OK, let’s admit it. We’ve all done it at some point over the past few weeks – headed over to the nearest Borders to pick the last meat off the bones, grabbing whatever we could to add to our personal libraries before the doors finally closed for good next Friday.
Not that most of us have ever really loved the big box bookstores. Yeah, they have some nice cafes. But every writer worth his salt knows that the local independents treat us better, care about us more, actually welcome us (sometimes personally!) when we walk through their doors.
Still most writers live on really tight budgets. And a bargain is a bargain. This is just a one time thing, trust me! – as we peruse the shelves for hidden treasures, novels by our favorite forgottens, obscure poets or essayists, dictionaries, and research for our in-progress novels.
I was looking for The Landmark Herodotus, but, believe it or not, there wasn’t a copy in sight. Instead, I found rows and rows of cheesy romance novels, cookie-cutter thrillers by authors I’d never heard of, plenty of cookbooks, large-format non-fiction glossies, and those books for kids that include a toy or a small stack of collector cards. Oh, and smelly candles, fuzzy throws and coffee mugs with hackneyed aphorisms embossed in funky fonts. But books worth reading? Well, there were a few I finally bought, but finding them took a while.
Going through the stacks, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of futility, first, that the second largest bookstore chain in America was closing, and second, at the pallid offerings – our industry’s blemishes bared to the world. True, most of these books were the very last of the leftovers, the ones that no one else would touch. The words between the glossy, trying-too-hard covers may even have been reasonably good. Perhaps I’d never heard of these books because they were poorly marketed, as most books are. Perhaps it was their sycophantic packaging. Pink = chick-lit. Woman with head cut off, turning away from the reader = genre historical. Woman with head still visible, looking just a bit too sexy in her period attire = romance. To me, these packages wreaked of predictability and bad taste. But I don’t blame the authors. Hey, they were lucky. They got published! That’s a feat of such magnitude that none of us has the right to see anything but a fellow comrade in arms.
But in these last dregs of pulp, I saw the precipitated futility of our industry, the sweaty desperation to get something – anything – sold, especially in a landscape that is digi-bytes away from literary destruction.
Or is it? I’m definitely not sure right now how or where books will be sold in the coming years. But stories? There’s no lack of hunger for stories.
I’m no longer afraid of the digital transformation of the book. In fact, I see a lot of value and possibility. First, no longer will books kill trees or burn so much fossil fuel as they are carted in tractor-trailers from printer to warehouse to bookstore to gigantic shredder. And no longer will it take months or even years to publish. It could and should take only weeks, as today’s NY Times article about news-based non-fiction proves.
It’s just a question of how we’ll discover what’s worth our precious reading time and what’s not. That’s what bookstores have always been for.
My husband and I love to go to bookstores on our “date nights”. After a satisfying meal where we actually get to talk about something other than the kids, we head to the nearest bookstore, sometimes losing ourselves in opposite corners, coming together now and then with a book in hand we think the other might like, inevitably leaving the store with a small stack of tomes.
Surfing on Amazon.com or GoodReads.com doesn’t come close. There’s no romance and little chance for serendipity.
Still I see great hope in the least likely corner – the diminutive local, independent bookstore. Anne Patchett’s essay about her book tour this summer portrays independent bookstores as alive and well. In fact, many forecasts say that indies will benefit most from Borders’ demise, and may well take their place once again as the vital central hub of the literary world.
In these smaller, cozier havens for books and their dwindling lovers, authors and their fans can still meet one another to discuss the vagaries of character, setting, language and plot. And booksellers can “hand-sell” as they always have, recommending books based on their customers’ personal interests and passions.
At the Barnes & Nobles and Borders, it has always been a bit like meeting someone at a bar. Sure, you might hook up and have a little fun. But if you’re looking for a more serious relationship, wouldn’t it be better to be introduced by a trusted friend?
That’s what indie bookstores have always been like, and now, after years of struggling to survive, they are emerging from the clouds, populating the book universe like small, twinkling stars. Perhaps their influence will never be enough to recapture literature’s place at the radiant core of culture and society. But for as long as books are produced, printed and sold, these small, local bookstores might just be the best place to pick them up and bring them home.
I am sitting at my desk right now preparing to venture to my 10-year-old son’s classroom where I will spend about an hour discussing my brief time studying with Madeleine L’Engle, the famed author of the children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time. The kids have been reading it at school, and I hear from his teacher that it’s been most challenging. Perhaps that is why it was one of the formative novels of my own childhood.
I’ve always liked a challenge, and writing is one of the greatest, to be sure. As I’m perusing Madeleine’s many wisdoms, recorded in a compilation called Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life, I begin to recognize approaches and concepts that have been so deeply embedded in my psyche for so long that I had forgotten where they’d come from.
Here’s Madeleine on concentration:
“The concentration of a small child at play is analogous to the concentration of the artist of any discipline. In real play, which is real concentration, the child is not only outside time, he is outside himself. He has thrown himself into whatever it is that he is doing… His self-consciousness is gone; his consciousness is wholly focused outside himself.”
Somewhere along the way, I decided this was not only true, but an inherent part of the way to teach creativity. Perhaps it was watching my 7-year-old boy who, for as long as I can remember, has been able to keep himself endlessly entertained with only his fingers and perhaps a couple of odd bits of toys. They don’t even have to be “action figures” as he imagines them smashing together and, making loud explosion noises with his lips, lets them tumble to the ground. My little one is a master of sound effects and can go on for hours playing out scenarios that only he fully understands. Amidst the action, the dialogue he mutters to himself and the bits of plastic occasionally flying, I recognize the very soul of creative thinking that is so essential to writing stories.
For the last few years, I’ve tapped into that root to help creativity grow, especially in my youngest students. They are closer to that source, and hopefully I’ve caught them before it’s been drummed out of them by the rigors of school. As Madeleine states in “Herself”:
“I’m not going to define the creative impulse. I don’t think it’s definable. There are educationalists who think it can be taught like the new math and who write learned treatises on methods of teaching it. The creative impulse can be killed, but it cannot be taught.”
So I’ve tossed out the rigid confines of paragraph and sentence construction, grammar and spelling — all those very vital things children must eventually learn, but please, not from me! Instead, I’ve concentrated on helping the children become aware of how they imagine when they play and then harness that intuitive fullness and fluidity to create stories.
In our kids’ writing classes lately, we’ve had super-heroes with transformational powers chasing villains who do cartwheels to escape with their stolen loot. We’ve met a mad scientist mole who has invented a wildly successful shoe-tying device and we’ve wandered with an Argentinean boy-werewolf. We have made our own mythologies. We’ve even had fruit-and-vegetable battles. And we’ve written it all down, for better or worse, whether any of it makes sense or not.
Truly, the words on the page aren’t always stellar, but the experience of creative engagement has resulted in writing that is unique. And the children have learned to trust their imaginations. They’ve discovered that they can create wildly funny and unusual characters, serious conflicts, lots of action, and vibrant emotions that portray their own rich experiences both inside and out of The Writers Circle.
When they’re older, I hope that their understanding of how to harness creative play will help them write better and more.
Meanwhile I turn to Madeleine again to recall the exercises we adults often do in the Circle and out when we pick a word, an image or a thought and just write without thinking or editing for ten or fifteen minutes.
As Madeleine relates:
“When I write, I realized, I do not think. I write. If I think when I am writing, it doesn’t work. I can think before I write; I can think after I write; but when I am actually writing, what I do is write. This is always the instruction I give at writers’ workshops: ‘Don’t think. Write.’ And I put a time limit to assignments. ‘You may not work on this for more than an hour. If you’re not finished at the end of an hour, that’s all right. Stop.'”
I heard her say that very thing in class and I remember thinking that she was crazy. But it works. Trust me. And I’ve passed it on. The thinking and planning happens before you pick up the pen or tap at the keyboard, or after. But not during. Not even now as I’m writing this. There’s a free flow of words coming from my brain to my fingers and I’m not stopping it. In a minute I’ll edit and probably once more before I post. But for now, I’m just writing.
Wise words. Thank you, Madeleine.
The Writers Circle has been graced with the voices of several poets this session, some who declared themselves as such and others who have, unintentionally or out of sheer desperation, stumbled into this most challenging realm of brevity, nuance and meaning.
It’s a miraculous thing to be able to distill words to their most compact and powerful. I’ve toyed with poetry for years and have rarely succeeded. I seem to prefer to wallow in the luxury of prose, all those words with which to play, expound, expand, express. See, I use far too many!
But poetry’s spareness packs a wallop. In a few magnificently chosen phrases, the entire sweep of life or a single moment can be intimately shared. I’ve always been amazed when I’ve reached a good poem’s finish, feeling that visceral pressure in my heart as I take in its meaning, usually going back to read it ever more carefully, again and again.
April is National Poetry Month and there are plenty of venues for celebration.
From The Academy of American Poets come 30 Ways to Celebrate, from taking a poem to work or out to lunch to writing one on the pavement. (Must do that with the kids!)
In New York City, the Pen American Center is holding its 7th Annual World Voices Festival from April 25-May 1, featuring great writers of all ilks, including poets, from around the world.
The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, host of possibly the best poetry festival ever (held right here in New Jersey!), is posting daily videos from the 2010 festival at NJPAC.
Similarly, The New York Review of Books is posting a daily poem from their awe-inspiring archive.
Check out all of these offerings. If you know others, please share them with us in the comments below.
Most of all, I challenge each of you to take a moment out of your April and write a poem. Whether you have never tried it before, do so every day or every once in a while, the effort will transform you.
I’m lucky because my boys, ages 6 and 9, still let me read to them each night before bed. They’ve graduated from children’s picture books to novels that develop psyches – Narnia, Harry Potter, the wild, wondrous world of Roald Dahl.
Recently I convinced them to let me read one of my own childhood favorites, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a mouthful of a title that has stuck with me since I read it when I was probably just a little older than my oldest son is now.
At first I wondered if the book would hold up. Would the story be as absolutely captivating as I remembered? Would it hold my boys’ wall-bouncing attention, more recently used to fast-action novels like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series?
But as I read the book aloud, I found myself quickly swept into my own memory. Almost at once I recognized myself in the main character, Claudia Kincaid, a perfectionist, a planner, intent in school, arrogant about grammar, with a determination and innate curiosity that only well-planned but ill-advised action could satisfy. Claudia sets her sights on New York City for a runaway escape from her invisible life. New York represents independence and adventure to her and promises to “change her” in some indelible way. It was this same expectation that I embraced many years ago, so long that I’d forgotten its origins until I reread these pages.
Claudia and her brother Jamie spend a week hiding out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To this day, I still look for the 16th century canopy bed where they slept and expect to find the sprite-laced bronze fountain where they bathed and gathered wishing pennies to fund their adventure, though both have been removed from the museum’s exhibit halls for at least a decade.
Somehow this novel informed my childhood and determined my trajectory, as did others I’ve since placed on my sons’ bookshelves: Island of the Blue Dolphins about an Indian girl who survives alone on a Pacific Island. Perhaps my passion for unfamiliar subsistence cultures stems from that book written 50 years ago.
Then there’s The Secret Garden, the very first book I ever stayed up all night to read. I can still feel the embrace of its Gothic setting, the constancy of mists drifting over the lonely moors. I see Mary Lennox arriving orphaned from India, abandoned and neglected, wandering the cold, echoing halls of a mansion haunted by disembodied moans. Then I feel the moist breath of perilous, unfolding friendship and freedom, and the mystery and joy of the rich soil of the secret garden.
How can I help but recognize in all this the first kernels of my own imaginative urgings – characters haunted by abandonment or longing for escape, mostly women who make of their lives what they can against odds and often alone? These themes are deeply seeded in my own stories, as are their atmospheres, cultures and climates filled with loneliness and uncertainty.
I am compiling a list of the books I’ve adored, whose reading burned impressions in my memory that surely I am following in my work and life even now. How will it feel to reread A Tree Grows In Brooklyn after living in that borough for those many years? Of that story, I particularly recall that the only books in Francie Nolan’s childhood home were the Bible and Shakespeare. I recall gobbling Shakespeare like a greedy beggar not long after reading her tale.
And what about A Wrinkle in Time – a novel so keenly influential on my young, impressionable mind that, sometime in my mid-20s, I found myself climbing the creaking stairs of an Upper West Side convent to absorb the sage guidance of its author, Madeleine L’Engle? She directly and indirectly influenced the path of my creative life. How will it feel to reopen those pages and understand the depths of an eleven-year-old girl’s wonder?
Make a list of your own. Go back and reread some that still flash in your memory. You might find a key to your own creative heart, tucked away in a dusty corner where it had almost been forgotten.
These days the face of literature and learning are changing so rapidly, it’s hard to know much of the time what we’re even looking at or why we bother to write.
I came across a rather interesting video that says it all both forward and backward:
It’s thrilling and terrifying. A truly brave new world. But my quandary goes beyond the welfare and future of publishing to something more essential: the preservation and accessibility of information and knowledge itself.
In many ways, information seems more accessible than ever. Certainly when my son has to write a report for elementary school, he can google everything he needs to know right from the computer on my desk. He looks at me in astonishment when I tell him that, in my day, that same report would’ve taken hours of research at the library.
I remember losing myself in the stacks – the long dim, slightly dusty corridors where spines lured me like whispered promises. As a child, my mother used to take me and my siblings for afternoons at the local children’s room where I would lie in a quiet corner surrounded by a carefully selected tower of books, musing for hours about worlds of imagination and possibility I’d never dreamed.
In high school I discovered that I could ask the librarian for the yellowed pages of newspapers published nearly a hundred years before. Not microfiche (which used to give me motion sickness if I scanned too quickly), but actual pages carefully preserved in an acid-free box kept somewhere in the library’s bowels.
It was in the hallowed Reading Room at the New York Public Library that my odd passion for dry academic tomes and archaeological reports bloomed. Their humble Pandoran pages opened like a treasure chest, filled with stories nothing else could have revealed. It was exhilarating simply to hear the subtle crack of a volume that only I and probably a half-dozen others had requested in the last half century.
I could have discovered none of this without the library. Unlike the elite halls of wisdom of ages gone, public libraries in America are an incomparable symbol of freedom and equality. The concept of free public libraries is inherently tied to a free public education, a right that I pray no one can argue against, except perhaps in the hope to making the definition of “free” include “highest quality”.
But in this era where it seems everything is migrating online, libraries are under threat. Here in New Jersey, Governor Christie’s proposed budget includes a 74% decrease in funding for library services. According to a recent Legislative Alert posted on the New Jersey Library Association’s website, this cut will eliminate all statewide library programs and services. It will affect all types of libraries in the state and, once state funding is eliminated, New Jersey will lose $4.5 million in federal funding.
I don’t often take a public political stance, but loss of our libraries is more than a personal affront. It goes to the very heart of the American tenets of freedom and equal opportunity.
As a novelist, I could not do my work without the library. Even today, access to expensive research databases and obscure texts that I often obtain through interlibrary loan are the backbone of my research. The Internet is simply not enough. (And please don’t talk to me about the Devil – I mean Wikipedia.) With all the posting and scanning – legal or otherwise – going on online, there are simply some things that will never make their way into the digital world.
But the issue goes beyond my personal and peculiar penchant for the obscure. Libraries provide essential services to people without internet access (and yes, there are still quite a few!), people who long to learn what they do not know, who need jobs in this crisis economy, who are applying to schools or starting new businesses, who want to introduce their children or themselves to a body of literature that is otherwise out of reach – accessible and free to all.
When so many core values in America have simply slipped away in recent years, this one is simple, affordable, and more than worthy of saving.
Go to http://capwiz.com/ala/nj/issues/alert/?alertid=14842591 to let your legislators know if you agree. The library you save may be your own.