Because of the nature of what I do as a writer and researcher, namely, sit hunched before a computer screen for long stretches of the day (and evening), I’ve found myself plagued by neck and shoulder pain. To alleviate these faulty ergonomics, I recently acquired an iPad. It’s proven to be a remarkably liberating device, freeing me from the need to be always peering into a monitor in a stooped posture. I expect it to be quite useful as well for any writing I do on the run, particularly when I take my sons to their hockey games and practices. One of the first things I did after getting the iPad was load it up with a bunch of the free books, mostly classics, that are available through Amazon’s Kindle. Even some of the collections that aren’t free come at a staggeringly low price. In fact, bargain seems an understatement. The complete works of Sir Walter Scott, for example–a collection of novels and narrative poems that runs to dozens of volumes– can be bought for less than three dollars. Scott is one of my literary heroes, an author who used to be mentioned in the same breath with Shakespeare and who is, I think, under-appreciated as a major influence on JRR Tolkien. In the end, you can load up your iPad or computer with a library that in the past would physically have occupied a room or two at least, if not a whole building. Besides Sir Walter Scott, there’s one other gem that I was thrilled to load onto my iPad. I’m talking about the Carmina Gadelica. The title is in Latin and means “Gaelic Poems”. The Carmina Gadelica are in fact a collection of poems and prayers compiled and translated by folklorist Alexander Carmichael in the Gaelic-speaking outposts of Scotland at the turn of the 19th century. Arrestingly sub-titled Hymns and Incantations, they’re a brilliant piece of work, one of the rare jewels of world literature, full of a primeval incandescent beauty that captures the wonders and rhythms of pre-industrial civilization. These unique poems are truly a stunning evocation of a world we have lost, of a life lived in intimate proximity to the cycles of nature. The Carmina were slightly more expensive, relatively speaking, than the Sir Walter Scott, but still a bargain of bargains. They’re offered as an attractively formatted two volume set on Kindle for a mere $2.99 (U.S.) apiece and are now part of my digital library. It amazes me to think that years ago, before the advent of the internet, I was forced to search high and low through ponderous snail mail queries before I managed to locate a second hand set of this remarkable classic. So, for all its pitfalls, the digital revolution offers some extraordinary blessings. As a writer, it fills me with amazement and no small measure of gratitude.
English teacher David McCullough Jr.’s “You Are Not Special” Commencement Address at Wellesley High School in suburban Boston has created quite a stir (Check out the video, which is quickly going viral). Wellesley is an elite institution that counts poetess Sylvia Plath as one of its graduates, while McCullough himself is a son of the Pulitzer Prize winning historian of the same name. McCullough’s is a witty, eloquent, mordantly wise argument. In summary, he counsels his students to renounce the prevailing culture of entitlement and to engage life instead with passion and intellectual curiosity. Here’s one of the high notes: “Be worthy of your advantages. And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might.” This delicately balanced, insightful denunciation of complacency and mediocrity is reminiscent of the impassioned Commencement Address the late Steve Jobs delivered at Stanford in 2005, where he rises to stirring heights of eloquence. “Follow your heart,” he tells the students, “even when it leads you off the well-worn path.”
I think of the ways in which my own heart has led me off the well-worn path, specifically how throughout my life a love affair with words has propelled me metaphorically into those beguilingly uncharted regions symbolized in the conventions of mediaeval cartography by graphic pictures of sea serpents.
For me there have been a couple of signal moments of epiphany that I recognize quite vividly in retrospect as having changed the direction of my life, diverting me from a career in academia, which at one point was a real and beckoning possibility, towards a life of literary aspiration. I’ve mentioned before in interviews and elsewhere about the profound effect that C.S. Lewis’ hauntingly brilliant retelling of the story of the Fall in his space trilogy had on me as a Christian when I was an undergraduate. In a compelling, in fact, arresting turn of phrase, Lewis speaks of the work of George MacDonald as having baptized his imagination. This is a strongly evocative statement, but it’s precisely the role that Lewis played in my own embrace of the imagination as a pre-eminent means of illuminating deeper truths. After reading Lewis, it seemed that all the world’s academic theses and disquisitions on the Fall were as dust, trifling and ineffectual in comparison. In the end, I had been pierced to the core by beauty as a deeper, more powerful force than the formalities of discursive argument and reason.
My other encounter with the beauties of “word music” came at roughly the same time in my life, with my reading of English writer Malcolm Muggeridge’s autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time. As in the case of Lewis’ space trilogy, its flawless artistry proved a transformative experience for me—words used with virtuoso brilliance in rich, rolling cadences that had a sublime, symphonic quality. For days after the fact, Muggeridge’s flawlessly constructed periods, each word as delicately balanced and justly placed as the musical notes of a Mozart concerto, would echo through my mind like a profoundly haunting melody. It was a deeply etched and transfiguring aesthetic experience, and Muggeridge is rightly acknowledged as one of the very greatest English prose stylists of the 20th century. Imagine how utterly thrilled I was a couple of years later, when as a student in Montreal I was assigned as Muggeridge’s chaperon and guide. He had been booked to give a lecture in town, and I was given the task of picking him up at the airport and keeping him entertained for the weekend. I remember going for walks with him on Mount Royal, for example, and pressing him for anecdotes about some of the famous literary personalities he had known in his long and distinguished life. For me, it was a never to be forgotten brush with literary immortality. I’m happy to say that I seem to have made at least a superficial impression on him, since apparently he referred to me afterwards as “the Balt” under the mistaken impression that I was of northern European ancestry.
Such are the encounters, such the life decisions that lead us off the well-worn path. It is often through life’s vagaries, its seemingly fortuitous and inconsequential details and unavoidable detours, that the Divine pulls on our heart strings and shapes our journey. Bound to beauty as by a slender strand, one as slight and insubstantial as a filament of thread but as strong as corded steel, our passions are just as apt to turn our feet down the paths we were made to walk as they are to play us false. In some inscrutable way, it’s the fashion of our making, a token of the fecundity and boundless majesty of the God in whose image we’re made. My encounters with literary genius, both sacred and secular, and my innate love of words and their artful use have brought into high relief the thread, coruscating like a jewel, that has guided me through the years, conducting my heart to a place where it has been pierced by beauties that foreshadow that final lifting of the veil.
[Note: This blog entry is being run as an article in The Little Way, the newsletter of Ste. Therese College, and will be accessible on their website: www.sttherese.ca]
Father Robert Wild, my dear friend and mentor, a Catholic priest of Madonna House, has just had his latest book published. The wise fruit of long years of study and reflection, it’s entitled The Tumbler of God: Chesterton as Mystic. The book is a ground-breaking examination of G.K. Chesterton not as a pre-eminent figure in English letters of the first half of the 20th century, which he undoubtedly was, but as a man who by his own ineffable way of conceiving life and human existence had opened a vast, mystic window onto the eternal. Chesterton’s vision was anchored in an exquisitely refined sense of the way in which all that we hold as solid and substantial in our lives hangs in fragile dependence on the mercy of a boundlessly generous God. It was a vision marked by Chesterton’s radical, instinctive, utterly guileless attitude of praise and gratitude in response to the gift of his own existence and the manifold beauty of creation. In the book’s introduction, Stratford Caldecott, the well-known English writer who edits the journal Second Spring out of Oxford, England, includes a beautifully illustrative quote from Chesterton himself:
‘A man must have magnanimity of surrender, of which he commonly only catches a glimpse in first love, like a glimpse of our lost Eden.”
I am reminded here of a deeply resonant observation made by the poet George Mackay Brown, himself a Christian, who is considered the greatest Scottish poet of the 20th century:
“We move from silence into silence, and there is a brief stir between, every person’s attempt to make a meaning of life and time.”
Chesterton’s life-long attempt at “making meaning” resulted in a body of work that in its mystic genius defies the ebb and flow of time and fashion and offers us a still vibrant, still perennially valid glimpse of the eternal. I was privileged to be asked to provide my own literary and editorial input for this marvelous and significant book, which Fr. Bob graciously notes in his acknowledgements. The Tumbler of God is available through Justin Press (www.justinpress.ca).
It’s the start of the Victoria Day long weekend here in Canada. In the depths of rural Ontario where I live people have poured in from the cities to open their summer places and savour country life for a handful of days. Yesterday I spent the better part of the evening into twilight splitting firewood—a chore that lies at the heart of rural living in the temperate latitudes. I do it by hand with a splitting maul. It’s one of life’s small but exquisitely bracing pleasures, spoken of famously by Henry David Thoreau as heating a man twice, once in the splitting and then again in the burning. It’s a job I’ve always relished deeply in all the years I’ve lived in the country. Not only is it an invigorating full-body workout that does wonders in lifting the stresses of the day, but it carries with it the practical benefits of a growing woodpile, the tangible foretoken of a winter’s span of warmth.
Over Christmas, Jim and I scored a modest and unexpected coup, when we were honoured to be asked by Laurie Lamson, an editor at Penguin/Tarcher, to each contribute to a collection of writing exercises by authors anthologized under the title, Now Write! (for more information, check out: http://nowwrite.net/ ). Other participants include some very accomplished figures, among them writers such as Ursula LeGuin and Ray Bradbury. Our pieces have been submitted and accepted, with the anthology due to be published sometime in 2013. In his exercise, entitled “More Than Words Can Say”, Jim talks about the need for a writer of fiction to discover what he calls the “body-voice” of a character, i.e. his or her mannerisms, habitual gestures, posture, facial expressions, and physical quirks, to name but a few of the things that make up “body-voice”. My own exercise—its title, “In Xanadu… Grounding the Fantastic”, is an allusion to English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem “Kubla Khan”—looks at the need for the writer of speculative fiction to apply the touchstone of grounded reality to his or her work. More about this in a further blog.
For those who are interested, last Friday, Sarah Reinhard posted the online interview she did with me on her Snoring Scholar site. You can read it at: http://snoringscholar.com/2012/04/seven-with-mark-sebanc/
In all the years that I’ve lived in this corner of rural Ontario, it feels like spring has never come roaring in like this. I mean “roaring” in a good way. The temperature has soared to record highs, and the forecast calls for a succession of extraordinarily warm days right until early next week. Today, with the breaking of old man winter’s chokehold, in a small, but splendid, presage of Easter, Jim and I received one of the best and most glowing reviews yet of The Stoneholding and Darkling Fields of Arvon. It’s by Sarah Reinhard, a writer and mother who lives in rural Ohio. The review can be found on “The Integrated Catholic Life” website, where Sarah is now a regular contributor, by way of the following link: http://www.integratedcatholiclife.org/2012/03/reinhard-reviewing-legacy-stone-harp-books/
What’s particularly gratifying about Sarah’s review is the quite evident sincerity of her reaction to our work. An omnivorous reader with high standards, she had tackled the two novels with studiously neutral, if not low, expectations, and was won over by the story and the craftsmanship (as was her husband, who was initially even less receptive). What better compliment could a writer ask for?
For more about Sarah and her work, check out her blog at http://SnoringScholar.com/
Well, it’s been spectacularly warm and sunny here—a beautiful Indian Summer—and the page proofs for the mass market paperback edition of Darkling Fields of Arvon are off to Baen. Everything looks good. Meanwhile I’m getting myself familiarized with the Scrivener program—much-acclaimed software devised for writers—novelists, playwrights, screenwriters, academics, the whole range of the tribe of wordsmiths—and created originally for Macs, but now available in a PC-friendly version. It’s a kind of word-processing program designed to help writers organize and facilitate their work. I bought Scrivener soon after I switched to a Mac for the first time early this summer, after my PC laptop bit the dust. I had heard so many good things about Macs, how well-built and reliable they were. It seemed to me it was a good time to make the switch. Besides, I had gotten used to the Mac operating system at the office where I work. So far I’m quite satisfied with my Mac laptop and impressed by the many facets of Scrivener. I’ve loaded my Hidden Kingdom files into the program. It should enhance my productivity, and Jim’s too, I hope, since he’s on board with Scrivener as well on his PC.
Yesterday Jim and I received the page proofs for the mass market paperback edition of Darkling Fields of Arvon, as Baen prepares the text for publication at the end of November. It means we’ll be revisiting an old friend over the next few days, combing the book for blemishes we may have overlooked in the trade paperback edition. This scarcely seems possible, when I think back to the care we took over proofreading and revisions in the novel’s earlier incarnation. At the same time, we’ve learned the hard way that, when you’re wearing an editor’s hat, you should never take a flawless text for granted. It’s a painstaking, often boring, task. Of course, we’ll also be looking at the flow of the text in its new format, making sure the changeover from the trade paperback results in a faithful rendition. Given the quality of the editorial input that Baen provides for its authors, it’s a consoling thought to approach our new text with the belief that we’re not likely to find much amiss.
If you want to get some idea of the magnitude of the changes that are sweeping the world of books and publishing like a tsunami, check out the recent blog post by historical novelist Sarah Woodbury.
In it she talks about the way she’s been able to build astonishing ebook sales on Amazon as a self-published author. Her novels are set in mediaeval Wales, and, if her elegantly designed and informative site are any indication of the quality of her fiction, it’s small wonder that she’s been so phenomenally successful in such a short span of time. In her post, she links to David Gaughran, author of Let’s Get Digital, an ebook about the sea change that’s occurring in publishing. It’s a riveting, articulate account, and Gaughran graciously offers it as a free download at: http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/lets-get-digital/
Also, I couldn’t help but take note of the charmingly evocative waterscape featured on the masthead of Woodbury’s site. My first thought when I saw it was: “Hey, this is a perfect rendition of our own Deepmere in the Stoneholding.”