Fiction School

Fiction School
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Thursday, July 3, 2008

Writer Wanted: Must be Chronically Irresponsible

There are many things to adore about being a writer. One of the chief delights is the license it gives you to do just about anything and call it research. Have the yen to travel erratically, indulge in unhealthy vices, fall in and out of love? Do this as a regular Joe and you’ll be labeled frivolous; do it in the name of art and you’re just…well, a writer. It’s the perfect excuse to stay immature and impulsive forever.

In particular, novelists and playwrights get off scot-free on this score. Nobody expects you to be logical or methodical when your job description reads “must tell colorful lies.” An acquaintance of mine writes for the New York Times and several prestigious science publications. She obviously has to be a bit more grown up, since people count on her to deliver hard facts. I, on the other hand, am only expected to deliver entertainment. It’s the difference between a nutritionist and an inventor of ice cream flavors.

I just got back from a business trip that included visiting the American Library Association conference in Anaheim. I dedicated all of three hours to the conference, most of which I spent eating ice cream with my editor. The rest of the time I was at the beach. Well, why not? A crowded beach in the summertime is a writer’s dream laboratory; it’s overflowing with opportunities for clinical observation. There are so many conversations to overhear, fashion disasters to note, smells to smell, not to mention the wealth of memories any one of these stimuli can unleash. Really, it’s research of the highest sort—participant observation. Just call me the Jane Goodall of Huntington Beach.

On the way home, my boyfriend Dave and I got distracted by a seedy little surf town. We ended up staying several days in Pismo Beach, which charmed us with its incredible waves and offbeat characters. As a California native, I found it astounding that I’d never even been to this funky surfers’ enclave. It was totally stuck in the eighties with its arcades, saltwater taffy, and astounding lack of Starbucks. It was the perfect place for a couple dreamy-eyed hipsters to spend two totally unplanned days frolicking in the surf and eating cheap, decadent foods only people on vacation can justify.

Except we weren’t on vacation, remember? We were working.

When we got there, the surfers were taking to the water en masse. It was going off, as Dave would say, and barefoot boys with ratty blonde hair were steering bikes with one hand, gripping boards with the other as they pedaled toward the sand. We’d been stuck in the car most of the day, battling LA traffic to meet with my agent in Beverly Hills, then battling smug Malibu locals in search of just the right break. At last, with the sun melting like a messy yolk into the hills, we’d found our Nirvana. The only thing left was to score a cheap room.

“Do you offer corporate rates?” I asked the woman at the desk. I’d just stumbled on this concept that day by accident; apparently, people traveling on business under the blessing of a corporation can get rooms for about half what the tourists pay. Since my writing business just went corporate, I figured it was worth a shot.

The desk clerk peered over her spectacles at me. “You’re here on business?” she asked, a sour note creeping into her voice.

Her skepticism was hardly surprising. I was wearing a stained tank-top, flip flops, and my hair was so windblown I looked like a troll doll after too many twirls; Dave was already halfway into his wetsuit, impatiently craning his neck, looking past her to the glorious swell. We hardly fit the corporate profile.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m here on business.”

“What company do you work for, exactly?” Her eyebrow was so cocked it had mostly disappeared beneath her bangs.

“Myself.” I added, a little sheepishly, “I’m a writer.”

And that was that. We got our half-price room, which had a postage stamp-sized balcony and a screen door that never worked. I bought a used beater board with a couple dings—from close encounters with sharks, I like to think. We held our corporate meetings in the frothy waves or conked out on the sand or drinking pitchers of beer at the greasy pizzeria on the corner.

And it was totally legit. In fact, corporate America never felt so good.


ambeen said...

Great to see you back! I was wondering where you'd disappeared to. I was a little afraid it might have been that the selling power people kidnapped you for trying to get their name declared a generic phrase. :P

I'm glad you had fun working. I think that's awesome that you got your room half price. I love getting things half priced or free.

Jody Gehrman said...

No, the selling power people haven't nabbed me yet! Wasn't that weird, though? Thanks for stopping by!