The Why

I woke up this morning and thought, I'd really like to go for a run today, only it was pissing with rain, the streets slick and the eaves dripping. So I hunkered down in the study with several cups of lapsang souchong tea (there's nothing like drinking tea that smells of woodfire smoke in winter to make you feel the season in your bones) and got to work. Several hours later I was so absorbed in my work I was surprised to notice that the day has cleared entirely, the sky blue through the empty branches of the plum tree outside my window. No, I still haven't gone for my run.

I'm doing research, and in order to continue this post I'm going to have to admit once and for all something that I have a hard time saying aloud. Every time the words escape my lips I give a little schoolgirl giggle, blush furiously, and backtrack out of embarrasment. But, I'm writing a book (yes, a book, b-o-o-k and no, you do not need to tell me how unlikely literary success is in this age), and today I've been searching for information on the best way to pitch said book to literary agents.

The problem, of course, is that said book belongs to a genre that is nebulous at best. It's certainly not fiction, but it's also not a biography, an analysis of current events, a how-to book. Okay, so it must be something else? How about memoir, or narrative nonfiction. According to one site memoir is "the only nonfiction subject that must be treated as fiction," while "narrative still nonfiction and you would submit a proposal." Which is fine, except that my book is not memoir, strictly speaking, and neither is it narrative nonfiction, strictly speaking, if I'm to believe what I read (narrative nonfiction: The Perfect Storm, Seabiscuit, et cetera). The only way I've ever been able to pinpoint what I'm writing is by comparing it to other things, kind of like a movie pitch. It's The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton meets Sun After Dark by Pico Iyer meets The Flaneur by Edmund White meets All Souls by Javiar Marias (which is a novel, confusingly) meets Isolarian by James Atlee--you get the point. And obviously, the more I think about it, the deeper I fall into the abyss of finding the genre.

So I'm stepping away from that for awhile. Something I read this morning advised the author to "look at the value your book offers to the reader," and that's something I can do much more easily. It makes me think of Roger Mudd asking Ted Kennedy in 1979: "Why do you want to be president?" and Ted Kennedy botching the answer, not knowing, not being able to compensate for never having thought about a question that sounds too basic to be problematic. It was one of the greatest lessons of my undergraduate degree: if you're going to run for president (or write a book, for that matter), you should sure as hell be able to answer the question "why."

Why? Because I'm too young to write a book; because there's no reason I can think of for someone to remain silent because of age or experience. Because while we may be entering an era of austerity, the election of Barack Obama indicates that we're finally, eight years late, exiting an era of intellectual shrinkage. We're becoming curious again*, and suddenly, the way in which we view the world--as individuals, as a generation, as the human race--is becomming important. Because sometimes a city is not just a dot on the map but a state of mind, and this affects us, whether we think about it or not. Because the art of experiencing place is a universal art; there is a backdrop to everything. Because the more we think about where we are--physically, geographically, generationally, emotionally, intellectually--the better we're able to understand where we're going. And because there's always something to be said for a few pretty words on a page. It's finer entertainment than anything else I can think of.

*Obama: "But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old."