Sometimes I remind myself of the Don Quixote of our yard. He’s a lunatic robin doing valiant battle through this long and glorious spring. I can’t believe he hasn’t killed himself yet. When morning is only a soft charcoal suggestion, he begins flying into the first window in which his reflection becomes visible, fighting off a ubiquitous rival in his territory. He keeps at it, moving from window to window through sunset, until the cowardly intruder hides behind darkness. Then, well before the alarm clock sounds, bam, he charges a window with his beak, using it as a bathroom for good measure. Sometimes there are only thirty seconds before the next attack. (Why am I assuming it’s a male out bashing his brains while the female sits on the nest and rolls her eyes at him? Because I asked Dr. Dave Russell, an ornithologst at Miami University.) Why don’t we do something? The windows are too large and plentiful to cover them all at once. We’ve tried.
I’m sure the robin thinks he’s doing a great job. After all, he’s maintained the integrity of his turf and he’s still alive. Winning, right? Entirely the right attitude to be an author in his next life.
Obviously, he’s been observing through the window between his winning rounds. My taxes are finished and ready to be filed. Here’s something you might not know about the writing life. As long as you make some money at it, you can deduct the money you lose, i.e., this is how you can win.
I’ll explain. In order to avoid embarrassment, let’s say that I’m giving a hypothetical example. Let’s say that literary agent Doris Michaels, who represented my first novel, did a great job selling foreign rights. In several big countries (say Canada) I was familiar with the currency. The currency of other countries, however, not so much. In a few of those countries, let’s imagine the rights sold for what seemed like astronomical sums to my economics-challenged brain. Here’s a specific, still entirely hypothetical example: who wouldn’t be excited to hear that the advance was 2,394,698 gumbalsklots and that the publisher wanted a new color head shot for a marketing campaign? (It was probably my sister, who actually passed algebra, who not only did that currency conversion but looked up the literacy rate of the country for good measure. If I weren’t giving you a made-up example, I’d mention the figure $74.13 as the actual advance after the deductions to pay the domestic and foreign agent, the taxes, the bank exchange fees, etc.) Hey, a sale is a sale, right?
Anyway, here’s the point. Those old foreign sales pay royalties on a schedule so random and top secret that predicting a stock market rise appears a breeze in comparison. So envision a writer who might be me finding a check in her mailbox last week, eleven years after the fact. It might not be a big check, but it’s income. Enough people bought that particular translation that while it’s not exactly paying the bills, it means she’ll already be able to deduct the current year’s expenses a year from now. It’s already a good year. You see how little it takes to encourage a writer? You have to be a little crazy to make it. You find reason, like the robin, to say, Winning. And there’s always the plain love of the work. There’s that.
Now I’ll tell you what makes us—or at least me—crazy to begin with. As part of the American Library Association’s annual State of America’s Libraries Report, their Office for Intellectual Freedom has released their list of the ten most frequently challenged books and authors in 2011:
* ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle
* The Color of Earth (series), by Kim Dong Hwa
* The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins
* My Mom’s Having A Baby! A Kid’s Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy, by Dori Hillestad Butler
* The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
* Alice (series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
* Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
* What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones
* Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily Von Ziegesar
* To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
I’ve previously been clear about what I think of book challenges, which are initiatives to ban. (Here’s the American Library Association’s page explaining the relationship between challenges, banning and censorship: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/banned/aboutbannedbooks) if you’d like an explanation.
But seriously. Even if you disagree with the Bill of Rights and think censorship is an okay thing, can you wrap your mind around To Kill A Mockingbird as one of the ten most frequently challenged books of 2011? This was required reading for me in the ninth grade. Thank goodness. It was a life-changing book because it made me see writing fiction as a fully worthy calling. I understood that a beautifully conceived and told story can seep into the mind and soul, affect thinking and attitudes by the power of acute observation of the human heart and truth of the human condition. It’s the novel I’d most like to have written, a model of literary voice and brilliance.
Can someone tell me why we wouldn’t want To Kill A Mockingbird in any and every library? Why would anyone want to take us so backward? You see where I’m headed? I have finally identified my life goal: it’s to refine my craft until it shines so undeniably, to write something so deep, fine, pure and true that, given the direction the country seems to be going, it will be “challenged” out of every library in America.
Outdoors, lilacs hang like bunches of ripe grapes and red tulips open too wide, hungry for the rapture of sunlight in the electric air. I think I’ll go out now and see if there’s a window that robin isn’t using at the moment.