Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Big 4 - 0

The Big 4 - 0... 40... XL... Forty... No matter how you say it--you still end up with the same amount.



And in six short months, I'll be there. Is that so bad? There are a lot more numbers after forty than before it, right?

The problem is, unlike my two amigos, I have yet to produce a tome. A chunk-o-pages. A pile-0-leaves.

A novel.

Short stories I have aplenty--and some of them published, even. But nary a novel.

Ink has three or four sitting in drawers. I'm sure he'd loan me one but it wouldn't be the same. And there it is...40...staring me down.

You read about how (insert famous author's name) wrote five novels by the age of (insert insanely low number) and it's easy to get discouraged. But they didn't have daughters eleven and nine years old, and a rabid Jack Russell terrier gnawing on their toes whilst they wrote... Or did they?

Oh well. Forget about losing a few pounds. Forget about volunteering at the local food bank. Forget about helping a few more ole ladies cross the street this upcoming year. You know what my resolution is. June 30 is highlighted on my calendar and I sit poised amongst a pile of index cards, notepads and sundry other instruments of fiction creation.

I wonder though... Am I the only one who feels the press of TIME and AGE in my writing? Or am I just being a little neurotic?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Link by Link

A good ol' fashioned topic here: inspiration.

I just finished reading a collection of stories, Stranger Things Happen, by Kelly Link, and it was a collection to love. Odd and strange and original and quirky and just a little bit haunting, the sort of stories that stick with you after you've finished them. Like peanut butter on the roof of your mouth, you're gonna have to pick at them for awhile. A lick here and there, a prod with your tongue, a few thoughts of how chocolate would go so nice with this...

But what I found most interesting about my response to these stories was that element of inspiration, of that sudden need to write. Not to emulate, per se, but to make something, to fashion something new and wholly unique out of all those old verbs, adjectives and nouns. Dust off those familiar words and make them shiny again.

It makes me think of stories as links in a chain, bound together, all individual and yet all connected. Stories reaching out, sparking and starting new stories in new minds. It's like that image of Michelangelo's on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the hand of God touching the hand of man, the spark of life and creation transferred onward. And yet here we have the image repeated again and again and again, a chain of stories from a hundred thousand minds, playing off each other, sparking and sparkling, an interwoven fabric of links tunneling backward through time, from mind to mind, charting the long and ecstatic course of inspiration.

And I wonder what it is that makes for that inspiration. Not all stories do it, not even all stories I love. I might find a story great as a reader without it touching me as a writer. But certain writers, certain stories, are bright with that current, as if storing up an electrostatic charge just for me. Waiting... waiting for me to touch the doorknob (the little currents all alive), waiting for me to open the door on that particular world.

The strangeness of Stranger Things Happen is part of it. Stories, and realities, bent a little askew. Different. I want to capture that difference in turn. Or, rather, I want to capture not Kelly Link's differences but my own. I want to swallow up the energy of these creations and use it, an electric boy plugging himself into a new world. See my fingers glow as I type...

So I'd like to turn this idea back on you. Are you inspired by other stories or writers, and, if so, what are the particular qualities that inspire you? Is there some recurring quality that you find charges your writing batteries?

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Thingyness of Books: An Ode to Paper

I've been thinking about something bookish the last few days, and so I thought I'd give it a whirl here on the blog. It started when I read this article, by Alan Kaufman, last Friday (linked by the irrepresible ebooknocrat Nathan Bransford).

Now, I'd have to agree with everyone who said the article was alarmist and overdone - and perhaps rather insensitive, considering some of the comparisons made. And I found this unfortunate because underneath the hyperbolic rhetoric there were some interesting ideas.

I should say, first, that I'm not exactly anti-ebook. It's obvious that it's going to be a major growth market over the next few years, and if it makes some (or many) readers happy, then I'm glad. I saw my first live Kindle the other day. It's a very neat gadget, and I can see why some people like them. My neighbours were certainly thrilled with it. And this shows both its potential (so seductive)... and that the timeline may be a little slower than some people think. I'd never seen one until a few days ago. Never. There's a long way to go, it seems, before we reach market saturation.

But that saturation point may be somewhere around the corner. If and when... that seems pretty uncertain to me. But since the possibility is on the horizon it does make me think about that article. Certainly it would not be the end of culture, of literature and all things human, as Kaufman suggested. That's utterly alarmist. But there is a loss. And perhaps it's an acceptable loss, but loss it still is.

What I think is lost is the particularity and uniqueness of a book. And I don't mean "books", plural and in the abstract. I mean book, singular and concrete. A book is an object. It's something real that you hold in your hands, something unique that exists outside all other things.

This is what we lose with ebooks. Now, yes, there is something egalitarian about ebooks, about everything being reduced to digital coding, a sort of democratic darwinism at play in the shuffle of digital texts as they jockey for the limelight. Stripped down and sleek, reduced only to the essentials, the strings of words that form the backbone of their meaning.

And this is the essential part. The words, the sentences, the stories. And this is why the Kaufman article is so alarmist. The stories will be saved, will still be savoured and shared.

Yet a book is something a little more than its essentials. Perhaps these little trimmings are only of passing interest and shedding them will come at little cost... but I, for one, will miss them. And perhaps we all will, too, when we have a chance to look back from the digital future to a paper-filled past.

A book is a thing. A particular thing. And not just in the sense that Stephen King's Under the Dome is different from Marilynne Robinson's Home, but in the sense that one Home is different from another Home. Hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback... yes, yes, but even between one trade paperback and another. Each book is its own entity with its own history. Some fresh out of box or wrapper, others that have been read, that have been handled and dropped and picked up again. Some have been shared, passed from person to person, each new reader leaving a few traces of themselves behind. A few crumbs, or lines underlined, or signatures offered. A pretty boy or girl's phone number scrawled on the inside of a cover in a script loopy with hope and alive with the electricity of the moment's connection.

A little story: I found, once and long ago, a copy of a book in a used bookstore, a book called If On A Winter's Night A Traveler, by Italo Calvino, one of my favourite writers. It's a postmodern sort of book, self-aware and self-referential, knowing itself as a story and sharing that knowingness with its readers. And one of these previous readers had written comments on these intertextual comments, a sort of conversation, inter and outer at the same time. And yet another reader (with yet another penmanship) offered comments on these comments.

And what I had in my hands was a book utterly unique in the world. There was nothing else like it. The meaning of the text had bled outside the words, outside the sentences set on the page.

I regret this loss in ebooks, where stories are reduced to encoded text, a book pared to its essential minimum. Lost is this conversation, the uniqueness of the book as object. I can see ebooks blurring a little at the edges. The unchanging device, the eye that can no longer differentiate between one story and the next. A vagueness creeps in along the borders, like photographs slightly out of focus. Liminal spaces grow, a No Man's Land that swallows a few lines here, a few lines there.

And the thingyness of books is lost. The choice, for a book, between using one kind of paper and the next. The texture of it, the faint pebbling of it against the fingertips, the richness of the colour, the revels of whiteness in a thousand shades. Smooth edge, or rough? I like those rough-edged pages, sort of feathered and soft, the little peaks and valleys running along the edge of the books. (With ebooks there are no edges at all.) The cover art, and the cover itself. The weight of it, the way the pages turn. The binding, loose or tight. It's not a perfect world, I admit. Water damage, spines breaking, bindings loosening until pages drop like leaves in the cold of autumn. Not a perfect world, but a real and particular one. Each leaf, living and dying, unlike the rest.

I think of a future where each leaf is really just a dream, a dream of a leaf in a treeless world, and in this future I find myself a little wistful, a little sad, a little cold. There is just the ether, the wind whistling through, unobstructed, across a grey and featureless plain.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

As the Lights Dim to Nothing

A dream in passing. A little world folded down. Boxed. Shipped. Like a Lego scene built and deconstructed and built again. Only this time smaller, growing up strangely amidst my own home, two worlds superimposed, one over the other. I keep thinking of origami - a page folded into a large paper crane, and then folded into a box, and when unfolded and there again is the crane... only not quite. A little smaller, a little more wrinkled. A dove, perhaps, with grimy wings.

And in that space where once a world flourished (a book world) there is an echo. The room seems larger and all the more paltry for that largeness. The carpet, unadorned by shelves, looks more frayed, shabbier, a suddenly bereft parent after the children have left. Why keep up appearances any longer?

It looks a little dirty. The walls, so long covered, are really quite ugly. The light through the windows seems a little flat, uninteresting, or perhaps merely uninterested. Colour has been stripped away, and the dazzle of light lives only in reflection, in the deflected vividness of blues and greens and reds and the deep deep browns of wooden shelves. Bits of tape on the window, where SALE! signs have been stripped hastily away. A few screws on the ground, here and there, bits of powdered drywall clinging to the threads. A little forlorn... they hold nothing now, and all is air and space and ceaseless echo.

The front step, broken and repaired by The City of Windsor, is broken again. It took a day. Craftsmanship like this is lauded only in the Land of Broken Things, where everything costs a dollar. An empty rectangle. I have boxed up the memories, too, and carted them away. Already the rectangle has forgotten everything, everything but a few words, the tattered corners of pages that have torn away (the books having already emmmigrated) and now flutter in the breeze from the door. Collect them all together and perhaps there's a meaning... a puzzle to be deciphered. A mouse, perhaps, late at night, will discover the wisdom, will hoard it away with cheese and lint and dabs of butter stolen from local restaurants.

And beyond that door, beyond that breeze, there is a new world, or a world made new by opportunity and necessity. Only a moment to look back at the sign, white lettering on black background. The font is Book Antiqua. of course. And the sign... a name. A name chosen for a beginning, for a mother who started me reading with the literary gift of an Oxford Professor, for one beginning that led to another, to an inkling of an idea, an idea of a place filled with books.

Inklings Bookshop.

I'll leave it there, the sign, a last memory for the street to cling to even as the lettering fades. It was, too briefly, a symbol, an arrow, a guide. But time will wash over it, surely. It will fade to the relevance of graffiti, detritus cast up by the old paved sea of Windsor. Until someone paints over it, hangs out a new shingle bright with hope.

Inklings Bookshop.

An arrow that now points only to a place inside my head, adorned with sights and smells and rich with the texture of pages. A place where the shelves are endless and stretch on through the slanted light. Motes of dust in the air, aglow in that light and floating, floating, floating...