Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Yearning Curve

When you are in the beginning stages of learning a particular discipline, there comes an idealized peek into the future, when you visualize yourself in the act of performing that particular activity, flawlessly, effortlessly, as though you had been intended from birth to arrive at that state. This peek into the future is in the way of a gift to yourself, an incentive for learning so well that you have invited the discipline into permanent remedy within your being. Some of the disciplines, such as the grammar and syntax of the English language, are basic. Others, such as sexual performance, are primal. Yet others, such as operating a vehicle, required that you be licensed.


Some things, such as sex and voting, can be engaged without much advance preparation, although in each case, advanced preparation is ultimately to your advantage.

Some stages of learning involve the awareness of tools and the understanding of their use. Before you were forced by circumstances to trade in your hip joints for those of a titanium design, you were much concerned with the nature of running shoes and a study of stride and lift and, of course, the mechanics of hydration. The night before a half- or full-marathon was a splendid opportunity to show your awareness of nutritional and metabolic processes as well as your own pleasure in preparing a meal of pasta and lobster for their carbs and glycogen. You now consider instead of running shoes the mechanics of swim fins and such stylistic devices as Total-Immersion swimming.

As the need and opportunities to become a book editor approached you, there were tools mentioned in revered tones, beginning with CMOS, The Chicago Manual of Style, which you have owned since your first purchase when it had a green color, not quite that of lime Jell-o. There was also the Merriam-Webster New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Biographical Dictionary, the Atlantic Monthly Short Lives, a Merriam-Webster Geographical Dictionary, a world atlas. You used some of these items more than others. When you had the seniority to do so, you implemented changes such as substituting The American Heritage unabridged for the MW, at which point one individual you knew and respected congratulated you on coming of age to the point of choosing the standards for your publishing venture. (Emboldened by this vote of confidence, you promptly instructed the copyeditors in your employ NOT to hyphenate Moby-Dick.)

Many of the books-as-tools you grew forward with have tumbled off the desk and into obsolescence as entire technologies have changed. Does it date you beyond measure to speak of a favored guide, Words into Type, which still has a pretty effective section on the author's responsibility to a manuscript and a project? You don't have to answer that, but you do have to know what being a professional entails.

At one time you thought to assemble a style guide for fiction writers, still not a bad idea because, splendid as it is, CMOS is more for the nonfiction writer. In your way, the work you now have out in submission, The Fiction Writer's Tool Kit, is, as the title suggests, a tool, a reference guide for the fiction writer. You are inordinately fond of the publisher who is now looking at it, but even were they after deliberation to decline, the work helped you and was at the point of this essay, your tool kit for story-telling and for the construction of non-formulaic fictions.

These thoughts have come tumbling down on you precisely because you set out this morning to restore some order to the shelves closest to your working area. Which tools can you live without? Which are you likely to use again and again? And one of the most intriguing mysteries of all: There is no question about the place Mark Twain occupies in your esteem and your dreams. You've carefully set out an entire bookcase devoted to him and such books about him as you care to keep. The mystery that arises has its origins in the second tier of the bookshelf closest at hand to you, where CMOS resides with Words into Type, The Copyeditor's Handbook, A Dictionary of American-English Usage, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, and other such compilations, right next to a pile of Big Little Books used as a sort of decorative bookend, is Chaucer A to Z, The Viking Portable Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, John Gardner's The Life and Times of Chaucer, and yet another volume of The Canterbury Tales before drifting off to a new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? You would hardly call yourself a mediaevalist or even a Middle Ages man. Could it be that you see in Chaucer the human condition writ large as a writer's tool kit? It could be.

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