Newport Beach in California is a well-known tourist attraction to most of the United States. People come here to enjoy the sparkling white beach, the cold waves of azure water, and the beach community that hugs it. There are over ten miles of beaches in the public park system in the city, including the Balboa Peninsula where my writing group decided to hold a Saturday write-in, complete with a bonfire, hot dogs to roast for dinner and inspiration to write. I do not go to the beach often, even though I live a scant forty minutes away, and I felt enthusiastic about the write-in because I had intended to visit the beach at least once this summer, but had not gotten around to it.
I did not want to bring my laptop or Alphasmart Neo to the beach. The idea of sand blowing into the keyboards of either of my machines worried me. Instead, I pulled out my composition notebook and loaded up my leather pen case with a fountain pen and a Coleteo multi-pen. As a backup, I brought two Pilot G-2 pens, one in black and the other in red that I popped into my flashlight’s case. I have a rubberized lapboard that I like to use when I’m going to be balancing my writing on a chair and I thought that it would provide a good writing surface at the beach. It took time to figure out how to carry it. I ended up stuffing it in my lime green, soft-cooler bag.
I arrived at the Balboa Peninsula in the late afternoon. I drove through the parking lots that were near the pier, but there was not a single space to be had. It was late June and a Saturday, so the beach was packed with tourists and locals out to enjoy the coolness of the day. After driving around the parking lot for forty minutes, I gave up and headed toward the residential area a good mile distant from where my friends gathered. I found a free parking spot in front of a house with a ceramic plate featuring hot chile peppers. I unloaded my vehicle, holding the two tote style bags in one hand and putting the straps of the encased folding chair and umbrella over my other shoulder.
California in the summertime is often called paradise. The sun caresses you while the salt laden wind cool your skin. Overhead, palm trees rustle in the sea breeze and the scent of BBQ combined with spice competes with sour stench of seaweed and salt. As I wandered down a pedestrian and bike path along a row of beach front homes, I was striding by private rose gardens full of delicate pink blooms, beige stucco walls covered with magenta bougainvillea and picket fences of wind distressed grey wood. I smiled to see a tiny hummingbird dancing in among the flowers, drinking in the nectar while it defied the brisk seawind. On the other side of the path were the azure waves of the Pacific and the white sand that the city of Newport Beach is famous for.
A long mile of walking brought me to lifeguard station B and a mass of fire pits already ablaze with wood provided by old cargo pallets or supermarket purchased bundles of split wood. Many grills were cooking dinners, scattered out on the sandy beach or on the grassy lawn of the park. My writing buddies were in the center of this sand filled chaos and gave me a hearty wave as I came around the bend on the cement pathway. They were a band of women dressed in cotton clothing, sunhats and sandals, arranged in a circle facing each other, but without a fire in the center. As I set up my folding chair and umbrella, I wondered what had happened to the promised bonfire.
“The school next to us took three of the fire pits for their kids.” The young, dark-haired woman that had organized our event gave me a sheepish expression. She had worked hard to gain us a fire pit, but in the end she was unsuccessful. Looking around our small patch of sand, I noticed that we were indeed surrounded by large numbers of frolicking teenagers in various states of undress. They were all part of the large school group that were having an outing that day.
As I pulled a cold drink from my cooler, I seated myself in my umbrella shaded chair to relax after my long walk. This was the beach after all, a natural place for young people to come and play. No one was bothering our group of eight writers and while a bonfire would be wonderful, we could improvise. I dug my bare feet into the warm, white sand and felt any remaining tension from the walk melt away.
“So how long did it take you all to figure out what to write with tonight?” asked the author next to me in the circle. She was a woman of middle years, with two tween-aged children, and a strong personality. “I was at it for hours and couldn’t decide what to bring. ”She held up a notebook into the air. “I went with this.”
Everyone at the write-in was armed with a bound notebook and pen, except for the new writer who had arrived on a motorcycle and seemed prepared to take on the world. She had her hair pulled back in a ponytail and had a black backpack that reminded one of Mary Poppin’s carpet bag; Endless items seemed to emerge from that bag. She wrote on her laptop under a blanket to block out the sun and sand.
I extracted my lapboard, fountain pen and composition book from my bag, but discovered that I had neglected to double check the ink in my pen. It was empty. I was forced to pull out my backup Pilot G-2 pens instead. I was not planning on working on a draft that night, I wanted to brainstorm new ideas to use for future flash fiction projects. I had written down a pair of writing prompts and was going to let the beach inspire me.
Although we did not have a bonfire of our own, the third fire that the school group had built was unused by the kids, and was next to our circle. The kids preferred to cluster around the other two bonfires. We were close enough to the third fire that we stayed warm as night descended on the beach. I used my small pen light to continue writing in the dark. Later, a larger flashlight was stuck in my beach umbrella and pointed up at the material to bounce a soft white light for the rest of the party.
As the moon rose from the horizon, the two photographers in our group pulled out their cameras. One had a professional looking Nikon DSLR with a lens longer than my hand and a metallic red body and the other woman, a tiny point and shoot Canon. The two ladies razzed each other in a friendly way about the brand of camera they used and why their brand was the better one.
Both of our self appointed photographers took shots of of the “super moon” that was upon us that evening. While I do keep up with astronomical terms, I was unfamiliar with what a “super moon” was. As it turned out, it is a layman’s term for when the moon was at perigee, when a full moon is at its closest point in its orbit to the Earth that year. Near the ocean, the city lights are dim and you can see the stars and moon clearly. Our super moon was very bright, but not large as a harvest moon may appear.
As the darkness enclosed us, one of our party suggested that we ask to borrow the third, unused fire to cook our dinner. We sent our representative teenage writer over to use her sad smile and winsome ways on the school party. It did not take her long to gain us access to the bonfire. Our write-in coordinator strode to her car and returned with a large wheeled cooler. She was trailed by her Mom who had been sitting out in their car, preferring to take an on-line school course on her iPad instead of being out on the sand. However, dinner drew her out to join us authors at last.
The hot dogs were roasted. S’mores were distributed. The women writers fought playfully over a bag of carrots. As the night wore on, we all departed from the beach one by one. I was grateful to be offered a ride back to my SUV, sparing me the long walk back to my car with all my gear.
It was the first time our group had gathered for a write-in at the beach, but I think that it will not be the last time we do this. While most of us did not do a great deal of writing, the camaraderie and the relaxation was well worth the day.
photos by Jill Carpenter and Jennifer Levine