Friday, June 1, 2012

You and OliverTwist

In some lovely sense of connection, you find yourself feeling like Oliver Twist, a fact borne home in yet another way this morning when you ordered oatmeal, one of the few agreeable alternatives to the dreadful pastries at Peet’s.

Twist wanted more oatmeal.  You’ve done ninety-nine percent of the necessary work for the revised edition of your recent title, The Fiction Lovers’ Companion, which will have yet more text and a title you much prefer, The Fiction Writers’ Handbook.  In addition to a half-full tin of steel-cut oatmeal in your own shelves, you have ready access to oatmeal at the two other places you are wont to take breakfast when you are out on the town.  These are the CafĂ© Luna in nearby Summerland, and the smaller of the two Renaud’s Patisseries, located in walking distance from you.  And of course there is the excellent oatmeal prepared at Peet’s in mitigation of their awful pastry offering.

Thus what you want is not oatmeal but to redo the entire book, not by any means because you find it lacking, rather because you like it so well so far that you continue to believe you could like it even more, make it even more you, even more working the room, greeting readers, neither browbeating them with information nor overwhelming them, instead intriguing them with the topic at hand for this volume, a topic that happens to be story.

A contributing factor to your appreciation for the project is the number of individuals, editorial and marketing, you’ve bumped heads with at one stage or another in the evolution of the final manuscript.  This explains why you’d like another shot at it, another four or five months of living it on a day-to-day basis, which is the only way to work on any project.

At about this time last year, you were asked to prepare a blog-like essay for the writers’ conference you’d been associated with since 1980.  You took off on the scent of debunking the myth of writing being such a lonely craft, thinking about the men and women who asked you questions of such an insightful depth that you felt yourself at times bordering on frustration and or anger.  Can’t they see, you asked yourself, what should be plain to anyone who can read?  Oh, sure, the voice of your more seasoned self replied, they’re asking you these questions just to have you on.  Of course they see your intent.  Of course they “get” your point.

Thus a bit of gentle, self-inflicted sarcasm gets you past that immediate need to defend and into the world where a book is as much a collaboration as, say, an acting performance or a dance performance, as much an opportunity to be inventive as a jazz musician, improvising on a theme.  You recall with affection following musicians on their Western tours, San Francisco, L.A., Seattle, the beach cities, playing the same melodic lines night after night, set after set, yet not playing the same work, offering instead something beyond formula.

You sometimes cringe when looking at an editor’s notes, in particular when the editor seems to have enjoyed something to the point of a smiley face or penciled exclamation point.  You read on, wary, suspicious, waiting for the note questioning the need for an entire paragraph, or possibly two paragraphs, the numbers of vulnerable paragraphs increasing as you read on.

There must be some mistake, you tell yourself after a few more pages; surely there is a complaint about the way you’ve handled these lines.  But then you see something minor, or a tsk tsk because you’ve repeated an example of something and you’re being asked for a different example, meaning the big hit you were expecting is not to come.

And you remember a friend whom you first knew when he was sales manager for a massmarket paperback publisher you leased subsidiary rights to in your job as an editor for a hardcover house.  You’ve got to be out of your fucking mind to go with this title.  What does it mean?  What will the browser think when hefting it in the bookstore?

Months later, you are on a book tour, sitting at a table piled high with printed copies.  A woman hefts it, reads the title.  What kind of book is this?  Is this something a writer could use?

Portions of every book are written when there are no other persons around, but if the work is fiction, there are characters, contending for your attention, your affection, your heart, your promises of forever.  If the work is nonfiction, ideas collide like the five steel balls in a pinball machine, caroming off the sides, resisting the flippers, defying gravity.

This is no lonely trade, nor is it, as Dylan Thomas once wrote, a sullen art.  It is a sometimes nervous start, a sense of having forgotten the memorized speech, a sudden fear that you have forgotten every bit of technique you’d squirreled away for such times as these.  You are not by any means alone; you are connected to your culture, your heritage, your language.  You are joined not only by content editors and copy editors and publishers and sales reps but by every poet you ever read, every book you hated or adored, every moment you spent in the library, browsing the shelves as though you’d become Indiana Jones, discovering some hidden treasure.

Alone is the least of it.  The night sky is filled with the whistle and swoosh of Fourth of July fireworks resident in language.  The day sky becomes cloudy with the vapor trails of discoveries you’ve made about your characters and yourself.
Alone is the absolute least of it, in particular when your dog discovers the door is closed and she cannot get out into the garden, thus she comes to you.  Joyously, you walk outside with her, whereupon you notice the postman or FedEx person has left you a package that surely contains, from the shape of it, one or more books you felt you must have.


Excuse me?

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