Sunday, June 19, 2022

Spring Cleaning

I’ve been culling my books again. (We’re still a day or two away from the beginning of summer, so I think I can still technically get away with calling this “spring cleaning,” though we’ve just come off a run of ninety-degree days and next week looks even worse.) I also got rid of lots of other things – lamps, a stereo, a bag full of towels, and a pair of waterproof boots – but I’m not worried about those. I’ve never gotten rid of a lamp and then, two years later, had a sudden urge to bask in its light.

But books are another thing entirely. I’m constantly kicking myself for getting rid of books. It goes like this: I’ll meet a friend for dinner, he’ll casually mention he’s reading his favorite John Irving novel, and by the time he’s done talking about it I’ll be overwhelmed with the urge to read it. Why, I could start it that very night, if only I hadn’t been such a fool and given it to Goodwill eight years ago!

How could I have been so short-sighted? How could I have been so irresponsible? Didn’t I know, deep down, that I’d really, really want to read John Irving within the next decade? Would it really have been such a burden to keep the book with me just a little bit longer?

Over time, these experiences make it harder and harder to get rid of books. Each time I set one in the “donate” pile, I try and peer into the future to imagine a circumstance in which I might possibly, one day want to read it. This isn't very difficult to do.

There’s an error in my logic, of course, which is that I only remember the books I regret giving away. This is a small fraction of the total books that have circulated through my possession, books that eventually make their way to a library sale or a used bookstore and out of my mind forever. But it's like that forgotten majority never existed. I won’t think of those books again, meaning that when it comes time to pare down my library all I'll remember are the volumes I wish I’d held on to.

One of the things I like about giving money to Donors Choose is that sometimes you get thank you notes from te students. Often these will be sweet, homemade cards with a few kind words and a drawing in crayon or colored pencil. They’re also surprisingly specific. Even if that's the result of some coaching by their teacher, it does make you feel pretty good. “Wow,” you’ll think, reading the cards, “these kids sure do love their Newsweek subscriptions!”

So is it too much to ask for the same kind of thing from books? I think it would help if just once I found a note in my mailbox from one of my old books. No return address – I don’t need any personal details – just a plain old card inside a small envelope.

“Hello. I wanted to send you an update. After three years alone and unread on your shelf, I’d begun to feel a little unwanted. But now I belong to a college kid, and he reads me alone in the quad. I think he secretly hopes someone might notice me and strike up a conversation with him, but he doesn’t dog ear my pages and he laughed at page 73. So things aren't too bad here.

Anyway, thanks for giving me away. Hope all is well.

Your book,
The World According to Garp

Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Art of the Novella

There's a lot of reasons to love Tor publishing, from the book clubs and re-reads on their website to the annual Best of anthology, which is one of my favorite ways to discover new writers. (It's also offered for free.) But one of the things I love best about them is the selection of novellas they've published.

As a literary form, novellas usually get the short end of the stick. Few publishers bother with them, and even established writers tend to employ workarounds to get them published. (It's telling that even a writer like Stephen King, who has a massive following and regularly writes novellas, usually publishes them as part of larger collections.)

So the fact that Tor bothers with novellas at all is exciting to me, but I also love how they often serve as entry points for larger worlds. It doesn't escape me that some of my favorite Tor novellas -- Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus, and All Systems Red by Martha Wells -- either kick off a longer series or share a universe with other novels. It's brilliant marketing: Gunshy readers may not be willing to commit to a 400-page novel, but 150-page novella? Hell, why not?

But novellas, like other short forms, can pack a real punch in just a few words. The book that inspired this post, Victor LaValle's excellent The Ballad of Black Tom, opens with a paragraph that gets marvelous results from an economy of language. Ballad is a standalone book, set in a world of eldritch Lovecraftian horrors while also reckoning with Lovecraft's racist legacy and long shadow over the genre. It's an ambitious book, made even more so by the fact that it sets out to accomplish its aims in only 149 pages. And from the very beginning, you can tell that you're in good hands:

People who move to New York always make the same mistake. They can't see the place. This is true of Manhattan, but even the outer boroughs, too, be it Flushing Meadows in Queens or Red Hook in Brooklyn. They come looking for magic, whether evil or good, and nothing will convince them it isn't there. This wasn't all bad, though. Some New Yorkers had learned how to make a living from this error in thinking. Charles Thomas Tester for one.

There's a lot going on in this opening paragraph. For starters, look at the way it draws you into the story by establishing the narrative voice. This is someone telling a story, someone who has an opinion. We are firmly inside a particular point of view, but we don't quite know whose. Is it Charles? An omniscient observer? Another character who has not yet been introduced? We don't know, but we want to read on to find out.

Then there's the way it handles the setting. Once again, as readers we find ourselves a little off balance, not quite knowing what to make of things yet. We zoom in from New York to Manhattan, then out to Red Hook, before finally panning back out with the phrase "Some New Yorkers," which implies that Charles belongs not to a borough but to the larger city itself. There's an implication of movement here, but we don't quite know how, or what that says about Charles.

Finally, there's the question of character. What we know about Charles so far is that he makes a living off of other's mistakes. People come to New York in search of something, and somehow Charles has found a way to fill in that gap. But notice who is making the mistake -- people looking "for magic, whether evil or good." That tells us Charles is morally neutral, or maybe indifferent. He's trying to survive, and that means he'll take advantage of whoever he needs to, whether they're a saint or a sinner.

That's an awful lot of character and setting to establish in just 80 words, but a novella requires a certain economy of words. Like short stories or poetry, nothing can be out of place, and every word and each sentence has to put in the work. The fact that LaValle does it so confidently, and makes it look so easy, says a lot about his skill as a writer. And two cheers to Tor for their part putting that skill on display.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Wasting Time

One of the nice things about summer is that it's so insistent you go out and be in it. Left to my own devices, I might have spent the weekend reading indoors. But because everything outdoors is growing at an unbelievable rate, I've instead spent the last couple days mulching and weeding and mowing, and then mulching and weeding and mowing again. I also replaced a couple rotten planks in the deck, and repaired a couple others with Bondo. I can't remember the last time I worked with the stuff, but the smell snapped me right back to when I was a kid and my dad made the inexplicable decision to repair a broken refrigerator shelf by slathering it with Bondo.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Bondo is its powerful chemical scent, the kind that calls to mind the phrase "use in a well-ventilated area." Used inside of a fridge, it has the disquieting ability to make food smell (and taste) like acrid dent-repair putty. In the end, my dad had to concede defeat, and we got a new refrigerator.

I thought about that, and a million other things over the course of the weekend. That's another nice thing about summer: Plenty of opportunities to let your mind wander. I've been thinking about that a lot lately, as I keep coming across the idea of making more room for rest, daydreams, and letting the mind properly wander.

In his book "In Praise of Wasting Time," Alan Lightman makes a pretty convincing case that daydreaming is vital for creativity. Then he goes a step further and argues that it's also vital for maintaining a sense of stability and orderliness. He compares it to the same biological processes that allow organisms to maintain the right internal conditions needed to function. Here's Lightman:
"Homeostasis can happen at the mindless level of an amoeba. Or at the more advance level of a human being. And at that more advanced level, I suggest that there is a kind of necessary homeostasis of the mind: not a static equilibrium but a dynamic equilibrium in which we are constantly examining, testing, and replenishing our mental system, constantly securing the mental membrane between ourselves and the external world, constantly reorganizing and affirming ourselves. Dynamic rather than static because the outside world is constantly changing, and we ourselves are constantly changed by it. And yet we must maintain an equilibrium in the face of change. We cannot disintegrate. We cannot succumb to the random noise of the world. We must constantly examine who we are, revise when revision is needed, and bring coherency to all the parts of our whole.

Downtime enables now only our creativity and our need for rest. It also enables the formation and maintenance of our deep sense of being and identity."

We are constantly in a deluge of the new, the exciting, and the disturbing. These things can push us off-kilter, and sometimes they should -- I don't think we should become numb to the world as a coping strategy. But I also find Lightman's argument here very appealing. It's okay to be knocked off your center of balance, but there is also something vital and necessary about taking a moment to get your feet back firmly planted.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Ignore Everybody

I'm in Michigan this week, "refilling the well" by reading and taking long walks and sitting on a porch with my wife, watching the lake. We've seen snakes and turtles and all manner of bird, including a lone sandhill crane hanging out in a cornfield with two Canada geese. Next weekend, when the holiday arrives, so will the speedboats and jetskis and partiers. Fortunately, we will be gone by then.

Among other things, I finished Hugh MacLeod's book "Ignore Everbody (and 39 Other Keys to Creativity)." It wasn't earthshaking, but MacLeod is a pleasantly contrarian writer at times, and there were a few ideas in particular that stood out to me. (I will resume regular blogging again soon, but in the meantime I do like to share the bits and pieces I read in the wild, in hopes they may be useful to somebody else.)

Without further ado, here's MacLeod:

"The sovereignty you have over your work will inspire far more people than the content ever will. How your own sovereignty inspires other people to find their own sovereignty, their own sense of freedom and possibility, will give the work far more power than the work's objective merits ever will."

"Everybody has their own private Mount Everest they were put on this earth to climb. You may never reach the summit; for that you will be forgiven. But if you don't make at least one serious attempt to get above the snow line, years later you will find yourself lying on your deathbed, and all you will feel is emptiness."

"Frankly, I think you're better off doing something on the assumption that you will not be rewarded for it, that it will not receive the recognition it deserves, that it will not be worth the time and effort invested in it. The obvious advantage to this angle is, of course, if anything good comes of it, then it's an added bonus. The second, more subtle and profound advantage is that by scuppering all hope of worldly and social betterment from the creative act, you are finally left with only one question to answer: Do you make this damn thing exist or not? And once you can answer that truthfully for yourself, the rest is easy."

"Part of being creative is learning how to protect your freedom. That includes freedom from avarice."

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Light the Dark

Lately I’ve been reading Light the Dark, a collection of short essays edited by Joe Fassler. The jacket copy describes the book this way:
“Forty-six of the most acclaimed and exciting authors working today answer a simple yet profound question: What inspires you?”
But this description isn’t quite accurate. The inspiration in question is always another work of literature. These range from poetry to Bible stories to plays and around back to novels, but it all very much starts with the written word.

As a result, each piece ends up being a very short lesson on the craft of storytelling and writing. Here are five ideas from five different authors that have stuck with me so far.

William Gibson
"It is now second nature to me to plunge the reader into the middle of an unfamiliar world, with its unfamiliar language, and let them figure things out. … Productive ambiguity is not the same as lazy writing. But what’s the proper balance of mystery and clarity? We’re applying hundred-year-old techniques of literary naturalism to imagined futures."

Khaled Hosseini
"You write because you have an idea in your mind that feels so genuine, so important, so true. And yet, by the time the idea passes through the different filters of your mind, and into your hand, and onto the page or computer screen—it becomes distorted, and it’s been diminished. The writing you end up with is an approximation, if you’re lucky, of whatever it was you really wanted to say."

Amy Tan
"Our uniqueness makes us special, makes perception valuable—but it can also make us lonely. This loneliness is different from being “alone”: You can be lonely even surrounded by people. The feeling I’m talking about stems from the sense that we can never fully share the truth of who we are. … But this loneliness is the impetus for writing, because language is the best means we have to connect."

Mary Gaitskill
"People sometimes turn out to be almost the opposite of how they present. It isn’t because they’re trying to fool you, or because they’re hypocrites. It’s because they badly want to be that thing, and so they’ll try to be it. … Fictional characters are different. … When something genuinely surprising happens in a work of fiction, you have to be very in the story, and very in the moment, to make the reader accept it."

Neil Gaiman

"They compost down anyway, good influences, no matter how old you are. It’s like when you put the scraps onto your compost heap: eggshells, and it’s half-eaten turnips, and it’s apple cores, and the like. A year later, it’s black mulch that you can grow stuff in. And influences, good ones, are that too. Trying to figure out what’s influenced you is as difficult as taking the black mulch, and saying this used to be half an apple."

Spring Cleaning

I’ve been culling my books again. (We’re still a day or two away from the beginning of summer, so I think I can still technically get away w...