Wednesday, September 7, 2011

September Theme: What if? (Naomi Kinsman)

It's the artist's essential question, the question that spurs creativity, the question that whispers in the dark and wakes us up in the middle of the night: What if...?

I can't remember a time when I didn't ask this question. A rule would be posed, and I would ask, "Yes, but what if...?" At times, such as when I questioned the rule of gravity–Why can't I just fly off the bed–this question was slightly dangerous and more than slightly painful.

All what if questions are, though. Dangerous and painful. They question the status quo. They shake things up. And at the same time, they offer new possibilities.

I remember the first time I saw Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I took it off the bookstore shelf and started flipping through, and I actually looked over my shoulder, wanting to ask the nearest shopper, "Do you SEE this?" Fireworks went off in my brain–a symphony of new possibilities. I started to ask, "What is a book anyway?" "What do images do that words cannot?" "What do words do that images cannot?" "When should images move?" "When should images stay still?"

Something magical happens when a reader curls up in a cozy chair with a paper-and-ink book. It's an intimate experience, one in which the reader has access not only to what the character does and says, but to the character's emotional life too. Movies don't offer this possibility, neither do plays, and real life certainly doesn't. When else can we tiptoe into someone else's mind and heart and feel life from their perspective? E-books offer this possibility too, but somehow a printed book feels more solid, less changeable. Printed books don't have a button to push that allows me to surf the internet or face-time with friends. Books are quiet and comforting. Holding a book I read years ago can send me back in time, transforming me into the little girl who stumbled upon this book in the library.

I agree with Irene that physical books aren't going away. Like candles, they may become less necessary, but that will not change their ultimate value.

I think we also have to look, though, at the new possibilities that devices offer us as writers. In the theatre, when one begins designing a show, they start with vision. What do they want this show to say? Do? Be? Think Shakespeare's Tempest done steam-punk style, to give viewers a new vantage point on a familiar story. This is the question that content creators may need to start asking. What kind of thing is this story that's pouring out of me? What form should it take? Or perhaps there is a new role developing. In the theatre, the playwright might be the one to suggest form for their artwork, but more commonly, this is the foray of the director. The director casts a vision for the show and from there, the ultimate form is shaped. Perhaps writing is becoming a more collaborative art. Perhaps we will see our stories in more forms than ever before. To me, this possibility is exciting.

One more note before I sign off. All these new possibilities also open up the marketplace for books and stories that wouldn't top the best seller list. Often this is posed as a concern–how will readers find the quality books, when the marketplace is flooded with more and more and more? This is a valid concern, and we do need curators more than ever, people who can sort through the volumen to help us discover the gems. Yet, think of what print on demand and e-books offer, too. My company, Society of Young Inklings, can now publish novels by young authors, which wouldn't have been possible in the days of huge print runs. Visual artists can now publish works of their heart, which may never be publishable traditionally (because how would they sell more than one or two hundred copies) and yet, those one or two hundred copies are treasures.

What if is a scary question, mostly because we don't know what will happen when we go down that road. We don't want to lose the wonderful elements of the here and now. I believe that if we ask the question, though, we can't help but find new possibilities. I believe, also, that we must fight to keep the best of the present and past, too. Treasure your paper-and-ink books. And be courageous about the what ifs, too.


  1. I was similarly blown away when I first read The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The combination of writing and graphic novel (more "images that flickered across the page like a silent movie) made for a reading experience that remains unique to me. Such a great book.

    By day I work for a well-respected university publisher doing IT stuff. As a result, I'm fairly involved with our move towards e-books, a trend that I acknowledge as being the future of publishing, but one that I, personally, continue to resist. I've taken a company Kindle home for a weekend and used it exclusively for the time I had it. It was nice to have instant access to a book (or a preview, in my case) right from my own bed, but there was something too cold and distant about the Kindle that I don't get from bound pages.

    I think e-books and print will co-exist side-by-side for the remainder of our lifetimes. Farther into the future than that? Too hard to tell, I'm afraid.

    -- Tom

  2. I love what you said about books and how they create a magical and comforting experience. I can't imagine cuddling into my bed with a Kindle, but I'm sure that one day, there will be a generation that doesn't mind it.