtle Island.  What amazes me is how little Kerouac deviated from Gary’s voice and character in what was supposed to be a fictional character. Every time I read Japhy Ryder’s dialogue, I could hear Gary expounding on something or another during the many times we would get together in Northern California. The actions, the convictions, the interests, the profound knowledge and wisdom … all Gary. And to think: he was only 25 when he and Kerouac had the experiences that formed the backbone of The Dharma Bums.

Ever read a novel where you personally know the protagonist? I hadn’t, either. It certainly creates a different experience, one that I hope will add reading insight for the Barnes & Noble customers who pick up this treatment later in 2013.

• • •

photoAlso on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, and newsstands throughout the country, is The Legacy Series Magazine. I was privileged to help conceptualize this magazine, as well as edit it. We began with a tribute to the late Steve Jobs and his enormous legacy to businesses and consumers (besides masterminding Apple products, he facilitated change or the creation of eight industries). Then we talked to some of the most visionary people and leading innovators in technology today, including Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank co-star Mark Cuban, GE Senior VP Beth Comstock, bestselling author Ken Segall, Zinio Executive VP Jeanniey Mullen, Chris Voss of The Chris Voss Show, Ask.com co-founder (and my old high school friend) David Warthen, and iPhone Film Fest winner Craig Perkins.

We also wrote compelling features on the present and future courses of social media, filmmaking, technology, publishing, crowdfunding, music, green technology and cloud computing. All of these pieces brought out what I love most about fine magazine journalism: Great interviews, great insights, explanation of new concepts, and the writers’ distinct abilities to inject their personal experience and the stories of others into the material they were covering. You want to know what’s coming next in these areas? Get the mag.

The Legacy Series Magazine will be featured at MacWorld/iWorld in San Francisco in three weeks. We have a major announcement pending on possible multiple issues, but we will always produce the large annual publication in the fall.

• • •

TCW_r2_ecover-loresI also had the privilege of serving as co-author to Dr. Steve Victorson in The Champion’s Way. Steve and I spent three years gathering materials and writing this book, which revolves entirely around groundbreaking research Steve did in the late 1990s for his doctoral dissertation at Boston University. In that research, he interviewed more than 40 national, world and Olympic ski champions and top performers, and found 11 distinct characteristics in common between champions. These 11 characteristics are not found in any other books on the subject.

We put Steve’s findings to the test with champions in all sports — and they rang true, in every case. Thus, The Champion’s Way’s 200 pages explore the inner and outer qualities of champions, look at nearly 100 repeat winners in 15 different sports, and point out specific ways in which all of us can develop, sharpen and refine our own latent championship qualities. Besides plenty of great sports anecdotes, the lasting value of The Champion’s Way is how the 11 common characteristics can create top performance in our lives, no matter our vocation, sport or interest.

The Champion’s Way is available through bookstores nationwide, and in both print and Kindle form on Amazon.com.



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Living the Writing Teacher’s Dream

One of the many advantages of teaching at a small college concerns the amount of one-on-one time we enjoy with our students. There is no amount of book study, assignments, online tutelage, lecturing or study groups that can equal the interaction between a caring teacher and a willing student.

With the creative writing program I’m helping to develop at Ananda College of Living Wisdom, we’ve ramped it up a step further  — individual courses for individual students.

It didn’t start out this way. The plan was to have group classroom study, followed by independent study sessions. However, when the roster came together for the 2011-12 school year, Dean of Academics Celia Alvarez realized that the students varied greatly in their writing experience, topical and genre interests, grade levels and approaches to learning. So she popped the question in an email the week before I returned to campus: “Can you create a separate course for each student?”

What a challenge — but what a joy. Two weeks into this rather maverick approach, I sit here buzzing over the spiritual and intellectual stimulation this has created. Not only does my versatility as a writing instructor receive the ultimate test, but it also brings into play all the books I’ve read, the different genres in which I’ve written, and the various skills I’ve learned to inspire, motivate and help students (both scholastic and professional writers) gather their thoughts, find the structure that suits them best, trust their instincts and voices, and lay one word out in front of another. For instance, in this term alone, assigned books include all-time favorites like Annie Dillard’s masterful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Portable Beat Reader anthology, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road,  Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, Coleman Barks’ The Illustrated Rumi, and new favorites like Susan Casey’s The Wave and Barbara Kingsolver’s Small Wonder, poignant essays she wrote right after 9/11.

The courses this fall are certainly varied. One is a study of the fabled Beat writers — all of whom had distinctly different styles, voices and works. We’re studying them as writers, not as readers — a far different approach that requires tapping into the Beat writers’ motivations, structures and voices as well as their words. Another is a freshman course that combines creative writing with instruction on developing and composing academic research papers. So that’s two courses in one.

Thanks to another student’s wishes, my poetic senses are being filled by teaching a poetry writing class with an emphasis on spiritually infused poets like Gibran, Hafiz, Rumi, Snyder, Yogananda, Khayyam, Sun-Tzu, Li-Po, Basho, Waldman and Tagore, along with Mary Oliver, David Whyte, Denise Levertov and a few other modern-day bards. The beauty of that course is that I finally get to utilize the book-length website I wrote in 2008,  Poetry Through the Ages, as a teaching tool (thousands of teachers and students throughout the country have sourced the website for its content and plethora of teaching suggestions, assignments and projects).

Enough already? Not so. My fourth writing course, an essay and narrative non-fiction class, involves the interweaving of personal story and experience into informational pieces (those who have worked with me at writers’ conferences and workshops know this course by different titles). And finally, I’ve brought a web content writing component into the social media class that I teach, with an emphasis on something every writer who builds a website should know up front: web and social media content writing is not a creative writing exercise. It is all about marketing and knowing what to write, how to use keywords, how to write posts and messages, and where to place them.

Put it all together, and it’s resulted in two weeks of gathering materials, writing syllabi, meeting with students, and already sharing some magical moments that can only be experienced with one-on-one learning. For example, my freshman student and I talked all about the way an ocean wave looks from the inside — when you’re being covered up in a tube ride while surfing, bodyboarding or bodysurfing.  Then he went off, wrote for 90 minutes about it and painted a beautiful wave (he’s also an artist). The next day, I sat with a senior — the young man who burns to write as much as Jack Kerouac did — and read him perhaps the longest sentence in modern literature, Kerouac’s 1,200-word riff in The Subterraneans that has the staccato pace and rip-roaring rhythm of a Charlie Parker be-bop jazz solo. The point? To demonstrate what stream-of-consciousness writing sounds like, which gives the budding writer of what it feels like to write so freely and openly.

How does it feel to be part of this very far-forward exercise (which, truth be told, has a lot of the simple charm of the one-room schoolhouse setting to it)? I feel like the most fortunate and privileged person on earth. I feel like the hundreds of workshops and classes I’ve given online, at retreats, conferences, workshops and libraries all feed this opportunity to help change and inform lives. I also feel like the 45 years since I started writing stories, and all the writing assignments, books, poems, essays, articles I’ve written and books I’ve read and edited come into play, right here, right now. It is the best mindset for teaching that I can think of: fully present, required to be fully present, with every skill or bit of knowledge that preceded this moment ready and available to be used as needed.

There’s so much more. Because of the uniqueness of what we’re doing with the creative writing program at Ananda College, I’ve decided to keep a journal log of the classes, what we discuss, reading materials, feelings, assignments and experiences, and post the highlights on my Scribd.com account every week. That will also include highlights of the students’ writing. It’s just something I want to throw out there as one person’s contribution to a greater educational process.

Bell’s ringing. Time to get back to class.




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Let’s Write TRUE Memoirs

Like millions of others, I was both astonished and horrified to hear of the lack of truthfulness in some aspects of Greg Mortenson’s bestselling memoir, Three Cups of Tea. I became even more disappointed as Mortenson tried to explain away the untruths in his narrative, using explanations that might satisfy an unknowing public — but not writers, especially those who honor the truth-alone-be-told credo of the memoir genre.

The impact of Mortenson’s loose interpretation of events in his life in the 1990s, followed by the way he exaggerated the number of schools his Central Asian Foundation set up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has embarrassed the publishing industry yet again. However, it has also caused serious credibility and security concerns for all Americans who wish to do good works in that war-torn region. Mortenson’s influence extended all the way to the Pentagon, which saw him as a shining example of how to forge relationships and alliances with the local mountain tribes that are essential for U.S. success in the region. The ranking general, Gen. David Petraeus, was so impressed by Three Cups of Tea and Mortenson’s work that he recommended and bought copies of the book for his staff and others — and trusted Mortenson as a de facto advisor.

I’m sure Gen. Petraeus, like everyone else, is stepping back and taking another look right now.

The saddest part of Mortenson’s fabricated sections of Three Cups of Tea? They never needed to be written for this story to be great. He didn’t need to say he became lost and was rescued by villagers after attempting to summit K2. He didn’t need to say he was kidnapped by the Taliban (apparently, Taliban were among his tour guides). He didn’t need to exaggerate threefold the number of girls schools his institute started and ran. His work was amazing and his story inspirational without these glaring untruths. This man has done amazing work in a very, very difficult part of the world – and he and his staff have given educational hope to girls in a region where they would otherwise not have a chance to be educated.

Unfortunately, I believe Mortenson fell into a trap that befalls many memoirists today — dealing with an ever-shrinking publishing market that seeks out the most sensational books … or books by the famous and their massive platforms of popularity. Maybe he — or his editor — thought the lead-in story to the formation of the schools wasn’t sensational enough. What prompted him to write the rescue piece? Or the kidnapping section? Or exaggerate the school count — as 60 Minutes so sadly revealed last weekend?

We may never know. However, I know from my own experience that trying to sell memoirs can elicit a range of responses from editors that covers all 360 degrees of the spectrum. In a recent memoir project in which I was involved, I saw the following responses from big-house editors to the sample chapters submitted:

“The narrative isn’t strong enough.”

“The narrative doesn’t move fast enough.”

“The narrative is too strong.”

“This subject is too emotional for me to edit.”


Book writers are under more pressure than ever to deliver books that jump off the shelves. Even the greatest writing doesn’t see print, in some cases. This is magnified for memoirists, who are (ostensibly) writing true stories of events that caused major changes in their lives, and relying on their story crafting skills and memories to bring the experience onto the page. The writing is, by definition, highly personal, highly charged and guaranteed to elicit emotional response in the reader. During the course of writing such books, many authors wring themselves out, relive events and sometimes suffer in ways their readers cannot fathom. Just think about, say, a memoir about a personal tragedy: Not only does the author experience and try to recover from the tragedy, but in writing the memoir, he or she must go back to that tragedy and relive it again. Sometimes, the pain is overwhelming.

Which leads to my point: memoirs are true stories. Just as we found out when James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was exposed for its largely fictitious nature in 2006, readers are strongly affected by these types of books. And they suffer when they learn the work that may have changed their lives was not all true. As, I imagine, a lot of Three Cups of Tea fans are experiencing right now.

This, to me, is a transgression that falls on the shoulders of both the author and the publisher. Yes, the publisher’s claim that it must rely on the author’s reliability to tell the truth is correct. However, there are times when the large publisher’s zeal to make big profit and produce a bestseller must be tempered by at least a cursory fact-checking mission for books whose stories either touch the edge of believability, focus on emotional or controversial material, or involve lesser-known locales.

An easy way to do this? Require memoirists to send in copies of their research material when submitting the manuscript, just as they do topical non-fiction writers.

But I have a greater solution, and it comes down to the writers: If you’re writing a memoir, TELL THE TRUTH. DON’T LIE. DON’T FABRICATE. NO MATTER HOW TEMPTING. If you choose to fabricate or embellish certain events or circumstances to create an even more compelling story, then do what Jack Kerouac and his publishers did a half century ago with On The Road, The Dharma Bums and his other narrative works — call them autobiographical novels.

Hopefully, the Three Cups of Tea dust-up will do two things in the publishing industry: Create a greater insistence on truthful writing on the part of memoirists; and not affect the 95% of memoirists who relive their experiences, word by honest word, to put their stories on paper.

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Picking Favorite Authors — One Writer’s List

We’re rolling into the busy winter-spring writer’s conference season now, so thought I’d spend the next several blogs sharing materials that, hopefully, will stir the literary blood of writers, readers and editors alike. I’ve got a number of big events coming up, most prominently the Southern California Writers Conference in San Diego Feb. 18-20, the Tucson Festival of Books March 11-13 and the Hummingbird Review Poetry Revue in Vista, CA March 20, so I’ll definitely be in the sharing mood for the next six weeks.

So we’ll start by putting the head on the chopping block and seeing what happens — a list of my 50 favorite authors (plus 10 VERY honorable mentions). Here’s the caveat on this list: It only includes people who wrote extensively in the 20th or early 21st centuries. So some other all-time favorites, like Catullus, Archimedes, Sappho, Goethe, the Shelleys (Percy and Mary), Keats, Blake, Tennyson, Thoreau, Emerson, the Rossettis (Dante and Christina), St. Francis, Petrarch, Chaucer and others, won’t be on this list.

Since I write and read in multiple genres, “writer” to me breaks out as novelists, memoirists, essayists, journalists, poets, short story writers, non-fiction authors and even songwriters with particularly poetic styles.

But a fair question deserves a fair answer. These writers have greatly touched my heart and mind and inspired my work, regardless of genre. In all cases, I’ve read many, most or all of their books. They are not necessarily in order — that would be too difficult — although I’d say the top 30 are pretty accurate:

1. Gary Snyder — Poet, Essayist, Translator (Turtle Island, A Place in Space, Practice of the Wild)

2. Paramhansa Yogananda — Spiritual Memoir, Poet (Autobiography of a Yogi is a classic, but his Whispers from Eternity is a poetic gift from heaven)

3. Anne Rice — Novelist (The Vampire Chronicles)

4. Tom Wolfe — Literary Journalist, Novelist (The Right Stuff, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test)

5. Anais Nin — Diarist, Essayist, Novelist (Delta of Venus, Diaries of Anais Nin)

6. Jim Harrison — Novelist, Memoirist (Legends of the Fall, Call of the North)

7. T.C. Boyle — Novelist, Short Fiction (Drop City)

8. Jack Kerouac — Novelist, Poet, Memoirist (The Dharma Bums, On The Road)

9. Jeanette Winterson — Novelist (Written on the Body)

10. Joyce Carol Oates — Novelist, Short Fiction, Journalist (Blonde)

11. Henry Miller — Novelist, Essayist, Short Fiction, Memoirist (Tropic of Cancer)

12. Annie Dillard — Memoirist, Essayist, Novelist (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

13. John Gardner — Novelist, Short Fiction, Educator (The Sunlight Dialogues)

14. Don Eulert — Poet, Scholar, Translator (Field: A Haiku Circle)

15. Joy Harjo — Poet, Musician, Memoirist (How We Became Human)

16. Tim Winton — Novelist, Short Fiction (Breath)

17. Hunter S. Thompson — Literary Journalist (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)

18. Luis Alberto Urrea — Memoirist, Journalist, Novelist (The Hummingbird’s Daughter)

19. J. Donald Walters (Swami Kriyananda) — Spiritual and Topical Non-Fiction, Musician, Memoirist (The Path)

20. Jane Smiley — Novelist, Journalist (A Thousand Acres)

21. Tom Robbins — Novelist, Humorist (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues)

22. Michael McClure — Poet, Essayist (Of Indigo and Saffron: New and Selected Poems)

23. Joan Didion — Memoirist, Journalist, Essayist (White Album)

24. Diane Ackerman — Non-Fiction (A History of the Senses)

25. Elmore Leonard — Novelist, Screenwriter (Get Shorty)

26. Michael Blake — Novelist, Memoirist (Dances with Wolves)

27. Jimmy Santiago Baca — Poet, Essayist, Memoirist (Healing Earthquakes, A Place to Stand)

28. Anne Lamott — Novelist, Memoirist (Lessons on Faith, Bird by Bird)

29. Ernest Hemingway — Novelist, Journalist (For Whom the Bell Tolls)

30. Ray Bradbury — Sci-Fi Novelist, Short Fiction (I Sing the Body Electric)

31. John Barth — Novelist (Giles Goat-Boy, The Sot Weed Factor)

32. Isabel Allende — Novelist (House of the Spirits)

33. Natalie Goldberg — Novelist, Memoirist, Education (Writing Down the Bones)

34. Taylor Mali — Poet, Educator, Spoken-Word Artist (What Learning Leaves)

35. Mary Stewart — Novelist (The Crystal Cave)

36. Laurel Corona — Novelist, Children’s Non-Fiction (The Four Seasons)

37. Jim Morrison — Poet, Musician (Lords and the New Creatures)

38. Ernest Gaines — Novelist, Essayist (A Lesson Before Dying)

39. Cameron Crowe — Journalist, Screenwriter (Rolling Stone, Jerry Maguire)

40. William Least Heat Moon — Travel Memoirist (Blue Highways)

41. Jack London — Novelist, Journalist (Call of the Wild)

42. Kurt Vonnegut — Novelist, Satirist (Cat’s Cradle)

43. Laura Hillenbrand — Topical Non-Fiction (Seabiscuit)

44. John Steinbeck — Novelist, Short Fiction (Grapes of Wrath, Travels with Charlie)

45. Robinson Jeffers — Poet, Essayist (Women at Point Sur, Thurso’s Landing)

46. Sarabeth Purcell — Novelist (Love is the Drug)

47. Wendell Berry — Poet, Essayist, Novelist, Short Fiction, Educator (Leavings, the Unsettling of America)

48. Muriel Rukeyser — Poet, Essayist, Activist (The Life of Poetry)

49. Anne Tyler — Novelist (Breathing Lessons)

50. Liu T’ieh Yun — Novelist (The Travels of Lao Ts’an)


My VERY Honorable Mentions:

Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Poet, Essayist (Coney Island of the Mind)

Erica Jong — Memoirist, Novelist (Fear of Flying)

Maya Angelou — Poet, Essayist (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)

J.R.R. Tolkien — Novelist, Essayist (Lord of the Rings)

Sandra Cisneros — Novelist, Short Fiction (The House on Mango Street)

Bob Shacochis — Literary Journalist, Novelist (Swimming in the Volcano)

Carson McCullers — Novelist (The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Ballad of the Sad Cafe)

William Faulkner — Novelist, Essayist (A Rose for Emily)

Christina Baldwin — Topical Non-Fiction (Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives)

May Sarton — Poet, Novelist, Memorist (Journal of a Solitude)

Since this blog was always meant to be an open forum, would love to see some of your lists as well — or how you would modify this one.




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