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.
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.
The electrician recently stopped by. We’re renters and although I don’t mind doing minor household repairs to benefit the landlord, I draw the line at electricity. It’s a scary thing. I’ve been shocked too many times to want a jolt bigger than I can handle. I even once accidentally grabbed the metal prongs when unplugging something as a child (it was a microscope light, I remember) and that helpless feeling of being unable to drop the plug even while my body jerked uncontrollably left me with a healthy respect for those who actually understand insulation, capacitors, and those impossible electrical diagrams. So when the pull chain came out of the ceiling light I wasn’t going to try to fix it.
The electrician, like most people who see our apartment, commented on the books. “You like to read,” he said. I can’t help but feel guilty about that. It’s almost as if you should apologize for requiring the stimulation of so many tomes. I confessed that I did, but I wanted to justify it. “I work in publishing,” I feebly offered as an excuse. Concentrating on the fixture above his head, he said, “I don’t ever read a book unless I have to.” He fixed the pull chain and left. I couldn’t have fixed the thing so quickly, or safely. He even had a metal ladder. I was grateful for the light, but once again felt somewhat freakish for my bibliophilia.
Those of us who write books must read books. You can’t learn how to do one without the other. Because of movies and television, we picture writers as people with large houses and separate rooms as libraries where they can sit surrounded by books as they type away at their next bestseller. Those of us who work for a living seldom have such luxury. A separate room just for books? I like letting my books reside in whatever room they feel like. Most affordable apartments don’t come with a study. There are living room books that you want people to see, and kitchen books that suggest good things to eat. There are bedroom books that you might not want others to see. What I don’t have is a library. A book zoo. My books roam freely about my home. It occurs to me that one area lacking in my collection is one about household wiring. Maybe instead of feeling weird I should get wired. I’m sure there are books out there that will tell me how. Or at least that will let me know that a wooden ladder makes a poor conductor.
Lots of people write for lots of reasons. Some love it. Some hate it. Some can’t help themselves. For those who know me primarily through this blog, it may not be obvious which of these sorts I am. After having read Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life I finally feel confident putting myself in category three. It’s not that I don’t like writing—I live for it. The kind of person Shapiro describes, however, is the one who defines their entire being through writing. Each day I post between 300 and 500 words on this blog. I’ve been doing it since 2009, which means I’m somewhere over the million-word mark. But those compelled to write will never be satisfied with just that. One does not live by blog alone, after all.
Once in a great while I get asked how many books I’ve written. Well, that’s not a question with a straightforward answer. Two of my books have been published. I’ve written at least ten. Some of them never made it from my desk to a publisher’s wastebasket. A few of them have. Like others who are addicted to writing, I can’t stop. Ironically, with a decade of experience working in publishing I’m not so good at getting my own work placed. Some of it is fiction. Some of it is non. Some of it is even poetry. If you’re a graphomaniac, I don’t need to explain any further. If you’re not, think of chocolate, or sports, or anything else you just can’t get enough of. That’s what it’s like.
Shapiro’s book, although not point-for-point, but more than not, is like wandering through my own gray matter. I had no idea that other writers—including a successful one like Shapiro—felt the same constant, nagging doubts and insecurities. I didn’t know that others considered staring off into the middle distance (there’s not always a window nearby) as work. Or that sometimes you write something and when you’ve finished it seems like it wasn’t you at all. Writers can be a trying lot. We tend to be introverts. We have odd habits (in my case, waking up at 3 a.m. to write on a daily basis). We tend to be able to spot one another in a crowd, but more likely as not we won’t say anything to each other. And strangely, we write even if we don’t get paid. With lifelong royalties somewhere in the low triple digits, economically it makes no sense to do what I do. Generally the world feels creative sorts aren’t terribly productive. It’s because we measure value differently, I expect. I’m glad to have met another traveler on this path although, as is often the case, our meeting will only be through writing.
Good writing is hard work. One of the mixed blessings of the internet is that it makes publication so easy. Get yourself a blog and nobody has to approve anything! Ideas come tripping across your fingers onto some electronic substrate and, viola! You’re an author! The problem is that being an author’s not the same as being a good author. Writing well (and I make no such claim for myself—after all this is just a blog) is hard work. A piece has to be written, and then read again and again. I’m reminded of the story of a convicted murder whose name I’m forgotten (call it a defense mechanism). This was early last century. The murderer was caught, initially after having been found wandering, disheveled, in public. As a respectable man (he was a doctor, I think) part of his defense was that he’d never have left his house without being presentable. He would have on a collar and hat. People would see him, and he had to convince them of his presentability every single time he walked out that door. (This isn’t an affliction that I share, by the way.) Writing for publication is like that—you need to take care to look respectable every single time.
I can’t speculate about how other writers do their thing, but for me the main requirement for this is time. Any piece that I want anyone else to see, has to be written. Read. Edited. Re-read. And probably edited again. All before the public sees it. This is just for the informal stuff. I’m currently writing a book (which is pretty much a constant state with me). The draft was finished months ago. I started thinking about a publisher. Then I read it again. I couldn’t believe I’d ever thought it was ready for a publisher. Several rewrites followed. I’m in the midst of another one at the moment. I think of it like my ill-used rock tumbler. You want shiny rocks, you’ve got to send them through with finer and finer grit. If you do it right, they’ll come out looking like they’re wet, and they’ll stay looking that way. Polished writing takes time.
Some things can’t be hurried. As a middle-schooler I had a summer job with the school district. One of my assigned tasks was painting bus shanties. Many of these were, as you’d expect, way out in the middle of nowhere. I’d be dropped off with a couple other teens and we’d paint the shelter inside and out. One day I got tired of the constant, boring, and repetitive task of filling a paint pan with white paint, carrying it into the shelter, using it up, and then doing it all over again several times. I decided to pour the paint directly on the plywood floor of the shelter. All I’d have to do would be to roll it out and who’d be the wiser? I only did it once. Little did I consider that the best painting, like the best writing, is a thin layer over the substrate. You need to go over it more than once, leaving time between layers. More importantly, I didn’t realize that you can’t gauge how much paint you need this quick way. The best thing is to run out and refill. Then you can pour the remainder from the pan back into the can. The floor took hours and hours to dry. Not only that, but the top surface dried first, so when I stepped in, I pulled up a thick layer of paint off on the bottom of my shoe. Tom Sawyer I was not. I had to redo it. What I learned that day, though, was a lesson about writing. Take your time. But you don’t have to take my word for it. I just write a blog.
Posted in Books, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Posts, Publishing
Tagged blogging, Internet, painting, Publishing, rock tumbler, Tom Sawyer, writing
Call it sour grapes. When I was a young scholar, I used to wonder how to develop book ideas. You see, at a young age—twenties or thirties—even a doctorate means your understanding of the world is limited. I’d written a substantial dissertation on Asherah, and I was faced with developing several new courses from scratch at Nashotah House. My mind was focused on the immediate concerns. I did continue my research, however, into ancient Near Eastern deities, with an eye toward writing an account of celestial gods and goddesses. A substantial piece on Shapshu ended up being snatched up by a Festschrift, and colleagues began to tell me that to get hired away from Nashotah I had to write something biblical. Thus Weathering the Psalms was born. The research and writing took a few years because I never had a sabbatical, or reduced teaching load. In fact, administrative duties as registrar and academic dean were added to my remit. Still I scribbled away in the early hours and finished a draft. Then I was cast into the outer darkness.
Publishing was never my first choice of career. I’m more a writer than an editor. In publishing, however, you are not encouraged to write your own content. I can’t help myself. As I rounded the corner from my forties, I had finally read enough material—both relevant and extraneous—to have book ideas. In fact, too many. Held back by the lack of publication, I didn’t know how to channel this energy. One of the benefits of working for publishers is you learn how to come up with a viable book idea. I’ve got a backlog now. I’m currently working on a few books, but one is in the forefront of my mind and eclipses all other projects at the moment. Having watched what sells, I think this one has a real chance. Time to write, alas, barely exists. The writer, you must understand, has to build a platform. Get a fan base. Welcome to my platform.
Daily I receive the first books of young scholars. In this publish or perish—strike that—publish and perish atmosphere, even the mediocre is encouraged by dissertation advisors. Young scholars, maybe thirty, think they have something profound to say. Call it sour grapes, but I’m not getting any younger and I don’t have an institution to support me while I write what should be written. The face looking back at me in the morning has more gray hairs than I remember growing, and has wrinkles that my mind doesn’t recognize. It’s too full of books to write to pause long. The bus is coming soon and I have younger scholars’ careers to build with premiere branding. My own ideas ferment unseen in the basement. What some call sour grapes others call fine wine.
Photo credit: Dragonflyir, Wikimedia Commons
Posted in Asherah, Books, Deities, Goddesses, Higher Education, Memoirs, Posts, Psalms
Tagged Ancient Near East, Asherah, Books, Nashotah House, Shapshu, Weathering the Psalms, writing