Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Goodbye, friend, and thank you

I just learned today that Southern California journalist and Topanga's own man of letters, Al Martinez, passed away Monday.  He was 85. Al had been a columnist for the LA Times since 1985. He had also written for many other Southern California print and online publications.

I knew of Al because he wrote of Topanga Canyon, the community where he and his family had made their home since the early '70s, and where I have lived since the mid '90s. His writing made me feel a part of here.

I also knew Al because in the fall of 2012 I pulled a tab off a flyer thumbtacked to a bulletin board at Pat's Topanga Grill that said "Topanga Writers Workshops" and called the number. For a couple of months, I attended Al's Writers Workshops at his home, up the hill from my house in Topanga's "Post Office Tract" neighborhood.

The first time I attended, I realized I had another connection with Al - his wife Joanne had been a member of a book club I'd participated in sporadically a few years earlier. A smart, intelligent woman with incisive comments about the books we read, she was intriguing, yet during those years I didn't really take the time to know her well. This will teach me - and I hope it teaches those who read this - don't overlook people you encounter. You could be bypassing jewels.

Al was a wonderful guy, and very encouraging in his workshops to a novice writer like me. He gave me great feedback and strong praise for the embryonic works I submitted to him. But he didn't give specific criticism about structure or form or voice, or all those technical details I felt I needed; nor were his workshops a collaborative environment where students critiqued one another. Al followed a different kind of model, one that was not like the writing classes I'd attended at college. So, eventually, I told Al I thought I might take a break from his workshops, and check out the classes at the UCLA Extension Writing Program.

I often thought about going back, but I didn't. When I decided to apply for MFA programs, I thought about asking Al for a letter, but I also didn't. I told myself it was because it would be an imposition, since I hadn't spent that much time with him. I told myself it was because his health was fragile, which by that time, it was quite obvious that it was.

And I also felt a little ashamed at having abandoned his workshops.

And now, I feel even more ashamed. Because, when it really comes down to it, I didn't really do Al justice.

Though he didn't help me tinker with structure or form or voice or all those things that writing classes give you - what Al gave me was unconditional confirmation that I am a writer. He gave me the confidence and the motivation to go forward to do what I hope to do in the next years.

Thank you, Al, and go softly. What you gave me was the spark, the start. Who could give me more than that? I am so grateful to you.

UPDATE: Another memory of Al, from a better writer than me, Patt Morrison.  I'll have a vodka martini, straight up, with an olive, for you, Al.


M. Bouffant said...

Always liked him/his writing. And amusing that he "confirmed" you.

Another obit.

David Duff said...

MY sympathy for the loss of your former literary 'guide'.

However, it leaves me wondering whether all those workshops, classes, group critiques are worth the time that might have been better spent actually writing. Or better still, reading other excellent writers.

But - heh! - what do I know, I can barely manage a blog comment!

Jenny said...

This is a great essay. I'm sure you're jake with Al.

small mind said...

thank you for that insider view - I had read about him and was impressed - now I am ben more so!

small mind said...

(I meant even more so - impressed that is) Patricia

Linda said...

So sad to think about missed opportunities. Your tribute and obvious respect for him I'm sure more than makes up for the woulda couldas. Beautifully written, which is also a tribute to him!

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

I'm guessing Al would be pleased to know that you are moving ahead with your writing. So sorry for the loss of your friend.