Dickens Fair Treasure

Two days after Thanksgiving, I went to the Dickens Fair at the Cow Palace in San Francisco with my two sons, Yousef and Omar, and my practically-a-nephew, John (aka Muhammad).  It was my third visit to this “Victorian Christmas Card Come to Life” and the second or first for the young men mentioned.  They were mightily impressed with the antics and accents of the movie-set quality actors and participants as well as with all the offerings. Even the food sellers cry out in believable Cockney tones. (It’s the kind of delight that makes a person want to buy a top hat.)

Amidst the revelries, shows  and exhibits, we came upon and entered the book seller’s shop. The man seated there, presumably the moving force behind the enterprise, was charmingly attired very much as a bookseller in Dickensian London; his wares, moreover, were all collectibles, some probably dating to Dicken’s lifetime.  At first I did not actually think to purchase anything, but there is something about books kept well for many decades, be they classics or magazines, that sets me to mentally drooling.

And so it was I plunked down ten dollars for a June 12, 1929 copy of Punch, a magazine that seems to have been put out by both the Motor Union Insurance Company and State Express Cigarettes. (Do magazines announce nowadays their funders/producers? Certainly not on their covers. Quaint, no?)

While I have a number of antique books inherited from my mother, like a 1918 Beatrix Potter book and an 1876 Dottie Dimple by Sophie May–a children’s book writer who penned the Little Prudy Stories (Lee and Shepard, Publishers, New York)–I have never had a magazine so old. Considering that Dickens died in 1870, this magazine came out at the halfway point between our two lifetimes. I own it, can touch it, feel it–what a way to step backwards in time.

How much have we changed? It would seem hardly at all. Though the magazine is dedicated to creative writing, one could say the same about the New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly. Halfway through is an article titled “On Writing Your Memoirs”: “In a day when, broadly speaking, everybody is writing about himself, it is not sufficiently realized that, not only is Autobiograph a distinct art, but that, so far, nobody has come forward with any handbook upon the subject. So when next you contemplate writing your Memoirs, the following hints may not come amiss:–.”  The rest of the page is dedicated, quite particularly, to said memoir writing instructions, concluding with “(6) Your Index. Don’t omit this or you will madden readers. . . .”  Thank you, Rachel, whoever you were!

Writers Who Give Their Books Away

It is one of the ironies of living in a highly populated, competitive world that many writers get paid for hack or drudge technical writing while the finest distillations of their courtship with words must (and should) be given away. This is the most reasonable method of making sure that one’s stories/poems/novellas/novels are enjoyed by a small segment of the appropriate market.

A reasonable writer must find a means of earning money that has little to do with literary output.  After that, the writer must come to terms with the narrowness of his market, for to do otherwise is to write what one does not want to write when pursuing the muse.

If, by happy chance, the writer’s natural market is the vampire market, then she will not have to give away more than a hundred books or so, assuming the writer has friends and admired colleagues and is a nice person. The rest of the books will be printed up and sold in the mass market. Even if these books do not outlast the writer’s lifetime, which has happened to more books than you or I can count, the books will have readers, which is the main goal behind most writers’ efforts.

Giving books away can be fun. I give them to friends who I think will be interested in the subject matter and who will eventually find the time to read them. My own books are the most thoughtful, polished gift I can give to these dear people. The gift is something I have spent years putting together and revising and months working on with respect to artwork and format. The end result is as much a distilled product of my regard for that friend as a knit sweater might be, perhaps more so. When I depart this world, my friend will have something that is truly the essence of me.

I also give books to colleagues who are dedicated readers, people who I feel may laugh at or relish, in my stories, what I tried to place within reach, like fresh baked cookies left on the kitchen counter. By giving copies away to people I respect, I first of all hope to receive encouragement to do more of what I love, and secondly, I hope that if my writing is good enough, those readers will tell others. If these others borrow the books to read, wonderful.  If they buy, that is even better, but not absolutely necessary, for I have taken care of the need for money by having a job, leaving myself free to pursue my passion without financial pressure, which can kill imagination anyway.

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

Charles Dickens’ face off with Fame

My dear fellow writers–you who walk about, as I do,  feeling vaguely irritated that you are once more buying cat/dog food or human edibles, sending mail, fixing the eavestroughs[1], vacuuming, washing your car again without having sat down even once since the last time you did these things to work on your novel-in-progress (or  your story/poem-in-progress)–consider, if you will, Charles Dickens.

“But he had time to write!” I hear you shriek.  Granted.

If you are jealous of his example because the time to write led to a great writing reputation (I could have used Stephen King, couldn’t I have?), which led to money and more time to write, let us consider what Dickens had to contend with for his popularity.

When he made his journey to America by ship at what cannot be called anything other than the very height of fame, a dozen reporters hopped on board before the ship had moored. Pleasant enough. One reporter wrote,”He seemed like the Emperor of Cheerfulness on a cruise of pleasure, determined to conquer a realm or two of fun every hour.”

As quaint as that description may strike us now, it is quite true that invitations came pouring aboard his ship before he could disembark.  Apparently Dickens was able to walk about freely the first night in Boston, with his friend the Earl of Mulgrave. After that, crowds pressed at him, cheering, staring, grabbing and shaking his hand (very hard), and cutting little bits of fur off his coat as souvenirs.

When he ate breakfast in the mornings, he had to autograph cards prepared for him by a secretary engaged to handle public relations. When he traveled by carriage, “heads were thrust in at the carriage window to gaze at him. ” [2] Eventually he had to start locking himself into a room while people pounded upon its door and yelled at him to come out.

In a letter Dickens wrote, “I can do nothing that I want to do, go nowhere where I want to go, and see nothing that I want to see. If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude. If I stay at home, the house becomes, with callers, like a fair. . . .”

For all that adulation, Dickens was not supported by the adoring Americans in his pursuit of the copyright law; he found himself alone in speaking up for it at the dinners given in his honor.

I have not even yet come to the thrill of all Dickens’ money, for I had to write first of fame.

Be careful what you wish for.

Just write.



[1] A word I learned while reading my Canadian fellow writer-friend Matthew Fries’ wonderful novella, Wake, available on Kindle.

[2] Mankowitz, Dickens of London.  

Writers and immortality

When non-writers ask us why we write, our first response is usually something along the lines of “Because we have to.” And I think that’s true. Most of us have stories and characters floating around in our heads 24-7. Either we plop down in front of the keyboard and let them have their way, or we walk around in a daze talking to ourselves. (I’ve often wished for an on-off switch, like Data in Star Trek TNG, so I could give myself some much needed peace now and then.)

Our ultimate goal differs slightly from the why. We may write because we feel compelled to, but at the end of the day, we’d like to collect a paycheck for our efforts, to actually make a living from our writing the way doctors and lawyers and other professional people do. That’s easier said than done of course, especially in this economy. Employers in all fields are making do with fewer employees, so why would it be any different for publishers?

So yes, the current situation is gloomy at best, but that doesn’t mean we should give up, quit writing just because our books may never be sold to Knoph Doubleday and get read by the masses. Regardless of whether you sell fifty copies of your book or fifty-thousand, the point is you are leaving a little part of yourself behind. Something that proves to the rest of the world you were here. I like to call it the immortality factor.

Those of us who are parents have passed on proof of our physical existence, but unless our children become rich, famous, or both, we are merely a footnote to their actuality. If we have done our job as parents, our kids grow into productive adults with goals of their own. We can lay no claim to their accomplishments, we must produce our own success.

My oldest daughter, Carrie, and her husband, Mike, recently took a trip to the South. With my being the life-long Elvis fan I am, they stopped at Graceland to see what all the hoopla is about. While there, Carrie texted me that one of my paintings of Elvis I had done years ago for an art contest in Memphis was hanging on display. (I could tell she was excited because she used an exclamation point in her text.) She later reported that Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon, and the American Dream was also among the books on display.

A touch of immortality. A little piece of myself left behind. Something for my kids to feel proud of. Isn’t that really what our efforts are all about?

The Giants’ Win Speaks to all Underdogs

As all baseball lovers know, an amazing thing happened last night. The San Francisco Giants won the World Series for the first time in fifty-six years. That is a loooonnnggg wait.

Of course they are not the same players as those Giants’ team members who struggled so hard, say, 20, 30, or 40 years ago. But they are the people who have opted to pick up the standard, vowing not to let it drop. They are players who have consented to be identified with that team, for better or for worse–and until last night, it was considered a group of underdogs who, somehow, had made it to the World Series.

The struggle against sometimes overwhelming odds, even among “greats,” is ever-present. Take Edgar Renteria, the 35-year-old Giants shortstop: he’s the first Columbian to ever play the World Series.   As recently as five years ago, he made so many mistakes on the field, sports show emcees nicknamed him “Rente-error” and “Rent-A-Wreck.” Given his age at the time, one might have thought he could not rebound to the position he occupies now, of having been named the series’ “Most Valuable Player.” It is well deserved praise, considering he is responsible for the three-run homer in the seventh inning that clinched the deal.

Yet to have so many errors on his record at age thirty, almost old for a baseball player, is NOT a good thing. He must have very quietly thought about hanging up his cap. That would have only been human.

I hate to focus on only one player, knowing how much every single one of those team members contributed to the win. Much was said, for instance, of Tim Lincecum’s amazing pitching abilities. Well, let’s talk about 26-year old Tim. Yes, he is dynamic. But he is also known as “the freak.”* His body does not seem to be as carefully controlled when he is pitching (or doing anything else for that matter) as other players–hence the attention to his “unorthodox mechanics.” He is a slight, wiry guy in a world of big men–that was very clear when, once the win was obvious, he ran out and threw himself into the jubilant team throng.  He doesn’t look like a ‘giant’ and he has his own way of doing things, a way that he must follow because that is what his body dictates.  Yet witness the velocity of his pitches!

Obvious lessons like “practice, practice, practice” and “never give up” are clear in all this–but so should be the lesson that these underdogs, before their World Series entry, were simply underdogs playing a game they loved without being considered the best.  There is really something in that to pause over.

My greatest satisfaction, in watching and learning these details, was witnessing the expression on the team members’ faces at the exact moment of winning, which was kindly shown by the camera: from almost every player to the manager, a man somewhat older than Connie or I.

I heartily, heartily congratulate the team.   I am so happy for them!

* Verducci, Tim. “How Tiny Tim Became a Pitching Giant,” SI.com, July 2,2008.

** Photo Credit–CNN