Steady As She Goes

“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Ludolf Backhuysen, 1695.

Writing and I have had a tumultuous relationship, and throughout the course of our affair, I’ve had the tendency to oscillate between emotional extremes. One moment, I’ll obsess over something I’ve just written, convinced in the most private chambers of my heart that I’m the next William Shakespeare. The next, I’ll regard whatever project I happen to be working on with contempt, convinced I’m nothing but a fraud, that it’s only a matter of time before the world sees me for the hack I truly am and it’s all over.

It turns out that many writers, as well as artists of every other discipline, exhibit this curious emotional duality. We love our projects, our children of the mind, with all of their many quirks and imperfections, and for a time we have eyes only for their potential. But then we scrutinize them more closely, become increasingly sensitive to their flaws, magnified so that they blot out everything else, and soon we wonder how we could have ever considered our work “good.”

Either extreme left unchecked will wreak havoc on an artist’s creative aspirations, and could even shipwreck them altogether. Excess pride leads toward stagnation and a refusal to acknowledge thoughtful criticism, for how can one perfect something if, in their eyes, it’s already perfect? On the opposite end of the spectrum, excess despair leaves one feeling as if there’s no point, that they might as well give up while they’re still ahead.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that emotions are fickle, that there’s no logical reason for why one moment you should feel one thing and the next something else entirely. Amidst the billowing gale of conflicting desires, passions and the ever-shifting perceptions of my artistic value, I’ve realized that in the end, how I feel is really rather pointless. All that matters is whether or not I write.

When I’m feeling haughty, high and mighty, I acknowledge the emotion, set it aside and continue writing. When I’m feeling dejected, depressed and full of despair, I acknowledge the emotion, set it aside and continue writing. I write, I write and I write. I write through the good feelings. I write through the bad. The willful choice to act regardless of this transient passion or that becomes a moderating force, a lighthouse that illumines the way forward in a dark and unstable sea. I have no control over how I feel. But I do have control over how I act in spite of how I feel.

If you’re an artist of any stripe, do what you love to do. Do you believe that you’re invincible, that you and the vision you carry around inside your head have the capacity to transform the world? Recognize the feeling, let it go and make art. Do you believe that you’re a hack, that you have nothing of value to share with the world and that you might as well not even try? Recognize the feeling, let it go and make art.

Emotions will come and emotions will go. Like the explosive gusts of a hurricane or a typhoon, they’ll buffet you from every side, threaten to bowl you over where you stand. Fine. Let them come. Do what you love to do anyway. Stand your ground.

Do what you were made to do, always do what you were made to do, and even in the midst of chaos, you’ll find peace.

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California Bookstore Day, 2014 (and How I Came To Acquire a Standalone Copy of Neil Gaiman’s “The Sleeper & The Spindle”)

Bookstore Day, 2014

What is Bookstore Day?

Bookstore Day was a state-wide celebration that took place in California on Saturday, May 3, 2014 to honor the relationship between readers and the independent bookstores who support them. 93 shops participated, hosting various events such as readings and author signings. Special books and other items were sold in limited quantities, merchandise that was only available on that day and from those sellers.

I heard about this the day before it happened on Twitter, and decided that I had to be a part of it. I went online, found two indie bookstores that were relatively close and set out on a quest for literary adventure. This is where my tale begins.

Mysterious Galaxy

My first stop was Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach, CA.

Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach, CA
Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach, CA

I arrived at 10:40am, twenty minutes before the store opened. Because of Bookstore Day (along with the limited edition copy of Neil Gaiman’s short story The Sleeper & The Spindle to be had inside), I was anxiously anticipating hordes of book-hunting vikings, and braced myself to do battle with traffic and long lines. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I arrived to plenty of parking, and doubly surprised to discover that there was no wait outside the front door.

Though the store itself hadn’t opened yet, there was an attached coffee shop that was already doing business, so I went inside and bought a cup of peppermint tea to pass the time.

I asked if I could take it with me into the store, and they told me I could carry it wherever I went as long as it remained inside the building. I thought that an odd answer, until they gave me my drink in a clay mug. What does it say about the world we live in that I would be confounded by a non-disposable cup?

Peppermint Tea
My peppermint tea

Tea in hand, I sat down at a long wooden table and pulled out my notebook to do some freewriting, resolved to enjoy the atmosphere. I let my eyes meander about the room, and observed that there were enough people present to make me feel that I was a part of something special, but not so many that they began to feel like a crowd. I was anxious to see the treasures that awaited (and thus sipped my tea with perhaps a bit more enthusiasm than was strictly proper), but because I wasn’t competing with a bunch of other strangers for floor space, I never once felt that I had to spring from my seat and fly like a bat out of hell the moment they opened.

When the gate that separated the coffee shop from the rest of the building was finally pulled back, I polished off the remainder of my peppermint tea and set off to explore.

Inside Mysterious Galaxy.
Inside Mysterious Galaxy shortly after they opened

As soon as I walked inside, a nice gentleman from behind the counter approached and asked if there was anything he could do to help me.

“No thanks. Just looking around,” I replied. Then, remembering one of the reasons I’d decided to make the trip, I amended my answer and asked if he could get me a copy of The The Sleeper & The Spindle. I would have waited until I was ready to check out, but despite the lack of a crowd, I still had the irrational fear that it would sell out before I had the chance to buy it.

He dashed off to retrieve it, and a moment later I was holding on to something unspeakably beautiful. I thanked him, and before he left to help other customers, he told me to let him know if there was anything else he could do. It was the kind of prompt and enthusiastic service that you just won’t find at a large corporate chain like Barnes & Noble.

"The Serpent of Venice," by Christopher Moore.
“The Serpent of Venice,” by Christopher Moore

I discovered lots of interesting books as I walked around. They were all titles you could find online, of course; I didn’t notice anything that was obviously independently published or put out by a local press. But it was good just to be inside a bookstore again, to discover new stories the old fashioned way, by perusing shelves, waiting for something random to catch my eye and demand a closer look.

Among the interesting titles I encountered were The Serpent of Venice, by Christopher Moore; William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, episodes four and five, by Ian Doescher (real Shakespearean plays, written in iambic pentameter!); and The Onion Book of Knowledge (from America’s “finest news source.”)

I ultimately decided on William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, as well as my one-of-a-kind Neil Gaiman book, and headed toward the register to pay. I thought that that would be the end of my experience, but there was one surprise left.

Second installment to "William Shakespeare's Star Wars," by Ian Doescher.
Second installment to “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars,” by Ian Doescher

When I’d handed the cashier my credit card and was waiting for a receipt, the man pointed to a rack of books and informed me that I could pick one out for free in celebration of Bookstore Day. There weren’t a lot of items to choose from, but I did stumble across a hardcover copy of Will in Scarlet, by Mathew Cody, a retelling of the classic legend of Robin Hood. I thought, “why not,” and wound up exiting the store toting an extra book to read.

My whole experience was fraught with friendliness and smiles, and I left resolved to return as soon as I was in the market for more physical books, even if it meant that I’d have to drive thirty minutes out of the way to get there. The service, as well as the knowledge that I could be a part of a community instead of just another tick on a corporate ledger, was worth the extra effort.

{Pages}

Next in my tour was {Pages}, also located in Redondo Beach.

{Pages} A Bookstire, Redondo Beach, CA.
{Pages}, Redondo Beach, CA

{Pages} is a tiny street-side store backed up against the coast. Parking here was limited to what you could find on the street, and as anyone from Southern California knows, you have about as much luck parking on the street at the beach as you do winning the lottery. Nevertheless, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I was strolling along a narrow road stacked from one end to the other with small independent shops, and was soon standing outside my destination.

Inside {Pages} A Bookstore
Inside {Pages}

{Pages} was smaller than Mysterious Galaxy, but that only made the shop feel cozy and inviting. By the time I’d gotten there, there wasn’t much of a crowd, but one of the workers informed me that there’d been a line that’d snaked outside the shop before they’d opened, and that they’d sold out of Neil Gaiman’s short story in their first half hour. Good thing I’d purchased my own copy at Mysterious Galaxy first!

I don’t have too much to report about {Pages} that I haven’t already said about Mysterious Galaxy, and I’d imagine that most of the same would apply to any good indie bookstore. I received prompt and cheerful service and had an overall experience that was very positive.

I wound up purchasing a hardcover copy of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman, even though I was planning to spend less money by buying the e-book instead, because I wanted to support {Pages}.

After checking out, I returned to my car, noting that I’d left five minutes on the meter for the person behind me (there was no end to my generosity that day), and embarked on the journey home with a newfound awareness of all the options available to me whenever I might feel like going to a bookstore instead of purchasing e-books online.

Some Final Thoughts

"The Sleeper & The Spindle," by Neil Gaiman.
My copy of “The Sleeper & The Spindle,” by Neil Gaiman. Are you jealous? 😉

Bookstore day was a great way for me to discover the thriving community of indie bookstores in my area. Until hearing about the event, I’d always assumed that they were a dying breed and that there weren’t very many places left to go unless you were willing to visit one of the many Barnes & Noble replicants. Once I examined the event’s website, I realized just how many open shops were within driving distance, not just in Redondo Beach, but also in San Diego, Pasadena, Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Santa Monica. It was a great introduction to indie bookstore culture, and I hope that Bookstore Day will become an annual event that spreads beyond the borders of California.

I am and always will be a fan of online outlets like Amazon. Big business with a strong online presence fills a critical niche. But indie bookstores are also an important part of the literary ecosystem. I believe in a healthy balance between big and small business. I’ll always rely on Amazon for my e-books and for purchasing titles that I can’t find at a brick and mortar store. But when I’m in the market for a physical book, I think I’m going to make more of an effort to shop locally. There’s a whole social experience that’s missed online, especially when the seller is a small independent business as opposed to a large corporate entity. It’s nice to walk into a store and chat with a friendly face, and the warm relationships that blossom between local vendors and their regular customers is priceless.

It’s with a heavy heart that I report I was unable to stay for any of the events hosted by the bookstores. I thought about returning to Mysterious Galaxy in the afternoon, and maybe even driving out to Pasadena to check out some more stores, but the demands of the day got the better of me and I was forced to stay home. Fortunately, I’ve discovered through social media and the stores’ websites that there will be other events to look forward to. So I’ll just have to use my regret as motivation to check out more of what’s going on in the future.

I’ve got a lot more exploring to do; there are so many stores left that I wasn’t able to see. Here’s hoping for more positive experiences, and that public awareness of independent booksellers and their contributions to the world of literature will continue to grow and thrive long into the next century.

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Can I Hear the Voices of the Dead?

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Humans have long been fascinated by the idea that they could somehow speak with the dead. Most of us feel connected to them in one way or another, and we often ache for the chance to reunite. There are grieved lovers who want another chance to say goodbye; students who seek advice from deceased mentors; family members who yearn to make amends for past wrongs. Whatever our reasons, this craving for a continued relationship with our predecessors seems to be built into our DNA.

More than once, I’m sure you’ve thought, “if only I could hear the voices of the dead.” Well, what if I told you that you could?

Books are the answer.

When we read, our ancestors speak to us once more. Though death may have taken them, their voices remain with us in all that they’ve written, indelibly etched into the edifice of time. Books are the means by which we learn from our genealogical, intellectual and spiritual progenitors, as well as how we ourselves communicate with future generations, ensuring that whatever we learn during our ephemeral Earthly existence will never be lost.

They’re the voices of wise parents and teachers, telling us that our struggles were once theirs. They give us advice, and they teach us how to deal with our problems so that we won’t have to suffer the same mistakes.

They’re the voices of friends and lovers, who bestow comfort and hope in times of distress. They remind us through their stories — some joyful and others tragic — of how to love and how to feel. They teach us how to weather the storm of life, and in the midst of a world that often seems harsh, cold and uncaring, they help us understand that life is always worth living, and that everything happens for a reason.

They’re the voices of scientists, poets and philosophers, perpetuating beauty and knowledge from age to age so that both might never be lost. They whisper to us in the dark corners of our bedrooms and offices after hours, so that we too might be privy to whatever secrets they discovered before their Earthly journeys were complete.

In death, you too can speak to the living.

Just as your ancestors left behind their own voices, so too can you leave yours, so that when your appointed time comes, future generations will still be able to learn from the wisdom you attained in life.

Don’t have time to write a book? Don’t worry about it. Keep a journal. Freewrite for five minutes about your thoughts and feelings. Write letters to friends and family. Your words need not be formally compiled, edited and published by a major press. Some of our most treasured literary artifacts were those that were penned or spoken informally, passed down from teachers to students, parents to children or between friends and lovers.

Our ancestors will always be with us.

In books, we discover that the voices of those who’ve died persist, teaching, exorting, comforting, encouraging, continuing to dwell among each and every one of us. They give us hope for the future, and when we have hope for the future, we feel compelled to offer up our own wisdom, which we pray will be useful to those who come after us.

The next time you want to reconnect with someone from the past, don’t wait until your own demise to be with them. Just pick up a book and read.

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