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Happy Birthday, Professor

I don’t know when I first REALLy encountered J.R.R.Tolkien, and Middle Earth. They have simply been a part of my life forever.

I fell into “Lord of the Rings” and it closed over my head, and I’ve been breathing it through silver ever since, its words and worlds often as real to me – and sometimes far more real to me – than the ones I was physically contained in. It was the worlds of my heart and my spirit and my mind that have always mattered to me; all the rest is merely existing. THIS world is not where I LIVE. It’s where my physical body is, it’s where people I love can hug me or hold my hand or smile at me, it’s where I can eat chocolate and drink coffee… but when I close my eyes I am always somewhere else entirely, and my dreams are always of times and places that have no truck with this everyday world at all.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born Jan. 4, 1892. So many years ago. So much has happened in the time that has passed since. I wonder what Professor Tolkien would have made of the iPad and the e-book readers – the slim little tablets which can contain all of his hundreds of thousands, his millions, of published words without raising a sweat, which can allow his readers to carry ALL of his thick volumes with them at all times.

I read him in the original paper tomes, of course. My much-loved and literally falling apart omnibus paperback edition of “Lord of the Rings” is as familiar to me as a friend I have known from the cradle.

Tolkien was never MY professor, at anything, but Tolkien has taught me so much of my craft.

From him, I have learned how to build a secondary world so that it rises living and breathing and more real than the armchair in which the reader who is encountering it is sitting in. From him, I learned that characters are never wholly black or white but that there are always shades of gray and that it pays to explore the shadows. From him, I learned that trees can talk. From him, I learned that dreams have power. From him, I have learned that size is irrelevant and that the smallest of creatures – a fur-footed hobbit – can be counted on to topple the greatest towers that the Evil Overlord can dream of building. From him I learned of the power of language, and of other tongues, and from him I learned how much it matters to know, and believe in, history and legend and myth because of how fundamentally they shape our present and our future.

From him, I learned how to be epic and to see the big – the BIGGEST – picture; from him, I learned the strength and power of paying attention to details, and not losing sight of things others might think insignificant or irrelevant. From him, I learned what I know of patience. From him, I learned how to make people laugh; from him, I learned how to make people cry; from him, I learned how to make people remember.

Some years ago I actually visited the Wolverhampton Cemetery in Oxford where he is buried. A Catholic, his grave lies in the part of the cemetery which is devoted to the dearly departed of that faith – which, in this instance, means wading through gravestone after gravestone of Polish names until you finally stumble on the unassuming gray marble headstone which bears his name, and his wife’s, and their dates of birth and death – and two things more. Beneath her name, the word “Luthien”. Beneath his, the word “Beren”. The names of two characters who shared an undying love in the world of his books.

I stood at his graveside, mute, not knowing what I could offer other than a simple thank you for… for EVERYTHING… and it was at this moment that the stillness of the summer day was broken by a breath, just a single breath, of wind. It came swirling around the Polish gravestones, spiralled around the gray marble of Tolkien’s own, and briefly ruffled my hair, as though with the gentle touch of a hand, a soft blessing. And then it was gone again, and I was alone in the summer silence.

Thank you, Professor. For everything, and above all for that touch of wind in my hair.

I know it came down to me from the forests and mountains and valleys of Middle Earth, that world you created with such meticulous care, the world in which I have spent so much of my youth – and to which I still so often and so happily return, because it still has things left to teach me.

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Imposter Syndrome

I’ve had a bunch of writer friends admit to falling prey to this thing called the Impostor Syndrome at least once in the course of their writing lives and careers.

It’s the perennial “I’m here under false pretenses – there are so many who are so much more qualified to be here or deserve to be here so much more than me…” kind of response. It’s feeling the urge to slink away into the shadows because you’ve somehow been “unmasked” as being at the ball wearing another’s robes of honor.

Time was, back when I wrote everything by hand, that I had a badge of honor by which I could identify myself as an honest-to-goodness writer. I had an ink-stained callus on the third finger of my right hand and I could show that mark; it would announce to all and sundry that here stood a writer who had earned the name – look at my hand. I bore the Mark of the Scribe that you only get when you’ve spent hours and days and weeks and months plying that pen across the virgin page, creating words and worlds. It was a physical sign – better than a tattoo – it showed the world exactly who or what you were.

Oh, the Impostor Syndrome was still around and no less strong and powerful than it is today – but you could offer this particular disfigurement as proof that you were, in fact, deserving of a place where a writer should go.

My callus is long gone, since I started writing everything via keyboard. I could be anybody now. An accountant. A taxidermist. A doctor. A lawyer. A Bloomingdale salesgirl.

And the Impostor Syndrome persists – I can’t tell you if the ones at the VERY top of the pyramid in my craft feel it in quite the same way, but I know I still feel the pangs of it every so often, particularly if I”m offered a compliment on something I’ve produced. I’ve put in the years, paid the dues, I’ve practiced diligently and produced (at a rough estimate) about 3 million words in print to date. But I’ve no callus. And I still think I should turn and look behind me if somebody comes up to me in a corridor at a convention and says something nice about a book or story of mine.

I don’t think you ever quite get over that. That some stranger has read your words, and liked them, and what’s more liked them enough to come and tell you so. It’s the best feeling in the WORLD, mind you, to hear your heart’s children being praised in your presence – but every so often many of us have to MAKE ourselves remember the ink-stained callus on our finger, the ghost that lingers like an aura around our hand. You never quite get over Impostor Syndrome – but you might, in time, make peace with it – and learn how to channel that gracious writer who’s always standing behind you, and smile, and offer a sincere thank you to the person who just gave your work the gift of their approval and regard.

There’s a part of every writer which NEVER believes that it’s all right to just accept the mantle of WRITER flung around our shoulders and cultivate that sense of what seems like entitlement; there is another part that lurks in us all that has never believed that life could have turned out otherwise. Sometimes it’s hard to see the road that lies between these two conflicting impulses.

But we walk it. And try to keep our balance as best we are able.

Ask a writer sometime about that writer’s callus on the third finger, the one long gone. Most of us will know it, know of it. Most of us will smile when we tell you about it, and stop believing, if only just for a moment, that you could have only meant the question for somebody a lot more exalted than we could ever be.

Here’s to great editors

I suffer from occasional attacks of chutzpah.

Back in the mid-eighties, London Magazine, the grand, the venerable, had been in more-or-less constant publication for SEVERAL CENTURIES. It had a Reputation. It had a Renown.

I was in my early-to-mid-twenties at the time it and I crossed paths. It was edited by Alan Ross, who had been at the helm for decades, who was synonymous with the magazine at this point in time. So we had a daunting double barrier here – a famous literary magazine which would have no real reason to deal with a wet-behind-the-ears newbie because big names were piling at their doors like driftwood and they could pick and choose from those, and a venerable editor who’d seen plenty of knucklehead wannabes like me before and would have no reason to be anything but brusquely dismissive of them. If he ever saw their pathetic efforts at all, himself, without their being culled out by underlings whose sole task in life it was to do just this unpalatable task.

Of course, it was the obvious thing for me to do to pack up a short story of which I was inordinately proud of at the time, and send it in for consideration – HERE. Of all places, here.

Alan Ross had a fairly odd way of responding to submissions. No rote responses for himl no circular letters. Every submission received a personal response … on a quirky vintage postcard. I received one such card as a reply to my story submission. It bore, in HANDWRITING, only a few words as a response: “Like it, but not enough background. Alan Ross”

Kids, don’t try this at home – but I was deep in the throes of that chutzpah attack. I replied, “What kind of background would you like? I can put more of it in.”

Back came another postcard in return.

“We’ll take it. Alan Ross”

London Magazine was going to publish my story.

Not too long after that, another card came to query if I minded (!) if they put the story, not in the magazine itself, but in a hardcover anthology they were preparing to celebrate LM’s 30th anniversary. Head spinning still harder, I acquiesced to this. The book, called “Signals”, was published in the UK in 1991.

I met up with the editor of that anthology, on a visit to London not too long after the book’s publication. I recall being taken out to lunch, and then, on the way out, losing the combs from my hair in the process, and crawling around for one of them while being handed the other by the laughing editor in question. It’s a tiny little disembodied gem of a memory, connecting with nothing at all, and yet somehow treasured as an instant of innocence and pure glowing joy. This anthology editor never bought anything more from me – but he introduced me to an agent in London, who became my first agent, who sold “Dolphin’s Daughters” for me to Longman in 1995, and that is a slim little book which was reprinted NINE TIMES and still brings in a trickle of royalties every so often.

I met Alan at London Magazine’s offices in South Kensington sometime in the early nineties. I still remember – you rang an unobtrusive little bell by the front door of an unobtrusive London townhouse; the door let you into a corridor; the corridor led you out into a back courtyard overgrown with things that really looked like they needed a careful gardener’s hand to guide them but hadn’t seen one for at least a brace of years; you went down a curved flight of stairs with an iron balustrade into a tiny paved area from which a door opened into what turned out to be a cluttered room with high and stuffed bookshelves, two desks wedged in in a manner which promised grievous difficulty if EITHER was ever to be removed from there ever again and overflowing with papers (manuscripts, artwork, galleys), and a couple of typewriters. No computers for Alan – not then, not, I suspect, EVER. Not by choice, anyway. He belonged to a different age, a slower age, a gilded age, a glowing age where he could take the time to write to his writers on the backs of old postcards and cultivate relationships rather than quickies (wham, bam, here’s your check, ma’am, next…?)

He took me out for a pint to the pub round the corner. He bought a book review from me which saw the light of day in LM not too long after that.

But only a handful of years after this chance encounter with this extraordinary character, he was gone, and LM was a different animal without him. I never submitted anything there again.

There were many things about Alan Ross that I didn’t know – some of them I learned only now, YEARS later, from his obit, and others, like the fact that I wasn’t the only one whom he reached out to in other places.

I did not know him well enough to say that I miss him today. That would be presumptuous. But I miss people like him, the characters, the unique individuals whose like we will never see repeated. And yes, I miss the great editors of the past whose role was not just to buy and to send to press but to nurture, and to care, and to take young and unknown writers and shape them into something special. Alan Ross may not have had much time for the plants in his office courtyard – but he watered and pruned and pored over his writers like the most special of orchids – and although his legacy may not be immediately obvious or in-your-face, it is nevertheless real, and the flowers that bloomed under his hand were sometimes… awe-inspiring. And some might never have bloomed at all but for his tender care of the fragile young plant.

So, then. Here’s to great editors. Raise whatever you’re drinking, and toast them all.

We writers, we shouldn’t forget what we owe them.

Espresso Magic

I wrote my first poem — about a broken alarm clock — when I was five. I’ve has been writing about life, the universe and everything ever since — in novels, poems, short stories and, in the past few years, hundreds of blog essays.

When Village Books in my home town of Bellingham WA acquired its magical Espresso machine for self-publishing small-run books in the store itself, I collected some of my blog entries for a new book entitled, Shoes & Ships & Sealing Wax.

The essays include more than five years of thoughts and feelings, laughter and tears, triumph and tragedy. I write about rivers, and stars, and dolphins, and cats, and words, and love, and growing up and growing older. In short, shoes and ships and sealing wax.

I chose self-publishing on the Espresso Machine because I don’t expect to have the same readership for my essays as I do for my fantasy novels, published in the US by HarperCollins. This book is a labor of love and requires a different approach.

Watching the Espresso do its thing is exciting. You can watch the operation through the clear plastic sides of the machine. At first you see only a photocopying operation as the pages are spit out. But then things get really interesting.

The photocopied pages are clamped together, a glue roller is passed along the spine, the bundle of pages are brought down onto the pre-printed cover, a clamp holds the cover and the pages together for a few moments while the glue sets, and then the the book is turned around smartly three times while a scythe cut it down to size.

Then the finished book is spat out. Still warm. Hot off the presses.

It’s just as exciting as opening the box from your publisher and pulling out your latest book.

The comfort of a book

Feeling a little under the weather, I took a day off and sat down with a cup of herbal tea … and a book.

After I had finished the book (its spine cracked with love, its pages beginning to age, its shape and weight comfortable in my hand) I went back to the computer to take a look at what had been going on in the world since I had last looked in on it and discovered a discussion on e-readers.

E-book readers are proliferating like mushrooms after the rains, and the more popular ones can do SO MUCH MORE than just letting you read a book. You can access your email. You can write on your blog. You can paint a picture.

But here’s the thing. I was feeling off, and miserable, and out of it. What did I reach for…? A *book*. The kind which I could let flip open to a favorite passage (and I knew where to look for them, in the book, on a page). I could curl up with this loved and intimate object, and sip my herbal tea, and dive into the pages and pretend I was in a different world while the rain fell outside and the cats came to curl up at my feet. I was holding… a book. I had reached for one out of a need for love and comfort,out of a need for something solid and familiar and warm.

Could I have done this with a Kindle, a Nook, a Sony, an iPad?

Perhaps. Maybe. Some people no doubt have that ability. But I find it hard to derive comfort from even the idea of doing this, of holding a screen, of tabbing down through the pages rather than turning them with my fingertips when I’m ready.

Yes, I know the advantages. Yes, I know you can have an entire library in a single Kindle. But here’s the thing – I don’t read 3000 books at once. I read one. And I am more than happy to have the other 2999 of them surrounding me on bookshelves in my home. The books give my house a soul and a presence, they show the people who step through my door what kind of person I am, and they are all always there for me, just an arm’s reach away, when I want any one of them.

I don’t think I’ll be buying an e-reader of any sort soon. I have bowed to a lot of the things that make up this cyberworld I live in, and have adopted the computer for a lot of things that I would never have dreamed it was possible for a computer to do in the relatively short time that it has been a part of every modern household. But reading…? Reading I do for love and comfort. And nothing beats the healing power of a real book in my hand.

Yes, thank you, I do feel better. Tomorrow it’s back into the salt mines because there is a lot of work to do. But the medicine that healed me did not come from electrons. It was words, on paper. Love and comfort.

Long live the book.

Fences

I was driving along suburban roads when I was suddenly struck… by fences.

There’s a little house on a corner in my town, older and less than perfectly cared for, with a short picket fence more decoration than any kind of impediment to anything at all, once white but now a cheerfully peeling grayish motley revealing the weathered wood underneath. Around and through it nod flowers. The lawn beyond is a child’s dream of dandelion grass.

There’s another house, a little further on the same street. This house has a high wooden fence all around it, too dense and too tall to see through. The fence has a closed gate in it. Its message is, “This is MY SPACE. Keep out.” If nobody can see inside… neither can they see out, and the world and the people who live behind that fence are somehow sundered from one another.

Writing can be like that. Writing can give you a glimpse into someone else’s garden, and take you by the hand and lead you inside, and offer you tea and cakes and laughter on the dandelion lawn. Or it can leave you shivering outside the locked gates of a garden that does not want you, that looks on you with suspicion or disdain, that disparages all that YOU know or all that YOU can do.

Shouldn’t the best writing be about breaking down the fences…? Not raising them up?

I was thinking about this when the classic story popped up – Oscar Wilde’s “Selfish Giant”. Put up a high wall around your house and your mind, exclude the children (or – metaphorically – new ideas, new imagination, a new way of looking at the world which someone else, someone from outside, might bring to you), and watch the eternal winter take hold over everything. We are all a part of the world. We are – to quote another sage, G’kar of Babylon 5 – we are one.

Put up fences that divide us, and we are all the weaker for it.

Oh, I’m far from in advising that we should not mind if some uncouth stranger tramples our flowers or comes into our garden and then makes off with the garden gnomes. I’m all for keeping your boundaries, and definitely for requiring other people, visitors to your garden, to show proper respect for its culture and its contents. But if the stranger steps on a flower by accident, or trips over the gnomes without realising that they were there, don’t build a higher wall. Share the story of the garden instead. You’ll both go away the richer for it.”

When I was a teen…

I am posting online a novel I wrote as a teenager — 30 years ago — and will rewrite it, a chapter at a time.

When I was 14, I wrote a 200,000 word novel in longhand, in pencil, three years after I had learned English.

That first novel was, not too surprisingly, unpublished. But decades later, I finally mustered the courage to look at it and found it … not too bad. Oh, the writing is sometimes appalling, but the characters and the plot hold together very well.

So I have put together a panel of teen advisers who will offer commentary and suggestions on each chapter as it is posted. After reading and considering their comments, I will rewrite the novel, chapter by chapter, until it is done.

I am hoping that anyone interested in the craft of writing, as well as middle school and high school language teachers and librarians, will join in for the ride.

The blog is at: http://heritageofclan.wordpress.com/