My friend Ed says retired guys like me should get up early and get in gear. It’s good advice! I’d never dispute it, but I’m not stellar at following it.
Maybe this is only an excuse for sleeping late, but people doing creative work need dream-time. I like to wake up in the morning and, before I open my eyes, nail down what I was dreaming. I might remember a whole complicated narrative. Sometimes it’s good enough to write it in a dream journal. Not too long ago I dreamed that a robot was telling me a fairy tale and telling it very poorly. That dream became the story “The Elves and the Shoe Designer,” which is my contribution to Pages Penned in Pandemic. Now available, highly recommended!
I’m interested in lucid dreaming, where you try to become aware that you’re in a dream and take control. It’s suggested that you use lucid dreaming to ask an important question. I already have a question in mind: “Why don’t I fly in my dreams?” I find that I do a lot of walking in my dreams, and I get lost pretty easily, and I quite often forget what I was carrying and leave it somewhere in the dreamscape and then I worry about how I’m going to get back there and find it. But lucid dreaming is challenging. It’s hard to partially wake, just enough that you’re aware, but still in your dream.
I have been working on song lyrics this week, at the invitation of my collaborator, the amazing CP Butchvarov. I sent him some lines and suggestions yesterday. He may hate my suggestions, and he may hate the lines I sent also. That’s part of our process.
When I put myself in lyric-writing mode, I start to notice everything I see and hear. I’m watching for arresting images and I’m asking my mind to translate those to words and rhythms. At some point I start to write these down, and that begins a cascade, because the words I put on paper combine to become lines, and they generate more ideas. Then some line really catches my eye (ear), and from there on it’s a matter of building it up from the inside: making new lines to match the ones already made.
I found myself doing this a couple of nights ago, and it was late. I turned off the light and was curled up in bed, but as I tripped over into the sleep state, a pair of rhymed lines introduced themselves to me insistently. I flicked on the light long enough to scribble them down in my notebook. This happened three more times before I finally dropped off for good. Slept late the next morning.
I won’t tell you the lines but I’ll tell you later if CP thinks they’re garbage.
Anyone who writes fiction should read fiction. I’ve pushed back against that truth at various points in my life: reading takes time away from writing, or my writing style becomes spoiled by the author I’m reading. But it’s self-evident common sense. The only way to learn about fiction is to read it.
The attention economy puts constraints on the time available for fiction reading. We’ve got to keep up with social media, and we’ve got to make sure we get our news from more than one source, don’t we? How am I ever going to decide what to spend my limited time reading, of all the books that are shiny and new, and all the acclaimed stories that have ever been published?
That’s why I appreciate it when somebody I really respect tells me what to read. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders compiles seven stories by four nineteenth-century Russian authors (Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and Nikolai Gogol). Based on twenty years of teaching these works to aspiring writers at Syracuse University, he follows each story with an essay analyzing what makes it work, and a series of “afterthoughts” that extend these lessons to the process of writing.
There’s no contemporary author I admire more than George Saunders. Lincoln in the Bardo (a novel, because “novel” is the only word broad enough to encompass everything that is swept up in this work) won the Man Booker award. His stories are published regularly in TheNew Yorker. They’re unfailingly deep and engrossing, fully imagined down to astonishing specifics.
I’m probably like many modern American readers in that I haven’t read much in the way of Russian writers or nineteenth-century literature. So to start, thank you to Saunders for exposing me to these seven stories. That said, the fun of the book for me was in the exploration and explication, and especially, in the indirect glimpses into Saunders’ own way of writing.
“Every element should be a little poem, freighted with subtle meaning that is in connection with the story’s purpose,” he writes about the first Chekhov story. He lays out a method of writing that emphasizes revision, over and over, a relentless recursive examining of every word and phrase to make sure it belongs and it delights. The quality of Saunders’ writing proves the effectiveness of this intuitive but demanding process. I’m grateful to him for sharing these insights.
Throughout the life of a book, there are moments meant for celebration. Many writers know these points well. There’s the seedling of an idea, those difficult days when we’re finally able to put words on the page, the finalization of a first draft, etc.
For Pages Penned in Pandemic: A Collective, the milestones were a bit different. There were the early submissions, sending the first acceptance, growing our platform, collecting all the accepted work into one document, finalizing the order of writing, the last two days of line edits, and of course, Publication Day! And these many moments were worth celebrating in different ways. However, organizing an evening filled with many of the family, friends, and authors who helped make this book a reality felt bigger than those other moments.
Perhaps this juxtaposition comes from the many months spent in isolation. Or maybe it was the culmination of all my worlds coexisting in my favorite local bookstore holding real copies of a book I created with my best friend. Whatever the reasons, this evening was special.
It must be said that the success of any published author can be accredited to local bookstores, which open their doors and their shelves. FITZ Books in downtown Buffalo, NY is one such place. Found by coincidence or kismet, this store and its owner, Aaron, hold a special place in the journey of this collective.
During the early days before we had a final cover or any real idea of page count, Aaron offered to let us use the space beside his bookstore for a small release. Everything was contingent on COVID-19 of course, but we realized this book would not exist without the pandemic, and kept our fingers crossed that this release party could happen one day. We remained hopeful that numbers would improve, that we would be able to bring together a small group of people to truly celebrate this book.
Leading up to January 29th, I did find myself absorbed in plans for the space: the antique typewriters from my own collection, posters of the front and back cover for the windows, and of course, print copies of the collective to sell at the release. It wasn’t until the night of the party when everything was done, starting the playlist crafted just for the event by two wonderful friends, fiddling with the vintage marcasite ring I wore for luck and my great-grandma King’s necklace chosen for a bit of love that I found myself ready to actually celebrate all we had accomplished.
Family arrived first. Friends arrived shortly thereafter. Being able to share this collective with the other local authors including J.S. Bowers, A.M. Kelly, and Christy Nolan was something I treasured. And having the opportunity to introduce my writing group, the Lock Keeper Six, to my work friends and my best friend really felt like a merging of worlds that not many people have the opportunity to experience.
My best friend made the trip from Brooklyn and we found ourselves in the somewhat strange position of answering questions about what we would do next, what project would fill our time now that this book was out in the world. We had answers, nothing quite substantial, though we do have ideas. But mostly, we were able to share our love of storytelling, the reason why we heralded this book into existence over the last few months.
We signed books and discussed the poems, stories, and essays we thought each person might enjoy most. As contributors ourselves, we were also able to discuss our own work in the collective, which we were thrilled to include among truly phenomenal writing. Among these poems, was one of my own entitled “Things to Leave on the Mantle, or Lies We Tell the Dark,” which is dedicated to my friend, Tina.
And we talked about isolation and creativity, about the people we were as young writers ourselves, and our hopes for those who might benefit from us donating our proceeds to 826 National. We talked about the pandemic now and what it might mean to future readers ten years from now when they pull this book from their shelves. It was all surreal and lovely.
At one point, I took a step back to observe. Perhaps this is the writer in me, searching for strands of conversations and imagining the stories that could take place in a similar world. It struck me, however, that these are the moments we celebrate. Or rather these are the moments we must celebrate because the days can be dark and the world may seem chaotic, but there are flashes of brightness that will flicker away in ephemeral escape if we’re not there to fully immerse ourselves within them.
And just like that, the night was nearly over. We sold out of the copies of books we brought, though more will be ready for purchase at FITZ Books soon! We packed up and started to make our way out before stopping to discuss stories with the store’s owner. Again, Aaron’s kindness and passion for books struck me. I, too, am a bibliophile, and chatting about narration styles and authenticity and what must be done to help the reader feel connected to the page was something I savored during the last few minutes spent in that space. For this, I am truly grateful.
Throughout my life, I have always thought of myself as a collector. I have my books and my typewriters and my antique teacups. I have journals, both empty and full, jars of seashells and boxes of movie stubs. Now I have this collection of work written during the pandemic. And I have phenomenal people who I’ve had the fortune to collect throughout my life. To them, I owe so much. And to my best friend and editor, I owe these moments of celebration. He continues to be a bright light in my universe, and I know my dreams are never too big as long as he is by my side.
To those near and far who have continued to champion this book over the last few months, please know you were in our thoughts throughout the evening. To the writers who trusted us with their words, please know, you, too, were there during the celebration of our book’s release.
As the editors, our work is done. Now it is up to you, dear readers, to continue stoking the flames of this once tiny spark of an idea. We hope you will share your favorite pieces from this collective with your friends and family. We hope those words keep you connected while the world continues on through uncertain times. We wish nothing more than for you to feel understood, if only for a few pages.
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