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Writing Longhand

Posted on 03.31.2014 at 09:05
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I have a distinct memory of typing my first story, a piece of fan fiction, on my uncle’s computer. I had written out by hand nine double-spaced pages, which was far more than my teacher asked for with that assignment. (The prompt? “Write a story.” You can imagine how much I, still loyal to structure and clear guidelines, gnashed my teeth over that overwhelming freedom.) Since we didn’t have a computer at home, the keyboard was unfamiliar to me. I hunted for letters, tapping them out with an agonizing slowness that took the bulk of an evening. Maybe that’s why I hate composing on the computer so much.

Obviously, I’m much quicker than I used to be. Even though I’d never gotten comfortable with the home-keys position, years of e-mails, IMs, and college/grad school writing improved my speed so much that one of my creative writing teachers remarked he’d never seen anyone work that fast typing so untraditionally. But I find myself somehow divorced from the writing process if I write by computer, as if those motions, while learned, still don’t feel native to me. Maybe it’s because the product looks too uniform, like anyone could have written it. Maybe I just fool myself into a better headspace through the physical act of making marks by hand on a page.

But I don’t think it’s only psychosomatic. I have good reasons for writing by hand. Like my friend Paul says, it keeps all the work in one place. I own nearly two dozen marble notebooks—they’re cheap and durable—full of the fiction, essays, and even [sic] posts I’ve done over the past five or six years. They’re easier to track down than the scattered files on my computer, though without the benefit of a search function. I like the portability. I take a notebook or memo pad nearly everywhere I go, whereas my laptop only occasionally travels with me. Writing longhand is unrestricted by battery life and the availability of outlets. I also don’t type nearly as fast as I write; when I’m in the middle of a story, I’ve got to keep up with the speed of thought. (More often than not, my first drafts happen by inspiration and figuring it out as I go. It’s only certain kinds of writing that I do any significant planning for.)

I also like the way revision happens when writing by hand. I make a few squiggly lines through material I want to scrap, but I can still see the words. Sometimes, they provide a useful direction or an idea to be salvaged for later. On the screen, I don’t see any traces of where my thoughts have been, what’s been abandoned or tweaked. (I know about Track Changes, but I’ve never really gotten the hang of that option.) Adding notes to myself on paper is easy—I have arrows and asterisks on nearly any given page, reminding me to insert an elaboration, more details, a stronger word choice. I wouldn’t expect anyone else to make sense of my system, but to me, it’s simple enough. Plus, when I do sit down to type what I’ve written, I edit on the spot, reworking phrases and cutting excess. It’s the rare piece that makes it to digital format exactly as I wrote it. Of course, that means a final draft takes more time for me than for a writer who prefers the keyboard, but it’s worked so far. When I have to get away from my normal writing process, I’ve gone to the computer. Even if the result isn’t actually any different, it definitely feels that way.

Besides all that, print has this air of permanence to it that the digital lacks. (Maybe that’s just the Luddite in me.) I have multiple backups of my most important writing, but I can’t help worrying about technology’s unreliability. Then again, I’d lose so much if a fire ever happened. But I’d never fight a force of nature so hard if it meant saving my writing from oblivion.

I guess that’s why some of us write, whatever medium we use—to preserve something valuable.

Ten Books That Stuck

Posted on 02.10.2014 at 09:38
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Not long into the new semester and already I feel swamped by obligations. These are the first words in weeks I’ve written for me—and for you, though I use [sic] to think on the page, so I don’t really consider it as writing for others. Because I’ve been so swept up by school-related matters, I find my mind blank. Nothing to write about. So, in the absence of a pressing urge, I’m sharing a meme. I rarely do this; clearly things are out of order somehow.

A few months ago, people on Facebook were posting their personal lists of ten books that stuck with them. The caveat: to do so quickly, without thinking. I’ve read hundreds of books. Coming up with ten is easy. Keeping it to ten? That’s a different story. Still I managed, though I confess I did spend a little time—not a lot, mind—thinking about this list. In no particular order:

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
Stardust, Neil Gaiman
Cosmos, Carl Sagan
The October Country, Ray Bradbury
Blankets, Craig Thompson
Spider-Man: The Venom Factor, Diane Duane
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
Macbeth, William Shakespeare
On Writing, Stephen King
The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff

I wasn’t going for representativeness, but I think that’s what happened. I see my tendency toward wistfulness, quests and searches, Taoism, a sense of wonder. More besides, I’m sure. I also place a lot of value on firsts: Stardust was the first Gaiman novel I read, and The October Country was the first Bradbury I independently read, both catapulting me toward seeking more of their work. The Tao of Pooh started my forays into Taoism. Macbeth was the first piece of “literature” I remember liking. And Duane’s Venom Factor is the book that got me reading.

So many other books I want to tell you about. For instance, over the summer I reread Chris Barzak’s One for Sorrow in preparation for a lengthy post on it. My goal is to spotlight some of the other books that have impacted me, a few that may be familiar, a few that probably won’t be. But good books need to be shared and discussed, however great it feels to have a secret all to ourselves.

A Novel Or Bust

Posted on 01.13.2014 at 12:16
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I decided on this a few months ago, but it seems appropriate to share it now with everyone talking of resolutions and goals for the new year: I’m going to write a novel.

It wasn’t an easy decision to make. When I was younger and had far more braggadocio, I attempted two novels, one a rather bland idea stretched thin and the other a by-the-numbers fantasy that I can only charitably call derivative. I didn’t get very far with either of those projects before I realized they weren’t worth finishing—if I didn’t like the story I was writing, I held little hope anyone else would. Those attempts—which I’m sure I labeled failures at the time—likely soured me on any subsequent tries at writing a novel.

I turned my attention to short fiction and everything changed. While I did—and still do—have a tendency to riff on old ideas, I found that I could tolerate the familiarity short pieces accommodate. I liked the potential for experimenting with style, form, character, and so on, unlike a novel, which demands a certain consistency. And I liked the satisfaction of seeing a project finished, whether successful or not, in a relatively short timeframe, rather than chipping away at something on blind faith (and maybe some stubbornness).

Lately, I have novels on my mind. I read a lot of short fiction this past year, and, though my love of the form hasn’t diminished any, I’m craving the immersion novels deliver. And with school claiming the bulk of my time, I feel like I need an anchor in the creative world. Leisure reading has been instrumental in that, as has writing short stories, but both have been sporadic. I can’t help wondering, then, if a single large writing project, instead of several smaller ones, would improve my focus any.

Besides which, I’ve been thinking about time and regret, priorities and choices. Existential stuff, as you do. I don’t want to die without ever having made a sustained, earnest attempt at a novel. I want to prove to myself that I can. I want to test my creative powers. I want to make a grandiose gesture of commitment to the writing life, despite my professional obligations. To do so, I’m choosing to write a novel.

As you might expect, I no sooner made the decision than the questions began: What are you going to write a novel about? By when? What if all that time and effort results in a book you can’t publish? Can you decide to write a novel, or do you just get an idea like a bolt from the heavens? And more occur to me with each passing day. I’ve managed to quiet the doubts, since I’m still in the process of brainstorming. We’ll see how long that lasts and how long it takes for thought to become deed. More on this as it unfolds.

A number of you have written novels. I’d love to hear your experiences, especially in the early stages.

When A Book Leaves You Cold

Posted on 12.19.2013 at 13:44
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A few weeks ago, I finished a book that I was not terribly fond of. I hadn’t gotten very far in before I realized what a chore reading it was. Yet I pressed on, hopeful, eventually desperate, that the author would turn it around, that the next story would make me feel like my commitment would pay off. It never happened. As short as the book was, I found myself wishing back the time I’d invested, which happens so infrequently that, when it actually does, it’s a shock.

Because the book was a collection, I felt justified in my optimism—even the best ones have a few stories that just don’t work for me. On some level, though, I recognized I was ignoring my instincts, the ones saying it was a lost cause. I stuck with it partly out of stubbornness: I had only given up on one other book before, and I would not be defeated—yes, giving up on a book meant personal defeat—by yet another. The other reason? I had hoped to learn something from it, a totally sensible reason writers routinely endure wooden prose, bland plots, flat characters. Lessons in What Not to Do. I never did learn anything from the book, but only in retrospect can I say that; in the moment, I’d hoped for some kernel of wisdom.

I’m not going to lay the blame for the reading experience I’d rather forget on that writerly advice. After all, I can choose to follow it or ignore it. Or, my actual plan, to tweak it. Life is short and my reading list is long; only one of those gets longer by the month. I’m a fairly discriminating reader, so it’s the rare instance I choose a book that I don’t appreciate on some level. Even so, it happens, and rather than soldier on out of some warped sense of obligation, I need to change my habit.

I want every book I read to blow my mind. Who doesn’t? But I know that won’t happen. Still, I should be getting something out of the experience. If not, well, I’ve got other books clamoring for attention. So here’s the plan: I’m going to give a book that’s really not working fifty pages or so to convince me. Plenty enough time to do something interesting, to show me a glimpse that, even if I’m not enthralled, I’ll take something away from the experience.

Several friends of mine have long had the win-me-over-by-page-X policy in place for years; they can hardly believe I’ve been reluctant to give up on books. Now, it’s a different story. Fifty pages, authors. Make ’em count.

Avoiding Adaptations

Posted on 10.30.2013 at 10:21
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In the winter of 2005 I came home one day to find that part of the roof over my room fell in, bringing with it the ice that had sat there over the previous few weeks. I reacted as you might expect. Few of my possessions were ruined in the collapse, thankfully, though there were some casualties. One of those was my copy of I, Robot with the Stephen Youll artwork. I had bought the book over a year prior, because I knew they were making a movie version soon and I didn’t want an actor’s photo on the cover. And now it was water-damaged, the ink smudging across pages, the whole curling up on itself when it finally dried.

Over the next few years, I checked every bookstore I came across for a replacement copy. More times than I care to count I found the tie-in edition, Will Smith striding in such a way to suggest action without committing any. Even when I visited other states I came up empty-handed. Seven years later I found at last a clean copy with Youll’s illustration.

Perhaps not the best segue into my resistance to adaptations, but it’s clearly related. I could have bought I, Robot a dozen times over, used or new, in those seven years. But I refused. I like to keep my books separate from their spin-offs, thank you very much.

When I read about an upcoming film or TV adaptation of a book I love, or one I want to read, I’ll typically rush to the bookstore and buy myself a copy, before those “Soon to be/now a major motion picture/TV series!” stamps or photo stills show up on the covers. That’s an aesthetic thing, sure. What about the adaptations themselves?

In general, I avoid them, sometimes with a fervor that borders on zealotry. At least, that’s the case with stories I love. If I’m not as invested in the story itself—which is rare; this is me we’re talking about—it depends on circumstances: who’s involved, how it looks in development, etc. I don’t know if I’m more visual-minded or whatever, but I’m extremely susceptible to others’ representations of characters and settings overwhelming my own, especially if all I have to go on is prose. You would think that, as a writer, I would not be so easily influenced in my imagination. I would think so too. To my own chagrin, though, that isn’t the case. When I return to the story after seeing a screen version, I see the actors in my mind’s eye, hear their voices instead of the ones I invented. And suddenly I feel less involved in my reading; I can’t participate in the same way I used to.

I’d love to be able to separate the two out, to recognize that the story is its own thing as is the movie or TV show. (Other kinds of adaptations, strangely, leave less of an impression on me.) But I can’t do that. So if you ask me why I haven’t seen or won’t see such-and-such, you’ll know: because I have a particular image and sound in my head and, despite what I may be missing, I want to preserve them.

What Now? When A Story Gets All No's

Posted on 09.24.2013 at 09:33
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Before this year, I didn’t take submitting for publication very seriously. I sent out two stories to be exact. Part of that was because I didn’t have firsthand knowledge of what kind of work other magazines published. I didn’t at the time think I had much in my inventory worth sending out. And I had fun just writing; I figured I had plenty of time to get my work out into the world.

Things are different now. I’ve read at least some offerings from many—not all, not yet—of the major magazines. I’ve got a sense of what they’re looking for. I’ve written a handful of stories that I feel are worth sharing. (They still need revisions, but they have at least a core worth keeping.) And, while I do have fun just writing and still may have time enough for my work to see the light of day, I’ve grown frustrated with the lack of a success. The only way to remedy that is to circulate my stories.

So that’s what I’ve been doing, if only in a casual way. Grad school and teaching, as you might expect, take up massive swaths of time, and they don’t leave much mental space for creative thoughts. Thus I’ve been sending out the one story I finished last year, which came in a fit of inspiration and, so far as I could tell, didn’t need much revision to make it match my intentions.

My intentions, however, don’t seem to be enough. That story has earned five rejections over the course of this year.* It’s awaiting a verdict with one magazine, and if it gets rejected there, I still have two more on the list. (It isn’t that I’ve exhausted the list of spec fic magazines period—only that this story doesn’t fit the aesthetics of certain publications.) And if I run through the entire list and it’s no’s all the way, what then?

Truth be told, I hadn’t expected that, to try every viable option only to fail. I’ve heard stories about writers who collected reams of rejection slips before they broke through, but I haven’t heard about when those writers decided to give up on selling a particular project. Maybe they never did.

This, then, is my dilemma: Do I send the story to a less prestigious magazine (with the rationale that a credit is better than none)? Do I trunk it and accept that this one just wasn’t meant to be? Or have I overlooked a third possibility? A friend of mine told me that she gave a story some time off if it made the rounds and came back with rejections. When she returned to it later, she revised it if she felt she’d gained some new skills in the interim. I wonder if that’s worked.

Three more venues for this story. I hope one of them says yes, not only because I want to have a sale but because I think this story’s good enough to deserve a home. I wouldn’t be sending it out if I thought otherwise. (I’ve trunked plenty of stories without submitting them because I didn’t think they were good enough.) We’ll see if an editor agrees, else the story will continue to exist as just words in a file, as scribbles in my notebook.

* One letter said, “Not for us but send more” and another editor enjoyed the story but felt it lacked pay-off. Little encouragements like that go a long way. Progress.

A Paradox At The Heart Of Reading

Posted on 08.22.2013 at 14:10
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The other day while waiting for the bus I saw a young girl start Cat Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. At that moment I felt an overwhelming ambivalence. On the one hand, I really wanted to talk to her about it—to ask her why she picked the book up, to ask if she knew there’d be five in the series, to say I knew the author and she was a fantastic person. On the other hand—leaving aside the reasonable wariness a girl would have being approached by a man my age, even with her father nearby—I didn’t want to  disrupt her reading, especially at the very beginning, when the possibilities and mysteries are the most numerous. This to me is one of reading’s paradoxes—it isolates us (at least in some ways) even as it presents an opportunity for connection.

Most of us read alone. (I have read along with others, and it has always given me a frisson of joy.) Even when we read together, though, we read at different paces and, far more importantly, our imaginations are distinct. Sure, the fictive dreams in our heads would be similar, prompted by the author’s words, but they would not be the same. A film, meanwhile, doesn’t rely nearly as much on its audience’s co-creative powers, so our experiences are far likelier to match up. (Yes, even then our experiences won’t be identical, but I think overall the similarity would be much higher.)

And yet, we are social, have this deep-seated impulse to communicate. To share. Art seems to routinely stir this impulse. Think about it. How disappointing is it seeing a movie alone? Even more than the stigma of being alone in a theater (unfair as it may be), not having someone to talk about a movie with afterward makes the solo outing unappealing. The almost natural reaction to a film, even among people who wouldn’t think of themselves as critics, is to talk it over. I feel that desire to discuss with pretty much every artistic product, including books. Others must feel the same way. Why else would book clubs be so prevalent? Or look at the success of Goodreads and other sites designed for bibliophiles.

To some extent, that’s why I write here on [sic]—to express my thoughts on literary matters with a definite aim toward starting a conversation. (I have admittedly been writing less about specific books, something I mean to remedy soon.) I think that, post-MFA, I’m lacking that community of people to talk books with. My fellow students all read a lot, but our frames of reference are wildly different. I suppose, then, if I can’t find what I’m after, I’ll do what any artistic type does when faced with an absence in the world—create something to occupy it.

What Makes A Story "Work"?

Posted on 08.05.2013 at 12:09
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Last summer I embarked on a project: I’d read a story every day for the next year. I can no longer remember my rationale for this decision, but I can speculate. For one, I’d been reading a lot of novels and book-length nonfiction, so I certainly could have used some re-familiarizing with the short story. Also, I knew of many speculative fiction magazines online and in print I hadn’t yet read; if I was going to submit to them, it’d be smart for me to get a sense of the kind of work they published. That I started the project when I did seems serendipitous in hindsight—I began a grad program a few months later, and reading short stories kept the creative side of my brain nourished without demanding swaths of time I couldn’t give even if I’d wanted to. I’m convinced that such reading was essential to maintaining my sanity, especially through this spring.

I finished the project last month, only a few weeks behind schedule, an impressive feat if you knew how frenetic the past semester was. Reading so much, as you might expect, gave me a lot to think about. But the question at the forefront of my thoughts, one I’ve raised before, is, What makes a story good? (Or successful or effective, whatever vocabulary you’d like to use.) What is a story’s goal? What’s it supposed to do?

The latter are admittedly philosophical questions. I could just as well ask what any art-form is supposed to do. What the point of art is. And that, to me, seems stupid—not because I think the answers are worthless, only that 1) I recognize there are many answers to that question, so the search for the point is misguided, and 2) I don’t much care about providing those answers. I’m interested in aesthetics, and I believe art matters, but I’m not in the business of explaining why it matters. I’m more interested in the creation of art, practice over theory.

And yet, as someone who’s devoted significant sums of time and money into honing my writing, I can’t help encountering questions that demand my attention and consideration. And when I see the issue of what makes a good story addressed, obliquely or not, in what I read, in conversations I have, my curiosity gets stoked anew.

During the first semester of my MFA, I became acquainted, if only tentatively, with some of the experimental subspecies in speculative fiction—slipstream, interstitial, New Weird. Some of the stories that bore those labels were not to my taste; I was either puzzled by them or I felt some unidentifiable dissatisfaction with the story (in part or in total amounted to the same reaction). Others I liked, loved. Even if I didn’t become an instant convert to the unconventional, I was intrigued and so remained on the alert for work in similar veins. Still, my inability to pin down what made some of these stories and not others work continued to rankle me.

In the introduction to Feeling Very Strange, an anthology of slipstream, the editors write, “A failed slipstream story can seem like idle noodling, a grab bag of uncommitted allusions to genres without any investment in characters or the ideas behind them, or acknowledgment that genre tropes are anything more than pawns on a chess board.” Yet I had read stories that, by dint of their publication, could ostensibly be called successful, and to me they felt like nothing more than that noodling.

I had a recent conversation with a friend, a writer and editor, and he told me that some stories outside the box leave him cold, however much support they’ve gotten from other readers. Another writer/editor posted a status update in which he said he hated Freytag’s pyramid, a core concept in many a creative writing class and craft book. I’ve read great stories that throw that model out the window, and I’ve read terrible ones that follow it. Execution, as they say, is everything.

That still doesn’t resolve the issue, even in a provisional way. If the received wisdom is nothing more than a set of readerly preferences, how do you write something unorthodox well?* Is it even possible to aim for that, or do you just write however it comes to you and hope for the best? Maybe that’s the way we ought to work, whether we’re traditionalists or not. After all, just because you’ve done everything according to the conventions doesn’t guarantee you success (itself a slippery concept).

Of course, writing and getting published are not the same; I’ve conflated the two here at times. That distinction has relevance to what I’m getting at, but I think I need to stop here for now, come back when my thoughts are a little less abstract.

* In The Elements of Style, which is as orthodox as it gets, Strunk and White write, “Unless he is certain of doing well, [the writer] will probably do best to follow the rules.” Can you be certain? How? I hope I’m thinking and writing my way toward an answer, even an incomplete one.

Like New: Not Writing In Books

Posted on 06.24.2013 at 13:18
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To the confusion of a few friends, I don’t write in my books. Mostly, that is. I make this distinction between books I’ve had to get—for classes, for teaching, for jobs—and those I’ve acquired gratis from generous friends or bought for no other reason than I wanted them. The latter I don’t write in. The former I do, though it took a significant act of will to do so with the first writing class I taught.

I get why. A friend of mine underlines passages she loves, finds especially poignant. In marking the important points and/or recording your responses, you save a lot of time in revisiting those texts for ideas. You preserve your thoughts at a given moment. Later you may find them changed, so you can track the progress of your mind. It makes the book yours in an idiosyncratic way that reading alone can’t.

Still, I can’t write in my books, at least not in the ones I regard as more than information receptacles. (The majority of my library is fiction.) For one, I continue to see books, even cheap mass market paperbacks, as objets d’art. In his essay “How to Mark a Book,” writer and editor Mortimer Adler calls this a “false respect” for “the craft of the printer rather than the genius of the author.” Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time separating the form from the content. I see an empty bound book and of course my impulse is to write in it. But when that book is already full of words? Well, that’s the author’s space and while I believe in reading as co-creative, that doesn’t mean I want to leave evidence of my visit when I’m invited as a guest, even if I have certain freedoms there and then.

Also, because I’m focusing on my own reading habits, which typically means fiction, I can’t see the point. A story is not an argument or a textbook, so I’m not sure what I’d write in it, save to highlight some memorable lines. And I don’t have to write in the book to save such moments. In my journals I’ve written individual lines up to multiple paragraphs simply because the author wrote something so true or funny or striking that I wanted to record it so I could find it again.

Which seems to me another problem with marking books themselves: How do you remember where you found specific ideas, sentiments? My collection is creeping toward six hundred, and while I could give you the broad contours of most of what I read, I’d be totally helpless in identifying details and their sources. So if I wanted to go back and find a particular kernel, I’d be at a loss.

I could, of course, always rediscover these markings when I reread books, but for me, this is a rarity. I own over two hundred unread books, to say nothing of the scores of others I want to read. Adler says it’s better to see not how many good books you can get through “but rather how many can get through you.” My to-read list, even after a recent dramatic cut, is fairly long, and we each of us have only so much time. I’d like to continue reading voraciously, and I don’t think that precludes me from having books get through to me. Some books I sped through and still retain vivid memories of; others took me weeks, leaving vague recollections. Speed has no bearing on the immersive experience of books, and Adler admits this. Writing in books would slow me down, and I’m not sure I’m willing to make the trade-off. That’s also assuming that most books are worth writing in/about. I don’t think that’s the case.

After all, just look at my posts here on [sic]. I’m still reading a fair amount annually, though less for leisure on account of grad school, and only a tiny fraction of my posts here concern specific books. (I have plans to address that soon.) Not everything I read warrants writing about, nor does everything I write get posted. Still, I do find myself engaged on multiple levels when I write about books. That doesn’t mean I have to put my thoughts in the physical copy of the book. (E-readers? A whole other can of worms.)

Besides, Adler says that writing in a book helps to promote active reading. I believe this and often tell my students the value of writing and reading as complementary acts. But my students are younger than I, at a crucial stage of writer development. I wouldn’t go so far to say that I’m a fully formed writer, no more growing for me thank you very much, but I would say that, at this stage, I read actively as a matter of habit. I’ve become more attuned to reading as a writer—to my mind synonymous with active reading—without conscientiously trying to. My writer-brain is running far more often than not, so even if I’m not using pen and paper to record and generate thoughts, somewhere in my synapses that work is happening. Maybe that grows out of writing in books and, like training wheels, eventually you can go without.

Perhaps most importantly, I don’t write in books because it ruins my reading experience. A few years ago at a science fiction convention, I bought an Ursula K. Le Guin book, a pulpy-looking 1970s paperback for two or three bucks. When I opened it later to read, I saw trails of blue all over, stars in the margin, thematic signposts. I haven’t touched that copy since. Seeing someone else’s thoughts there in conversation with the author’s interferes with my own ability to make sense of things, to explore connections and notice details. I’ve seen library books marked up and I can’t help feeling disheartened a little by it. When people borrow my books or when they one day end up in the hands of posterity, whether my family’s or a library’s, I want readers to come to the books with their own ideas. They shouldn’t have to sift through mine.

But I suppose that means my books will bear no trace of my existence. That’s fine. I’ll just make my mark somewhere else.

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