How did you become a writer?
I didn’t actually become a writer; I always was one. At whatever age in childhood one learns to use words I began writing story-letters to a favorite uncle, incorporating whatever I heard on the radio, like the Lone Ranger, injecting myself into the plots of their stories. I did this and drew pictures to illustrate the stories for as long as I can remember. In junior high school, teachers began noticing that I could write, especially one named Calla Monlux. It was during the depression. There wasn’t enough to eat, my father had taken off, an angry, hostile step-father ruled over a dysfunctional family. A laborer kicked out of the Navy for fighting, he couldn’t find work. There was never money in the house, we moved it seemed whenever the rent came due, we sat in houses without food, lights or heat. Literally, there were times when there was not food in the house to take for lunch at school. It was a terrible time.
Name your writing influences.
Calla Monlux was about 5 feet tall, short hair, long dresses; a classic old maid at the time. I remember her expression was a slight, secret smile, as though she knew something the rest of us didn’t know. Anyhow, I stuttered badly back then and when forced to stand in front of class as an assignment to tell what we had done during the summer, I stammered uncontrollably and was humiliated by the laughter of the class seeing me trying to talk. I swore I would never get up there again. When it became clear to Monlux that I meant it, she assigned me to write three “themes” we called them then; short essays. This was near the start of WW2. I remember lying on a hillside near our East Oakland home one evening when there was a blackout. Sirens sounded and the lights of the city blinked off one by one, which made the stars seem brighter. I wrote about it: man may turn out the lights of the city but God controls the lights of the stars. She was blown away not only by the idea but my words. She saw the writer in me and kept me after school, had me close my eyes and read me Wordsworth’s poem “Daffodils.” She kept insisting that I see in my “mind’s eye” what he had written about; golden fields of yellow flowers, gleaming in the sun, swaying in a warm wind. This went on for weeks and then one day I experienced a kind of epiphany. I could not only see the golden flowers but could feel the warmth of the sun and the gentle touch of the summer wind. When I told her this she replied, “You have learned what every writer must learn: how to visualize, how to recreate in words what you see and what you feel.” It was a kind of go forth and write. And I have ever since. Word seemed to spread among the teachers in junior high and high school and they paid me special attention. I discovered books and fell in love with the rhythms and cadences of Edgar Allen Poe. I found Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Truman Capote and Shakespeare and so many, many others. I bought “Elements of Style” and experimented with writing, i.e., short fiction and poetry. During the war, the man who was to become my brother in law was drafted and I accompanied my sister Emily at 4 in the morning to see him off at a train station. A hundred or so draftees were there and so were newspaper reporters and photographers, stirring a mood of excitement and destiny. I think at that point I wanted to be what they were: a journalist.
When and where do you write?
I write at home after many years of writing in newspaper offices. I began with a small Bay Area newspaper, the Richmond Independent, and moved on after three years when I won a SF Press Club award; I stayed at the Oakland Tribune for 16 years, 10 of them as a columnist, and was summoned south to the L.A. Times by Otis Chandler in a golden era. I stayed there for 38 years, 25 as a columnist, writing both in the office and in my home office in Topanga. I write anytime: early morning, mid afternoon, late at night, depending on what I’m working on and what deadlines I’m facing.
What are you working on now?
I’ve begun several writing projects and have settled on my memoirs, covering my life from depression to recession, while observing a slow decline in print journalism for the length of my 60-year career. I lived through an era of front page journalism in the 1950s to modern, electronic journalism in the 2000s, observing pathetic efforts by newspaper owners and editors trying to figure out in which direction they ought to be going. Confusion reigns on the print journalism scene with embarrassing projects like “the Huffington Post” making it, and the NY Times, LA Times and other great newspapers in the country slowly sliding into oblivion. I’m not with them anymore, so the cluttered little home office I had created, a womb of comfort and creation, is my writing den now.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I’ve had moments of writer’s block, I guess, but I have so many projects going at the same time that when I can’t seem to push on through a blockage in one, I go to another and then return to the first one later. I’m never without the facility to write. Writing defines me, my life and my physiology. I am a writer. Period. It’s the only me that exists, ergo I cannot tolerate writer’s blocks.
What’s your advice to new writers?
I created the Topanga Writer’s Workshop when I left the Times about 3 years ago. I tell those who want to write to read, to observe and finally to reach down into their souls where answers lie and to bring them to the surface. I tell them about Calla Monlux and tell them to visualize. I recite a short verse she gave me from Alexander Pope: “True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, as those move easiest who have learned to dance; Tis not enough, no harshness gives offence, the sound must seem an echo to the sense.”
Bio: Born in Oakland, California, schooled there, three years of college at SF State where I worked on the paper and met my wife Joanne, who is still my wife, activated as a Marine Reservist to fight in the Korean War, finished up my education at UC Berkeley. Began newspapering at the Richmond Independent in 1952, to the Oakland Tribune in 1955, to the L.A. Times in 1972. Worked as a national feature writer for the Times, became a columnist in 1984 and left the Times in 2009. A part of three teams that won Pulitzers, and individually won many, many national awards. I have written a dozen books, hundreds of magazine stories and essays, dozens of short stories and dozens of movies, pilots and episodes for television. My papers are being collected by the Huntington Museum and will be exhibited in March, 2012.