For years, I have been intrigued with a house across the street, the house at the top of the Macondray Lane steps. It’s a very simple, two story, salt box style house with baroque plaster garlands that swag over the windows. It's the pretty wooded lane’s sole survivor of the 1906 earthquake and fire. The architect and first owner is unknown, but one story goes that it was prebuilt and shipped around the Horn from the east coast in the 1870’s.
This story of the house’s journey around the Horn completely caught my imagination and wouldn’t let go. I walked past it everyday, I watched it from my kitchen window, I dreamt about it. I couldn’t help but think such a house would have an interesting story to tell. I wanted to know more about this house. I learned that Ina Coolbrith, mentor to Jack London and Isadora Duncan, and the first crowned poet laureate of California in 1915, had lived in the house and entertained Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Joaquin Miller in her parlor. I met the then current owners, photographer Barbara Hall and her husband, the now late writer Oakley Hall who taught both Michael Chabon and Amy Tan and founded the Squaw Valley Writer’s Workshop. I often exchanged neighborly greetings with Oakley Hall but was too shy to ask about his writing or to tell him I was an aspiring novelist. After Mr. Hall died, I felt a huge regret at never asking him about his own work, about his life as a writer.
Still, the house continued to intrigue me. I made several attempts at penning a young adult novel with the house as a point-of-view character, but could never quite make it work. I just couldn’t figure out what the house wanted. Or what it felt. Whatever I tried, it remained flat, emotionless and passive.
So, I took the story I’d written and tried to figure out how to revise it without the house’s point of view. I demoted the house to a mere setting and added a curse and a ghost and it seemed to work better. But then I wrote myself into a corner and when I backed out, I knew something was missing. I sent it to my clan of trusted readers who all urged me to go back to what had originally inspired me. I tried. And failed. And then I finally sent it to Franny Billingsley for a manuscript critique.
Franny came back with an amazing packet of incredibly valuable feedback and advice. Although I hadn’t told her anything about my connection with the house or its history, she suggested I take a look at a writing craft book that had helped her a lot with her writing. The Art & Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall.
Yes, THAT Oakley Hall. The owner of the house that had originally caught my imagination and been the inspiration for the many incarnations of the failed story. I didn’t know he’d written a craft book. I bought a used copy and have been slowly making my way through. At times it’s almost as if Mr. Hall heard my regrets and is reaching out for the other side with his lessons on writing.
I’m starting that novel over again. I’ll try this time to give the house an active role. And maybe a point of view. I’m starting with the advice Oakley Hall passes on from Henry Miller’s work schedule for 1932—33 in his chapter Beginning:
1) Work on one thing at a time until finished
2) Start no more new books, add no more new material [to “Black Spring.”]
3) Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is at hand.
4) Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at appointed time!
5) When you can’t create you can work.
6) Cement a little everyday, rather than add new fertilizers.
7) Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
8) Don’t be a draught horse! Work with pleasure only.
9) Discard the Program when you feel like it but go back to it the next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
10) Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
11) Write first and always. Painting, music, friends cinema, all these come afterwards.
Don't be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly. Okay. Yes. I needed to hear that.
Take Good Care,