Below is the briefing I wrote to set the stage for the issue’s theme, which was “what I learned this year.”
This year, I learned at least three things.
I learned (1) to be less skeptical of poetry, that sometimes writing a poem is the best and only way to embody a feeling, thought, or moment. I learned (2) that I love the little things at the library as much as the big ones: sharpening dull pencils at the desk; discovering stray receipts from 2012 in shelved books; picking up scraps with call numbers on them and wondering which book they led the patrons to; and returning abandoned books to the snug vacancy on the shelf they call home.
And I learned (3) that I could have died in fifth grade. I stood in my friend’s front yard in a sleepy suburb playing nonchalantly with a BB rifle as a police car pulled into the driveway, and the officer could have jumped out of his car and shot me dead because he felt threatened by the gun I had, however non-lethal it turned out to be. But I didn’t die. I received a stern warning, and I went home and cried about it when my mom got a call from my friend’s mom explaining what had happened. And then I forgot about it, until my sister reminded me of that incident after Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy playing with an airsoft gun in a Cleveland park, was gunned down on November 22 by an unqualified policeman responding to a call about someone pretending to shoot people driving by.
Did Tamir die because he was black? Because of the aptitude of the officer he encountered? Because the airsoft gun he wielded (stunningly similar to one I owned at that age) that a friend had just given him had its orange tip removed? All I know is Tamir is dead and I am not. The why is too sad to confront and too pressing to ignore.
There’s a fourth thing I learned this year, but it’s really the only thing: I know that I don’t know anything. What better time, then, here at the End of All Things 2014, to wrestle with the Simba Life creed—Run from it or learn from it—in the third issue of the Simba Life magazine, along with this issue’s contributors. What did we learn this year? Put on a pot of coffee and let’s find out together.
Keith Houston’s 2013 book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks is like catnip for word nerds. It’s rife with historical trivia about the more uncommon punctuation marks that have littered language history, including the pilcrow (¶), dagger (†), and interrobang (‽). It also provides background on the symbols we seen all the time, like the hash sign (#) or the ampersand (@). Intrigued? Of course you are! Learn more at shadycharacters.co.uk and read on for some notes I took while reading the book. Caution: extreme geekery ahead.
— Boustrophedon (adj. & adv.): from left to right and right to left in alternating lines (from Greek “as an ox turns in plowing”)
— Komma, kolon, and periodos were initially dots denoting short, medium, and long pauses
— The pilcrow (¶) started as a C (from the Roman capitulum, meaning “chapters”) that was filled in with a vertical line by medieval scribes
— The word pilcrow originated as the Greek paragraphos, which became pelagraphe, which became pelagreffe, whose Middle English pylcrafte turned into pilcrow.
— Alternative names for the interrobang (‽): exclamaquest (which is my favorite), interrapoint, exclarogative
— lb (for “pound”) came from the Roman libra, meaning scales or balances
— oz (for “ounce”) came from medieval Italian onza, meaning twelfth of a Roman pound
— lb with tilde above it (which was used to show a contraction), when written in haste, looked like the hash sign (#); combined with Latin pondo it became the “pound sign”
— The ampersand (@) started as Pompeian graffiti, later becoming part of the alphabet: “X, Y, Z, and per se (by itself) and” – i.e. “ampersand”
— The dagger (†), called obelos (Greek for “roasting spit”) was originally a straight line that marked superfluous lines in a text
— The asterisk (*) (from Greek asteriskos for “little star”) was used for marking genuine lines in Bible translation as opposed to added or mistranslated one
— The em dash (—) was used to censor names or curses, so “dash” became its own epithet
— Exclamation points on early typewriters were made with a period and apostrophe
— There were such things as the commash ,— and semicolash :— but they have faded from use
— Double hyphen (- -) instead of em dash was standard on typewriters; practice proliferated with spread of comics
Dyson: I had never really written before, but I started what I would call my first absolutely unpublishable novel just for fun, and thought how fun it was to freely write just so my wife Brooke could read some stuff and so I could throw some crazy ideas on paper. Over the span of about a year I did that every night. That was when I was in a band, too, so there was all sorts of creative stuff going on. I remember thinking this would be fun to do regularly some day, to share it with more people. I didn’t; after that I just stopped. Five years later, up in Wisconsin working at a summer camp, one winter day I started writing something else. Same thing: did it for about a year and then stopped. Shared it with a couple friends. Last fall, when I literally didn’t have anything else going on, my son Elias and I were joking around doing some stupid father/son stuff, and I just started drawing and writing. I kept writing and drawing just to see him laugh. He would throw ideas down, and we created the first Bearly Dad book together really just having fun up on the drafting table. In that moment, it was… ‘Oh, this is fun, what if we just shared this silliness with more people?’ And that’s when we looked into how you do that. How can we make this happen without making a big deal out of it?
When I was done with Bearly Dad, we looked at it and Brooke and I were like, ‘Well, this is probably the most unprofessional artwork I’ve ever seen.’ The next day, she called to see if AbsolutelyUnprofessional.com was taken, and it wasn’t. And even the guy on the phone at GoDaddy or something was like, ‘Wow, nobody’s taken that? That’s incredible.’ And that was it. It was because my artwork is so unprofessional—I’m so untrained—we thought we should call it what it is. Set the bar low and have fun with it.
So for the first book, it’s just Elias and you throwing things back and forth. After that came together and you wanted to share it with more people, what was the process for taking the next step?
The book was really just an excuse to put ridiculous ideas into a solid, tangible form. Displaying digital stuff is fun—putting it together and passing it around—but it feels so much more personal to be able to hand Elias a compilation of ideas we put together, that we laughed at while putting together. Showing him online is funny; handing him a book made his eyes open wide. He was like, ‘Dad, can we put some of my stories in books like this too?’ ‘Yeah, we can put together some Elias books.’ To him, then, it was real. It was a simple process to research how to do it. It was easy; everything’s accessible these days. But the main thrust of it was sharing it with others but also being able to hand it to my kids.
For Bearly Dad, how much of what became the book was pulled directly from your life versus stuff you imagined?
I think throughout the book there are ten different wrestling moves that happen—“rumblings” they’re called. I’d say about eight of those come from real life, just stuff Elias and I do. One of my favorites in the book is called “dead rabbit.” I’ve used that one on him for years, where I’d get him on the ground and flop over top of him and pretend to be dead, and he’s suffocating and can’t move and trying to wriggle to get out. Most of the moves in the book are like that. They’re stupid. Really just dumb stuff we’ve done, and then a couple ones I would probably not do in my house. But it’s fun to throw in there. All the names are just silly things that we laugh at. And now that the book is done, he actually has names for some of them that we didn’t have a name for. Now he’ll jump on my back and call it out.
Did you have a sense putting it together that it would be greater than the sum of its parts, with a larger purpose you wanted to have with the book, or is it just a collection of silly stuff you wanted to put together?
It’s really difficult for me to put my time and energy into something that doesn’t have some flavor of greater purpose behind it, no matter what that is. It doesn’t have to be overt. In fact, it can be incredibly subversive in its meaning and purpose. But it has to be there. So one of the ways I look at art is as an overflow of creation. We’re created by a creator God, so whether the art is silly or serious or portrays the Gospel in some way I think is irrelevant, because art itself displays the nature of God. So a stupid, silly book like Bearly Dad, even if there was no other purpose to it, is already displaying God’s creative nature, which is enough, you know? And I love that. That’s tucked into everything. One of the other books I’m working on now, it’s even more stupid. It’s even slightly morbid for a kid’s book, and I love it. But even in the stupidity and the morbidness, there’s a hidden purpose of responsibility. What does it look like for a kid to take responsibility? With Bearly Dad, one of the themes behind it was healthy interaction between a father and son: what does it look like to engage your kids in playful fun? We know that physical touch between parents and kids is important, so if it’s mean and rough and aggressive, that lasts. That impacts the kids forever. If it’s playful and gentle and intentional, that also lasts and impacts forever.
So some of that was going into Bearly Dad while I was writing, just wanting to foster the family dynamic. Also, I love holding books. Just tonight we read two books before bed. He actually read the new book I just made: You Are: A Lump’s Tale About Image. The first print came in the mail today, so he read it and then we read another Dr. Seuss book. And there’s something about sitting there holding a silly book together that just fosters family time. So those two ideas were in Bearly Dad when I wrote it, knowing that we’d print it off and sit around as a family and laugh at the silly ideas we put together.
How much research did you do with other children’s literature before writing the book?
I think just being a dad I have natural research going every day. And we have a library of kids books. We’re always challenging Elias to read one he has not read yet, or in a while. We have a lot of books from the 1950s and 60s, that old-style illustration and storytelling. Those are some of my favorites. So there’s a natural element of research, and then there’s just tapping into what Elias enjoys reading. What do the characters look like? How does the story flow? But as I started doing the art and writing it out, I realized I really do write a certain way. It’s not smooth and it doesn’t flow poetically. It’s very jerky and almost frustrating. I realized that so much of my personality came out while I was writing. I didn’t want to change that, because it really is me. Even Brooke, after reading the newest one, she’s like, ‘Man, it really is just an overflow of your personality.’ Part of that is frustrating and part of that is exciting, because you want your art to be an overflow of you.
How does your daughter Ada fit into all of this? Do you have her in mind for future stories, or do you want to focus on the father/son aspect?
I focused on the father/son dynamic for Bearly Dad. For A Lump’s Tale, I actually had her in mind. Image is such a huge topic in our culture today, and media plays a role in that. It’s everywhere, and it’s not usually healthy if we’re honest and look at the serious eating disorders that exist and the amount of money we spend on clothes, to reshape ourselves, tattoos to change how we look permanently. I have tattoos and I pierced my ears at one point, so I understand wanting to modify yourself to look a certain way. So I think about Ada: she’s two and she’s innocent to the degree that she doesn’t think about any of that yet. She has this natural giddiness about her. She wants to look cute and pretty, and part of that is because we tell her that all the time, and part of it is that she’s naturally wired to think that way as a girl. Now she’s leaning into the positive side, but very soon she’s going to hear conversations about weight. She’s going to see girls dressing five or six years older than they ought to. So as I was writing this book, I wanted to preempt that conversation with her at a very young age, where image plays a role in her life. It’s an issue for boys as well, to be the right kind of masculine and all these things. But she was in my mind for this one, so Brooke and I could use a kids book to foster a conversation very early on with who she really is.
How has Brooke been involved in the process of putting all these books together?
She’s awesome. A big part of it is just encouraging me to go ahead and do it. On an emotional, mental, and spiritual level she does that. On a tangible level, I would say she is the overall editor of just about everything that happens. She reads through everything, she goes through a couple drafts. I’m a pretty hard guy to work with, so she has to make notes on the computer and email them back to me. If she tells me in person I’m emotional and I get offended or defensive unnecessarily, so we have this system worked out. The first time she sends it to me, it’s ‘Hey, change this, maybe the character is a little too this’ or whatever. If I’m sitting clear-minded I can take it. She’s always right. Always. So I’ll draw it all up and write it out and hand her a copy to flip through. She’ll mark that up and we’ll talk about it, and I won’t be a petulant child at that point.
And she’s great with Adobe programs. I’m learning some of it to save her the time and energy, but she scans and crops everything and formats the pages and shows me the fonts. I’m pretty picky, so she’ll usually put a draft together and then I’ll come back and usually end up rearranging each page and changing fonts and sizes and all that. Then we let it sit for a week or two, then come back and make more changes. She publishes it, does all the copyright work. Pretty much if it’s technical she does it. She’s brilliant at all that. It’s a lot of fun. She and I have had a lot of time working together. We’ve been in ministry together. Even as a married couple we’ve spent a lot of time together, so it’s fun to do a silly project with her. It wouldn’t happen if she wasn’t doing it. I wouldn’t take the time to learn Adobe and all that stuff.
What are you working on now?
I finished the illustrations of a script I put together about two months ago. I have a mental idea of trying to put something out every two to three months. I probably have three or four developing story lines in the works now. I started one about four months ago and did about three-quarters of it before putting it down, just to put some distance between it. I have projects laying around all over the place. I have one kids book that will come out probably in another two months. It’s funny, I was describing it to Brooke and thought that this is one that if I ever had a chance of being picked up by a major publisher, this is the idea they would look at and say, ‘Dear God—what were you thinking?’ So I’m excited to put that one out.
There’s another one that’s been brewing for some time, and it clicked the other day. It’s an overflow of the word oikos, which is Greek for ‘extended family.’ It’s this concept of doing life together with a larger community than just the immediate family. I wondered if I could put something together that would help foster movement in living that out. I won’t say much more than that, other than it’s not a kids book. It’s not a novel. It’s a book of ideas that you can use either as a family or missional community to spur on movement. I got to spend a chunk of the afternoon today at a cafe writing out fifty percent of the first draft, just because it was so fresh. I wanted to get it all down while it was still there. It’s so important because it’s important to my family, and it’s important for living on purpose. I’m realizing that while it’s a new idea, so much of it is already in me and in what we’ve already done as a family. I’ve talked about it for years so putting it on paper is crazy easy. I’m excited about it.
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire, made this plain yet meaty declaration concerning best food practices in a 2007 article called “Unhappy Meals” for TheNew York Times Magazine. It has resonated with me since I read it recently. Deceptively simple, each sentence contains multitudes of implications about food and eating habits that Pollan explains further into his article. This Pollan Doctrine has inspired my own literary interpretation that can serve as the basis for what I see as best reading practices:
“Read books. Often. Mostly print.”
We need to eat to live. But Pollan doesn’t just say Eat. He says Eat food. The difference to him is between “whole fresh foods” and “processed food products,” the latter being “edible food-like substances” from the supermarket that will fill your stomach but won’t make you healthy. Likewise, to be head-healthy we need to read, but not only that: we need to read books. We can read listicles and news items and celebrity profiles (and boy do we), but that alone is not healthy. I love to consume high-quality television and cinema and podcasts, but they are not enough either. They are, to extend the metaphor, the fruit and juice and pastries that make the meal tasty, but they are not going to keep you full. They are the parts of a complete breakfast, a meal that hinges on the oatmeal or the eggs on whole wheat bread.
This didn’t used to be a problem. Before the Internet, television, film, radio, or recorded music, people had few of the intellectually stimulating activities we take for granted today. The theater was an option, depending on your wealth or circumstance, but other than that and perhaps a roving minstrel band, books were it. We have so many options now, so books are increasingly being relegated to the back of the queue. It must not be so.
I’ve come to view books as arboretums. They are worlds within in the larger world, ecosystems shielded from the chaotic flea-market world of the Internet yet also in debate with it. Every page is a tree, its paragraphs and sentences the branches and vines that stack and intertwine to compose its part of the story. Our senses engage with the created world before us: the smell of the paper like the smell of the buds; the songs of the birds and the dialogue we narrate in our head; the characters we imagine in our head like the colorful trees that align and clash and have backstories of their own. With arboretums as with books, each of us see the same thing yet something altogether different.
We all need to get outside and deeply breathe in the fresh air. Literally, we can do this by escaping to arboretums, but literarily we do it with books.
I remember the beginning distinctly. I had graduated from college but was still working in my school’s admission office over the summer before I departed for Colombia, where I lived that fall. The week after commencement, with no more classes or papers or textbooks consuming my time, I picked up a book I wanted to read and read it for fun. It was The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I liked it, didn’t love it, but that wasn’t the point. The point was dominion over what I read no longer rested with my professors. I was free, in the windows-down Tom Petty sort of way, and it felt great.
Four years later, I’ve had what amounts to another college education’s worth of free reading in topics that fit my fancy. Except during the two-year detour to grad school when my reading once again became more regimented, I have read what I have wanted to read and I have read a lot. On the train, on the bus, during my lunch break, in bed before sleep: I almost always have a book with me that I can whip out when the moment is right.
This is incredibly invigorating for me. There are so many books out there I want to read, to input into my byzantine repository of a brain. Sometimes the sheer infinities of books I could and want to read overwhelm me. (Bunny trail: while working at the library one night I’d just finished a book and tried to decide what to read next. Novel or biography? Classic or contemporary? Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain or Wilson’s Angel in the Architecture or Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic? Ahhh! … I debated for way too long about it and then fifteen minutes before closing, my eye found Mark Harris’ new Five Came Back and I knew immediately I wanted that one. The heart wants what it wants.)
I learned a lot from the books I read in high school and college, but I have gained just as much from what I have read on my own—especially so from the books I grabbed almost impulsively, because I just wanted to read it. No other reason. I know I will never be able to read all the books I want to read, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.
Bibliophiles will often speak of the allure of the book itself: the smell of the freshly opened pages, the comforting and colorful order of the library stacks, the textile pleasures of a book in hand. I find joy in those things too. But they alone are not why I read printed books, mostly from the library, almost exclusively. I do so because reading should be hard.
As our smartphones get smarter and more intuitive, as our online reading gets lighter and more listicled, we need something that will challenge us. By reading printed books and reading them deeply, we challenge our brains to resist the Twitter-fueled “fear of missing out,” our nagging impulse to check our phones, our tendency to skim online articles before quickly clicking a link to the next one, and our penchant for immediate gratification.
By reading print books, we can enjoy a better reading experience while also confronting the oppressive ubiquity of screens. This secondary effect should not be overlooked. I could quite easily, and quite accidentally, go nary a minute during an average day without fixing my eyes upon the radiant glow of a computer or phone or TV screen. Indeed I have lived that day many more times than I would have liked—such is the reach of the invisible android hand upon the market of our attention. But at the end of such a digitized day, my eyes wearied by the spastic technicolor of the internet, I have often taken solace in the decidedly unilluminated grayscale of the printed page, where the words stay in one place, darn it, and don’t link anywhere else except in my imagination.
This is not to proclaim the objective superiority of paper as a reading format (even though I prefer it), nor to condemn e-books (whose accessibility and convenience are in fact a great catalysts for increased reading). I simply mean to say that with a deficit of attention and a surplus of distractions, we benefit greatly from the challenge and joy of locking ourselves inside the safe and friendly confines of a printed book. Ultimately, reading is better than not reading. Read whatever and however you’d like and you’ll be better for it. But my recipe has nourished me well, and as is true with any good meal I want to share it with others.
Comello: First off, how has the response been to the book? Any surprising reactions from critics or regular readers?
Graedon: I think that the biggest surprise has been the seeming divisiveness of the language in my book. On the one hand, some readers have felt shut out when they’ve encountered words that they don’t know or can’t understand. That blindsided me more than it should have. When I remember back to the first time that I tried to read Nabokov, for instance, I’m sure that one of my impulses was to throw the book across the room—there were at least half a dozen unfamiliar words per page on average, and it made me crazy. (I’m of course not comparing my work with his in any way, except to say that I should have been more empathetic to the experience of reader estrangement.)
But for me, anyway, something shifted. I stopped being frustrated, and started wanting to look up those words, to know and own them, in a deep sense. And when I went back to Nabokov as an adult, the experience was very different, for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, I’ve come to a place where I don’t mind if what I’m reading asks something of me, whether it’s to look up a word that I don’t know, or to be comfortable with ambiguity, or to imagine something I don’t want to imagine. I find reading to be a more transformational experience if I’m involved in it, actively participating and thinking and engaging.
I guess for that reason, I also don’t mind asking something of readers. And it’s been very gratifying that there have been readers, on the other hand, who’ve responded to the book maybe especially because of the language. Not just the unusualness of some of it, but also because of what it’s doing. Because of course one of the messages that I was hoping to convey is that language is so central to our humanity, and that to lose it or not be able to understand it can in fact be very alienating. That before we relinquish control over things that are so fundamental to who we are—yielding all sorts of functionalities to devices and machines—we should give a lot of thought to what it might mean for us to give them up.
I think that a lot of readers have responded to that message, buried in the book’s language, and I have found that to be unbelievably thrilling, and very humbling.
That’s interesting because the challenge of the words themselves was something I discussed in my first reaction to The Word Exchange, how for me the joy of reading and learning is discovering new things that stretch my understanding. I appreciate when writers (or filmmakers or musicians) don’t make things easy. I think we all need and enjoy escapist entertainment from time to time, but not at the expense of richer and deeper engagement with ideas in every artistic form.
I wonder if you’ve read anything by Nicholas Carr, who writes mostly about technology, culture, and the implications of a digital world. Recently on his blog he’s been focusing on automation and the almost sinister implications it has for human intelligence and creativity. (His next book, in fact, is called The Glass Cage: Automation and Us.) Carr recently posted about a promotional email he got from Apple with the headline “Create a work of art, without the work.” In your book that seems to encapsulate the underlying mission of Synchronic, whose (very)smartphone-like devices have taken over wide control of their users’ lives, including how they look up words they don’t know.
This quote from the book stood out to me: “It’s comforting to believe that consigning small decisions to a device frees up our brains for more important things. But that begs the question, which things have been deemed more important? And what does our purportedly decluttered mind now allow us to do? Express ourselves? Concentrate? Think? Or have we simply carved out more time for entertainment? Anxiety? Dread?”
So how do you, as someone who wants to actively engage with things, manage what you automate in your own life and what you let into your brain? Are there certain things you still rigidly refuse to let a computer or other technology do?
I remember your response well! I think you were the first person to point out that reading The Word Exchange in some ways duplicates the experience of being one of the characters in the book (at least if you’re downloading the definitions of unknown words as you go). In other words, that form and content have the possibility of meeting, in a certain sense.
And while I’m quite intrigued by Nicholas Carr’s work—as I mentioned in my essay-length acknowledgments at the back of the book, several of his premises from The Shallows have made their way into The Word Exchange, largely via Doug—I wasn’t aware of his blog or his newest book, and I’m utterly grateful to you for pointing me in their direction.
I do find automation to be a slightly insidious force. While it’s easy to rationalize—I might tell myself, for instance, that only “mindless” tasks can be automated, nothing truly “authentic”—I also find that the more things I consign to my various omnipresent devices, the more alienated I wind up feeling. I want to remember important dates on my own, not find myself so cut off from the passing of time that I need a machine to remind me of them. I want to be able to navigate my own way through unknown cities, not depend on Siri to pleasantly read the directions to various destinations to me. And while it’s utterly convenient to have all my bills paid automatically, I’m almost a little nostalgic for a time when paying for things required some degree of conscious engagement.
That said, I’m as big an automation culprit as anyone at this point. I relinquished the keys to my bank account more than a year ago, finally setting up automatic bill payment, and breathing a deep sigh of relief over the minutes and maybe hours of my life saved from mindless check-writing. I have a terrible sense of direction, so I depend on Siri and Google to get me just about everywhere. I program dozens of reminders for myself into my iPhone.
But there are a lot of things that I still do analog. Write to-do lists. Keep a calendar. Edit drafts of things that I’m writing. I still mail lots of longhand letters, too. The truth is, I just think better on paper. And when I don’t automate, I also feel more aware of what’s happening in my life—of the passing of time—too. That’s something that I want to be aware of.
I think that electronic devices have introduced the idea of a false infinity and limitlessness into our lives: the cloud that exists everywhere and nowhere; the digital reader that’s a slightly warped manifestation of a Borgesian infinite library; and with automation (and the relentless schedules many of us now face), the idea of an endless day, which of course is a total fallacy, and one that can often make us feel not only depleted but depraved, pitching ever more quickly toward the grave without much awareness of its quickened arrival.
The phrase “wood and glue” pops up periodically in the book as an incantation for times of adversity. Was there a time in the six years of writing the book when you felt things were falling apart and had to MacGyver the story back into order?
The phrase “wood and glue” actually didn’t come in until near the end—final edits. But absolutely, there was much MacGyvering along the way. I did my very best to try to keep the writing process from taking as long as it eventually took. Before I began, I plotted heavily, did elaborate Excel spreadsheets, and tried to nail down the structure very carefully. And I only gave myself about 6 or 7 months to write the first draft, keeping to a strict schedule, finishing chapters every other week or so.
What that meant, of course, was that my first draft was absolutely terrible. I didn’t realize just how terrible it was right away. I gave it to a couple of trusted writer friends, and they were incredibly kind and gentle in their critiques. But in what they did and didn’t say, I realized that the book was a mess.
I took maybe six months off from working on it (that wasn’t hard, or even entirely intentional—I’d just started a new job), and then, when I looked at it again, I was a little shocked at its badness. I found myself gutting whole sections. Rewriting entire chapters. Tearing the spreadsheet into tiny pieces. The second draft of the book barely resembled the first. Although there were also things that I was afraid to let go, for better or worse: the beginning, some aspects of the structure (the 26 chapters, the alternating points of view, etc). I was afraid that if I tore up all the stakes, the entire thing would just float away.
I got more feedback from different friends on that draft, and then I did one more big draft before sending it out to any agents to consider. Needless to say, I did more revising after signing with one of them, and yet far more after starting to work with an editor.
It’s funny. After laboring over the book (in obscurity) for years, really taking my time to get things the way I wanted them to be, having realized with the first draft that breakneck speed didn’t work well for me, I did the most frenetic revising in the final months, under tremendous pressure, changing the book drastically at the eleventh hour. One of the tiniest changes to come out of that period was the inclusion of the phrase “wood and glue.” It never occurred to me before you asked just now, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this splint metaphor came in during those whirlwind months of mercenary final rewriting. I sort of felt like I could have used a whole-body (and whole-psyche) splint at the time.
As Anana’s journey to find Doug becomes more perilous and labyrinthine, the importance of “safe places” becomes more evident, whether it’s the library or within the secretive confines of the Diachronic Society. Where do you feel most safe and at peace? And is that the same place where your best ideas and writing come?
There are certainly places where I feel more calm and at peace. One of them, in fact, is the Mercantile Library on East 47th Street, where the members of the Diachronic Society meet. Like Anana, I spent a couple of years living in Hell’s Kitchen, one of the most frenetic neighborhoods in this frenetic city. I was so grateful to be introduced to the Mercantile Library during that time by someone who knows and understands me well. We’d often walk there together on weekends, braving the diamond district and Fifth Avenue, sometimes weaving our way through the craziness of Times Square. And stepping through the doors into the quiet, cool, calm of the library really felt like entering a holy place, whose sacred practices were reading, writing, and thinking. (It also felt a little like leaving the riotous bazaar of the internet to enter the relative stillness of a book.) I did a lot of the early research and thinking about The Word Exchange at the Merc.
I also draw a lot of solace from an acknowledged holy place, the Brooklyn Friends Meeting. To the degree that I had any sort of religious upbringing, my background is Quaker, which perhaps explains the complex treatment of silence in the book, as something that can either telegraph death or save you. (I think that as a kid attending Quaker meeting with my parents, I sometimes wondered if an hour of silence could actually bore me to death. As an adult, I feel very differently about that same quiet hour.)
And I’m unbelievably fortunate, too, to live in an apartment that I love, with incredible landlords who are also my downstairs neighbors, and where I get most of my thinking and writing done.
But the truth, New Age-y as it sounds, is that I actually don’t think of safe places as physical places, for the most part, but as habits of mind. As I mentioned earlier, I wrote and revised the book in lots of different places. The first draft largely in Asheville, NC, the second in Brooklyn, and the third sort of everywhere. During 2012, the longest period of time that I spent in any given place was four weeks, and I was often in places for much briefer periods than that—just a few days, sometimes. I was in Vermont, Mexico, Wyoming, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Cape Cod, and then back to New Hampshire, with interstitial periods sleeping on couches in Brooklyn, before finally moving back to Brooklyn in the fall, where I stayed in a series of different apartments before finally finding the one that I live in now, which I moved into in early 2013.
The reason that I was able to work so steadily and with such focus during that peripatetic year wasn’t because of the places (though many of them were lovely), but because I was carrying the focus and the peace with me. There have been other times when I’ve had everything that I need, including quiet, calm places in which to work, but feel unable to get anything done, because I don’t feel quiet in my own mind.
I think, though, that part of this sense of mobile safety derives for me from the fact that I’m a runner, like lots of other writers. I’m not particularly fast, but like Murakami, I love to run long distances. Not as long as the distances that he routinely runs. But I am happy running 18, 19, 20, even 30 miles, which I’ll often do even when I’m not training for something. I like running in large part not because it helps me actively think about what I’m writing, but because it helps me not to think, or to think in a way that is very indirect and subconscious. When you run for several hours in a row, your muscles and other systems need so much energy that less of it is going to your brain than normal, which makes long-distance running a lot like moving meditation. When I’m running is when I feel most at peace. It also helps me feel safe. I go running in virtually every new place that I visit, and it’s a pretty remarkable way to get to know and feel comfortable in a new environment.
Silence is just as needed in literature as in real life, so I appreciate your approach to it. And the Quaker influence on the book, subconscious or otherwise, is very interesting: I wonder how many of us, or those in the world of The Word Exchange, could withstand an hour of silent contemplation before the “check your phone!” alert chimes in our heads. Practicing presence—that is, choosing to simply live in the present moment instead of trying to document it or escape it—is challenge I’ve set for myself that I strive daily to meet more often than not. It’s not, as you say, some New Age-y self-help mantra, but a simple and practical challenge that can transform our everyday if we let it.
Your love of long distance running is something I’ve yet to enjoy myself, but I find it interesting in respect to Anana’s journey throughout the book. On her quest for truth she seems to always be on the move, with periods of solitude and contemplation between legs of the journey. At this point in your own journey, what are you running toward? Are you on the way from A to B, or are you focusing more on what’s in between?
What an incredible question. And I think that you’ve pointed something out to me about my book that I’d never really noticed before. There’s definitely a lot of me in that process you describe, of running, running, running, interspersed with periods of quiet contemplation. I’ve been told I’m a bit of a paradox, and certainly in that way.
I don’t know that I’m running toward or away from anything at this point. I think that I felt a lot of urgency to finish this first novel for a lot of reasons. Most of them practical: for one, reality kept catching up with all of the “futuristic” elements. I had a feeling that if I didn’t hurry up, everyone would start walking around with word flu, and then I’d have to try to recast the thing as nonfiction.
There were also material concerns. Unlike Anana, I don’t have any wealthy relatives, and when I left my lucrative nonprofit job (ha) to try to finish the book with residencies at a few artist colonies, I took a really big risk. I got to the point where I had to either finish the book very quickly, praying that someone might want to publish it, or else it would have taken quite a few more years, because I was almost completely out of money, and I would have needed to find a new job, new apartment, start over, as I’ve done a few times, and I know how very difficult it is to get any writing done during start-over times.
I also really hoped that I might be able to make a go of a writing life, whatever that means, and I couldn’t really imagine abandoning this book after so much time and sweat and life, but I also knew that in order to move forward and do anything else, I needed to get a book out into the world. So by the end of the process, my life had narrowed down to this really fine point: this book, and more or less only this book.
If anything, that’s the way in which I want my life to change now. I don’t think of being at A or B, and I don’t feel like I’m running anymore, but my hope is that writing never really forces (or enables) the same kind of solipsistic existence that I inhabited for a couple of years. I’m ready for my life to be much less about me and my work. I’ve been striving toward more of a balance lately, but I have a ways to go still.
I hope that risk has paid off for you. If anything, I think the book has added to the conversation about how we live with technology, and will give readers (especially those with a penchant for the dystopian) a glimpse at the implications of an unexamined life. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.
Thank you so much, Chad! It’s been a real pleasure exchanging words with you.
On my block the snow banks reign. They billow with the winter, building girth with every snowfall and polar vortex. This winter has been especially harsh. The banks are bloated with layers of snow that together tell the story of the season. The inch in late November sits at the bottom, hugging the frozen tundra and buttressing the snowfalls that followed: the blizzard before Christmas, the extra inches that welcomed the new year, and every nighttime shower that lubricated the roads and made hell of your commute. I can see all of these snowfalls now in the mounds that flank my neighborhood, bound together like a white pages in an epic novel. Season’s Greetings: The Snows of Winter 2014—coming to a bookstore or e-device near you. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that these paper stories tell time like the rings of a tree, like that from which the stuff of paper comes.
There’s a particular snow story I noticed recently on my block, on an unseasonably warm day. With the sidewalks leading to the street barraged with shoveled snow and many driveway ends flooded with snowmelt, someone had forged a new pathway to the street through a sturdy snow bank. This makeshift staircase, formed by the boot prints of many waylaid walkers, had been fossilized by nightly icings. So long as the cold held, this corridor would too.
But how strange it felt to walk on water! For if it were July and I took this same detour, my feet would not leave the ground. But it is February, and as I climbed this temporary trail to the street, I thought nothing of the miracle it was to walk upon a path made of solidified water.
This will not last. Snow burns just as paper does, and as the temperature rises and the sun burns stronger the stories the snow banks tell will slowly melt away. They will disintegrate and be subsumed back into the muddy earth, where they will atomize and reform as new stories for the spring to tell with a smile. Those wearied by the long winter usually cannot wait to bid it an unceremonious farewell, as if they blame winter for getting in the way of the more marketable spring. But the beautiful stories the spring tells were not earned; they were given. The flowers and the green grass and the robins and the balm of the temperate air owe their existence to the grace of winter, to the unheralded work it performs to prepare the earth for resurrection. It is hard work, but it gets done every year.
It’s winter yet in early March, but I can feel the coming of spring. In this dreary in-between when the cold and snow seem to linger like uninvited guests at party’s end, I don’t despair. Rather, I spend my late- winter days finishing the weighty tome of winter and anticipating how the story of this year will continue in the sequel of spring come April.
This has been the motto and mission of The Simba Life as I’ve used it since its birth in 2006. My inspiration for the name, as described here, came from The Lion King, but I’ve long desired to wrestle the Simba name and its connotations away from Disney’s grasp and forge for it a new identity. As the Swahili word for lion, simba has a rich etymological heritage that demands to be explored. What does it mean to be a simba? And what does it mean to live the simba life?
Lions aren’t cartoon characters; they are ancient and majestic creatures, both endangered and dangerous. They are always on the hunt: for food and water, for shade, for new territory. Their search, like that of the Simba of Disney’s imagination, is elemental as much as it is existential. They search because they have to. They need food and water and land like Simba needed escape and discovery and revelation. We humans are also searching for something elemental and existential, whether we know it or not.
The Simba Life isn’t just a place on the internet; it’s a perspective. And since lions don’t roam alone, it’s a perspective I want to share with others who, like me, are wandering through the wilderness with uncertainty and wonder.
Which brings us to Simba Life Quarterly. As a way to expand The Simba Life beyond the confines of a lone voice, I want to produce a quarterly compilation of the work of many authors that lives out the Simba Life creed in different and illuminating ways. Short stories, essays, poetry, photography, film reviews, cultural commentary, songs, artwork–whatever medium it takes to illustrate The Simba Life will be welcome.
Just as life itself has its seasons, so too will Simba Life Quarterly: the plan now is to release a new issue on each equinox and solstice, with the theme for each edition being the season into which it is transitioning. For the first issue, then, the spring equinox on March 20 makes “the coming of spring” an excellent and welcome motif amidst a brutal winter. The theme of spring won’t necessarily to be explicit in the contributions, but it will be in the DNA.
Indeed, with so many unknowns about how it will look and who will contribute, the SLQ will be a free, digital-only PDF publication, with this blog serving as a supplemental space for contributed content and my own ambles. If you or someone you know would be interested in contributing your own work of art, please contact me at thesimbalife at gmail dot com so we can talk about it.
Though its name might suggest otherwise, I don’t want this to become a stuffy literary magazine or merely an outlet for repressed English majors (ahem). It might be literary, but it also might be absurd, irreverent, witty, acerbic, playful, profound, or something else entirely. I don’t know what it will look like, but hakuna matata, right?
I have no idea how this journey will end. But it has begun, and despite my own apprehensions, I have to either run from it or learn from it. Here’s to hoping you’ll join me in making that choice.