Writing

Make Some Sacrifice for Your Art…

“Make some sacrifice for your art and you will be repaid but ask of art to sacrifice herself for you and a bitter disappointment may come to you.”-Oscar Wilde

Wilde wrote this to an aspiring author in a letter discovered in 2013. Like a lot of Wilde’s observations, I suspect this one is more artistic than true. It contains, I notice, a rare Wildean hedge “disappointment may come to you” rather than “will come to you.” That disappointment will come if you ask art to sacrifice herself for you is not the part that I doubt. It is the assertion that if you make some sacrifice for your art you will be repaid. On this, interestingly, Wilde does not hedge.

Yet there is no guarantee that your artistic efforts will be rewarded in any meaningful way. Make some sacrifice for your art and your art will be created. That is the only real promise you can make about art.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit as I have finally delivered the last corrections on Oscar’s Ghost, a book that I worked harder on than anything I have ever written, and which will be released by Amberely Publishing in August. I would like to believe that Oscar was right and the effort will have been worth it. I guess we will soon find out.

Whether You Write Or Not

As a professional writer, I am exposed to more than my fair share of literary journals, blogs and writers writing about writing. There is one common refrain that I find bothers me more and more as I continue in this profession. It is the idealization of “writer” as an identity. I encountered it today in the comments on Jaime Clark’s article on Literary Hub “Why I Quit Being a Writer.” Clark wrote about what he calls the “dissipation of (his) literary ambition.” Clark no longer feels driven to write novels, although apparently still feels driven enough to write an article or two.

When I was in college, I majored in theater, and had the notion that I was to be an actress. My drive for that career dissipated to the point that my current, introverted, self can’t imagine wanting to go on stage. What was once a drive is now the memory of a drive. People’s goals do change. There were a number of commenters, however, who replied with variants on “once a writer, always a writer.” “You are a writer whether you have anything to say or not.”

Well, no. Not really.

There are aspects of this point of view that are true. There are people who have an aptitude and desire to write and who will prioritize that above common sense things like earning a living wage. Sometimes a writer finds herself in a dry spell or in one of the almost constant career crises and needs a bit of encouragement to continue. What annoys me about the rhetoric of the writer as a (glorified) type of being is that it obscures the most important thing that a professional writer does– work. If you are a “writer” whether you write or not then what exactly does being a writer mean?

Years ago, I had what was to me an epiphany. After reading all of those books about finding your muse, books which called themselves guides to “creativity,” it dawned on me that the main aspect of the word “creativity” is “creation.” It is not “idea having” or “inspiration.” Those are part of the process, as are fallow periods, and churning out material that may not ever be used in its initial form. But to be creative is to create. Creating a literary work, whether a poem or a novel or a biography, is much more than being a special kind of person who has an artistic temperament and great ideas. It means revising. It means editing. It means being open to criticism. It means seeing the work through to publication. It means, in short, doing the work.

There are two problems I see with the blurring of creativity and inspiration and the notion of the writer as a personality type. The first is that it persuades a lot of people that their rough drafts and diaries do not need to be changed at all to be considered art. The second is that it devalues the work that professional writers do by making it somehow equivalent to those rough drafts and diaries. No wonder no one wants to pay those noble creatures who go about naturally churning out sonnets.

Quote of the Day: Interconnected Lives

The book on Gill had been my first full-length biography. I began it in a state of naivety, imagining my only loyalty lay with Gill himself and the truth relating to the bizarre contradictions of this single human life. What I had not been prepared for was the fact that in searching out the truth, especially the truth of a near contemporary, you impinge on other interconnected lives as well, stirring emotions, resurrecting memories. In the dangerous complexities of writing a biography, the book on Gill was my baptism of fire.-Fiona MacCarthy, The Guardian

Conditioned Like a Lab Animal

“To some degree, I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition.”-Catherine Nichols.

This quote, by author Catherine Nichols sums up in a more concise and personal way what I took hundreds of words to say in an essay about the different “happy ends” for stories aimed at men and women.

(Actually, I was tempted to shorten the quote so it read “…I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition,” but I decided that the hedging, equivocal version demonstrated its own point.)

The Guardian yesterday ran an article on Nichols essay for Jezebel in which she reported on the different level of success she had sending queries with a male pen name over her own name. Spoiler alert: George was taken much more seriously than Catherine.

What is particularly insidious, however, is how differently writing is perceived when it comes from the pen of a man or a woman and what story we–and men and women are equally guilty–expect the writer to tell.

Responses from agents to Catherine Nichols included comments such as “beautiful writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?”; responses to her male pseudonym, whom she imagined “as a sort of reptilian Michael Fassbender-looking guy, drinking whiskey and walking around train yards at night while I did the work”, were “polite and warm”, even when they were rejections, describing the work as “clever”, “well-constructed” and “exciting”.

I ran into this wall of expectation a couple of years ago when I was trying to find an agent for my novel Identity Theft and later when I was trying to get reviews for it. Identity Theft opens essentially like a romantic comedy in which you have a woman who longs for romance with an exciting and glamorous man and you have an unglamorous man who comes into her life through fate and a bit of deception.

A potential agent read the opening chapters, which introduce the characters, and felt that he knew exactly where the book would go. He was ready to represent what he viewed as a well-written version of the female story. The agent did not like my ending, which he had encountered only in the synopsis and outline. He did not realize that the book actually subverts the “love through deception” romantic comedy trope and turns into more of a thriller than a romantic comedy at its midpoint.

The agent was convinced based on the opening that there was only one right ending and that the female protagonist should end up living happily ever after with the unglamorous man. In the end I did make some changes to my original concept to make the work more in line with audience expectations, although I did not simply turn it into the romantic comedy the agent assumed it to be. Thus this quote from the Guardian article resonated with me:

“A small series of constraints can stop the writer before she’s ever worth writing about. Women in particular seem vulnerable in that middle stretch to having our work pruned back until it’s compact enough to fit inside a pink cover,” she believes.

After Identity Theft was published I booked a “virtual book tour” to promote it and one of the potential reviewers read about as far as the agent had and gave up on it because she deemed the book to be “predictable.” That is to say, she had guessed at where it was going, deemed the book “one of those” and decided she didn’t have to read any further. Reviewers who finished the book, whether they liked it or not, universally found the ending surprising.

This experience led me to think about reader expectations and gender and to conclude that there is a different happy end for “male” stories and for “female” stories and that there is a much larger social effect to this. Boys and men are being primed to do things in the world where as women are, as Nichols said, conditioned against ambition. In my essay two years ago, I used The Devil Wears Prada as an example.

In “The Devil Wears Prada,” the main character is dumped by her boyfriend because her demanding job does not allow her to devote enough attention to him. As an audience we are expected to take his side and to agree that she is going the wrong direction.

This same type of conflict is quite common in films with male protagonists. A man becomes obsessed with a mission of some kind– winning a legal case, catching a killer, saving the world from aliens– what have you. At some point he argues with his wife who feels he is shirking his family responsibilities. In this case, however, the audience is expected to understand that his mission is vitally important. We do not want him to decide that catching the killer isn’t that important after all in the greater scheme of things and that he should walk away to focus on his authentic emotional life. What generally happens, instead, is that against all odds, with no one backing him, the hero completes his mission winning the admiration of his wife in the process.

Prada is not an isolated example of the “female happy end” where the woman shuns worldly status. One of the most popular films of all times is “Titanic” in which bold and feisty Rose realizes that her upper class life is empty after she meets working class Jack Dawson on deck. She walks away from a life of riches and even throws a priceless gem into the sea.

The female protagonist has a happy end not when she has status in the world, but when she transcends the desire for status.

No one ever taught me this in so many words, but I learned it all the same. When I looked back at my own writing, I found that my early fiction, written when I was in high school and college, almost all fit the female happy end model. The female protagonist faced a difficult challenge and reached a resolution not by overcoming the odds and succeeding but by learning to accept herself just as she is. Success through self-esteem! In the real world, this leads to a culture in which we try to “empower” girls by making them feel good about themselves, whether they actually achieve anything or not.

As women, we are all “conditioned like lab animals against ambition.” There is no “to some degree” about it.

 

 

An Odd but Charming Little Bio that I’d Like to Share

So generally I experience myself as dully and impatiently waiting to achieve anything. I spent a lot of time contrasting my life with better versions of it.

Occasionally, though, someone does a feature on me on a blog somewhere– like this one for Made in Michigan and I read my own biography and I stop and think– huh, I actually sound kind of interesting. So thank you to Tracy Gardner for the rather bouncy version of my life to date.

If you’d like to hear about the hazards of being a celebrity judge at country karaoke, the joys of being an intern at an alternative rock station, being vaguely connected to both Madonna and The Lone Ranger and being stopped on the street in London by a purported psychic who needed to deliver an urgent message from the spiritual realm click the link above.

The Attention Based Economy

We live in an attention based economy.

This realization struck me a couple of weeks ago when I was speaking to a sponsorship agent. I was trying to line up a sponsor for our coast-to-coast ballet master class tours. As we talked about “markets” and “reach” I thought about all of the television commercials and the stadiums and theaters with brand names on them and I began to imagine an Uber for attention. Instead of paying networks or stadiums to carry messages that consumers might or might not see why not monetize attention directly– create an ap where a company can pay individuals directly for a bit of their undivided attention? Cut out the middle man.

Increasingly artists of all kinds are told they need to work for free in order to gain “exposure.” The Huffington Post pays writers in exposure. American Idol pays its entertainers, with the exception of the winner, with “exposure.” I think it is about time we develop actual units of “exposure” so that artists can pay their landlords with it. Maybe we could call it “FameCoin.”

Young people, especially seem to feel that this free artistic labor is worth it because exposure is so valuable. But is it really? Professor Barrie Gunter of the University of Leicester studied the question and found “The idea that being on a television talent contest is a guaranteed route to fame and fortune is not supported. While this can happen, it applies to only a minority of contestants.” Gunter points out that few winners of The Apprentice lasted beyond the first year of employment with Donald Trump and few went on to develop their own businesses.

The fashion competition program Project Runway has run for 14 seasons without launching a breakout star.  As Robin Givhan wrote in The Washington Post:

“Project Runway” returns…with yet another Emmy nomination for best reality television show, respectable ratings and a modest list of upcoming celebrity guest judges. What it does not have are bragging rights to a dazzling designer success story. There is no true-life example of the wondrous fairy tale that has been at the heart of the show’s premise since its premiere in 2004…

“Project Runway” hasn’t told a story of triumph as much as it has, over time, offered a nuanced tale about what success means in today’s fashion industry, why it is so difficult and why it mostly has nothing to do with having one’s name up in lights — or on the New York Stock Exchange.

In its particular failure to produce another Michael Kors, the show has brilliantly illuminated the realities of fashion for the public to see.

Whenever a mass shooting gets heavy news coverage people express outrage not only at the violence but that the shooter has become famous. Even notoriety is considered valuable.

A study by Adam Lackford does implicate the importance Americans place on fame as one of the ingredients that leads to our high rates of mass shootings compared to the rest of the world. So we respond with a “don’t say the killer’s name” policy. For those who would do violence in order to earn some notoriety, here’s some sobering news: It doesn’t work. Most mass shootings do not even make the national news these days.  As Shane Ryan wrote in The Daily News:

Without the audiovisual and social media elements, this would barely register as a blip on America’s overburdened radar. In an incredible piece of data-based journalism, Vox’s German Lopez showed that there have been 885 mass shootings (with at least four victims) in the U.S. since the Sandy Hook massacre in late 2012, and we’re averaging about one per day in 2015. The Roanoke killings stand out because many of us actually saw the killings take place, but aside from the strange amount of documentation, nothing about it was exceptional. It was ordinary. In fact, it barely even qualified as a “mass shooting” by Vox standards, and would have fallen short of that metric if Flanagan hadn’t turned the gun on himself.

So to the angry guy who is building up his arsenal right now with a “this will show the world” drive– don’t do it.

In the literary world authors are constantly told to get out there and blog, blog, blog. The key to success as a writer is to build up a huge social media presence. But all of this is quite at odds with the traditional role of the writer as a silent observer of life.

“It’s very important for a writer to be unnoticed,” Edith Pearlman told The Boston Globe in 2012, when she was 75. “As quiet and unnoticed as possible.”

This is, of course, the opposite of what we are told we need to do in order to have any chance of having a writing career. So we turn to social media in an attempt to earn some FameCoin. This desire to be noticed and followed has an impact on the type of work we create.

Pew Research Center shows that social media actually stifles discussion on important issues. That is probably not surprising. What is of greater concern is that the researchers found that social media users were less likely to share their opinions even in face-to-face discussions. We get used to framing things in the least controversial manner in order to avoid being unfriended or unfollowed. It is reasonable to assume, then, that writers who are frequent social media users will also get in the habit of thinking and writing in more conventional, less challenging ways.

A Cornell study makes the case that social rejection is actually good for the creative process. The act of being rejected can liberate creative people from the need to fit in and allow them to pursue their interests. Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley business school who specializes in creativity told Salon that a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.”

I propose that it is time to rethink some of our assumptions about the value of attention and exposure. We are dealing in a currency that buys very little.

A Cold and Broken Hallelujah

I mentioned yesterday that I started writing in a journal as a teenager as a way of giving voice to my inner feelings.   I also noted that the fiction I wrote using that method was self-indulgent and horrible. I kept a spiritual journal for a while when I was 26 or so filled with what I thought were deep revelations and poetry about the meaning of life or something like that. Mostly, in retrospect, I was only studying because there was a guy who was into Eastern religion who I was trying to relate to. Sometimes there are positives that come from those kind of second-hand interests. You learn a lot about something you would never have jumped into on your own, and that eventually leads to some creative mixing of thoughts. So thank God, or the gods, or the elan vital for unrequited affection. But the point is, the spiritual journal was also self-indulgent and horrible and deserved the shredding it got.

It also did absolutely nothing to improve my friendship with the guy, in part because he pointed out to me that my lovingly crafted work was self-indulgent and horrible. I remember him saying something along the lines of “if you want to be friends with me, I will destroy your ego every time.” Something like that. It sounds awful, but he was referring to the ego as a false self that was a stumbling block to enlightenment.  In any case, I’m not the one to talk to you about it because– well, did I mention the horrible, self-indulgent spiritual journal?

If I wanted to kill my ego over and over I could hardly have chosen a better career. You get knocked down a lot on a writer’s journey. Over and over. But you start out thinking that after a while you will have paid your dues and that time will pass. Twenty years and 16 books later, I feel as though I have paid those dues. Writing doesn’t seem to work that way. Not really. It is not like working in an office where you get promoted to management and now you’re at a new level, or academia where you can get tenure.  Instead authors, even best-selling authors, find themselves pursuing the “Write Great Books and Hope” retirement plan.

If you’re the type of writer who is soothed by the idea that the little indignities that come with your chosen profession are not personal you might enjoy this anecdote from the 1988 The Book of Business Anecdotes by Peter Hay:

I was director of a small literary publishing company in Vancouver, British Columbia, called Talon Books. Each spring our cash flow dried up as we waiting for bookstores to pay for shipments of Christmas past and as our government subsidy grants were always in the proverbial mail. Each spring my partners and I had to go to our local branch of the Bank of Montreal and get a loan of $10,000 to tide us over. The company had been doing this for seven or eight years… this particular spring… the company needed $15,000. But our security bond was still only $10,000. We thought that the bank manager, who saw our steadily increasing sales figures year in and year out, would let us have it. We were wrong…Finally one of my partners had an inspiration: “What about our inventory? Why can’t we borrow against our inventory?”

“What inventory?” the man seemed mildly interested.

“Well, we have a quarter million dollars worth of books. That’s why we have all these printing bills– we publish books.”

“So these books,” the banker proceeded cautiously, “have printing in them?”

“Yes, that’s what we manufacture.”

“I cannot give you a loan,” he said with an air of finality. “The paper would have been worth something, but you’ve spoiled it by printing on it.”

I often think of this anecdote when I am trying to promote books.

It is an insane product where the producer finds it much more valuable than the consumers for whom it was supposedly made.

My latest “spoiled it by printing on it” moment came this week when I donated a set of the complete works of Laura Lee to my local library. It was an entire bag full of books, and I went home feeling just a little bit accomplished for having published all those books, and a little bit proud at having something worthwhile to give to a place that I value.

The punchline, you will probably have anticipated (because I can tell you are astute) is that feeling was not mutual. A few weeks later, I was browsing the online catalog and I decided to see if my books had shown up. They hadn’t. I sent a message asking if they were going to be added to the collection and I was told that the books had been sold in the library’s fundraiser book sale for $1 a piece.

The person I was corresponding with was apologetic and said it had been a mistake and that if I wanted to I could bring my books in again and— here is the part that knocked me back– they would look at them and decide if they were worth adding to the collection and they would give me back the ones they didn’t want. In the end they decided there were two of my 16 books that might be worth stocking, but they were also my two least favorites.

So yes, I was expecting something along the lines of “Wow, we didn’t know we had a full-time author who has been so prolific right here in our town, that is exciting.” What I got was more along the lines of, “Oh man, do we have to find space for some local author’s books?”

So you see, I didn’t really need a spiritual practice have my ego crushed again and again. Life has a way of doing it all by itself. Maybe I should thank my higher power for that. But for the moment, I need a day to lick my wounds.

I am sure this is the place where I am supposed to give an uplifting message about how this has just inspired me to work harder. That’s not really the emotion I am feeling. I do not feel any sense of victory when I say I will keep writing. I keep doing it because it is what I do. That means that this is the type of thing I signed up for.

What I feel is resignation. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.