Betty Duffy

Monday, March 29, 2010

Literary Mentorship

I used to be afraid to write in the margins of my books. Books were sacred, and should not be sullied. But I think my attitude was shaped by an unholy awe of the book, and a misunderstanding of the role books were supposed to accomplish in a person’s life. Books were a sign of intellectual status—like my husband’s insistence on doing crosswords with a pen. Books were their own absolutes, the final word, and as such, there was no need for a lowly reader to add their own mistaken thoughts in the margin.

But I’ve come to see the writing in the margin as a way of marking my territory—to say I’ve been here, covered this ground. It’s a reminder to my future self who may one day come back and revisit the text, and it’s a cave drawing of sorts for any future reader to interpret the “me” who read this book so many years before.

I love finding books in which others have written. I inherited many books from my grandfather, who after his retirement as chief executive of the local power and light company, began reading from ancient Rome and Greece to the age of Christ, past the Reformation, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, onward through Modernism and up to Pope John Paul II, and ended up converting to Catholicism just before his death.

His books, read in chronological order, serve as an intellectual road map to the Catholic Faith. And his check marks, under-linings, and question marks in the margins form their own spiritual autobiography of sorts.

My Grandfather’s books, and the barrister bookcases on which they sat, are one of the few items of inheritance over which my sister and I occasionally bicker. Fortunately, Grandpa had written down the names of his beneficiaries for his most precious tomes before he died. And it was not uncommon for him to spy us flipping through one of his books and say, “You want to read that? Take it. It’s yours,” even if he knew his frivolous fifteen-year-old granddaughter had no intention of reading Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”

Even though I didn’t read the Gibbon in its entirety, I did eventually use it for a research paper on the role of Christianity in the Fall of Rome, and Grandpa’s chicken scratches in the margins were like an oracle directing me to the important parts.

I make a point of stealing a little something when I visit certain members of my family—a venial sin, so said my priest—and the items are more like birds flitting to different branches in the same tree (maybe?). It’s almost an act of love to take a little piece of them home to sustain me in their absence, and it gives them an opportunity to grow in charity when they realize what I’ve done (possibly?).

I brought my sister’s “Prayer for Beginners” by Peter Kreeft home with me from Mississippi a) because she said it was good, and b) because she’s written all over it. There’s no better memento of a loved one than evidence of their intimate interaction with words, and with The Word in particular.

Faulkner House Books

I have walked in and out of many a Barnes and Noble without feeling tempted to make a purchase. Too many choices yields indecision.

But the benevolent proprietor of Faulkner House has kept its selection of books sacred and small, so that nearly everything on the shelves was something I would want to read. A perfectly edited stack of books for sale yields certainty, so that when faced with a title I’ve thought about buying for years, I opened my wallet and laid the cover price on the table, and I rarely pay cover price for anything.

Then again, maybe I just wanted the feeling of importance from going into an exclusive bookstore and appearing to know exactly what it is that I need.

My sister and I went back to New Orleans to sit in on some Master Classes at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival.

As evidenced by the notes I took, the talks left a little to be desired:

In one of the Master Classes, the speaker gave lots of nice tips for developing characters and doing the business of writing (i.e. sitting on your rear and putting words on paper), and finally a member of the audience asked the question that every budding writer wants to know: “How did YOU get an agent and a book deal?”

Turns out, this lady glad-handed an editor at a similar conference, and asked if the editor would read her work. The squeaky wheel got the oil.

Emboldened, I stuck around after the next talk by John Dufresne and tried to lure him into reading my stuff. I asked lots of vague questions on genre and craft, but when it came time to drop the gauntlet and say, “Can I send you my stuff?” I bailed. It feels too pushy, too presuming.

I want publishing to be easier. Isn’t it enough that I came to this lame conference, that I asked good questions, and made myself available? Don’t I look like someone who has written a novel you would like to read? Wouldn’t you like to offer me a literary apprenticeship and then send my manuscript to your agent so I can be published too?

Apparently, that’s not the way things work (So I resort to the possibility that Dufresne googles his own name periodically, comes across my blog, and answers my plea).


Peter and Nancy said...

I love this post. My favorite book store (Wisconsin's oldest independently-owned book store) closed last summer, to my great sadness. I worked there for 3 years during college, and loved the place.

I would've been too chicken to ask the speaker to read my stuff, too.

Emily J. said...

I'm just glad you left my ring behind.

Hope said...

I write in all my books. When I lend them out I ask friends to please underlined everything that spoke to them. I love having books all marked up but some of my friends are horrified that I do that.

Anonymous said...

Don't ask writers like Dufresne to read your stuff unless he/she is a friend of yours, you are in a workshop together, or you are paying the writer to do so. They really and truly don't have time. To write well takes an enormous amount of creative energy and concentration and time is precious.

BettyDuffy said...

I get it, Anon, which is why I just fished and didn't ask. That said, I think that at conferences like these, authors are well compensated enough to deflect people like me without too much inconvenience to their muse.

Em, You'd better check your closet.