December 5, 2011While I’ve bent over my keyboard , writing, the seasons have progressed from a very wet and illusive spring through a delayed but lushly green summer to the most exquisite fall imaginable.Here, at the edge of the winter solstice, I feel almost apologetic that writing is how I spend the greater portion of my days. As if, in a way, I’ve returned to the cloistered life of a young nun. Then people asked “Why? What purpose does seclusion serve when there is so much you could do for others in the world?” Now it is I who ask myself those questions. My answers seem rather feeble in relation to the needs of a stricken world. They appear as inadequate as those I gave when I entered the cloister. I’m asking questions about the value of my writing life, because we’ve just begun the Church’s new year: Advent. Advent is full of questions. It asks how I will respond to the unfathomable gift God gave us when He sent His Son into this world. It asks if I am willing to receive this gift -- a love so great that it will necessarily crack open my heart to overflow into the lives of others. It asks that, if by writing, I am allowing this to happen. As a young nun, I believed I could best succor the world by devoting myself to prayer. Similarly I’ve believed that I best reach out to others by writing. By reaching within “to get right what I “got wrong in real life,” as Tobias Wolfe explains, and to share what I’ve learned with others. The problem is that I’m a terribly slow writer. I struggle to draw the necessary words from the well of my heart. Writers write alone and groan alone (to paraphrase Ursula LeGuin). And then we give birth. This year, my writing efforts focused primarily on finishing the sequel to The Scent of God. I was into my umpteenth rewrite, when my second book, A View of the Lake , set sail into the world and I had to turn from the computer keyboard to help launch it . . . into stormy seas as it happened. The first squall erupted when the wrong ISBN number was published on Amazon. Without the correct ISBN number, pre-orders for A View of the Lake could not be fulfilled. I was stunned when I learned that Amazon had cancelled all the orders placed months earlier. By the time that issue was resolved, early buyers had given up. Another tempest in A View of the Lake’s journey from publisher to public occurred when Barnes & Noble failed to order enough copies to display in bookstores. An all-out buzz campaign by you helped but the book is more likely to show up in small independent bookstores than in B&N . . . those small bookstores that still exist, that is. Giants like Barnes & Noble and Amazon eat small bookstores. By so doing, they determine most of what we will and will not read. Sure, we can get almost any book through the giants, if we order it, but a knowledgeable salesperson will not hand-sell you that wonderful “sleeper” book they know you’ll love. It’s the small independent neighborhood bookstore, in conjunction with the small independent publishers, that launch the careers of the new writers the giants ignore or overlook. Best-selling author, Ann Patchett, is such a believer in the small neighborhood bookstore that she’s invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to open her own: Parnassus in Nashville. “In a smaller store,” Patchett says, “you are the person making the choices to get really good books. You are the one who, by your intelligent ordering and good reading, is sort of cutting through a lot of the junk and bringing books that people really want to read. ... We've all had the experience of going into a three-story Barnes & Noble and saying, 'I didn't really find anything I wanted to read.' But you can go in to a small store with an intelligent staff .... [and] well-displayed, well-chosen books, and come out with five books that you're dying to read. And that's what we're going to do." Updates: So, what is up with the sequel to The Scent of God? No news from New York yet but I promise to let you know as soon as I know something. Meanwhile, A View of the Lake was selected by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as one of the best regional books for 2011. May this holiday season find your lives rich with blessings and may those blessings include great books that you’ve discovered and purchased at small independent bookstores.