Parenthood is teaching me to be a better person.
I know it’s just a television show. I’m not divorced from reality. In fact, sometimes I am so wrapped up in reality that I overlook the little magical moments that make life worth living.
I know the characters on Parenthood are fictional. But they behave as if they were real, they talk like real people, and there’s no higher compliment you can give to writers, or to actors.
I’ve had a very bad week.
A crushing work load. Thoughts racing, mind running circles, chasing its own tail.
Then, in the middle of this hectic week, I allowed myself to think that something I’ve poured my heart into for years was finally, maybe, just possibly, showing some signs of progress in a part of my life that means much to me.
Like I said, I’ve had a very bad week.
I came home Tuesday evening, depressed, hopeless and defeated, and flopped down on the couch . I switched on the TV, and watched the Christmas episode of Parenthood.
If you haven’t seen the show, you’re missing something special. Here’s a brief summary: It’s the story of the Braverman family. Two brothers, two sisters, their parents, their children. They have messy lives. They squabble. They disappoint each other. They hurt each other, sometimes. They compete with each other.
Just like real families.
When they talk, they don’t sound like actors delivering lines of dialogue. They stop, they start, they interrupt, they don’t always listen, and even when they do, they don’t always understand. They are noisy, their lives are chaotic. Like most people’s. Like mine.
But here’s the thing. In the end, they are a family. And no matter what arguments or misunderstandings might divide them, the things that unite them are always stronger.
Just like real families.
On this week’s episode, Kristina, a mother of three who is undergoing chemo, went into septic shock and nearly died. On Christmas Eve. By rights that should have been sappy. But it wasn’t. Not even close. The hospital scenes were played with such emotional, raw honesty they made me squirm. They stick the cameras right in the actors’ faces, so there are lots of close-ups, and much of the acting is done with facial expressions. Talented people like Peter Krause, who plays Kristina’s husband, can convey so much pain and fear with just a glance, a wince, a single tear.
On this week’s episode, Ryan, a former solider falling apart after two tours in Afghanistan, broke the heart of his girlfriend, Amber. In a scene near the end, a contrite Ryan showed up outside the Braverman house, where the family was gathered for Christmas Eve, to apologize and ask forgiveness.
Amber went outside to meet him.
“I’ll do anything,” he begged.
“I want to face it,” he said, meaning the emotional demons that have tormented him since his return from a stupid, wasteful war.
She forgave Ryan. On most TV shows, that would have been the moment where they kissed and made up.
Instead, a very smart writer and a very talented actress, Mae Whitman, had Amber say this:
“I’m in love with you. But I watched my mom get completely dragged down by somebody, you know, who just couldn’t even stand on his own. And she just threw everything she had at it,” and there Amber paused, and the tears came, and she continued, “and it didn’t make him better and it didn’t make her better. And I just know … I just know … that that’s not how to love.”
The scene shattered me.
Because the truth is, we can’t fix each other. We can only fix ourselves.
I have always hated the Coldplay song Fix You for just that reason. The lyrics, in part, go like this: “When you try your best but you don’t succeed … (followed by a bunch of other platitudes) … I will try to fix you.”
No. I’m sorry. That’s not how it works.
It has been painful for my wife this week to watch me fall again. But she is smart enough to know she cannot fix me. She can only stand by and support me, and wait for me to fix myself.
I promise I will try. Moment by moment, day by day, I will try to fix myself by concentrating not on the things I cannot control, but on the things I can.
Like the Bravermans, I have a big, chaotic family that sometimes seems a burden to me.
I have a wife who loves me but cannot fix me. I have three grown stepchildren I love, whose problems I am powerless to fix. I have two grandchildren who make me smile, who are lovely and healthy and perfect. They don’t need fixing.
I have three step-brothers I love but rarely see, two half-sisters and two half-brothers I love from a distance. My wife has four siblings, and together we have twenty nieces and nephews and another one who should arrive right around Christmas.
I will try to fix myself, for now, for a little while at least, by spending time over the holidays with as many of them as I can. I will try to fix myself by phoning the ones who live far away. I will try to fix myself by thinking about what all these people, these loud, complicated, sometimes frustrating, occasionally burdensome people, mean to me.
I will try to fix myself by cuddling my grandkids.
And when I get some time to myself, I will flop down on the couch and put on another episode of Parenthood, and give myself another chance to learn how to be a better person.
Be patient with me. I’m not done growing up.
I am drawn to genius.
It makes me hopeful. At a time when it easy to be ashamed of the terrible things we do to each other in the name of politics or religion or blind, stupid prejudice, genius can, if I slow down and let is wash over me, make me proud to be human.
A few year ago, I spent three days with William Eddins, who at the time was about to take over as conductor of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. He was the most engaged and engaging man I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. He was exhausting and exhilarating, and I will never forget our time together. I was lucky to meet him and we are all lucky to have him.
Some months back, I interviewed a particle physicist and the University of Alberta named James Pinfold. He works on the Higgs boson project and thinks the most marvellous thoughts. I wrote a story about him. It was an honour to meet him and we are lucky to have him, too. I find it a bit humbling to spend time with people who are so damn smart. It’s good to be humbled. It puts me in my place and raises me up at the same time.
Genius is not simply a measure of a person’s IQ score. While it may be fine and quite useful to have a brain that functions at a high level, to be a quick and incisive thinker, to have intellectual gifts the rest of us can only dream of, it’s what you do with those gifts that makes them worth having. I believe that genius takes many forms, and does not reside merely in the mind but in the human heart.
Mozart was a genius; some scholars have suggested his IQ score may have been as high as 200. I love Mozart. I listen to his music often. But I prefer Beethoven. To me, so much of Mozart’s music is pretty, like a summer day, like a butterfly, like a Monet lily pond.
Beethoven is all about passion. His music challenges me, it touches me at a much deeper level. It makes me think. In his concertos and symphonies and piano sonatas, I hear anger, regret, frustration, love, bitterness, pride, all the emotions that humans share and struggle with. Beethoven can make me laugh, or cry. That’s what I want from my geniuses. When I am in their presence, I want to feel more alive.
Consider this. When a young Beethoven arrived in Vienna, he was known mainly as a piano virtuoso. He played in salons and parlours around the city. Those who heard him never forgot the experience. Carl Czerny, a student who studied under Beethoven, recalled it this way: "In whatever company he might chance to be, he knew how to produce such an effect upon every hearer that frequently not an eye remained dry, while many would break out into loud sobs …"
That was Beethoven’s genius.
Last year at this time, I travelled to Vancouver to see blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa at the Orpheum Theatre. I took my brother-in-law, who lives on the coast and had never heard of Joe. Partway through the first song, Ian turned to me and grinned, a bewildered look on his face, as if to say, “Is this really happening?” That night, ten rows back from the stage, I wept when Joe played his amazing solo on the song Mountain Time, and I felt honoured to so close to someone who could, with a piece of wood and six steel strings and hands that look much like mine, make me feel such powerful emotions. There are guitarists who play faster, louder, perhaps with more technical skill. I’m not an expert. But I’ll take Joe, because his music touches my soul.
Which brings me to the final genius I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. His name was David Foster Wallace and he was the greatest writer of his generation, a brilliant, incisive, tormented and tragic man who struggled against mental illness for most of his life and finally, in despair, hung himself in his garage in 2008. He was 46.
DFW published two novels in his lifetime, including a gargantuan beast called Infinite Jest, along with three short story collections an several books of essays. His unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published last year, and another book of previously unpublished essays, Both Flesh and Not, came out earlier this month.
I confess that I find his fiction difficult. I’ve started Infinite Jest twice and never made it past halfway. There is simply too much going on, too many complicated thoughts, too many long, meandering, brilliant sentences, that I find myself, eventually, and it seems inevitably, lost in the fecund jungle of his prose. There are so many trees that I cannot stand back far enough to see the forest. Yet I will try again to read these books. Because on every page, in every paragraph, there are flashes of genius so bright they can blind.
And that, I think, brings me to my final thoughts on this subject. For now.
I guess what I want from my geniuses is that they challenge me, that they make me want to be better, smarter, kinder, more true to myself. Bill Eddins makes me want to pay closer attention to the the joys and wonders of the world; James Pinfold makes me want to better understand concepts as vast as the universe and as tiny as a single sub-atomic particle; Beethoven and Bonamassa remind me that emotions are universal and yet, in the end, perhaps unfathomable. It is enough, maybe, to remember this: I feel, therefore I am. It is something we all shall. David Foster Wallace makes me want to be a better writer, and a more attentive reader, and the tragedy of his suicide forces me to confront the darkness and despair that too often dwells inside me.
Genius makes me hopeful. And that’s enough.
This writing business is freaking hard!
Not the writing itself. I love that part. It’s what I live for, what I get out of bed for. I’m proud to call myself a writer. I like thinking of myself that way.
The hard part about writing is all the stuff that happens afterward. Or, actually, all the stuff that doesn’t happen afterward. That’s the publishing part. That’s the part I suck at.
As proof of how much I suck, I offer the following fact: You’ve never heard of me. I’ve been out here the world writing novels for years, and if I didn’t suck at this publishing part, you would have heard about me by now.
The reality of the publishing world is that it is shrinking and expanding at the same time. The big publishing houses are merging. Small ones are being swallowed up, or going out of business. At the same time, everyone and his uncle can be a publisher these days. Just check the online bookstores: iBooks, Kindle, Amazon, and so on. There are literally millions of self-published books out there just waiting to be downloaded and read. Millions. The trick as a reader is, how do you find the good ones? The trick as a writer is, how do you tell people that yours, no really, is one of the good ones?
Well, traditionally, that’s where book publishers come in. They are the gatekeepers. They are the ones who decide which books to publish, to sell, to market the shit out of. Think Fifty Shades of Grey. Not great literature. But I hear it sold a few copies.
To reach a publisher, though, the poor schmuck writer needs an agent.
There are hundreds and hundreds of agents. Mostly in New York. Some in Toronto. All of them are looking hard for the next great book. The next big seller. Agents are business people and they can’t afford to waste even a moment on a book or a writer that won’t make them any money. It’s a numbers game. Getting an agent is a bit like winning the lottery.
I’ve been writing books and sending proposals to agents for years. A few months ago, I finished a thriller and started sending queries and collecting another raft of rejection emails. One of the agencies I contacted was Folio Literary Management in New York. A few days after I sent them my latest query, I opened up an issue of Poets & Writers magazine and read an article titled “A Day in the Life of a Literary Agency.” Guess what? It was about Folio. And there, in black and white, I saw the numbers that are stacked against unknown writers like me.
Folio receives, the article said, more than 200 queries a week for each of the nine agents working there. You can check my math, but I think that’s more than 90,000 a year. One agent, and it happened to be the one I had contacted, takes on about four new clients a year. Which means, the article explained, like a punch in face, that the odds of someone like me finding representation with this particular agent are about one in 11,111.
All of this preamble is the set-up for the punchline of this story. I wanted you to understand that when you live in a world where the odds are one in 11,111 against you, things can seem pretty bleak and daunting. Impossible, even. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just reality.
Two years ago, I was sending out a batch of queries for another book I’d written and gathering another batch of rejections. It used to hurt when agents dismissed my work with a form email, saying “this isn’t right for us” or “not what we’re looking for” or “sorry, we’re not taking on new clients,” when I could tell they hadn’t read any of the pages I’d sent them. I’m used to it now. In perverse way, I even enjoy it. The only way I can push ahead is to try very hard to ignore the logical part of my brain, the part that could, if I let it, convince me to quit and use my time more productively. By building birdhouses or inventing time travel.
Anyway, there I was, sending off queries and getting rejections, when one Friday morning, an email popped up from a certain agent in New York, who said, in keeping with these things, “thanks, but no thanks.” I filed it in my rejection folder, finished the pages of whatever it was I was working on at the time, got up and went to work.
Monday comes. Up pops an email from this same agent. What? I’ve been around long enough to know that once an agent skims your query letter and sends you the dreaded “thanks, but no thanks” email, he never thinks of you again. It’s not that you’re dead to him, as they say. You were never alive in the first place. You were just one of thousands of queries his agent gets every year.
So, when this new email showed up, I was a bit taken aback. Why, I wondered, would this man contact me again, after he has already said “no.” I opened the email. And basically, I’m paraphrasing here, this is what it said:
Guess what, Rick. I was out in California on the weekend, and I met with an agent there and we were talking, and she mentioned that she had a client who was looking for material for a movie. I immediately thought of your book proposal. It might be exactly what they’re looking for. Could you please send me the entire book and I will read it as soon as possible and send it on to the agent in California. If they want to make a movie out of your book, they could handle the film rights and I could handle the publishing rights at this end.
And I’m reading this and I’m thinking: WTF! You’re kidding me, right? On Friday, you were just another agent among the dozens turning me down, yet again, on yet another book, and now you’re the same agent, just as busy as before, only this time you might be able to get me BOTH A BOOK AND A FREAKING MOVIE DEAL!
Not like that would change my life or anything.
Naturally, after I got up off the floor, I sent this nice man my entire book as an email attachment. Then I walked around bumping into furniture, dreaming … wondering … thinking weird thoughts about how, maybe I would get a chance to work on the movie script (that would be cool) or how maybe this book would finally be the one that gets my name out there, or that maybe I can finally stop thinking of myself as a loser and a fake and failure and … blah, blah.
Two weeks go by. Not a word. Two weeks of me thinking, holy crap, there are people in New York and Los Angeles who are reading my words right now, and if they like what they see my whole life could change. Just like that!
I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t think of anything else. Two weeks, edging into three, then finally, one day, a message from New York. My hand was shaking when I reached for the mouse on my laptop to open the email. And basically, I’m paraphrasing here, this is what it said:
Guess what, Rick. I read your book, and I think it SUCKS!
Something along those lines.
And that’s how I almost had a movie deal, once. That’s why you’ve never heard of me.
This writing business is freaking hard!
More to come …
Christmas is dog time in our house.
Caitlin came to us on Christmas Eve, a gift from the children, a red bow around her fuzzy little neck. She was our first golden retriever. I had always been a dog person. Grew up with dogs in the house. Carmen, not so much. But we both loved her on sight.
When it came to a name, all I can imagine is that we had recently seen Elizabeth and Lord of the Rings, and thus decided to name her after our favourite actress. Only later did we discover that Cate Blanchett’s full name is Catherine. You live and learn.
So, our new love was Caitlyn, but we called her “Catie, Catie, Caitlin.” You had to say it that way, too, quickly, three times, and with excitement. She loved the sound of her name.
Catie needed us, as much as we needed her. She was shy and timid and nervous about the world, as Carmen and I are known to be. When we took her to puppy classes, she was the biggest dog there, and spent most of her time hiding under my chair. I think I loved her more because I sensed she needed more from me.
When she pulled a tendon in her leg one day in the off-leash park, the first vet who saw her (Catie was eighteen months old) suggested we might have to put her down. I wept, and refused. We got a reprieve from a second vet, who thought the tendon might heal in time. We took Catie home and I lugged her, seventy pounds, up and down stairs and slept on a foam mattress with her in the living room. She healed. Life got back to normal.
Catie was six when she began to limp, favouring a front leg. X-rays showed bone cancer. Carmen and I wept. We considered options. But we loved her so much there really was only one option.
In our hard little hearts, we had never understood, before Catie came along, how people could spend thousands to keep precious pets alive. It seemed silly. The day I took Catie to see the surgeon, we sat together on the floor and she crawled up into my lap. When the vet came out to see us, Catie licked his face until he was soaking wet. “This dog isn’t ready to die,” he said.
She needed more time. So did we. So we plunked down $10,000 for amputation surgery and chemo. It bought us 16 more months with her. Another Christmas. Another winter at the off-leash park. It was worth every penny.
Catie knew when the time was right. She told us in her own way. When the day finally came, we drove her to the vet’s office and sat with her in a sad little room with a leather coach, and I got down on the floor with her again, and held her, and she died with her beaufitful, soft head drenched in my tears.
During Catie’s sixteen months as a brave and determined three-legged dog, Carmen discovered a whole community of people and dogs in the same sad place. The website is called TriPawds. She began to blog there and people all over North America read her posts and responded with kindness.
We’re up to our hips in writers in this house. I have slaved away over my novels for almost 20 years. Carmen has a natural gift with words but is too shy to share, most of the time. Here are some excerpts from the blogs she wrote during Catie’s struggles with cancer. These are little love stories.
While not exactly Grinch-like, with a heart many times too small, I was, at one time, indifferent and bemused by the deep, abiding dedication of people and the lengths they went to provide their furry family members with lavish comforts and extraordinarily expensive medical care.
In my sad and smug ignorance, I simply didn’t get it. Pooh, pooh, I thought. Surely that money could be better spent on curing cancer and ending poverty.
Baby steps of transformation started with the death of my mother in 2001. Continued with the growing up of our three children, slowly but surely making lives of their own.
And completed on Christmas Eve, like Ebenezer Scrooge’s own metamorphosis, when Catie arrived in our house, serenely sitting on the mat by the front door, a big red satin bow around her neck, and surveyed her new domain. She was a gift from my children as the youngest prepared to leave home.
So you won’t be lonely when I’m gone, my daughter said, she’s to keep you company.
A year later,I chose little Riley from his eight other litter mates as he snuffled and scrambled for attention.
I finally, unequivocally, got it.
“I never thought I’d see the day you would let a dog sleep in the bed,” my husband once said.
Neither did I.
This season is still difficult because it’s the one when Catie came home. All the baubles and bells and bows that adorn the trees in the shopping centres and grace the picture windows of the neighbourhood houses make me think of her. Every Christmas movie and Christmas carol, every bright coloured gift box and wreath and garland of lights reminds me of her. Her loss still shudders my heart at the most unexpected moments, even now, but I remember her with an abiding, deep tenderness and love, and gratitude for the Christmases we shared.
Throughout her entire cancer journey, she was braver and stronger than I could ever hope to be. Through a diagnosis of bone cancer in January 2010, the amputation of her right front limb and the weeks of recovery, through the treatments of chemo which left her bedraggled and weary, to the eventual return of the awful disease and the quiet final moments, of her passing in the small back room of the animal hospital, on June 2, 2011.
She tried, with varying degrees of success, to teach me about myself and life: that the human heart has a capacity for love and awe; that I’m worthy of love myself (who couldn’t believe that when confronted by such a uninhibited resounding welcome every single time they returned home); that life is not measured in quantity, but quality; that bad things can happen to anyone, even the most innocent of creatures; that the simplest of moments can evoke the most powerful memories, sunlight dappling through trees, a ball to chase, a stick to shred, a snuggle on the couch, a cookie in bed, golden faces smudging the glass of a livingroom window.
Of course, we still have Riley…
Why Charles Dickens?
Of all the writers, great and small, whose works I’ve read and re-read, whose books now crowd the overloaded shelves all over our house, of all the writers whose lives I’ve studied, and I should say that I have an entire six-foot bookcase in the basement crammed with biographies about them, arranged from Jane Austen to Walt Whitman, why then, do I keep returning to Dickens?
Why has he become one of my numerous obsessions?
I think the answer is simple. And very complex.
I’ve always been aware of Dickens. I read his books first in high school, when my English teacher forced us to plow through Great Expectations. As a teenager, I found his work heavy and, at times, difficult. All those characters. All those plot lines. All the strange old-fashioned words. But even then, I knew he was important, that he was considered the greatest English novelist of the 19th century.
Over the years, through college and beyond, I amassed a small collection of his books. They were lovely Penguin paperback editions. David Copperfield. Our Mutual Friend. Oliver Twist. And of course A Christmas Carol. I have dreamt for years about owning a first-edition of the Carol, which sold for five shillings in London in 1843. There’s one on offer right now at AbeBooks.com for $22,500.
I have to confess, I find some of Dickens books hard to read. His novels are dense and sprawling and sometimes melodramatic, and the plots seem to weave all over the place. But the truth is, I didn’t become obsessed with Dickens until I set aside the novels and started to read about his life.
Peter Ackroyd, the great English biographer, got me started. If my obsession is anyone’s fault, it is his. In 1990, Ackroyd published a 1,200-page biography of Dickens that has become the definitive work of our generation. I devoured the book in a few days and within six months, read it again. I was hooked.
That biography led me to others, including the first one, a three-volume edition written by Dickens’ best friend, John Forster, published soon after the novelist’s death. That book is one of my prized possessions.
More recently, I have read biographies by Christopher Hibbert, Michael Slater and Claire Tomalin.
In all those thousands of pages, I discovered a man well worth knowing. A genuine self-made man (and they are far more rare than you might think) who lifted himself from obscure and hard-scrabble beginnings to become one of the world’s first legitimate celebrities.
It is a fascinating story.
Born the son of a naval pay officer, a man who spent more than he earned, Dickens grew up a lonely and solitary dreamer. His education was spotty. At twelve, he was packed off to work at a factory in Hungerford Stairs on the banks of the Thames River, where he spent long days pasting labels on bottles of boot blacking. For the rest of his life he remembered the scratching sounds of the rats in the basement. Around then, Dickens’ father was sent to prison for unpaid debts. After he became famous, Dickens rarely spoke about those years, and then only to close friends, and the public learned about them only after he was dead.
Dickens became a writer by force of will. He did not have a mentor. He did not attend college. Instead, he learned shorthand and got a job covering Parliament for a London newspaper. He sat for hours in the gallery and wrote down every word of each pontifical speech.
In his early twenties, he began write small “sketches” about the people he saw and the places he visited on his journeys through the teeming streets of London. Even then, he was drawn to the darker side.
Sometime in the autumn of 1833, he wrote a short story called A Diner at Poplar Walk. Years later he recalled that on Johnson Court, just off Fleet Street, he dropped his story “stealthily one evening at twilight, with fear and trembling, into a dark letter-box, in a dark office …” Monthly Magazine published the piece. He began to write more.
Dickens found fame rather quickly, but he was not an overnight success. There is no such thing. He worked hard, writing Parliamentary reports by day and crafting stories by night. His break came when he was commission to write a series of sketches to accompany drawings by a well-known artist. The artist died soon after the project began. Dickens kept writing. Those sketches became the Pickwick Papers, his first novel.
A man of boundless energy and ambition, Dickens wrote for money, to earn a living. Perhaps the most amazing thing about his work is that most of his novels were serialized, published in monthly installments. Think about that. Dickens sat down at his desk and dashed off 6,000 or 7,000 words and sent them off to the publisher, and while one installment was being read on the streets of London, he was busy writing the next section. There were no second drafts. There was no chance to go back and change something. Once he had committed to a character or a plot line, he had to follow it through. Most writers will tell you that writing is really rewriting. That novels, even stories, go through many drafts. Dickens did not work that way. He was always under a deadline. There were times when he was writing two novels at once. If you’ve ever tried to write a novel, and I’ve banged out six or seven or them (I’ve lost count), you’ll understand how daunting it seems, how hard it is, to keep an entire four-hundred page story in your head. Dickens did that routinely.
He was a fascinating man. Complex, moody, stubborn, sometimes vengeful. There is much about his life and character that is less than admirable. He was not a good husband. He was a distant and often indifferent father, as great man tend to be, whose sons disappointed him because they could not live up to his expectations. Yet he worked tirelessly on the behalf of the poor. He agitated for social change. He used the shining light of his imagination and talents to explore and illuminate the darker corners of Victorian England. His characters came from the streets and the factories, from the workhouses and the prisons. He made fun of the wealthy. He found honor and dignity in the poorest homes on the poorest and dirtiest streets.
Today, we study Dickens in university. Today, his work is considered great literature. But he would not have seen himself that way. He wrote popular fiction, to entertain the masses. He wrote to earn a living, to support a lavish lifestyle, and he wrote, as he once said, because he was compelled to do so.
“How strange it is to be never at rest, and never satisfied,” Dickens wrote to his friend John Forster in April 1856, “and ever trying after something that is never reached …”
That quotation sums up Dickens’ life. And, I find, my own.
In the end, more than anything, what draws me to Dickens is this: like him, I am always reaching for something beyond my grasp, I am never satisfied, and I write because I have to, because after all these years and despite so many failures, I simply have no other choice.
With all this fuss over the BOOK, all the worries about whether anyone will notice the thing or buy the thing or like the thing, I have, as I so often do, managed to forget what’s really important. The things I DO have, rather than the things I don’t.
I was reminded of this again yesterday when our daughter in Calgary sent the latest video of my little granddaughter dancing in the kitchen. Through the marvels of technology, we’ve been able to enjoy regular updates on her progress. We see her often, every few weeks or so. And those visits are precious to us. But we also miss so much.
We were there in the Calgary hospital the day she was born. Over the past fifteen months we’ve seen her grow from this little, fragile little bundle into an active and altogether precocious toddler. She is the marvel of my life. She makes me laugh. She makes me want to cry. She is proof to me that I want to live a long time, so I can watch her grow and change and learn. Maia was here in Edmonton for her first birthday in late summer and at the time she was almost walking. Days after she went home with her parents to Calgary, she took those first steps. And we got a video so we could share in them long distance.
The room down the hall from where I’m writing this has been equipped for the last year with a rather nice crib and a box of plastic toys. That’s the baby’s room now. Or should I say babies’ room, because she was now been joined by a cousin.
Shea was born September first. A very tall boy who weighed almost nine pounds but arrived in the world with jaundice. He lost weight in the first week or so, and we worried. But he’s thriving now and growing and changing every day, it seems. My son and daughter-in-law live in south Edmonton and we see them once a week.
Now I have two marvels in my life. A tiny little boy who can’t yet hold his head up and little girl who can’t keep still. Christmas is going to be more fun now, with the babies around. Shea won’t know what’s going on. But Maia, she’ll be into everything. And I’m going to sit with them on my lap and try to remember to be thankful for all the gifts this big, unruly family has given me.
Books are not babies. It’s true that you nurture them, shape and mould them, love them, worry over them, sometimes even obsess about them. You watch them grow and change. Then one day, and it comes much sooner with books, or not at all, you send them out into the world and hope they cane find a place and make a home and build a life for themselves.
Books are temporary things. For the author they are all-consuming, for a year or two. But then, if you’re an obsessive like me, you finish one and send it out and move on. To another book. And another after that. Writing has been my passion, my drug of choice, for twenty years. Because I write, and because I can’t seem to stop, I spend a lot of time living in my own head. It’s very crowded in there, with stories and characters and plots, with dark thoughts and crippling doubts. I have wept many times over these silly books. They’ve broken my heart more than once. I’ve wanted to quit, just get up from the computer and walk away and never go back, so many times over the years. But I never had, because not writing hurts even more than all the rejection letters (emails these days) that still sting, now matter how many you’ve received. So, I go on.
This little e-book of mine that’s coming out on Dec. 4 is like a baby step in my so-called career. It will go out into the world on Amazon and Kobo and such and people will either find it or they won’t, buy it, or they won’t, like it, or they won’t. No matter what happens, my life won’t change. Because the thing is, these books are part of me, but they are not ALL of me. If I never become a successful author, some part of me will feel like a failure. I know that, and I have to constantly remind myself that I am more than a writer, even if I seem, to myself at least, to be less than one.
I am a husband and father. A brother. A son. A friend. My confession is, that all these years of writing have taken away time I might have better spent performing all these other, more important, roles. When you live in your imagination so much of time, you miss a lot of what happens out there in the real world.
Maia and Shea are amazing parts of that real world. They won’t know, this Christmas, whether anyone buys grandpa’s book or not. To them, I am a familiar voice, a smell, a smile, another set of arms to hold them and lips to kiss them. I hope to be around for many more of their Christmases, but that’s not in my hands.
For now, I’ll try, with mixed results no doubt, to remember that books are not babies. Not even close.
You never know.
How long did you think I could have a blog and not mention JB. Though, I did have to look on iTunes to see how to spell his name. Forgot that old i-before-e except whatever thing.
But that’s another weird thing. Now that I’ve had a blog for a whole hour, Justin Bieber could actually be surfing for his name and somehow stumble across this blog and start reading it and then you and JB would be reading the same blog at the EXACT SAME TIME, and wouldn’t that be, like, totally cool! Or at least weird to think about.
But this blog has nothing to do with Bieber, can I call him that? What it has to do with is me having a blog and not knowing what to say and being FREAKED OUT by the idea that people might read this blather (since the minute I post this I’m going to Tweet about it, begging people to read it, which I grant you is no guarantee). Still …
So, I was thinking about the Internet. It’s cool and everything, don’t get me wrong. But this democratization of the media is really getting on my nerves. I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to be a real writer. You know, a book guy. Not a journalism guy. A real book guy. I mean, I can write books. I’ve got a basement full of scrap paper to prove I can write books. Boxes full of the stuff. There are so many books down there in those boxes that if I’d been living in Baltimore when the hurricane came, I could have stacked the boxes outside and kept the water back. But the thing is, while I can write books like Billy Be Damned, I can’t publish books worth crap.
That part isn’t up to me. That part involves agents and actual publishers and people who drink wine at cool parties and so on. So, after twenty years of banging my head against the walls and begging for attention from people who’ve never heard of me and don’t really want to, with nothing to show for it but a biblically epic collection of boxes filled with scrap paper, now, finally, I get the chance to publish an e-book. Which is a start, right?
If you’re still reading, here’s where the Internet rears it’s billion-byted head. Because these days, what with e-books and all, anyone, and I mean ABSOLUTELY ANYONE, can self-publish a book and get it online and try to convince strangers to plunk down a couple of bucks to buy it. It’s easier than ever to get published in the digital age. But it’s WAY harder to get people to notice you.
Not that I’m complaining. I mean, I got a blog out of the deal, and a cool Twitter thing and I’ve been pestering family member of Facebook. So, whatever. And I’ve even got a real publisher. Harper Collins. Bless their hearts. And the Edmonton Journal too, for making it possible and giving me a home for 23 years while I tried in vain to be a big deal book guy.
So, if you were someone other than me, someone who was, say, desperate to get noticed, you might resort to putting Justin Bieber’s name in a blog post, just hoping people would somehow wander over and click on it expecting to read about … you know … and find out a certain person’s blog post has nothing to do with … you know, that guy … and so why am I wasting my time … and so on.
But it could happen.
OK, so this is a weird feeling.
Never had a blog before. Not really sure what a blog is supposed to be. Is it about me? Is about my book? Is this just another ridiculous vanity project?
Maybe. Maybe not.
But anyway, the weird part is this: since I don’t know what blogging is, guess I’ll just say what’s on my mind right now.
That’s on my mind right now because I’m listening to Mitsuko Uchida play Sonata No. 31 in A-flat minor. Is there even such a key? She has a beautiful touch. Not that I would know, necessarily, but there you go, anyway.
OK, deep breath. Not you, me.
Where to start?
Seems that Charles Dickens sat down in his home across from Regent’s Park in London in the fall of 1843 and wrote A Christmas Carol in about six weeks. Start to finish, six weeks. Wham, bam, thank you, Sam (Weller). He was a character in Pickwick Papers, I think.
Dickens wrote with a quill pen and blue-black ink, with a little ceramic frog sitting there on his desk. Finished off his little ghost story and paid for the printing costs and pretty ink and packed it off to the publishers, and by Christmas Day he’d sold all 6,000 copies of the first edition. I think they were five shillings. (Last time I checked, a first edition was running at around $15,000 these days, so if you want to buy me something for Christmas, that would be good).
Flash forward 169 years. I’m now getting ready to see my little Christmas book about Dickens little Christmas book published by Harper Collins. It’s coming out Dec. 4 and will be available online at all the usual places.
I wrote this book, now called Shadowing Dickens, a few years ago, using a fountain pen and working in the evenings by candlelight, because I wanted to capture the feeling of Victorian London, the whole dim light and smoky atmosphere thing. Hope I did.
Back in 2009, the book was serialized in the Edmonton Journal and people seemed to like it. So, here we go again. I’m getting closer to having a real, hard-copy book with my name on the cover. But baby steps, right? Today an e-book. Tomorrow … never knows.
Now I’m thinking about James Bond. New movie and all. Haven’t seen it yet but will once I can sit still for longer than five minutes without feeling like my stomach is going to come right-the-hell out of my mouth! Because, truth be told, I’m scared.
Of what, you didn’t ask, but I’ll tell you anyway. Of failure. And what does failure look like, you didn’t ask. Well, come with me and stand behind me and look, there, in the mirror. See that guy. That’s what failure looks like. He was young once and full of ideas and full of plans to be a famous writer and probably full of himself and full of … But that was a long time ago. Now he’s old(er) and full of fear that all the years of writing and rewriting and sending crap off to agents (who ignored every damn page of it) may in the end never amount to anything more than a little e-book that will sell ten copies, as those to family members.
Because that’s the thing about failure and that other word … the one that’s the opposite of failure. If you’re a maniac like me, no matter what you accomplish, you’ll just keep moving the target farther and farther away. Give me an e-book, I want a hard-copy, old-school printed book. Sell ten copies, I want to sell twenty. Sell a hundred, why wasn’t it a thousand? Go on Twitter. Get thirty followers with no real idea how to get more. But no matter, because it will never be enough. Write a blog, hope someone reads it but at the same time hope no one reads it, because it rambles and makes no sense and goes on and on like some people I could name, but I won’t then they’d stop following me on Twitter, and then I’d have twenty-nine followers and, holy crap, no we’re going backwards and my stomach is actually coming right out of my mouth and … Geez, don’t step on that, I might need it, if I ever get back to eating solid food.
Anyway, you get the idea. If, in point of fact, you actually exist. Because you don’t, I could argue, really exist unless you’re reading this blither right now, in which case, I invented you and my theories about the whole bloody world being self-referential were spot on.
So, to sum up. Writing books is easy compared to publishing books, even e-books, because in the end publishing anything, even a damn blog, requires you to put yourself out there and let people judge you. Or ignore you. In order to fail, you have to willing to take some risks.
Oh, hell, that’s about as fast as I can type anyway, so let’s just leave it there.