Monday, February 10, 2014

Acquiring Reality: Bookshelf Neighbors and the Transition to Print

My novel arrived by mail this afternoon - an innocuous package in a nondescript padded envelope. Nothing particular to warrant the leaping beat of heart, the sheen of sweat on the brow, or the fingers that seemed suddenly inadequate to the opening-task. And abruptly there; after ten years of oft-laborious labor (twisting reluctant words to suit my purpose, persuading, wrenching and coaxing phrases, then, in an irritated fit, discarding them all to begin anew!) What a process it is, this novel-writing endeavor! And what a marvel to see it in print for the first time!

It has existed after all, these years past, in some burgeoning state of gestation; evolving, developing, maturing in the dim recesses of binary code, in a seemingly infinitesimal sequence of ones and zeroes. Saved and stored in the dark; from where it resurrects itself to be worked upon, to be sent out in fits and starts to this agent or that; but the vast body of it, like the incandescent beauty of an iceberg, remained subdued and quiet, luminous beneath the surface - a vague ghostly thing that abruptly materializes with a press of the button...intermittently occupying flickering space on one's screen,  defined by a complex array of code, but hardly the Platonic ideal of the 'Book' as we imagine it to be. Instead, it is an abstract version, an electronic facsimile that lacks the tactile substance of objects that populate our three-dimensional environs. It is, as of yet, a shadow of itself...

But now, in copy and cover, it has acquired independent spatial form, and I can almost imagine it pulsating with heated life beneath my hands - for I have long been acquainted with those that live within - with their trials and misfortunes, with their passions and their angst. Now, in print, they come to vibrant life in a manner hitherto denied them. These inhabitants of my literary landscape have the power to enthrall and ensnare, to beckon and beguile. Or not. For indubitably it is not to everyone's taste. But without qualm or agenda I can quietly acknowledge the beauty it holds for me - a literary child of the heart.

For despite the portable ease of e-books, and the convenient readiness of kindles on the go, there is something potent and powerful about the feel of pages beneath one's hands. And something magical about the abrupt manifestation of this novel in three-dimensional form after years of quiet slumbering in code - confined and restrained (like Rapanzuel shorn) within the dusty recesses of my computer tower. For now it has materialized with the trundle of the mail van like a conjuror's trick, summoned from the proverbial hat. Or a supernova - the novel existed, after all, for a seeming-eternity in dim obscurity that, with second glance (timed in accordance with the postal service!), flares into a brilliant cascade of heat and light. And a dull and unassuming gleam erupts in a burst of stellar radiation, exuding such luminosity that neighboring galaxies are momentarily muted. And so it was for me - at least within my own expanse of personal sky!

Perhaps it is an accessibility issue - the printed novel can be touched, carried, and seen. It can sit snugly in the bookcase between Lost Illusions and Crime and Punishment (not that my humble offering presumes to the greatness of its neighbors, but their formidable presence serves to remind me of the exquisite potential of literary expression). For it acquires a reality, does it not? Becomes something substantive that can be readily perused by eyes other than our own. It can be disseminated and discussed, devoured and discarded, adored and derided. And in the process this collection of words becomes something much more. It's existence is no longer laptop-confined, or limited to my own imaginative mind, but exists within the cognitive receptors of each subsequent reader - in a multitude of chemical pathways, and, however temporarily, in the nueral flash and flare of synaptic activity. And the collective readers (however scarce and sundry) bring to mind earth's night-half when viewed from high above - the clustered twinkle of lights that scatter in careless profusion across the darkness.  And is it not this potential that most excites a writer? For aspects of the novel, the intricate working of plot, the endearing quirkiness of character, to come to life and light within the mind of the reader? And (without undue greediness) another? To initiate a neural cascade! Granted, readers might find it tedious, barely venturing past the prologue, but regardless for a moment I have them. And if my literary labor is done sufficiently well, perhaps, like Mark Antony's crowd, they might be willing to lend an attentive ear (or eye) to the work in its entirety.

I remain in awe of accomplished writers of the past (with whom I am far more familiar than contemporary novelists), who so deftly depicted the most deeply-felt of human truths in a poetic prose that endures for an age and beyond. With the arrival of my own literary work, I realize, as if for the first time, that I too am a writer! Not that I presume to such greatness as these most worthy forebears, or the esteemed literary neighbors on my resident bookshelf, but as I am beguiled by a Shakespearean phrase, a Dickensian characterization, or Balzac's purity of depiction, the elusive possibility of phrase-perfection lingers in the air. We strive ever onward, seeking a clarity of form, and the stark beauty of expression in the distillation of language. A collection of words that comprise a harmonious phrase. The sentence that so perfectly encapsulates a given moment in time, an emotion, or a detail that attains some level of profundity within its linguistic context. It is the phrase that comes unbidden in the writing of it, as if from one other than ourselves, the whispering Muse whose breath warms our cheek and gently stirs our hair to movement.

And reading my novel in print for the first time, I encounter again a phrase here and there of which I am quietly proud - words, which are often petulantly uncooperative, have here (in this literary moment!) been harnessed to glorious effect. And, inspired by these literary forebears who wielded their pen with such skillful dexterity, I strive for a plenitude of such phrases! Perfection in a novel no less! Greedy? Indeed! But I believe that one must always seek betterment, that honing one's craft is, indeed, a perpetual pursuit. However, when an author (who is indubitably the hardest to please when confronted with their own work) recognizes an incandescent phrase here and there, a literary moment of pride, this in turn provides the necessary fuel to sustain further effort. Perhaps it is about befriending Sisyphus and loving the rock?

Inscribed with an ISBN and a library of congress number, registered in Bowker, and generally available to an audience as of April of this year, Killing the Bee King is no longer a project, an undertaking, a Sisyphean labor of love, a ceaseless round of edits and drafts - each one fraught with issues, difficulties, and errors. It is a novel. Published. It no longer dwells in the close darkness of chip and gigabyte, nor does it soar solely within my own imagination, but it has become part and parcel of a globally-accessed bookstore. The printed novel then belongs to us all - a tiny portion of our collective literary compendium. My scattering of phrases are no longer quietly hoarded, but broadly, thrillingly, and terrifyingly available for the widest of audiences to peruse; over which they might purse their lips and mutter (as my Pragmatic Critic is wont to do). Regardless, there is a quiet joy in the completion, in the relinquishment of said work. And so it appeared, this novel of mine, on an ordinary afternoon, a dull and slumbering Monday, where it seemed little of note would eventuate. And I stand in gaping wonder at the reality of it. After years of working with an abstract version, stored within the shadowed recesses of bit and byte, I now hold a book, a veritable book, in my hands! And, more than anything, I hope never to lose this sense of awe, this tightly-held marvel that the first printing of a new novel evokes. For whatever lies ahead, one has this moment - and what a grand moment it is indeed!