Reflections on the Bard of L.A.

In 2008, when I started writing this column, I had no idea what I was doing.

Luckily, neither did the editors of this paper, so I’ve been allowed to ramble on each week since.

I'm not a journalist and I never set out to be a columnist. When the honor was offered to me, I took it with fear and trepidation.

Like parenting, or any life hurdle we’re woefully ill-prepared for, it's helpful to turn to those that came before us for advice. But I didn’t know any newspaper columnists. So I blindly reached out to one. Luckily, columnists like hearing from readers.

Since I'm naive, I aimed high, looking to a writer I’d admired for his decades of work, his ability to reveal the brutality and beauty of humanity in the most mundane, tragic, entertaining and important of topics. A columnist with Pulitzer Prizes buried in his cluttered office among the treasures gathered in a life long lived.

I sent Al Martinez an email.

And he wrote back. Columnists like to do that too.

“I have a hunch, Patrick, that you're a natural,” he said. Columnists enjoy a little creative license also.

“Keep doing what they like, then branch out from there.”

Simple advice from a man who makes the debilitating task of writing look so simple. I’ve been taking that advice ever since, and four years later, the editors still haven’t caught on.

Not ready to fade into the sunset after the Los Angeles Times bid him a not-so-fond farewell in 2009, Al now writes for the L.A. Daily News and created the Topanga Writers Workshop. He invited me to that workshop in his beloved Topanga Canyon retreat.

With Al's credentials, I thought I'd be surrounded by imposing literary figures and writing masters. But the folks I met sitting at his rustic dining room table eating cheese and crackers were from all walks of life: brilliant published writers with several novels to their credit, mothers trying to make sense of their frantic worlds, teenagers full of great expectations, retirees looking to add their unique voices to the library of man.

But what they all had in common was an unquenchable desire: a need to put pen to paper in order to add meaning and purpose to our time on this rock. I'd found my people. And we all found encouragement in the legendary writer we'd come to meet.

That's when I got to know Al as a man who speaks to and for the people. All people. Each with a story to tell, and he's always been happy to help us tell those stories.

Through the last few years I’ve been blessed to call Al a mentor, whether by simply reading his work to see how a true wordsmith does it, or by seeking his advice. His support has been unflagging. But that doesn't make me special. He's that way with all writers and artists that cross his path. And we’re all writers and artists of some sort.

I once asked Al what it meant when you didn’t get feedback to a column, fearing a declining readership. As he’s done for years in his columns, Al found the silver lining in what I assumed was a storm cloud.

“Take it as a compliment,” he said. “Most readers only write to you when they want to tell you off. And I've had plenty of those.”

A couple weeks ago I was honored to attend the opening reception of an exhibition of Al’s work at the Huntington Library in Pasadena: “Al Martinez: The Bard of L.A. Again.” I thought I'd be surrounded by the elites of journalism, intellectuals and high-brows. And they were there. But so were hippies and professors, business leaders and common folk, literati and the mixed bag of nuts so often the subjects of Al’s musings.

People. Al's people.

And there was Al, slowed by time but ever gracious

“Amazing how many people turn out for free wine and crackers,” he quipped.

The exhibit is on display until June 25. You can see handwritten letters to his young bride from the foxholes of the Korean War, drafts of scripts for “Hawaii Five-0” and other TV shows, edited copies of his books and original columns. If you're lucky, you may even see Al.

It's a touching tribute to a man who's done more for me than he will ever know.

I still don't know what I'm doing when I churn out 800 words each week.

But I do know I have an advocate and supporter in a man dubbed the Bard of L.A. A man I simply like to call my friend. Al Martinez.

PATRICK CANEDAY is author of the book “Crooked Little Birdhouse.” Contact him at patrickcaneday@gmail.com. Read more at www.patrickcaneday.com.

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