Please do not touch the works of art

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Don’t touch the art. If you’ve grown up like I did in a place so bereft of history or art that random detritus of the past was cordoned off for whispered reverence, such warnings are unnecessary. Manufactured sanctities may have little value in themselves, but they are wonderful instructors in the disciplines of awe. The people who need the warnings, I suppose, are those who grew up with no sanctities at all, or the ones surrounded by so many they quickly learned you can’t give everything the reverence it is due.

I once saw tourists piled atop the Rosetta Stone for a snap and like Jesus I was tempted to fashion a scourge and drive them out. The guards at the British Museum felt otherwise. When your biggest challenge is figuring out where to crate and store your superfluous antiquities, you see matters in a different light. The last thing on their minds, I suppose, was how to flay the customers. That stone is more than a treasure, it’s a draw.

Creative people face a similar dilemma. We crave reverence for the work of our hands. We want it up on pedestals, an object of veneration to be approached with awe. At the same time, if you want to keep creating, you need some tourists to climb aboard your Rosetta Stone. This too, you come to realize, is an expression of awe, and perhaps a better one. Reserve worship for the things that truly deserve it, and let your work be put to good use.

Don’t touch the art, the museum admonishes, because touching may do damage. But some things stand up to the touch, and even invite it. And it isn’t true — noli me tangere notwithstanding — that there can be no reverence in touch. Taste and see. Put your hand in the wounds. Touch can be the highest form of reverence for the highest form of things worthy to receive reverence.

You need a place whose purpose is reflection

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Sometimes you have to step back before you can see. Social media’s moment-to-moment timeline of distraction and outrage stimulates and perhaps even informs. But information is a far cry from knowledge. Staying on top of late-breaking cultural developments, weighing in on the issues and non-issues of the hour, while it may be a use of time, isn’t an especially useful use. I’m not a doom-and-gloom prognosticator, and this is no jeremiad. Access to information is good and online interactions are real interactions — problematic, sure, but no more so than any other kind. For perspective, though, and to do creative work that is more than timely, I have to step back. I leave the laptop for the library.

The library is small and of my own making. This is where I go to be alone and to think. The books make no demands. They don’t start playing if I happen to glance at them the way videos on Facebook do. They are here to be read, and they make worthy companions, too, happy to pass the time in silence. Old friends content in my company, they never act out for attention.

You need a place whose purpose is reflection, where time means little and nothing is vital that wasn’t vital a hundred years ago or even a thousand. Then you can step back. Then you can see. When you leave you will not have wasted a single second, and the perspective you gain makes things possible that wouldn’t have been possible before. You need a place like this. If you don’t have one, create it.

 

Writing a novel is easier than writing about a novel. Here’s the reason …

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On the right we have a manuscript. That’s a novel I finished about a month ago, a thoroughly written, re-written, and revised piece of work, about 80,000 words in length. I’m not saying it was easy work. Far from it. Writing is hard and revision is tougher, since it amounts to making the story better with fewer words. But the stack of pages on the left proved quite a bit harder. That’s the proposal.

A lot of people who are essential to the success of a novel only know the story through the proposal. A good proposal summarizes the novel and makes a case for why it ought to see print. There may be fewer pages but, until the book is on the shelves, the stack on the left is much weightier than the one on the right.

Remember, the book is 80,000 words long only after I ruthlessly cut everything that wasn’t essential. Now the proposal comes along and says, “Great, now tell the story again in just a hundred words.” As a matter of fact, my initial description, calculated to hook editors and readers alike, runs just 71 words. The longer summary, a more detailed condensation, is just 989. Cutting 80,000 words down to less than a thousand, or less than a hundred, isn’t really the challenge. The challenge is cutting them down to the right words.

Every book I’ve written after my first was contracted in advance. In other words, by the time I finished the manuscript, an editor was ready and waiting. The publication dates were already set. Over the years I came to dread the thought of writing another proposal, and was grateful not to have to. Despite the difficulty, though, I’ve enjoyed this process more than I  imagined. It’s a testament, I suppose, to how much I love this story. I can’t share it with you here, not yet. But I look forward to the day …

Everyday Carry: It’s easy to get obsessed with the tools

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I wore red corduroy pants to a conference several years ago. Of the thousands in attendance, I was the only one to get a name-check from on stage for sartorial reasons. Lesson? Red stands out. Last summer after visiting Filson headquarters in Seattle, I became obsessed with their classic American-made briefcases — but instead of choosing tan or olive drab like a sensible person, yours truly tracked down a limited edition in bright red. Sure, I have nicer briefcases. This one is very practical, though, and impossible to misplace. It gets more comments than any others, too (not always a good thing).

As a writer my tools are a mix of analog and digital. I like to keep them organized and always at hand. During some downtime during the revision of my latest novel, I hunted down the Delfonics organizer seen above. Which color to choose? Red, naturally. In addition to providing some protection for my tiny MacBook Air, the Delfonics recommended itself due to the pair of A4 pockets up front. One of them carries my constant companion, the Seven Seas Notebook from Nanami Paper (now residing in a skirting leather cover by Gfeller), and the other holds my Hobonichi Techo planner (also in a tan leather cover). The appeal of the organizer is being able to transfer the essentials from one bag to another. Sometimes bright red isn’t the order of the day.

In the middle of such a transfer, I snapped the ubiquitous “what’s in your bag” photo above. The biggest surprise was how color-coordinated everything looks, a study in tan leather and red canvas, with bits of green thrown in. Scary when you think about it (which clearly I do).

I’m not alone

How can a novelist spend so many hours alone? Stephen Pressfield answers the question in The War of Art:

Not only do I not feel alone with my characters, they are more vivid and interesting to me than the people in my real life. If you think about it, the case can’t be otherwise. In order for a book (or any project or enterprise) to hold our attention for the length of time it takes to unfold itself, it has to plug into some internal perplexity or passion that is of paramount importance to us. That problem becomes the theme of our work, even if we can’t at the start understand or articulate it. As the characters arise, each embodies infallibly an aspect of that dilemma, that perplexity. These characters might not be interesting to anyone else but they’re absolutely fascinating to us. They are us. Meaner, smarter, sexier versions of ourselves. It’s fun to be with them because they’re wrestling with the same issue that has its hooks into us. They’re our soul mates, our lovers, our best friends. Even the villains. Especially the villains.

In my case, because the real people in my life are so interesting, there’s probably some narcissism keeping me at my desk as well.

When a writer goes off the grid

For awhile there I was blowing and going, updating the blog with something close to regularity. And then last October that changed and suddenly … crickets. That’s what happens with a novelist’s blog. Don’t take the silence the wrong way; it’s actually a positive sign. I dropped off the radar for the best of reasons: I was deep in a new writing project.

As of this week, the manuscript is finished, all 80,000 words (about 260 pages) of it. No, this isn’t the fourth Roland March novel. It’s something new. The few people who’ve read it say this is the best book I’ve ever written. That makes me happy.

I’ll share more about the new project soon. For now, it’s good to be back.

You Can Take (Pens) With You

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That feeling when you need to write something down and you don’t have a pen? I hate that. Problem is, I forget to take a pen with me all the time. The best solution is to have a pen so small and unobtrusive that carrying it around becomes second nature. After experimenting with several options, I decided on this Kaweco AL Sport. Lightweight and rugged, the AL Sport comes in a raw aluminum finish that scratches and scars easily — voila, instant patina. My only gripe was the nib, which I replaced with a flex nib from India.

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When closed, the Kaweco AL Sport is small enough for the pocket.

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The raw aluminum finish spells patina. Sadly, the AL Sport runs on cartridges unless you can find a converter small enough. As you can see in the photo, the Indian flex nib doesn’t quite fit the Kaweco feed. Still, it writes reasonably well.

When I have my briefcase with me, I always carry a few pens in a traditional leather pen case. My favorite is a green leather case from the Italian firm Pierotucci. While I’m always switching out which pens I carry, the Pilot Custom 823 is almost always in the mix. It’s my favorite everyday pen, because it holds plenty of ink, writes a clean, fine line, and has a somewhat springy nib.

Another favorite is the Edison Huron in green ebonite. The nib can be easily traded out for any #6 size Jowo nib. Right now I’m using a nice wet 1.1 mm stub, and the pen is filled with a new ink, Diamine Salamander.

EdisonPilotPierrotucciThe Edison, Kaweco and Pilot taken together represent the three main nib options available to fountain pen users: stub (a calligraphy-style italic line, narrower side-to-side than it is up-and-down), flex (variable line width depending on pressure), and round (in this case, a Japanese Fine which is the equivalent of a Western EF). When I’m writing cursive I prefer stubs … unless the Pilot is handy. Flexible nibs interest me, but because I don’t really know how to use them properly — the variable pressure thing is tricky — I don’t use them as much as I think I will.

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Stub (left), Flex (center), and Round (right)

Realistically, I don’t always have my briefcase handy and sometimes even the Kaweco feels too large, especially if my pockets are already filled with keys, wallet, pocket knife, etc., which is why this last ditch pen comes in handy:

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Every Swiss Army Knife that comes with Plus scales includes a pressurized pen, and while they’re not exactly comfortable to write with, they’ll do in a pinch. I have several SAKs, but the pictured Compact is the easiest of the full-size ones to carry.

If there’s one thing worse than the feeling of needing a pen and not having one, it’s needing one, having plenty of small pens to carry, and still not having one — something that still happens to me all too often. “Can you sign this book?” someone asks, and I have to say, “Sure — can I borrow a pen?” But at least you know that I have good intentions.