The last couple days, I’ve been having hits on my blog from the keywords: “Chinatown poem.” So, if you’re that awesome person trying to find out about the poem I published in The (awesome) Rattling Wall, then check out my reading below.
Yesterday, Heron and I put the finishing touches on our old place in Long Beach. We vacuumed the floors, windexed the windows, and cleaned the bathrooms. Place is spotless. But as I was leaving, I noticed the liquor store across the street. I used to walk over there at night and talk to the Cambodian owners as they watched Chinese sitcoms on a miniature television. I noticed the homeless man walk by who slept on a bench at the doctor’s office in front of our apartment. I saw this crazy lady who just never stopped her dogs from yapping when Hendrix walked by. I said goodbye to my manager — who couldn’t have been better — and I realized I probably wouldn’t be spending much time there anymore. I have had this sensation in many cities, and saying goodbye is always hard. So, here are five reasons why I will miss Long Beach.
5. Portfolio Coffeehouse
When I was freelancing full-time over the last six months, I was, honestly, pretty lonely at certain points in the week. Heron was working, and I was at home, staring into a computer, writing pitches, hoping that the speed of email and responses would speed up. Sometimes, I just couldn’t talk to my dog without thinking I was insane. So I would drive down to Portfolio Coffeehouse on 4th Street. Honestly, I know it’s cliché to write and work in coffee shops, but I’ve always loved it. I guess it’s only cliché and strange if you’re not working and just pretending, but I would head down there, grab a table by a window and an outlet, and bust my freaking ass. But they had awesome lattes, and they make all these little designs with the foam. And they had some characters, too. A group of old men, probably retired, would show up every day, early, and talk in a corner about cultural events. There was this one fat guy who was the loudest. He could get annoying, but for some reason, seeing him there every time I went provided some consistency I was desperately seeking.
4. Running along the bluffs on Ocean Blvd.
Whether I was working at the rehab center or freelancing, running became a part of my routine that I could not live without. It takes me out of my head; it eases stress; and it provides consistency to an often chaotic and frazzled world. We didn’t live on the beach or anything, but we lived five or so blocks away; so I would grab Hendrix or go on my own and run along the bluffs, staring out over the Pacific Ocean and the lights from Downtown and the Port. It almost seemed to look like an ancient Egypt. The weird thing about Long Beach is that they have a jetty for the port, and it breaks the waves. The ocean is flat, and no one swims there (probably because the ocean is seriously polluted). But there was something about running along the bluffs, staring out of the water, wondering about the mysterious islands with water falls, and overlooking the oil tankers that just made me at peace, calm, comfortable with everything that was out of my control.
3. The Food
As you can see from the above picture, you might be wondering why there is a shot of a random guy in a food category. Well, there is no real reason; the guy in the above photo is going to be my co-best man at my wedding, and it’s just kind of funny. So now back to the list. I thoroughly enjoyed eating in Long Beach. I wish I had more money to spend, because I would spend it all on food. There are so many different places to eat, and, being a kid from Massachusetts who wouldn’t know pho from a Korean BBQ, the LBC opened up my taste buds to some incredible flavors and spices. Number 9 in Long Beach had great pho; Tavern on Two had some awesome burgers on second street; Sushi on Fire treated us so well; Coco Renos had some bomb-ass Mexican food (plus, you can could take your food into the World Famous Reno Room).
But out of all the places to eat in Long Beach — there are honestly too many to name — the best part about the LBC for food was breakfast. The competition was fierce; there was Coffee Mug, Eggs Etc., and Starlings — and that was just by our house. My favorite place by far, however, was the Coffee Mug. You’ve got to be careful when you go there. Get there before 10. The line is crazy. I used to always get their honey-sausage scramble and drench my eggs in their verde chili. Holy shit! It tasted like a spicy version of heaven — which is Long Beach.
2. The culture and diversity
My buddy, Dan Stroud, used to say that Long Beach was the most diverse city in the country. Well, I found that hard to believe, and I’m still skeptical that it’s more diverse than New York or Los Angeles (Sarah Bennett, Long Beach expert and editor of The Post, would probably know), but there honestly is no city like the LBC, because there are so many different types of people. Did you know that Long Beach has the largest population of Cambodians in the country? A great article at the OC Weekly came out profiling Cambodia Town. There is no city like Long Beach. So many people, so many cultures.
1. The Port of Long Beach
When I first moved to Los Angeles County, what I saw didn’t really match my expectations. I had this grand image in my mind that California was all palm trees and gorgeous beaches and beautiful people. Of course, this is true, but there are sides of California that aren’t really advertised. Yeah, I heard about poverty and violence, but what I never saw coming was how industrial it could be. Driving down the 405 towards Long Beach and coming into the cloud factories stretching for miles surprised the hell out of me. And when I saw all those factories that led to the ports, I knew I wanted to write about it. So, I did. I wrote about port truckers, union strikes, and blue-collar institutions. I got to know those men and women who worked at the ports; I saw their hard work and desires for a better life by lifting themselves up by their bootstraps; and I saw the beauty the harmonious machine that is the Port of Long Beach.
So I’ve been working at my new job in Westwood for about a week, and I’ve already started some awesome projects with social media. But the way I’ve been thinking about social media over the last couple of days is how it can affect a business’ bottom line. And don’t worry, I’m not here to talk about that. I want to begin to talk about how social media is one of the most important tools for a writer.
Earlier today, Joe Clifford — the writer of Choice Cuts — posted a transcript of his interview at Digital Book Today. Well, it’s a cool interview, and it’s a bad-ass piece, where I even get a shout out. We were in his kitchen talking about writing and how the worst thing about being a writer is that you lose the magic as you learn the craft. You start to learn all the tricks.
Well, this is true about social media, too. There are a ton of tricks writers can use — not only to build an audience and share work but work on your craft.
In that same conversation Joe and I had in his kitchen in San Francisco, he said something on the lines of this: “It’s impossible to be a writer today and not use social media.” And he’s absolutely right, and Joe might just use Facebook better than any other writer I know out there.
For example, how did I find out about his interview: he shared it on his wall, and people started commenting, and eventually when I came home, I read it. But then I shared it; and someone else shared it; and now, here I am talking about it on my blog and hopefully you clicked on his link and started reading it. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is how you build an audience: a piece gets shared. Plus, he shares great content and witty observations, and it functions as an extension of his narrative voice…in my opinion.
But the trick is how do you build that audience and how do you make it work for you?
Create a Community
What I admire the most about the way Clifford uses social media is that he’s social. It’s not always about him, and he always finds a way to help another writer out. For instance, when he shared the link to his interview, he posted it on my wall and another, highlighting the fact that we were referenced in the interview. Well, that community building must happen in order to create effective social media and identify oneself to others as a writer.
But this isn’t something new to the digital age. God, that would be a ridiculous statement. From talking to Joe, I know that he values the Beats — maybe not Kerouac’s craft completely — because they supported each other, promoted each other, and championed the work. That was what made the Beats’ so great; they were there to take on the world together. And they were obviously not the only literary community that used the tools of their time to help each other out. There are countless.
So use this in your posts, your tweets, your tidily winks. Give shout out to friends. Like other people posts. Comment on other people’s stories. And support. Unless you’re an asshole and don’t need anybody’s help.
Don’t Be Scared to Fail
I can’t tell you how many times I have posted something on Facebook, trying to illicit a response, and not a single person responded. Yes, that might look pathetic, because now I’m sitting there in silence, but in reality, people are probably busy or just not interested. Don’t let that hold you back! Go out there and post again. If you stay persistent and confident, then people will begin to write back, and there you are again, building your audience.
But this is a larger issue with being a writer; you’re going to fail so many freaking times and fall flat on your face. So what? You’re going to write a shitty story, a clunker, and what are you going to do? Stop writing? Please, move on. Take lumps. Work on the craft.
I’ll never forgot one day I was testing out some social-media marketing tips I found online. It said that the best time to share a post was on Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. So I posted at exactly that time, telling people this is the time everyone responds on social media — let me know if you’re out there.
Well, guess what? Yep, no one responded.
Until Joe Clifford saved me, and he made it into a joke by pretending I had thrown this big party and no one showed up but him. We were standing around the virtual chips, talking awkwardly and avoiding the obvious — no one showed up.
Fuck failing. You’re a writer. Get used to it.
Learn the Mediums
For some reason, I think that writers forget all of the lessons they’ve learned over the years and just start posting on social media as if they never thought about their audience or genre. Well, there are three things I used to tell my students to think about when they sat down to write a paper: audience, purpose, and genre. Think about those things and you will be golden.
So I started applying those lessons to Facebook and Twitter. They both have different make-ups, and the craft is different. The way I think about Twitter is that it’s kind of like flirting, where Facebook is kind of like a full-on relationship. Twitter, you have favorites, retweets, and follows. You’ve got to play coy and not seem desperate. Use these tools to attract complete strangers. Facebook is harder; you’re mostly speaking to people you know or met. Learn how to craft genre appropriate writing by looking at some of the best twitter writers out there. Two people I recommend are Bomani Jones and Roxane Gay.
Don’t Forget the Story
Remember, most readers care about story; they care about struggle; they care about a narrative. Start thinking about your larger narrative — are you going to school to become a firefighter? are you trying to land a literary agent? are you trying to bike to work through traffic in the city? — and craft pieces off of that story. Let us fall into a larger thread, know your voice, and what you’re trying to accomplish. This way, we’ll stay with you beyond your wit.
Well, in the end, this is really only the beginning of my thoughts on social media. It can improve your career, your brand, or your audience, but there are tricks, just like there are in writing. And be forewarned, if you like just casually browsing through social media, then don’t try to learn the tricks behind the magic. It’s all a bunch of disguised bullshit — but so are stories in general.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer. And when I first started thinking about this idea, “writer,” in correlation with my life, I really didn’t quite have a grasp of the image of what made a person a writer — or how the hell I could become one. The one thing I thought I knew from reading my heroes (Hemingway, Twain, and Kerouac) was that I had to live my life, in some shape or form, as if I was living in a book.
Now, when I was younger, to try and fulfill this prophesy, I would travel and move as much as possible. In fact, I thought that if I didn’t travel widely, I wasn’t really actually traveling like a writer. Destination is death! I was hungry for experience to write about, searching for it in Guatemala, Prague, Detroit — places that have become as much a part of my identity as my childhood. And while that idea has changed — experiences come in all forms — the aspect that I still hold true about living my life like a book is the idea of structure. For example, like the old cliché goes, there are chapters to one’s life, closing a book, beginning a new, a personal renaissance — all that bullshit. Each year, each period, each section of my life plays a larger part in the whole, and I have begun to expect the dramatic changes — almost yearn for them. Because in a certain sense, saying goodbye is the ultimate freedom.
What I’m trying to say is that a chapter has ended; I am no longer a full-time freelance writer.
I’ve been looking back over this blog, and it’s been six months since I wrote my first real post about quitting my job, pursuing my career as a freelance writer, stopping the soul-sucking commute, and beginning to write, write, write. And I did. I wrote for some great publications — Salon, LA Weekly, OC Weekly, The Village Voice — and I told some great stories. I wrote about the ports, the closing of a fish market, Jack Kerouac, truckers, books, poets/actors. I even wrote a cover story. And it’s been wonderful. I worked with some great people who helped me out along the way down in the LBC and Orange County. (Sarah Bennett, Gustavo Arellano, Nate Jackson are incredible people!)
But in the end, I just felt that I couldn’t make enough of a living. My student loans, my rent, and my medical insurance bills were always speaking to me — “Hey, you know you’ve got to pay me, right?” — and I found that I wasn’t happy waking up and hustling for pieces that paid very little — though some paid much better than the others. And writing for me isn’t initially about the money, unless that’s your income — then, yes, it’s about the money. I do like security. I do like a steady paycheck, but I also love writing. If an opportunity comes up to be a full-time writer, of course, I’m going to consider it.
And I’m going to still freelance on the side and pitch the stories I want to pitch. Meantime, an opportunity came up that I couldn’t refuse. As of last week, I have started a job as a Writer and Social Media Specialist at a public relations firm in Westwood. From my window, I can see the Pacific Ocean, The Getty, and Westwood. I moved to West L.A., and I’ll be working 2 miles from where Heron will be working in July. It’s an opportunity that I feel lucky to have.
But there’s something else I’ve had to confront about working full-time as a freelance writer — besides the struggle to afford basic living requirements — is that I haven’t had enough time to work on my memoir.
I don’t know if you remember, dear reader, but a few months back, I wrote a post about revising my novel. Six months ago, an agent at an amazing literary agency asked for some revisions. The biggest revision: turning my novel into a memoir. Well, because I have been so focused on writing to make money to survive, well, I haven’t really worked on the memoir. I have pieces. But I don’t have a manuscript. And out of all the writing I’ve done, this is the most important to me, because it’s my story, my town’s story, my family’s story — the story I must tell before I can really write any other stories that I have in the back of my mind. And in order to write this book, I need some consistency in my life. I need to be able to come home from work and work.
So, I begin again a new but the same journey. So from now on when you read my blog, you’ll still see me sharing stories I’ve written for some magazines, but you’ll be following the longer journey of me trying to publish my book — plus, just what it’s like to live in L.A. And I’m no longer chasing being a writer, because, well, I am one. Nothing can take that away anymore.
I will share everything along the way. I hope you’ll stay around to see how this story develops. Really appreciate you being a part of this.
So let’s see what happens in the next chapter — Into the City.
Before I tell you about the coyote, I want to share some good news on the publishing end. This week, I have the cover story at the OC Weekly. The piece is called “Notes From the Underground Economy,” and it’s a story I’ve been working on for months. Really, since about September. I’m proud to share this piece, and it was an amazing learning experience. Working with Gustavo Arellano — editor of the OC Weekly and voice of Ask a Mexican — was a great honor. Also, last week, I had a piece come out at the LA Weekly that seemed to be received well. It’s about losing and rediscovering the California Dream while driving on Route 1 and features Joe Clifford. It was awesome to write, and I was so pumped the LA Weekly ran it. It’s one of my favorite pieces I have written in the last few months, because it felt true — to me at least. Check it out: Route 1.
So now to the coyote story…
One of my favorite spots to go hiking in Southern California is El Moro Canyon in Laguna Beach. First, the drive to get there is extraordinary. When I want to head to El Moro from Long Beach, I take the PCH, passing through Seal, Sunset, Huntington, and Newport Beach. I love driving along the ocean and listening to music. Well, this time I decided to use the ride to listen to an audiobook. And for some reason, I felt like listening to “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu.
Well, I found this “read” fascinating, as I’m sure most people do, because of the ideas of “stratagem” — winning a battle and conquering a kingdom while appearing as if you did nothing. Never appearing weak — and if you appear weak, let it be a simulation to disguise your prowess. It was fascinating. I loved the idea that if you’re a general that receives praise or criticism, then you’re doing something wrong. You should accomplish your goals perfectly, and you should win the battle in a way that allows you to win from afar — to allow the enemy to defeat itself (though it was really you).
So I got out of my car at El Moro, and the wind was just whipping cold air. Sun Tzu was running through my mind, and I figured I would meditate a bit on the lessons of Sun Tzu and how I could apply them to my life. I started walking up the trails, and I could see the white-capped ocean off to the West. I was running the ideas through my mind, and I started to think about how to give the impression of quiet confidence. I remember hearing a line about appearing like a hawk: calm until the moment of attack. Once the attack comes, then you must act decisively.
Clearly, I’m trying to think about these ideas in abstract ways. How would I react to a threat? That’s when I realized how alone I was in the middle of a canyon. There was no one around me, and I remembered seeing a video of a mountain lion attacking a man. Of course, mountains lions don’t really want to bother with humans, but the fear gave rise to the image in my mind. And I recognized this fear as weakness.
I kept walking in the trails, and I watched the birds fly in and out of the trails. A couple passed me, and they said hello. It was peaceful. I was watching jack rabbits hop out of the brush. Then I came up to the difficult part of the hike. A steep and long incline to the top of the mountain. It was too cold to sweat.
Finally, I got to the top — a long even stretch that overlooks Laguna Beach and the Pacific Ocean. I yelled out to the quiet expanse of the hills. In a few steps, I noticed a guy walking from the other side of the mountain. He stopped and told me: “I just saw coyote about 50 yards away. He was just looking over the hill. Thought you would like to know. He’s a big one.”
Well, he left, and I have to admit this: I debated whether to keep walking. I was a little bit intimidated by this giant coyote. In my mind, the coyote took on gigantic proportions, foaming at the mouth, waiting behind a cactus to tear me a part. I started to think about how I was going to defend myself. What about all that shit from “The Art of War.” Fuck that, I thought, what can I do against a giant coyote?
I was scanning the brush and the trail, and then something jumped out at me…a jack rabbit. Man, I was losing my composure. Then I saw an old woman, maybe about 75, approaching from the opposite direction with two walking sticks. I stopped and tried to extend to her the same courtesy as the man I passed earlier.
“There’s a man back there who just told me about a giant coyote coming this way,” I said
The old woman looked at me and smiled. “Coyotes in the daytime?”
“That’s just what some guy said.”
“I’ve seen them at night,” the old woman said, “but I’m not scared of them.”
Then she just kept on walking, maybe even at a faster pace than me.
I walked back to my car the rest of the way amazed that some old woman was less scared of a coyote than me. It’s amazing how fear can manifest in our minds, control our reactions, and if there is anything I still have to learn is to not let fear control my emotional state. I feel like this is an important lesson for a writer…somehow. Maybe just for a man.