Please Do Not “Like” My Post

I am annoyed with the Facebook like button.

A few days ago my partner and I launched an ambitious Kickstarter program to create a ballet tour with international artists.  It represents a goal we have had for nearly a decade so it is a big deal for us. But I am not writing today to ask for your support. (Not that I would turn it down.)

I am writing to complain about Facebook liking.

Facebook liking is not the same as doing something,

I am struggling to put my particular pet peeve into words without seeming ungrateful for the digital pats on the back we have received in the form of like clicks.  There is a time and place for “liking.” “Like” seems an appropriate response to a post like: “Enjoying the sun today.”

“Like” in this case means, “I don’t have anything to add to that, but I hear you.”  “You are not shouting into the void.” (The electronic equivalent of saying “Uh-huh.”)

Imagine, however, a conversation in real life that goes like this:

“I am selling candy bars to raise money for a class trip.”

“I like that.”

“Great…. Um… So, do you want to buy a candy bar?”

“I like candy bars.”

“So you want one?”

“I like that you’re doing this.”

“Yeah. Um. Thanks.”

When you are requesting action and people click like, but do not act, it is, in a word, frustrating.

I have to confess that I am quite often a lazy liker. It is much easier to click a button to signal approval of a friend’s life milestone than to find something to say. I click, I guess, because I think I will get friendship points for responding in some way.

Maybe I should try to put my money where my mouth is and stop “liking” things when I have nothing to contribute.

Ah, the “Write Great Books and Hope” Retirement Plan…

One non-fiction writer I admire (on the strength of his thought-provoking and chilling Columbine) is Dave Cullen. Columbine took a decade to research and write and the results show in the finished product.  All of the blogs and articles out there on how to make a living as a writer would say that his next move should be to “build a brand” and quickly put out a lot of similarly themed books and products. No doubt, this is smart advice. It is, of course, not what he is doing. Cullen’s follow up to Columbine is another long-term research project called Soldiers First about gays in the military. Cullen followed his subjects for a decade and a half before and after “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”

Writers are paid, of course, but often months, years or decades after the labor and often at a rate that would fall criminally short of minimum wage when all the math is done.

On Goodreads you can post questions for many authors and I asked Dave Cullen how he funded his long-term research projects. (Mostly because I was looking for ideas on how to fund mine!)  A certain kind of economist might tell you that people are rational animals who do work in order to earn money and that if they are not paid enough they will not do the work. But Cullen responded that he went into debt to produce both of his works– Colubmbine and his forthcoming book.

For Columbine… The first few years, I was writing a lot for magazines, and just scraping by with freelance gigs. (This is before the web destroyed much of the journalism market, and you could still get by on freelancing. It was always tough, but possible that recently. Now, I don’t think it is.)

Over time, I went into debt, then got some advance money to help, and went back to working part-time outside writing as a consultant. Luckily, I’d worked as a computer consultant and management consultant for Arthur Andersen into my early 30s before quitting it all to go to grad school and write full time. So I was employable that way.

Then I went back more deeply into debt.

The unexpected success of the book got me out of debt, and combined with speaking gigs and other assorted bits, has kept me afloat working on this next book–along with some advance payments starting last year. I’m about to start going back into debt on this book, but hoping it will earn money after publication and I can stay solvent.

I’m now in my 50s without a retirement plan–and weak social security benefits after a decade of very low income–so that scares me. But if I can write some great books, hopefully that will take care of it.

The “write great books and hope” retirement plan would elicit a real scolding from Suze Orman. Yet there is a wisdom to it. Yes, it is hard to be constantly MacGyvering your financial life as an artist. I won’t downplay the stress of it. But every life has its stress and struggles.

Writers do not want to write in order to make a living. Rather they want to make a living in order to write. (While at the same time hoping beyond hope that writing will pay the bills.) It is not only a question of funding an IRA but of focusing and putting all one’s energy into something that gives him a goal and a sense of purpose.

Looking back on a long life would you like to be able to say “I had a well-funded retirement” or “I wrote a book that was worth reading.”

Write great books and hope…

Belief in a Cruel God

Belief in a Cruel GodA friend passed along this meme on Facebook. Thomas Paine said “Belief in a cruel god makes a cruel man.” It sounds persuasive, but I had to stop and wonder if it is true.

Throughout history people have used religion to justify all kinds of atrocities but was it because they believed in a cruel god? Or rather could it be that they believed in an ultimately just god and that being on the side of the just god meant that they were sure they were in the right? Couldn’t a belief in a ultimately good and benevolent god be used as an excuse not to intervene and help other people because god is good and everything is god’s will?  When one is advantaged in society and believes in a good and just god it is only a small step to believe that all of his good fortune is deserved and those who do not have the same luck must be sinners.

The ancient Greeks believed in capricious gods who were not ultimately good and loving. They were powerful and played games with humans and the only response was to be grateful when they favored you. Belief in a cruel god that you must fear could lead to humility.  Often when God in the Old Testament shows his wrath it is because humans have demonstrated the hubris of thinking they are divine. It is a forceful reminder that men are not gods and do not have all the answers. So perhaps going off and killing in a state of religious certainty is not a good idea.

My instinct is that a person who is inclined towards cruelty will interpret religious narratives in a cruel way and a person inclined towards compassion will interpret those narratives in a compassionate way. And as circumstances and contexts change different meanings in an old text will spring to life.

Finding Time to Write

Identity Theft“I have been asked in interviews before how I find the time to write. I always found that question strange, simply because to me, it sounds like you’re asking someone ‘How do you find the time to play video games? Or hunt? Or scrapbook? Or shop?’ We make time for the things we love to do; we have to find time for the stuff we don’t.”-Fred Venturini quoted in Brevity in an article with the lovely title How Do the Unwealthy, Non-Sponsored Find Time to Write?

I have not found much time to write in this space (I kind of hate the word “blog”) because I am on tour with my ballet project. When I am on tour I must admit that I feel much more peaceful (although a bit more busy and exhausted) than I do in the months when I am a full time unwealthy, non-sponsored writer.

In any case, work on the forthcoming novel Identity Theft is going forward at a brisk pace. The copy editing is complete, the cover has been designed and all that is left is to get it formatted and printed up. I am expecting to have books available in two to three weeks.

I have a “virtual book tour” being organized by Goddess Fish Promotions.  (You have to scroll down a bit to get to the information about my book.)

If you have a blog and would like to review the novel, you can take part in the tour or contact me directly and I will be happy to send you an advance copy. (In pdf format.)

Quote of the Day: With No Audience I was Just There…

“I did examine myself,” he said. “Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”-Christopher Thomas Knight, who lived as a hermit in the Maine woods for 27 years, quoted in The Strange Tale of the Last True Hermit.

A New Novel by Laura Lee. Seeking Readers and Reviewers.

Identity TheftI’m pleased to unveil the almost final cover for Identity Theft, a new novel by Laura Lee.

The novel will be coming out in early February.

It is the story of Ethan, a bored employee in the offices of a rock star who goes by the stage name Blast. Blast had his greatest fame in the 1980s and is struggling to find a new identity for himself as he goes through a divorce. Ethan is put in charge of the band’s social networking and he starts to flirt with a 30 year old office worker named Candi in the guise of his boss.  Candi, who is dealing with layoffs at her job, feels as though her life has been entirely transformed by her online relationship with the star. When Candi and Blast meet face to face, she is confused for a delusional stalker.

Candi must try to prove (and retain) her sanity. Ethan must decide
whether to risk jail by telling the truth. A terrified Ollie has to
come to terms with his relationship with his Blast character and the
consequences of his fame.

The novel is full of humor and suspense. It has elements of romantic comedy, but is not one. I hope you will enjoy it. Please click on the image above to learn how to place your advance order. I will ship you an autographed copy as soon as the ink is dry.

Do you have a book blog? I would like to send you a copy to review. If this sparks interest contact me at lauralee@speechwriting.com.

You can read an early review of the novel here.

Talking ‘Bout my Gender-ation

The Los Angeles review of books recently ran an article by Katherine Angel (what a great name) with the title Gender, blah, blah, blah (not such a great name). In it, Angel described a situation that was entirely familiar to me, and I imagine familiar to many female writers.

You meet a man at an event, a dinner or a party and he immediately starts to tell you about his self-published book and to tell you all about the process and what it is like to be a writer before finally, ten to fifteen minutes later, asking “What do you do?” At which point you say, “I’m a writer.”

I try to be as tactful as I can when I mention that I do this full time and have written 15 books with major and midsize publishers so as not to entirely deflate my new acquaintance. Angel described her version of this experience thusly:

When I say, Oh, actually I’m a writer, a spasm of embarrassment comes over his face. As it should. Not, of course, because of any career’s merit over another’s, but because he’s revealed his inability to see me as a writer. A flustered flash of insight has taken place. One such occasion was an event organized by one of my European publishers, at which I and three other writers (all men) read from our books; a dozen journalists (all men) were present, as were other guest writers (all men). Sort of the equivalent of a New York Review of Books with 26 men writers and 1 woman; or a London Review of Books with 14 men and 2 women. In a sense, I can’t really fault those male writers who inquire politely as to my job. They’re kind of right: I don’t look like a writer.

It’s not just men who reveal their assumptions in this way. Being underestimated — by men, by women, by themselves — is something most women have in common. We have to work harder from the outset to resist being dismissed, to attain equal footing, and then to maintain it. It’s endless, repetitive work, cut across and intensified by yet other assumptions based on accent, skin color, class, education, dress. And it’s a powerful thing, the learnt reflex to look at a woman and see someone who is by definition unaccomplished, a novice; someone’s disciple, companion, muse; someone with no power or expertise of her own. I’m not immune to it — I’ve caught myself in the act of underestimating women, of having assumed that the woman in the room isn’t the expert in the room. It’s a reflex so disturbing to notice that it’s tempting to pass over it in silence. But it’s a reflex enabled by the shocking paucity of women of authority and expertise across all media — a paucity not easily registered, so used are we to it.

My father all his life had the unambiguous identity of “writer.” People deferred to him as a writer, they came to him for writing advice. I always had the sense that he was considered to be talented and accomplished in his field. As a girl I was proud of this, and when I found that I had inherited this aptitude I followed in my father’s footsteps.

When people asked my father what he did and he said “a writer” they usually followed up with something like “That is exciting. Have you written anything I would have read?”

I have reached the point in my career that I have published more books than my father did in his lifetime.

When people ask me what I do and I say “I am a writer” they tend to start talking about self-publishing or ask “What is the name of your book?” (singular).

Lately, I have to admit that I have been frustrated at my inability to claim the kind of professional identity my father had. It is impossible to separate out the variables, of course.I have a different personality from my father. He liked to be the alpha in a room and I an deeply introverted and do not like to talk about myself.

It may be the self-publishing revolution that makes everyone assume a 21st Century “writer” is a hobbyist. I suspect the impression that I must be a hobbyist is made up of a combination of easy publishing and assumptions about gender. When a woman says “I am a writer” the snap judgement is that she self-publishes– most likely memoir, romance or romantic comedy.

Angel’s article is largely about the under-representation of female writers in prestigious literary journals. The editors of these journals point out that men submit more than women and that when they are rejected men tend to resubmit more than women do.

Several magazine editors have told me that men do disproportionately pitch to magazines. (One editor estimated it at about 6 to 1, and another spoke of the “sheer volume of male submissions.”) I’ve also been told that men tend to return, often swiftly, with another pitch after rejection, and tend to be less well attuned to a definitive rebuff clearly meant to dissuade further efforts. (As Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House magazine, says here, “Men will always resend, even after the most blatant rejection.”)

It is tempting then to chalk it up to natural differences between the sexes and to throw up one’s hands. Men are just naturally competitive, ambitious and confident compared to women. Women are focused on relationship building and they do not want to offend. It’s evolution. There is really nothing we can do about it, so let’s not even try.

Or could it be something else? Could it be a situation that we create through a complex web of culture? Something, therefore, that we could choose to change with a bit of conscious effort and time?

When I read the paragraph above I thought immediately about the study I have mentioned here previously, which indicates that parents tend to give boys process praise and to give girls person praise. That is to say that boys are usually praised for what they do (“Good job building that tower”), whereas girls are more often praised for what they are (“You are such a pretty girl”).

This trend, to focus on what boys do and what girls are continues into the pre-teen and teen years, as illustrated by the supposedly empowering workshop Girls, Unstoppable! which attempts to boost girls’ self-esteem and math books designed for girls which tout their ability to improve self-esteem rather than more utilitarian things one could do with mathematics knowledge. It continues into adulthood where fictional stories of male and female characters often have different “happy ends.” Male characters have happy ends when they have solved a seemingly-insurmountable problem in the world. Female characters often have happy ends when they arrive at a place of self-acceptance.

There is nothing wrong with loving yourself just as you are, of course. But when this message is given to only one gender, you end up with a constantly re-enforced dual message. Men achieve, women need to learn to be content while not achieving.

The study that I cited earlier notes that when children are given process praise they perceive of the challenge as learnable, improvable, masterable. They keep trying. It is not that they have failed because of an inherent quality, it is because they have not yet mastered the task. Children who receive person praise on the other hand, internalize everything. “I couldn’t build the tower because I am not good at that.” Personal qualities are seen as inherent and less changeable. If you are not a good builder, there is little reason to try. Those who receive person praise rather than process praise are more likely to give up.

After a lifetime of process praise for boys and person praise for girls, men and women react to rejection differently. Men tend to think, “I have not yet mastered this process, I need to keep trying.” Women tend to think, “Maybe I am not good enough.”

So, no, I do not believe this situation is created by an inherent natural difference between the sexes, it is, rather a learned behavior. That does not make it easy to solve. It can’t be fixed overnight. But noticing that we do this is a good first step.