Final Stretch

There comes a point, in my experience of book writing, when you can think of nothing else.  This is near the end of the process.  For months and months you’ve been working at it in increments, and the sudden realization hits you that other people are (you hope) going to read what you’ve been scratching out for a couple of years.  My interlocutors tend to be in print or email form.  I don’t work day-to-day with colleagues who know about the book, nor, I suspect, would they care very much.  In my case this comes as I’m trying to generate attention for Holy Horror, with very limited results.  But I don’t have time to think about that now.  Nightmares with the Bible is almost ready to submit.  If only I had more time to read everything.  If only.

Writing is a challenging form of expression.  Let me qualify that: getting writing published is challenging.  The actual craft flows.  The book that is intended to pass scholarly muster, however, must be full of notes and quotes.  I’m trying to leave those behind as much as possible since I’ve been reading about these topics for decades and that ought to count for something.  Still, that nagging doubt awakes you—haven’t you overlooked something?  Some vital source that you should’ve cited?  Some argument that knocks your book off its stilts?  Near the end of the process it’s hard to concentrate on other things such as blog posts and tweets.  Yet you need to build your platform while you’re standing on it.  And then there’s the small matter of work that will demand well over forty of your waking hours this coming week.  And the index—you can’t forget the index!

In the intervening months you might’ve read some newspaper headlines, read some books off-topic, read other people’s blogs, kept up with social media.  Now, however, you have tunnel vision.  You’ve said what you have to say, you think.  You must check it.  And recheck it.  Did you leave a sentence open for later comment?  What chapter was that in?  Have you figured out how to close it?  Woe betide those to whom this happens at tax time.  Or before a business trip.  Making a living as a writer you do not.  This avocation, however, is your life.  Your legacy.  Editors who’ve been remembered are few.  A book is a stab at immortality.  There are meetings.  There are work deadlines.  There’s a lawn to mow.  Those, however, are mere distractions at this point.

Universal Books

I’m reading an overwritten book right now.  In fact, I just finished an overwritten book.  Such works, I suppose, are the results of being taught how to write.  It’s not that people can’t be taught to compose, but for various reasons some authors, either through the privilege of having high-powered publishers, or their own conviction that they don’t require correction, overwrite.  I suppose overwriting is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.  Several years back I recall a critic stating Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events was overwritten.  I thought it was fun.  Yes, deliberately exaggerated, but nevertheless well-composed.  Those books were enjoyable to read because, I think, they refused to take themselves seriously.  Writers can be temperamental people.

As an editor something I need to repeat—for academics are consummate overwriters—is to keep your intended readership in mind.  No book is written for everyone.  In fact, many people can’t make it through books like the Bible because they’re hard to read.  Religious books often are.  There’s no such thing as a universal book, but some believers in some religions make the claim for their sacred texts.  Like many curious people I find it rewarding to read the scriptures of other traditions.  It’s not always easy—in fact, it seldom is.  It’s frequently disorienting and I look for an edition with an introduction.  The reason is when it comes to books, even sacred ones, it’s not one size fits all.  Many religious conflicts in the world could be resolved if we’d just realize this.

Someone who reads a lot is bound to be disappointed from time to time.  We turn to books either looking for a certain mood or specific pieces of information.  Authors often take things in their own directions.  Our minds don’t all work in the same way.  That’s why, in my opinion, reading is so important.  I prefer “long form” writing—I always have.  Sometimes an idea can be well expressed in an article, but taking the time to develop ideas requires a nuance not all publishers appreciate.  (Yes, I realize that by expressing this sentiment in a brief essay like this I leave myself open to deconstruction—one of the overwritten books I just read was written by a deconstructionist.)  Still, I have trouble abandoning books that take ideas in a way I wouldn’t go.  Usually when I start reading, I’m committed to finish.  Some would say that’s foolish.  I take it as a learning opportunity.

Cheaper than Swords

It’s chilly in here.  What with the early onset winter and the uncertainty of being able to afford the heating bills, we keep the thermostat pretty low.  That may not be the problem with our pens, though.  You’ve probably had it happen too.  You’ve got an idea and you need to write it right down.  You snatch up the nearest pen and begin scribbling on whatever’s to hand—a bill, a receipt, the dog—only to find the pen doesn’t write.  You scratch out circles or zigzags, depending on your mood and temperament.  The pen is, however, persistent in its refusal to let any ink flow.  You grab another.  The same thing happens.  Finally—third time’s a charm, right?—the pen writes and you’ve forgotten what you desperately need to put on paper (or parchment).

Despite wanting others to think I’m cool (I don’t see many people) years ago I started carrying a pen in my pocket.  Not just any pen, but one that would write immediately, the first time, without question or complaint.  Such pens don’t come cheap.  Then, of course, I would lose said pen.  The shirt pocket is an invitation to lose things.  You bend over and, depending on the fabric, what’s in the pocket falls out.  When it happens on a bus or plane—and it does!—your writing implement may roll away before you can reach it.  Have you ever tried getting on your hands and knees on a bus to try to squeeze down to look under a seat?  I have.  I don’t recommend it.  It’s like praying to the god of grime.  Still, I need that pen that obediently writes—I reach for it.

Some have gone the way of electronic writing.  Thumbs flying like a ninja they tap out texts so fast Samuel Morse’s eyes would pop out if they hadn’t long ago turned to dust.  I’m not a texter, though.  Those who know me know I prefer email where ten digits can work in concert and spare me sore thumbs and unintentionally brief messages that could easily be misunderstood.  No, better yet, give me a pen.  Any scrap of paper will do, but the pen is crucial.  How many ideas have died prematurely due to the pen that just won’t work?  I found a reliable pen refill.  I saved the package so that I could remember the brand.  Now I have to work out a way to have the pen with me at all times.  If the option for useful bodily modifications ever becomes a reality, a pen in the hand seems like the most practical of all.  Now what was I going to say in this blog post?

Writers Reading

A lot of misconceptions about books abound out there.  One of those misconceptions that has become clear to me is that authors write books to teach.  (Or to make money.  Ha!)  That may well be part of the motivation, but for me, the larger part has been writing books to learn.  You see, the frontiers of human knowledge cannot be reached without stretching.  Writing a book is a way of learning.  Long gone are the days when a person could read every known published work.  Indeed, there aren’t enough hours on the clock for anyone even to read all published books on the Bible, let alone the far bigger topics these days.  And so writing a book that deals with a biblical topic—let’s say demons—is the ultimate learning exercise.  It’s a very humbling one.

I recently read an article where book pirates (yes, there is such a thing!  I should explain: there are those who believe authors are ripping off society by getting royalties for their books.  These pirates, like those of galleys of yore, take ebooks and make them available for free on the internet.) call authors “elitists” for wanting to earn something from their labors.  These folks, I’d humbly suggest, have never written a book.  Most books (and I’m mainly familiar with non-fiction publishing here, but the same applies to the other kind) take years to write.  Authors read incessantly, and if they have day jobs (which many do) it is their “free time” that goes into reading and writing.  They do it for many reasons, but in my case, I do it to learn.

The doctoral dissertation is accomplished by reading as much as possible beforehand and writing up the results quick, before someone else takes your thesis.  It is the practice I also used for my second book as well, Weathering the Psalms.  The third book, Holy Horror, was a little bit different.  Yes, I read beforehand, but much of the research went on after the body of the book had largely taken form.  I had to test my assumptions, which are on ground most academics, needing and fearing tenure, tremble to tread.  I read books academic and popular, and having been classically trained, often went back and read the books that led to the first books I read.  It is a never-ending journey.  I could easily spend a lifetime writing because I’d be learning.  But like other misconceptions, those who write books don’t lead lives of luxury.  They work for a living, but they live for the chance to learn.  And that’s worth more than royalties.  Besides, the nine-to-five demands constant attention.

Awakening

Waking up for the first time in our new place, I felt a strange relief.   I hadn’t realized how much you feel owned when you have a landlord.  Slipping out of the bed while it’s still dark, vague shapes that eventually resolve into unpacked boxes lurk in the shadows.  They mean me no harm.  I go downstairs.  Downstairs!  Without revealing too much personal information here, I can say that I’ve always believed in sleeping upstairs.  In our several apartments my wife and I have lived on one floor.  Going to sleep meant walking down the hall into another room.  It lacked proper transition.  When we looked at houses it took some time before I could put my finger on it—we needed a two-story house.  You go “up to bed” for a reason.

The thing about writing is that it’s an activity of habit.  Not aware of the location of light switches yet, I shuffle slowly through my own personal towers of Babel.  Find the coffee maker.  Where do I go to write?  Not wanting to wake my wife, I decide it should be downstairs.  There’s the study, with its desk.  Seems pretty obvious.  Mug in hand, with no lights on, instinct drives me back to my usual chair in the living room.  Habits are seldom planned.  They happen.  I’ve become used to writing electronically, but as I wanted badly to explain to the movers, I grew up writing on paper.  Writers are readers and there are two things you don’t throw away—books and your old writings.  Carpenters don’t ditch saws and hammers just because they’re heavy and numerous.  There’s a kind of religious devotion here.

Don’t worry, I’ll soon be back to my more abstract topics on this blog.  Religion and all that.  Right now I’m in a transition and I’m wondering that if that means I’m now officially grown up.  If so, does that mean abandoning my childhood dream of being a writer and facing the fact that all these boxes were moved in vain?  Not having food in our new place, our first day we went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch.  The locals were talking.  Their concerns?  Lawn care and propane.  Everyday things.  Clean-cut and suntanned, they can tell at a glance that I’m a stranger with my unkempt hair and prophetic beard.  Is my writing fantasy just childhood gone to seed?  No.  Books and writings are my identity.  The movers may have mixed them in with saucepans and power tools, but I know at a glance which boxes contain books.  Soon they will be in every room of this house.  That will make anywhere feel like home, even if I can’t find the lights.  

Refillable Ideas

Maybe I’m too slow of thumb, but this ought to be simple. For many years I kept a small slip of paper in my pocket, along with a pen. Eventually I upgraded the paper slips to Moleskine notebooks since they’re harder to lose and the covers mostly prevent the smudging of my ideas. When something strikes me I don’t reach for my phone—by the time I enter the passcode, select the app, and try to type with fat thumbs, the idea’s gone. Instead I pull out my Moleskine, battered and frayed by the final pages, and my pen. The problem is I’m still enough of a working-class guy to lose pens. If a cord comes disconnected beneath my desk, I’m down there on my back fixing it rather than calling IT. Pens fall out of my shirt pocket on planes, trains, and automobiles.

A lost pen shouldn’t be a problem, but finding a pen that writes right away is. Like most people I have scores of throw-away plastic pens handed out by vendors with their company name on them. I prefer a good quality pen—the kind a family member gives you for your birthday—but they hurt when you lose them. I finally settled on a happy medium. One of my kin gave me a heavy-weight, refillable pen that has a robust clasp so it doesn’t slip out of my pocket, down between the seats of public transit vehicles. Refills, however, are another story. Who would’ve thought that I’d spend my time reading reviews on Amazon just to find pen refills that write the moment inspiration strikes? Well, I do.

Unlike those who whip out their phones to write things down, I still pull out my notebook. Nothing is more frustrating that feeling an idea evaporate while waiting for the ink to flow. My most recent refill is on strike most of the time, while that cheap pen from the health fair at work never seems to have a problem until it runs out of ink and has to be tossed into the landfill. I wonder if the Bible would’ve ever been written had Moses to rely on the poor quality of pen refills available before the common era. Maybe he had less commuting time, although I’d say 40 years in the wilderness qualifies. His stone tablets may have been heavier than my Moleskine, but his chisel was sure and his words still adorn courthouse lawns everywhere. Perhaps I’m too modern after all.

Time Killer

The internet, while it’s no longer free, still at least offers many opportunities to connect. No matter what your obscure passion, you’ll find others who share it online. In my own little shadowy corner of the web, I’m keenly aware of the time requested of others. When you stick a piece of writing in front of someone’s face, you’re demanding a real commodity of them—their time. I keep the vast majority of my posts here under 500 words. Google will now tell you how long it’ll take to read my musings, so I won’t even ask 15 minutes of your time. Others, however, don’t always get the message.

The internet has also granted those who write copiously the ability to send long messages to complete strangers. People I don’t know find my name and send me lengthy emails, perhaps supposing an editor simply chooses material at random to publish. I even get requests on LinkedIn that begin with “Seeking representation.” I’m not an agent, and I’ve had a great deal of trouble finding one to represent my own fiction. Those who know me sometimes ask why I don’t write something longer (I do—my third book is on its way), but the fact is I respect your time far too much. My thoughts about religion in modern life ask only a few moments of your time to think, I hope, about matters profound and important. Then click off to another site. Besides, this blog contains well over a million words by now, and that is plenty long.

I try to read every email from an actual human. I also read about 100 books a year, not including those I read all day long at work. My world is made of words. I do not, however, have unlimited time. Sadly, when I walk into a bookstore I often look at how thick a book is. How much of my time is an author demanding? Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of books with a weight problem on my shelves, many of them read from cover to cover. Still, they’re asking for my trust. Trust that the time spent won’t have been wasted. The web is a great place to kill time. It’s also a place, occasionally, to pause and reflect. This blog is no super-site with myriad hits every day, but it’s a place that makes little demand of your time. And it is my sincerest hope, dear reader, that time spent here is never simply killed.