Monday, January 28, 2008

The Secret Lives of Books

I used to believe that books lived forever—and if you wrote books, you would, too. So it was a shock to me when I found out what a short life most books have. Two or three months, tops, and if they’re not selling like hotcakes they’re purged from the bookstore shelves to make way for the next wave. The good news is, sometimes wonderful teachers and librarians keep them alive long after they’re off the shelves and out of print.

Mary Sexson, a teacher at the Children’s House in Indianapolis, is one of those. Every year her eighth graders read my YA novel, Wish You Were Here, and every year I visit the school to talk to them about it. It’s one of my favorite things to do! Children’s House feels like a home filled with a huge family of kids—which, I guess, it is. When I come in, there’s a beautiful baby being fussed over by one of the teachers while his mom goes out to start the car. Little kids are doing some kind of dance activity in the room down the hall, and a girl, maybe six, slips out for a hug and then hurries back to her classmates. A glance into other rooms reveals book-filled shelves, comfy chairs for reading them, an art room full of color and light. Mary appears, smiling, and takes me to the cozy little room where we always talk.

I always get a kick out of seeing kids with my books, and it’s a special pleasure at Children’s House, since I know that Mary hunted down these particular copies of Wish You Were Here in used bookstores and on the internet. This year, it’s just two kids, Seth and James, leafing through battered copies as they ask and I answer their questions about the book. Like...

Q: Where did you get the idea for the book?
A: From watching my high school students grieve over their parents’ divorces in the mid-1980’s and realizing they were the first generation of kids to have to deal with that. From getting a little obsessed about Elvis after visiting Graceland. From one of my students, whose best friend ran away. From still, always, trying to figure out what adolescence is.

Seth and James are cool guys. We have a great talk, about all sorts of things. I show them the weird “process” books that I keep for each novel I write—full of notes, maps, outlines, lists of names, freewriting, abandoned passages, and possibilities…frighteningly like the very cluttered inside of my mind.

Wish You Were Here was published before they were born, we figure out! This makes me totally, irrationally happy; it makes me totally, irrationally happy just thinking about it now. So does the fact that FLUX is bringing out the book in its first paperback edition this spring.

Maybe books can live forever. I imagine one of Mary’s battered copies or a dog-eared FLUX paperback unearthed years and years from now by some kid living a world I can’t even imagine—and he opens it, and enters mine.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Driving at Night

“Writing is like driving at night,” the novelist E.L. Doctorow said. “You can see only as far as the headlights. But you can make the whole trip that way.” He was speaking of the way ideas reveal just enough of themselves to keep you moving towards a finished story. But becoming a writer is like that, too. You start out in the dark, seeing only what’s directly ahead of you, trusting that if you keep going and stay alert, the road beneath you will reveal what you need to know as you travel it.

I like this idea for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that my first big epiphany about writing actually came while I was driving at a vanload of sleeping teenagers back to Indiana after a wonderful, but exhausting week of exploring New York City together. I felt utterly alone and weightless in the darkness of midnight, Pennsylvania an endless black ribbon of interstate beneath my wheels. It was my turn to drive; it didn’t seem fair to wake the other chaperone and ask him to take his shift early. But my eyes were scratchy with fatigue, shocked again and again into opening fully by the way the white line of the highway went suddenly wobbly and the van swerved ever so slightly toward the berm.

Loud music helped, and rolling down my window to let in the cool night air. But it was an idea that set my heart racing and jolted me back into full consciousness—a cartoon moment, the proverbial light bulb switching on inside my head. I remember nothing about the train of the thought that brought me to the moment, just the idea itself: sometimes there is no word—and the suddenness with which it brought me awake to…everything.

I’d gathered up the courage to write by then and, like most beginning writers, I was still deeply enamored of the thesaurus. Increasingly, though, I was baffled by the all-too-frequent experience of searching and searching for the absolute right word for a story I was trying to write, a word I felt and knew …but could not find. Until that moment in the dark van, it had not occurred to me that a word I was looking for might not exist.

The thought excited me. What if it wasn’t my abysmal vocabulary, mediocre intelligence, or lack of training as a writer that kept me from being able to neatly match ideas and images with words? What if there was an unbridgeable gap between what it feels like to be human and the words available to the writer, any writer, to explain it?

“Wake up!” I wanted to shout. “I’ve just realized the most amazing thing!”

But I didn’t—and after that first impulse to share the news, I liked being alone in the middle of the night with my discovery of the paradox at the very center of writing fiction. Nothing we observe, feel, or know about our own human experience or the experience of others comes to us by way of words, but words are all we have to make a story in which living, breathing characters move through worlds that seem as real to the reader as his own back yard.

Jane Austen had to come to terms with this! So did Tolstoy and Toni Morrison. No serious writer ever had or ever would have the words he needed to recreate the world that was alive in his mind. Writing anything that mattered was all about finding and combining the words available to you, trying and failing until the gap between the story in your head and the world on the page was as narrow as it could be.

Flooded with relief, I thought, I can do that.

And I’ve been doing it ever since--writing in the light I have, traveling toward the stories that live inside my head.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Heidi, Reading

When my granddaughter, Heidi, was about eighteen months old, she fell in love with the number "two." None of us remembers the moment it emerged from the clutter of the world around her as something to pay attention to, but once it did she saw “twos” everywhere—and each time she saw one it was as if she’d fallen in love all over again. Huge “twos” on billboards and on the sides of trucks. Tiny ones in a book or on a credit card.

“Look! Two!” she’d crow. “Two! Two!” The expression on her face, pure, unmitigated joy.

“Draw ‘two,’” Nommie,” she’d order, and I’d make as many “twos” as I could get on a page. She’d hand me another piece of paper and say, “More.

She had no interest whatsoever in the meaning of “two,” or its mathematical possibilities. If I took two crayons and added two more to show her how they made four, she’d shrug—then pick up one of the crayons, hand it to me, and I’d be drawing “twos” again.

Why two? Why not four, or eight?

The love affair lasted a good six months, after which the object of her affection became a book of…stuff. There was no story, just page after page chock-full of pretty watercolor sketches of clothing, footwear, furniture, vehicles, plants, toys, tools. I had to read it exactly the same way every time, pointing to each object as I read its name. I read it so many times that it felt like a litany, like singing. She listened, absolutely intent—and if I ever made the mistake of trying to skip one item, she’d put her hand on the book to stop me from turning the page and regard me with deep disappointment.

This went on for the better part of a year. There was no other book she’d even consider looking at; I began to worry that indulging this obsession might turn her into a little materialist. So one day I asked, “Why do you like this book so much?”

She gazed up at me, beatific, and said, “I yuv words."

Needless to say, I read the book again. And again and again and again.

Now she’s in the first grade, actually reading herself, and there’s nothing that gives me more pleasure than to listen to her read to me, working out words she doesn’t know. I love the way she stops and laughs when she’s reading a funny book. Sometimes she makes delightful mistakes, like reading “ukelele” for “unlikely.”

Listening to her read takes me back to my own first grade classroom. I see the little desks and chairs, the alphabet marching across the top of the blackboard, the big black and white clock on the wall. I see myself in reading circle, Fun with Dick and Jane open on my lap, feel again the wonder of words jumping out at me beneath the brightly colored pictures. “Run.” “Spot.” “Jump.” “Father.” Worlds springing to life inside my mind.

Not long ago, I was talking to an oncology nurse who told me about a conversation she’d had with a colleague. Both of them had a realistic, matter-of-fact understanding of what certain diagnoses meant; both had watched countless patients with no hope of surviving suffer debilitating chemotherapy treatments or allow themselves to be hooked up to life-support just to live a little while longer. So when the subject of what kind of end of life care they might want themselves came up, she was surprised that her colleague didn’t instantly agree that there was no way she’d want to be kept alive when recovery was out of the question.

“I don’t know,” the woman said. “If I could read—even if I could only hear the story, I think I’d want to stay here as long as I could.”

I thought, oh, my God! Yes!

I’m not making resolutions this year. I’m making wishes—and one of them is that Heidi will love reading all her life. I imagine us on a beach together when she’s all grown up, both of us reading novels—lost to everything in the real world, except the cool ocean waves lapping at our feet.