When Writers Retreat

I’m on the deck of a hotel, overlooking the shimmering, Pacific Ocean. This is the only beachfront hotel on the entire South Coast with rooms for $79 per night. Staying here is the financial equivalent of finding gas at $1.29 a gallon. I’m sworn to secrecy as to the exact location, because if news gets out, this place will be booked through the new millennium.

I’m here with a group of aspiring novelists. We hole up in our rooms all day writing. Then we argue all night about which $8.99 wine goes best with pepperoni pizza. My favorite so far is an unassuming little Merlot with the “Novella” label. Tonight it’s a robust Cabernet called “Bestseller,” which should be excellent with the sausage and mushroom pizza planned for this evening’s haute cuisine.

On the deck with me is Trudy, a fellow hotel guest whom several of us rescued earlier when she locked herself outside her room in her underwear. She had leftover sushi requiring immediate disposal (as sushi so often does), and in her rush to get to a trashcan, she neglected to grab her room key…and her clothing.

Once you’ve helped a stranger in her underwear, you’re bonded for life. That’s why I’m sitting here on the deck, admiring 60 pelicans flying overhead and shooting the breeze with Trudy, instead of in my room, working on my bestselling novel-to-be.

Trudy sips from a can of Bud and chain-smokes Marlboros, which explains her gravelly voice. “Hey, aren’t you the famous Montecito Journal columnist?” she asks me.

Now that I’m a veteran humor writer – six whole columns – everywhere I go people ask me this same question. I want to tell her that the really famous funny guys, Jim Alexander and Ernie Witham, are also at this very hotel, working on their novels, too. But I’m sworn to secrecy about everything at this writers’ retreat.

“Ah shucks,” I tell Trudy. I’m embarrassed to be recognized, and I try to change the subject by pointing at a sea otter floating on his back in that adorable way sea otters do.

Trudy isn’t all that interested in marine mammals. She wants to know about writing. “How do you come up with all that funny stuff in your column?”

“Well…for one, I collect embarrassing moments.”

“You’re going to write about me getting locked out in my undies?”

“Of course not,” I lie. I point at a gaggle of Canadian geese flying overhead in V-formation.

Trudy says, “Hey, do you know why the sides of the V aren’t even?”

“No. Why?” I ask.

“Because there are more geese on one side than the other.”

“That’s funny,” I say.

Trudy seems encouraged. “So how do you know when something’s funny?”

“Any kind of really rotten, horrible stuff can be humorous.”

“Oh, no!”

“Oh, yes. I took Ernie Witham’s workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and he said tragedy plus time equals humor. It doesn’t have to be big-T tragedy. Something like an emergency call to the rotor-rooter man will work just fine. And while you wait for the de-rooter guy with the hundred-foot snake, it’s good if your dogs corner a real live snake in your backyard.”

Trudy wrinkles her nose. “You have snakes?”

“You don’t have to actually have a snake. You can make stuff up. If you don’t like snakes, make it a paranoid peacock. Or…perhaps a peeved possum. Variety (with plenty of alliteration) is the spice of humor.”

“I see what you mean. The same problem over and over isn’t funny at all.” Trudy sips her Bud and thinks this over. “But don’t writers get in trouble when they tell lies?”

“Sure. But if you want to write funny stuff, getting in trouble is like money in the bank.”

“You must get paid really well for humor writing.”

“It works out to about seventy-five cents per hour.”

Trudy blows a big O of a smoke ring. “That doesn’t sound like very much.”

“Well, not compared to a real job. But it pays better than novel writing, which so far is zero.”

Trudy seems to be doing the math.

“So, you think you want to become a humor columnist?” I ask.

Trudy empties her can of Bud and gets up to go. “I think I’d rather milk venom from a green mamba.”

“That’s funny,” I say.

“You really think so?” Trudy grins. “Are you going to use it in your next column?”

“No way,” I lie.