From Canyon To Cove: Where the literary light shines

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Fine art of the two-or three dimensional kind isn't the only creative pursuit in Laguna Beach.

Every month, a group of writers gathers at a local art gallery to tell stories — very short stories. Stories that can be read in three minutes. That's about 500 words, or two pages of prose, double-spaced. If you go over the time limit, you get a booby prize: a yellow hourglass timer to help you get it right the next time.

DimeStories is an open mic literary salon that got its start in San Diego in 2004 and has expanded northward to Laguna Beach, where the only other "permanent" open mic in Southern California is held, according to the DimeStories' website. Readings are also held in Albuquerque and New York City.

Novelist and book critic Amy Wallen started the series, which has launched the literary careers of quite a few members, who have had their readings "optioned" and broadcast by National Public Radio. That cache draws a serious type of reader to the events, held on the second Sunday of the month from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

The San Diego readings grew to 100, but the Laguna reading I attended on Sunday at Salt Fine Art had a cozy group of about 15.

I had been encouraged by organizer Nancy Grossman-Samuel to bring a piece to read, which sounded fun. That's when I learned that this three-minute thing is no small task. I quickly realized that the novel I was working on had no chance of making it as a 500-word snippet. A monologue I had dashed off a la Jerry Seinfeld was my second choice, and it fit the time limit, but I wasn't sure if that was what the organizers were looking for. Better to sit back and observe, I decided.

That was the right choice. And the fact that readers' names are drawn at random, so you never know when you will be called to speak, would have been nerve-wracking, especially since I was also acting as reporter. Best not to wear too many hats.

Moderator Ed Kaufman, a Laguna Beach resident and psychiatrist, set a tone of support and literary seriousness. Well, maybe not so serious — when I told him I had elected not to bring a piece to read, he offered to let me read a work of his titled "Penis Gourd." Um, OK, I gamely agreed, but in the end he read the work himself. (More on this small gem later.)

Kaufman was delighted to report that there were more "first time" readers that night than ever before. I was impressed by the first-timers who stood up there and declaimed their writings with aplomb, and the "old-timers" who obviously had the performance thing down.

The variety was astonishing: We heard stories of a trip to Walmart, a broken marriage, a Jewish girl holding Christian church services, a harrowing escape from a knife attack, and a lament about having no date on New Year's Eve. One man reported a poignant encounter with actor Peter Falk; he also entertained us with an account of his much-delayed and dreaded colonoscopy.

Finally, "Penis Gourd" was read, and we learned maybe more than we needed to know about an aboriginal tribe and its coverage (or not) of certain body parts.

Oops, that's way more than 500 words. Do I get the booby prize?

For more information on DimeStories, visit DimeStories.org. Or just show up at the next one, 5 p.m. Feb. 11 at Salt Fine Art, 1492 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach. And don't forget to bring quarters for the parking meters.

CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 302-1469 or cindy.frazier@latimes.com.

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