Wednesday, August 8, 2012


Throughout an earlier formative time in your life—not that the current moment is any less formative; only formative in a different way—you sought the vade mecum, or handbook that would have represented to you the writer’s equivalent of the philosopher’s stone.

Vade mecum is Latin for “go with me;” it has a nice reliable sound about it without the translation.  Guideline.  Handbook.  Exegesis.  The true, unabridged, User’s Manual.  You lusted for such a book because, by its very nature, it would reveal to you inner secrets of phrases, sentences, entire paragraphs, complete chapters. 

Perhaps this remarkable reference work would give you the same shove you get when reading Samuel R. Delany’s masterful About Writing, in that it would supply you with visions of projects instead of mere tools and the instructions for their use.  A rip saw saws with the grain.  A crosscut saw saws—surprise—across the grain.  Stuff like that.

Perhaps it would not be a vade mecum at all but instead a collection of short stories or a novel, or a collection of poems from a tense and mysterious time in a tense and mysterious poet’s life

A book nearly as remarkable as the Delany and one you believe Delany’d agree with is Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel; more or less a cornucopia of ideas based on functional distinctions among social classes.  Things to make with the tools you now have.

While you were in the process of looking for such books, then realizing they not only do not exist—because the process does not work that way—you also learned you would, in effect, have to write such a book if you still wished to have one within arm’s reach.

In what has come to represent to you an enormous and delicious irony, you have in fact written such a book.  It was published but rather in a poor and desultory manner.  The consequences were many, including you and your literary agent coming to the conclusion that the project needed to be taken from the original publisher.

This has been done.  A new, more thoughtful and knowledgeable publisher has it scheduled for early October, is already sending forth ARCs—advanced reading copies—and asking you to take one last run through   one of the ARCs, as your final shot at looking for typos and for adding any last-minute thoughts.  (Your first paragraph mention of the Delany sent you a mental note to include it in the reading list).

Here’s where the irony comes in.  Your own vade mecum, your own handbook—indeed, it is now called The Fiction Writer’s Handbook—is a splendid book, but it has only brought you this far.  You have no doubt that other readers will be able to get numerous books from it, but you are screwed in the sense of having to write other such books to get you beyond the point where you are today. 

How unthinkable it is to think you’ve reached some kind of plateau where all is enough? All is never enough.  There are new all things to attempt, knowing in advance how impossibly high a bar all is.

A book can inspire you to take risks, which your book surely does, but it cannot fill in blank spaces for the future.  Ideas worth your consideration are those which have no instruction manuals as yet, no vade mecum, no book explaining how.

No matter if the ideas have been picked over by marauding seagulls or other writer/thinkers.  No matter at all.  You have to work through the limitations of what is called common sense or conventional wisdom, hopeful of finding some idiosyncratic perch on which to make your campsite while trying to figure out how the next level of things works.

In a highly metaphorical sense, the desert island book you’d chose, the instruction manual you’d want most with you, were you to become homeless or stranded somewhere or set off on an island somewhere by relatives, or stashed away in a retirement home is a thick blank book like one of the bulking dummies paper companies make available for book jacket designers. 

This would give you the paper and portability to write the survival guide you’d need in order to live in one or more of these places.

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