Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Five Reasons Why Seattle Is a Writer’s Haven




It’s no accident Seattle is full of writers, and now that I’ve lived here a few months I’ve narrowed down the key reasons.

The weather is sad. Summer is pleasant, with long days and low humidity, but in fall, winter, and early spring the rain, wind and early darkness are like an Adele song, perfect for crafting serious reflection and sad love scenes. The other day I revised a critical moment where Michael, my protagonist, despairs over his relationship with Shelly. He senses she is moving on. As rain pelts from the pewter colored sky and wind chills the air it’s easy to slide inside Michael’s nadir.

Coffee. During winter, when sixteen hours a day is spent in darkness, the caffeinated warm beverage is a portable happy light. When I was still teaching in Ohio I kept the ubiquitous morning brew on my desk, but I barely tasted it. My morning cup of Joe provided rocket fuel to jettison my night owl body into being awake and functional in the deadly dawn. Now that I am retired and choose my own hours, I savor my coffee at a leisurely pace. It warms my palette and hands and aids the creative process.

Because coffee is a necessity here, coffee shops abound in Seattle. There is a either a Starbucks or an independent coffee shop on each block of the city and its environs, and every grocery store hosts a coffee shop. (Except for WinCo. What’s up with that?) Coffee shops are nirvana for starving writers. We can spend as little as three bucks and occupy space for several hours as we create our masterpieces. Most coffee shops also provide food, plugs and free wifi.

Coffee shops are filled with other writers. Being in the company of writers is essential because we writers tend to live inside our own heads. We tolerate friends and family but prefer to spend large blocks of time in solitude. Yet writers periodically emerge from the darkness to commune with like-minded souls. As I write this I’m sitting across the table from my friend and fellow writer Cat. We ignore one another as we peck at our keyboards, yet we transfer an invisible thread of energy, like musicians jamming together, except our tunes are silent, the notes appearing on the page.

Because writers live near or in Seattle, the Pacific Northwest hosts several writers’ conferences every year, and is home to the Hugo House, which holds frequent readings and workshops .

Seattle has bookstores and libraries. Writers are readers, and Seattle has the largest percentage of library card holders in the nation (80%) along with 1.5 bookstores per 10,000, people. Almost any spot in the city is within a fifteen minutes drive to a library or bookstore.  No experience can replicate a physical bookstore. Even Amazon, the online behemoth, discovered this, which prompted them to open their own brick and mortar store in the university district. Sending a book directly to your device is convenient and cheap, but it doesn’t replace the experience of a book falling open in your hands, emitting its old or new book smell.

Seattle has its drawbacks. It's ridiculously expensive to live here, and unless your name is Stephen King or James Patterson, you ain’t making money off your words, so your favorite stores become Value Village, Goodwill and Grocery Outlet. Traffic is miserable, especially if it rains. There is public transportation, but it hasn't kept up with the exponential population growth. In cities like NYC and San Francisco one is better off without a car, but here, you still need a car. And yeah, the weather often sucks.

I haven't even mentioned the endless distractions, on how a good day it’s hard to resist jumping on a ferry to visit one of the nearby islands, or take a walk through Sculpture Park along the waterfront on Elliot Bay.

One can write anywhere, but I have chosen to write here. As long as I have my writing tools: laptop or pen and paper, coffee, and noise canceling headphones, I’m all set.


Where do you like to write? 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Getting the Details Right




In the manuscript I’m revising there’s a scene that takes place in Seattle’s Sculpture Park. Problem is I had not actually been to Sculpture Park. It’s free and open 365 days a year. Other than revising, I had nothing else on the agenda today.

Initially I planned to take the bus because 1,) my cousin gave me some free bus passes that expire soon, and 2,) driving (and parking) in downtown Seattle is a pain. But it was cold and rainy when I left my house this morning. Not the most ideal weather for an outdoor excursion but I couldn’t revise my scene any further without actually setting foot in the park.

I drove south on Highway 99 to 105th and continued south through Ballard on Holman, which morphs into 15 th St. NW and changes into Elliot Way. Allegedly there’s a parking garage near the park, but luckily for me I couldn't find it. I saved myself 6 bucks by parking at The Spaghetti Factory, which doesn't open until 4:30. It’s located right across the street from the park entrance.

Sculpture Park resembles a boardwalk more than an actual park. It sits right on the seawall overlooking Elliot Bay, adjacent to the Port of Seattle. Today was damp, windy and chilly, so there were only a handful of walkers and runners braving the weather. The surf was high and choppy, and if you stand against the waterfront railing you feel like you’re on a boat. If I were a runner this would be a great place to train. One gets a waterfront view, a few cool pieces of sculpture, and ample leg room.

The sun came out as I began my walk. The entire park is a little over three miles, and I would have trekked the whole thing, but I needed to pee and there were no bathroom facilities, so I only walked about a mile of it and turned around and headed to the Port of Seattle. Because it’s winter, the waterfront on Alaskan Way wasn't crawling with tourists. Last time I was here was in summer and the crowds were so thick it was claustrophobic outdoors.


I dipped inside the Clipper Cafe, used their restroom and sipped a cup of coffee as I watched the cresting waves and ferries arriving and leaving the dock.

I’m glad I made the journey; it will give my scene more authenticity. , even though the scene itself is relatively short, it happens at a critical moment in the plot. Now that I know how to get there and where I can find facilities I plan to return before spring, before the crush of people spoils the view.


 Happy Writing.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

It Is a Small World




I recently returned to the Pacific Northwest after more than forty years in Ohio. Essentially my entire adult life was spent in the Buckeye state, with respites to various parts of the globe. I came from a mobile family, and the longest we stayed in one spot was five years. We lived overseas for a spell, and I came back to my home country a Third Culture Kid- one who was not fully American anymore. I had seen too much of the world and met people from various backgrounds to fully buy into the American ideal.

Yet somehow I ended up smack in the middle of the US. I took two of my three degrees in Ohio, and split the forty years in the state living and working in Columbus and Zanesville.

Then I retired, and could go anywhere the wind takes me. So why did I choose to disrupt my life and move Seattle?

A few years before I retired from teaching I tinkered with living in Arizona, where its sunny all year. But I know almost no one there. Cleveland and Chicago were on the list. We lived in the windy city when I was a kid, and I know my way around Cleveland and have friends there. Both cities are adjacent to water, are rife with culture, and have good public transit.  But their winters are too cold. I’m done with snow.

Florida is too humid and home to too many bugs. Besides, I’ve lived in the tropics; it’s called Ohio in July and August.

If I had barrels of money I’d move to the even-keeled warm climate of Hawaii. Trade winds keep the temperatures around seventy degrees, it's surrounded by ocean, and the vibe is laid back. But it also costs a king’s ransom to live there, you can't get in the car and drive to another state, and after awhile the pleasant weather becomes a little tedious.

As a joke, I’ll say, “for the bookstores.” Yet there is an element of truth behind that statement. I’m a bibliophile, and living within a few miles of access to physical books is akin to surfers needing to live near the coast. (I also live fairly near several bodies of water here, so you can call that reason number two.)

The weather is far from paradise. Winters are dark and drizzly, and I learned a couple of climate surprises: freezing fog and sun breaks. The cost of housing is outrageous and traffic is horrendous.  The New Yorker has predicted we will face a devastating 9.0 earthquake any time now. Nobody sane would move here, but those who know me well use other adjectives to describe me.

I retired from teaching but I continue my work as a writer. Even though writers are loners, I need to be in proximity of writers. On those isolated occasions when I socialize, I like talking shop with writers. Normal people don’t chat about their imaginary friends the way fiction writers do. And there are bookstores here, so on any given day I can go listen to an author read from his or her work.

Seattle is weird. Weird in a way a perennial-new-kid-book-nerd-last-kid-for-the-picked-for-teams-way-fits-in. On the bus traveling downtown I’m only among a handful of native English speakers. It’s as if I am back in Hong Kong, Bangkok, or London. A stranger in a strange land that feels familiar. I am a French, African, Chinese, Hawaiian, Mexican, Canadian, Italian, English, Pakistani.

If I had any money I can buy anything I want. There’s an entire store for Root Beer in Shoreline, and near Pike Place Market is a shop just for maps and globes. There are numerous spice markets, and a coffee shop every few feet

Ultimately I chose Seattle because of family. I am now a twenty minute drive from a cousin, and, on a rare day when traffic actually flows, a three and a half drive from my brother and his family. Before moving from Ohio I made an annual trip out here, which meant seven hours or more of air travel. I have seen my relatives more in the past few months than collectively in the last decade.

I miss my wonderful friends, and face to face contact is best, but social networking reduces the distance. In the old days it sometimes took two weeks for a letter from a friend or family member to arrive. Now I can instantly learn status updates, see photos of their antics, and share cat videos.

Several friends have already threatened promised to come stay with me. Hardly anyone visited me in Zanesville, but Seattle is a great place to visit. I’m learning my way around, so stop in for a visit and I’ll give you a tour.