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Writing to a Soldier

I had an email exchange with a United States soldier deployed in Afghanistan. I got his name from “Adopt a US Soldier” http://www.adoptaussoldier.org/ after an item on the news last week. Apparently, more than 25% of US soldiers posted abroad never receive a communication from home. I couldn’t resist answering the call for correspondents.

I suppose I had expected a long and continuous series of email exchanges with “my” soldier. His “wish list” included a hunger for education, an interest in science and computers (science and engineering magazines and logic puzzle books, please) and more training while he's still in the army. He is also planning to marry his high school sweetheart while he’s home on leave. This last piece of information came to me in his first email which also shifted my idea of correspondence with a deployed soldier.

Stephen works 12 hour days. He has to stand in line to use a computer. I have no idea where he is or what he is doing nor is he free to tell me. When he told me he was applying for more training I asked if his need for math and science textbooks could wait. He said, No, he would be wherever he is until October at which time his deployment would be “over.” I realized that whatever I sent him to read—letters, magazines, books—would be a portal to home, a way to imagine a future for himself at home with his girl.

I bought three books on amazon and sent three magazines from the post office addressed to a base in Georgia which will reroute the package. Though I went way beyond my budget, I also felt gratified. How often do we make a donation to person we can “touch,” a real person with a history, a present, and a future?

I plan to continue writing to SPC Stephen Porter by snail mail, old-fashioned letters either printed or written in long hand. The adopt a US soldier site reminds all volunteers that these letters are portable, they can be taken into the field, and read over and over again.

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Out of Print, Back in Print

I received a letter from Orbis Books, the American publisher of my book, "Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories," to say that the book, published nearly six years ago, is going out of print in the United States and Canada. I was not upset for several reasons: 1/ We had a long run. 2./ The book is still available from another publisher in the UK and EU 3./ There are several used and new copies available on amazon. 4./We live in the digital age.

Orbis Books had received an offer from a reprint house, Wipf & Stock Publishers, out in Eugene, Oregon. I took up their offer, a good one. The book will be available with a new cover, print on demand, within two months.

"Another Day in Paradise," is therefore still very much alive. An order has already been taken from the U. of Wisconsin and I will be working with the marketing department at the reprint house to begin another round of publicity.

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Common Books

I had never appreciated John Updike until about a year ago when a story called “Outage” appeared in The New Yorker (1/7/08). I was impressed enough by the story and the clarity of the prose to transcribe a paragraph into my common book (of quotations). I am sure this story will be anthologized very soon as all of Updike’s formidable oeuvre is going into reprint. My local B& N was sold out completely the other day except for one hardback copy of “The Witches of Eastwick.” I will dedicate my class this week to this fine American writer. It was the transcription of one luminous paragraph that led me further into Updike’s work.

The origin of the common book is obscure. (If anyone’s research yields an answer, please comment here.) I first heard about it when I lived in England and began to keep one there. I now have several filled with quotations from books I have read. The quotations are often paragraphs and pages I have admired as writing, a kind of tracing of the writer’s mind as I transpose his or her own words into my notebook. And I also use the quotations as source if I am working on an essay, say, that requires a quote to give it universality and gravitas.

I think it was Anne Fadiman in her charming book about books, ”Ex Libris,” who said that when she finishes a book, she photocopies the paragraphs and pages she has enjoyed and admired and then pastes them into her common book. I do the same, but only if the passage is too long to transcribe by hand. That slows me down and keeps me away from the computer.

One way or another beautiful, well wrought words, thoughts, modes of expression are “copied” into my common book so that I can possess them and return to them easily.
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It’s been more than a week since I’ve written on/in my blog and for good reason: I’ve been working flat-out every day for several hours on the revision of my murder mystery. I’ve decided, reluctantly, that it’s not working as novel and stripped the story down to its armature. I don’t usually have the luxury of extended periods of writing time but last Monday, the 26th of January, I realized I had a string of free days before the NYU term began, and no other commitments. I retreated to upstate New York where it was so bitterly cold and icy I could hardly go outside. Nothing to do but read, write, snow-shoe, play with my daughter and son-in-law’s dog, and work out on their treadmill in between paragraphs.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I accepted that my novel might not be a novel after all but a novella or a very long short story. Discouraged one morning, I popped an email to a writer friend and to my agent; they both quickly wrote back words of encouragement. No writer can work in total isolation. But why do we all—fiction and nonfiction writers alike—hope, plan, attempt and assume that we will write a novel or two sometime in our career? I have no idea how this “myth” began and/or by whom. Maybe it was Norman Mailer. He always said he was going to write the “great” American novel. In the end, his body of work was formidable and the longest and greatest of all his books was nonfiction: “The Executioner’s Song,” which is what we would now call creative nonfiction or literary nonfiction or literary journalism or narrative nonfiction. In other words, it combines fictional devices(setting, character, descriptive detail, dramatic tension, plot, etc.) with journalism (interviews and research).

In sum, my murder mystery, the first I have ever attempted, is not a novel. But it has merit and I will press on. Perhaps it will become part of a “novel in stories,” or a “story cycle?” Stay tuned.

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