For The Love of Words

I spent the last 2 days hanging around writers, booksellers, and publishers.

I think, as humans, one of the very best things we can do for ourselves is find our little group of like-minded weirdos. Everybody is weird (some prefer “unique,” but whatever). Being in a group of similarly weird people makes you feel connected and understood. You don’t have to explain yourself, or search for just the right words to make someone understand your point of view. Your Weirdo Tribe is just going to GET IT.

Me, I walk through the world thinking about words about 85% of the time. See, weird. But I’m a writer and an aspiring bookseller–that’s, like, ALL the words.

But 2 things happened during my sojourn with these bookseller/writer types that gave me that blissful feeling when you see something of yourself in someone else–when the very innermost parts of you feel represented and seen:

#1: One of the presenters from Southern Fried Karma (“a multi-media production company developing projects in music, films and books”–but c’mon, isn’t that just the best name?!?) started talking about the power of books to establish community. Because we know that reading builds empathy. And empathy paves the way for community and connection. The more you read, most often the wider your worldview. The more you see similarities and understand the way other people experience the world, the less strong your impluse to “other” people. The more likely you become to reach out, to seek diverse communities, to support people–even those seemingly unlike yourself.

And that’s precisely what the dude from SFK was expressing when he told the story about white supremacists coming to his small, Georgia town to have a rally–and the black and white communities uniting to keep out the white supremacists, creating a space where hate could not thrive. And as he talked about the power of books to create this kind of empathy, to unite two seemingly disparate communities in rural(ish) Georgia, he began to tear up.

And OH. MY. GOD. Yes.

I tear up when I talk about books all the time. Because they are so powerful. And stories–every story–can change the world (that’s why the tagline for Bookish is “Every Story Matters.”) And hell yes, that’s something to get emotional over.

We need change. Books ARE that change. We just need to get them into the hands of the people and remind them about the magical ability of stories to change lives.

#2: On the Bus Tour of Atlanta Bookstores, I met an author from North Carolina who’s debut novel is coming out this Summer. That’s a BIG DEAL. We chatted about how tough the writing process can be (there are no bon-bons involved. It is NOT, in fact, a cakewalk). And I gave her the brief rundown about the progress on my middle grades novel. Honestly, I’d never talked to someone who was just a short stretch ahead of me on the road to becoming published. Most folks I meet are either established authors… or they are going to write an book someday. But this woman had just emerged from the trenches of rewriting, revising, and editing… and now she had a BOOK that other people were going to READ. I just found it all so hopeful. Like maybe it would happen for me, too.

The next day, the same woman was a presenter at the conference I attended. She spoke about the blurry line between memoir and fiction that is autofiction. And that was amazing in and of itself, because I’ve been thinking about memoir writing, but hesitating because–for real, y’all–once upon a time, I drank so much that my memory isn’t entirely trustworthy. But autofiction opens up a whole new world where things can be true AND not true. Whoa.

But, also, in describing the ways that readers react to autofiction (often by trying to determine how much of the fiction is “true” and how much authority you really have two write about certain themes), she shared part of her story with us. And I swear, it was just like my story. And nothing like my story. And the things she said made me feel so visible, and I thought she was so brave to have shared them, that I ran right up to her afterwards to give her a hug. Because how often does someone tell your story that isn’t your story and remind about so much of what was and what isn’t but what always is?

Rarely. And oh my Lord, is it a gift.

Stories are so much bigger than us. They take on a life of their own. They reach people in ways we can’t begin to fathom. And they do change lives. Hell, they can change the whole world.

(And, yes, I totally cried the whole time I wrote this. Whatever.)

Let’s Get Stuff DONE

Productivity has been taking up a lot of my brain space lately.

I know. I know. Snooze fest.

But really, it’s more about life management. And coping. Just stick with me.

I’m relatively new to planning anything in my life. I totally wish I was kidding. But I’ve always had some sort of ad hoc organization system in my head–and resisted putting anything on paper. Or into the ether on my new fangled ‘puter.

But 2019 brought me into the land of the organized with an Ink + Volt Planner (courtesy of my best friend, who really gets me, you know??). And I am totally getting shit done. It’s a miracle.

But, I’m also learning about my own work flow. And my need to shift focus when I get stuck on a project. Which means that things don’t always go exactly as planned. And that’s okay. (Right?!?)

Yesterday, I had big plans to knock out a chunk of client work. But first, I needed to clear out some of the books taking over my house. (For those who haven’t been following along, there are 3 major things going on over here: starting a used bookstore, freelance writing, and editing a book manuscript).

The books have infiltrated the kitchen! Send reinforcements.

I started on the books first thing in the morning. And totally got sucked in. Sorting and boxing the books is a process. It involves taking all the books out of the boxes I brought them home in, sorting them into categories, wiping them down with a magic eraser, scraping stickers off of them & removing goo, and reboxing them.

It looks absolutely nothing like this.

Simon, my sweet, long-suffering husband, works in the room where the books wait to be sorted and boxed. That means he’s always stepping over boxes of books to even get to his desk. So, while he was out of town for work, I really wanted to clear some stuff out of that room. Because marriage.

I was making real progress. Boxes to be taken to the storage unit started accumulating by the door. Then I looked at the time and realized I should have already started the client work*. But I also knew that, if I shoved the books back in the room without completing my sorting and reboxing task, I’d feel defeated. Like I’d wasted hours and hours and got nothing done. And Simon would still come home to a workspace that was a flaming hot mess. So, I ignored my original plan and stuck with the books. Until 11:30 pm.

Photographic evidence of the weird assortment of randomness that goes along with boxing the books: scraped stickers, a skull eraser, sandpaper, and an old hotel key used to scrape said stickers.

What’s currently blowing my mind: I feel really accomplished even though I totally blew off something on my to do list. Whoa.

Here’s something else to add to my current mind scramble: I’ve been getting up each day at 5 am to revise my book manuscript. And it’s been going brilliantly. Until yesterday. When I became convinced I was a fraud that shouldn’t even be allowed to write the copy on the back of a cereal box. Everything about the manuscript felt hollow and lame.

So, I left it alone this morning. I purposely slept in until 6:45 am.

Wha???? BUT THAT WASN’T IN THE PLAN. (Obviously, spontaneity is an issue for me. I’m working on it)

This book I’m working on is kind of a big deal to me. It’s middle grades fiction. And I love it.

And making the commitment to revise it every day felt–and still does feel–right. But I’d reached a point in the narrative that wasn’t well executed in the initial draft. So it needs a lot of work. Which requires a whole new level of focus. And I’m gonna need to regroup for that. And look at it fresh. The story and the characters deserve that. Hell, I deserve that.

So, I didn’t touch it today. Instead, I’ve had two relatively leisurely cups of coffee and am about to get around to that client work I meant to do yesterday.

So, yeah, work flow and mini-burnout and getting shit done… That’s what’s been up over here. I’m digging being in a place in my life where enough is going on that I have to learn to strike a balance. It’s carefully managed chaos. But it’s mine. And I kind of love it.

*No clients were blown off in The Epic Sorting of the Books. It was a self-imposed deadline. I’m WAY too much a Virgo to ever miss an actual deadline.

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams

Stephen King has been a favorite of mine since I was 12. I was spellbound then, as I am now, by his masterful storytelling (I mean, c’mon, The Shining is second to none). I fell in love with his horror stories, but I’ve come to realize that he can write anything. And that’s real talent.  

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams offers a collection of Stephen King’s short(ish) stories. The bizarrely imaginative plots range from a monster car (which is very different than a monster truck, trust me) to an ill-fated fireworks display. My favorites, though, were about an otherworldly Kindle and a sanity threatening Cookie Jar. Really.  

Each story has a brief intro, where King explains his inspiration for the story (literary or otherwise). I love that these intros acknowledge that other writers have influenced King’s craft over time… and none more so than the ones he really immerses himself in. Which is likely why so much of the creative work I’ve done recently is heavily Stephen Kingesque. He’s the kind of storyteller whose style and way of envisioning the world colors your own reality. Or at least it colors mine.  

I get drawn back to King for the power of his stories but I stay because he’s a magician with words. I didn’t love every story in this collection. But the ones I did love return to my consciousness over and over again. They have staying power. And they are something to aspire to. 

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I pulled this novel out of a stack being cleaned, sorted, and packaged for the bookstore. I try not to do that very often. If I did, we’d be inundated with books  (we already are, truthfully). But I’ve heard about this book since high school, and somehow managed not to have read it yet. So, out it came.

I guess I expected fireworks. The book is pretty famous, after all. But it took me a minute (or a few chapters) to get into it. And then, I was in.

It’s not a page-turning, wait with baited-breath kind of story. It is honest. And uncomfortable. It’s sweet and rough, gut-punching and tender. It’s human. Painfully and beautifully so.

What makes A Tree Grows in Brooklyn so brilliant–and powerful–is the unflinching deconstruction of deeply held notions about poverty, simply by describing daily life for the working poor. Smith constructs a compassionate (but still relatively neutral) narrator to traverse class customs and behaviors, breaking down stereotypes and offering the reader insight.

Francie, the child of an alcoholic father and a work weary mother, feels injustices deeply. She can also get “drunk” on a flower or a perfect night sky. My favorite line in the book is Francie’s: “The last time of anything has the poignancy of death itself.”

Yes! I’ve felt this my whole life, but I’ve never known anyone else to give voice to that feeling. Until now. And that might be one of the best gifts of a good book.

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of The Book of Qualities

A sweet friend gifted me this book. Out of the blue. Because he thought I should have it.

The gesture made me a little teary. But, page by page, it meant even more that he’d chosen me for this book. Because it’s lovely. It speaks with such a gentle honesty.

It’s a treasure, this book. I loved it so much that I wanted to draw it out, to savor it bit by bit. So I limited myself to two–maybe three–qualities per day. Right before bed. Reading it was a balm. And it offered me poignant insight that I often dwelled upon as I drifted off to sleep.

Each quality of the human condition–worry, pleasure, competition, forgiveness, intensity  (99 in total)–gets a personality, a style of dress, a mode of moving through the world, an energy, and a smattering of favorite things:

Change wears my sister’s moccasins… He likes to come up quietly and kiss me on the back of my neck when I’m at my drawing table…Change is very musical, but sometimes you must listen for a long time before you hear the pattern in his music.

The “negative” qualities spoke to me the most. I began to understand them differently and to look on them with a new tenderness. After all, they are my teachers; it seems only right to respect them, even if I can’t always welcome them.

I finished the book weeks ago.

It’s still on my nightstand, where I can keep it close.

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of Stef Soto, Taco Queen

A taco truck + protective parents + tween angst = Stef Soto’s seventh grade year.

Middle school is a train wreck, no matter who you are. But as a kid, you don’t know that. The popular kids seem to have discovered the key to survival, while you’re fumbling around trying to hide zit on your nose (or in this case, the smell of taco sauce in your hair).

Add one old taco truck and a set of overprotective parents (few things are EVER as embarrassing to a seventh grader as their parents) and you’ve got Stef Soto’s life wrapped up in a tortilla.

As much as I love middle grade fiction, Jennifer Torres’ novel missed the mark for me because I’m not a seventh grader. Torres captured the self-absorption of being a tween so well that I found myself rolling my eyes at Steph. She exasperated me the way that seventh graders often exasperate their parents. Which is perfect, really.

At 12 years old, I would’ve found pieces of myself reflected in Stef Soto, for sure. I knew what it was like to feel wrong so much of the time and to constantly work to throw off the labels my peers had stuck me with. But Stef also would’ve taught me things, like how fragile the American Dream can be. And that sometimes an entire family has to invest in that dream for it to succeed. All eye rolling aside.

Stef Soto is perfect just the way she’s written. She’s honest, angsty, eye-rolling, grateful… She’s learning. And she gives other kids space to do the same.

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of The Little Tragedy

The Little Tragedy presents some big existential questions. And delivers them in a fast-paced narrative that I couldn’t put down.

Ever worry about the state of the world we’re passing along to our children?

Yeah. Me, too.

Which is why The Little Tragedy, by Jeff Haws, freaked me the hell out. Seriously.

It’s science-fictiony and dystopian–and probable enough to be deeply disruptive. This novel managed to make me pick apart and analyze the reasons I chose to have a child, my believes about the sanctity of life (and what actually constitutes life), and whether only having a limited amount of time with my child would change my choice to bring her into the world.

On top of all those existential questions, destiny also plays a significant role in this novel. Can we escape our destiny (either through denial or foolish choices)? To what extent do universal work to ensure we fulfill our destiny? And (probably my favorite) do we ever truly understand our importance in the world?

Haws writes multi-dimensional, believable characters. He creates the kind of scenarios that play out in the world every day–ones that have no clear hero or villain. Just folks acting shockingly human.

Toward the end, the narrative becomes incredibly fast-paced. I skim-read because I needed to know what happened. Like RIGHT THEN.

I was left with some unanswered questions. But it’s impressive that Haws created a novel that made me want to know MORE about the fictional world he created. I like being left with a few questions nagging at my mind. Because that’s the sign of a story that just won’t let go.