Monthly Archives: April 2016

Giving Books to the World

piles of books

They all go.

I was thinking this week about a book I remember owning, an art book I bought in 1981 in Leningrad (a city that has since gone back to its real name, St. Petersburg). I was in Leningrad that year at Christmas, and the group of students I was part of had a dinner with extremely schmaltzy entertainment, the sort of thing tourists might like, but I didn’t like it. The event was no doubt to distract us from the fact that on Christmas Day we were foolishly stuck in the Soviet Union (also now gone back to its real name, Russia).

In the afternoon before the dinner, I bought a large folio book with pictures from a contemporary artist who had struck my fancy. That evening at the dinner, along with bad entertainment, we had jolly great quantities of wine (and probably vodka), and when the meal ended, there were open wine bottles on the table, still full. I was myself jolly great full of wine, so I decided I’d just take a bottle, which I stuck in the plastic bag I was carrying, along with the new book. Then I laid the bag on its side for just a moment.

I know I had that wine-stained book for years, but it seems to be gone, which doesn’t surprise me. I’m not sure how often I’ve moved in my life, but a couple of years ago I calculated it to be around thirty times, and I’ve discarded a lot of belongings in that time. I can tell you from experience, the more times you pick stuff up, the less you love it. I’m now thinking, as much as I like my current apartment, that I want to move closer to work, cut down on my commute, and have more time in the week.

Over the decades, I’ve collected a wonderful lot of coffee table books, the sort that are large and colorful and beautifully printed. I’ve moved these tons of books over and over, most recently from here to New Jersey, to Pennsylvania, to Maryland, and back to here. I think it’s time to give them away before I move again.

Many of these books are about Russia, which has been such an enormous interest for me for so long. I have books on history and art, books on palaces, and book with historical photos and particular kinds of art. I’ve been through every one of those books, and when I look at one with photographs of palaces in St. Petersburg, I go back to so many memories, strolling beside canals, sitting in cafes eating pastry, walking lost down unknown streets in late-day sunlight, standing in snow at a train station, possibly after a few sips of vodka, playing a rendition of Tchaikovsky on my comb while other students danced like swans (although that was in Moscow).

I also have a number of fine books on ancient Egyptian art, another area that has been a very strong interest for years (I even published an academic article once on ancient Egyptian rhetoric). I’ve never been to Egypt, however, going there only through books and museums. For years I taught classes that included Egyptian culture and history, in part because I just wanted to. You may not realize that we have literature from ancient Egypt. We don’t have much, but we do have some, and I used to teach it.

Part of my interest in Egypt was linguistic (of course it would be), so that I spent some time trying to learn to read hieroglyphics. Those books I’m keeping, because I still can’t part with language books. And anyway, I might want to learn more about reading hieroglyphics. Just thinking about it as I write this makes me want to get up and go look at them.

Among the books I’m discarding, I also find a couple of things from the history of Christianity. One of those books came from my father, who collected books like the floors of forests collect leaves in autumn. I could take a hundred books out of his house and you’d never even notice. From who-knows-where I also acquired a book on St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai, and I still consider that place one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen, even if I only encountered it on paper.

I’m not concerned about a lack of books. Just last Saturday when I came home from a Passover Seder at a friend’s house, I was carrying three fat novels by an Italian writer. There will always be books in my house, even in this digital age, and even as I give them away.

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But Don’t Go Yet

couple kissing at a trainA couple of days ago I had an email from a friend in Russia, who made the comparison between writing a book and giving birth to a child. This is not an uncommon metaphor, of course, but she could perhaps speak of it more knowingly than some, as she has given birth and has experience as a writer. Comparing the arrival of a child to the “birth” of a book, she said (I’m translating from the Russian), “As for a book, I think you answer so much more for what it will be.”

I’ve been thinking lately about the emotional relationship to a book when you write it. I was not thinking particularly about having to answer for it, though of course that’s true in some sense. Years ago I realized from looking at the art of other people that when you put something out in the world, it’s no longer yours. People will do with it and make of it what they want, and you might as well just accept that and move on.

The topic of what other people do with a book is not what I was thinking about lately, however. I was more particularly thinking about the relationship of the writer to the characters of a book. I’ve been moved recently to ponder this because about a week ago I finished the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on.

I’ve been writing this book for about four years, now living in the third state where I’ve worked on it. The book at one point had four major characters, now two, and the story launched off in multiple directions, with philosophical insertions. While I was writing it I read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and that gargantuan novel had a bad influence on me. It took me a while to figure out I’m not writing in the century before the invention of TV.

The relationship of a writer to the characters is a bit strange if you think about it. In some ways, those characters are the writer, as they came out of the writer’s head. No matter what the writer might say, everything on the page began as the writer’s thoughts, so as a writer you might say, “I’m not really a serial killer, you know,” but um, you’re able to think like one.

In some ways the characters are projections of the writer, what the writer loves, wants, hates, fears, is bored by, and so on. People who know a writer personally can see a lot of that in the writing. Yet in the mysterious way of art, the characters of a novel gradually become something that is not the writer, become people the writer never met before and is now getting to know.

The characters in my books, although I made them speak and think and do what they do, they become real people to me. And think about it—if you spent four years with someone, not just hanging out once in a while, but thinking their thoughts and deciding what they will do, you’d become very close to that person.

From writing several books, it has been my experience with each of them that when a book is finally done, along with the joy of AT LAST! there is also a little melancholy, realizing that the time is coming when I will never talk to these people again. When all the revisions are done, however long that takes, there is going to be a time when the book is truly finished, and I will never read it again (or I certainly hope not). And that will be that—those characters are gone, no matter how much I liked them or found them entertaining.

Perhaps it is partly this sense of missing the characters that causes some writers to write sequels to books, wanting to spend more time with the people. That won’t be the case for me, as I don’t write sequels, nor will I ever. This week, however, I’ve been revising the opening of an older novel, after the reaction of the literary agent who said the pacing is off. I didn’t necessarily want to do the work—and yet, it’s been such a pleasure to again spend a little time with those people. I can say I missed them.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), How We Create Magic, Writing While Living

Breathe Deep, Breathe Deeper

colorful painting of womanWhen I breathe in, how much can I do with that breath? Unless you’ve forgotten some of the Latin you learned back in kindergarten, you already know that the Latin word for breathe is “spirare” so that breathing in is inspiration. The Romans apparently did a lot with breathing, as these words show: expire, conspirator, spiritual, transpire, aspiration. This week a friend sent me an article with two writers talking about what inspires them, other than books. All writers are surely inspired by books, and a more interesting question may be “what else?”

So I drifted off for a while down the rivers that run through the brain, watching the strange plants and thinking about what inspires me to write. For poetry, nothing inspires me so much as hearing songs. It’s the effect of some line combined with the emotional power of the music. Sometimes I hear a single line from a song, and it grabs me, pulls my soul out of my body, and says, “You need to be writing something now!” Actually, songs have always done that for me, so it’s not just with poetry, but it’s hard to take that moment of musical compulsion from, say, Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” and turn it into a novel.

As I ponder this more, I realize that I work from inspirations happening at what you might call different levels. There is the fireworks version I just described, but a more long-term and perhaps more serious form of inspiration comes from watching people. That probably sounds trite, yeah? “Oh right, a writer is inspired by watching people—jeezus, give us a break!”

So here’s something that happened yesterday driving to work. Much of my commute is through neighborhoods, and I was driving fairly slowly past two young women on the sidewalk, one of them pushing a baby carriage. The other was wearing pink pants that I thought might be pajama bottoms, she was slightly heavy, and she had brownish blond hair. As I drove away, I was thinking about the woman in pajamas, and I pictured her in a kitchen with some friends, smiling and talking. I also saw someone cutting a cake, and the woman was trying to decide whether to take a piece, or if she was dieting. I really was picturing all this in my head—not intentionally, it was just there.

In the few seconds all that took, I began to want to know who she was, and in effect I was creating a character, because of course I didn’t know the real person. This sort of thing happens constantly, a basic aspect of how I experience the world. In considering this blog entry, it occurred to me to say that the inspiration for the novel I’ve been working on the last four years began with a photograph of a person.

green beadsSeveral years ago I was in San Francisco on St. Patrick’s Day, and I took a picture of a little girl, maybe four or five years old, wearing green beads and looking down. When I lived in Pennsylvania, I had a set of photos blown up and on the wall in front of me where I wrote, and seeing that photo every day, I would think about that girl, until I began to want to write about her. As the novel developed, she ended up being 16 years old, but the book entirely started with the girl in that picture.

This kind of inspiration is also a weakness for me as a writer, as I want to write about people, who they are, how they live, what they desire, and so on, but I don’t have any particular story to tell. It’s rare, however, that anyone will take a book with no story (the literary agents I’ve talked to have repeatedly fired this point at me like a bullet), so I have to work pretty hard to come up with stories about my characters.

Another very different thing that truly inspires me is a contrast between times and places. Working with such contrast is more abstract, as it has to do with ideas, but the idea of contrasts in how humans live really does set off sparks in my imagination. Maybe it has something to do with thinking about our diversity as a species. As a current example, a completed novel I want to sell concerns a father and daughter who time travel, and the book alternates between 1876 and 2011.

But what mystery of human consciousness (or unconsciousness) splashes to the surface in song lyrics, in photos of girls, in contrasting time periods? If we swim deeper, what is inspiration? The only answer I can give is that it’s a form of breathing.

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You Are Forbidden From Reading This

burning booksLast week I was reading the magazine Publisher’s Weekly, which had an interview with the Irish writer Edna O’Brien, and in the discussion, the article mentioned her first novel, The Country Girls (actually confused in the article with a later memoire called The Country Girl, without the plural). The novel was published in 1960, and at that time, the Irish censorship board banned the book. To make it all so much more fun, the local priest in O’Brien’s parish burned copies of her book.

While I still sat holding Publisher’s Weekly in my hand, I thought I’m absolutely going to read that book. Any book people insist you cannot read is a book you should read, especially if the insistence comes from the grim gray monolith of the Catholic Church. Since I try to only buy my books from bookstores, rather than from Amazon (even though I probably pay more), I asked Tale Tales, a small independent store, to order the book for me. The clerk could not find the book still in print, so she ordered me a used copy from Great Britain.

I left the bookstore thinking about the enormous efforts people have exerted to control what other people read. The purpose of censorship is to try to control what people think, as the books are simply a conveyance of ideas. The ultimate power over other human beings is to control the very ideas moving through their minds, and from that point of view, every book represents a dangerous, uncontrolled freedom. For dictators, the world would be so much better with no books.

Western printing was invented around 1450, and the first Catholic list of prohibited books was in 1559. As with Edna O’Brien’s novel, books have been burned (most famously for us, perhaps, by the Nazis in the 1930s), and in some centuries it was not enough to burn the books, but the authors were burned as well. The Catholic Church was so adamant about mind control that a number of people who translated the Bible into local languages, such as English, were savagely burned at the stake.

Speaking of brutal savages, the Soviet Union—let us pause to thank God it fell apart—exercised one of the most rigid regimes of censorship the world has known. The Soviets controlled the content of every book, every magazine and newspaper, every radio and TV program, every movie, and with the invention of photocopiers, they controlled what could be copied. In one famous example, after the arrest of a political figure, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia mailed everyone who had bought the encyclopedia a page to be glued over the article about the arrested man.

Here in our own enlightened 21st century, within the last few weeks, another dictatorship (OK, China, now I’m talking about you) actually kidnapped booksellers in Hong Kong and dragged them off to China proper. Technically, booksellers in Hong Kong have different laws and can sell what they want. But when you don’t have any real laws in your own country, what do you care about technicalities? The purpose of censorship and mind control is to stop all ideas that people with power don’t like, and the authoritarians of China are becoming increasingly determined to control their people.

Preventing outside ideas from coming in has called on ingenuity from people who want to exercise censorship. In the 1600s it meant searching for books hidden in carts full of straw. In the 20th century it meant figuring out how to jam radio signals. Now, as China shows us, it means blocking specific sites on the internet. The cold brutality of censorship is ingenious, and the government of China has legions of programmers working to stop the Chinese people from reading true information.

From the point of view of mind control, whether it is in the service of Popes or Joseph Stalin or modern China, the censors are right. Every book could cause someone to think. Every website could carry uncontrolled ideas. They are dangerous. The invention of printing, for example, eventually led to the propagation of ideas from the Protestant Reformation, leading ultimately to the spread of democracy. Who could have expected that from the invention of movable type?

So we’ve invented the internet, and what will it lead to? While we’re waiting to find out, I’m going to get a copy of The Country Girls and read it, and as I read, I’ll think about that vile Irish priest who burned the book and tried to stop me, and I’ll say, “Here it is, motherfucker. You lose.”

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Filed under Book Talks, Writing While Living

No, Not That New York

painting of man drinking tea


Did I ever talk about my alternate life where everything I wear is silk, all wine is good wine, I can choose a different super power every day, and my cell phone always has a clear signal? I can’t remember if I mentioned this.

So anyway, yesterday as I was picking out a yellow silk shirt, I thought “Today my super power will be that everything I eat will taste like spicy onion rings.” I know it doesn’t sound that super, but some days I just don’t feel like fighting evil. Don’t you have days like that? And anyway, spicy onion rings—don’t tell me you’re not wishing for that super power.

Because I am also kind and generous and it doesn’t cost me anything, I wanted to do something for you, so I wrote you a poem about my fabulous life, to let you share it in your small, really small, infinitesimally tiny, way. You don’t need to thank me. I already know how you feel. That’s my super power for today.

How to Drink Green Tea

I will go to my private New York,
where stars will rain on me
like showers of light,
golden glitter pouring from the sky.
I will dance
the way a scirocco
whirls across the desert.

I will go to my private New York,
where the young at heart
will consider me deep and wise,
and the old at heart
will call me daring and wild.
I will smile like Greta Garbo,
walk through rooms like Fred Astaire,
and sing lines from tragic operas
with a voice like ultraviolet.

I will go to my private New York,
where I will sew clothing from rainbows.
I will stitch the hems with a crescent moon,
line the jacket with the songs of wolves,
and fold up a sunset for a hat.
I will stroll like a parade
that happens wherever I walk.

I will go to my private New York,
to invent floral ways of thinking.
I will create new languages out of moonlight,
and when I speak,
each sentence will contain an entire month.
I will consult with philosophers and witch doctors
on the best way to cure melancholy,
and I will drink green tea
in the evenings.


Filed under Not Real Poetry