Confessions of a booklover

Looking at my book purchases over the past few years, I’m finding that most of them are ebooks. The new paperbooks in my collection are mostly gifts, gratefully received, augmented by a few used volumes purchased online.

Cost is a factor, admittedly, but so is shelf space. We still have a thousand or more titles to cull from our collections before moving the remainder up here, and keeping them in storage ain’t cheap. My own practice of the past decade requires me to say adios to one copy every time I get a new one, and I find the swapping to be heart-rending. Books really are personal, and who ever wants to let go of a friend?

Among the harder aspects of putting our old house on the market was one we hadn’t anticipated. Our Realtor told us the bookshelves couldn’t be jammed, as ours were, but that buyers were entranced when shelves were only half full. We didn’t want to repulse them but, well, we had several walls to go through on that point.

That meant buying a lot of boxes from U-Haul to pack. Buy boxes? They stack better, for both transport and storage. Worth the price.

~*~

When it comes to how I’m now reading, I do find a distinction between ebooks and paper.

If it’s a page-turner being devoured quickly for pleasure or else an authority I’m using for background reference, I prefer digital. The digital search function’s very helpful, believe me – much better than relying on an index – and if I’m quoting something in a writing project, cut-and-paste beats keyboarding any day and is less likely to include typos. On the other hand, if the text requires slow reflection and digestion, traditional paper moves to the fore. Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living is a prime example, along with Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Poetry and The Art of Biblical Narrative.

Maybe the divide even comes down to whether it’s something I want to read hands-free or hands-on.

~*~

These also play into my considerations in my own publishing strategies.

As I looked to outlets for my big nonfiction project, Quaking Dover, I realized it was the kind of volume most readers would want to have in their hands or even wrap as a present.

It was one I’d want to place in bookstores and libraries, but that became a big hurdle.

If I put it the book up at Amazon’s KDP, the bookstores would back off. As for libraries? Dunno.

The alternatives I saw were prohibitively expensive for what would be a niche item, unless it magically took off on the charts, even as print-on-demand.

The plot thickened when my ebook haven, Smashwords, announced it was being absorbed by Draft2Digital. Yeah, the promises of no changes were there, but really?

Yet from what I’m seeing, maybe not. Maybe this is the big challenge to the Amazon juggernaut.

Upshot is, that’s where I’m planning to place my print version.

Just made my unanticipated theater debut

Eastport may be small, but its lively arts scene includes the Stage East company, with some rather lively programming.

At the moment, for example, they’re preparing a world-premiere musical for performances next month.

It’s the kind of place where you quickly get to know half of the town, too, so I wasn’t surprised to get an email from the director Thursday morning, even if its contents were unexpected. Could I participate in a play reading that evening and the next two nights?

An original work, the winner of the company’s inaugural playwriting competition?

I’d never done anything like that before, but in a pitch-in kind of community like ours, you learn to step up when asked, and so I replied fine. Honestly, I felt honored, and it couldn’t be too different from a poetry reading, right?

The initial reading was fun, both times through the one-act play. Better yet, my part was the shortest of the four and the least complicated. And then I learned we’d be doing it in front of a live audience the next night, meaning last night, and again tonight.

The playwright is Wilder Fray Short, a Bowdoin College senior and soccer fan, and the one-act play is In the 45th, about sibling rivalry and a lot more.

The competition, open to young full-time Maine residents and including a week-long residency and $1,000 prize, itself honors the late Jay Skriletz, the company founder, prolific playwright, and believer in social change.

To which I’ll add, it was an amazing experience and if you’re anywhere nearby, show up tonight!

Reviewing a whole year of posts in one evening

It didn’t start out to be an overview, but I do forget a lot, including what I’ve written or photographed or even done over time. These posts, though, are records of bits of that  life, coming together in the manner of a quilt when you step back enough to see the emerging pattern.

Somehow, in the process of scheduling a few new entries a few nights ago, I wound up going backward in time through the Red Barn. Let’s just say I stayed up much later than I had planned before sleep started to catch up with me. And that was just going through the previous year, not the entire decade I’ve been at this.

But what a year! Not to brag, but I was surprised by the high quality of the dispatches and their range, and I did enjoy some deep satisfaction. (That’s not always a given for a writer, by the way – sometimes it’s more “Ugh!”)

Has me wanting to go back deeper in the archives, maybe a month at a time, to see what other treasures might be buried there.

And from there? Bet many of the rest of you have rich lodes awaiting rediscovery, too.

Blog on!

Am I the only blogger working from Downeast Maine?

I don’t mean broadcasters or newspapers reissuing their material online, nor do I mean Facebook or Twitter snapshots and quips. Blogging, as you know, is more varied, personal, and I’d say engaged than that. It requires a special focus.

At the moment I’m finding it difficult to locate anyone else posting anywhere in the Pine Tree State, apart from gloating visitors and a few writers sharing a site based elsewhere.

It’s not that folks hereabouts are aloof, not by any means, as I’m discovering in my new locale. I’m fascinated by the stories they tell as well as the unique landscape we share, but I’m still new on the scene.

Welcome to my workstation, for now.

How much interest would there be in my new book?

The literary great Samuel Johnson once quipped, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” but he also ascribed to the  pejorative term of “hack writer” for those who set down words as an income. It makes for an impossible bind. After all, he was a stickler for quality literature.

That perspective could generate guilt among some of us who did our best to defend the language in what Johnson would have considered grub work – in my case, daily journalism, with its effort at an anonymous style and universal voice. And yet, for me, at least, there remained an aspiration for something loftier, more lasting, more artistically and intellectually demanding but which, as I’ve found, had no monetary value.

Do I regret the effort? Not when I sit down and reread the published but largely neglected fiction and poetry. Pointedly, it has come at a heavy personal cost in time and foreclosed opportunities, no matter any satisfaction I feel.

CURIOUSLY, I DOUBT that anyone has felt the pain of this dichotomy more than novelist Stephen King, even though I’m certain he’s never heard of me. He has, though, articulated the gap between the writing for wide readership and for critical acclaim better than anyone else. Writing under pseudonyms, he has demonstrated a mastery of the craft, and under his own name, some deep insights into the art of crafting a novel. He deserves great credit for getting a public reading books, against all odds.

MY CURRENT QUANDARY comes in trying to decide which course to take regarding my latest – and likely last – manuscript. I’ve found researching it to be exciting; my findings, provocative and original; and the current voice that’s resulted, lively and entertaining. I get animated just talking about its content, and the listeners catch on. The problem is that it’s still a niche product, as far as marketing goes.

I mean, a history of the Quaker Meeting in Dover, New Hampshire?

Yes, it has the freaky potential to break out, but that’s a gamble.

The book moves novelistically. There are some big villains, a contrarian take on New England itself, a long period of frontier violence, historical surprises, a look at a subculture something like today’s Amish, and political dissent. What a volatile mix!

I’ve approached a couple of regional publishers but heard nothing from one. Not that I’m surprised. They survive by being conservative and cautious. Still, it would relieve me of a lot of effort in production and distribution that I just don’t feel up for. I’m more optimistic, cautiously, about the other. As I posted earlier, I’m ready for a break. Let them keep some of the change.

Plan two would be to issue it as an ebook, like my novels, and via Amazon’s KDP, where it would also be available as a print-on-demand paperback. I’m not sure how to include the maps in those formats, though, and the work wouldn’t be available in bookstores. Much of the sales of the paper edition would be, as they say, from the trunk of my car – after readings and talks, essentially. As for libraries? Marketing of an ebook remains, from my experience, very difficult. People want something physical to examine, even if they buy otherwise.

The third option is through one of several self-publishing programs that distribute to bookstores. (The stores won’t touch the Amazon editions, since they would have to sell at a higher price to cover their added costs.) For reviewers, it’s more respectable than Amazon. You might even pick up some book clubs. The bigger problem is that this route would require me to invest some big bucks. At this time, I have no way of knowing whether the investment would be offset by sales in bookstores, mostly in New England. Or, put another way, I’m feeling way out of my league or field of expertise. Yes, I would have a product I could feel proud of. But could I make the numbers add up? My wife advises me to consider it like joining a country club. Hmm. One involves dropping balls into holes.

A fourth alternative is to shelve it altogether, maybe even taking the money I would have spent and finally traveling off to Europe. Let myself be content with the overview I’m presenting in weekly installments here at the Barn.

One thing I’m not doing here, contrary to Johnson, is being mercenary.

What course would you suggest pursuing?

What happens when a journalist attempts a novel

It used to be said that every newspaperman had a novel inside him, waiting for release. (Yes, male. Women reporters and editors were a definite minority. My, how times have changed!)

Frankly, I rarely saw any literary ambition around me. Few in the business read fiction of a serious sort, much less poetry. There were, though, a couple of playwrights. More recently, however, I know of two colleagues who have self-published – one a mystery, the other a political intrigue.

Yes, we’ve had notable exceptions, with Edna Buchanan, Ernest Hebert, Carl Hiassen, and Tony Hillerman topping my list. (Hemingway wasn’t considered much of a reporter in his six-month stint in Kansas City, and earlier giants often cited reflect a much different kind of journalism than what’s been practiced from the rise of the last century.) The crush of daily deadlines is exhausting, and fiction requires an entirely different approach and sensibility to the telling of a story. Journalists are conditioned to put facts first, usually without any concern for feeling, and to be professionally neutral, reflecting the quest of objectivity. These stances place the reporter at a distance from the subject, no matter how fascinating. Journalists also tend to put action ahead of the actors. Most of the resulting novels leaned toward the crusading reformer slant of the Front Page tradition – Down with corruption! – or maybe sports, either way, with the emphasis on the game more than the inner mindset of the players.

Well, there was also one editor-in-chief who took a popular genre novel and did a paint-by-numbers kind of rewrite over it. I think it was a Western, but I’m no longer sure. His connections got it published, and his success led to a half-dozen more. He was sheepish about the whole thing, though. It was more like a game, I suppose.

I wasn’t typical. My first love was the fine arts beat, for one thing. Since jobs there were scarce, I wound up on the copy desk. No matter how much I love politics, I find meetings boring. Press conferences, even more so. My most satisfying post was heading up lifestyles sections. Long story, as you’ll see in Hometown News. Maybe I was mostly a misfit who happened to do some things extremely well.

News writing, for the most part, is supposed to sound anonymous. Short sentences, limited vocabulary, a structure with the most important details at the top and the rest in descending order. As a writer or editor, your craft can soon become dulled. As an editor, one of my skills went to headlines, trying to relate a story in as few as four or five words. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of them, and I can see the distillation as an element of poetry. In my personal writing, I often reacted against the broader restrictions – I wanted a richer range of diction, more accurate language, more varied sentence structure (yes, I love long threads that work), and often more background on the story itself.

Turning to fiction, I’ve learned the importance of withholding details until later in the tale, things like not including first name, middle initial, and last name when introducing a character, much less his or her age and address. As for my poetry, I’ve preferred experimental and edgy, where the image or fractured expression might open into its own ambiguity and potential.

I do remember the first time a poetry publisher reacted to my submission by saying how delighted he was that my work wasn’t what he expected from a journalist. He had received enough to develop a negative opinion, one I fortunately didn’t fit.

My novel “Hometown News” was drafted during my third break from the news biz, when I was approaching 40 and gave myself a sabbatical after two years calling on editors in 14 Northeastern states as field salesman for a major newspaper syndicate. Driving between my calls on the local papers and seeing their newsrooms from the other side of the desk, so to speak, gave me plenty of time to reflect on the industry and then augment what I had collected in my own career. At many papers, as I saw, the managing editor or his equivalent was gone in a year, and with each one, I’d have to start grooming a new connection all over again. Many of them had telling histories of their own. Many of their towns looked like bombed out shells after World War II, their industrial might boarded up or rusting. I kept notes. Many of their skirmishes reflected my own.

Later, developing my novel in a series of routine days set months apart, “Hometown News” gave me an opportunity to see what I could do with creating a computer-generated novel. I set a framework for the day and randomly inserted 80 to 120 markers I could hit with search-and-replace items for each round. There were many other places that had to be manipulated manually, but it the attempt was fascinating, the way working a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle is.

The result was something like a Jackson Pollock painting, a theme-and-variations curiosity but not compelling reading. Through a series of revisions, I kept the bones but layer by layer added flesh and muscle to bring certain characters to the fore while the dystopian theme deepened.

Thirty-four years after starting out on the work, and seven years after its publication, I am struck by the story’s prescient warning of the collapse of a once very profitable business for the dominant voices, not that our salaries reflected that. What I saw was entire communities under attack, and they still are – not just their daily mirror.

The newsroom I present is a blend of five I’ve worked in over the years – another one was much smaller, and the remaining one was simply different. When you get a group of news folk together and we start talking what one spouse called Bodoni-Bodoni, after the typeface used for many headlines, we all have insider war stories. I hope “Hometown News” gives you an idea how ours translate.

My encounters in a yoga ashram altered my perception of life

I stepped out of my journalism career three times in my life before retiring for good. The first was when I decided to move to the ashram where I could immerse myself in yoga philosophy and practice. Responding to Swami’s invitation to settle into her rural setup was something I did slowly and deliberately, with a large degree of trepidation. As I relate in my Yoga Bootcamp novel, the daily life was intense and evolving. Leaving the ashram was a different matter, with others largely resolving the outcome – out you go. For weeks afterward, I felt myself falling helplessly through space. Eventually, I reestablished my feet on the ground and then headed off for a new life in a town I call Prairie Depot.

The paperback cover …

What happened for me during my residency was life-changing. I regard it as my master’s degree and my introduction to psychotherapy of an amateur sort. Among other things, it led me to the Society of Friends, or Quakers, which turned out to be the faith of my Hodgson ancestors from the 1660s down through my great-grandfather.

In the novel, I chose to confine the structure to a single day, in part because I had so many lingering questions I could not answer. Yes, within that day individuals could look back on their previous history, but the focus was on the NOW. And a lot could happen there in a 24-hour span. Besides, as I later learned through some candid discussions with a former Episcopal nun, monastic life has some commonalities of its own. As she said, some of the most intense interactions came in trying to choose the flavor of ice cream when the rare opportunity arose. I’ll argue you’re the most human under such rarified circumstances.

On top of everything, when I was drafting the book, I was out of contact with the place and its people. Critically, I had refused an order to return to the ashram after I’d married and moved to Washington state and a follow-up stipulation of heavy financial support was out of the question. A half-dozen years later, back on the East Coast, I had an opportunity to stop by but was not admitted into the house. I did learn that Swami had died and I sat by her grave. So much for making amends.

… and the back cover.

Since then, I’ve reconnected through social media with some of the key players and had a few assumptions, not in the story, deflated. In addition, Devan Malore’s “The Churning” reflects life there a few years after I’d moved on.

The story itself could have gone another way, if I hadn’t wanted to present the ideals that drew us together and kept us going. Especially the humor and playfulness.

More compelling for many readers would have been a more sordid tale of just one more “new religion” outfit run into scandal of a sexual or financial sort, preferably both. There were enough elements for that, as I’ve since learned.

The story first came out as a pioneering ebook in PDF format only and was later updated to Smashwords and its affiliated partners. A more recent, quite thorough recasting (again, blame the influence of Cassia in “What’s Left”) changed Swami from female to male and introduced Jaya as one of the eight resident yogis, thus linking her to the heftier Nearly Canaan novel. Besides, the transformation made Swami more acceptable to the expectations of many readers and allowed the Big Pumpkin and Elvis dimensions. The role was already unconventional enough, and this was more fun.

Am I still doing yoga? If you mean hatha, the physical exercises, let me say rarely and embarrassingly, at that. As exercise, I’ll substitute my daily laps in the swimming pool, and as meditation, my weekly Quaker meeting for worship. And no, I’m no longer vegetarian, other than when I voluntarily follow the Greek Orthodox “fasting” of Advent and Great Lent (again, blame Cassia), though I also eat much less flesh than most Americans. Actually, in these seasons, the Eastern Orthodox Christians are stricter than we yogis were.

I do wish there were a similar haven for youth today, one freed from the burden of student college debt. I’ll let “Yoga Bootcamp” stand where it does.

 

Not to get too sentimental, but …

What is life without memories?

The most tragic part of Alzheimer’s is what happens when one crosses that threshold and leaves the connecting memories behind.

Quite simply, stories – and storytelling, one way or another – are essential. Stories are, after all, ultimately memories within human existence, no matter how fanciful or mythical.

How else do we remember where we are in the universe? Or even why?

There are good reasons we swap stories, from pillow talk on.