Fifty Shades of Fear: why Powell’s in Portland is the scariest book shop on earth…

I love books. I have PILES of them. Granted they’re stacked quite conveniently inside my Kindle right now, meaning I no longer have to walk around with three hundred pounds of paper on my back like a snail trapped in a falling rainforest. But even Amazon, the real one or the digital one surely can’t compare to Powell’s here in Portland.

Powell’s is gargantuan. It is quite literally the largest independent used and new bookstore in the world and therefore the most terrifying place on the planet for a literally unknown writer to visit… with a craft beer hangover. Christ. Even the effing stairs were asking me questions that scared me.

Perhaps I wasn’t in the right frame of mind this morning when I walked through the doors. I’m currently at what you might call a crossroads – a situation I tend to get myself into every year or so when I decide for the LAST TIME (it’s always the last time) that I’ll go somewhere else in search of something else, even though I still don’t know what that is. As well as that, I’m waiting for news on a number of different projects and publishing is a tough market right now… possibly the toughest it’s ever been. But after a couple of hours wandering round Powell’s, reading the backs of all the books I perhaps could have written had they not been written before by someone else, I started to feel the fear.

ALL THESE BOOKS. All these words and sentences, paragraphs, stories, journeys, diatribes, monologues, poems, dedications, memoirs, feelings… all these LIVES. All these people who’ve written and ranted and raved and sat hunched at a desk or curled in a chair, tapping, bashing keyboards, inking quills, throwing things across the room, hoping, dreaming, screaming, reaching deep inside their very souls to clutch the right words, the right DIFFERENT words from a seemingly infinite array of adjectives and arrangements… and here I am, one of these people, feeling the fear. One of millions. Just one.

I’m feeling the fear because the reason I fly and flutter around looking for something, ANYTHING that I can land on to redefine the world inside my head is not necessarily to write about it. It’s to feel it. And as writing has become my job, so too has feeling everything, from the depths of my soul… even when I’m really very shallow.

You have to feel something to engage another human being. Something real. You have to live. And sometimes you have to die a little bit inside, too. You have to love and then you have to let things go. You have to experience the full spectrum of emotion if you want your words about it all to be believed; and your words must be believed, because if they’re not, you will have failed.

It’s scary to think about. It’s the fear I think that both propels writers and stops them dead in their tracks. It’s the fear that leads them to drinking that beer… and anything else they can get their hands on. And it’s magnified in massive book shops.

Of course, in lighter moments I tend to think that if I just stay true to myself, the right words can’t fail to find me, right? They just might not ever be printed… because… well, because publishers are currently swamped in manuscripts featuring soft porn. And post-apocalyptic wars between children.

I spoke to a guy who works at Powell’s. He read his practiced spiel into my iPhone voice recorder and his numbers made my eyes bulge. Powell’s spans 76,000 square metres of floor space and houses three quarters of a million titles. There are over a million books in store, seventy percent of which are used, and they buy between four and six thousand books every single day. Powell’s also recently bought Anne Rice’s entire library… which, if you’re interested, did not include Twilight.

Out of all of these… out of all of this…  currently the best-selling book is Fifty Shades of Grey; a book that is essentially a questionably written homage to “romantic Sadomasochism.” I rather like this book. A little too much if I’m honest. And as I stood there mentally placing a book of my own in that empty number five spot right there, I thought, you know what, I too could write a soft porn. And then I got scared all over again. I can barely even look at myself naked.

Powell’s book shop is about as terrifying as it is inspiring. I had to go home and sleep so I could process it all. Especially after I asked the nice man if he would look up Burqalicious on his computer and he confirmed it will indeed be sold… and probably lost… in this paperbacked labyrinth at the end of July.

Perhaps I sound ungrateful. Hmmm. I have already been published, that’s true, but I feel the fear because I know I have to keep going. I can’t just decide to do anything else either, like fuck it all off and go work in a coffee shop if it all gets too much. I’ll just get fired. Again.

Powell’s is a living testament to everyone else who felt and feels the same. And probably… if they also had a hangover and self-pitying “woe is me” moment thanks to five pints of Oregon’s finest craft beer the night before… gave it all up for a week to hide in a book about spanking in a Portland hotel room.