Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Invisible words, written in the ether

My iBook has been in the throes of death for years. First, keys became stuck until their covers were discarded (thankfully, I rarely use "~"). Then Internet pages stopped loading. Finally the screen started to flash and sputter if not set at an exact 40 degree angle.

So I began to eye other Apple laptops on eBay; after a few mornings of watching bids flash by, I grew weary of the whole exercise and, on impulse, probably paid too much for an old MacBook Pro.

Although the MacBook loads Internet pages and offers an unblinking screen,  I have yet to fully adopt it. Four weeks after its purchase, all my writing from the last five years still resides in my iBook.  The writing is already backed up on flash drives and external hard disks, so I know that it can be somewhere else, but I can't bring myself to take it out and transfer it completely to another machine.

Getting rid of one machine for another always feels like a little death to me. I get a sweep of nostalgia when we've had to move to a newer, better computer. But there's something else going on here, I  finally realized. To transfer all my words in one motion through the ether somehow acknowledges that they aren't real, that they are invisible, fragile. It feels like I am ripping them from their home, the place of their birth.

I wonder if other writers feel this way? Maybe it's because I first started to write on typewriters and the words could only exist there, unquestionably tangible. Words written on a computer are more of a verb than a noun, an action frozen. They are written, typed, saved. Even when completed, they still remain more an idea than a thing. Writers who have always written on computers perhaps don't feel this need for a specific home for their words.

(The photo above reveals the one thing I've done on my MacBook--play with its Photobooth feature. Self-portrait, March 2011)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Two recent electronic pieces on The Great Gatsby

 Like everyone else my age, I read The Great Gatsby in high school and thought, at the time, that it was OK. It took many years, and much more reading on my part, to realize how brilliant it is. (Maybe it's hard to appreciate genius until you've otherwise read a lot of crap—and it's hard to love a book you're required to read.)

A Studio 360 podcast I listened to a few weeks ago (originally broadcast last November) perked up my interest in Gatsby again:  American Icons: The Great Gatsby. An hour well spent.

This morning, CBS Sunday Morning did a segment, The end of an era for the "Gatsby house", about the demolition this weekend of the house on Long Island that inspired Fitzgerald's story. The segment offers just the right splash of clips from the Gatsby movie (thankfully no glimpse of Daisy/Mia Farrow), a little narration from the book, and archival photos of the house in its former glory.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Conversations and Connections writers conference in DC this weekend

I went to the Conversations and Connections conference the last time it was held, a couple years ago, and came away with a list of Flash Fiction Markets.

CC is a pretty good deal—you get three workshops, a speed date with an editor (they look over a page or so of your writing and give you immediate feedback), a subscription to a literary magazine, and a free book (your choice among four books offered).

Also of note: my buddy, Kim Dana Kupperman, is giving a talk there on "dimensionality in nonfiction."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The disposible librarian

Unfortunately, my work experience and graduate degree are in two professions that seem to be disappearing.

Everyone knows about newspapers making their slow exit and, thus also, newspaper careers. But librarians? You'd think with such an information overload there would be more need than ever for librarians—to find and explain, weed out the unnecessary, and catalog the rest. Apparently not.

I saw the writing on the stacks, years ago, when (what was then) the U.S. General Accounting Office began to pull professional library staff out of the Technical Library where I worked. It became merely a room full of books and CD-ROM terminals, which, in retrospect, doesn't seem all that horrifying since most GAO researchers have advanced degrees and know their way around a library.

Children don't have the advantage of college training when they head to a library. It helps to have someone there who can suggest books they never would find on their own. Yet in my Maryland county right now—one of the wealthiest in the nation—public library hours have been slashed and the children's desks sit empty.

At least, I thought, school libraries are safe. But next year's school budget proposes to slash school media specialist positions to half-time. Librarians won't have time to interact with classes, they'll be there just to keep the library together. Arizona and California, among other states, have already slashed school librarian positions.

Writers, take note! These changes mean that in the future children and parents are going to be on their own when they walk into a library to select a book. The kids will probably grab the books with the flashiest covers, or whatever their friends are reading. The parents will probably grab children's books by the authors they recognize, or those with awards noted on their covers. Books that could have been transformative or comforting are going to remain on the shelves, unknown and ignored—or not ordered at all.

One of the reasons I am a writer is because I loved books so much as a child. They were always accessible to me. I could walk to the branch library on lazy summer mornings, and check out books from the school library during the school year.

That branch library closed more than 20 years ago. Now there is only one library for the entire county, to which most children must be driven. Still, I presumed, the school library offered children easy access to books, at least during the school year. Soon that safe harbor may disappear—if it hasn't already.

My fear is that when counties have more money again, the need for librarians—what it is like to have someone guide you through both stacks and cyberspace—will be forgotten.

(The photograph is the inside of my hometown library, Moravian Falls Public Library, summer of 1977, before it closed)