Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rare Birds

Sharon Wildwind

It’s incredibly difficult to be next in line the day after what Julia’s posted yesterday.

I was casting around for a lead into this week’s blog and remembered a (perhaps apocryphal) story of a middle-aged woman in England during World War II. The woman volunteered at a military convalescent hospital. She had been assigned to the patients’ library with the task of gluing cardboard covers onto paperback books to make them last longer.

A British general came around to jolly along the patients and staff. When he and the hospital commandant reached the library, the general commended the woman for how straight she was gluing on the covers and said jovially, “Maybe one day you’ll write a book yourself, eh what?”

“Maybe one day I will,” the woman replied.

In the background, the hospital commandant was close to apoplexy. You’re probably ahead of me on this. The woman was, of course, Agatha Christie.

I’m sure soldiers in that hospital appreciated the sturdy book covers. They might even have noticed that they were glued on straight. But I also know that the books Christie wrote have comforted a lot more people in a lot more difficult situations. There is a statistical probability that someone in a Fukushima Prefecture shelter is reading one of her books right now.

We forget sometimes what wonderful rare birds we are as authors. Meaning no disrespect to anyone who hasn’t crossed the line yet, we also forget that we are more wonderful and rarer as published authors. We lose sight of that because we live shoulder-to-shoulder with other writers.

Public use photo from the Tazzone.

Pick your favorite public venue. I’ve chosen the Scotiabank Saddledome. Scotiabank is obviously a bank and the Saddledome is where the Calgary Flames play hockey. Imagine the Saddledome tomorrow night, 7:30 PM. Flames versus the Anaheim Ducks. Seating capacity, a little over 19,000, and since it’s near the end of the season, most of those seats will be filled. The majority of those 19,000 people not only don’t know anyone who has written and published a book, but never in their lives have known a published author, and never expect to.

There is more relief needed in the world all the time and I fear it’s going to get worse. Whatever else we choose to do in our other life: contributing to charities; doing volunteer work; working for peace, social, economic or ecological justice, the most important thing we can do every day is to sit down and write.

Lots of people can do rescue work. Lots of people can staff shelters. Lots of people can clean up gosh-awful messes. But writers are among the few who can tell stories that mobilize, that entertain, and that comfort. We may not think about it very often, but writers are those rare birds in the business of hope.

Goodness knows that the world needs more of that.

Quote for the week:

There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.
~Dame Agatha Christie, DBE (1890 – 1976)


Sheila Connolly said...

What an interesting statistic!

My own attitude was influenced in part by a story my parents told me. When they were first married, in the late 1940's, they lived in New York City. They were very proud that An Author lived in the same building (Robert Ruark, if anyone remembers him--his first novel came out in 1947 and he wrote for both newspapers and many of the popular magazines of the day). I can't say that either of my parents ever exchanged a word with him, but years later they still thought their brush with fame was worth talking about.

And since now I'm talking about it, more than a half-century later, it must have impressed me.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Amen to that, Sharon.

Sheila, I remember Ruark. The association that came to my mind was "African safari," and a quick trip to Wikipedia confirmed it. His big bestseller about the Mau Mau (book and movie) was Something of Value. And I got my usual "Aha!" on reading that, like so many writers, he died of alcoholism.

Sandra Parshall said...

I remember Ruark too. I've read a lot of his work.

One of the greatest pleasures of being a writer is that I've gotten to know so many other writers personally. Mystery writers in particular are wonderful people -- with a slightly warped view of the world at times, but wonderful nevertheless and a lot of fun to spend time with.

Linda Leszczuk said...

As an unpub, it is my dream to become one of your group of rare bird. As someone work has worked with the American Red Cross for over 20 years, including the WTC after 9/11 and Katrina, I can tell you the first line disaster relief workers are pretty rare birds themselves.

Anonymous said...

It appears I'm going to have to brush up on Robert Ruark. I hate being non-courant.

The first time I went to a convention, I ended up in the elevator alone with A Well-Known Author. Right there on her name tag was the same name I'd seen on books that I'd read. I had this almost-irresistible urge to reach out and touch her to see if she was real. I resisted, smiled and said, "Good morning." She said, "Good morning," too, just like a real person! Then I phoned my husband and screamed, "You'll never guess who said good morning to me in the elevator!"

Linda, you first line workers are such wonderful rare birds. Thank you for what you do. We're eagerly waiting here on the other side of the line for you to join us.

lil Gluckstern said...

I liked your post, because I hadn't heard that story before. It is scary how many people don't read; how do they think?On another topic-as I recall, Ruark was an excellent writer, but he didn't like women very much (The Honey Badger). I read him avidly but didn't really understand what I was taking in. It was the times. Good quote from Christie. Sometimes, I think writers don't realize how much you do to better the world.

Anonymous said...

Lil, I assume since you used "you" instead of "we" to refer to writers, you consider yourself more in the readers camp.

Readers are the other half of the equation. Without thoughtful readers, writers essentially bash their heads against a wall.

Both are important.