Friday, August 28, 2009

The Anecdotal Life of a Bookshop: Rain, Rain...

The faded, grey light of a rainy day offers soft illumination. A little hazy. The rain comes down. The rain stops. Droplets fall from fences, from rain-darkened branches. Drip, and drip, and drip.

The streets are quiet, becalmed. Huddled might be the word, if a street can huddle. Even after the rain stops the street is quiet, as if people do not yet trust the sky. No, no, the sun has been proven false too many times with its claims and promises.

An open door, a breeze. The coolness of wet-washed air.

A bird flies in. What did it sense, or want? A dry place, a bit of food? Has the shop been mistaken for an oddly shaped tree, a dusty and geometric nest?

It's small. A white belly, mottled brown wings. It panics. Walls and books (the rectangular ghosts of trees) seem strange to it, fearful. It hits a light, flies around. I can hear its wings in the silence. When else do you hear the wings of birds? Outside the sound is lost, dispersed to the sky, to the grass and trees. But here in the silence of a bookshop on a rainy day I hear the flap of wings.

The bird mistakes windows for sky, banging into them. Frustrated and confused, and now probably hurting (though the pain must be subsumed beneath the fear), the bird batters the glass, railing against the sense of a grand cage closing around it.

The bird flutters around the base of the window, as if expecting the transparent wall to vanish. Its mouth is open... perhaps it gasps for breath.

I have to herd the small bird, and without hurting it. I scare it, of course, but that can't be helped. From below, looking up, help and opportunity are like the tip of a giant umbrella poking and prodding one along.

Finally the bird is by the door. A final prod and it flies out into the damp air. Perhaps it dodges the drops of water, the drip and drip and drip, or perhaps not. Perhaps the touch of free water is to be embraced.

It is good, of course, to have at least one customer, fragile though they may be.

Post script: Picture, By Request... (a little blurry, I admit)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Anecdotal Life of a Bookshop: Opening

There is something special about opening the door to my shop in the morning. Perhaps it's merely the morningness of it, the optimism of a new day and the opportunities it might bring. And yet there is something more, I think, the fleeting touch of something profound, or if not profound at least precious.

There is a perfection in that first moment, a sense of time unruined. There is a soft, shadowy gloom to the shop before I turn on the lights. Just the sense of a door opening out into space, into the soft gloom, and the long rows of bookcases receding back into deeper shadows. And on each shelf of each case there is a row of books, spines out. In the light that has yet to come the covers will show their colours, like neon leaves in the autumn, strutting their eye-catching graphic designs. But in the gloom there is just a shape, forms limned in various shifting greys, shadows and ghosts and mere suggestions of hidden truths.

The bookcases are dark wood, a rich colour even in the gloom. I know them well; I built them myself. Cut, nailed, stained and sealed. Real wood, organic, still a little alive. They seem expectant in the gloom, waiting, and yet always patient.

Morning light slants in the front windows, but it's pale yet, as the windows face west. The light is soft and seems to highlight the shadows more than dispel them. A soft glow hovers at the front of the shop and does not penetrate further back. My photographs hang, framed, above the shelves. Scenes from my travels, shots of buildings from odd angles, and rivers, waterfalls, trees. Maybe the shelves like these pictures, too, remembering a former life, a life of branches and leaves and digging roots. Life's a little drier now, perhaps, but they still get to hold a rich yield of fruit, though of a very papery kind.

I like that moment, standing in the just opened door, that sense of unfolding space, my gaze trailing down the aisles, the rows slipping away. The smell of wood, of paper, of dust, the smell of books. Peace... a sense of hallowed space. A personal space, a place sacred to just one person, and sacred only for a moment. For just that moment I feel a touch of something... perhaps it is something as simple as joy, or hope, or perhaps it is something more complex. Faith, perhaps, or some strange braiding of identity and geography, place becoming intertwined with self. A momentary hallowing, like hands cupped beneath cold water.

A bookshop. A door opening. A moment alone... a moment that is mine.

And what about you? What are your hallowed moments?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Signs Are Good

So... since nobody sued me for posting up that article the other day, I decided I'd put up a story I had published years ago. The real reason, of course, is that it's about Wal-Mart. And since helping to bring down Wal-Mart is so obviously of moral benefit, I figured posting this story was simply part of my civic duty. Death to the Tyrant! Viva la Revolucion!

The Signs Are Good

July 6
The signs are good about the new boss. He was authoritative right from the first meeting today. He went right to work, and that’s always a good sign. I thought, being promoted up from another store (a smaller Wal-Mart), that it might take him some time to settle in, you know, a breaking in period. But right in the first meeting, as soon as we got in, he jumped up and pounded on the VCR in the room, shouting and yelling.

The message was clear. He wanted to review the video training program we have for new employees. It was a good message: everything was important, and he was going to look at it all from the ground up, get us back on track. The last few bosses had really gotten us down, but Mr. Ansee was just what we needed to pick us up. It was obvious he wanted to start where the company starts: with the employees, and how they’re trained. The company was built on the employees, he was saying by his actions, and I agree totally, that’s what I’ve always thought, and I told him just that, that “This great company was founded on the backs of its fine employees.”

“ooooouuaaahh oooouuuaaahhh,” he said. The Boss. Mr. Ansee.

We reviewed the films quite thoroughly, and we could tell that Mr. Ansee was not thrilled, as he kept making deep growling sounds and slapping the table. It was clear he was demanding, and wanted lots of changes, but it was all for the best, for the betterment of the company. We could all see his dedication. It was his passion for Wal-Mart that made him growl like that.

He wasn’t entirely for the hard line approach, however. He jumped up and down, and spun around, doing a little dance, which got everybody going a bit, as he waved his arms about. He was demanding, but it was clear he had his jolly side, and wanted everyone to be happy while working. It loosened the tension, and then he joked with us, sticking a whole tangerine in his mouth and chewing it up. It was good motivation for us all, and kept him from seeming too imposing.

At first glance he didn't seem all that intimidating, being only two and a half feet tall and with a sort of tanned and wrinkly face, but he had that air about him. He was in command and we all knew it. Perhaps it was the black fur, or maybe the dramatic gestures, but we all knew who was in charge. His aggressiveness was lightened by his perpetual smile, which showed lots of blocky teeth and a wide expanse of gums (you know the kind of smile I’m talking about). It lessened the impact of his intensity, which was a powerful thing, upon us, and put us at our ease.

“waaa-wa. waaa-wa,” he shouted to us as we left, leaving off with a great “eeeehh-eeeh.”

July 8
Mr. Ansee inspected the stock area today. He was very enthusiastic, climbing right up on the boxes, jumping between racks. He showed just the sort of vigor he wants from all of us, and took us on a thorough inspection tour. His daring leap into the cardboard compacting machine showed everyone that safety was a top priority, and he wanted everyone to be on guard. Everyone is in high spirits, though Nathan, the night manager, gave him a few wary looks. I am sure it’s just a matter of adjustment, however. My fellow assistant manager, Bob, said we were on the fast track now, playing with the big boys, and Ms. Delmonte, one of the secretaries, said she’d never been so happy coming in to work as today. A “whole new atmosphere” she said.

July 9
Inspired by Mr. Ansee, I’ve started reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Knowledge, hard work, and the example of Mr. Ansee can take me far on my journey to become head of a store myself. A boss can be playful, but everyone has to know who’s in charge.

People have taken to leaving Mr. Ansee fruit, which he seems quite fond of (the tangerine that first day was a good sign, I think). He seems particularly fond of bananas and avocados. I don’t know why, but he really seems to have a thing for the avocados, so much so that we often see him going around with avocado juice dripping down his chin, though he always gives us a big toothy smile regardless. I can’t say where all the avocados are coming from, but he seems to enjoy them greatly. The employees all seem happy and appreciated, and I, as an Assistant Manager, urge them to look up to Mr. Ansee as the finest example of a positive working attitude. He shows them just what you can achieve with a little hard work and elbow grease.

He was even at the front door today, entertaining the customers. He’s an example to us all.

July 16
There was some insubordination today, and Mr. Ansee had to get firm with Mrs. Castles, one of the secretaries. It seems she ate one of his avocados, and Mr. Ansee screeched at her terribly, his brow wrinkled up and his teeth bared, black fur standing on end. The message was clear: there would be no theft, no filching from the company, even if the items seemed irrelevant. There would be no ‘freebies’. Mr. Ansee would brook no actions detrimental to the company. This Wal-Mart would be the finest Wal-Mart, bar none. Mrs. Castles apologized profusely, but even after that we could hear Mr. Ansee raging in his office for quite some time. But, order had been established, and now everyone knew the rules, the zero tolerance policy for detrimental behavior.

July 21
Everyone’s been a little unsettled, and Bob has cast numerous worried looks in the direction of Mr. Ansee’s office, where Mr. Ansee has been keeping himself, locked away from everybody. Some of the others think the Avocado Affair has depressed him, and it seems as if the stock getting shipped in has been getting stranger and stranger. A lot of plastic trees have been coming in, and the Garden Centre in general has been rather overstocked. Some of the office staff think something might be wrong, but that’s just everyday grumbling around the water-cooler. I have faith in Mr. Ansee. I’m sure it's all part of a new sales and marketing plan he has devised for us, to get us out of our lull.

July 29
Mr. Ansee has become quite close with one of the secretaries, Ms. Delmonte. She has often been seen going into his office, and loud growlings have sometimes been reported from within. It seems Ms. Delmonte often comes out looking quite rumpled, blouse only half-tucked, and with a dopey grin on her face. The grumblings have grown louder around the water-cooler, especially as Mr. Ansee himself can often be seen preening his fur, grinning at anyone who goes by and occasionally pawing at the other secretaries in an over-friendly way. The night manager, Nathan, heard about this and told me, before he left this morning, that he thinks such a relationship, or even the hint of such a relationship, is inappropriate and detrimental to morale in the workplace. Likely, though, he is just upset about the recent events on the night shift. It seems that Mr. Ansee has often been staying late, prowling around the store throughout the night, lurking in the corridors and the stock area. Nathan is disturbed by this, seeing it as a spy mission, believing that Mr. Ansee doesn’t respect his authority or trust him to run the evening staff, the janitors and stockers. Bitterness over this has been brewing for some time, and is likely just being voiced in the concern over the relationship with Ms. Delmonte. Ms. Delmonte herself is mum on the whole affair, and, personally, I think personal life is personal, and shouldn’t be anybody’s business. Their relationship is their own concern. Our concern is, and should always be, the Wal-Mart company, at least during work hours.

August 3
Everyone’s nerves have been a little tight lately, likely on account of the first shipments of Back to School supplies, which means store rearrangements and more work for everybody. Mr. Ansee has been tense. He even went so far as to tear apart the stuffed animal display in the toys section, scattering the animals around and tearing apart one of the giant stuffed gorillas.

“waaaarrk waaaarrkk,” he shouted, in his anger and disgust.

He was obviously disheartened by the lack of professionalism shown by everybody, and the lack of attention to detail. He demands the best, but there are many who think he has gone too far, has been too dictatorial of late. Where are the humorous antics of before, the little things that kept everyone loose?

Bob, who is in charge of the displays, has been looking a little depressed, and the secretaries are unhappy. It seems Ms. Delmonte has stopped doing any real work, usually just sitting and preening herself, waiting for Mr. Ansee to call her to his office. There has been much snipping going on during coffee breaks. Ms. Delmonte is holding herself distant from the others.

I have continued reading The 7 Habits, to try and get on top of things, predict Mr. Ansee’s future course. It has been enlightening, so far. Mr. Ansee is right to take a strong stance.

August 11
There was a catfight in the lounge today. It seems one of the secretaries, a Ms. Bartle, had a private... conference... with Mr. Ansee today, and was walking around quite smugly in front of Ms. Delmonte. It quickly came to insults and blows, and, though it was separated quickly, some damage had been done to office morale. Mr. Ansee said “aaaahhh aaaahhh aaaahhh” and didn’t seem to be bothered by the event. Some of the younger employees, in a rather callous fashion, seemed to be amused, and said it was “just like a Springer episode”.

Have read some more 7 Habits, but am still a little concerned about our current course. I’ve recently been reminded of the failures of previous bosses. Still, though, I have faith in Mr. Jim Ansee. He is top notch, and I will trust him and the plans he has for our store.

P.S. on a minor note, certain rumors have been floating around, that either Mr. Ansee is going to be fired or promoted up by Head Office. Either, I think, would be bad for us, but I trust Head Office to do the right thing.

August 17
The Back to School craze is on in full. I have worked long hours to keep everything going, keep it on track. Sales are up, but Mr. Ansee is still upset, and I often see him swinging from the light fixture in his office. He destroyed a price check machine yesterday. While making an important philosophical point, perhaps, he should have known that those machines cost a thousand dollars each, bang, in one shot. When I tried to inform him of this he threw his pencil sharpener at me and grinned.

Came home from work today a little disgruntled. Stress has mounted. Doctor says I might have an ulcer. Still reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Is there a point to it all? I’ll keep reading, looking for the answers.

August 18
Mr. Ansee bit someone today. It was Nathan, our night manager. They had gotten into a shouting argument, in which Nathan yelled that Mr. Ansee was running the business into the ground.

Mr. Ansee shouted “aaaahhh aahhhh rraaawwk raaaawwkk,” and then leapt on Nathan and bit him on the shoulder. After sending Nathan off to the hospital to get a tetanus shot, I tried to calm down Mr. Ansee, but he would have none of it, staying in his office with his avocados (there are those who still seek his goodwill, and apparently buy it with gifts of fruit – this sort of favoritism troubles me).

There is more trouble with the secretaries, as well. Some sort of power struggle seems to be going on, and little work is being done. We’re behind on all invoicing.

August 19
Nathan came in today and quit. His arm was in a sling. He said Wal-Mart was a terrible jungle, and he wasn’t going to stay there anymore. He said the pay was pretty crappy for what he had to put up with. He was going back to school.

Mr. Ansee took the news poorly, locking himself in his office and refusing to speak to anybody.

Stock has been misordered. Back to School doesn’t have the proper supplies. And now I have to find a new night manager at the second busiest time of the year (If this was Christmas we’d be done for sure). I might have to work nights myself for awhile, until I find someone competent (most of the employees beneath me are high school students).

Strange suspicions have been creeping over me, that Mr. Ansee is just like all the rest, no different from all the other managers. But, no, I won’t give in. I have faith in Head Office, that they sent us the right man.

August 23
We’ve all been caught in the doldrums. Even Mr. Ansee is not immune. I brought him an avocado today, and he simply slapped it away and disappeared back into his office.

Neither Ms. Bartle or Ms. Belmonte showed for work today.

Head Office sent some disturbing memos about receipts they had yet to receive. Mrs. Castles told me that Mr. Ansee was “currently unavailable”.

August 24
Heard Mr. Ansee only once today. It was over the PA system. He shouted “raaawwkaa raaaawwkka rraaawwwkaaaaaa,” and all the customers (and employees) thought it was a fire alarm, or bomb threat of some sort, and ran out of the building. Only a few came back in.

We have many unsold pencil crayons, and many young students will see September without a proper ruler or compass.

August 25
Finished The 7 Habits. Not sure it will help.

We are grossly overstocked with plastic dividers for binders.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Laura Martone has nominated us for a Kreativ Blogger award! And already I'm failing miserably because I don't know how to copy the image for the Kreativ Blogger logo into my post. Yes, I write a blog despite being a techno-rube! I have overcome much.

And now, my seven internet appointed tasks (yes, think of Hercules. And me. In the same way. Heroic tasks, similar phsycal build...)

1. Thank the person who nominated you for this award. (Not too hard. Thanks again, Laura)

2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog. (Okay, yes, I've failed miserably at this one)

3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award. (Shall now attempt... bingo! Yes, html code is tough for us rubes)

4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting. (I own a bookstore. I love shoes and yet retain %100 of my manliness. Unlike Laura, I have broken and torn all sorts of bodily things, and each story is less interesting than the last. I used to be a teacher. I also used to work a nightshift at Wal-Mart... and survived - this is to be commended. My kids are better looking than I - this is obvious. My kids are smarter than I - this is also obvious.)

5. Nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers. (Okay...)

6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate.

7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated. (I'll see what I can do... I think it may kill me, though. This award is cool, but it's also sort of the mother of all chain letters. Those poor nominees...)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Anecdotal Life of a Bookshop: In the Beginning

The last post got me thinking about that strange need, that strange want of book. I think all readers (and writers) have this: a want of book. A desire for books, a little cerebral itch. And, really, that's what having a bookstore was all about for me: a massive want of book. A neurosis, perhaps, a want of book grown beyond all bounds. And joyously so.

In particular that idea of the want of book started me thinking not just about the drive I had to open a bookstore, but the actual beginning of it, the first steps of acquisition. I needed books, and I had to find them... and purchase them. A book lover's dream, perhaps. Free rein to buy books...

I started travelling, hopping in my car and driving to book sales all across the province. Church sales, charity sales, store sales, library sales... A family trip to the zoo even detoured into a purchasing spree at a closing bookstore. Books!

It's a pilgrimage, of sorts. My trips grew longer. Into a new country, through the states of Michigan, Ohio and New York. Long drives with only the lure of books to draw me on. But in the end... a sale, a place full of books (and cheap books, at that), where I could grab and handle them, could smell and almost taste them. Filling one box, and then another, and another. I could look at each cover, brushing my hand across the pages. Each title, each writer. A little blessing for each and then into the greedy box. Long drives to get there. Six hours, eight hours, ten hours... yet the drives home were always longer. The book want temporarily satisfied, and missing my family... driving the highways, an endless slick of blacktop flowing beneath, passing out of mind and memory.

Yet always another sale. And if these trips were pilgrimages, Mecca was Ithaca, New York. In the spring and fall Ithaca holds a book sale, each time spread over three weekends. Each day of the sale the book prices drop. And they have, each time, up to 300,000 books for sale. A two day trip, a long long drive down, a cheap hotel, and then a sale to end all sales. A warehouse with endless shelves, shelves always seemingly refilled, inexhaustible, a basket of blessed bread and fish.

A long ride home, of course. But before that I stopped at a few parks. Ithaca is located in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, an area comprehensively checker-boarded by state parks. The most beautiful, perhaps, is Watkins Glen, where a river has carved down through the forest, down through the rock, carving out a steep canyon draped in a lush forest skin. The water peels and tumbles over stone, down waterfalls, winding and cutting ever lower, ever closer to a welcoming lake. Shadow and mist shape the way, colouring it in extremes. Paths wind along the water's edge, sometimes below the cliffs, sometimes above. The path ducks behind a waterfall, where my fingers feel the flood of white life falling down, ever eager to continue its journey. Light is dappled into bright slants through the leaves of overhanging trees.

Above, climbing through the forest, I stumble out into a graveyard. The sun touches it on this high hill overlooking the world, as if the dead want to see for miles and thus remember their own travels, their own lost movements. History rests in the stone markers. 1900s, 1800s, 1700s... stones worn and weathered, a little faded and yet holding true, their words lingering.

Yet the most amazing thing was that I was entirely alone. It was in the park's off season, a monday morning. And it was entirely empty. Just me. Not another car in the parking lot, not another person on the paths. I'd been here before, as a child, and I remembered the water and the gorge and the hot sun and the press of people, the families vacationing and wandering about, kids complaining, asking for drinks, for snacks, for ice cream. Yet now... I was alone. The park was mine, and in that moment existed only for me.

A connection remains, between the book pilgrimmage and the gorge. In my head the experiences are intertwined, resonant, mutually reflective. Connected by time and geography, yes... but also by a feeling, by a sense of something ineffable. The park that day held a sense of both solitude and communion, and I sometimes think that ambivalent feeling is the perfect metaphor for a book.

A book is its own world, self-contained and communicative... you share a world, and yet you share it in solitude. You commune, but inside the strictures of your own imagination. You have a whole world to explore, and yet you explore it alone, with only the memory to share. Yet there is, I think, in that solitude, something profound. In that solitude is a most perfect and willing moment of shared story, a communication that slips the bindings of time. It is a piece of life framed in pages.

And so what was a bookstore but a collection of these infinite little worlds? Shared pieces of life, so many of them, becoming a vast quilt, but one ever shifting and changing. A place where others could come and share too, partaking of those moments, those lives, those worlds. Slipping a little further through time, a little further into story.

Each trip was a pilgrimmage, and yet so is each book. A trip to solitude and communion.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Anecdotal Life of a Bookshop: I Don't Want a Book (Apparently)

People are odd. And one of the ways people are odd is to be odd about books. And one of the oddest of such oddities occurs when a customer comes in to ask for a specific book. This happens a lot, and normally it's a simple and painless process. Someone asks for a book: I can say "Yes, I have it," or I can say "No, I don't have it," or I can say "Let me check."

Checking is better than saying "No." Checking draws the customer in, and if I don't have what they're looking for, well, they may find something else just as good. Get them looking at the shelves themselves, that's the key. See, salesmanship! Hard to believe, I know, but I've learned a few things. Not many, admittedly, but a few.

The interesting thing, though, occurs when I do have a book. Actually, most of the time it's not interesting, but simply profitable. And happy! "Yes, I do have that book! Here it is!" "Great! Here's my oodles of cash with which to feed your children! I'll bring more the next time I come through!" Everyone's happy, Amen, Hallelujah.

But sometimes people come in, eager and excited, a question on their lips: "I'm looking for Book X. Really, I've been looking for it everywhere. Do you have it?"

"Yes, I do! Come this way."

I present the book. It's shiny. It's exactly what they want. They came into the store for just this very thing. Eagerly, bouncily, happily... they are the Tiggers of the book world, and they are getting just what they want.

But... a moment of hesitation. They turn the book over... heft it a little, as if its weight were a key factor in the process of selection and purchase. And here is the strangeness... a moment of pause, a flattening of expression, a cessation of Tiggerish bounciness. What's going through their mind? Doubt of some sort, it seems. Was this really what they wanted? They consider. A pregnant moment, a moment of stillness, where the direction of movement is not yet decided and yet still imminent. Everything teeters, teeters so precariously...

They are wondering, perhaps, what the reasons were for wanting this book. They have it now, in their hands, and yet perhaps the reasons grow distant, escaping beyond the bounds of the want that drove them into the shop... and that want has now become a thin and paltry thing. So vague, so poorly understood... like a dream when one awakes, a dream that slips away even as they try to hold it. So insubstantial. In a moment it is only the fragment of an image, a lingering mood, a feeling, a few lonely words. This is all, seemingly, that's left of their want, the need that had driven them so keenly only moments before. A disparity, perhaps, between that bright want and the dim, bookish shape in their hands.

Perhaps they had loved the ideal, the platonic perfection of the image. It was made grand by want, by distance, by the very lack that drove the want in the first place. It was exciting because they did not have it, because of the possibly of it, the maybe of it. And perhaps the concrete existence can't match this mystery. A book. A title, a picture, pages and pages of words. Sentences, too. Paragraphs. Is this really what they wanted, a collection of paragraphs?

No, this could not be it. They didn't want this, not sentences, no. Certainly not paragraphs. And chapters? Out of the question. They shake their head a little. Hum and haw and become very aware of my presence. They asked for it but don't really want it, not really. They wanted the wanting. The thrill of the chase. Now there's only awkwardness; they asked for it and now they have it. What now? What to do? Should they really offer money for this thing? Money for words?

"Hmmm, maybe..." they say, but already their hand is inching back to the shelf. Slowly, though, as if not to spook the bookcase and scare it away. Don't startle, nice and easy, just put the book down slow and everything will be alright... Slow, yes. If they put it back slowly enough no one will notice they're putting it back. Even the shelf won't notice the extra weight. Just that Dostoyevsky, the shelf will think, putting on a little extre Christmas fat that'll be gone by spring.

The customer says something unrelated. Distraction. The magician's oldest trick: draw the eye away.

The book is re-shelved. They look around the shop, but their heart isn't in it. They've waylaid their Tiggerishness, they're all bounced out. If they didn't want what they wanted, how could they want what they didn't want? They continue to browse - distracting everyone (even themselves) from the memory of that one book, it's rejection and re-shelving, as if they had always come in just to browse.

They leave.

What they wanted was not enough. What I wanted (a sale) was not enough, either. Those two wants had circled each other, snarling, marking their territory. In the end that other want, the one that lived so ephemerally as a want and never became a need, had sidled up to me and peed on my foot.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Confidence of Vision

This post by Rick Daley got me thinking about critique, and in particular about an article I published about it awhile ago. Thought I'd toss it up here, since the rights have reverted to me now. At least I think they have. If I get sued I'll know I was wrong. I'm the Evel Knievel of internet daring.

Anyway, here it is...

A Confidence of Vision

A young writer sits at her desk, typing at the keys, her fingers connected as if by invisible strings to a dream, a vision that lurks in her head. Keys rattle and tap, and she hopes only that they might keep up with the dream, the flicker and flutter of images upon some inner screen. Lost to the world, she writes a story. When she is finished, she takes a break, breathing a little hard, exhilarated with what she has before her. A story, and it's so wonderful…

Life intrudes. Bills have to be paid, work done, friends seen, parents reassured. Days later she comes back to her wonderful story, and when she reads it she finds it is not quite so wonderful as she had thought. It needs revision. She tinkers. She's not so lost to the world, now, as she writes. She frets, and Starbucks cups gather around her desk, the detritus of anxiety. She flips a word, and then flips it back again. She is undecided. What should she do? It's good, the story, but is it good enough? Things nag her, but she is not sure what they are. The story is not right, but she can't see what's wrong.

She decides to send it to a critique group, and wonders what they will say. She sends the virgin story off, and she waits.

(More Starbucks cups appear, forming an odd mocha-scented maze through which she wanders…)

And then the critiques come, all twelve of them. And each says an entirely different thing, each wounding her in an entirely new way.

She stares at the critiques for some time, and her story blurs before her and becomes unreal, as if it had come from some other person's mind, had passed through some other person's fingers.

What now?

* * *

Criticism is an important step, though a difficult one, in the writing process. It is often necessary, yet despite that necessity it is also dangerous, and often misleading. Nothing is more likely to wound a writer, or derail a story. And yet we, as writers, keep coming back to it Necessity dictates this to us: our need for an objective view of what has become immensely personal, immensely close to us. That very closeness, which allowed us to see and create our story in the first place, has now become our enemy. It prevents us from clearly seeing our work, and from clearly seeing the viewpoints of others in regards to it.

It is this last idea I want to talk about. That is, what is the writer's response to criticism? There is a strange duality, usually, in a writer's acceptance of criticism, and their closeness to their work plays a role in both. The story is part of you, has come from you, is you. It's your child. And then somebody slaps it. Let's be real, for most writers critique of any sort will always invoke a reaction. Appreciation for time spent on our behalf? That would be nice. Due consideration for the important insights offered? We can hope. But that is not usually the first reaction, which goes more like this: "That is the stupidest thing anyone has ever said. This person is an idiot. I don't like them, and I have the feeling that nobody else likes them either. And if they do, they won't for long. This person has the morals and personal habits of a leech. Except the leech is better looking."

Hopefully, though, we can all get over this, and feel some of that "due consideration for time spent" slowly seeping in to balance the angst. Slowly we will settle ourselves, and appreciate that, yes, these people really are trying to help us (most of the time – but that's another topic entirely). But what then? We still face a difficult task. We have twelve honest critiques, and each says something different, and each sees the story in an entirely different way. We hope for those eureka moments, where a suggestion flashes in the mind as so right, so perfect, that we can't do anything but accept it, and use it. But this is more rare than we might wish, and paralysis can so easily set in. We are too close to the story, and these views are too foreign, too alien to what we ourselves see in the words.

This is a danger, and a gift. A danger because we cannot always assimilate them, and a gift because these are the very objective views we are looking for. The danger is pervasive: we risk paralysis, or we risk being controlled by the critiques. Whether sent in goodwill or not, this is always a real danger. Many writers feel compelled to answer every charge brought by every critique. And yet each will have different, and sometimes contradictory, views. And such contradictions can lead to writerly paralysis, or to the abandonment of the story. "Everything is wrong. Nothing worked. Better to scrap it."

Yet such different views are at the heart of the reading experience. There are no perfect books, no stories which perfectly please all readers. One could look at the overwhelming popularity and success of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and question this theory. And yet, for all its beloved success, there are many intelligent readers of fantasy who truly dislike the story. We would soon run out of fingers, toes, and even hairs on our head if we were to try and count each one. So why should our own rough draft meet universal acclaim?

It won't. But that is what criticism is for, to provide an opportunity for us to see our work in a new way, and to improve it. This is the beauty of those myriad views: each will allow you a new glimpse of your story, one untainted by your own closeness.

Yet we still have our dilemma. What do we do with these alien glimpses, these strange sightings and interpretations of our word-formed child? We cannot satisfy every charge against it, or take every suggestion. Nor should we. We cannot cede control to a dissenting voice merely because it dissents. We must remember that it is our story, and no matter how insightful a critique might be this person will never know the story as well as we do, because the story is ours. It lives first and foremost inside us. A critique can only comment on this outward skin, this reflection in words we have cast out onto page and screen.

And this is the key. It is this inner vision, this purest form of the story that unscrolls before our eyes (momentarily blind to the world around us), which must guide us. It is important to receive critiques, and hopefully they will be good critiques. But we must remember that it is not the critiques, be they good or bad, which are truly important, but what we do with them. The most important part of the critique is the writer's analysis of it. We must break down each critique, and try to understand it, and understand it in light of what we are trying to do. We don't have to look at it just in regards to the story the reader sees, the story on the page, but rather we should look to interpret it in regards to the story only we can see. In so doing we can see the disparity between them. Our goal is to realize, as best we can, that story inside us, and to recreate it for the reader, to make the two versions match as closely as possible. We want to shape our words until they offer a story to match the dream-like vision that haunts us, so that the reader can see what we see, and feel what we feel.

Even this perfectly recreated version will not please everyone, but we can finally rest, at least, assured that this is a matter of taste rather than a failure of craft. It is a difficult thing, and yet we can do it. It is that inner vision that must guide us, our own unique view of the story we want to tell. We cannot let ourselves be derailed. Do not let someone switch tracks, and drive our story toward a destination we do not wish to reach. It is our story, and our vision, and we must have confidence in it. We must hold to it.

We can let critiques shape our story, but we can't let them shake it loose from those bright tracks we see running before us. The destination is ours, and only we know the way.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Blogging the Rings: Fellowship, Chapter 11

Aha! Thought I'd given up, didn't you? But no! I have an indomitable will of steel. Well, okay, it gets a little soft and saggy in the middle. But pobody's nerfect, right? (I had a door hanger with that on it when I was a kid. Sharp.)

A Knife in the Dark

The chapter starts with a jump back to the minor character of Fatty Bolger, watching the house in Crickhollow. The Black Riders come to the house, a scene which acts as a nice opening book-end to match with the scene at the end of the chapter (the Riders attacking the companions on Weathertop - getting ahead of myself, though...). And some moments of fine writing: "they stood, as still as the shadows of stones". I like that, both the image and the rhythm, the slight sibilance of those 's' sounds without overdoing it. And it's nice to see the danger and strength of the Black Riders growing:

"In the dark without moon or stars a drawn blade gleamed, as if a chill light had been unsheated. There was a blow, soft but heavy, and the door shuddered.
'Open, in the name of Mordor!' said a voice thin and menacing.
At a second blow the door yielded and fell back, with timbers burst and lock broken. The black figures passed swiftly within."

I like the unsheathing of the chill light, and I like the yielding door and how it falls back. A bit of personification, something of a military metaphor. The sense of forces in contention. And I like the power: a knock that bursts wooden timbers. Yes, the Black Riders are certainly to be reckoned with now. Except, of course, that Fatty has slipped out the back door and escaped. Yes, hobbits are quiet and good at sneaking... but wouldn't the Riders have thought a little more of this possibility, particularly if they think the Ring is at stake? But Fatty escapes, and raises the alarm, and the Black Riders race away, uncaring of the alarm. Only the Ring matters. And Sauron can deal with the Hobbits later... a foreshadowing for the end of the series?

Frodo awakes from a troubled dream, a transition that makes it seem almost as if he felt or sensed what was happening in Crickhollow. I wouldn't say transitions are one of Tolkien's strong suits, but he gets them right sometimes.

When the companions arise (in the Prancing Pony in Bree) and return to their original rooms, they find them wrecked. I think this helps heighten the tension, shows how close their enemies are getting... and yet I also wonder a little at the competence of Sauron's pursuers. They seem to be always close, and yet never make the right choice or figure out a way to catch up with the companions. You'd think they might be a little better at searching.

This is followed by a few pages of the commonplace: eating breakfast, getting a pony from Bill Ferny, a brief authorial jump forward in time to tell the story of the lost ponies and how they returned. This last is one of those interesting bits that I wonder if the story might be better off without. It draws attention to the narrator and away from the story, without much to gain. I mean, the reader doesn't really need to know what happened to the ponies. Why pull away from the drama of the moment?

Finally, the hobbits and Strider leave Bree, though not before Sam pings the sly Bill Ferny with an apple in the face. An interesting little reminder that Sam, for all his homeyness, has a tough side to him, especially when you consider the size difference between Sam and Bill Ferny. A rough sort of courage there, and it strikes me again that Sam is the blue collar fellow, while the other three hobbits are of a more genteel class. And Sam's even a little funny about it, with his "Waste of a good apple."

The companions cross into the wilderness, heading for Rivendell. They pass through marshland (and offere a couple of funny comments about bugs - a nice touch. A bit of humour, a bit of "show" rather than "tell"... but not too much. Nothing that bogs down the story, pardon the pun). That night they see flashes on a distant hill, "like lightning that leaps up from the hill-tops", though even Strider has no explanation for it - and this lack is worrying and adds to the tension.

The little company continues on toward Weathertop, and again we see Tolkien's penchant for foreshadowing... and for turning a bit of humor on its head for dramatic effect:

"Pippin declared that Frodo was looking twice the hobbit that he had been.
'Very odd," said Frodo, tightening his belt, "considering that there is actually a good deal less of me. I hope the thinning process will not go on indefinitely, or I shall become a wraith.'
'Do not speak of such things!' said Strider quickly, and with surprising earnestness."

A nice bit of ordinary humour, turned suddenly to a warning... and an interesting bit of foreshadowing, for this is exactly what the Black Riders intend for Frodo, looking to turn him into a wraith just as they are.

There's a fair bit of world building thrown in here, with some of the history of Amon Sul (the watchtower whose ruins remain on Weathertop) and Gil-galad, the elven king. And again a bit of foreshadowing: "'Going to Mordor!' cried Pippin. 'I hope it won't come to that!' 'Do not speak that name so loudly!' said Strider."

Arriving finally at Weathertop, they find the crown scarred by flame, and a possible message left by Gandalf... though all is uncertain. Yet it would explain the lights they had seen in the sky three nights earlier. I find I like how this is handled... things are left somewhat vague. Explanations are offered, but nothing is certain. I think it helps maintain the air of mystery and danger. Was it Gandalf? Did he survive? What happened? And I like that we only now get a delayed answer to the mystery of the lights in the sky. Set something up... and don't rush to solve it to quickly. Let it percolate a little and only then come back to it.

And then they see black specks on the road... the enemy approaching. They descend to a dell farther below and camp. Strangely, they make no attempt to run or sneak away. Is making a stand really the safer route here? It would not strike me as so. Indeed, they tell stories, which seems a little odd, though in the hope that they might be fortifying: "It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts." Interesting, really, that all tales of Middle-earth are sad... another bit of foreshadowing? It's true, in a way, as Tolkien does often eschew the happy ending. One of those elements, I think, that moves his stories beyond the simple Good versus Evil brand of fantasy. And the story Strider tells is that of Beren and Luthien. A courageous story, and heartening in a sense, as they defeat Morgoth (Sauron's old master), but also sad, as it's a tale of doomed love and tragedy and loss. Strider has an eager face as he explains, and speaks of the lineage of Beren and Luthien, which is interesting as this is also his lineage, and Arwen's, too, and the story of Beren and Luthien mirrors their own in many ways.

Finally, the Ringwraiths come. Merry and Pippin fall in dread. Again, Sam shows his toughness and stays by Frodo's side, despite his fear. Frodo himself feels a terrible compulsion and puts on the Ring, and suddenly he can see the Ringwraiths clearly, and their leader approaches, a knife in his hand glowing with a pale light. Yet here Frodo does not give in, but shouts and attacks, despite the compulsion of the Ring (sadly the movie skips this part, and keeps Frodo cowering - a slight de-heroing of the tale, it seems to me). But Frodo is wounded, and falls back, slipping the ring off even as Strider attacks the Ringwraiths with fire.

A nice cliffhanger, yes?