Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Weight of Books (and Other Things)

Sometime between finding out I was the winner of PEN American Center's 2012 Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship and the day that the winners were announced to the public, I found myself on the floor of my studio apartment, trying to prop up a broken futon with a copy of SHILOH.

It was a nice futon once. At least, I assume so. It was given to me by my former neighbor, Jim, who at fifty-five owns the last house on his block that hasn't been converted into college apartments. What this means for Jim is that he's got first dibs on all of the "I don't want this anymore so I'll leave it on the curb" furniture that gets put out by the students. Since Jim's house is pretty much full up on curb furniture at the moment, he is constantly passing some of his best finds on to his friends, family, and favorite former neighbors.

Jim is pretty much always on the lookout for one thing or other that I need for my apartment. Now, don't get me wrong. It isn't that I can't afford furniture. I have an amazing job that is comprised of a series of random tasks such as "wear a sparkly green leprechan hat," "chase a bicycle down a school hallway," and, my favorite power trip, "be in charge of the potato chips."  But a while back I decided not to work full-time, because I want to leave time in my day for as much writing as possible. Also, there's that pesky problem of lots and lots of old debt that I'm determined to pay off -- so, okay, yeah. I can't afford furniture.

As my futon was an adopted stray, I can't be sure how old it was by the time I started sleeping on it. All I know that it was a lot less pretty after the left rear leg bent in half under my weight. Hence, the propping.

I tried bricks, but the problem is, bricks are a set width. Books, on the other hand -- books come in all shapes and sizes. With a single bookshelf, I've got endless combinations not only of entertainment and information, but also, it turns out, futon building blocks.

It's a complicated art, finding the exact combination of reading material to prop up your sleeping surface. Of course it would have made sense to try my own books, but my last copy of LIVVIE OWEN LIVED HERE got stolen at a school visit in the spring (which -- a kid wanted it -- cool!), and the last few BODY OF WATER holdouts were still packed from that same school visit (because, clearly, four months isn't enough time to unpack one box). THE GOODLY SPELLBOOK was an obvious choice at 475 pages, but it proved to be just a touch too thick (maybe 450 would have worked). DRESSAGE FROM A TO X and PONY CLUB C-LEVEL MANUAL (which, okay, is for kids who ride horses), put together, didn't quite reach, so I grabbed a couple of paperbacks to fill the gap.

Of course I was grabbing by width and cover strength, not title, so it was a shock when I found myself sitting on the floor, surrounded by discarded futon-propping attempts (which would all be lovingly returned to the shelf once I was better-rested), clutching a copy of SHILOH.

SHILOH, which was written by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor -- the generous and talented author who made possible a working writer fellowship intended to ensure that authors can, among other things, afford a flat surface to sleep on while still being authors.

The details of the award, as well as the 17 other literary awards being granted this year by the PEN American Center, can be found on their website. I'm in stunningly good company, and it's difficult for me to stop hyperventilating about these particular judges reading my work long enough to realize that I actually won something. I'm completely over the moon about this award, and humbled by the faith the judges have put in me and FREE VERSE. I'm also extremely grateful to Phyllis Naylor for providing such a thrilling opportunity.

When I was fifteen, I won a county writing contest, and I got to go to the state awards ceremony. The keynote speaker was Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and I was too shy to say six words. Luckily, my mother, also a writer, was with me, and helped facilitate my verbal skills. Ms. Naylor was kind enough to stick around after her talk and answer some questions from the two of us. It was the first day I realized that people actually did this writing stuff for a living, and now all these years later, she's still making it possible for me to stay the course of a writing career.

And how do I repay her?

By stuffing one of her fabulous novels under the corner of a futon?

I think not. SHILOH went back on the shelf. So did the dressage books and the magic books and all my other books of varying widths but equal value. As for the futon? It turns out a combination of bricks and half-filled notebooks can be used to prop.

Plus, I can always lie on the floor to read.

(Author's Note:  I have since procured a sturdy and well-built futon, courtesy of my friend Janell -- so, you know, no worries, Mom!)


Granny Kate said...

Ah, well I remember the child who slept on a sheepskin on the floor, on a hard blue rubber mat under a sleeping bag on the ground, on two shoestore benches shoved together and softened by a campbed mattress and eggshell piece of foam and various couches and once two chairs shoved end to end (which made for a unique head and footboard). Ah, but then, I also recall the made-just-for-her hardwood cradle lovingly crafted by her Uncle Junior.

"Is it too much to ask I want a comfortable bed
That won't hurt my back
Food to fill me up
And warm clothes and all that stuff

Shouldn't I have this, shouldn't I have this
Shouldn't I have all of this..."


An answer to the beautiful poem. Yes, Sarah should have all this and more and more. And the nice thing is she will some day. Her career is just starting and it is going to soar. I feel it with all my being.
Blessings and hugs.