reading

On Publication

Just as lawyers are asked legal advice over dinner and doctors are asked to diagnose conditions over cocktails, so writers are regularly asked to give free consultations on How To Get Published. Much more rarely are writers asked How To Write Well. The second is a lifetime’s vocation; the first should be the natural result of that lifetime’s vocation, but is more often seen as a quick route to affirmation, wealth, confidence, and a host of other impossibilities it rarely produces.

Because I have frequently been asked How To Get Published, I have developed some points of advice through teaching classes, browsing books on publication, conversing with other published writers, taking and leading workshops, and engaging in good old trial-and-error.

 1. Read

First of all, read the great classic masterpieces in your chosen genre. If you are a poet, read through the “canon” of great poetry in English starting with Beowulf and working your way through. You can really start almost anywhere except with the 20th century; if you start there, it will take longer to develop a sense of the rhythms of English. Learn from their eyes, ears, and ideas. Learn what works (and what doesn’t), train your ear, gain a knowledge of quality and tradition. If you are a novelist, read the great classic novels of the 19th centuries (not the popular novels of today; they’ll spoil your syntax and sense of narrative subtlety). If you write biography, memoir, or history, read the stock works in these genres from the past few centuries. Don’t read only what’s being written now, because that is often based on fads that will not last.

 2. Study

Next (and at the same time as #1), study the techniques and methods of your chosen genre. Learn all the literary terms that apply. Learn all the forms. Learn about the skills, patterns, and tools used. Take literature classes, read textbooks, browse anthologies, study literary theory, and look through literary dictionaries. You need to develop your “palette.” You need to have all the colors of paint before you can paint a masterpiece; you need to know all the rules of the game before you can be a winning athlete. So, too, you need to know all the nuts and bolts of writing. Increase your vocabulary; learn the history of words; become familiar with the denotations and connotations of words; master the forms of figurative language. This is true whether you’re writing newspaper articles or epics.

3. Practice

Start by imitating the masters. Set yourself exercises in which you take a little bit of their writing (the rhyme scheme, meter, first sentence of each paragraph, plot structure, a character, etc.) and then try to write something like theirs. Set yourself tasks that force you to try out various forms, techniques, and methods. Practice hard, every day, for at least a few years.

4. Repeat steps 1-3 for several years

Seriously. If you are writing just to get published—well, that’s a kind of mental prostitution. Of course, there are many careers in which frequent publication is required—academia, journalism, etc.—but one must be a student before becoming a master. So be in a hurry to write, but not in a hurry to publish.

5. Establish Writing Partnerships

A good writing partner is as hard to find as a good spouse! If you find one, “grapple them to thee with hoops of steel.” Meet and exchange work, critique each other’s work, act like English teachers marking up papers with red ink. Share ideas. It’s great if you can get published writers for critics, too, as long as their work is masterful and not merely popular.

6. Revise

Once you’ve written works of which you’re proud, put them away for a while. Then take them out and rewrite them. Then send them to your writing partners and rewrite them. Take them to workshops and conferences and let a group of strangers rip them apart. Then rewrite them again.

7. Attend Workshops

Find out what other people are writing in your genre. Attend their workshops, talk to them, listen to their writing, listen to lectures on the craft of writing. However, a caveat here: Beware The Workshop Poem. Workshops tend to have a kind of cookie-cutter effect on participants, causing them to churn out sound-alike poems (or stories, or plays, and so forth). Don’t attend the same workshop more than once. Find leaders who vary wildly. And never use workshops as a replacement for studying the classics.

8.       Attend Conferences

Now we’re starting to move towards the actual answer to the publication question, assuming that you have learned how to write really well. Find out what the newest books are in and about your kind of writing, meet or at least listen to the masters, get inspired, compare your work to others, and start to learn who the publishers are in your field. These are good places to meet agents, as well, which will be of great practical help—so I have heard, although I have never used an agent myself.

9.       Submit to Magazines/Journals

Once you know that your writing is skillful, relevant, and polished, you can start sending it out into the world little by little. Start with submitting short pieces (poems, articles, chapters, short stories) to periodicals. Here you’ll need a good resource like Writer’s Market or Poet’s Market. These books list the periodicals that accept submissions of work, and say what genres each likes, whether they’ll take work from beginners, whether you need to write a query letter first, and so on. People at workshops and conferences can direct you to other resources for your genre. You’ll usually need to spend a few years getting little pieces published and getting your name known before submitting a full-length work for publication. Here you will also need to learn how to write cover letters, format your work for each submission, and generally follow the ettiquette of the World of the Literary Journal.

 10.     Submit to Contests

Contests are a great way to get your work published without having to hire an agent. Just read all the contest guidelines, including deadlines and number of pieces/pages to submit, and voila! Most contests will charge an entrance fee to cover their costs, so try to choose contests that you think you have a chance of winning. Look at the work of past winners, if possible.

 11.     Try a Small Press

Very small, family-run publishing companies are more likely to take work from beginning writers than the big-name presses. This is a good place to send your first full-length MS. However, they often operate through contests, so look there first.

12. Get an Agent

While books of poetry, short story collections, and first novels of a more high-brow sort can often see the light via contests and small presses, you really do need an agent if you want to land a valuable contract or launch a best-seller. I have a poet friend who has an agent to organize everything for him. Twice a year the agent writes and says, “OK, send me X number of new poems” and then the agent does all the work of formatting MSS, choosing the periodicals, writing the cover letters, sending out the work, and keeping track of acceptances and rejections. That leaves you more time for simply writing—if you can afford it. For novels, nonfiction, and most other prose, you just really need an agent. Most publishers simply won’t look at work that doesn’t come from an agent. You can often meet a potential agent at a writer’s conference, or through a writing partner who has been published.

13. Finally, send out a “real” book to a “real” press!

So, years will go by before you send a full-length book to a reputable publishing company. That’s the way it should be. After you’ve spent years writing just for the sake of writing and after you’ve honed and developed your craft, maybe you can send out your masterpiece.

One more piece of advice: don’t self-publish. If you can’t get your book out there any other way, well, stop and consider why it’s getting rejected all the time. Maybe you just haven’t found the right niche; maybe it isn’t as good as you think it is. Stop and compare it to Shakespeare, Hopkins, Dickens. For real. But never, never pay money to get your book published. You may have to pay entrance fees to contests or a percentage of royalties to an agent, but you should never pay for the actual publication of your book. Again, that is a kind of artistic prostitution. If your book really is good and no one appreciates it, write another. The first one will keep.

Same Old Story

This article originally appeared in The Curator January 9, 2009.

The third or fourth time he spoke to me, my husband laughed aloud at the mild exasperation that must have shown in my eyes. “You really want to read that book you’ve read a hundred times, don’t you?” I had Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban open across my lap, and his conversation, albeit welcome, was interrupting the flow of the story. He laughed again, knowing the answer before I gave it to him, and he let me go back to my reading.

All my life I have been a re-reader. My worn old Little House on the Prairieseries sits directly below my equally battered Chronicles of Narnia on one of the living-room shelves. I remember reading Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmatians again and again, consecutively; from there I progressed to Where the Red Fern Growsby Wilson Rawls and then Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, and those books were the primary objects of my sixth-grade study hall periods. Nowadays, other material has formed similar rotations: Jane Austen’s novels and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the works of J.K. Rowling, Orson Scott Card, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and others.

Photo by flickr user Ben Oh.

In case it isn’t obvious, I’m not just talking about the occasional re-perusal. I’m talking about five cover-to-cover trips through Rowling’s 759-page Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows within fourteen months of its publication, two trips through Card’sSpeaker for the Dead in one month, Pride and Prejudice at least once a year. And whole reads are only half the fun; I’ve spent weeks going over the same few chapters of Austen’s Emma, dwelt in various sections of Elizabeth Goudge’s Little White Horse,and even for the superordinate class to which belong Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, That Hideous Strength, etc., partial re-reads are more common than cover-to-cover.

It’s a very idiosyncratic thing, this compulsion to revisit a story so often in close succession. It isn’t systematic, it’s the impelling of magnetic force – a desire, almost a need, to imprint the very words into my mind, absorbing their content into heart and being. And it seems inconsistent. I love and admire both Austen and Dickens, but Jane gets many more re-reads than Charles. It might be comprehensible to most that Spyri’s Heidi would still draw me back occasionally after all these years, but then, so does everybody’s favorite book to hate: Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter.

And it’s hard to isolate a cause. Part of it comes from being a writer myself; getting saturated with an author’s flow of thought and word is crucial in training myself to write well and in shaping my own style. Another part comes from the fact that many stories, especially suspenseful ones or ones utilizing older or different forms of English, are much better the second time around. Almost all good stories improve with multiple readings, anyway.

Yet another part draws from the power of certain stories to speak to me at certain times. Despite (or perhaps because of) J.K. Rowling’s admitted struggles with doubt, her stories spoke into my struggle with agnosticism and belief, and separated light from darkness, good from evil in my mind. As clichéd as it might sound, they helped me find courage to trust in the power of self-sacrificial love over death.

Austen’s Emma – and Emma’s Mr. Knightley – give me real delight through reinforcing my appreciation of being loved and chosen by a man of character. My husband is not unlike Mr. Knightley. I never fully understood why Emma loved Mr. Knightley instead of Frank Churchill until I met my husband, and at the end of the book, her joy is mine.

My favorite stories will show me compassion without leading me to despair, foster belief through imagination, and even when I disagree with an idea, give me something real to think about.

A good book is a transformational experience. A bad book may be too, which is why it is important both to read good material and to be a good reader. Reading can satisfy the soul with truth. But truths, especially important ones, are easy to forget, so I rarely resist the urge to re-read.

I do look for new material, now and again. A trip to a library or bookstore carries a sense of perilous adventure – I never know exactly where an unread book will take me. When luck hits, I will probably travel through the new book at least twice before looking elsewhere. A book like that almost always becomes part of the rotation.

But whatever the thrills or disappointments of a new book, the regulars continually reach out from the grand old shelves, ready to bring me back to the known that never seems to grow too familiar. I hear their rustlings now, even with a bookmark in Dante and one each in two non-fiction works. Austen’s Persuasion wants a turn, and even Pride and Prejudice thinks itself about due. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet wants to remind me of its alchemical backstory to Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.Dickens’ Christmas Carol keeps hinting about the time of year, and Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy vies with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for attention.

One at a time, I have to say; but they’ll probably all get their chance. I don’t see re-reading as obsession or time-wasting. It’s restful, therapeutic, exhortative, inspiring, encouraging, anything but a loss. And I’ve learned that I’m not alone: re-reading appears to be at least somewhat commonplace among the writing sort. Lewis and Rowling have both admitted to it. If it helps me write half as well as either of them, someday, re-reading will have been one of my greatest investments.

No Kind of Dancer

It was Robert Earl Keen who sang, on his debut album No Kind of Dancer, I tried hard to tell you I was no kind of dancer, and I have always felt I was no kind of one either. Dance was always the one art form I looked at and thought, “I can’t do that, but wish I could.” Maybe it was inhibition. Maybe it was growing up in Texas as a white kid assuming I wasn’t given a dance gene. But that hasn’t dampened my desire to get out on a floor and know how to cut a rug.

It was at a wedding in Austin that my then fiancé and I discovered just how much we needed dance lessons. We stepped onto the floor and looked more like two bears in a wrestling match than a pair of graceful dancers. That night a friend, gentle but firm, told us we needed lessons before our wedding day. Enter our dance instructor Matthew. For the price of a six-pack of Miller Genuine Draft per lesson, we met in his double-wide trailer to learn how to dance. We found him through a friend who was also getting married in the same month. He was her mother’s boyfriend. He soon became our saving grace, our Obi Wan.

The author and his wife on their wedding day. Photo by Casey Wigotow.

In his makeshift studio, we sipped wine while he choreographed the song we would dance to on our wedding day, Patty Griffin’s “When It Don’t Come Easy.” I’ve always been told that the man is supposed to lead in a dance but it took 38 years for someone to actually show me how my body is supposed to be in order to do it. “Lead from your core,” Matthew would say. I always thought it was about arm strength, but that’s where the bear gets to wrestling. So I tried from my core and by doing so, I wasn’t pushing my partner where we needed to go. I was going there and she responded to the movement. The wrestling bears disappeared and two human beings took their place as we could feel each other respond to the slight movements of the other. I could feel her slight tensions when she wasn’t sure where I was headed. She wasn’t fighting me and I wasn’t forcing my way. I could simply be in my own skin as she could be in hers.

Dance requires presence to one another’s movement and this really came into play when we learned the various pieces of the choreography. Though we were taught certain foot movements, and turns in a certain order, I wanted to play with the order once I became comfortable. My wife wasn’t ready for the play. She would try to anticipate my next move based on the formula we learned, only to discover I wanted to do something different, something not in the script. At first, I would become frustrated at the missteps, but soon realized I was defaulting to using my arms again. In my lack of confidence I would try to force what should only come from that core movement that is essential to dance. When I relaxed into the sturdiness of torso strength, she gelled into the improvisation. There was a new sense of play because we were now in it together – she trusting where I was going and me trusting her to join me in step; feeling her relaxed allowed me to relax in the fun.

Actually listening to the music while dancing seemed to come only as I moved past the mechanics of choreography. To discover that space where I no longer focused on the structure of the dance but heard the music and let it lead the way felt more natural than I expected. I have been a musician since picking up my first violin in grade school, going on to learn several other instruments over the years. I know I hear music differently than the average Joe, but I never knew how much the naturalness of that hearing could be felt in my bones and muscles as I moved across a dance floor. I discovered a new kind of joy – something I suspect is at the center of all professional dancers – in the synchronistic way music and motion create this thing called dance. Entering into that space with my wife, I saw how her enjoyment of it accentuated my own.

For years I have heard that marriage is a kind of dance. As one who always believed I was “no kind of dancer,” this metaphor made marriage an even more daunting prospect. What does it mean to “lead” as a man and not come off as some chauvinistic stereotype? What does grace in motion look like when my partner or I miss a step, struggle to be in the dance? How will we learn to enjoy the Greater Music that is moving us along, together, if all we focus on are the technique and mechanics? Will I let myself step out of the routine and into “play,” improvising with my wife in such a way that we both have fun? And, of course, when she discovers that new joy, I have the opportunity to let it increase my own if I am willing to stay in my own skin on the dance floor with her.

Keen finishes his song, “You guided me gently, though I thought I could never, we were dancing together at the end of the song.  It might have been a contained disaster the first time my wife and I stepped onto a dance floor, but with six-pack instruction in the small space of a double-wide, we both discovered new places in each other and we were indeed dancing together at the end of the song. May we find this again and again until the Greater Song of our lives comes to end.

 

Lost in the Four Quartets II – “Victims of Our Own Rigor”

To read the first part published last week, click here.

There’s more to the poem than I let on. If you’ve tangled with it already then you’ll know that. The Four Quartets is not composed entirely of enchanting melodies, and intrusive koans. These things figure, of course, but there are other voices, beyond the children in the apple trees hidden excitedly containing laughter, and beyond those professorial ruminations from the distant study –

What might have been is an abstraction

Remaining a perpetual possibility

Only in a world of speculation.

Some are the voices of dead masters proffering bitter pills and tasteless shadow fruit arriving like Dickensian ghosts out of the fires of Blitzed London. Others are shrieking, scolding desert chimeras, bane of the ascetics and silence-seekers of every age. Still others are interrogative, sublime angelic interlopers, commanding ‘change your life’. There are many voices, many of them Eliot’s own.

I didn’t intend to mislead you. It’s just that words are difficult tools, as Eliot would have it they’re inclined to slip, slide, perish, decay they often simply will not stay in place, will not stay still. Hence the wrestle with words and meanings. In dealing in words, especially metaphors, one can get lost, misled. This is what Eliot calls the deception of the thrush, the seductive but distorting metaphor.

In this light the last effort can best be read as a tribute to the power of Eliot’s own melodic lines. They are there, as I suggested, as an entry point, a luminous gateway

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight

Even as the dust moves

 

And they remain such even as we move into more difficult terrain. As one continues on in the journey, lines akin to this return as periodic releases into a further space, out of the struggle and difficulty, out of the action and thought that is the hard work of the poem.

Last time we introduced what you could call the base pattern of the poem, the “mobius experience,” the strange fact that in living in time, in confronting the new, we continually have to return to what we know, to where we started. In returning, however, we see the known place anew. We review. And on occasion and in its most extreme form this revisiting can be experienced as

a new and shocking valuation of all we’ve been

In case this seems like artistic licence, a romantic indulgence, let’s compare some statements from the poem to those from a number of sober-minded scientists working today in the field of molecular biology. From this point on they’ll be our companions as we journey together, in Eliot’s wake, into the rarely-exposed heart of the human experience. The proximate source for all of them is Connor Cunningham’s excellent Darwin’s Pious Idea:

“One of the greatest surprises of the Human Genome Project was the discordance between the count of protein-coding genes ([about]) 24,000) and expectations based on perceived phenotypic and behavioural complexity.”

– Lynch

As we grow older

The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated

Of dead and living.

 

 

“It is not possible to do the work of science without using a language that is filled with metaphors. Virtually the entire body of modern science is an attempt to explain phenomena that cannot be explained directly by human beings. Physicists speak of ‘waves’ and ‘particles’ even though there is no medium in which those waves move, and no solidity to those particles…The price of metaphor is eternal vigilance.

– Lewontin

That was a way of putting it – Not very satisfactory…

Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle

With words and meanings

In view of which the work of the poet and that of the scientist no longer seem entirely unrelated endeavors. There seems to be a unity of intent, if not of method. The methodological differences are obvious enough not to require illustration, but what is interesting is the suggestion that the fruitfulness of the work depends in both cases on this relentless underlying struggle with words and meanings. There is a shared sense that in order to arrive at something approximating the truth one must be perpetually willing to say again

That was a way of putting – Not very satisfactory

And then to keep on trying

our concern was speech. And speech impelled us

To purify the dialect of the tribe

I’ve encountered this line many a time, and only now, in the light of the words of Lewontin & co, do I realize that it describes the scientific enterprise every bit as adequately as the poetic. What is physics, what are the hard sciences, if not a search for a pure descriptive language? This impulsion toward purity of expression is what we know as rigor. And rigor demands continual openness to the possibility of the new and shocking valuation. Eliot suggests this is the only way to truly live the human condition, Lewontin that it is the only way to practice science. An interesting correspondence, to be sure. Lewontin’s phrase about the duty of the scientist captures the essence of Eliot’s poetic ethos in a manner that is quite uncanny. One could well imagine Eliot himself having said it, even as having chosen it as the loadstar of his entire poetic enterprise. And if The Origin of The Species, or Copernicus’ heliocentric model, or even Gibbons’ Decline and Fall were not a new and shocking valuation of all we’ve been, what on earth was?

As we begin to draw to a close we eccentrically quote yet again from a molecular biologist, largely, in this instance, because we want to co-opt his incidentally beautiful phrase as we progress toward our own (provisional) conclusions:

“With reference to the processes of embryonic segregation, genetics is to a certain extent the victim of its own rigor…”

– Lillie

At times, in reading the Four Quartets it does seem that one is asked to be, along with Eliot himself, a victim of his rigor. This rigor, this impulsion to purity of expression, is experienced in one of the poem’s climatic sequences, as a refining fire. A purifying force that is, Eliot will contend, the only true hope and only true liberty of the human spirit. It is what Polish philosopher and historian of ideas Leszek Kolakowski describes, in an essay on the place of philosophy in the wider world, as the spirit of truth:

“The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver truth, but to build the spirit of truth, and this means never to let the inquisitive energy of mind go to sleep, never to stop questioning what appears to be obvious and definitive, always to defy the seemingly intact resources of common sense, always to suspect that there “might be another side” in what we take for granted.”

 

So this then leads us into another way of experiencing the poem: to be thus, along with Eliot, a victim of the spirit of truth. A victim because in this section of the poem rigor is applied not to scientific theories or existent accounts of history but is let loose in the core of the poet’s own being, as he painfully looks back on past follies, vanities, and meanness. This is an experience of

the rending pain of re-enactment

Of all that you have done, and been; the shame

Of motives late revealed, and the awareness

Of things ill done and done to others’ harm

Which once you took for exercise of virtue.

Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.

From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit

Proceeds

These are awkward lines to dwell on aren’t they? They graze a little close to the bone, I find. Bringing back a flood, or at least a bloody trickle, of comparable moments from my own failed life with others. And yet it turns out that this refining fire is not, in the experience of the poem, a solely destructive force, it is not, as Dennet has imagined of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, a “universal acid”, it is, here, in tandem with a deep and hidden music, a restorative force, for the section continues and concludes with these lines

unless restored by that refining fire

Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.

The question of whose tune you’re dancing to at this point undoubtedly depends to an extent on your creedal persuasions. Regardless, though, in the life of the poem it is clear that a liberation has taken place and that the agent of this liberty is the spirit of truth in so far as this spirit is inflamed by a higher music who’s strains and rhythms carry poet and reader in and through the chard breakage of the past into a present and future music. So as much as the poem is a call to attend to the timeless moment, it is equally and vitally a call to pick up, and carry on. The struggle that is our journey through time continues, and yet amidst the hubbub of universal trial and traverse the poem insists one can still catch the sound of

a voice descanting (though not to the ear,

The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language.)

and what it calls to us, as Eliot has said else where, echoing Krishna, is

Fare forward, voyagers.

Lost in the Four Quartets

The first time I read it, at a conceited 23, it didn’t make much of an impression. I think I just ploughed through it, cover to cover without pause for breath, content to be able say ‘I’d read it’. Undoubtedly a phrase or two lingered on –

music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts

Four Quartets

– memorable, strange, and evocative. But other than that, the terseness, the obscurity and evasiveness of the thoughts, the general lack of bombast and salaciousness all rendered it a little dry and uninteresting. Obscurely Christian, I suspected. I seem to recall waving it off with a flippant dismissal, comparing it unfavorably with The Wasteland over a drink with a friend. By that point I’d no doubt gathered, somehow or other, that that was pretty much the enlightened consensus on the matter. Eliot, post-confession: not that good, give it a quick look, add it to the “read it” column, move on.

Which I then attempted, almost successfully, to do. But the strange thing is, sometimes, unbeknownst to you, a book gets a hold on you, and won’t let go. So it was with me and this slender 4-part volume of supplely intertwining meditations on time, thought, and eternity.

I don’t know how I ended up returning to it. It must have been those occasional lingering phrases, subtle and shifting like smoke in lamp light, drifting back into consciousness, suddenly congruent with an unguarded moment. The rising music of lines like

For most of us there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight

were a moment of recognition, a moment to which I could respond, “yes, I’ve had that experience.” So that was it then, come to think of it, the poem returned to me. It wasn’t the other way around. All I did then was acknowledge that, yes, I too have drifted lost in a shaft of sunlight. But then having conceded that much, Eliot being the prickly interlocutor that he always was, would reply, yes but you…

missed the meaning

 

to which I would wonder, but what meaning was there to attribute to it?

I recall a vivid moment of having truly been the music while the music lasts. I was on vacation, one that I spent largely on my own, wallowing in books and music, taking walks on an Ottawa Valley lakeside. I was eating an improbably ripe mango, slicing off juice-sodden crescents with a sharp little knife, and I’d just pressed play on the stereo. And from the first note of John Tavner’s The Protecting Veil I was the music, and the music was me. Naturally I tried to repeat the experience. But listen to it as I might, never since have I had that same experience of total and complete transport. I even went so far as to buy another mango, but the moment was not ‘on demand.’ It seemed to be a ‘given’ something. A commonplace ecstasy that I was powerless to reproduce. Curious, yes, but a matter for further reflection? Yes, Eliot asserted, because

Approach to the meaning restores the experience

In a different form beyond any meaning

We can assign to happiness.

But what on earth could that mean?

The problem was, though, once I’d gotten involved in these questions there was little hope of escape.

I should warn you, the poem attacks from a variety of angles. The likelihood is that if you get entangled in it, it will be through one of those gorgeous melodic lines that first snagged me:

Words, after speech, reach

Into the silence.

That’s true, you’ll say, they do. What a beautiful observation. But the trouble is that Eliot isn’t content to leave it at that, look:

Only by the form, the pattern,

Can words or music reach

The stillness, as a Chinese jar still

Moves perpetually in its stillness.

Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,

Not that only,

And you’ll say… okay… still basically lucid. Insightful, even. You’ve known time stand still around a note, right? A friend of mine once vividly recalled to me the first experience he had of such a thing as a child hiding in his brother’s closet, listening to a Creedence Clearwater Revival guitar solo and suddenly – there was the note and while it lasted the world ceased its turning.

But keep on your guard, because, returning to Eliot, something’s beginning to creep in that’s a little disconcerting:

No that only, but the co-existence,

Or say the end precedes the beginning,

And the end and the beginning were always there

Before the beginning and after the end.

Oh no. And now you’re in a very dangerous place. Don’t move. Don’t engage. Remember the T-Rex in Jurassic Park? Well, take the same approach here: just stay perfectly still, hold your breath, and let the terrible danger pass by. Because, let me warn you, if you engage this sentence, or any of the innumerable ones like it, you’re liable to get caught. It happened to me, and ten years later, as you can see, I still can’t get out.

These paragraphs – ostensibly ugly unwieldy and obscure – let me warn you, they’re koans. They’ll tie you in knots. Follow them and you’ll end up traversing a mobious strip only

To arrive where you started

And know the place for the first time

 

Over, and over, and over again. Repeatedly. And after a while you won’t even be reading the poem any more. You might even be trying to avoid it. And then suddenly a memory from the workaday world will return to you and you’ll think… hmm… I

had the experience but missed the meaning…

 

And on it goes. And if like me, you’re looking to “make some progress” in life– you’re going to start getting flustered. Because if you’re looking to “get somewhere” you’ll start to feel hindered by the action of the poem – because look, here you are, all of a sudden, back where you started.

And such, in fact, is the price of entanglement with this exquisitely crafted poem. It works on you, and as it does, as you run around and around its mobious melodies, or as they run around in you, you find yourself a little changed. A little more inclined to attend to the commonplace mysteries all around you be they the wild thyme, the waterfall, or the children in the apple-tree –

Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.

Because in getting lost in the Four Quartets it seems you found something, a gift hidden in the world of your own experience now, here, now, always. And turning to your own world of experience with new baffled eyes, hungry and vigilant for another sight of it, you’ll find yourself surprised that the poem has such an effect. At least such was the case for me, because as I said:

The first time I read it, at a conceited 23, it didn’t make much of an impression.

BREAKING NEWS: You Heard It Here First

All the President’s Men is indisputably the all-time best film about journalism ever made in the history of the universe of films being made about journalism. (Take that, Citizen Kane.)

It’s not about journalism in the boring sense, but the golden snitch for every journalist: breaking the story. (And, some weird lobstery guy who, I understand, did a couple of dumb things as president.) If Hollywood is to be believed – and I’d like to think that it is – a truly great journalist will stop at nothing, will leave no scruples standing, in pursuit of that grail. If you’re trying to have integrity and hone writing skills over a long, industrious career to one day enjoy a body of good, true, and beautiful work that made the world a better place – I hope you’re not a journalist. You might as well be a one-legged man in a three-legged race and/or chin-kicking contest: it’s not looking good for you.

Journalism is for the two-legged only. I suppose if you have three or more legs you can get into the biz, but you may have some serious medical conditions you should have a professional look at.

Journalism is for those in whose veins runs fire unquenchable for unbroken story; those with nose for news that sniffs out story’s scent like foxhound smelling quarry’s stink, even when quarry has recently dated skunk in feeble, but foxy, attempt to throw trail. The journalist cannot be derailed from his or her density, excuse me, destiny.

With the publication of this piece, I, too, enter the ranks of the many great (imaginary) journalists who shook off naysayers’ shackles and found a way – found the story. It might be presumptuous to start talking Pulitzer, but I thought I’d at least mention it in case the committee has a Google alert set-up to let them know when awesomeness gets published on the Internet. It’s not every day one can say they discovered, what is sure to be, the next major global cultural phenomenon.

Warning: once the word is out, this thing is going to be harder to get your hands on than the new KFC Double Down Sandwich. (Which I am likely to cover in a future article.)

I’ve been compelled by voluminous stories before: The Lord of the Rings, the Space Trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Martian Chronicles, I & II Chronicles. Basically, if you put “chronicles” in the name, you stand a good chance of me liking it. And now, a new series has risen to their level, and I think many after me will agree, and some will argue it may be best of all.

This seven-volume collection “chronicles” the coming-of-age of a young wizard in modern-day England: Harry Potter. Each installment, titled Harry Potter and The Whatever-The-Main-Plot-Thing-Is-From-This-Particular-Book, moves steadily through Harry’s seven years at what is called “Hogwarts,” a school for witchcraft and wizardry somewhere in northern England that can only be accessed by a magical train, or other magical means.

The Harry Potter series is chock full of the fantastical as Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron tackle one adventure after another. Together they find themselves immersed in a long, dark battle against an evil wizard whose name most fear to speak. Having been one of the very few to have read these brand-new books, I hesitate to type the letters: VOLDEMORT.

This Voldemort – or He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named, as all the characters save Harry and the enigmatic and lovable headmaster, Dumbledore, call him – has got a score to settle with Mr. Potter, or The-Boy-Who-Lived, as he’s called, because he is the only person ever to have survived Voldy’s killing curse.

Another word of warning here, be on the lookout for a slew of references in pop culture to this The-One-Who-Shan’t-Be-Named stuff. I have a sinking feeling it’s gonna be around for a while. As will the use of hyphens to turn a sentence into a noun. For that we have J.K. Rowling to thank.

A precocious little wife and mom with an acre lot, a white picket fence and the Union Jack flying proudly from the porch (I assume the British are as into that stuff as we are, right?), J.K., or J. – as those closest to her and I call her on account of we are the only folks out there trumpeting this would-be blockbuster – got the idea for these stirring and ever-so-readable books from what can only be described as a luminous vision of herself sitting in Buckingham Palace at high tea with Her Majesty after the masses finally get a hold of these artifacts and make her the richest woman in the U.K.. Second to the Queen, of course.

That day is a long way off, but perhaps this breaking story can be a catalyst for the recognition and honor that she (and by extension, I) deserves. But we can dream.

Having recently finished the seventh book, I am convinced that Harry Potter will hit it big with the kids first. J. has a great sense of what kids are thinking and how they perceive school and teachers. It seems as though she’s written this, not for the high-brow literature critic like me, but for those schoolboys and girls whose imaginations and dreams seem to be locked up in the proverbial closet under the stairs. (Ironically, that’s where Harry was locked up when you first meet him in book one . . . )

I do foresee a little troubled water ahead for the series if it manages to cross the pond. And I certainly hope it does. Peppered throughout the thousands of pages are words that strike fear into the hearts of many Americans. Words that some don’t think anyone should causally toss about. Words like “spell,” “witch,” “wizard,” “wand,” “witchcraft,” “wizardry,” “magic,” “England,” “flying,” and “Hermione.” A few will see these words as an outright endorsement of Satanism and/or the Occult. They’ll protest the idea that it’s okay, even good, for kids to read about fictional children in a made-up story doing fake spells and battling a non-existent evil-snakey-wizard-guy, all the while bolstering their imaginary friendships and learning valuable figmentary life lessons. They’ll say kids are too impressionable to understand the difference between real and make-believe. They’ll ask, “If they read these books, won’t they start trying to fly on broomsticks, levitate their peers, turn eggs into rocks, and other dangerous, magicky stuff?”

He-Man and Battle Cat

Reminds me of when I was a kid. I thought that if I just thrust my plastic sword higher and fiercer into the air and bellowed, with cracking voice, the “magic” words, I, too, would “have the power” and the accompanying steriody pecs and skimpy wool underwear. Well, look what happened to me. I write goofballish articles online, make up words, use too many hyphens and play the saxophone . . . which is the devil’s horn. Oh my! Maybe they’re right. Maybe we should stop this magicky Harry Potter thing before all our kids end up playing saxophone!

Well, anyway, the winds of change they are a blowin’ and they’re bringing with them witches and wizards (and not the innocent Gandalf-type we all know and love in spite of the fact that he, too, is a powerful, gray-haired, magical, Dumbledorean, spell-casting wizard).

I do forecast, however, that while this trend will come out of the gates strong, good ol’ American consumerism should win the day. Once Walmart starts selling the books and peripheral goods (and believe you me, they will), the protesters will put down their signs and fall in line with fellow consumers to snatch up hundreds of dollars in merchandise on behalf of one Santa Claus (a known imaginary figure who uses magical means to deliver gifts to kids who do good and who deserve them for the doing of the good things they did do).

Since none of you have yet read this about-to-be monumental series, I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that, more or less, above all else, when push comes to shove, in the end, these books are about love. Not a sappy, easy kind of love, but the difficult and sacrificial kind. The kind of love which reminds you that those things worth loving aren’t so easily had or kept. That kind of love which puts neighbor before self. That kind of love that lights the darkness.

The kind of love that inspires Hollywood to crank out flicks that make oodles of dough, cashing in our collective soft spot for pre-teen/teenage fantasy book-turned-movie sacrificial-loved-themed stories. If I were a betting man, I would rush over to Vegas and put money down on the odds that these books will become feature films. I’m sure the action will be good, although the line probably won’t. Any sportsbook that would put up a money line on the Harry Potter series – and had literate staff – is gonna open the line around -500 that the movies will get made. Not a favorable risk if you’re betting sports. But if there ever was a sure bet in literature turned motion-pic, this is it. My advice: plunk down your retirement savings (or what’s left of it) on Harry Potter goes Hollywood (that sounds oddly like a sequel to the sequels) at -500 and pray that I’m not wrong about how sure of thing a movie deal for Harry is. (Gambling, and any discussion of it, is for entertainment purposes only. Unless you’re a wise guy. Then I take 15% commission for the tip.)

Whether or not this quaint little series ever rakes in billions at the box office, finds itself on the New York Times bestseller for weeks and weeks on end, drags bleary-eyed mums and dads out to the only bookstore left in a 100-square-mile radius at midnight to get their soon-to-be-saxophone-playing, magic-deprived kid the next book, or, um, rakes in billions at the box office, remains to be seen. For now, if you can burrow to the dustiest back shelves of your local mall’s B. Dalton or Waldenbooks, you might find one or two of the Harry Potters.

Oh, and don’t count on getting any help from the pubescent cashier. I recently was trying to hunt down Book Two and asked the pimple-faced youngster stocking shelves if he’d ever heard of Harry Potter and be able to direct me to its location in that fine establishment. He just stood there and gawked at me like I’d just sprouted a second head. Kids these days. Maybe he would have picked a few manners (in addition to transformation spell or two) if he had read any one of the H.P. tomes.

So. Now you can tell all your friends, you heard it here first.

I guess, what makes me sad about writing this piece, is that it may mark the end of my tenure as contributing editor at The Curator. Once it’s out that I was the one who discovered what will be the greatest literary phenomenon of all time (save the Bible I suppose) I think I might find myself overwhelmed with interviews, talk-show appearances, and maybe even tell-all book deals about my miraculous journey from wayward web-writer to Woodward-and-Bernsteiner.

I’ll save my thank yous for my Pulitzer acceptance speech, with this one exception: The Curator. Read it. Bookmark it. Tweet it. It’s as verisimilar as a small online magazine imprint of the International Arts Movement can be in our age of anti-verisimilitude.

The Elementary School Reading Workshop

From the New York Times: The Future of Reading.

The approach Ms. McNeill uses, in which students choose their own books, discuss them individually with their teacher and one another, and keep detailed journals about their reading, is part of a movement to revolutionize the way literature is taught in America’s schools. While there is no clear consensus among English teachers, variations on the approach, known as reading workshop, are catching on.

In New York City many public and private elementary schools and some middle schools already employ versions of reading workshop. Starting this fall, the school district in Chappaqua, N.Y., is setting aside 40 minutes every other day for all sixth, seventh and eighth graders to read books of their own choosing.

Why can’t I read anymore?

From the LA Times: The Lost Art of Reading.

It isn’t a failure of desire so much as one of will. Or not will, exactly, but focus: the ability to still my mind long enough to inhabit someone else’s world, and to let that someone else inhabit mine. Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.

Cultural Snobbery

From Vanity Fair: James Wolcott on Cultural Snobbery.

In New York City (can’t speak for the other metro systems across this great land), every subway car is a rolling library, every ride an opportunity to spy on the reading tastes of fellow passengers and make snap judgments that probably wouldn’t hold up in court. Single women in their 30s and 40s gripping a teenage-vampire tale or a Harry Potter-they seem to be hanging out a surrender flag. Those parading the latest Oprah selection might as well honk like geese. Then there are those who defy stereotype. A tall, straw-thin model glides into seated position and extracts a copy of concentration-camp survivor Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning from her bag, instantly making an onlooker (me) feel rebuked for assuming she was vacuous and self-centered based on her baby-ostrich stare. In the same car is another, older woman-do men not read anymore? (Seinfeld’s Jerry, defensively: “I read.” Elaine: “Books, Jerry”)-holding up a Kindle at an angle to catch the light. Unless you were an elf camped on her shoulder, what she was reading was hoarded from view, an anonymous block of pixels on a screen, making it impossible to identify its content and to surmise the state of her inner being, erotic proclivities, and intellectual caliber. She might be reading Alice Munro, patron saint of short-story writers, or some James Patterson sack of chicken feed-how dare she disguise her download from our prying eyes! And reading an e-book on an iPhone, that’s truly unsporting. It goes the other way as well. How can I impress strangers with the gem-like flame of my literary passion if it’s a digital slate I’m carrying around, trying not to get it all thumbprinty?

How to Read a Book


Photo: Steve Mishos

“Reading is to the mind as exercise is to the body.” -Sir Richard Steele

At a lecture I once attended on reading, the lecturer quoted Mark Twain who said, “The man who doesn’t read is no better off than the man who can’t read.” It was an idea I hadn’t considered before, and I had one of those moments where things clicked. Twain’s words still ring true despite all of our entertainment technologies and distractions.

But in 2007, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that one in four American adults had not read a book in the previous year. Just over a thousand people were surveyed. The poll qualified people into various demographics, though none gave a definitive answer to the question. Why did 25% not read at least one book in the course of a year? And was this an accurate cross section for American adults in general?

When I came across Jill Noel Kandel’s essay “Asking for Salt” in Image last summer, it struck me that maybe non-readers are not just people who don’t like to read. In the essay, Kandel tries to teach her son Brian to read. Brian doesn’t retain the alphabet and can’t remember the sounds the letters make. It’s a constant struggle for Kandel, who can see that her son is intelligent, compassionate, and loving. For some unknown reason, there is a disconnect in his brain which prevents him from reading. At the beginning of the essay, Brian is eight years old; at the end, he is sixteen and still can’t read. It’s heartbreaking.

I think a lot about what it means to be a reader – what reading is really worth. The truth is, I love to read, but this wasn’t always the case. I know plenty of people who can read but choose not to, and for years I was counted among them. As a child, I learned to read early and easily, but didn’t spend much time reading. I found other things to occupy my time, like watching television. And I watched a lot of television, something that became a crutch I’d eventually have to wean myself off of. In fact, like most American families, much of my home life was centered around watching television. If my parents read books when I was young, I never knew.

I finished high school having been in honors English, though I read very few books cover to cover, mostly cracking open novels enough to get the gist and write a decent essay. When I got to college, I still read very few books, only reading in its entirety what piqued my interest or what I forced myself to get through in order to add insight to discussions. But during college, I could feel a shift away from television and toward reading. My double major in English and communication led me through studies of the media’s effect on the masses and how to think critically about the information I absorb, all while studying literature ranging from the greats to the relatively obscure. In the midst of it all, I knew I wanted to be a reader.

During that time, my classes led me to two books that informed the shift toward my becoming a reader: Marie Winn’s The Plug-In Drug and Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Read a Book. They are counted among favorites on my bookshelf, even now, six years later.

The Plug-In Drug is a look at how television-watching affects children and the family unit. Winn stresses the importance of having a family life without television and gives parents the tools necessary to manage the medium. This book radically changed my perspective on television. I started thinking more intentionally about how much time I devoted to passively gazing at images on the screen, and the impact of that action on my relationships.

Adler’s book, on the other hand, delves into the depths of reading, an action Adler qualifies into four levels: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical. Honestly, it’s pretty dry, but is sprinkled with enough useful information for the wannabe reader to have held my interest. Adler encourages readers to inspect the books they read from cover to cover and make lots of notes in the margins. He thinks readers should be asking questions of the literature they read and think about how texts might interrelate (the fourth level of reading). But there is one tip from this book that’s stayed with me: read for long periods of time. In reading for more than a few minutes here or there, you have time to sink in and develop a relationship with the book, and the book in turn has a greater opportunity to work its magic on you.

I don’t know exactly how, but in my senior year of college, it just clicked for me. I became a reader and always had a book by my side. Now my home is littered with piles of books, and I have a to-read list that grows by the day. I love the idea that we each carry with us what Gabriel Zaid calls in So Many Books a reading constellation, a catalog of books read, unique to each reader. Zaid writes that the books you read must speak to you in some profound way, even if they aren’t the classics or mainstream fiction.

As a writer, I find it particularly important to read often and read widely, so I do. I admire people who read voraciously, and I want to be counted among them. I read to keep my mind sharp and because it makes me smarter than I actually am. I read because it engages me in a way nothing else does and nourishes my soul. I love everything about books, down to the way they smell, and believe wholeheartedly that every word on every page that I lay my eyes on informs who I am.

As a woman about to become a mother, I wonder what shapes certain people into readers and others into (essentially) non-readers. I want my child to learn to love reading. So does Jill Noel Kandel.

My husband, as a child, struggled with reading, and he still does. He doesn’t have a learning disorder, but learns better from hearing and doing. That’s not to say that he doesn’t read. He could outread me on anything having to do with Irish civilization. But maybe not everyone is meant to be a reader, even if they’re literate. Maybe the written word doesn’t nourish everyone’s soul in the same way, or at all. Like so many things, we can only influence our child; we can’t force him or her to love reading or, as in Kandel’s case, even to have the capacity to read. All my husband and I can do for our child, in hopes that he or she will learn to love reading, is read aloud often, turn the television off, and foster the attitude that reading is an important component of the human experience. From there, we’ll let the chips fall where they may.

Is a literary revival on the way?

From the New York Times: Amazon to Sell E-Books for Apple Devices.

“A couple months ago a lot of people thought Amazon was slavishly imitating the Apple model,” said Bill Rosenblatt, president of the consulting business GiantSteps Media Technology Strategies. “It turns out they have a different model than Apple. They are smarter than everyone thought.”

The developments also suggest that, true to his word, Steven P. Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, has little interest in the market for digital books. Mr. Jobs once dismissed the Kindle by saying “the whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

Oh, Steve.

Same Old Story


Photo: Moriza

The third or fourth time he spoke to me, my husband laughed aloud at the mild exasperation that must have shown in my eyes. “You really want to read that book you’ve read a hundred times, don’t you?” I had Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban open across my lap, and his conversation, albeit welcome, was interrupting the flow of the story. He laughed again, knowing the answer before I gave it to him, and he let me go back to my reading.

All my life I have been a re-reader. My worn old Little House on the Prairie series sits directly below my equally battered Chronicles of Narnia on one of the living-room shelves. I remember reading Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmatians again and again, consecutively; from there I progressed to Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls and then Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, and those books were the primary objects of my sixth-grade study hall periods. Nowadays, other material has formed similar rotations: Jane Austen’s novels and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the works of J.K. Rowling, Orson Scott Card, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and others.

In case it isn’t obvious, I’m not just talking about the occasional re-perusal. I’m talking about five cover-to-cover trips through Rowling’s 759-page Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows within fourteen months of its publication, two trips through Card’s Speaker for the Dead in one month, Pride and Prejudice at least once a year. And whole reads are only half the fun; I’ve spent weeks going over the same few chapters of Austen’s Emma, dwelt in various sections of Elizabeth Goudge’s Little White Horse, and even for the superordinate class to which belong Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, That Hideous Strength, etc., partial re-reads are more common than cover-to-cover.

It’s a very idiosyncratic thing, this compulsion to revisit a story so often in close succession. It isn’t systematic, it’s the impelling of magnetic force – a desire, almost a need, to imprint the very words into my mind, absorbing their content into heart and being. And it seems inconsistent. I love and admire both Austen and Dickens, but Jane gets many more re-reads than Charles. It might be comprehensible to most that Spyri’s Heidi would still draw me back occasionally after all these years, but then, so does everybody’s favorite book to hate: Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter.

And it’s hard to isolate a cause. Part of it comes from being a writer myself; getting saturated with an author’s flow of thought and word is crucial in training myself to write well and in shaping my own style. Another part comes from the fact that many stories, especially suspenseful ones or ones utilizing older or different forms of English, are much better the second time around. Almost all good stories improve with multiple readings, anyway.

Yet another part draws from the power of certain stories to speak to me at certain times. Despite (or perhaps because of) J.K. Rowling’s admitted struggles with doubt, her stories spoke into my struggle with agnosticism and belief, and separated light from darkness, good from evil in my mind. As clichéd as it might sound, they helped me find courage to trust in the power of self-sacrificial love over death.

Austen’s Emma – and Emma’s Mr. Knightley – give me real delight through reinforcing my appreciation of being loved and chosen by a man of character. My husband is not unlike Mr. Knightley. I never fully understood why Emma loved Mr. Knightley instead of Frank Churchill until I met my husband, and at the end of the book, her joy is mine.

My favorite stories will show me compassion without leading me to despair, foster belief through imagination, and even when I disagree with an idea, give me something real to think about.

A good book is a transformational experience. A bad book may be too, which is why it is important both to read good material and to be a good reader. Reading can satisfy the soul with truth. But truths, especially important ones, are easy to forget, so I rarely resist the urge to re-read.

I do look for new material, now and again. A trip to a library or bookstore carries a sense of perilous adventure – I never know exactly where an unread book will take me. When luck hits, I will probably travel through the new book at least twice before looking elsewhere. A book like that almost always becomes part of the rotation.

But whatever the thrills or disappointments of a new book, the regulars continually reach out from the grand old shelves, ready to bring me back to the known that never seems to grow too familiar. I hear their rustlings now, even with a bookmark in Dante and one each in two non-fiction works. Austen’s Persuasion wants a turn, and even Pride and Prejudice thinks itself about due. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet wants to remind me of its alchemical backstory to Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. Dickens’ Christmas Carol keeps hinting about the time of year, and Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy vies with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for attention.

One at a time, I have to say; but they’ll probably all get their chance. I don’t see re-reading as obsession or time-wasting. It’s restful, therapeutic, exhortative, inspiring, encouraging, anything but a loss. And I’ve learned that I’m not alone: re-reading appears to be at least somewhat commonplace among the writing sort. Lewis and Rowling have both admitted to it. If it helps me write half as well as either of them, someday, re-reading will have been one of my greatest investments.