Let It Be

If authors did risk assessments, no one would ever begin a book. I’ve been working on a new novel for a little while and have only pieces of the world my characters inhabit, pieces that may never coalesce into a whole. I could spend five years writing this story and still not discover the crucial turn in the plot.

Considering how little faith I often have in simple things, this uncertainty should unhinge me. For example, I will check and double-check all the letters in a mail merge, as if the name field goblin might infiltrate Microsoft Word and match Joe’s address with Sally’s salutation. Given that impressive paranoia, I have a surprising amount of faith in this emerging novel, even though it still refuses to let me get too structured about things—no outlining allowed.

Established relationships are more comfortable, more familiar. In my already completed novel, I know the characters and the terrain—both emotional and geographical—intimately. I’m fond of the people and the place.

But this void of beginning offers a paradoxical peacefulness. There is nothing to do but wait for the novel to reveal itself. The usual poking and prodding and futurizing I engage in with the other aspects of my life will only shut the door this book-to-be is entering through.

Maybe all beginnings have this openness to them only we don’t realize it. We are too focused on getting to where we think whatever it is—our life, our relationship, our dinner—should go. We hardly even realize we’re participating in the creation of something new because we’re so focused on the completion of it.

It might help to watch more parts of my life unfold like unwritten novels that I can’t force ahead of where they are. It would help with the fretting.

Reach Out and Touch

Yesterday I understood for the first time that mechanical engineers build things. I may be a bit behind the curve on this one.

I was talking with a mechanical engineer who said he was looking for a company who wanted to build things. He put such passion into those last two words. This conversation was the latest in a series of reminders about the way we connect with objects that we don’t with pixels on a screen.

At a baby shower last week, the mom-to-be removed tissue paper from bags to reveal ever cuter items, and I thought, I am so screwed; I brought the dud gift of the shower. When she got to mine, she took one of the children’s books out of the bag and began reading it to the gathered adults. They all got quiet and listened. For a writer, it was a magical moment.

I am not opposed to e-books, and I understand more and more publishing will go that way, though no one knows quite what that way is yet. But no one of any generation will react to a download the way this future mom reacted to the physical object, the hard cover and paper pages.

That same week two real letters arrived, the kind that come in the mailbox not the inbox. Some of the delight of letters must be caught up in the ripping of the envelope, the holding of the pages. I would not have reacted in the same way to receiving the same words in an email.

I think whatever it is that makes mechanical engineers want to build things also attracts us to printed books, to gathering in groups in person not just online, to eating together. Look at the countless handmade goods on Etsy or the way people enjoy moving things around with their fingers on an iPad. It’s the closest computing gets to the physical (at least for most of us—some people are blurring the edges).

It’s easy for me to forget that my thoughts do not encompass reality or even the most important parts of it, and staring at a screen all day can reinforce that amnesia. But physical connection, with something other than my smartphone, reminds me that our senses are designed for more than reading type on a screen or watching youtube videos—and can offer a lot more joy besides.