Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Six books I couldn't pack and why

My husband and I will be moving soon. That means lots of books have been stuffed into lots of boxes. But there were some books I couldn't bring myself to pack away. The risk was too high. I'd worry about them too much. All of the other books in the house could suddenly disappear, and I'd survive without too many tears. But these are my special books. A few are irreplaceable. Almost all have sentimental value and represent something I care deeply about. And all will be bubble-wrapped and transported carefully beside me as we drive to a new house in a new town in a new state. Overkill? You must not love books like I do.

In no particular order:

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman


This book is special for two reasons. First, because it represents a period in my life when I discovered that humans can have an affinity to a place and never know it till they land there (if they're lucky enough to ever make it). Second, because it represents a beautiful, magical summer I had once upon a time.


There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar


If you've read the blog before, you may know why I can't heartlessly stuff this book into a box. It's the only book that survived my childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and now into my 30s. It has been with me these 22 years and still makes me cry. It is the example I want to live up to when I put pen to paper.


Peter Pan and Wendy by J. M. Barrie


You might also know why this made the list. All I'll say here is that I love this story because it's saying something. Not all stories do that, and of the books I've read, none other does it this well.


The English Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann 


This book can't go into a box because it's simply too fragile and worth too much money. It permanently lives in a ziplock bag, and the cover won't hold much longer. But there's one more reason I want to keep it safe. That's because it's hand-colored. It's unique. It's beautiful (though hilariously gruesome). In other words, you can't get one at Walmart.


When We Were Very Young by A. A. Milne


This one is also worth too much to pack away. However, I love it and own it for two important reasons. First, because it's heartbreaking. Most everything I've read of Milne's is, to me. But also because it is our first introduction to Pooh.


The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis


I've heard everyone goes through a crisis of faith at some point. We question what we've known. We look for answers. It's as human as eating and breathing and hoping. This book came along just about the time I started asking questions and changed the way I think about certain things forever. This copy may be ugly to some, but with my original markings throughout, it will always be beautiful to me.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Voice

Earlier today, I found this binder from my senior year in high school:


The horrible curly-lettered cover hides a stack of my first attempts at creative writing. I'm not exaggerating when I say they're truly awful. Just imagine a poem with lots of italics and talking animals. A short story about roadkill. Guilt-ridden religious prose. There's even an autobiographical piece about...dare I say it...poop.

I wish I were kidding. It's just awful.

I didn't make a serious attempt at writing again until about four years ago when I took a creative nonfiction class. Since there was nowhere to go but up, it's not bragging to say I'd improved over the years. But as bad as those early tries were, there is one striking similarity between the way I wrote in high school and the way I write now. The voice--the cadence, attitude, tone, style, approach--though it has grown to be more subtle and controlled, the voice I use now is strongly hinted at in the old writing.

Voice is one of the great mysteries often discussed in writing classes. But I think the connection between my old and current writing sheds some light. Perhaps every author has an innate writerly voice. That's not to say she can't put on another voice very successfully or that the innate should always be used. It's just to say that a natural and consistent voice exists within a writer and will become stronger over time (with hard work, practice, lots of editing, and consideration of constructive criticism).

But I don't think the critical point about voice is that it exists within each writer--it's that a particular voice exists, one that no one else has. Knowing what you want to say--plot, problems, characters, themes--those are just details. Voice is the glue that holds them together. Voice is your special ability. It's taking your unique viewpoint and communicating it with words. It can make your story stand out from the countless others. Yes, originality of plot can do wonders (and is an amazing feat), but a strong voice can even carry a recycled structure to amazing heights. Take Harry Potter for example. That's no original plot structure. It's not even an original premise. But it's a good story with its own uniqueness. And it's engaging. Really engaging. In my opinion, that's because of two things: universality and the storyteller's voice. Universality is available to all. But your voice is yours alone.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Featuring independents

Sure, I shop at big chain bookstores once in a while. They've got really good pumpkin cheesecake in the cafe in the fall. And they have lots of pretty cards and stationary. And bookmarks. And most any popular book you're looking for. But there are at least three very important things the big chains don't have that independent bookstores do:

#1 - One of a kind, hard to find, out of print, international, local interest, like-new, obscure, signed, and self-published books

When you walk into one of the mammoth chain bookstores (otherwise known as McBookstores), you're looking at a room full of books a group of corporate buyers thought would sell. That doesn't mean all of them will, nor does it mean there aren't some fantastic stories on the shelves, but it does mean the decisions made were based on money, not necessarily on what a group of executives deemed to be valuable literature (this is also true of some publishing houses).

When you walk into an indie bookshop, you're looking at a room full of books the owner and his/her colleagues chose. Don't get me wrong--they often have to think about profits in order to keep their doors open. But at least IT (yes, the slimy brain thing from A Wrinkle in Time) didn't choose the stock, so you're guaranteed a unique experience at each store. Plus, part of the money you spend goes to the owner and the local community instead of being used to get the brain a new cushy pillow to sit on. Lots of times, you find the same books in an independent shop as you will in IT's store, like the ones below from Poor Richard's Booksellers in Easley, South Carolina. By buying new books indie style, you'll be supporting local business. (Though, if you really wanna save money and natural resources, you could always just go to the library.)


You can also find like-new books in indie shops if they sell used. Like this beautifully illustrated copy of Pullman's take on the Puss in Boots tale for just $5 from McDowell's Emporium in Anderson, South Carolina. IT wants almost $14 for the same title and lacks that extra little bit of love and wear that any good used book offers.



If you find a shop that sells old used books, it's also possible to buy something no one else in the world has a copy of. And you might even get it for a measly twenty bucks like I did. Below is an autograph book I found at Noah's Ark Book Attic in Tryon, North Carolina. Originally full of blank pages, it was used kind of like a school annual is used today. Friends and classmates of the book's owner signed their names inside along with short poems or messages to be remembered by.

There were two books in this set, one from the owner's days in high school and one from college. I couldn't afford both, so I chose the one from his younger years. Autograph books can be found at antique stores as well. If you're lucky, you'll also find little bits of memorabilia inside like the cut-out of the black cat. In the book from the owner's college years, someone had pressed a four-leafed clover between two pages, and it was still intact these 120 years later. Some have elaborate illustrations drawn in as well. These are one of a kind, and they can be very affordable, so if you come across one, buy it. It'll probably cost you less than any number of new hardbacks from your local McBookstore.



If you shop indie, you're likely to find titles IT can't afford to stock, or at least titles IT thinks it can't afford to stock (the scope of the human brain is obviously largely unappreciated by IT who apparently uses things like statistics and percentages and popular opinion to make decisions). Below are just a few of my recently found treasures. Some I bought, and some I only took pictures of to remember for later. I did buy this beautifully bound and illustrated $7 book of Tennyson's poems printed in 1888. I found it at The Village Book Shoppe in Tryon, North Carolina.


This late 70s printing of Kate Greenaway's Book of Games is in great condition and was only $5 at McDowell's Emporium. 


I couldn't afford this one from Noah's Ark, but I was really pleased to flip through its pages. It's a first American edition of The Zankiwank & the Bletherwitch, notable partly for its Arthur Rackham illustrations as seen on the title page below.


I didn't buy this one from the Emporium, but I wish I had. The text is available online if you're curious about the powers a generous person can hold after death (if said person plans ahead and if those left behind are patient). But online, you miss out on the woodcuts.


I did get this from the Emporium for just $2! How about that late 70s cover design? Mushroom houses in electric blue on a field of blindingly green grass? And stories about gnomes and goblins and pixies? Yes, please.


I even lucked out and found the following. It's hand-colored and calls itself the "Twentyfirst Edition...After the ninetieth edition" of the German language version. All pages are intact. And for only $18 at a Hendersonville, North Carolina antique shop! I paid for it quietly so the person behind the counter wouldn't realize what she was getting rid of for such a small price. Don't let the cover fool you. It has neither funny pictures nor pretty stories. But then, according to Peter Hunt in An Introduction to Children's Literature, the book is a satire of cautionary tales.



#2 - Character and community

Sure, you can get most of the books above (and more) online. You can even get free shipping from some places. But you can't get the feel of walking into a little downtown shop with retrofitted shelves and cat hair and old smelly chairs and stacks of unshelved books in the corner and an owner on site who can tell you where the book lived before it came to his shop and lamps for lighting and low ceilings and homegrown reading groups and homegrown readings. You can't spend hours scanning shelves for rare treasures or have fascinating conversations with the owner about things like the fragile nature of vellum binding or sit on the back porch while men with beards smoke cigars. You can't walk out with a paperback of Anne of Green Gables under one arm and an antique typewriter under the other. You can't have the place all to yourself. And, perhaps most importantly, you can't smell the thing before you buy it. The sense of smell, in the case of buying books, is essential.

The Village Book Shoppe in Tryon, North Carolina:



The Book Shelf in Tryon:



City Lights in Sylva, North Carolina, where I recently spent a lovely evening listening to a dear friend read from her new book, surrounded by friends and family and a mountainy atmosphere:



McDowell's Emporium in Anderson, South Carolina:



Poor Richard's in Easley, South Carolina:



Malaprop's in Asheville, North Carolina:



Noah's Ark Book Attic in Tryon, North Carolina:


And Mr. K's in Greenville, South Carolina:


#3 - Cats

You will never be minding your own business down a side aisle in a McBookstore only to be interrupted by the meow of a cat who sounds like he's smoked one pack too many and who is bordering on obesity. (I will continue to use the pronoun "who" in reference to a cat instead of "that" even though the Chicago Manual would probably disagree. Anyone who's met a cat knows a cat is never a that and always a who or a whom.) Having your book browsing interrupted by a meow is a pleasure only to be had in independently owned bookstores. These cats are often spoiled, demanding, shedding, slightly oily, very vocal, and are surprisingly never named something literarily satisfying like Watson or Hester or Phineas. And yet, I love them anyway. Why? Because felines, in their quirkiness and pride and irreverence, embody the very spirit of the independent bookshop. They do what they want, when they want, and answer to no one.

This sweet looking cat who lives at Noah's Ark weighs in at about 20 pounds. He's the second most demanding cat I've ever met and is surprisingly agile. If you find yourself at Noah's Ark, my advice is that you not turn your back on him, however sweet he looks.


The lazy cat below lives and reigns at McDowell's Emporium. He's got a sore foot but still manages to be right in the way of whatever section of books you happen to be looking at, meowing his smoker's meow and rubbing against your leg till your jeans are furry. (It's my own fault. I made eye contact and took his picture and said, "Here, kitty.")


These are just a few of the nice things about your local indie bookshop. Learn more at ABA or IndieBound where you can search for shops near you if you're in the US. Read more about local bookshops in the UK and search for locations here and here.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Looking for stones

When I was little, I longed to do the dishes. It looked like so much fun--all that warm water full of bubbles, dishes making music as they slid past one another before disappearing beneath the foam, the mysterious satisfaction of taking something dirty and making it clean. I remember Mom laughing and saying, "One day, you'll wish you didn't have to do the dishes." I couldn't fathom that. I'd have traded any number of Barbies for a chance at the sink. But it was a long time before I was allowed. As you and I know, sometimes shining bubbles hide very sharp knives.

Mom, in her wisdom, did allow me some grown-up opportunities. The one I remember most distinctly was my job as seeker of stones. Before a deliciously earthy meal of brown beans with onions, cornbread on the side (with lots of butter), and tomato slices (if they were in season), Mom would ask me to sort through the bag of beans. Sometimes there were rocks or tiny sticks in there, she said, and if I didn't get them out, they'd end up in someone's bowl. As you can imagine, I took this job very seriously. I'd sit with my legs folded under me at the kitchen table, a high, rough rectangle of wood with legs, put together by my papaw. My only tools were a bowl and a sharp set of eyes. Beans went into the bowl to be rinsed. The sticks and stones formed a pile on the table. I imagined that if I went through and found nothing, Mom might think I hadn't looked hard enough. If I found too much, she might not want to use that bag, which would mean no big steaming bowls of buttery, salty, soupy, oniony beans that evening. What a terribly important job, being the bean sorter! I was always proud of my little pile of stones at the end. I eventually started putting half-beans to the side as well, even though Mom said they'd be alright to leave in. The decision was ultimately up to the bean sorter, and the bean sorter in this case chose to take out half-beans so her loot pile would be more impressive.


Recently, during several intense days of editing articles on a tight deadline for a magazine, a thought occurred to me: Editing is basically looking for stones. It's looking for things that don't fit and removing them so the end product will go off without a hitch. No one wants to bite into a stone. Or a twig. Or even a half-bean, if you're like me. I want perfection: the right mix of salt and butter and onion and beans. I want fluffy cornbread with butter and honey (on the comb, if you have it). Give me ripe tomatoes or none at all. And I don't want to get too full. That would ruin the experience. I prefer to be left wanting more.

I learned while doing this project that the process of taking a written piece from bag to bowl is one I love. Making sure everything is right--the tone, the style, the grammar, consistency, subtlety, voice--is rewarding. I actually want to find errors. With its pile of errors discarded to one side, a written piece can be seen and appreciated fully instead of being filled with distractions. With my own writing, I find myself (with a little bit of luck and usually after many, many revisions) saying, "There! That's what I was trying to say!" But editing yourself is different from editing someone else. It's a much more personal action to take away a precious sentence here, a lovingly placed aside there. It's difficult to delete a character or to save an epiphany for the next story. It's natural to want to create perfection on the first go and be reluctant to admit mistakes. But it's also natural to then slowly begin to extract what doesn't belong. Don't we hope to continue to become better? And doesn't it sometimes hurt during the process? But the end result is worth it.


Of course, what happens at that rough table is totally different from what happens in the kitchen! And in truth, editing is done throughout the entire process and up to the very end, not just in the preparation stage. Maybe someday when I'm wiser and more experienced, I'll write everything I've learned about the great art of cooking up a story. For now, I'll just share a few things I learned from my brief but interesting stint as a contract editor and from those old days of looking for stones:
  • Grammar rules, though confusing and still partly a mystery to me, are your friends. They work to keep confusion at bay.
  • If voice and style are strong and consistent, they can (if allowed in the publication and if skillfully used) override established grammar rules and be a welcome break in a stiff collection (or tradition) of works.
  • Even if you've read through a piece twenty times for errors, chances are you'll find another error on read twenty-one; four eyes are better than two.
  • Editing someone else's work helps you learn to edit your own.
  • A written piece, whether fact or fiction, is a three-legged table. Content, style, and grammar work together to form a coherent piece. As strong as the other two may be, if one leg is broken, the table will fall.
  • An informative piece should still try to appeal to the universal. In other words, having an article full of facts doesn't give you permission to be boring.
  • Apathy is as evident as passion. 
  • Working facts, theories, and figures into stories is a way of giving readers a reason to care about them.
  • Layout can be critical. (Just ask a poet. Or a publisher.)
  • What a piece can be and should be and was hoped to be is only possible after refinement, but a bag without rocks is no guarantee of a good bowl of beans.