I’m going to go out on a limb here and tell you an embarrassing habit of mine. When I’m trying to get some perspective on a piece I’m revising–trying to step back and see where improvements can still be made, where it’s not quite up to par–I pull a book off one of my shelves. I try to find the book that comes as close as possible, in appearance as well as content, to the one in which I imagine my own material one day appearing. I open that book to the first page of the first chapter, and, holding it slightly off to the side, I read my manuscript, as though I were reading it from the book.
I don’t know when this habit started. It was years ago. In middle school at the latest. And I think it had something to do with a particular evening when I was sitting at my piano teacher’s house, waiting for my sister to finish her lesson and reading a book by Janette Oke. I was enjoying the story, but what I remember most vividly is the rough feel of the book’s paper, its faintly musty smell, and the sense of possibility and hope inspired by the sturdy half-inch stack of pages that remained to be read. I distinctly remember thinking to myself in that moment, I have to make something like this one day. I have to be a writer.
Maybe it’s that original inspiration that I’m trying to conjure by holding a physical book in my hands as I read my writing. Whatever my reason, I’ve always felt very silly about the habit. I’ve never let anyone else see me do it. It feels like a child’s game, like making believe that I’m holding my own published book in my hands. But I can’t resist. And lately I’ve begun to think that it might not be that silly after all.
Recently, I was trying to get a handle on a spiritual memoir I’m working on. I’d been writing this material for three years but had only in the last few weeks started trying to give it definite form. I’d written five or six entirely different openings, and none of them worked. I was pretty sure I understood the trajectory of the book and its themes. It was the requisite voice that eluded me–the right emotional tone for this work that is both highly personal and on a very controversial subject. (It’s about religion, after all. And, for the most part, not the good kind.) After realizing that my latest attempt at an opening chapter was just as bad as all the others, for lack of a better idea I decided to try my old habit.
I perused my shelves. I quickly ruled out paperbacks. I knew my memoir had substance, and I knew I wanted it to be the kind of book that people wanted to have in hardback. That narrowed the selection down a bit, as I don’t often splurge for hardbacks (unless I find them at a library book sale). I considered Sarah Sentilles’ Breaking Up with God and Kathleen Norris’s The Virgin of Bennington, but despite the similarity in theme, I didn’t get the right vibe from either of those. Ultimately it was Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty that stirred my imagination. I have an edition with a light blue dust jacket and rough-cut pages. The perfect physical form for a book with the word ‘beauty’ in its title. And, I felt, the perfect book to represent what my spiritual memoir was striving to become.
So I opened Patchett’s book to Chapter One. And I stared out the window that sits behind my desk.
Within minutes, I had a new opening line. And as soon as I wrote it down, an entire two-page prologue followed. The voice was poetic but grounded. The imagery simultaneously earthy and spiritual. Suddenly the whole book came together in my mind. I had found my voice. By holding someone else’s physical book in my hands.
I don’t know how this works, but I’m sure there are some neuroscientists out there who could give me a nice theory. I’m reminded of an experiment in which young men were much more likely to call a girl if they met her in a dangerous situation than if they met her when they weren’t already having an adrenaline rush. It seems the human brain doesn’t neatly compartmentalize its inputs. And I think I can actually fool the creative part of my brain into believing I’m reading my own words out of a volume with another author’s name on it. Somehow, doing that tunes me in to the voice of other authors whose work I admire and want to emulate.
Now that I’m writing this, I’m also reminded of some stories I’ve read about real-life clairvoyants and the way their clairvoyance is triggered by physical objects. Is it possible that the voice of a book could actually find its way into my brain in this paranormal way? That some measure of that author’s skill could be imparted to me? I don’t know. But I don’t think of this process as any sort of hocus pocus. I just know that I do it, and that it works, however silly it seems.
Does anyone else out there have habits like this?