We would be wise to remember that we writers are first makers. That we can make paper, any size we like, not just the 8.5” x 11” American default of the “letter size,” out of wood pulp. That we can hand mix our inks. That we can physically letterpress those inks into that paper and feel the physical impression. That we can hand-bind and stitch. That we can photocopy. Cut the pages how we like. Handprint on whatever part of the book we like. That we can do whatever we want with design. That we aren’t stuck with the default margins, the double-spacing, the Times New Roman, the Lulu or iUniverse presets. The standard English. The standard syntax. The realist, prose-transparent third-person stories featuring timely epiphanies. The autocapitalized first letters of sentences, or lines. The autocorrected grammar. The sort of narrative or lyric in style at the time.
These defaults, these shortcuts are useful. They save time. They reduce the number of variables. They speak to certain readerships, certain genres. They are required by some standard book formats, convenient technologies of printing and binding and distribution. We are after all in a world of near-paralyzing capability thanks to technology. But if every shortcut goes unexamined, if we think our only job as writers is to write nice sentences and hand them off to someone else, we risk not knowing what makes our sentences nice or how to pry apart nice into the risky energy of new. We risk obsolescence or, at the least, irrelevance.
Are we providing content? Or are we writing books?
If we expect readers to participate with our texts, our sentences, our lines, our books (or our ebooks), we must participate more fully in the making of our books. We must make space for them to participate in the physical artifact of the book, to think about its form, the pacing of the page turning, the leading between lines, the smell of paper, to understand why this book, this object, is the best form to experience and participate in the story we’re telling.
It just so happens that this year one of my favorite authors has decided to put together an online advent calendar. This excerpt comes from an essay that he posted on December 2 titled “Finallyfast.com and Playing the Book”. As I read it, I couldn’t help but draw connections between his thoughts about writing and my thoughts about teaching.