Writing

Writers’ Existential Crises

…Spotting a used copy of your book listed online described as having a gift inscription… and having that described as damage that lessens the value.

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It’s OK Not to Excel and Other Pep Talks

There is a well known writer who has lately been getting a lot of attention on twitter posting threads about how you’re a “real writer” regardless of what you write, regardless of whether it is published or read or has any kind of public recognition or success. She has moved on now to posting about how you’re “a real reader” no matter what kind of book  you read.  “Whatever you read you are a real reader, no exceptions.”

This has been annoying me, and I have spent some time trying to figure out why.

I agree that there are too many artificial hierarchies in literature. I am someone who has excelled in writing books that are considered “unserious” from The Pocket Encyclopedia to the Elvis Impersonation Kit. I know that they take skill, and that humor is not a lesser talent. I also recognize that the concept of “seriousness” is too often used to degrade work by and for women. I agree that you should like what you like and shouldn’t apologize for your tastes. While vampire romances are not something I prefer to read, I am certain there are good examples an bad examples of the genre.

Not all reading leads to great epiphanies, and there is nothing wrong with pure pleasure reading. Not all art has to aspire to immortality or greatness. Entertainment is just fine. And there are a lot of scholars who find a lot to explore in “low culture.”

So why does the statement that you’re a “real reader” no matter what you read stick in my craw?

First of all, it is a tautology. Yes, if you define “reader” as one who can read, then if you can decipher text on a cereal box you’re a reader, but then, so what? What do you get from calling yourself a “real reader?” You must view it as an honorific if you’re hung up on being one. I don’t hear people reassuring anyone that she is a “real TV viewer” regardless of what she watches, or a “real music listener…”

Focusing on whether you can claim to be a “real reader” is strange to me as it focuses on the personal identity of the person holding the book rather than the value of the contents of the book. It is a symptom of a culture in which how one brands herself–how she is seen by others– matters more than who she is when no one is watching.

Of course the quality of literature matters, or what are we doing here?

The author in question said that she was getting a lot of replies from men who said they never use the expression “guilty pleasure.” This is a gendered concept.

Women talk about romance novels being a “guilty pleasure” whereas men discuss the merits of the various authors in their pulp genres like sci fi and westerns.

If guilty pleasures are gendered, then so too must be the reassuring response that you’re a “real reader.”

Here is what I hear in the expression “guilty pleasure.” If you feel “guilt,” it means you aspire to something better.

When I read that the idea of a “guilty pleasure” was somewhat foreign to men, a lightbulb went off. The problem that I have with the expressions about “real writers” and “real readers” is that they are person praise not process praise. In other words, instead of praising people for achievements, it praises them for their inherent qualities which are seen to be immutable.

Person praise says “you’re a real reader.” (Regardless of what you read.)
Process praise says “congratulations on reading Remembrance of Things Past.”

I’ve written about this concept quite often here. Here’s an excerpt from a previous article:

Back in May, I posted an article called Unstoppable! Self-Esteem, Boy and Girl Style.  In the article I took a self-esteem program aimed at young women and flipped the genders to see how the encouragement felt when aimed at boys.

At the beginning of this article, I asked you to think about what an empowerment or self-esteem program for boys might consist of. You probably imagined something like the Boy Scouts or Outward Bound.  Young men test their limits, practice a sport, enjoy the outdoors, discover skills they didn’t know they had.  In short, they do.

When we try to “empower” girls we tell them to think positive and feel pretty.  If it is “empowerment” it is a strange use of the word “power” because it is entirely passive. The program focuses entirely personal qualities that make one attractive, not achievements and actions.

Today I was reading the BPS Research Digest and I came across a study that bolsters my subjective point of view.

Laboratory research pioneered by psychologist Carol Dweck has shown the short-term benefits of praising children for their efforts rather than their inherent traits. Doing so leads children to adopt a so-called ‘incremental mindset’ – seeing ability as malleable and challenges as an opportunity to learn. Now a new study co-authored by Dweck and led by Elizabeth Gunderson has made the first ever attempt to monitor how parents praise their young children in real-life situations, and to see how their style of praise is related to the children’s mindset five years later…The key finding was the more parents tended to praise their pre-school age children for effort (known as process praise, as in “good job”), the more likely it was that those children had a “incremental attitude” towards intelligence and morality when they were aged seven to eight. This mindset was revealed by their seeing intelligence and moral attributes as malleable. For example, such children tended to agree that people can get smarter if they try harder, and disagree with the idea that a naughty child with always be naughty…Finally, the study revealed that parents tend to use more person praise with girls and more process praise with boys, echoing similar results in earlier research. In turn, later on, boys tended to express an incremental mindset more often than girls. This tallies with the picture painted in the developmental literature that girls more than boys attribute failure to lack of ability, especially in maths and science.

Person praise values self-esteem over achievement.

To go back to the example of reading, a girl who felt “guilty” about not reading good literature sets to work to feel better about herself. A boy who feels bad that he is not well-read sets himself a goal of reading better literature.

As I pointed out in another post:

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.”

 
When I get into a writer funk, as I do from time to time, there is one thing you should never do to try to cheer me up: and that is to say that I am a “real writer” whether I achieve anything or not. That does not make me feel better, it is like pouring salt in the wound. Why? Because I am ambitious, and I’m tired of feeling that I should apologize for being upset when I fail to reach goals I set for myself. Don’t tell me that it’s OK that my book didn’t get reviews, or that I couldn’t find a publisher for my novel, because I don’t want to feel OK about that. I want to be dissatisfied with that. It hurts when you fail to live up to your ambitions, but feelings pass. The solution is not to pretend that the ambitions don’t matter. The solution is to get back up and keep working, to regroup, find another route, and keep trying. You may not get there, but you are taking the steps. If you want to get me out of a writer funk, remind me of things I have achieved. Get me fired up about what I can do next. Don’t tell me that I’m beautiful just as I am.

I want to see women succeed, and I think a good first step is to stop giving each other these “It’s ok not to excel” pep talks.

Books and Ballet

I am on a ballet tour, but I am not a dancer.

My primary career is writer, and my other job is ballet master class tour producer. It is not a “day job” it is a five months of the year job. Twice a year– two months in winter and three in summer– I bring over a Russian ballet dancer and we travel the country. He teaches classical ballet classes. I do the bookings, the driving. I play the music. Five months of driving across 47 U.S. states. Five months of plotting tour routes, checking in and out of hotels, keeping track of class times. The dancer is the star of the show. In Hollywood, I bought a t-shirt that has “crew” written on the front as an inside joke about my apparent role in things.  I’ve been called Mr. Lantratov’s helper a number of times. His assistant more often than I can count. One student said “it sounds like you’re his slave.” In reality I am the manager.

For a writer, it is a fragmented life. Ideas that come behind the wheel get written on hotel scratch pads and stowed away until I get home and have time to make them into novels, research, or book proposals. (Although I do some writing on the road as well when the situation warrants it. Parts of Oscar’s Ghost were written in a hotel in Dallas, most of the revisions of The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation were written in Cincinnati.)

Years ago, in a draft for an abandoned novel about a performance tour, I wrote:

Ballet, especially every day road ballet, is an endurance sport. The principal dancers glide effortlessly on stage, but once they’ve crossed the threshold of the curtain into the wings, they put their hands on their knees and bend forward, their chests and stomachs pumping in and out with every labored breath. They are sweaty, of course, and a little dazed from the rush of adrenalin and hormones. And after a few moments, they capture their breath, and leap on the stage again, looking, for all the world, like they are suspended by wires and need no energy at all to perform the feat.

That’s performing. I don’t know if it applies to what I do: writing. Having a front row seat to my partner’s work as a ballet master teacher, I find that while they are both arts, writing and ballet do not have much in common. In many ways, they seem to be opposite arts: the verbal and the non-verbal, motion and stillness.

They are, however, both old forms of expression that seem a bit antiquated in a modern digital world. There is something pleasingly quixotic in trying to preserve and pass along these arts to a new generation.

Touring involves both constant novelty and the constant familiarity of hotel and road life. It informs the imagination and produces its own kind of creativity, but opportunities to sit for a while in solitude and just write are few and far between. I come to find that writing in a state of flow is a bit like a drug. You crave it when it is missing.

I started reading ballet dancer David Hallberg’s memoir A Body of Work. He is the only author listed on the cover, no “as told to.” So if he had no ghost writer (authors always wonder about such things) he has a writing talent. He writes about the memory of being in an artistic state of flow, and missing it when he is away from the stage.

I remember what it feels like to dance. To move so freely that my body releases ad creative intuition takes over, leading me beyond the worry of executing technique to a realm where nothing exists but the movement, the music, the emotions… Moments like this are worth it all. The doubt. The sacrifice. The injuries. The scrutiny. The burden of expectation. Those moments of living so intensely and fully on the stage are why I danced. Now, each day, I face one towering question: will I ever experience that euphoria again?

Flow is common to artists. It is why we persist in ridiculous careers. Yet as with most things ballet and writing, the process is inverted. For the dancer, the moment of flow is a culmination. For a writer, flow is that moment of inspiration. The writing that comes before the hard work, the revising, the attempts to get published. It all happens long before there is an audience.

The downside for the performer is that he needs the audience to have that moment. The writer can sit down and write no matter what, a lack of an audience is no barrier to achieving the state of flow. The downside for the writer is that this results in a constant lack of closure. By the time a book gets to its audience, it is disconnected from the writer, there is no great sense of culmination. The only soothing balm is to go back and write and start that process again.

 

Now I need to check out of this hotel and get on the road…

What is “a Writer” and Who Gets to Decide?

If you post the phrase “if you write you are a writer” on social media you will get a lot of likes.

This is because writing as a career is more than difficult, the odds are stacked against you at every turn. It is almost impossible to make a living at it, and it keeps getting harder as publishers consolidate, professional book reviewers disappear, outlets paying in “exposure” replace the magazines that once sustained freelancers, and massive online retailers keep looking for ways to make books as cheap as dirt. On top of this you have the glut of self-published titles, all vying for attention, with few authorities to really sort out their quality. The ease of publishing means book stores and reviewers are inundated, and they are suspicious of anyone who shows up calling herself a writer. This makes marketing books much harder than it used to be.  (And it never was easy.)

So there is a great need for writers, at all stages of their careers, to get some reassurance that even though they have either decided to make writing a part-time job or have taken a self-imposed vow of poverty to pursue it full-time, what they are doing matters. I have had this existential crisis myself many a time, and over the years have found ways to cope with it. The solidarity and reassurance from fellow writers can be a balm, at least a temporary one. So I recognize what people are trying to express when they say “everyone who writes is a writer.”

I still hate the phrase.

I have ranted on this before.

I especially hate it when combined with the sentiment that “you are a writer if anyone reads your work or not.” (You can follow the link if you would like to read my reasons for that.)

These phrases make me seethe.

One of the things that is particularly difficult about assuming the mantle of “writer” is that it is not a career in which you get a diploma that qualifies you. No external authority bestows a title on you. And it has always been true that the most talented are not necessarily the ones who get the most attention. Many a great writer has struggled in obscurity. Moreover, a successful book doesn’t mean that your publisher will necessarily want your next one or your agent will get any interest in your next idea. Each new book is a fresh struggle to get published. It is a career where even some of the most prolific and busy professionals find they can not pay their bills from their labors, so making a living or not making a living is not the mark of a professional. Nor in an era of publishing consolidation is independent vs. traditional publishing a clear-cut way to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Some great writers and great books are indies. The question of who is a “real writer,” and who gets to decide, is complex.

That doesn’t mean that there is not a difference between the person who posts a pdf of self-indulgent poems about her break up on a blog (or even writes for herself and publishes nothing at all) and the person who has gone through all those professional hoops and who makes the decision to keep doing so.  The biography or novel that took a decade to craft, revise and market and someone’s unreadable attempts at self-expression are both are written, and therefore under the “everyone who writes is a writer” standard, both writers share the same title. I know of few careers where the aspirant, trainee or apprentice is granted the same status as the master in quite the same way. Not everyone who cooks is a chef.

I am paraphrasing another writer here, whose quote I cannot find at the moment: You do not have a novel in you waiting to get out, the novel is a peak experience that you are entitled to after a great deal of training and work. This, I will add, includes the work of rejections, revisions and even the frustrating marketing process of trying to get the book to its audience. As the uncredited writer put it, “I do not have a Boston marathon in me waiting to get out.”

To say that if you write, you are a writer is like giving the medal at the beginning of the race.

To continue with the marathon metaphor, this robs the person who has done all the training, suffered the aching muscles, hit the wall and kept going, of meaningful recognition. The struggle matters, and the persistence in the face of struggle matters, and that is what makes the medal matter.

When even the most accomplished struggle to make a living wage for their work, recognition as a professional is often the only real currency a writer has.

I do not think it does any favors for the passionate amateur either. If she is already “a writer” from the moment she picks up a pen, the same as a best-selling internationally renowned writer, there is not anything meaningful to work towards. There are no promotions if those at every level are granted the same title.

There is nothing wrong with being an amateur or writing for pleasure. The existence of professional ballerinas doesn’t keep people like me from dancing. I move my body to the music from time to time, I just don’t claim to be “a dancer.”

Everyone should feel free to dabble in art of all kinds for pleasure. Art is not owned by the professionals. No one should let the fear of making bad art keep them from making art. Nor do I have any intention of denigrating the work or efforts of those who are just beginning. Your efforts deserve respect. Keep at it, and good luck to you. It’s hard, and when the world fails to acknowledge your work (and it will) it doesn’t render it meaningless. It matters that you create, because you make it matter.

I imagine that there is a heaven somewhere where all of the unread literary works go. Their life of the earth is temporary, but their souls are immortal.

I have no doubt that the platitude about being a “real writer” no matter what you produce will continue to be popular. There are far more people in the category of aspirants than those who have successfully run our metaphorical race. I know that my views will get far fewer “likes” and retweets than the more reassuring and inclusive sentiment. I will continue to hate it.

Thus endeth my rant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Big Are Pockets in England?

Last week I obtained a copy of the UK edition of the updated Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation. Besides the spelling of “tyres” I noted a few differences in the books. Most notably the prominence, or lack thereof, of the author’s name on the British book cover.

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Whereas the Americans were fine with focusing on life’s little vexations because it is entertaining, the British (who prefer Aaarggghhh to Ughhhhh!!) seem to be marketing the book (curiously to its author) as self-help.

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Also note the lack of an author bio on the back of the UK edition. (Did I do something to piss them off in England?)

The last little oddity is that the books are different dimensions. On the left (as you can tell by the prominence of the author’s name) is the U.S. edition, which is taller and thinner. The UK edition is shorter but wider. Does this point to some international variance in the size of pockets?

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Mourning Lost Characters with Jean Alica Elster

A wonderful Detroit writer who I have had the pleasure to meet at a number of local author events is Jean Alica Elster. As a Kresge Arts fellow, she was featured in a video discussing her work. I thought I would share it here, not only because she’s someone you should know about, but also because she brings up a topic that I’ve mentioned here a number of times: the mourning that follows the completion of a literary work.

 

Futility and Freedom

AngelLargeSquare A few days ago I stumbled upon a review of my first novel, Angel, which I had not seen before.

I hadn’t re-read Angel in a while, and I decided to listen to Shea Taylor’s audio version while I took my daily walks.

Since then I have been feeling the same sense of wistful loneliness that I did when the book was initially finished; the characters’ stories were complete, and my relationship with them was finished. I fell in love with those characters in a rare way, and the sense of a beautiful, fleeting moment that the book conveys also applies to its author.

This wistfulness leads to some other moods. I wish that the story could have been shared with more people, not for the ego driven reasons that you might expect (although they are there, certainly), but because the more people who read and review the book, the more they are kept alive.

This musing leads, inevitably, into another thought: a sense of futility about writing. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and eventually that sense of anticipation that “this will be the one” that gets attention, sells well, makes money– whatever– gets muted. All the advice about establishing a social media platform and going out there to promote, promote, promote, well, it can only do so much.  There are still a limited number of readers in the world, and a seemingly unlimited number of books. A few weeks ago I posted the Facebook status “There are few things harder to do in the world than sell a book,” and most of my writer friends posted some variant on “Amen.”

Eventually you just lower your expectations about your work making a splash. Understanding, as in that well-worn phrase, the insanity of doing the same thing and expecting a different result, it can be hard to find motivation to write another word. It can even seem downright masochistic and unhealthy to push that boulder up the hill again. I was musing on this, as all writers do from time to time. It wasn’t long, however, before I found liberation in the futility.

I have been working on a new novel, and worrying over whether the structure of the story as I saw it would be the kind of thing that would appeal to publishers. Every writer is constrained to be who she is. I have come to realize that my sensibilities about what makes a compelling story, how it should go, where it should end, are not always what is expected. So, I thought, if you can assume that it will be an uphill climb to get it published, that after that it will be an uphill battle to persuade anyone to read it, then why worry? It’s going to be hard no matter what you do, so why not write what you write? It’s a happy thought. A good one for breaking writer’s block.

That said, if you did want to buy one of my books, I wouldn’t object either.