10 Questions for... S. Kay Murphy

S. Kay Murphy is a writer, a teacher and, I'm pleased to say, one of my very good friends. She began freelance writing thirty years ago and still contributes to national magazines and newspapers. Some years ago her freelance work was interrupted by the pursuit of information about her great-grandmother, Bertha Gifford, who was rumored to have poisoned more than a dozen individuals in her own community. That resulted in the writing of her first memoir, Tainted Legacy: The Story of Alleged Serial Killer Bertha Gifford.

In July of 2012, Kay published her second memoir, a beautiful and touching book called Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me. If you buy the book for only one reason, let it be this: 100% of the net proceeds from its sales will be donated to animal rescue.

So, without further ado, here are 10 questions for S. Kay Murphy...

 1. What would you like readers to know about Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me?

I wrote this book to honor the dogs who chose to companion with me at various times in my life.  The book is divided into several sections, each one telling the story of a dog or dogs I had throughout my life.  Some of them saved me in a literal sense; Rufus kept me from being assaulted or possibly abducted when I was a teenager.  Ian saved me from a burglar.  And some of them saved me in the psychological sense, rescuing me from deep sadness or giving me a reason to go on living even during a very dark time.

2. What persuaded you to donate all the royalties from Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me to animal rescue?

I have been inspired by several individuals, in particular young Miss Michala Riggle who established www.beatingtobeatautism.org. She started with $7.35, bought some materials, made some bracelets and sold them. Her purpose?  To raise money for research into autism to help her brother Evan who has been diagnosed with autism.  After buying some bracelets from the website one day, the spark of Michala’s passion to help others continued to resonate with me. I was already working on the book and just started thinking about how I could contribute to something I feel passionate about, which is the concept of No More Homeless Pets.

3. Who are some writers that have affected your storytelling sensibilities?

James Brown, James Brown, and James Brown.  I went to see Brown once when he was speaking about his memoir, The Los Angeles Diaries.  I'd read the book, and frankly, it set a pretty high bar for me in terms of the quality of the writing. Brown doesn't just tell what happened in his life.  He somehow weaves thoughts, feelings, actions and sensory response into every paragraph, creating an amazing tapestry of description.

During the Q&A at the speaking engagement, I asked him about telling the truth.  At the time, I was working on my memoir, Tainted Legacy: The Story of Alleged Serial Killer Bertha Gifford, and my mother, who figures prominently in the story, was still living at the time. I wanted to tell the truth, but didn't want to alienate her (further than what we'd suffered through all my life). Brown said, "Everyone has their own story. You have to tell yours. For your mother, the story is different. My mother still speaks to me. Yours will still speak to you." A weight lifted, and I went forward with my own project in the most honest way I could. He was right.

4. What methods and strategies have you employed in order to promote both yourself as an author, as well Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me?

Oof, this is the part I hate. I’m a shy, introverted person—almost reclusive (if I didn’t have to go to work every day).  Self-promotion is a beast. So, at this point in time, I’m relying on the theory of reciprocity.  Many years ago I read a book I loved and posted a review of it on Amazon so that others would be drawn to read it.  The author sent me an email to thank me, which made my day and also made me realize how much we need to be mutually supportive of each other (as opposed to being competitive—ick). I’ve tried to encourage and promote as many writers as I’ve had opportunity to, and I’m hoping now some of those folks will, in turn, reach out to their own circle of contacts and say a good word about my work.

5. Writing a book is such a complex exercise that I imagine no two authors do it exactly the same. Can you summarize your process for me?

Um... yes:

1.  Put your butt in the chair.

2.  Stay there until you've written something—brilliant or shitty, it matters not.

3.  Repeat.

4.  Repeat.

5.  Repeat.

Horror writer Douglas Clegg once said, "I suspect the great American novel will not be written by the best writer in America. I suspect it will be written by someone who writes."  His point was that the biggest dementor (yes, that was Harry Potter reference) we have to overcome is our own self-doubt.  Then we just have to keep writing until we finish things.  Amen.

6. What drove you to write Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me?

I miss my dogs. Living here in the San Gabriel Mountains is idyllic. But, for various reasons, I can’t have a dog here. One summer afternoon, I was culling out from boxes and boxes of photos the ones that were pictures of my dogs, with the intention of putting them in an album.

I organized them chronologically, and as I did, I began to reminisce about how important those canine heroes were in my life and recall how integral they’d been in keeping me sane (and alive). I simply wanted to tell their stories.  As it turns out, the book was the most difficult thing I’ve ever written.  Among other incidents, I write about my step-father’s attempts to molest me.  This is something I’ve never talked to anyone about—ever.  It was hard to relive that time in my life, and I found myself crying often as I wrote. Sometimes, when the emotion became overwhelming, I would have to take a break from the writing for a few days. I was haunted by nightmares while I worked on the book.

7. Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me is your second consecutive memoir, following Tainted Legacy. Is this your genre of choice or do you have plans for writing fiction?

When Mrs. Walton, my fourth grade teacher, told me I could be a writer (and I absolutely without hesitation believed her), I assumed I would grow up to write down the stories I constantly made up in my head.  But… that’s not what happened.  As you know, the story of my great-grandmother, Bertha Gifford, fell into my lap when I discovered she’d been accused of murdering several people.  I never thought I’d write her story, but I’m so glad I did, as it gave my mother some much-needed closure about the alleged crimes.  And then I had the idea for Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me, so I had to do that.  But I have written a bit of fiction.

8. What are you currently working on?

In 2006, I did NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). To those unfamiliar, I encourage you to look it up—and do it!  Just do it!  In 30 days, I wrote a 50,000 word Young Adult novel entitled Ghost Grandma.  When I finished, I put it away for a long time because I assumed it couldn’t possibly be any good (having been written by a nonfiction writer in 30 days).

But every summer, I would take it out and look at it.  Six years later, I still love my characters and my story.  Maybe no one else will love it as I do, but at this point, I’m doing a final edit before I take it to CreateSpace for publication.  I love YA lit and, at this point in my life, read more of it than adult fiction, partly because I’m always looking for good books for my high school students, but also because I simply love what’s out there right now.  (I just finished reading The Fault in Our Stars and Jumpstart the World.  Oh my Buddha, what fabulous novels!)  After Ghost Grandma goes to press, I’ll begin working <gulp> on a YA trilogy I’ve been planning for some time.

9. Where do you see your writing career five years from now?

Right now, major writing projects have to be completed during the ten weeks of summer, as once school starts and I return to my day job, I have little time or energy for such things. But in two years?  Oh my Buddha! I'll be retired from teaching, and finally, after longing for this for decades, I'll be able to be a full-time writer. Booyah! So I’m hopeful that in five years’ time (three years after I retire), I will have produced a substantial body of work and developed a sympathetic and appreciative fan base.

10. What advice would you give to an aspiring author who hopes to see their work published one day? 

See my answer to question #5. Keep writing. And learn your craft. Simply because you enjoy the process doesn't mean that your work meets the standard of what's out there.  (Notice I didn't use the word "good."  What makes "good" writing is subjective.) Learn where the commas go. Learn what syntax is. Learn why "subject/pronoun agreement" is an issue. Make sure your writing is correct and readable. And then write from your heart. Ignore the voice of your own self-doubt. Ignore friends, family members and co-workers who discount, in any way, what you're doing.

Pretend you don't hear them. Shake it off. Go home and write something great—but never, ever share it with people you love until it's in print; you will be too easily influenced by their response, especially if you're looking for approval. Do find someone who is good at editing—preferably someone who is not a part of your social circle—to find the typos and words you left out and the part toward the end where the piece takes a wrong turn. Take his or her criticism to heart—then keep writing, keep writing, keep writing. Writing mediocre drafts and discovering how to make them better is just like a painting a portrait then continuing to work at it until it truly resembles the model. Don't give up. And find other like-minded writers to have coffee with so they can inspire you. And don't hate English teachers! We can't help who we are!

And there you have it. I’d like to thank my friend, S. Kay Murphy, for taking some time to hang out on Inside Martin. If you’d like to learn more about Kay and her writing, visit her blog On Simply Being True. You can also connect with Kay on Twitter, as well as Facebook.

10 Questions for... Paula Priamos

Paula Priamos was born and raised in Southern California, where she lives with her husband, James Brown, author of the acclaimed memoirs The Los Angeles Diaries and This River. After her parents divorced and her mother and siblings moved to the South, Priamos decided to stay with her larger-than-life Greek defense attorney father.

Her father's mysterious death propelled Priamos into an investigation of the shady deals and characters that led to his disbarment, which ultimately led her to write her debut memoir The Shyster's Daughter. It's a searing detective noir memoir that paints a vivid portrait of a Greek American family caught up in the scandal-obsessed, drug-addicted culture of California in the closing decades of the twentieth century.

So, without further ado, here are 10 questions for Paula Priamos.

1. What would you like readers to know about The Shyster’s Daughter?

I wrote The Shyster’s Daughter because I was haunted by the phone call my father placed to me the night before he died.  It was as if he knew something bad was going to happen to him.  The book investigates those last few hours of his life and it also became an investigation into his career as a criminal defense attorney.

I structured the book to read like a novel because I think memoirs get a bad rap for being bloated, expository and self-important.  That’s not the type of book I wanted to write.  I wanted my book to be entertaining, and I used fictional techniques like plot, setting and dialogue to make my story move.

2. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I was in the second grade when I decided to become a writer.  My teacher assigned us to keep a journal about day-to-day events and I asked permission if I could write a story about an orphaned girl who inherited her own 7-UP factory.  She had a ton of adventures in her factory like fighting off thieves trying to steal her secret formulas.  At the end of the year, my teacher ran off copies and gave them to the rest of the class for summer reading.

3. Who are some writers that have affected your storytelling sensibilities?

Hemingway has influenced me with his conciseness and rhythm. Jeanette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle was inspirational because it’s not a victim’s story.  And, of course, my husband James Brown has always encouraged me to tell a story of consequence.

4. With regards to your own writing, what are the pros and cons of having a husband who is also an accomplished author?

A big pro to having an accomplished author for a spouse is that he understands the solitary struggles of a writer.  He gives me room to rant, to write and he also is a great reader of my work.  We are straight with each other about our writing in its rawest stages even if it isn’t something either of us wants to hear.

The con about having a writer for a husband is that I lived in his shadow for quite a while.  I’m younger, his former student, and it was hard getting people we both knew in the writing world to take me seriously.  Eventually, though, a lot of them were left with very little choice.  I wasn’t going away. I have my own stories to tell and I was going to be a writer whether I was married or single.  Once I started publishing in places like the New York Timesthe Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times Magazine the stigma of being an older author’s younger second wife wore off.

5. Writing a book is such a complex exercise that I imagine no two authors do it exactly the same. Can you summarize your process for me?

My process is hand writing first, starting off old school with a notebook and a pencil before coming to the computer.  I love to wake up early and write when the house is quiet and before the stresses and chaos of everyday living interrupt me.  But I write just about anywhere so I carry around a notebook with me at all times.

6. What drove you to write The Shyster’s Daughter?

The mysterious way my father died and the need to find out what happened to him are what initially drove me to write The Shyster’s Daughter. But it is also my story – what it was like growing up being raised by a successful Greek criminal defense attorney who had a conflicting set of morals.  There is also a lot of Greek culture and Greek curse words.  My father had a temper.  He was tough like the time I write in the book when he took on two burglars we caught coming out of our home one night.  He took a swing at one of them and chased both of them, who were half his age, into some bushes down the street where they hid like cowards.  But he was also one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.  I wanted to capture his character and how it’s shaped mine.

7. What methods and strategies have you employed in order to promote both yourself as an author, as well The Shyster’s Daughter?

I’m teaming up with a couple of different writers for reading events. I have a publicist who is active in getting the word out about my book and I myself do what I can to help spread the word using Facebook, my own website, as well as my own big mouth.

8. Where do you see your writing career five years from now?

I see myself as both a memoirist and novelist.

9. What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a literary thriller about crimes of passion.

10 . What advice would you give to an aspiring author who hopes to see their work published one day?

Be open to revision.  Don’t become one of those writers who can’t take suggestions on improving your work.  Be confident in your writing.  Know when a work is finished.  It’s an exciting time in publishing where the Internet has opened the market for writers to either publish in New York or with independent literary presses who tend to take more risks, taking on less politically correct writing, and there is also self-publishing.  Nothing is black and white anymore.

And there you have it. I’d like to thank Paula Priamos for taking some time to hang out on Inside Martin. If you’d like to learn more about Priamos and her writing, you can visit her official website Paula Priamos: Opinionated Writer....

Exciting Press Signs Author Martin Lastrapes

I've signed a deal with Exciting Press and, if you'll pardon the pun, I'm terribly excited about it. A press release was sent out this morning with some of the more interesting details.

"Novelist Martin Lastrapes, whose independent novel Inside the Outside climbed the Amazon horror bestseller lists with its tale of religious sects, cannibalism, and literary terror, has signed a deal with Exciting Press to bring six new stories spanning multiple topics and genres to the digital market. Lastrapes’ short stories and flash fiction will join titles by international bestseller Nick Earls, fantasy novelist Miya Kressin, and Press director Will Entrekin to broaden Exciting Press’ already diverse catalog."

The agreement I've made with Exciting Press is both thrilling and gratifying for reasons that you probably aren't aware of.  You see, I fancy myself a novelist (which, considering I've only written one novel, may sound a bit presumptuous) and, for the foreseeable future, my primary goal is to write and publish novels. But, before I was a novelist, I was just an aspiring writer trying very hard to learn my craft.

As it is with most developing writers, I cut my teeth by writing short fiction. Suffice it to say, most of my early efforts would fit comfortably on a scale of terrible-try-again to take-this-shit-to-your-grave.

Things began to change for me in 2002, when I was studying English at Cal State San Bernardino. James Brown, the critically acclaimed novelist and memoirist, was one of my creative writing professors and, under his watch, I eventually had what I think of as my Neo-at-the-end-of-The-Matrix-moment. From pacing and character to metaphor and symbolism, it all just started to make sense.

I plied this newfound knowledge by writing more short stories, only these new stories were actually pretty good. While some of them were published and others won awards, their primary purpose, so far as I was concerned, was to prepare me for my eventual leap into novel writing.  And, at the end of the day, they served their purpose, when I managed to complete my debut novel Inside the Outside.

While Inside the Outside marked the beginning of my career as a novelist, there was a part of me that felt a bit sad to be moving away from short fiction and those stories I was most proud of. I'd come to accept them as fond memories, like the pretty girl I once met at Bullwinkle's who taught me how to kiss.

But now, thanks to Exciting Press, many of those short stories will be getting their time in the sun. And, while I've tried to articulate it for the last 400 words or so, the truth is I don't think I can properly express how thrilled I am to have made this deal.

I almost wish I could go back in time to talk to that younger version of myself, the aspiring writer with the shaky confidence and constant fear that nobody would ever care about the stories he wanted to tell. I almost wish I could tell him that the short stories he was writing—stories which he thought would never progress anywhere beyond his computer screen—would one day become the centerpiece for a publishing deal that would put him on the same team as critically acclaimed and bestselling authors.

But, if I did that, it would ruin the surprise for this present version of myself and I wouldn't be sitting here with a smile on my face, marveling at all the wonderful experiences this writing journey of mine has afforded me.

Feature This! (GUEST POST)

A few months ago, I was approached by Jose Oliver De Castro, a college student and contributor to his school's newspaper and magazine. He wanted to interview me for a feature article in the newspaper and I, obviously, was more than happy to comply. Along the way, Jose's editor decided to make the interview part of the magazine. Jose was excited, but he had his reservations. He worried that the story would get dropped, since not everything makes the final cut. I told him that if it did get dropped, I'd publish it myself on Inside Martin. Well, the fact that we've gotten this far should tell you how the story ends. So, for your reading pleasure, I present to you...

FEATURE THIS!: An Interview with Novelist Martin Lastrapes

By Jose Oliver De Castro

“I’m a vegetarian and, as a vegetarian, I was fascinated with the idea of cannibalism.”

This was just one of the ideas that Martin Lastrapes, 34, had in mind when writing his debut novel, Inside the Outsidewhich tells the story of a young girl named Timber Marlow who grows up as a cannibal in a cult in the San Bernardino Mountains. When she is about 14 or 15 years old, she manages to escape the cult into the mainstream society, where she tries to assimilate.  For Lastrapes, Inside the Outside is his dark and twisted version of the coming of age story.

“I always thought of it as a metaphor for growing up. When you grow up you live in a relatively small place. You start off with your house, eventually your house turns into your block and your neighborhood,” Lastrapes said. “At some point you have to leave that small isolated corner of the world that was your own and discover the world is bigger than you realized and there are different people that you have to encounter.”

While writing Inside the Outside, Lastrapes used the metaphor with Timber Marlow in mind.

“I took it to the extreme in a relatively dark book,” Lastrapes said, “where instead of growing up in a neighborhood, she grew up in a cult of cannibals.”

Upon its release, the book reached #3 on Amazon’s Top 100 Hot New Releases in Horror.

“There was actually a certain point where I was even ahead of Stephen King, which was very exciting,” Lastrapes said. “It’s been an exciting time and I’m sort of blown away by both the initial success of the book and also the reception of the book.”

Lastrapes was born on December 9, 1977, in the city of Orange and was raised in Rancho Cucamonga, California.  After graduating from Alta Loma High School in 1996, he attended Chaffey College, Cal State Fullerton, and Cal State San Bernardino. While at Cal State San Bernardino, Lastrapes met James Brown, a creative writing professor and acclaimed author of The Los Angeles Dairies and This River.

“The time when I met James Brown is really when I got serious and focused about my career as a writer,” Lastrapes said.

Brown described Lastrapes as a serious, determined student when they first crossed paths in the classroom years ago. As Brown’s student, Lastrapes made it easy for him as a professor.

“I’d like to flatter myself that I helped improve his already strong writing,” Brown said, “but all I can really take credit for is encouraging an already talented writer.”

In 1996, during his first year in college, Lastrapes took his first English course with S. Kay Murphy, author of Tainted Legacy: The Story of Alleged Serial Killer Bertha Gifford. It was Murphy who Lastrapes credits with being the first teacher to take notice of his writing and encourage him to pursue it.

“Martin’s essays were far and above the writing level of the rest of the class,” Murphy said. “I enjoyed his casual yet fluid writing style, and often wrote notes in the margins of his papers about his writing ability.”

Growing up, Lastrapes' first significant creative influence was his older brother, Greg, a filmmaker and musician.  As a kid, Lastrapes watched his brother perform on stage at the Roxy Theater in Hollywood, while also making many television appearances as an actor and singer. Greg made it a point to tap into his brother’s creativity early on.

“Since the day that Martin could read, we have been collaborating,” Greg said. “I always work him into whatever project I've got cooking, and that has included writing projects.”

While Lastrapes had many creative interests growing up, from comic books to movies, it was his discovery of creative writing that lit a fire inside of him.

“Writing became the ideal medium to sort of exercise my creativity,” Lastrapes said. “I fell in love with it when I was 18 and we have had a passionate love affair for the last 15 years.”

For the next 15 years, Lastrapes is looking ahead as he evolves and develops as a writer.

“I’m definitely not done growing and I plan on getting better,” Lastrapes said, “otherwise it would just be boring if this were the end of the road.”

The Circle of (a Writer’s) Life: PART 2

When my friend and former writing professor, James Brown, invited me to speak to the students of his Advanced Creative Writing class, I was both excited and honored. In July of 2011 I officially became an indie author with the publication of my novel, Inside the Outside. Brown's students, being in the MFA program, will all presumably look to have their own work published one day and so he thought it'd be good for them to hear about my experience as an independent publisher. He'd set up Tuesday, November 15, 2011, as my day to speak. I spent quite a lot of time thinking about the presentation I wanted to give and the things I wanted to tell the students.

I wanted to tell them that I remember what it's like to sit where they're sitting, to work so hard on your craft without any real promise that you'll see your work in print. I wanted to tell them that I can relate to the anxiety and desperation that comes when you start sending your work out to agents and publishers, only to be met with rejection time and time again. I wanted to tell them about how I spent two years working on my "first" novel, only to have it rejected by every agent I sent it to, before spending another five years working on the novel that would become Inside the Outside, which, despite much interest from agents, was also soundly rejected. I wanted to tell them that when the time came for them to publish their own work that they had other options, that they weren't beholden to the system of traditional publishing, that there was more than one way to share their work with the world.

And while, when the time came, I spent over an hour speaking to Brown's students (who, incidentally, were both gracious and welcoming) about the pragmatics of independent publishing, what I really wanted to convey was hope. Because, the unfortunate truth about being a writer, or an artist of any discipline, is that, when you choose to pursue a career in your craft, you will be met by a seemingly endless line of people who want to tell you no, to turn around, to knock on someone else's door, or, perhaps, to stop trying altogether. Most of those people will never understand what it means to invest the whole of your heart into an artistic endeavor, to invest your love and imagination into something that, were it not for you, would not exist at all. And most of those people, the ones who say no, will never truly understand the crushing disappointment that exists on the other side of their rejection.

Because I know only too well that this is the world that many of Brown's students will one day enter, I wanted, more than anything, to provide them with the knowledge that there is another way. It's a road that strays from the traditional path, a road lined with the footsteps of rebels and mavericks. A road lit by the rays of hope, leading to a place where writers are free to take control of their own destiny.

The Circle of (a Writer's) Life: PART 1

In the fall of 2001 I transferred to California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB), to study English and earn my Bachelor's degree. I was terribly excited to learn, soon after my arrival, that, within the English program, there was a creative writing discipline. I, of course, joined that track and away I went. Up to that point, I'd been toiling away at learning the craft of fiction writing on my own and, while I felt I was pretty good at it, I knew I wasn't where I wanted to be. So having an opportunity to learn about creative writing in the classroom from successful writers was a dream come true.

Unfortunately, the very first creative writing course I took at CSUSB was a less than positive experience. The professor, who was a successful novelist within her genre, wasn't very good at encouraging her students, let alone teaching us about the craft. More than once, she told us about how competitive and difficult it would be for any of us to get published (which is true) without offering any sort of silver lining. Beyond that, the feedback I received on my short stories was generally discouraging. Being that she was so successful, I was wiling to assume that she knew better than me and I came to the conclusion that I just wasn't a very good writer.

So, after the class was over, I decided to quit writing altogether, choosing instead to study literature. I did, after all, still enjoy reading, so I figured I'd become a literature scholar and that would help make up for the fact that I was a terrible creative writer. However, about six or seven months later, I found that I still had a jonze for creative writing that I couldn't quite shake. Even if I was terrible at it, I loved doing it—this despite not having written anything of substance since that first disastrous class. So I decided to take one more creative writing class, before quitting for good and focussing on other things.

The class I signed up for was being taught by James Brown, author of the acclaimed memoirs The Los Angeles Diaries and This River. Brown had been successfully writing and publishing for about 30 years when I showed up in his class, so, unbeknownst to him, I quietly decided to give him the last word.  If Brown's opinion of my writing resembled that of my previous professor, then I would take it as an unmistakable sign that it was time for me to give it up.

As it turned out, Brown was both exceedingly encouraging  as well as a great teacher. Slowly, but surely, I rediscovered my confidence and my writing flourished. I took as many classes as I could with Brown until I finished my academic career in 2006 with a Master's degree in composition.

Five years later, I'm still using the tools I gathered while under Brown's watch—the very same tools, in fact, that would become indispensable  in the writing of my debut novel, Inside the Outside. Since graduating, I've entered into my own career of being an English professor, embracing the opportunity to positively impact students the way Brown did with me.

And now, this week, my writing life will be coming full circle, as James Brown has invited me to be a guest speaker in the Advanced Creative Class he teaches in the MFA program at CSUSB. I'm so tremendously excited and honored to go back to my alma mater and stand in the same room where I learned my craft, to meet and talk to students who sit where I once sat, and to offer whatever knowledge I can to help encourage them as they prepare to embark on their own writing journeys...

To be continued in "The Circle of (a Writer's) Life: PART 2."

The Los Angeles Diaries

I’m not a big fan of autobiographies, but I love memoirs. Where an autobiography tells an individual’s life story, more or less, a memoir focuses on a specific aspect of an individual’s life. And while autobiographies are the sole territory of celebrities and public figures, in so far as the publishing industry is concerned, the memoir section of your local bookstore is bound to be dominated by relatively anonymous folks with really amazing stories to tell. In the last five or ten years, it seems the most commercially successful memoirs revolve around human tragedies—especially if those tragedies are followed up with any sort of triumph or redemption.

One of my very favorite memoirs is The Los Angeles Diaries by James Brown. While—for reasons that I’ll never fathom—it wasn’t a commercial success, it has garnered a well-earned cult following. In it, Brown writes about his life as an alcoholic and drug addict.

“All the stores on Hollywood Boulevard are closed for the night, and I duck into the alcove of a souvenir shop, drop a rock into the pipe and light up. My back is to the street and at first, when I feel a wave of heat pass over me, I think it’s on account of the dope, the rush. That it’s powerful stuff. But then it happens again, an even stronger wave along the back of my neck, and that’s when I realize that it’s coming from behind me. Turning, I see it: The building directly across the street is immersed in fire. And it’s a beautiful sight.”

-James Brown, "The Los Angeles Diaries"

I was first introduced to The Los Angeles Diaries when I was an English major at Cal State San Bernardino (or CSUSB). I'd transferred to CSUSB in 2001 and was excited to find out that, within the English program, CSUSB offered an emphasis in creative writing. Up to that point, I’d spent a few years trying to learn the craft on my own. Despite the encouragement of my friends and family, who all seemed to enjoy my short stories, I felt very limited in my abilities. I had what I thought to be loads of creative ideas, however I lacked the appropriate tools to turn those ideas into engaging literary prose.

My first creative writing class at CSUSB was something of a disaster. The professor—who I will not name here—was (and is, I suspect) a very accomplished author, whose career has been decorated with awards and accolades. I was thrilled to sit at the feet of a professional author, somebody who had been to the place I wanted to be and, better yet, could give me some insight on how to get there. I showed up to that class filled with confidence and ambition. By the end of the fall quarter, the professor had managed to strip me of all said confidence and ambition. Going into winter break, I decided to quit writing.

When I told my girlfriend, Chanel, that I was quitting writing, she asked why.

“I’m no good at it,” I told her.

“Yes, you are,” she said.

“No, seriously,” I said, “I’m really not.”

“You’re a great writer,” she said.

“I know you think that,” I said, “but I’m really bad at it.”

“No,” she said, defiantly, “you’re not.”

I found myself getting frustrated with her. She simply didn’t know enough about writing, I told myself, to realize I was no good. But no matter how vehemently I tried to convince her, she refused to believe me.

“If you want to quit,” she said, “that’s fine. But will you do me a favor?”

“What is it?”

“Will you write stories just for me?”

“Why?”

“I love your writing,” she said. “So, even if you think your stories are terrible, I still want to read them.”

It seemed reasonable enough. She could go on with the delusion that I was any good and I could take comfort that only one person in the world would have to suffer my writing. So I worked on a short story that had been in my head about a secret criminal enterprise that was fronted by a children’s show starring a clown named Krazy Karl. I never finished the story, but the writing I did served as something of a bridge from the fall to the spring quarter, at which point I decided that I would try one more creative writing class, before quitting for good. So, in the spring of 2002, I registered for a class taught by James Brown.

I had never heard of Brown before and I didn’t learn until the first day of class that, like my previous professor, he was an accomplished author with a handful of novels under his belt and a forthcoming memoir, which he told us was called The Los Angeles Diaries. He seemed like a nice and reasonable man, so I felt comfortable putting the fate of my writing life in his hands. If Brown had nothing good to say about my writing, as was the case with the previous professor, then I would take it as a sign. In fact, I was in such a hurry to find out—once and for all—that I was wasting my time as a writer, I volunteered for the first workshop of the class.

I submitted a revised version of the story I had previously workshopped in my first creative writing class about a teenage boy who is terrorized by three bald men driving a rusty orange pickup truck; they follow him home, tie him to a chair and go through an eccentric ceremony, before shaving his head.

During the course of the workshop, Brown had favorable things to say about both my writing and the story. He had critiques, of course, but they were tactful and constructive. His encouragement lit a fire in my belly and I couldn’t wait to start working on my new revisions, especially since, in between workshops, Brown spent time talking about the craft of creative writing, giving me the tools I had longed for.

Later that year, the English department at CSUSB hosted a reading featuring Brown and The Los Angeles Diaries. I took Chanel with me and we sat in a crowd of people that, ironically enough, included the aforementioned writing professor (who will remain nameless). Brown read from the chapter “Snapshot,” which is the story of his mother burning down an apartment building and all the repercussions this action would have on their family.

“I’m waiting in the car for my mother while she sets fire to an apartment building down the street. I’m five years old. The car is a new Thunderbird with big seats that still smell of fresh vinyl, and the street where we are parked is lined with sycamores that have begun to shed their leaves. It is early in the evening. We are in a quiet working-class neighborhood in San Jose, California, fifty miles south of San Francisco along Highway 101, and when my mother returns to the car, slightly out of breath, we drive to Fisherman’s Wharf and have shrimp cocktails for dinner.”

-James Brown, “The Los Angeles Diaries”

I was struck by the simplicity of his sentences. There was nothing fancy about Brown’s writing; however, the cadence of his prose was methodical and deliberate, hypnotic even. As he read, his seemingly simple prose systematically painted a picture full of genuine emotion and poignancy.  By the end, I was thoroughly impressed by Brown’s mastery of the craft. I was also grateful that the man who wrote so beautifully was the same man who was mentoring me in my own pursuit to master the craft.

A few months later, I went to Barnes and Noble to buy The Los Angeles Diaries on the first day it was available. As I read it, I got the sense Brown was trying to piece together the fragments of his life, to look at it all with a sober eye, hoping to discover, through the therapeutic process of writing, how his life turned out the way it did. There are no easy answers in The Los Angeles Diaries and Brown is too wise to pretend he has any. And while Brown’s story is filled with tragedies—some unnecessary, some unavoidable—it is not without hope.

Every time I pick up The Los Angeles Diaries, I find myself feeling grateful all over again. Not just for Brown’s honest and unflinching portrayal of his life, but also for the unwitting hand he played in resuscitating my confidence and ambition. I can say with complete confidence that if it weren’t for James Brown, not only wouldn’t I be writing this blog post right now, I wouldn’t be writing at all—except, of course, for the stories Chanel would invariably have forced out of me.