Kickstarting the Whiteside

Here’s a project we’re wrapping up. It’s a music video for acoustic guitarist Brave Julius and director/illustrator/animator Santiago Uceda. We’re raising funds to put on a concert and premiere the video in a classic theater in our hometown of Corvallis, Oregon. It’s a fun project: part filmmaking, part concert and part community art project. Strange how water cooler conversations and a simple email inquiry can turn into something so much bigger. Suddenly we’re trying to find a way to fill an 800-seat theater. No small feat for an artist, writer and musician who are all essentially introverts (I can, admittedly, have a big mouth on occasion).

Fortunately Jaime Williams of the Whiteside Theatre Foundation has quite a bit of event experience and is driving the planning. She’s a passionate advocate of bringing live music to Corvallis, and doing it with class and style via a glorious old venue that was rescued from the brink of demolition. Architecture is community art, and it’s something we often overlook in this culture of the rugged individual. Great wealth, fame or achievement is celebrated, but who still builds beautiful things that truly last these days? That’s why I like filmmaking: it’s a collaborative effort…and to ultimately be successful, you need the community on board in the form of an audience.

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The Power of Great Storytelling

I just took my daughter to the premier of Justin Smith’s documentary, Relentless, about a team of student engineers who build and race formula cars. I’ve never been a car guy. To emphasize that point, I drive a moss-covered Pontiac Vibe mini wagon, which is noted for two things: it has a standard electric outlet in the dashboard and it’s the least stolen car in the US. My daughter isn’t really a gearhead either. She arrived at the premier in multicolored tights, a pink skirt and red glitter shoes. She’s something of  a girly-girl.

But a solid documentary is one that pulls in an audience and makes them passionate about a subject in which they had little interest or knowledge before the lights go down. Justin pulled that off in Relentless, carrying the audience through an emotional arc of a championship bid in a very intense competition. It’s a moving and inspirational experience.

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Ode on a Smith Corona

TypewriterI bought a typewriter off of Craig’s List today. It’s a manual Smith Corona Galaxie XII that I picked up from a house on a Portland side street for thirty bucks. I’m fairly well convinced that it’s quite possibly one of the more beautiful objects I’ve ever owned. Off the top of my head, the only thing that comes close is a powder blue Kramer electric guitar or maybe my Sage fly rod–well, not actually the rod itself but rather its smooth cork handle.

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No excuses

Werner Herzog has been in the business of encouraging young filmmakers since famously eating his shoes in a bet to inspire Errol Morris to make his first film in the 70s. In a recent interview on The Business, Herzog offered some more advice to filmmakers.

Herzog declares that, because of the digital tools available today, there are no excuses for aspiring filmmakers to not make features.

Today it is fairly easy to make a feature film for, say, $10,000…earn the money, don’t wait for financiers. Don’t waste your life to promote your project.

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Cooking for a sense of place

Our cousin Eric recently graced us with a visit on his way to Okinawa for his first deployment as a Marine attorney. When someone visits you, it’s both an honor and a gift, and it leaves the host with a certain measure of responsibility. As this was Eric’s first visit to the Pacific Northwest, and his last stop on the way to overseas duty, that responsibility was, if anything, more acute.

Sisters mountains in Oregon

Preparing a meal is perhaps the quickest and most effective way to give someone a sense of place. Eric showed up at the Greyhound station on a redeye bus, so I sent him to the Coast for the day. He’d already offered to buy steaks, but I upped the ante by sending him to a favorite seafood shop on the bayfront in Newport. He returned with fresh halibut, scallops and crab meat in a bag of crushed ice, plus a bottle of pinot noir from a local vineyard. We added asparagus, scallions and fish sticks for Bailey and the result was quite nice.

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Wine in Arizona

While down in Phoenix for the in-laws 50th wedding anniversary, I took a side trip down to Arizona wine country in and around Sonoita, gathering footage for our wine documentary project. What I found surprised me. The challenges and risks are there, as they are in any emerging wine region, but not like you’d expect. The problem is too much water at the wrong time, not too little. It’s winter freezes and spring frosts, not the baking desert heat. Here’s a summary clip of the trip.

Writing in strange places

Patricia Ann McNair holds some measure of responsibility for the fact that I still write stuff. I’m not sure that she deserves praise or derision for this dubious honor. But in all truth, she’s the sort of selfless writer who can be a mentor, friend and teacher, all the while passionately pursuing her own craft.

Her book Temple of Air is coming out this fall.

She was also recently kind enough to include me in her blog series, Views from the Keyboard.

The Immigrants

They slouch across oceans, across borders, have been for years, leaving a trail of footprints, litter, hope, the occasional corpse.

They descend on our fields, neck-deep in crops dusted with pesticides, the spore of new construction, bringing life to otherwise dying small towns in Kansas.

Many have the audacity to bring their families, to stay, sometimes for generations, and to speak the language given to them by the Conquistadores for a while before eventually losing it.

Often, they sing.

And they’re singing now. A family, several families, maybe thirty of them have rented a rowboat on a crystal lake that drowns a hidden forest amid frozen lava flows, an ancient reminder that this part of our country is still considered young by geologists, changing, heaving, convulsing beneath our very feet, reducing the idea of maps, borders, to a silly notion.

Eight of them crowd into the rowboat while the rest wait their turn on shore. The oars squeak as they zigzag, leaving little whirlpools from each kiss of a blade on the water. They draw sideways stares from the other fishermen, but they don’t care.

My daughter is fascinated by their joy. The smiles on the faces of the children. So much more compelling than my insistence on fish that never materialize. She sings along. It’s all one language after all.

And we’re both glad that they’re here.

Kickstarter campaign

We’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign for our current documentary film project. It feels strange asking for money, but then that’s how it works in the indie film world. I suppose I’m getting used to it. And Kickstarter is much better than going door to door selling overpriced caramel corn like when I was in the Boy Scouts.

Ultimately, it’s about building an audience as much as it is about raising a few bucks so that we can travel to places and shove cameras in peoples’ faces.

Since our subtitle is “An American Wine Movie,” and we are trying to tap into a national personality trait that makes folks in the New World chuck everything to follow a crazy dream, we decided to end our campaign on July 4th.

Commercial script

I wrote the following script for a broadcast commercial for Oregon State University. Our marketing director challenged the web/multimedia team to come up with and execute a concept based on our brand platform and OSU’s historic leadership in the area of sustainability.  And here’s the result.  A friend said of the voice: “It’s kind of like a friendly cool older brother that confidently but unpretentiously gets stuff done.” That pleases me greatly because I respect his opinion but also because it means I hit the nail on the head brand-wise, because that precisely describes the persona of our grads/students.

What does it mean to be Powered by Orange?

Well, if we see something broken,
We fix it

If we see that there’s a problem,
we solve it

The bigger the challenges we face
The greater our opportunity
To rise up and meet them

At Oregon State University,
That’s how we do things

It’s who we are

It’s who we’ve always been

And here’s the finished TV spot, pulled together  by our multi-talented team and interns:

Stream of consciousness editing

I think it’s probably a misnomer to call this thing a reel. It’s really just a collection of shots from various projects and home movies over the past year, strung together by some transition techniques I’ve been experimenting with. My seven-year-old daughter said the title should be called Mixture of Movies. So it’s probably not quite a demo reel, but I created that little intro in After Effects and decided to use that to frame it.

Some of the shots were filmed by Kegan Sims, Truen Pence and Justin Smith. The music is Max Richter.

Somber sunset

I spent most of Super Bowl Sunday hiking in Finley Natl. Wildlife Refuge, avoiding having to watch the Packers win. The late winter cloud cover can be oppressive in this part of Oregon, but if you get a break in the weather between fronts moving in from the coast, you can witness some beautiful, somber skies.

savannah prairie in Finley National Wildlife Refuge

We shot several scenes in A Country Wedding here a couple years ago. It’s one of those spots that has so many different settings packed into a few hundred acres. It can look like the Midwest or the deep South, with marshes and oak savannah surrounded by Doug fir forests. A few scattered farm buildings break up the skyline.

Old barn with Cascade Range in the background

I hope we’ll be back there this spring for our next narrative project, a short film tentatively titled Slingshot.

Filmmaking is making telephone calls

I hate the telephone. Absolutely hate it. I’ve always sought ways to avoid it, whether it’s been using email, writing letters or driving dozens or even hundreds of miles to talk to someone in person.

I’m not generally an introvert. I’ve got no qualms about presenting to a large group of people or walking into someone’s house or place of business to interview them. But preparing for a phone call always sets my heart to pounding and raises the hair on the back of my neck. I unequivocally despise it. You’d think I was back in high school and was working up the nerve and trying to control the squelch in my voice before asking Tiffany Meyer out.

Still, even in this age of email, text, Skype, Facebook, etc, you still have to make phone calls. If you’re making a movie, you have to make a lot of phone calls. People talk about needing cameras, talent, the right mics. They tell you you need a plan or a story or a vision. You need money. You need experience or you need to go to film school. But none of that means anything if you don’t pick up the phone to line up talent, call investors, build a crew, ask people to interview, get directions, ask questions.

Filmmaking is picking up the phone. It doesn’t matter if you have a RED camera, Canon 7D, Bolex 8mm, brilliant script, amazing actor or a fascinating documentary subject. It doesn’t matter if you know After Effects or Final Cut. If  you can’t pick up the phone and ask somebody to sit for an interview or help you finish the project in some way, by investing or lending support, then you’re never going to finish something worthwhile.

So the most important part of moving any project forward is the thing that I least like to do: pick up the phone. I don’t even like to call to make restaurant reservations and here I am about to phone a well-respected, award-winning winemaker and ask him to help me with a film project, giving up a couple days of his time, free of charge, doing something that most people hate even more that I hate the telephone: sitting in front of the camera.

Can you tell I’m procrastinating?

Okay, here I go, I’m making the call now.

Multimedia Storytelling

I’ve stumbled across a new favorite blog by “multimedia journalist” Richard Hernandez who teaches media at Berkeley. He’s one of those storytellers who’s gifted in multiple mediums, from prose to video and motion graphics, and he’s got the energy of one of those rare and really good teachers who can convey an energy and enthusiasm for the craft of narrative. Check out this video. It’s 30 minutes long, but he covers nine ways of improving your story. This is geared toward video, but it can apply to any form of storytelling.

The Art of The Opening from Richard Koci Hernandez on Vimeo.

Or if you just want the nine tips without watching the video, check out his blog post.

Plowing Through

About six years back I figured I’d stumbled across the great secret to writing fiction, in particular to writing a novel. I remember I was sitting at a cafe on the north side of Chicago with my friend Bill, another struggling writer-type. He’d just read a draft of a novel I’d completed and had some kind words and solid critiques, and he asked me how I’d managed to finish it. “What was the key?” he asked.

Flushed with the victory of actually having completed something somewhat coherent after 140,000 words, I arrived upon an answer to his question: “The key,” I said, “is learning how to write bad stuff. Anyone can write the good stuff…the shit that flies across the screen when you’re accosted by the muse of literary pretension. But writing the bad stuff is hard. That’s the stuff you have to cut later, or rewrite. Or maybe you even get lucky and it turns out to be not as bad as you thought even though it was painful as hell to get down.”

Writers, even unsuccessful ones, are famous for aphorisms.

But I still think that’s largely true. Though I’m also now convinced that I don’t have the first clue about how to write fiction or a novel. I’ve got a couple that I’ve finished and like well enough, but the fact that they still exist solely as doublespaced, Times New Roman manuscripts gives me a clue to what the marketplace thinks of my literary greatness.

But to finish a novel, you do have to learn to write the bad stuff. Or at least write through the bad stuff. Take tonight, for example. Two hours ago I decided I’d sit down and write 600 words on this new project I’m trying to get through. It started as a short story, turned into a screenplay and now seems to want to be a novel. So I’ve given myself a goal of 600 words per day, good or bad, so that I’ll have a draft to look at in July to see if the first stab is good, bad or ugly.

But then I started writing and became completely dejected. The whole project fell into question. I reread some other passages, which seemed uninspired and vapid. I was certain that I’d never be able to get 600 words…even 600 bad ones.

But I started typing. The first two sentences took me 15 minutes.  But then I found and followed an image of a woman pulling radishes from a garden bed made from old tractor tires. And the below passage is the result. I can’t say if it’s good or not, or if it will even wind up in the finished piece. But it’s 1,200 words long and it doesn’t make me cringe.

I don’t know any secrets to writing. But I’m pretty convinced that finishing anything of length requires you to sit down and beat your head against the wall and write a whole lot of stuff you’re convinced is absolutely lousy. If you have the discipline to do that, you won’t have a problem hanging on long enough to type “The End.”

WERE WE EVER HAPPY? I hold a vague recollection, something so distant and faded that it might be a memory of a memory. Or maybe it was even something I’d created in a dream. But it’s there, a warm bright moment in the light of a spring afternoon. For an instant we were happy: my father, my mother and I.

I was four. It was our second year on the old Richter farm, which had stood for a long while as overgrown pasture and blackberry thickets. My old man had leased the two hundred acre property adjacent to my grandmother’s farm. It was his bid to make a go of it on his own, and he’d planted corn and beans and then sweet sorghum on the poorer ground for silage and with the intent of making molasses to sell at the farmers market in town. My grandma had been selling off acreage to pay the medical bills from the kidney failure that had consumed and killed my granddad the year before. My dad wanted to leave her free to do what she needed to with her land.

He liked having his own place even if everyone said nothing would come of it. The soil was poor I think we were happy enough there. My mother had wallpapered the kitchen and bedrooms with money she earned cutting hair. She had a stool on the old shade porch, and women would bring their boys from town to sit on it while Ma ran the clippers over their skulls. She charged two dollars less than the barber shop in town for pretty much the same result.

She had planted winter beds in old tractor tires, and they were already lush with spring greens, beats and even a few strawberries. I remember the day clearly. It was late morning and I was helping with the garden, more likely just pushing dirt around, when I noticed the absence of the sound of the tractor running in the back fields for the first time in weeks.

I spotted my dad by the well spigot near the barn, and he was washing the dirt off his forearms and splashing the back of his neck. Ma looked up from the bundle of vegetables collected on the lap of her garden dress. She smiled with surprise.

“Let’s fix a lunch and go to the creek,” he said. He wasn’t quite smiling. I couldn’t say that I’d ever seen him smile in earnest. But there was a light in his eyes. He took off his cap and wiped his brow.

Ma sliced radishes and cheese and rye bread. She poured some cream in an old jelly jar and then filled the balance of it with strawberries. She wrapped slices of deer sausage from a March doe in waxed paper and bundled all of it in a bandana.

Dad brought along a heavy wool Navy blanket and a couple of cane poles, and we walked a path he kept mowed short enough that we didn’t have to work about ticks. It took us all the way to the back of the farm where there was a gate that let out on a stone county road, more of a twin-track that was used by the local farmers. We climbed up past my grandmother’s place and then down into a draw near the base of Carson’s Ridge where Bonne Femme Creek still ran clear and swift, eddies coiling into long, deep, rocky pools.

We found a grassy spot on the bank of our favorite pool, and I can remember the chicory and blue-eyed grass giving a splash of color.  Ma found a warm, sunny spot near the rusted metal gates of an old family cemetery. I don’t know if anyone knew who those old headstones belonged to, maybe the very first family to farm this country after it had only been Osage land. The names were weathered off and weeds grew up inside the iron fence.

We ate the strawberries and cream first. Ma gave us each a spoon, but they left most of it for me. We ate sausage and sliced radishes on the rye bread and then dad laid back on the blanket and began to snore softly within moments. I stared at his brow and watched it twitch as a bee hovered close.

Ma and I took up the poles and dug for worms in the soft bank with driftwood. We cast bobbers into the pool and watched the sunfish expertly remove our worms, red and white floats dancing in the riffle and then gliding even once they’d removed their quarry. We didn’t catch anything. We didn’t speak. We just sat on the banks and smelled the turned earth and the rich, sweet green of adolescent spring leaves and the early wildflowers. It was nice because there were no hard words, no impatient questions from my old man or vacant responses from Ma. Even as a small child I could read there was little they cared for in one another.  But this day none of that showed.

We came back to the blanket and Dad was cutting on a walking stick, notching lines on one end for the handle, scraping off bark. I hoped that he was making it for me, but I suspected that he wasn’t. Maybe he was just filling time, and he’d leave it when we packed to go, in which case it would be mine to take. Greed exists in the most basic form in children.

Ma lay down on the thick, coarse wool and Dad laid down next to her on his side, his head propped by one elbow, his chin in his palm. They weren’t touching.

At first I thought he might be staring at her hair as it was stirred by the balmy spring breeze, but then I realized that he was staring at the old family grave plot. He looked for a long time, and then I remembered that he sat up suddenly and shaded his eyes, staring into the tall grass between the weathered old markers.

“What is it?” Ma asked, and he just shook his head and lay back down, glancing sideways into the cool, tall grass as he did so.

That’s when I heard a plop and I rushed to a bank to see a huge alligator snapping turtle scoot into the depths of the pool. I watched the trail he’d made dragging his thick tail across the mud of the bank. When I got back Ma and Dad were wordlessly packing up the picnic. Ma smiled and hummed to herself and dad glanced at his watch and then the sun to see how much time he had left for tractor work.

I remember hearing a crow caw as we left the creek bank.  “That was nice,” Ma said later as we crossed our property. She reached out absently and brushed the back of my neck. There was a gentleness underneath her calluses, and a strength in her fingers, and it was the kind of touch that makes a boy know that there is good things in the world.

That was the only time I figure all three of us were happy. Even my old man. The following spring the banks of Bonne Femme would flood the bottom ground well into planting season so that a few neighbors wouldn’t even get their corn in. By August, Ma would be dead. And a year after, my old man would walk past me into the kitchen to take down the twenty-gauge he kept on the ledge above the Frigidaire.

A bullshit artist looks at forty

Here I am back in my hometown of Chicago, slouching toward the birth of the new year, the year in which I’ll hit the big four-oh. Maybe it’s too soon to start in with the hand-wringing that usually accompanies the reaching of the rough middle point of one’s journey across this great green and blue rock. But navel gazing is a specialty of us writer-types, especially those of us educated by the MFA writing program industry.

Midlife crises are nothing new to me. I’ve been having them on and off since my teens when a sudden growth spurt ended my unlikely gymnastics career. I then turned to tennis, the Chicago Board of Options Exchange, a stint with a rock band, a pair of failed attempts at the Foreign Service Exam, three stabs over a fifteen year period at writing a Great American Novel, a solid near miss at writing for the screen and my current preoccupation with making a (low-budget) feature film of some sort.

Most of these endeavors have involved storytelling of one form or another. Partner that with my career in public relations and institutional communications, and it involves a whole lot of fiction. In short: bullshit. This penchant for stories arises mainly from a hell of a lot of movies and books over the years. I love both of these forms, and not a few of them have changed the course of my life as I’ve struck out in a new direction dragging my wife and kid along as I go. Books are dangerous and powerful things. Sometimes. Other times they put you to sleep. Often, at their best, they just make you smile and lay the pages in your lap, closing your eyes and savoring the funny way they make your brain feel.

Storytelling is an art and a craft and a compulsion. Some people do it really, really well. Some are just pretty good. Most suck at it. I haven’t quite figured out where I fit on that spectrum. What I do know, though, is that I’ve run out of roughly half of the time endowed to me to find out. And now the chances will grow slimmer with each passing minute. This doesn’t frighten or frustrate me that much. Sure I sense the sand slipping through the hourglass. But I’m also starting to approach an acceptance of the fact that I may never really know.

As a writer, I’ve been good enough to show well in a contest here or there. Outside my day job, I’ve earned a grand total of less than five thousand dollars for my scribblings. Not bad, actually. How many people have hobbies that pay them back? How many people approach, say, the watching of television like a part-time job? Instead, I tell stories. Sometimes people read them. Sometimes they even pay me for them.

Add to that a few plane tickets to LA, and one dinner in particular in Santa Monica that I recall where a producer asked me, without irony, who I’d like to play the lead role in the film of a screenplay I’d written. “What about Leonardo DiCaprio?” I asked. The producer frowned. I thought he might laugh. But he didn’t. He was thinking. “No,” he said, “don’t think we could get him. Who else?”

That film didn’t get produced. Neither did the next half dozen scripts I wrote outside of one short film, which I made myself with the help of friends. That turned out to be one of the more exhilarating storytelling experiences in this long, ambling and not very lucrative part-time career.

And while all of this other stuff was going on, this reading and writing and filmmaking, etc, I’ve wound up having a fairly rewarding actual career in another aspect of the bullshit biz. I’ve clawed my way up to middle management in a PR shop for a state institution, which sounds quite horrid but actually isn’t. I have no problems punching a clock, growing up as I did in a union household. My old man counted money in a dingy, smoky vault below crooked horse tracks under the direction of a state racing commission and various and occasionally nefarious wealthy families. For fun he golfs, dotes on a fancy car and for many years cared for and operated a speedboat, treating a host of family and friends to lake holidays over the years.

Instead of speedboating, I make up stories in my spare time. Instead of planning the union picnic, I make super low-budget movies. My endeavors may be a tad Quixotic compared to my father’s and his race track friends’, but they’re no less enjoyable.

I don’t want to give the actual, paying job short shrift. I’ve had some nice rewards, not the least of which being health benefits and a steady paycheck that over the years has enabled world travel and helped with the acquisition of not a few nice bottles of wine. We sent our daughter to a solid private preschool. Cutting corners means forgoing a vacation rental in favor of tent  camping or putting off buying a new lens for my camera for a month or two. We’re not rich. We’ll never be rich. But, right now, anyway, we’re not hurting.

And building websites and helping put together marketing campaigns online has brought some creative satisfaction and a bit of recognition. It amuses me that I get to travel around the country and give presentations to folks about some of the things I do on a job I never expected or wanted in the first place. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate or enjoy said job. It’s just that I always thought I’d be doing something else. Like cashing checks from New York publishers or Los Angeles producers.

But I’ve learned that this isn’t really how the world works. Maybe for some people, but not for the vast majority. As I slouch toward forty, I’m realizing that this kind of sucks, but then it’s also not really that bad. If I could have my choice of a career, I’d be sitting in a book-stuffed cabin near Sisters, Oregon with a view of the three volcanic peaks, hacking away at a vintage typewriter, amassing pages, which I’d slip into an envelope and send to an agent. Every so often, a check would come in the mail. I’d occasionally get up to split wood and feed the fireplace. I’d pick my daughter up from school and then fix dinner for the family. In the evenings we’d watch Francis Ford Coppola movies or I’d actually have time to read the New Yorker weekly. On weekends I’d fish for trout or sketch landscapes. Maybe I’d take photographs of flowers with a macro lens.

But that’s not how it works. Maybe reaching forty means that you begin to accept and realize what’s fantasy and what’s not. Right now my goals are less ambitious than the National Book Awards or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I’d like to get a little nicer house so that we can have guests without feeling cramped. I’d like a six-burner stove and more time to cook. I’d like to be a little less stressed at work and have a little more time to engage in bullshit artistry: I’d like to take a shot at another novel or script. Maybe one will be something I’m really, really pleased with, whether or not it’s ever published or produced. I want to fish more, go backpacking with my daughter, and increase the number of times per year that my wife and I take in dinner and a show.

All of these goals seem reasonable. I even hope to accomplish one or two of them in 2011. And the rest should be easily attainable sometime over the next forty years.

‘A Country Wedding’ screens this Saturday

Our short film, A Country Wedding, will be screening this Saturday, October 16 at the Salem Film Festival. It seems like ages ago that we wrapped production and eventually premiered at the Da Vinci FF, so I’m excited to get back and see it on a big screen again.

Here’s the blurb from IMDB:

Infatuated with his cousin Charity since childhood, Jake is an emotional wreck as he’s forced to not only attend her shotgun wedding to the town loser, but to also serve as the best man. When called upon to make a speech that he was unprepared to give, Jake finds himself admitting his true feelings for his cousin in front of the entire congregation. A Country Wedding is a sad, funny, small town tale of love gone wrong.

So come check it out if you’re in the mid-valley area this weekend.

Actors Paul Turner and Eric Lehman from A Country Wedding.

Gutenberg, iPhones and “Far Beyond the Pale”

Update – 08-11-10 – ReadWriteWeb offered 5 reasons why paper books are better than eBooks. Kobo offers a host of free eBooks including every classic you’ll ever need to read.

It’s been at least ten years since I first started thinking seriously about eBooks and getting excited about the idea.  I had a Palm Pilot for work, and the display was poor and the Internet connection was horrible. But I loved the idea of carrying an entire library in my pocket. Still, I never even purchased the first book. The Palm Pilot is probably in some museum right now. Maybe the Gutenberg Museum we recently visited in Mainz, Germany.

Well, it’s taken me ten years to finally give it a try. What I needed was the right device and a strong reason to jump in. I bought an iPhone a couple years ago. But still, I didn’t download the Kindle app and a book until  my friend Daren Dean released his amazing novel, Far Beyond the Pale, on Amazon. I downloaded the app and fired up the book, and now I’m thoroughly enjoying both Daren’s excellent writing and the experience of reading a novel electronically.

Readwriteweb recently gave five reasons why eBooks are better than their paper ancestors.Though they highlight some amazing features of eBooks that aren’t available in the dead tree format, I wouldn’t go so far as saying this makes them superior. There’s still nothing quite like the smell of a fresh (or old and dusty) book, or the feel of pulp in your hands. There’s a sensory pleasure in reading a paper book that can’t be replicated digitally.

But the actual act reading, of experiencing words, even on the iPhone’s small screen, is just as engaging as reading on paper. You can make notes, highlight, save your spot. The iPhone allows you to flip pages with your thumb, adding a new level of touch to the experience that pressing a button can’t give you. The digital annotation tools are more efficient than the analog system of sticky notes, highlighters, bent corners and margin scrawls (albeit aesthetically less pleasing). The price is also fantastic. Daren is self-published, but I was able to buy his novel at a price on Kindle that allowed him a better profit margin (per copy) than if he’d connected with a traditional publisher.

Some writers and book lovers may think that the advent of eBooks is a sad day for novels, words and books in general. I think that’s pessimistic horse shit.

There’s also something nice about the short page length on an iPhone…it gives you the feeling of headlong progress (through the 4,000+ pages that Daren’s novel reaches in this format). I thought I’d need time to adjust to thousands of micropages compared to the traditional200-400 page length of a novel, but it’s been no problem at all. In fact, I appreciate being able to flip a page or two between giving my kid a bath or waiting for her to brush her teeth. It seems easier to dip in and out of a novel than reading a fraction of a longer, standard-length page.

Some writers and book lovers may think that the advent of viable eBook platforms is a sad day for novels, words and books in general. I think that’s pessimistic horse shit. eBooks may just be what saves the novel form in this digital age. The new platform introduces the novel experience to people who are used to consuming all of their information on a mobile device and wouldn’t otherwise think to read something of that length. It saves trees. It allows self-published authors to reach a global audience in minutes. It enhances the opportunity to deepen the novel experience with, say, video of the author reading or social highlighting and notes that give you an instant book discussion group. The future of the book-length manuscript would be far more precarious if they didn’t translate so smoothly to the Kindle, iPhone and iPad.

And it’s silly to think that paper books will die as a result of the growing popularity of eBooks. We all now have keyboards and mobile devices that shoot video and record audio. People write blogs and online diaries and send volumes of digitally composed email. But personal journals are as popular as ever. Moleskine notebooks are on sale everywhere. I see them in every coffee shop in Oregon, but I also recently returned from Germany and Italy, and they’re all over Europe as well. Every corner in Florence seemed to have a fine stationary shop, where Moleskines were the cheap option, and antique leather notebooks fetched ridiculous prices. There’s still a place for the handwritten word five hundred years after Gutenberg. People will always read paper books as well.

Girl printing in the Gutenberg Museum Print Shop

While we were in Germany, we stopped at  the Gutenberg Museum. My daughter joined her cousins in making prints in the museum’s hands-on print shop. She was thrilled by the tactile, mechanical experience of creating art in a method not unlike Gutenberg used when he printed his first Bible page a half millennium ago. This experience could never be replicated digitally. The art hanging on the walls of the print shop was innovative, and had a warm, comfortable feeling. Prints will be decorating walls for as long as I’m alive. Gutenberg’s invention brought the Bible and a host of other materials to the hands of people who didn’t have access to them before. He created a world of readers, expanding the simple practice of reading to the great unwashed. eBooks have the potential of bringing novels and book-length manuscripts forward, not only reaching people who already read them, but even introducing them to folks who never would have thought to pick up a manuscript on their own before.

Gutenberg Bible

So for writers and serious readers, there’s nothing to fear from eBooks. Bookstores will still exist. Some will flourish, and some will close. But books and novel manuscripts will persist. Writers like Daren Dean will be able to share their stories with friends on the other side of the country, and hopefully even reach a wider audience. Far Beyond the Pale is a compelling novel with an engaging voice. It’s a little raw, but it’s better than a lot of the pap that I’ve bought from traditional publishers in the past year. It also has a feeling of personal authenticity that other novels I’ve read recently. Maybe it’s because I know Daren, or maybe it’s because the digital age is allowing novelists to engage readers without the filter of big corporate publishers.

Daren is an amazing writer who surrounds his readers with voice-driven prose and rich, tactile imagery that comes through just as well on screen as it does on paper. And even traditional publishers and agents have been telling him for years that he’s an amazing writer, though, “the market is just too tough right now.” But today he’s now able to reach the audience he deserves.

Gutenberg would be pleased.