Friday, June 30, 2017

My First Book

First, an announcement: My novella Angels Are Lonely on the Earth, which I wrote in 2013, is now available as a Kindle e-book, and will soon also be available as a paperback. I decided to go ahead and self-publish this one for a couple of reasons.

One reason is simply that it is a novella, that misfit of fiction forms that is too long to be published as a short story (for example, in a magazine or literary journal) yet not long enough to publish in a (traditional) single volume as a novel. Especially being one written by an unknown author, Angels didn't stand much of a chance at "legitimate" (i.e. big house) publication, and I didn't feel like putting the time and effort into marketing it the way I intend to do with my two novels once they are finally completed. I also want my first novel (not a novella) to be my real literary debut.

Of course, one might wonder: why not just sit on it until after Bluebird is published? To which my answer might well be: That long? Actually, my self-publication of this novella is intended only as the beginning of a larger program of self-publication of a number of my older works, some dating back to the 1990s, as well as of any number of minor works I may write in the future. I do not feel the need to limit myself, in this day and age, to any one avenue of publication.


The publication of Angels has got me thinking about myself, not merely as a writer, but as a maker of books. Ever since childhood I have been deeply fascinated by books as objects and have always either made them or dreamed of making them.

I am now 46 and, after a lifetime of writing, have yet to have any of my work traditionally published. I have barely made any attempt whatsoever to get any of my work published in that way—have not submitted my short stories to magazines, have never submitted my poetry to journals, have not had a truly finished novel manuscript to submit to an agent or publisher.

Even though my literary obscurity would seem to be the only possible result of my own inaction—simply the logical consequence of keeping my work largely hidden (publication of poems and short stories on my blog being, in reality, not much more public than sharing with family and friends)—I do harbor, and have long harbored, the desire to get my work "out there". I just want to do it the right way, by basing my literary ambitions and reputation on what I consider to be my best, greatest, and most important work.

I am a librarian, so I see and am surrounded by books on a daily basis. As one who has, since childhood, felt himself to be one of the "book makers", the fact that none of the books in the world are yet ones of my own creation fills me with a kind of wistful longing and a deep sense of unfulfillment (if all these other people can make books, why can't I?). Because if there is one thing I feel I can contribute—that I feel I should contribute—to the world, it is books. And yes, I am working on it.

But I have long realized that my contribution need not only take the form of ambitious literary novels. As a writer, my interests have always been quite varied, and my ideas so numerous that it has often seemed fitting that many of them should find their home in some form of self-publication—especially considering that, as I said above, I have always been fascinated by books as objects and have always enjoyed designing and making them myself, in whatever form.


And now the main question of this post: What is, or was, or will be, my first book?

The short answer is: It depends what you mean by "book".

My first book—my very first book—was one that I made when I was in kindergarten and just learning how to write (probably late 1976 or possibly early 1977). This book no longer exists, and my memory of it is vague, but it consisted of one or more folded sheets of paper, a technique I often used in childhood for making my own books, and it contained a story about dinosaurs, one of my major interests at the time.

Or perhaps my first book was The Lazy Scarecrow, a set of science fiction stories which I wrote and illustrated as part of a creative writing course for gifted students when I was in fourth grade (begun in the fall of 1980, completed in January 1981). The teacher and a classmate bound it and created a cloth cover. I still have that book. It is certainly my oldest surviving book.

Or maybe my first book was the first novel I ever wrote, Eastway Beach. This novel was handwritten on about 200 pages of a notebook and followed the lives of high school students in a fictional Florida beach town. I wrote it in 1990, and then wrote a sequel, Eastway Beach Sharks Come Back, in 1991. The sequel was a bit longer, taking up some 300 handwritten notebook pages. These works no longer exist; I destroyed both manuscripts in 1993.

I also made a few poetry chapbooks between 1993 and 2000, as well as (in the late 90s) a number of short stories (and one novella) printed as booklets with cover illustrations.

Or possibly my first book can be considered to be The Librarian’s Apprentice, which was, ironically, not even intended to be a book. I wrote the story as a work of blog fiction in 2008, and my father, who has also written and published a number of his own books, decided to surprise me for my birthday that year by publishing it via his imprint. When my parents presented me with the book version of my blog story, I was not only surprised by the book itself, but also by how long it looked in printed form (not a novel, but long enough to qualify as a novella). It was as though I had written a book without even meaning to (and not only that, but gotten it into print without even trying!).

Then again, perhaps the moment in 2012 when I typed the last sentence of my first “real” novel (the Eastway Beach books being, not only no longer extant, but also works of juvenilia) was the moment when I had at last made a real, honest-to-goodness book.

And yet… 5 years later, The Bluebird of Happiness remains a work in progress. So perhaps—hopefully sometime later this year—when I finally bring my first novel to a state of satisfactory completion—perhaps that will be the moment when I can say that I have made a book.

Or maybe it will be that moment when Bluebird is actually published—when I can walk into a bookstore and see it on the shelf—that I will know, beyond any doubt, that I have made one of the books in the world—I hope, I like to think, I dream, perhaps even one of the great ones.


In a way, Angels feels like the first, in the sense that it is the first book I have intended to publish (and, for that matter, the first one published that I intended to be a book). But of course, as I have illustrated above, it is not that simple. Further complicating the picture is the fact that Angels is a novella, a form which is not usually considered long enough to publish as a book unto itself. That may be changing these days thanks to self-publishing and print-on-demand titles, and of course the very definition of what constitutes a “book” is undergoing the strain and stress of technological and cultural change. In the future, will the word “book” even have anywhere near the same meaning or importance as it has traditionally? Who can say?

People always talk about the death of the book—and the death of literature, the death of the novel, the death of poetry, and so on. But, as a librarian and author in the twenty-first century, I can’t help but feel that such pronouncements on the death of the book are greatly exaggerated. Much closer to the truth, I think, was the ancient philosopher who said, “Of making many books there is no end.”

Certainly there will not be as long as I can help it. Making books is one of the things I am made to do.

The author at age 5

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Poetry of Dance

Of all art forms, dance is one that has long held a special fascination and attraction for me. I think part of the fascination I, as a writer, feel toward the art of dance (i.e., dance as performance rather than social activity) is the fact that it is a form of artistic expression that uses means other than language to convey meaning.

Of course, this is a quality it shares with music and visual art. However, unlike those arts, which use physical objects like sound, color, and shape, dance uses the human body itself, and more specifically the movements of that body, to evoke meaning. I have always been deeply intrigued by the way in which movement alone (well, in combination with music and visual elements such as costume and scenery, but primarily and essentially the movement) can "speak". What does the dancer say when she dances? Is it something that can be translated into words?

I think the answer to that last question must be a definitive no, just as surely as music cannot be translated into words, and even in the way that poetry cannot be translated into prose. That is what I find so mysterious and fascinating about dance as performing art--the irreducible nature of its expression, the way it can express things that words cannot, a sort of supra-linguistic language, if you will.

Of course, there are many other things I love about the art of dance--the energy, the costumes, the sheer beauty of movement--but what gives dance its true depth, what raises it beyond mere spectacle or entertainment, is its nature as a mode of genuine artistic expression. I especially appreciate and admire ballet and modern dance in this regard, though I also love and appreciate the artistry and expression in, for instance, the dance numbers in musicals, and even the routines of Legs & Co., the troupe that performed on Top of the Pops in the seventies and early eighties (what many people might regard as kitsch or frivolous entertainment, but in which I see real art).

Though I have never discussed it on this blog, my artistic activity has never been limited to just writing. I am also a musician, and in fact when I was in college I considered music to be my main creative forte. It wasn't until I was 25 that I realized that I wanted literature to be my primary focus (although I had been writing stories since kindergarten and poetry since high school), and to define myself first and foremost as a writer. I have rarely recorded music since then, though I have a backlog of songs that have been accumulating in my head for the last eight years that keep nagging me to record them at some point. I have also dabbled in various forms of visual art and I long harbored the ambition of becoming a filmmaker (which I have since abandoned--my novels are my cinematic expressions, my fiction writing being very much influenced by that art form).

Dance, however, is perhaps the only major traditional art form that I have never seriously entertained the idea of pursuing--at least, not as a dancer. That, too, is surely one of its attractions to me--it is an art that I enjoy purely as audience, not as actual or potential (however accomplished or amateurish) creative colleague. In this way, dance, to me, is an "other"--and therefore holds a very deep appeal to me. But beyond being simply "other" (many things are an "other" to literature, such as, say, the study of economics), dance is an art that I see as being in some sense complementary to literature--a way to tell a story or express the human spirit through movement rather than through words.

However, while I have never really aspired to be a dancer myself, I have given more than a little thought to the idea of becoming something of a choreographer. I don't mean a professional choreographer, but rather a writer who sometimes "writes" dances. I have long been intrigued (I have entertained this concept probably since the nineties) by the idea of marrying literature and dance in this way--not merely in the way that literary works are often adapted for the ballet, for instance, but as a writer deliberately composing a work that is meant to be expressed in the form of dance.

In reality, if I were to write a dance piece, it might, depending on the scale and nature of the piece, be better left to an actual choreographer to translate my script into all the specific movements and arrangements of the performance (which would, of necessity, be somewhat generally and vaguely sketched in the written script). It is perhaps possible, though, that, as with a film or theater director, part of my creative process would be to explain or show what I want a dancer to do and then trust her talent for realizing the concept effectively, with skill and with her own artistic expression. This is largely uncharted territory for me, as I am not familiar with very many accounts of writers who have had the audacity to try their hand at the art of composing, not a poem or novel, but a dance performance.

As a side note, a variation on this concept (and of course much easier to achieve) would be to write a "closet" dance--akin to the closet drama, i.e., a play that is meant primarily to be read and imagined in one's mind (much as a novel is) rather than actually performed on stage. The ideal, however, would be to write pieces that become fully realized as performance.

In any case, as a writer, my role in actually creating the work would be only partial. This is because, as I said above, dance is a language beyond language. The dance itself would be the fullest expression of the work (though, as with a written play or screenplay, the dance script might still have artistic value of its own). The only one who can truly give full expression to the dance, to fully embody and communicate its meaning, is not the writer--working in the medium of verbal language--but the dancer, who gloriously transcends it.