The Perfect Harbor for a Struggling Scribe
St. Augustine is my favorite cruising destination in Florida. The reasons are many: as the oldest city (founded 1565) in America, it has a unique history. It is boater-friendly. It also has a deepwater outlet to the sea, making it a good stop for coastal cruisers as well as ditch-crawlers transiting the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). There are a number of good anchorages and safe, inexpensive marinas in the area.
Perhaps the most important personal reason is because St. Augustine cherishes its artists, its eccentrics, and its non-conforming weirdos.
Of course, there’s plenty for the casual visitor to do as well, both on and off the water.
Of particular interest is the Ancient City, just to the north of the main street. The Night Watch Parade and Illumination in early December is a must-see. In March is the Grand Colonial Muster – a very faithful, colorful recreation of the life and times of the Spanish colonialists of the 1740s.
If you are interested in historical militia reinactments and/or historical costuming – St. Augie is heaven year around.
Our favorite spot to anchor is just south of the St. Augustine Municipal Marina and the famous Bridge of Lions. We stayed for a year or two beginning in 1982 – although current mooring regulations may prevent such a lengthy stay.
Why so long?
Well, as a young live-aboard writer wannabe with a baby aboard, I needed a quiet place to write ashore. Of course, I had no money offer – only chutzpah. But since St. Augustine has always nurtured its painters, actors, sculptures, and writers – I decided to trudge ashore amid the dirt-dwellers with my proverbial hat in hand.
“Mrs. Darby will see you now,” said the blue-haired woman at the circulation desk of the local library on Aviles Street.
Mrs. Darby was a grey-haired, bifocaled, no-nonsense type of librarian, so I didn’t pull any punches. She cocked her head in amazement as she listened to my spiel, and occasionally jabbed a fat pencil in and out of her hair in exasperation.
“Let me get this straight,” she said. “You’ve never published anything – but you want to write. You need a quiet office five days a week where you can work without interruption. Do you have any money?”
“Well, no,” I admitted. “But I’ve got a strong back. I could pull the weeds or wash your car or lug some books.”
“Do you really expect me to say yes?
“Well,” I said. “I thought that, maybe, if you were into promoting book-reading, that, you know, you’d be into promoting book-writing too.”
We stared at each other for a long time. “Follow me,” she said, and led me up a narrow stairway to the attic. There were three odd-shaped rooms up there – two of them filled with spilling piles of spine-damaged library books. Our shoes left tracks in the dust. The floorboards creaked. It was stifling hot. Airless. Stuffy. Confining.
“Did you ever read The Yearling?” she asked as she led me into the final room, which was strangely empty, save for an ancient desk and rickety chair facing the lead-glassed garret window.
“Yes, madam,” I said. “Marjorie Kinning Rawlings. Pulitzer-Prize winner.”
“Marjorie used to write up here often – when she wasn’t at Cross Creek,” Mrs. Darby said quietly.
I felt the hair on the back up my neck stand up. My hands were shaking and my throat was dry. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. It was an omen – I was on the right path – as a writer and as a cruising sailor.
“I’m taking a big risk here, young man,” she said as she turned and left. “Please don’t disappoint me.”
The following day, I set up my typewriter and began to stare at it. Day after day I stared at it – hoping it would spring to life. My goal was to get something, anything published somewhere within the next 12 months. But my typewriter was mute. And I felt like crying.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t write anything, and if I did – no one would publish it. I was going to fail – for the first time in my adult life, I was going to fail.
Then it dawned on me that unobtainable goals were counter-productive. So, I immediately changed my goals to ‘typing’ each day for six hours while collecting one hundred honest rejection slips over the course of the next 12 months.
Yippee! Each morning I’d dash up the stairs and start pounding out gibberish on the keyboard – about what I’d just eaten for breakfast, the weather outside, or the color of my socks. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t ‘writing,’ I was typing. The pages piled up. I measured my success with a ruler.
It wasn’t long before I could easily type 20 pages of gibberish a day. The late afternoons and evening were spent reading about the writing life as well.
One book advised, “Hang out with other writers,” so I walked into the editorial offices of the Ancient City Beacon and asked the first person I met if they were a writer. “I’m Kathleen Hawk,” the woman said. “I write the ‘About Town’ column.”
“Good,” I said. “I’m supposed to hang out with you.”
“Excuse me?” she said. (Years later, her husband Bob laughed, “I thought you were trying to screw her – I had no idea you were serious about all that writing crap!”)
Every day I wrote – oops, typed – gibberish for six hours.
“The job of a writer is to write,” Kathy Hawk had told me at our first meeting – and I took her advice to heart.
Another book on writing advised to ‘write what you know.’ I decided to become a ‘marine journalist’ on the way to being a world famous novelist.
I studied other struggling writers, and noticed how many of them seemed to be lecturing, pontificating, and preaching down to their readers. I began to think of this as the ‘broom-stick-up-the-butt’ school of journalism – and promised myself I’d never fall into it. Instead, I concentrated on entertaining and amazing my readers – and emotionally touching them. (Tears and/or laughter are still the highest compliments I can earn).
Big news! Another ink-slinging Margaret was coming to St. Augustine. This time it was British novelist Margaret Walters of Harrogate, Yorkshire, author of the delicately-written, rose-scented thriller Time Most Precious.
I went down to the hotel where she was staying – but it was bad timing. She was upset. Somebody had vandalized her car. Nothing like that had ever happened to her in England. “Why? Why?” she kept asking. “What kind of person would do such a thing?”
The following morning, right smack dab in the middle of my gibberish, popped a story of exactly why I’d vandalized that rich bitch’s car – and I slipped the story into her message box at the hotel before my courage deserted me.
We were both uptight at our initial meeting. “Look,” I blurted out. “I’m not a vandal. I’m a writer – well, actually, I’m a typer who wants to be a writer….”
“What are you talking about?”
I didn’t know what to say – so I just babbled. “I can feel everything that has ever been felt. All the anger in the entire world – all the love and hatred and jealousy and envy – all the goodness and evil in the universe is locked within my breast. I know what it is to die – or to be reborn – how spilt ice-cream feels on the hot pavement of a sunny summer’s day….”
Margaret Walters looked at me horror – she hadn’t been expecting to be tricked into visiting with a dangerous lunatic. But she asked the one question I wanted to hear, “Do you have any more of your writing with you?”
Margaret was in town to give a series of lectures for the Florida Freelance Writers’ Association (FFWA). She needed a chauffeur, baggage handler, and go-fer – or as she so politely put it, ‘a young editorial assistant.’
I was soon traveling around the state with her – meeting Dana Cassell, the magazine marketing expert; Janet Groene, the Caribbean travel writer; and Elaine Rocco Chase, the romance novelist.
“Ah, Fatty!” said novelist Jack Hunter, best-selling author of The Blue Max, which had recently been turned into a highly successful movie. “Margaret was telling me what a fine young writer you are!”
It was a couple of weeks later – I think at the Annual FFWA conference in Orlando – when Margaret read a few of my ‘best gibberish’ paragraphs and called me up to the stage amid warm applause. I stupidly said something like, “Adjectives suck, verbs are cool,” but it was my very first ‘public’ speech on the art of writing – and I’ll never forget how I savored it.
The seventeenth story I sent off sold – to a local paper for ten bucks. I was thrilled beyond – well, words! Fifty-some stories later, I sold another marine-related story – this time to a ‘glossy’ regional magazine. I’d probably sold around fifty or sixty stories and articles, when a small marine ‘fish-wrapper’ newspaper called Caribbean Boating offered me a regular column.
I couldn’t believe it. Within a year of first being published, I was a by-lined columnist!
I started sending ‘clips’ with my queries – and positive responses shot up accordingly. Some marine-related publications started contacting me for articles, and I was thus in a position to command a far higher price. I quickly realized that ‘marine- related writing’ was a huge growing field, which encompassed environmental, travel, industry, how-to, sports, and personal experience writing – as well as general interest stories about boats and boaters.
But, thus far, I’d not sold to a national ‘prestige’ magazine. So I set my sights on SAIL magazine in Boston – and one of its most revered editors, Marty Luray, in particular.
Marty was a sailor’s sailor – and a highly skilled wordsmith as well. (Former editor of Rudder, etc). In fact, Marty was highly regarded as the most ‘literary’ of the marine editors currently at work. He was a man who really cared about words and how they lay on the page.
About two years into my writing career, I wrote a story I thought was worthy of sending directly to my hero, Marty Luray. I polished and polished and polished it – until it shone like a 1200 word jewel. Marty purchased it immediately. I sent him another story the following month, and got another positive result in the return mail.
Then a horrible thing happened. Marty requested I call him. When I did – he requested I write him an essay.
Well, of course, I couldn’t. I couldn’t write an essay. I didn’t even know what an essay wa – something scholarly, I assumed. I didn’t know anything about grammar or composition or dangling participles. Hell, I’d only been to school for a couple of boring years. I was just a crude storyteller, for gosh stakes, and now I was being ‘caught’ pretending to be something that I was not.
“And, as you know, I loved the last two essays I purchased from you,” said Marty Luray – and I almost burst into tears of relief.
About six months later SAIL published a short piece of mine – an essay, actually – entitled “The Last Cruise.” According to Marty it received more positive mail than any story he’d purchased for the magazine.
“You’re on your way,” he told me.
I soon went to Europe to cover professional multihull racing for SAIL. While there, Boat International and Yachting World started buying stories from me, as did Yacht Vacations, Latitude 38, Sailing, and (eventually, and best of all) Cruising World.
My stories were translated into Dutch, Danish, French, Spanish, and German.
Fodor’s Travel Guides asked me to update some of their sailing, chartering, and diving chapters – the beginning of a ten year relationship.
Regional marine publications such as Caribbean Boating, the VI Marine Scene, and All At Sea Caribbean were delighted to put my name on their masthead – and pay me for the privilege.
The BBC invited me to London to appear on TV, and the Tokyo Broadcasting System sent a film crew down to the Virgin Islands for a week to do a documentary on the life of a writing sea gypsy. WVWI Radio One gave me a weekly radio show – that lasted for 18 years.
I wrote numerous books, edited more, and founded American Paradise Publishing. (My Chasing the Horizon autobiography still sells a little better every year.)
Basically, I’ve never been out-of-print since I dropped by hook in St. Augustine. And all because I went ashore with head-in-hand to the only town along the east coast of Florida which is famous for embracing literary (hell, all types of) misfits.
Fatty Goodlander and his wife Carolyn recently sold their sloop Wild Card and are boat-shopping. Catch Fatty online at fattygoodlander.com.