A Penguin Summer

This past summer, I tried to have a Summer of Penguin. Here’s how it went, how it failed, and I how I didn’t understand what I was taking on. A follow up post will cover the iteration it inspired by accident.

When I was a teen (and, honestly, well into my 20’s), I worked for a public library system back in the Fredericksburg, Virginia area. I was fifteen when I started working in our tiny branch in North Stafford after school and weekends and quickly adapted to thinking of the library staff as an extension of my own family. One of the librarians in particular, LVK, offered me this advice once:

This summer, for every fun book you read, read one classic.

LVK

I, of course, scoffed. What did LVK know about me or my reading? I continued on my way, devouring a half dozen books a week, most of which I couldn’t recall the titles of now. But that advice haunted me, stuck with me, became a lamp post goal.

Until this summer when I tried it. I had grand plans, mind you – I average a week or so per book. Sometimes more if it’s a “thicker” read, sometimes less if I’m really into it. Surely I could knock off a half dozen books over the course of a summer?

With this in mind and the arrogant confidence of my teen years slipping through after all these decades, I bought a dozen Penguin Classics in hardback. They’re all books that are on the poster my oldest gave me, all books I want to read. How could this be a problem?

As it turns out, I can’t read them anywhere near as fast as I thought I could. Of the dozen or so books I set out with, I’ve read three so far. I’m still trying, and even that three feels like an accomplishment. The first book was Lord Jim, then Moby Dick followed (eventually) by The Picture of Dorian Gray. I really loved the Picture of Dorian Gray, which was a much easier read with a lot less whale bits. I read other books at the same time, and was often amused to see that most of them bore the Penguin imprint. I wish that had been on purpose.

Why Penguin? This goes back to college, when they were the publisher of choice for most of my Classics and Philosophy texts. I tend to enjoy/prefer their translators and formats.

Would I consider this a success? I think so. I finished this summer (school starts here on Wednesday) having read more from the classical canon than when I started the summer, and I do feel wiser for it. Will I continue? The pile of clothbound Penguin classics I bought in anticipation says yes.

But this also inspired me to try another reading experiment, the topic of a future blog post. Until then, keep reading!

The best laid plans of mice and men are drowned in summer wine

When I set out on this weekend Friday, I had no plans. It was glorious – a weekend without commitments, without obligations, even without errands. Maybe a few chores – a body needs to bathe and wear clean clothes, after all – but nothing too demanding or distracting.

Alas.

First it was the middle daughter. We’ve been working on her driving (she wants to get her license in a few months when she turns 18), and she came to me with a bold plan: what if we went driving Saturday, practiced some things, and oh by the way, go see Suicide Squad while we’re over at the mall practicing?

Coy, clever, and of course, it worked. The movie, by the way, was a bit violent, a bit gruesome, and yet we both really enjoyed it. A lot. Also, it made a great PSA for wearing a mask.

Meanwhile, our youngest has been going to an arcade with a friend and their family just up the road in Vancouver. I’m sure you can see where this is going, and if not, I’ll go ahead and spill the beans – me, my three kids, and the friend all drove up to Vancouver Sunday afternoon.

Why am I such a pushover? Because this is the last summer it’s guaranteed to be all three kids are home. Our oldest is heading off to college in a month. That middle daughter? Entering her senior year of High School in a few weeks. And the youngest? A freshman. Time is catching up with us and I’m trying to drink as much of the last of the summer wine as I can before this next, scary phase of our lives has a chance to start.

Breaking my blockers

Recently, I’ve been working on breaking out of some old, bad habits – the perpetual “the problem is the tool, not the tool wielder” that seems to have become a rabid infestation in my brain the last few years.

When I started writing, I had a marble notebook. That was all. But even then, I yearned for the freedom and mobility that some upgrade would give me. First it was a Palm Pilot (“To be able to just carry that around!”), then it was a keyboard attachment for my PalmPro (“To use on the VRE during my commute!”), then it was a laptop. Every time I reached my goal, there was always something just out of my reach that would elevate me further.

It is now twenty years later, there are still tools I see that “would make it so much easier to create!” – MS Surface, a newer iPad with mechanical keyboard, etc. – but the truth is, none of that matters.

The only tool I need to write is the one I’ve had all along, the one residing in that chunk of grey matter between my ears. I realize how cliché that sounds, but that’s actually what makes it true.

The other big blocker is that I expect too much of myself when writing. When I sit down to write, I always found it helpful to have goals. “This will be XX pages long” or “I need to write XXXX words a day.” Doing that, though, forced me to stretch or manipulate stories because I felt like they needed to meet a certain criteria for length.

I had, in other words, forgotten the most basic tenant of writing good fiction:

A story should be no longer or shorter than it needs to be to tell its tale.

Someone smart at some point

It makes writing a struggle, I won’t lie, but it’s also somewhat freeing. I’m not trying to “write to market” (What market? What sales?) If my stories never find a home that’s ok – it’s about the writing and telling, not the selling and publishing.

And so I have found myself sitting down every morning for the last week, pulling up an old but trusty writing app and putting down some words. Some days less than a hundred; some days this week, over a thousand. I know where this story is going; I don’t know how long it is yet, or how long it will be, or what the “right” length for it is. I’ll know that when it’s done being written.