My MFA writing professor has been assigning us experiments on pretty much a weekly basis, and several of them have come from a book titled The 3 a.m. Epiphany. It bills itself as “uncommon writing exercises,” and while I’ve always been more of a free-form writer, I’ve been enjoying the exercises she gave us.
I’ve also been trying to fill up my writing craft book collection, so I snagged a copy of The 3 a.m. Epiphany. Whenever possible, though, I try to get my books used. For one thing, I’m poor. For another, it helps out independent booksellers more than Bezos, who already gets enough of my money. Unfortunately, this book wasn’t available in inventory at my local bookseller, so I hunted down a used-book reseller via Amazon after all.
The seller was AikiFox Books, based in Illinois, and half the proceeds from the shop go to Books 2 Prisoners, a nonprofit that provides books to incarcerated people in my state. I hadn’t heard of them before, so not only did I buy the book, but I made note of their contact info for my charity book sales. We always have books left over after the big book sale for the American Cancer Society in October, and while not all our titles will be appropriate for the prisoners, I’d like for them to go to good use.
My book arrived the same day as this week’s workshop, where we were once again given a prompt and a photo. I talked about the book with my professor, and as we were discussing its merits, I started flipping through it.
At first I was annoyed. I don’t mind a used book being a little dinged up, but to me, “acceptable” means I’m getting the original book, not someone else’s interpretation.
But then I climbed down off my high horse. For one thing, it seems the seller did mention “underlining and margin notes throughout” in the listing and I wasn’t paying enough attention.
For another, I became intrigued by the phantom note-taker.
Many of their notes are simply restating what is said in the text: underlining “Irony in fiction is similar to how F. Scott Fitzgerald (by way of Keats) defined genius: the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time without going mad.” Then the previous reader wrote in the margins: “working with contradictory thoughts.” Well, yes, note-taker, that’s what it says in the quote.
Other times there are personal notes: “I love this” or “this is key” written next to specific passages. In others, they go beyond the underlined passage: “The authorial duty of inhabiting minds, but only having the ability to inhabit our own.” What does that mean? Did they know? Do I?
The Half-Blood Prince in J.K. Rowling’s well-known book was, of course, a character we already knew well, but his notations in Harry Potter’s textbook revealed more about his personality and motivations than we knew then (and some still debate today, when not debating the problematic author.)
I feel as though my own half-blood prince is traveling through this book with me. It’s rather like walking through a writing book with my own unseen guide, saying, “I’ve mapped out this territory and here’s what I saw.”
I wonder about that person. They put so much time and effort into studying this book, and filled the margins with their thoughts. Why would they invest all that attention and detail into this book… and then discard it? It would be like donating your diary to Goodwill.
I’ve only begun to walk through this little book and its suggestions, and I don’t know what my half-blood prince will share along the way. But I already know I’ve gotten much more than I paid for in this little addition to my library.
Elizabeth Donald is a freelance writer, editor, photographer, grad student and teaching assistant, as well as the president of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists and Eville Writers, and a member of more organizations than she can list in a brief bio. She lives with her family in a haunted house in Illinois, and in her spare time, she has no spare time. Find out more at donaldmedia.com or check out her Patreon.