Invisible Man: The Inner Self Revealed

We’re less than a week away from Halloween! If you had to design a costume that channeled your true, innermost self, what would that costume look like? Would you dare to wear it?

This is today’s writing prompt posted by The Daily Post.

formal-tuxedo-skin-suitThe more I go looking for the deep inner self the more it seems to un-self and so the costume that channeled the depths inside would be the invisible man.

It might be better to say it would not be a human figure at all, but a house of mirrors. But that would be a difficult costume to pull off.

When Rene Descartes pondered the question of what he could know of reality he concluded that all he could know for sure was that there was some essence posing the question. “I think, therefore I am.”

Thus the scientific name for man: homo sapiens sapiens. The man who knows that he knows or the man who thinks he thinks.

Indeed, thinking feels like something I do. It is not like feeling. I would not say “I feel, therefore I am” because I do not have a sense of causing my emotions. Emotions happen to me and I respond to them.

Maybe though thoughts are the same. There is not an I who willfully thinks them. There are thoughts and some mechanism for observing their appearance.

Obseruo ergo sum.

“We create ourselves by inference: automatically and irresistibly,” wrote Paul Broks in Into the Silent Land. “In doing so we ride the rails of the deepest human convention, but, at root, it is just that: a convention. The self is not an intrinsic feature of the brain and it is possible to become derailed– through psychosis, like the man with the fish n his head, or as a result of brain damage. The degradation of personality is a neurological commonplace.”

Although it feels as though there is a ghost in the machine, this may be the illusion upon which all others are heaped.

The costume that would reveal my deep inner self would be an invisible man in a house of mirrors.

What Kind of Week Has It Been?

AngelLargeSquareOverall, this has been a pretty good writer week. I say “writer” week as opposed to “writing” week to distinguish between the career and the creation.

The audio version of my first novel Angel has just been released and my crowdfunding campaign for my second novel Identity Theft has been attracting great results. (But still needs your support– 57% funded with five days to go.)

Promoting these two different novels in one week has given me the opportunity to compare and contrast them. Outwardly the two stories are quite different. Angel is the story of a Christian minister who becomes attracted to a troubled young man. (In the intro to an interview I gave today it was referred to as “the author’s homosexual story.”)

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Identity Theft tells the story of a young man who works in a rock star’s office, the havoc he creates after he decides to flirt with a fan online in the guise of his boss, and his attempts to fix the situation without revealing what he has done.

They are different in tone. Angel is more lyrical and literary. Identity Theft is more humorous, contemporary and plot-driven. It actually has more vivid description of sex than Angel, yet I am willing to bet that it is 99.9% less likely to find itself saddled with the “erotica” and “controversial” labels because all the characters are straight.

Both novels, in their own ways, deal with the question of identity. In Angel, the protagonist Paul finds his identity as a Christian threatened by his new identity as a man who loves another man. He is uncomfortable with labels like “bisexual” and what people might assume comes with it. He struggles with the question of who gets to decide if he is “Christian” enough. His entire congregation is forced to wrestle with its identity.

Angel could really have been called Identity Theft too.

Why a Traditionally Published Author of 15 Books Chooses to Go Indie

I did an interview today on The Readdicts to help get the word out about my crowdfunding campaign to publish the novel Identity Theft.  I ended up talking quite a bit about the business of publishing and why, I think, we’ve reached a tipping point where it makes more sense for career-minded writers to publish themselves, at least for certain kinds of books.

After 15 books or so with traditional publishers, going it alone does make me a bit nervous. But the slow pace of the traditional publishing world started to get to me. I have been extremely prolific since Angel came out, but you’d never know it based on what has been published. Publishers are overwhelmed with submissions, each book takes months to make, and there is no way to make that beast turn quickly. Your momentum as an artist is always being stalled and your career momentum– your ability to make a living, gets stalled too. So I would like to be able to share what I make on my own time table. Musicians discovered years ago that they were better off putting out their own music than trying to get the big labels to do it. Even big stars have their own labels now. There are some projects that I wouldn’t want to do on my own, and I’m sure I’ll keep working with traditional publishers. But for something like this, I’m going to take my destiny into my own hands.

You can read the full interview here.

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If you support the notion that people in the arts deserve to be paid for their work, I would like to invite you to be a job creator by placing an advance order for Identity Theft. A lot of people besides the author go into making a professional quality book. You need a talented editor, cover designer, and layout person. These are all artists in their own rights. One of the consequences of the big publishing houses consolidating and more and more books being self-published is that the market for behind-the-scenes book creators is increasingly made up of self-published authors who are, themselves, operating on a shoestring. This drives the price for their work down and makes it harder for them to make a living.

The literary crowdfunding site Pubslush has a two tiered system. You select a minimum and an upper level goal. (I don’t call it a maximum because it can be surpassed if there is sufficient enthusiasm.) Identity Theft has hit its minimum goal. This is exciting because it means the book will be made, but it means it can only be made on a shoestring. Predictably some of the urgency of the campaign faded when it hit this milestone. For the book to be made to the standard I would like, and for everyone involved to be compensated as the professionals they are, we need to hit that upper goal. There are only five days left.

There is a very simple way for you to become a job creator. All you have to do is go to Pubslush and order a book. The funding levels on the project correspond to the price of a book, you can order an ebook for $10 or a print book for $15. As soon as it is finished you will be one of the first on your block to have one. You will also know that in this simple way you have acted as a patron of the arts.

Ego and Economics: Bad Reviews, Stalking Authors and the sense of Existential Threat

I’ve been following much of the discussion surrounding the controversial Guardian article by author Kathleen Hale. Hale became obsessed with a reviewer who had given her book a negative review and she tracked her down, drove to her house, tried to confront her and wrote about her stalking in The Guardian.

There is a good chance if you’re involved in the world of books at all, as a reader, reviewer or writer, you are already familiar with the details of this disturbing story. If you’re not, a few articles I would recommend are On the Importance of Pseudonymous Activity; The Choices of Kathleen Hale; Author Studies, Kathleen Hale, Native Authors; The Choices of Kathleen Hale.

Initially, I must admit, I wanted to write something about this case because it shares so many elements with the novel I am crowdfunding– Identity Theft and I thought there might be a marketing connection. (Identity Theft is about a worker in a rock star’s office who decides to catfish a fan which eventually leads to her being confused for a celebrity stalker.)

But today when I was reading a response story in The Guardian (Inside the World of Amazon Vie Book Reviewers by Suzanne McGee) a quote jumped out at me:

“There is no industry that combines ego and economics like book publishing, however. It is now customary for authors to regard any negative review as a vast threat to their livelihoods and future book sales.”

While it is wrong to take the actions and attitudes of a couple of badly behaving authors as representative of the whole lot of us, there is a lot of truth to this statement. Increasingly, we authors are made to feel as though our careers, indeed our very ability to survive, pay our bills, feed our families, depends upon our online reputations.

Just the other day I clipped an article on marketing for the writer that repeated the conventional wisdom. I wanted to find it again for his article, but I don’t know what I did with it. No matter, you can look at just about any blogging author’s twitter feed to find multiple examples.  The key to having a career as a writer is to form relationships with readers, to build a social community. You need to connect to readers and get them invested in you as a person. Some time ago I wrote about the changing expectations of a writer’s role in the process in an article about Amazon’s @author program for Kindle. The article I was commenting on called the new relationship between author and reader the “digital commodification of authorship that takes place by way of community and conversation.”

In any case, the Nieman article proposes that this assumption, that the author will continue to be available to the reader after completing the book, changes expectations about what a “book” is about. A book becomes a dialogue, never entirely finished and closed. It seems likely that the ways we conceive of “books” and literature will evolve because of this technology. This is an interesting development and we’ll see where it goes.

This notion, that the author will continue to be available to the reader after the book is published, was not the norm in traditional publishing.  The idea that you have to be available, sociable, likeable and connected personally to the audience is a challenging one for a field famously made up of introverts and near hermits. What we socially awkward literary types are being asked to sell is not our work but our personalities. Just when you think you’ve found the career that perfectly suits your solitary nature you’re told that the only way to have a career is to build up your social following, have more “friends” and “likes” and “followers.”

And make no mistake, this social pose is a matter of survival.

“In absolute numbers, more self-published authors are earning a living wage today than Big-5 authors,” says The Tenured vs. Debut Author Report.

Those traditional publishing gigs, complete with professional PR people are fewer and father between. The delays between books make it impossible for a writer to keep career momentum and income flowing. The best way to actually have a living wage as a writer these days is to publish yourself, build a brand, get out there and be social.  Those reputations are built one Goodreads review at a time.  To a less stable individual, a single unflattering comment can become a threat to her very identity and ability to survive.

Debbie Reese wrote an excellent article on why authors and their works cannot be entirely separated.  It is true that your enjoyment of a book does not depend upon your love of the author as a person. Some of the artists we most admire had some of the most problematic personalities. But the identity of the author continues to be part of our legitimate literary discussion:

Teachers assign author studies. There are guides on how to do them. Publishers like Scholastic offer guides, too. In them, students are asked to do research on the author’s life, and that author’s body of work. They are asked to make connections between the author’s life and work. They are also asked to make personal connections between their own life experiences and those of the author and/or characters in the author’s books.

As long as that remains true authors will continue to worry about their online reputations (as we all do) and to feel a bit threatened when they discover something negative is being said about them or their work. The book becomes part of your public identity.

The fact is, no one controls her image or how she comes across to others. No one can guarantee that everyone will love her and think wonderful things about her. We’d all love to be able to ensure that, but we can’t. We all have to come to terms with the fact that not everyone likes us. Writers just have the fortune and misfortune of having this process (when it comes to their work) be more public. Thanks to reviews and sites like Goodreads, we get to hear what people say behind our backs in a way that people generally don’t in every day life. When you read a review you don’t like, it is probably best to treat it as a bit of overheard conversation. The reviewer was not talking to you, but to other readers.  The best thing to do for your own sanity as well as the general peace is to pretend you never heard it. If it’s unfair let other reviewers plead your case. If there is merit to it, file it away for next time you write.

Absolutely do not go on a clue hunting expedition to expose the blogger’s identity and under no circumstances should you leave dog poop in anyone’s mailbox.

Davy Jones: My Imaginary Friend

This post was written in response to a writing prompt from The Daily Post. The prompt suggests writing about your childhood “imaginary friend.”

davy-jones-the-monkeesMy imaginary friend when I was a girl was a real person and yet he was not a real person. Already half himself, a fictional creation bearing his own name, he was transformed in my child’s mind into something even more magical. He was my own creation. A figure I could weave into my own stories.

I don’t remember the stories in which Davy Jones starred. I know the Monkees album played on my Winnie the Pooh record player in the background and that I cast stuffed animals in the other roles. There was a lot of dancing involved.

Later, during the 1980s Monkees revival, when I was in high school, I would discover an affinity for Peter Tork as I grew into an attraction for the 1960s counterculture. In case you’re of the mind that knowing a person’s favorite Monkee or Beatle tells you all you need to know about her, these are my answers: Peter Tork, John Lennon.

As a little girl, though, I somehow knew (from fairly tales probably) that being in love was the most powerful force in the world and the most transformative thing that could happen to a woman was to “fall into” it.

Davy was “the cute one.” He was presented as the one girls were to love, and dutifully I did. This is not to say that my affection was not real. It was very real. I remember coming upstairs (my playroom was in the basement) and announcing to my parents that I had something serious to tell them. I was in love. With Davy Jones.

My father laughed. I was crushed.

I have a diary that I wrote at this time. I filled every page with hearts and variants on “I love Davy Jones” and “LL + DJ.” This, I assumed, was what people in love did.

As I fell in love with the comic mop-tops the Monkees sang about “creature comfort goals” in “status symbol land” and how decisions were no longer easy there were “only shades of gray.” They even sang about suicide (see below) all topics that went over my 7-year-old head.

Incidentally, the one time I met Micky Dolenz, singing autographs at an auto show, I asked him to clarify some of the lyrics to this song, which I hadn’t caught. (This was before you could look up lyrics on the internet)  He said it was “I’ll give you three, I’ve been down nine, I’m going down just one more time goin’ down.” I looked at him with a blank expression. “You know,” he said. “Nine lives. A cat.” I said, “Oh,” and thanked him. His hand was so tired by that point that his signature read “Wing Dog.”

I also managed to get an autograph from Davy Jones too, although I seem to have lost it. I had the chance to see Davy in concert in the 1970s during what I would subsequently learn he called his “alimony tour.” It was a very small bar with tables and I was there with my parents and a couple of girlfriends. We went and stood by the door next to the stage waiting for the Monkee appearance. When he came out on stage we ran to our table. I screamed. I thought that was what you were supposed to do at a Monkees concert– it’s what they did on TV. A woman in the club said, “Calm down girls.” I think I might have cried seeing him in real life. Yet even as a child, I somehow sensed that something wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t quite as joyful as it was supposed to be. This tiny hole in the wall was a huge comedown for the boy whose 16 Magazine image had graced a million lockers. During the performance while dancing and holding up a piece of toast (his backing band was called Toast) he split his trousers. Looking back, this had to have been a low point in the life of the real Davy Jones.

After the show my friends and I waited by that same door and the “calm down, girls” woman took paper for us so Davy could autograph them. She asked my name. She must not have heard it right. The autograph came back “To Nora. David Jones.” I treasured it– until I lost it.

Davy Jones, and all of the Monkees, represented layers upon layers of illusion. Somewhere behind the masks were four real performers. They played comic characters who had only the most superficial relationships to the actors and musicians they were, and yet confusingly they had the same names. Peter Tork, who was an intelligent and sensitive musician seeped in the excesses of the 60s counterculture played the character of Peter Tork, also a musician, but an innocent and ingenuous dimwit.

They had been cast to play the roles of musicians not necessarily to be musicians. The two actors, Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, had little trouble with that. The two musicians had identity crises putting their own names on other people’s music and becoming famous for it. Like all artists the four wanted to be taken seriously and they found the loveable-mop-top image constraining.

I have since read quite a bit about these men in various articles and biographies. I get the impression that these four might not have gotten along all that well and that perhaps charming, cute Davy was the most difficult to get along with. In life the cute boys are often the most assertive and strong-willed as they overcompensate for the child-like impression created by their faces.

I am not sure my life was improved by reading the biographies. The real men who made up the Monkees were not my Monkees. The real Monkees were the imaginary friends they created on television. They were the best of friends, each member distinct in his own way, but they operated always as a unit. They were always struggling to get a gig and pay the rent but their money woes had no real-world consequences except for occasionally triggering a Monkees romp. The real Monkees were the ones who lived in a “groovy pad” with a mannequin named Mr. Schneider who spouted aphorisms when you pulled a cord. I think my idea of a dream home is still the Monkees groovy pad.

(Davy Jones’s idea of a dream home is for sale apparently.)

Performers are magical. They create new beings. The Davy Jones I loved was not the actor David Jones who married and divorced and re-married, who was forced to go on the road at the low point of his fame in order to pay the alimony. That man was connected to my Davy Jones in some way, but my Davy Jones was real and he was his own person. He was born from the images the actor David Jones created and the way the character was received in my mind.

It is common to dismiss these fantasies of childhood, to laugh at the puppy love and to pack it all away, but I believe my ability to take fictional people seriously is something important that I carry with me to this day. It is part of what makes me a writer.

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While I have you here, I would like to invite you to learn a bit about my forthcoming novel Identity Theft. It explores the theme of celebrity infatuation and fantasy. There is only one week to go in the Pubslush crowdfunding campaign to make this title a reality. Your advance order of $15 for the print book or $10 for the ebook will help make its publication a reality, not a dream. Thank you for your support.

Artists: Please Stop Apologizing for Wanting to Make a Living.

In my other life I manage a ballet dancer. So I get a lot of ballet-related posts in my media stream. Today I started to read a story called Why All Those Rules? It was written by ballet teacher Amanda Trusty trying to explain to parents why ballet and ballet instruction can seem a bit rigid compared to, say, soccer practice. She wrote:

 A lot of parents see dance as an activity like soccer that should be free through the school or a club, however the school hasn’t provided us with any space, so we have to charge tuition in order to pay our rent and offer your child a safe space to come and dance. We had to pay for good dance floors – cement is not a healthy surface for dancers. We had to pay for mirrors – yes, glass is THAT expensive. We had to pay for barres, and marley, and rights to play music – all before even asking for tuition to pay the teachers.

Let me tell you from deep down in my heart, we aren’t trying to get rich – we’re just trying to do it right.

Did you catch that? The instinctive defensiveness about making money as if making a profit beyond subsistence is somehow tainted. “I do this for love,” she says. “Not for money.”

You will never hear an automotive executive apologize for making a profit and listing all of the costs that go into what he does to prove that his profits are not excessive.

In his world making a good living only proves that he is successful. If he has success, or even when he doesn’t, he insists upon being well-compensated for his work. He certainly does not apologize for being paid.

I won’t go into why we have this mythos– that the artist should work for love not money. I’ve explored it (and griped about it) in a number of articles in the past. (Notably this one on the “tainted altruism effect.”)

What I want to say here is simply that this is a cycle that must be broken. Artists and those in caring professions– social workers, teachers, caregivers– have to stop apologizing for wanting to be paid. It does not mean you care less. It does not mean your work is less legitimate. It does not make you a “sell-out.” We’ve internalized this notion for far too long.

Do We Live in an Anti-Enthusiasm Culture?

I hate the expression “you have too much time on your hands.”

People usually use it after someone has shared something they put a lot of work into for the pure joy of creation. For example, a friend spent months creating a replica Spanish sailing galleon out of toothpicks. It is incredibly detailed, the windows open, the planks raise and lower, the cannons fire. His friend takes one look at it, shakes his head and says, “You have too much time on your hands.”

With one quick phrase all of that work is rendered ridiculous. the enthusiasm is dismissed.

The idea behind the phrase, I suppose, is that your time would be better spent engaged in some income producing enterprise. Yet you don’t hear people say “you have too much time on your hands” when someone describes what she watched on TV. It is not used for ordinary time wasting endeavors. It is only used for tasks that obviously required a great deal of time and devotion to complete– memorizing all of your favorite sports star’s stats, rebuilding an old car, organizing a collection, doing macrame. It is used to dismiss things done out of pure joy and enthusiasm.

Why do some people feel instinctively compelled to wet blanket other’s enthusiasms? Do they perhaps sense that they have had just as much time and have not done anything remotely as ambitious? Do they simply become uncomfortable with tasks that don’t fit neatly into their boxes of work and play? I don’t know.

Yet it seems undeniable that there is a strong current of anti-enthusiasmism in our culture. One place where it makes itself apparent is in the world of fandom. Being a fan is considered to be immature and laughable. Certain ethusiasms– going to Star Trek conventions or Comicons– are more likely to earn you a “Get a life” than others, for example, knowing all of the classical dancers who have performed the role of Giselle and the nuances of their performances.

There are books, records and movies that we call “guilty pleasures.” That means we’re enthusiastic about them, but are afraid that this pleasure is somehow at odds with the self-image we would like to project. We are defined by what we love. Enthusiasm for the wrong thing is somehow threatening to our social identities.

We tend to think of liking things as highly personal. “I know what I like.” The fact is most people don’t know what they like until they look around and see what other people like and what it is acceptable to like. Liking is social.

Did you know that one of the biggest causes of death in a plane crash is that people forget to save themselves? We naturally look to others to get cues as to how to react. In an unfamiliar situation, like being in a plane crash, many people are entirely immobilized. Their brains have no stored data on what to do. They look around to see what other people are doing. If they don’t see other people racing to get out they will stay in their seats and burn to death.

I am a bit ashamed to recount an episode from early in my high school career. I was (and am) terribly shy. I never expected guys to like me. But there was one boy who sat beside me in science class and we started joking with one another. We clicked right away, were great friends, and in short order there was an element of flirtation between us. It came to a crashing halt when an acquaintance showed me a cartoon drawing. It was a stick figure with spiky hair and a thick unibrow. (My friend had thick eyebrows that nearly came together in the middle.) “You know who this is?” She said and laughed. I got the message that this guy was not cool to like. My enthusiasm for him vanished and I chose another seat in science class.

I am pleased to say I do not do things quite like that any more. But I am not immune to wet blankets. When I share something with enthusiasm to be met with a blank stare and some verion of “you have too much time on your hands,” I start to wonder if I was wrong, if the thing I loved was unworthy and my joy in it somehow embarassing.

I remember that Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, wrote a lot about people who instinctively wet blanket your enthusiasm.

“Name your W.B.’s for what they are,” she wrote, “Wet Blankets. Wrap yourself in something else– dry ones. Fluffy heated towels. Do not indulge or tolerate anyone who throws cold water in your direction.”

Good advice, I imagine. But easier said than done.