A Book Coach Goes to a Bookstore

Last week as I was finishing up my blog series on how to edit your own work, I was in Portland, Oregon for the long weekend. My niece is getting a PhD in water resources engineering at Oregon State, and my husband and I always enjoy visiting. There is awesome food, no sales tax, great weather (we must bring it with us because I hear rumors of rain...), and, of course, Powell's City of Books. We like to stay right near the bookstore because you really need to spend a lot of time to do the place any justice. It's massive and awesome, and also kind of sad because we don't have a bookstore like this near us in LA. We have a sweet small neighborhood bookstore, but nothing where you can lose yourself for hours at a time.

On this visit to Powell's, I had no agenda. I decided I would NOT open my "To Read" list on my iphone and get mired in searching for things I already knew about. I just wanted to see what I would discover, and I thought it might be interesting to show you how I think when I am around books...
 

FYI for anyone in LA who would like to join me, I am teaching a one-day course at UCLA on Saturday March 7 called Navigating the Path to Publishing: Traditional vs. Self Publishing. Click the link for a course description


Powells is massive -- a whole city block of cobbled-together buildings. You walk in, and it's like you're in a maze. There are 5 floors, many half-floors, funny little rooms, cavernous spaces. A map is definitely useful! My husband and I pick a time and a place to meet every hour or so, and then we just GO.                     


This is the very first thing my eyes landed on. This card. It's a great mantra for a writer. We're always curious, always observing, always learning, and that's one of the reasons writers are so interesting. Brian Grazer writers about the satisfaction of this kind of curiosity in this month's Vanity Fair -- it's an excerpt of a book I can't wait to read.                     


I was drawn right away to the shelf of recent releases and staff picks. One of the best things about being in a bookstore is to get a sense of what other book-loving people are loving. I saw this title and it made me smile. Writers are makers. We may not use 3D printers to make what we make, but we are building things, fine tuning things, creating things, and this is where so much of our power and joy comes from. 


On that same shelf of recent arrivals and staff picks, I was delighted to see so many books that I've read and loved. It made me feel smart ;)  Wild, Habit, The Boys on the Boat, The $100 Startup, Unbroken, Tiny Beautiful Things.  All great books. (Tiny Beautiful Things is Cheryl Strayed's collection of her once anonymous advice column. If you haven't read it, go out and buy it now. Do not pass GO. There is a lot of specific advice writing and life, but it's also a master class in voice and authority and story. Just watch how she weaves a story out of thin air, how she gets down to the deep, raw emption, and how she always, always makes a point.) Also on that shelf were books I want to read. The Amy Pohler memoir (whose opening pages are fabulous) and the Atul Gawande one. I bought that one-- Being Mortal. I just read Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto, and was very taken with it, so wanted to read more of his work. I also recently had a dear friend die, so mortality is much on my mind. And yes, I paid full price for the hardcover. I figure I am supporting the bookstore, I am supporting a great writer, and I get $27 of pleasure. It's a win-win-win.         


I saw happy people browsing and that made me happy.                     


I stumbled upon this book displayed on an end cap: What We See When We Read -- a book about reading and the brain and imagination and memory, complete with graphs and charts and illustrations. I had never heard of it. I spent about fifteen minutes flipping through it and now it's on my To-Read list. I love reading about the creative process, and the science of reading, and the way that people use their imagination. Some of my favorite books are from this category -- The Creative Habit, Made to Stick, The War of Art....


I have a client who is just putting the finishing touches on a memoir about dance, so this book caught my eye. It will be good for her to know about this -- a competitive title -- when she starts talking to agents and editors. It proves there is a market for dance books. Should it be a cause of panic? Of course not! There is always room for a good story about a passionate pursuit.                     


Do people judge a book by the cover? Absolutely! This book stopped me in my tracks. A Novel Cure! What a clever title! It's about how books can cure what ails you, whatever ails you, and the authors give prescriptions. I once had the idea of WRITING a book just like this, but soon realized that I hadn't read widely enough to pull it off. This clever duo did. Does that make me jealous? A little....But here's the thing about jealousy: it's empowering, too. I lost that book idea, but I have others...                     


This cover stopped me, too. It was so unusual. And then I saw that this is the new book by Roger Rosenblatt. I teach from his memoir, Making Toast, in my courses at UCLA, and his book Kayak Morning is on my To-Read list. (Kayak Morning is another book about death. I actually love books about grief and death -- How We Die, Kitchen Table Wisdom, A Grief Observed, A Three Dog Life are all on my "favorites" shelf. These books tend to be written with great generosity and rawness, and I always learn something that gives me some measure of comfort.) This particular Rosenblatt book is about love, though. And I didn't buy it OR put it on my To-Read list. I just took a peek at amazon, and strangely enough, it doesn't seem to be selling particularly well....Why would that be so? Who knows! I am a reader and I am fickle, and every other reader is fickle, too. A writer does his or her best to write what they think will resonate but there are no guarantees.                     


This bag reminded me of my sweet daughter who is far away at college in the land of much snow. She is a collector of typewriters, which is to say she has two of them - a 1950s royal portable and a decidedly not portable massive yellow one from the USSR. It was the typewriter featured in that German movie about spying and privacy whose name I can't remember. They hid the machine under the floorboards. My daughter bought hers on ebay. She had no good reason. She just had to have it. I miss the sound of her typing. It was one of the most lovely sounds you could imagine ringing through the house.


So many authors come through Powell's, all hoping to connect with readers. It makes me even more committed to helping my clients think about how to connect with their intended audience -- which starts the second you start thinking about how to shape your book. Why would someone come out to hear YOU talk? That's the thing you want to be considering -- and no fair answering, "I actually don't think they would com eout to hear me talk..." They totally would! You just need to start thinking about why....                     


I have a client writing a book that would fall under this category -- Children's Manners. It was great to see that there was such a section in the bookstore. I scouted it out to see what the competition was all about, and what the demand seemed to be. You can learn so much just by looking at the signs in the bookstore, and at how much space certain categories take up on the floor. In Portland, for example, the cooking/food category is HUGE!  


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I spied this book on a table and a whole universe of memories came rushing at me. Mr. Putter and Tabby is a series by the great Cynthia Rylant that both my kids adored. We had a dozen of them. They were one of the first books my kids could read on their own. I texted this picture to my kids (they are grown, both living far away) and they both wrote back instantly with "AWWWWWWW" and "OMG!!!" Tell me anything else in the world that has that kind of power! Books are magical!                      


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And then I saw this.....and really, it just made me want to cry and cheer all at the same time. Look at those adorable little boy's elbows on the table! I ended up walking quickly away so as not to do something embarrasing!                     


Last month, I went on a classroom visit to a kindergarten class at the school where I am a trustee. The teacher was using this amazing book to teach the kids about perspective. I meant to write down the title, but forgot. So I figured I would see if the nice bookstore workers at Powell's could help me. I went up to the desk and said, "I'm looking for a children's book. It has FISH in the title." The woman did not blink or scoff. She nodded and asked me some questions. I gave vague and ridiculous answers. "It has FISH in the title and it's about perspective and it's for 5 to 6 year olds." She went to the computer. Not thirty seconds later, she said, "Fish is Fish!" And she led me to the shelf and pulled the book out. It was miraculous. It was perfect. And of course I bought that book....It's all about how you have to be SPECIFIC in how you describe things or else the listener will make things up according to their own imagination. This is a key lesson for writers.


I started to wander and ended up in the adult non-fiction bestseller area. I keep hearing about the Amanda Palmer book, The Art of Asking and here it was. (If you haven't heard it, check out Amanda's Ted talk...) So many writers I work with (and many of my friends and colleagues) are terrified of asking for what they want, of raising their voice, of being BIG in the world. I get it; it's hard to be big in the world. I am hoping this book might help me be better at inspiring people to take a risk, to make a stand. I m hoping it might help me be better at all that, too. I bought this book. 


Nearby was the new book by the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran. This book is called The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books. I often talk about the beauty of certain book structures and this is what I mean: Just look at that title, that concept. Think of what the author had to leave OUT in order to design this book. Think of what she had to KNOW about her reader, her material, herself. It's stunning -- a beautiful shape and structure no matter what the actual content might be. I wanted to buy this book but I was worried about the capacity of my suitcase, so I reluctantly left it behind. (Oh and the three books she discusses? The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.) 


I'm back home now with my stack of new books -- happy to be a reader, happy to be a writer, happy to be someone who spends my days immersed in the creative process. I hope you are, too!