At book signings, this author is often at a loss for words

Public readings are no problem, but the dutiful act of penning personal inscriptions is harder to muster.

I pride myself on never being at a loss for words when I sit down to write. As long as I have some idea of where I want to go with an essay, short story, or general article, I find that words elicit words, like the domino effect. The idea is to get started, and once I do, everything else tends to fall into place.

Thus it is with some measure of chagrin that I admit to one form of writing that is deeply challenging for me: the personal inscription.

For each of the books I have written, I have enthusiastically done public readings, which I greatly enjoy. But then comes the dutiful part – inscribing the books that my readers have been so kind as to purchase.

The first few go down like sugar, because I can draw upon my stock of time-tested phrases: best wishes, warm wishes, warmest wishes, kind regards.

Then the going gets tougher, because the writer in me dictates that I avoid repeating myself. If someone from outside my home state of Maine asks me for an inscription, I like to write, "With warmth from the North Country." Another of my favorites is "With best regards from the heart of Maine." But beyond this, I flail.

The bottom line is that I wish I could be more creative. I harbor a fantasy of being at the receiving end of an endless thread of original thoughts, so that every book I inscribe would contain something unique.

Alas, this fantasy has never been realized. Fortunately, my readers are generous of spirit and seem grateful simply to have an inscription with my name attached to it – well, usually.

A few years back, after giving a reading at a local bookstore, I was inscribing books for a long line of attendees. I noticed that one woman in the line was repeatedly firming her lips and scowling at me. This put me on edge, and I found it hard to concentrate on what I was writing. When she finally arrived at the head of the line she put her book down on the table in front of me and said, "Now listen, you're probably writing the same thing in everybody's book. I want something different."

It was then that I noticed an ink pad near the cash register. Seizing inspiration, I took it, pressed my thumb into the ink, and transferred my fingerprint to the title page of the book. "There," I said. "Not another one like it." The woman was speechless – but I think she went away satisfied.

I was recently subjected to the acid test when I did a signing and a reader plopped down 18 (!) copies of my book. "They're gifts," she said. "Please write something different in each one."

In light of such a magnanimous purchase, I was in no position to temporize. I began with the usual "best wishes" and "warm wishes," but by the time I had reached the 18th copy, I was wincing at my own lack of inspiration ("Thanks for reading!" – ouch).

I suppose that someday I should sit down and develop a list of inscriptions as if it were a creative work in its own right. If I could refine 40 or so, I'd be set for future readings with a ready repertoire of nice phrases. I think the recipients would be pleased if they compared books and saw that I had written something different and original in each one.

Inscribing a book does not necessarily give it the permanence in someone's collection that I would hope. Not long ago I had the dispiriting experience of finding a secondhand copy of one of my books in a local shop. Not only that, but I had inscribed it to the original purchaser, who was a fairly close friend. This destroyed my conceit that no one would ever sell a book I had signed.

George Bernard Shaw encountered this very dilemma. He once inscribed one of his books "To -----, with esteem." Years later he found the book in an antiquarian bookshop, whereupon he bought it and sent it back to his friend with the addendum, "To -----, with renewed esteem"! Now, why couldn't I have been the first to think of that?

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