Dangerous Opportunities

I just returned home from a lovely day that included a lot of walking.

I walked in aimless loops around Harvard Square with an old friend and fellow writer as we talked about our work– books to read and projects to compose.  I walked from Porter to Central, concerned with two contradictory tasks– to feed birds the excess bread I acquired from dinner, while also making it on time to Grub Street’s second lecture in their “Publish It Forward” series.  After, I walked hand in hand with Kyle, down Newbury Street, which had been abandoned during a blackout.

All these walks were wonderful for different reasons, and inspirational in their own way, but a blackout downtown is a rare and awesome event.  Shops and restaurants were closed early, no cars were parked on the street.  Emergency lights from bigger buildings like the Hynes Convention Center and the Boston Architectural Center provided a dim glow; the street was briefly lit by the occasional utility van or taxi.  Few pedestrians passed by, and in the dark I did not notice when someone stood quietly in a doorway, or perched themselves on steps to watch the scene.  A thin mist wafting between buildings was illuminated in blue and white flashing police lights.

It was eerie, of course.  I took mental notes, thinking that these images may prove to be useful in a story or scene someday–especially the single candlestick that burned in an otherwise empty window in the third floor apartment of a brownstone.  It did occur to me that perhaps this was an actual emergency, particularly when a woman passed by covering her nose and mouth with the collar of her shirt.  It wasn’t until we reached Exeter and a police officer told us to turn around and leave the area, that we realized something bad had happened, and we hurried back to the car and drove home.

We sat on our front steps, away from the blackout downtown.  The silhouette of the Prudential blended with the night sky.  We discovered, using Facebook on our phones, that the blackout was caused by a fire, the mist was smoke, we had briefly inhaled toxic fumes as we cheerfully skipped down the dark street.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the word “crisis.”  I wouldn’t have thought much about it until I had lunch with my dad.  We sat at our favorite sushi restaurant, and out of nowhere he asked, “Do you know what the Chinese meaning of ‘crisis’ is?”

I put my chopsticks down and braced myself for a long explanation.

My father has a way with words.  When I was a child, stubbornly resisting his Sunday Chinese lessons, he told me, “Teaching you is like pushing a rope.”  When recalling the day I was born, he sentimentally confessed, “It was like all four winds were hitting me at once.”  I sometimes wonder if this is because his first language is Mandarin, the words of which are formed by metaphors.  Other times I think that years of teaching kung fu has given him license to dispense single lines of Mr. Miyagi-esque wisdom.

“There are two characters that make the word ‘crisis,'” he told me at lunch.  “Do you know what they are?”

I shook my head no.

“Dangerous.  Opportunity,” he stared at me before snatching a piece of nigiri with his chopsticks.  “True, don’t you think?”

I think about that word a lot now.

With all the changes in publishing technology, Grub Street has done Boston writers a great favor by hosting discussions with authors, agents, and publishers in their “Publish It Forward” lecture series.  I admit, I was one of the writers who got freaked out when Amazon introduced the kindle and ebooks started becoming popular.  That was before I gave up my day job to do this writing thing full time.  The more I learned about the reality of publishing, I started to consider that maybe things weren’t so dismal for an unpublished author.  Maybe I didn’t need to be so intimidated.  Maybe I can have some authority over my own work, rather than depend on the approval of some senior editor at an impenetrable publishing house.

When tonight’s guest speaker, Jason Ashlock, President of the literary agency Movable Type, suggested that today’s agent is currently faced with a crisis, my ears perked up.   Amidst the chaos in the publishing world which an editor friend of mine referred to as, “the wild west,” Ashlock found success as an agent by embracing these changes rather than clinging to tradition which risks becoming obsolete.

I have attended both “Publish It Forward” lectures, and if I possible I would attend all of them.  I leave feeling hopeful for the future of my fellow writers, that we will all have a chance to do our work and share what we love.  Quitting my day job was risky, maybe it was a dangerous opportunity, but it was the right decision for me.

As for walking through potentially dangerous downtown chaos, I’ll probably save that opportunity for someone else.