A Library of Pebbles
It’s funny how we adapt. I always think of the extreme—how people deal with life during a war. You’ve seen the survivors: a child with flies drinking her tears, a woman walks through a bombed market, men sip espresso in shattered cafes, shopkeepers sweep up the broken glass. Let’s face it, people need to eat, need each other and need some sort of order, regardless. Even in the cyber war that constantly infects everything we do online, we too carry on, regardless.
And who are we, the observers, watching the plight of others? When the ugly reality ebbs from our living rooms and offices and phones, leaving the blown spume of stale breaking news, the silent majority that takes it all in, and lets it out with the tide, does very little, other than adapt. And who watches the watchers? These are the voyeurs of history: the journalists, camerapersons, artists and writers.
At our last chapter meeting of Long Island Romance Writers, we discussed brainstorming methods: free-writing, word association, mapping, cubing, questioning. A flash flood of ideas swept through the room. Because I write thrillers with a strong romantic element, I thought of Steve Berry’s use of the protagonists crucible:
What makes her do what she would never do?
Later that day, still literally thinking of novel ideas, I watched Anthony Doerr’s YouTube video where he talks about the idea that started the story of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See.
Sometimes it’s those small incidents, whether they incite or not, that can ignite a story. Doerr’s glowing novel articulates adaptability for us, and we show our gratefulness to him by buying his book. Is it a fair exchange? Does the $13.99 I spent on this profound work offer me more than the nine bucks I spent on the panini sandwich that I brought to our meeting? Is it just sixty-four percent better than the sandwich? Not even close. I quickly forgot about the sandwich, but the book remains with me, urging me to look out at my world with wiser eyes. And in the vast Big Data mapped into my memory, there’ll be times, over the next months, years, and decades, when his language will wash up a pearl of truth. The sandwich, not so much. And that is as it should be. The writer, having watched, has augmented, abstracted, found a context and subtext, and has taken the time to leave us with a better, and if not better, certainly a new understanding of our world. Pinned to the corkboard above my desk I have a quote from Simon Lipskar, president of the literary agency Writers House, which states, “I love novels that aren’t afraid to shuck off the prosaic, mundane world and take flight into the imaginative possibilities of fiction. … A book owns me when it does that.”
This essay is partly in response to Doerr’s essay Cloudy Is the Stuff of Stones (Orion Magazine, March/April 2010). Whereas the thesis of Doerr’s essay is change and time, I was struck by how different my response was to the pebble-strewn beach that I frequent. (I must hasten to add, this is not to say that my approach is more, or less, valid—it’s just what I think and do when I see billions of pebbles.)
Involuntarily, in a spontaneous act, I might pick one up, admire it, and every so often bring it home with me. Why this one? Shape, color, size, uniqueness, all play a part. The pebbles I like are small and white and almost perfectly round. Except I also pick up that iconoclast, that outlier, that oddity—the brown one, with streaks of white and blotches of iron-oxide red.
And the writer’s voice in me asks: Is this how I, and other readers, choose my books? On this literary beach, do I only look for a particular genre of pebble, in spite of the fact that I know every one is different?
If Antonio Damasio heard my thoughts while I strolled along the shore, he might say that my reflective thinking is the voice of my autobiographical self. In his fascinating book on consciousness, Self Comes to Mind, Damasio explores the relationship between the brain and consciousness, and shows that emotions play a central role in social cognition and decision-making. He describes “big-scope consciousness” (as opposed to the minimal core consciousness of the here and now) as:
…one of the grand achievements of the human brain and one of the defining traits of humanity. This is the kind of brain process that has brought us to where we are in civilization, for better or worse. This is the kind of consciousness illustrated by novels, films, and music and celebrated by philosophical reflection.
The reason my autobiographical self comes blowing in across my beach is that a substantial part of my life comes into play when I reflect on the pebbled library before me. As I stroll along, both my lived past and anticipated future gang up on me, questioning my personhood and identity. Given this response, one would think I would run from that literary beach, as uneven as it is hard.
Of course, writers have better options than pebbles. After all, we’re thinking, sentient beings. We have the capability to have our books be as good as they can be and rise to the surface. They can then qualify to be picked up by the great Me out there. But as in war, people adapt. Readers might leave this beach in search of the less challenging beaches of Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and an entire softer, more gentle landscape of blogs. Yet lovers of the written word come to my pebble beach. No beach umbrellas here. No, this beach is for launching fishing boats. It’s for swimmers, not bathers. It’s where young women ride abused horses into the sea. It’s for the reader who wants to take a chance on a scarred, imperfect sphere, roll it in her fingers, and slip it into her pocket. It’s funny how we adapt.
This essay was first published in Shorelines, the newsletter of the Long Island Romance Writers (Volume 20, August 2015), a chapter of Romance Writers of America.