Friday, December 13, 2013

Standing in the River

Once in awhile, you can miss something—or someone—for so long you almost forget, until one day you walk right into a reminder.

I’d forgotten how great it was to have book stores to hang out in. Pittsburgh isn’t a big city, but even in my little orbit, I had more than one “favorite”—Pinocchio in Shadyside and Tall Tales in Mount Lebanon, for children’s books; Mystery Lovers in Oakmont, for the obvious; and Borders in the South Hills, for its wonderful and knowledgeable staff, as well as a big selection and welcoming atmosphere. Sure, Borders was a chain store, but its staff knew and was passionate about books.

One by one, they folded, until only Mystery Lovers, under new ownership, survived. Yes, we do still have others, including a couple chains, a few used book shops, and college book stores. But it’s not the same. 

A recent long weekend took us to Manhattan for a family birthday, but it was book stores I was hungry for. There are so many to choose from, but our schedule only allowed time for two: The Strand and Argosy. Very different experiences, but in both cases, the moment as I walked through the door, explosions of quiet happiness were going off in my head.

Both are legacy book stores, still in business after generations. The Strand opened in 1927 on New York’s legendary Book Row, which makes it 86 years old in 2013, and still in the original family. Auspiciously named after London’s famous publisher’s row, the Strand was once just one of 48 bookstores on Book Row—I wish I could’ve been there! According to The Strand’s website, Book Row started in the 1890’s and once ran from Union Square to Astor Place, though today, the Strand is all that remains. 

Famed for its “18 miles of books,” The Strand sprawls over three floors, with a rare book room at the top, millions of new and used books and literary-themed items from the bottom up, and dollar carts outside. When you step inside, much of the joy comes from feeling how alive it is—the bustle of book-loving people all around you, the shelves and tables crowded with books and other delicious items.

Argosy is even older, dating back 88 years to 1925, and is also still family owned. It’s smaller, and cozier, and feels preserved in time. The first thing that struck me as I crossed the threshold—after tearing myself away from the dollar used books outside, with two in hand—was the aroma. Argosy smells wonderful. It smells of old paper and real leather bindings. 

The lighting is more muted than at The Strand, and it gleams back softly from old wood paneling and a pressed-tin ceiling. In the center aisle, library tables with green-glass-shaded lamps invite you to sit and read. I spent a long time here, and climbed the ladders in the basement, where everything was fifty percent off, to make sure I didn’t miss a treasure.

Argosy's main room (Argosy website)
Between The Strand and Argosy, I filled two heavy bags with books. But the best part of my day was just being there—surrounded for a few hours by books and book people. As a writer, being there in that world of books again—of words and ideas—connected me to what Madeleine L’Engle referred to as “the river.” It reminded me, in a way I hadn’t felt for a while, that I needed to be writing. 

I need to keep adding my small trickle of words to the river, in the same way the smallest creek along the way feeds the great Mississippi. It occurs to me I might also be feeding the “Amazon.” But as much as I love buying books online, it will never provide that sense of community I feel in a real bookstore.  It’s a unique community that includes toddlers and mommies sitting at the tiny tables with their colorful picture books, as well as the long-dead—but still-living—giants of the written word, like Dostoevsky and Dickens. For a little while, it was good to stand knee deep in the river again—a reader and a writer—and let it rush over me.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Washed Up on the Far Shore of Nanowrimo

Around 1 AM November 27th, I won my fourth Nanowrimo--National Novel Writing Month. Midnight November 1st found me with a jumble of sketchy notes, a pot of tea, and a bag of emergency snacks. With Boris Karloff's eyes smoldering out of the TV screen as The Mummy on the late-night Halloween movie, and the sound on low, I began typing.

It was my hardest Nano yet. I had a title--BAD MOON, a vague idea, and a few cardboard cutout characters. That was it. For the next 26 days, my family individually and collectively created more drama than any competing telenovela, and my previously well-behaved dogs and cats started leaving surprises around the house. An annual writing conference came around and I was away from home overnight and most of two days, but Nano doesn't wait--1,667 words a day do not write themselves.

But this year, my goal had to be something closer to 2,000 words a day. Due to the only convergence--in all of human history--of Thanksgiving, the first day of Chanukah, and the 80th birthday of my husband's cousin, I had to be D-O-N-E by dawn on the 27th. We were leaving for a long family weekend celebration in New York City, and I didn't want to schlepp a heavy, old-school laptop.

Somehow, I made it. For the first time ever, I discovered that it is possible to write in my sleep. Literally. On two separate occasions, I dozed off while writing, and startled awake a few moments later, only to discover I had completed one or more actual sentences. Neither of them bore any connection to the story at that point, though, which I found interesting. Since it was Nano, and every word counts, of course I left them in anyway.

At 8 PM November 26th, I was only partially packed. In fact, I still had laundry to do before I could finish packing. I had not written all day, and I still had 4,000 words between me and victory. It looked very much as though I was going to be trying to find space in that bag for a very heavy computer.

I had never written more than two or three thousand words in a day. Many of my 1,667-word days had been excruciating. But I decided I was just going to do it. And so I sat down and wrote. My characters went nuts. They had rambling conversations and I tagged all their dialog. Every verb got its very own adverb. Florid descriptions flew from my fingertips. It was the fastest and easiest 4,000 words of my life. Bam!

And so...I hit my 50,000 words with four days to spare, even though the book isn't finished, and it certainly isn't great. But the amazing thing--which I have experienced every Nano--is that there are so many good things in there, all the same. What I have is the bones of a pretty good story, and one that I would never otherwise have written.

Now, after a long weekend in New York, I'm looking ahead to the New Year, and ten months that are not Nanowrimo. I have four Nano novels that all need work, and a few more written conventionally. What I've been lacking in the past is dedicated follow-through. So for 2014, my goal is to revise a book a month--and start getting them out there.

Writing is important, and God bless Nano--every year it reminds me of that.