People in Paris and elsewhere are holding up pencils, and big pencil effigies. These are meant to be symbols of free expression; but they've got me, at least, thinking about pencils in my life.
It’s hard not to feel despair, isn’t it? The massacre in Paris is an assault on free expression everywhere; I’m afraid the same will prove true of the big-money takeover of Congress. Today I woke up to read that a father threw his five-year-old daughter off a bridge in St. Petersburg. It’s January, it’s deeply cold in New England, and it’s hard to see the way.
I hope to turn toward silence.
The front cover is long gone, as is the Santa who popped up when you opened the book, lost with most memories of our long-ago Christmas Eves. That golden spine is still there, chipped and worn to cardboard in places, but there. So is the story that was special to me, about the boy who didn’t deserve a Christmas.
You don’t often see a middle-school author visit described in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” but this was Russell Brand, the British comedian, film star, Fox News lambaster, self-styled revolutionary, and now, okay, YA author. Brand’s retelling of the Pied Piper story was published last month, as the first in his new “Trickster Tale” series — and he told the magazine that this story, as he frames it, is about revolution.
Every year at this time of year I spend two days with the eighth grade at Whitehall (NY) Central School, where every student, alone or in small teams, creates a new or extended scene for my book The Revealers. Each year this is one of the richest projects I get to be part of. English teacher Sue Ringer and I have done it for eight years now, and we’ve gotten better at drawing these new scenes out of the full range of kids. The work they did this week was the best I’ve seen so far.
Each year I visit the Main Street Middle School, a good school in Montpelier, Vt. where the sixth grade reads The Revealers, and it’s a well-planned highlight of my travels — but this year there was a twist. I'd stayed, the night before, with friends close to Montpelier, and in the morning we opened the daily paper to find, front-page news, that Jeff Kinney, author of the ginormous Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, had been in Montpelier the day before. Visiting ... the Main Street Middle School.
As my friend Jim laughed, I wondered aloud, “Should I even show up?”
The website Bookbub.com has a piece up called “6 Beautiful Libraries You Need to Visit Right Now.” I visited the site, at least, and beheld the images of stunning large libraries like Boston Public, George Peabody Library at Johns Hopkins, and the Seattle Central Library, a glass-sheathed, very angular architectural statement that says something, though I don’t think it’s “library.” But anyway.
The libraries I’ve loved have tended — I realize this just now — to be not very attractive, appearance-wise. I think of the metal-shelved catacombs that fill the dim-lit, below-ground floors of Baker Library at Dartmouth College, and the chairs of molded plastic that made me feel like I was back home at the American Library in Kathmandu, where I taught English across the street many years ago, and tried to get the writing of my first book started. But the place where I made the deepest connection with what libraries can mean was, probably, the least lovely of all. It was damp and borderline moldy, in fact.
I’m so tired of all the pointless noise and digitized chatter around us — I just want to read books that matter, that make a real connection.
For example, I pulled from my shelf this week an old blue Crest Book paperback novel, The Night in Lisbon. This is by Erich Maria Remarque, the German author better known for the World War I story All Quiet on the Western Front, but I remembered reading Lisbon some years ago and being very struck by it. The story deals with two refugees who meet on the waterfront in Portugal’s capital in 1942, when, as the narrator says, “every ship was an ark.”
When it comes to writing, a middle schooler emailed this week, do you kinda set goals? As in do you tell yourself to write a chapter or maybe a page for the idea you have created or do you just write it?
My simplest answer is, I try to write 1,500 words.
We are losing our minds to distraction, to links and pings and popups — and slow reading may be among the best, most available answers.
This is very much what “slow food” is to fast food: something more real and reviving than a drive-through convenience that you consume while doing other stuff, and that really, if we're honest, makes us feel kind of crappy. When you read the way we’re all reading these days — scanning for better options, hopping into links, stopping every 10 minutes to check messages or answer texts — you wind up with an unsettled mind that hasn’t absorbed much but can’t seem to stop. This is no better for the inner system than a Doritos Locos Taco.
Thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign that raised the funds for publication, my newest book, Treasure Town — my first title for younger readers — will be published in April. Advance reader copies are going out this fall to review journals, book bloggers, and others.
“What’s the one sentence that best describes the work you do?”
An eighth grader named Angel asked me this, earlier this week in the library (okay, the media center) of Roselle Middle School in Roselle, Illinois. At that moment the room was filled with the school’s eighth grade, all sitting on the floor. I thought about Angel's question for a second and then said, “An act of faith.” But there are a lot of other sentences I could have come up with just as well.
Blurb.com is a business started 10 years ago by Internet entrepreneur, photographer and avid reader Eileen Gittins. She wanted to create and print 40 copies of a book, with her photographs and writeups of 40 people Gittins had worked with. She didn’t have the skills to design a book, but she had money to pay. She couldn’t find a service that would do that — so she started one.
The most unusual public library I ever had a passionate relationship with was inside a white-painted palace in Kathmandu. When you came into it, you were greeted by a stuffed tiger and two standing suits of armor. Past these you saw antique volumes in hand-crafted cabinets that filled an expansive room, with a ceremonial staircase rising in the center and oil-painted portraits along the upper walls of aristocrats from another age. It was here that I discovered the magnetism of fantasy — and not just because of how the Kaiser Library looked. It was because of what was in its books.
We all have stories, we write them with our lives. You never know what you’ll hear, if you ask.
Yesterday, for example, meeting with 25 inner-city middle schoolers in Rochester, NY at the summer-enrichment program Horizons, I asked a girl about her cap. It was an ball cap with the logo of a business, something about fluid flow, not the usual thing you see on a 13-year-old girl. She said she has a collection of hats and caps. She got them from her grandma, and she wears them. I asked, Are some of them old-fashioned?” Oh yes, she said. And I said, This could be a story. I took out my little notebook, and wrote in it, “My Grandma’s Hats.”
The fear is always there, before you start. If you can just start, then you’re in it and you’re okay.
I mean this to apply to writing, because that’s my experience — but how many other things can it also describe? Bungee jumping? I have no idea about that. But what about anything that’s worthwhile, that calls on what’s inside of us? For each of us that's different, it's personal what we’re pushed by ourselves to do, what we long to do — but I wonder if there isn’t this fear almost always.
It gathers before you start, and the answer is ... to start.
I was trying to learn in Chicago in around 1920 and was searching for the unnoticed things that made emotions, such as the way an outfielder tossed his glove without looking back to where it fell ... These were the things which moved you before you knew the story.
Ernest Hemingway, interviewed by George Plimpton for Writers at Work, Second Series, 1963
Two subjects I’ve read about off and on for years, always returning to them and finding inspiration, are Hemingway’s approach to writing and the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, or simple attention to what’s happening now. I’ve just lately seen a connection between those two — one that to me at least is illuminating, and that I’ve never thought of before.