Our stories are like tourist destinations

If you’re a writer or a reader and have time to spare, I hope you’ll spend a few moments considering Sofia Samatar’s “Fiat Lux: On Literary Atmospheres” on the “Poets And Writers” Website. It’s one of their series of craft capsules.

At my age, I usually avoid these craft capsules because I know that the good and bad things I do with words will continue because, really, I’m not going to change. I almost didn’t read this article, but after a few words, I was hooked.

Words create places just as surely as the universe creates a river or a mountain. As Samatar puts it, “To write is to generate a space, with its topography, its temperature, the quality of its air.”

This is what we do when we tell a story.

Reality? Yes, I think so.

And like any other tourist destination, it is–for the reader–a real place just as surely as the Grand Canyon and Glacier National Park are living and breathing locations. And like these places which we may visit more than once, we can visit stories more than once.

As Samatar sees it, “A question of rereading. Once you know what a book contains, why read it again? Because literature is not information. It’s an atmosphere, a location, a space, a landscape you can enter, with its own weather and light that can be found nowhere else.” And also: “Rereading means returning to a landscape: running down ill-lit streets, gliding through radiant fields, climbing up mountains buffeted by the wind.”

Every time I visit a place, whether it’s a friend’s or relative’s house or a widely known location in a travel guide, I see what I missed the last time I was there. The same is true of a novel or a story. It may seem finite inasmuch as the words on the page are the same every time I return. But I am not the same. I experience the story differently every time I re-read it; or, perhaps, I find myself interested in chapters and sections that didn’t wholly capture my attention the first or second or third time through the material.

As writers, we create real places we hope others will visit and one day return to for another look.


Learning from agents (yes, agents still exist)

If you want to learn about the business of books, it helps to be hungry. Not only hungry to learn, as the expression goes, but also just plain hungry, literally—it helps to have an appetite. Or an expense account. Ideally both. Because no matter how much the world of publishing has changed over the past hundred years—and, boy, has it changed since the days of Blanche Knopf, Horace Liveright, and Bennett Cerf—some things remain the same. It is still a business of relationships; it still relies on the professional connections among authors and agents and editors and the mighty web of alliances that help bring a work of literature out of the mind of the writer and onto readers’ screens and shelves. And those relationships are often sparked, deepened, and sustained during that still-sacred rite: the publishing lunch.

Four Lunches and a Breakfast: What I Learned About the Book Business While Breaking Bread With Five Hungry Agents

This is an interesting article by Kevin Larimer on the Poets & Writers website. It’s worth reading, I think, in spite of its length because many aspiring writers who want their books considered by mainstream publishers and reviewers forget that agents still exist. They are your route to big publishing. Yes, I know, in an era of Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace, nobody thinks about agents or the standard methods for approaching major publishers.

Yes, publishing is changing, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that if a writer publishes his/her book, s/he will never find it on the New York Times bestseller list or reviewed by Kirkus or in the local Barnes & Noble store. Take that to the bank. So, from time to time, a reality check can be a good thing just to see how you would approach publishing if you seriously wanted a six-figure book deal and more movie options than you could shake a stick at.


Writers: How Tall Are You?

“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?

– T. S. Eliot

In his article in the January/February 2016 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine called “Project Empathy,” Lee Martin advises those writing memoirs to keep in mind that the words on the page will never be as real as the lives we have lived.

poetswriterscover“We have to accept that fact and then forget it, so our subject matter won’t overwhelm us.” He goes on to suggest additional ways writers can approach difficult material…getting at emotionally charged issues through small details…letting the story tell itself without trying to say everything we feel about the horror of it or the joy of it.

In response to the quotation from Eliot, he says that “We should all feel as if we’re in over our heads when we write; that’s how we know we’re writing about something that really matters.”

If you have access to a library with a copy of Poets & Writers, I suggest reading this article whether you’re writing a memoir or writing a novel. I’ve often found the magazine available at Barnes & Noble stores.

When we think about how tall we are as writers, it doesn’t mean believing we’re taller than somebody famous. And when we think about writing about something that really matters, it doesn’t mean becoming full of ourselves because we are tackling an important subject of the day.

We do know what matters to us. We often avoid it, thinking who am I to write about this, thinking I can’t deal with this, thinking others have more dramatic stories to tell about this, and what this reminds me of are the lists of things we never want to talk about even with our loved ones or best friends. If you’ve known another person for a long time, you know what you cannot ask them because they refuse to discuss it. Maybe it’s something that happened in a war, the lost of a spouse or a child, a huge embarrassment at work.

If you have things you won’t talk about, they may be the stories you should be telling. Why? Because they’re important to you. Even in your silence, they have played a profound role in shaping your life. “Sooner or later,” writes Martin, “we have to face who we are in the world around us. We have to respond. We have to speak from the truest part of ourselves.”

When we respond–or, at least, try to respond–we find out how tall we are. A lot of us learn through the stories we read. We step into another person’s shoes and find out what it’s like to see what they have seen. What have you seen? Perhaps it will make a good story and perhaps it will resonate with the very people who need to hear it.

If you hurt while you’re writing it, you’re probably getting it right.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a story about racism and folk magic in northern Florida in the 1950s. The Kindle edition is on sale for 99 cents on January 6th.