You Whom I Hoped to Reach by Writing

Back when I lived in my first apartment– half of the only house in a trailer park in Cadillac, Michigan. I read a book of poetry by Erica Jong. Only one poem stuck with me, and then only parts of it. The title “You Whom I Wish to Reach by Writing”  and the last line, “I write to you and someone else always answers.” It turns out even those things I remembered a bit wrong.

I remembered it because I related strongly to it. I had not yet started writing professionally. I was, however, an avid journaler and I had the notion of writing a novel about a failed relationship that was haunting me at the time. (More on that later.)

The poem (or the idea of it) came back to me the other day as I was reading about social media and context collapse. (See the previous entry). The experience of writing with one audience in mind and having someone else answer is not reserved for poets or professional writers any more. I imagine everyone has had the experience of posting something on Facebook and having the last person on earth you expected to hear from chime in.

What is interesting to me today is how infrequently I have the experience with my creative writing. I no longer “hope to reach” a particular individual when I tell a story. There was a time, for example, sitting in that apartment in Cadillac, when I did. In my twenties I used writing as a way to soothe my hurt feelings. Maybe I couldn’t make a particular relationship work, but one thing I could always do was express my feelings about it very well in writing.

It took me much longer to learn when not to.

In my twenties I imagined the novel I was going to write, a barely fictionalized version of my life. I would write it. He would read it, and he would understand the depth of my emotions and how I had been hurt. He would form a new image of me. (The idea that his own version of history would contradict mine and that I would probably not win him over by airing my version of events in public somehow failed to register with me.) In any case, I would write the book and I would have the last word.

This notion was motivating. It did drive me to complete my first novel a few years later (about a different someone I hoped to reach by writing). The novel, if I do say so myself, was horrible. Really, really dreadful. I have often given God a prayer of thanks that self-publishing was not easy in those days. Only that saved me from humiliation because I was convinced I had written something great. I went back to that novel recently to see if there were bits I could salvage for other projects and I found about four paragraphs that I might use someday.

Maybe someone else can make something meaningful out of this energy, this “yes, I’m speaking to you” mindset. Maybe Erica Jong can. I never could.

It was only when I completely moved away from myself and the events of my life as a subject that I was able to write any fiction worth reading. My first published novel, Angel, was from the point of view of a male Christian minister. By standing at a distance I gave myself more permission to control the narrative, to tell the story in a way that resonated most strongly. I was not hindered by what had happened in life or how I had reacted. Entirely fictional people gave me the space to explore the real conflicts and emotions of living in the world.

There are autobiographical elements to everything I write. I often use a setting with which I am familiar. I worked in a church office and know that world. In Identity Theft I have been on the road as the character of Ollie/Blast is and I have worked as the low man on the totem pole in a musician’s office (and in other entertainment tour offices) as Ethan does. Of course I have the experience of trying to carry on relationships mostly over the internet, as Candi does. But none of my experience directly translates into the story. There is no “you” whom I hoped to reach by writing it, except for you, dear reader. And that, I have found, is the only way that it works. At least for me.


Novels and the Ancient History of Five Years Ago

9781613721032_p0_v1_s260x420I recently went through the process of approving a set of edits on an already published novel, which is going to be re-released in a second edition. This is the first time I’ve ever been called on, or given an opportunity, to revise a work that has already been published. It doesn’t happen often.

One of the interesting dilemmas I faced in the touch up of Angel was whether or not to try to update some references that are now obsolete. The novel deals with a protestant minister (of an undefined denomination but a kind of Methodist-Presbyteriny one) who finds himself at odds with his congregation when he falls in love with another man. At the time I wrote the book Presbyterians did not allow the ordination of openly gay ministers. This changed between the time the book was purchased and first released. (The Methodists, for a number of political reasons that I will not go into here, as far as I know, have not changed their stance.)

So the culture has changed rapidly.

Back in June, before I knew the publisher wanted to re-issue Angel, I wrote about a particular passage in the novel that was out of date:

A discussion on the news the other night made me realize that my novel, published in 2011, is already becoming obsolete– and I couldn’t be happier.  A panel was discussing how quickly the dominoes were falling when it comes to U.S. states recognizing same sex marriage. I thought about a now obsolete passage in Angel in which the two protagonists joke about the comparative merits of getting married in Massachusetts or Iowa, the two states that allowed such a thing when the book was written. “The ocean is sexier than corn,” Ian said.

In only three years, the novel has become  a period piece.

Most pundits now expect that the Supreme Court will soon legalize same sex marriage across the country.

So I had to decide whether to cut the reference to Iowa and Massachusetts, indeed to traveling anywhere to get legally married, in order to bring the book up to date.

In the end, I decided to leave it as it was because the culture has changed and continues to change so rapidly, keeping the novel up to date strikes me as being a bit like constantly upgrading your software. There is always a newer version.

Yesterday I quoted George Bernard Shaw who wrote in The Sanity of Art, “The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are ‘not for an age, but for all time’ has his reward in being unreadable in all ages.” He went on to say, “The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and about all time.”

I agree with that, and that is why I think I have to leave Ian and Paul where I left them, in the recent past. Angel is set not in the present day but some time around the year 2007. I didn’t know that at the time I was writing, but I do now.

Story Telling and Modern Technology

I was recently talking to a friend about how I had been working on a story set in the late 1980s, when I was in college. I told her I was trying to get back into the mindset of a person who did not have the internet and instant access to information. She laughed at this. “You’re old enough, you remember those days.”

Of course I do. And because I remember, I have a feeling that there is a way of interacting, a way of thinking and thinking about ourselves that is associated with a purely analog world. No technology or change in lifestyle alters basic human nature, you can read texts as old as the Bible and recognize different types of characters you still see today. Yet the way we live our lives has changed quite a bit, and I am certain there are habits of thought that come with it, that are now so familiar that it is hard to imagine life any other way.

An article in The Millions today discusses writers lamenting some of the narrative possibilities of being cut off from the world without cell phones and instant access to information.

I don’t mean to praise disruption or dismiss the challenges of networked life, and I wouldn’t take a proscriptive stand on “what fiction should do.” I am not, frankly, an enthusiast of cell phones or even landlines, which I have been known to unplug for days at a time, to the annoyance of housemates. I find it ever more disorienting, though, to read novels set in this “nostalgic present,” ambiguously atemporal as if they could take place any time between the 1950s and early-1990s. Or, more disorienting still, set very clearly in the present but without its technological trappings. These avoidances make the art seem less vital, less able to speak to the present, and like a choice more concerned with making things easy on writers than with offering something to readers. I’ve had some surprisingly heated arguments with other writers, making me an unintentional champion of cell phones and search engines in fiction, but what it comes down to is that I don’t see these elements of contemporary life as destructive of narrative possibilities, but as sources for new possibilities. I’ve become something of a collector of fictional moments in which networked life matters.

I agree with this entirely. In fact, I think George Bernard Shaw summed it up when he wrote in The Sanity of Art, “The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are ‘not for an age, but for all time’ has his reward in being unreadable in all ages.”

Indeed, Identity Theft relies on technology for its plot line. While it is an entirely modern story, as it deals with catfishing and relationships conducted through online chats and social networks, it is also an old story, a tale of mistaken identity and characters questioning their places in the world.

But the narrative limitations imposed by technology were not what I was talking about to my friend. Each age has its own mind-set, its own set of assumptions and its own ways of being in the world. A lot of it is invisible to us while we are immersed in it, it is only looking back that we can see that Oscar Wilde thought like a Victorian. Much as we can only recognize what is American by traveling abroad and coming face to face with our own assumptions. (Not everyone does it that way.)

I am sure that there were ways that we thought and felt before the iphone was invented that have shifted subtly, assumptions we didn’t know we had. It was not long ago, but it is hard to remember.

Quote of the Day: You Can Expect It, but It is a bit Cruel

When we expect young writers to get experience via unpaid internships, we’re actually saying we want only wealthy people writing about American culture in an influential way. That’s what we get, right? Or rather, that’s what we’ve gotten used to accepting as normal when in fact, it’s a kind of fiction. Diversity is reality. So, in order to do my part to support being in step with reality, I’m really excited about creating an opportunity for emerging writers to get experience and mentorship while also receiving financial support. You can’t expect someone to do their best work if they’re exhausted and broke. Well, maybe you can expect it but doing so strikes me as a bit cruel.-Saeed Jones, quoted in Colorlines

3 A.M. Philistines

So I decided to try a writing exercise from a book called The 3 A.M. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley. Kiteley suggests taking a sentence from a writer whose work you admire and to write a short bit of fiction using only the words in that sentence. (You can repeat them, but not add to them.) For practical reasons, Kiteley suggests you select a long sentence with a lot of words in it.

I’ve been quite interested in Oscar Wilde’s The Decay of Lying. His defense of the art of lying seemed a propos as I am flogging a novel right now in which one of the main characters decides to play the role of a rock star on line and starts to think of lying as a creative act– a kind of art.

I chose this wordy phrase for my writing exercise:

“Bored by the tedious and improving conversation of those who have neither the wit to exaggerate nor the genius to romance, tired of the intelligent person whose reminiscences are always based upon memory, whose statements are invariably limited by probability, and who is at any time liable to be corroborated by the merest Philistine who happens to be present, Society sooner or later must return to its lost leader, the cultured and fascinating liar.”

I thought the lost leader, the romance and reminiscences and tedious genius might yield something interesting. Alas, they did not:

A bored, tired romance

limited by probability

based on reminiscences

neither improving nor fascinating

wit lost

return to the present

improving happens sooner or later

So I gave up on that.  One word in the sentence did manage to capture my imagination, though. The word “Philistine.” I was certain the Philistines were being slandered and that they could not have been the base oafs their name would now suggest. Was this an ethnic slur from Biblical times that had survived to this day?

I looked up the Philistines on that great repository of knowledge, Wikipedia. They were known, in Biblical times, as threatening invaders. Their name translates into something like “of another tribe.” This makes sense. Historically, nearly every tribe called themselves by a name that meant something like “the people.” When they came into contact with another tribe, they invariably dubbed those guys something like “the others,” “the invaders,” “the foreigners,” or “those idiots over there.”

I read once that the Russian word for Germans essentially calls them stupid people who can’t speak Russian and the German word for Russians calls them stupid people who can’t speak German.

Anyway, the historical Philistines apparently had a nice, well-organized town and they were major traders in olive oil. The Wikipedia entry did not explain how their name had come to mean what it does to us today.

I found the answer to that on a blog called Yuletide, in a post that seems to be well-researched.  (it is certainly persuasive enough for my current purposes, which is musing about something for no particular reason.) According to Yuletide, the idea that Philistines were backward does not go back to Biblical times but to a university in Germany. In the year 1693 a student and a non-student got into a fight and the student ended up dead.

A minister delivered a funeral oration which included a verse that mentioned the Philistines. The sermon must have been memorable because the students started to refer to it and eventually to use “Philistine” as an insider reference to non-students.

So “Philistine” meaning an uncultured boor was not racist. It was classist.

In 1797 “Goethe and Schiller, Enlightenment men who valued aesthetics, use the word ‘philistine’ (in the modern sense) for the first time in print. They use the term to derisively describe their critics, ‘old fashioned rationalists…who had no feeling for contemporary poetry,’ a definitively modern usage.”

This made its way to England via writings about German authors. It started to gain currency in the 1860s. Matthew Arnold may have popularized it.

In a follow up article, Yuletide showed a graph that traces the frequency of the use of the term over time.

What I found interesting in this, beyond my general interest in etymology (that’s the word one, right? entomology is bugs? I get them confused) is to think how modern an expression this must have been when Wilde wrote his essay. I tend to think of Wilde’s language as quite proper and a bit old fashioned, but he was a thoroughly modern guy.

“Fiction Is Always Happening In The Background”: An AWRW Interview of Author Laura Lee

Thank you to April from A Well Read Woman for the interview.

A Well Read Woman

lauraleeAuthor Laura Lee has written a dozen non-fiction books with such publishers as Harper Collins, Reader’s Digest, Running Press, Broadway Books, Lyons Press and Black Dog and Leventhal. Her book, Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation, has sold more than 85,000 copies. She has also written two collections of poetry, and a children’s book, (A Child’s Introduction to Ballet).

I recently read and reviewed, Identity Theft, by Author Laura Lee, which is a novel about a bored employee in a rock star’s office, who catfishes an enamored fan, in the guise of his boss, and sets off a chain of events he cannot control. I absolutely loved Identity Theft, and you can find my review, here!

Today I am interviewing, Author Laura Lee, and I encourage everyone to leave her a supportive comment! Please welcome her to A Well Read Woman Blog!

Hi Laura, thank you for agreeing…

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Self-Publishing and “Economically Privileged Authors”

I read an article on a blog called “it’s all one thing” (lowercase title in the original) with the title “I Challenge You To Stop Reading Economically Privileged Authors for One Year.”

I agree wholeheartedly with the basic premise of the article, that it is important to read outside of the echo chamber of one’s own social category and that upper middle class readers need to experience the voices of working class writers. When thinking about diversity it is important to include social class. We, far too often, ignore it completely.

But the expression “economically privileged authors” tripped me up a bit. Writing is hardly a lucrative profession.

Yes, I am lucky. I have resources that I would not have had I been born into poverty. I was raised in a home with “middle class values” and the confidence (and the pressure) that comes with that. “Take risks! Follow your dream! Your career should be a source of personal fulfillment!”  I am college-educated and have the vocabulary and accent of a professional. I can go into fairly upscale establishments and not look out of place. People give me the benefit of the doubt that I have credit cards to buy things and I am not there to rob the store. Thanks to my background I can hide my poverty, and as much as possible I do, because people make a lot of assumptions about those with no money. They are lazy, untrustworthy, incapable, unprofessional and selfish. I am none of those things, but as a working artist I am frequently poor. (My irregular income makes me at times very poor and at times almost among the middle class economically. So far, it has never made me rich.)

Writing the book “Broke is Beautiful” was therapeutic for me because it gave me the courage to admit this publicly, but one thing I hadn’t expected was the common criticism I would receive that I was a poverty poseur.  Coming from a background of privilege and being (currently) economically privileged are two different things. It’s not always as easy to know who the “poor” are as you think.

Will Shetterly,  the author of the “it’s all one thing” blog, was not talking about poverty though. He was talking about social class.

Reading stories from the point of view of working class characters, by writers from working class backgrounds, can help to solve one of the problems in our conversation about poverty and social class– the problem of “othering” and speaking about members of different social classes in distant abstractions.

There are two main ways that people talk about “the poor” one associated with the political right and the other with the political left. The first is to talk about poverty as though it were solely a matter of morality and personal choice. “Anyone can pull himself up by his bootstraps if he has enough gumption. Therefore if you are poor it is because you are not working hard enough.” If you have experienced poverty for any length of time you know how much harder it is to accomplish things than when you are rich. You understand how one problem can set you back on multiple fronts. You know about the exhaustion of it and the personal strain. (People who are relatively comfortable often wonder why poor people go to payday lenders instead of borrowing money from friends or relatives. This assumes, first of all, that the friends and relatives have money to lend. It also entirely discounts the importance of social capital in a community with scant financial resources. A person who is already relying on friends and relatives– maybe a neighbor is watching her kids after school because she can’t afford day care or a friend is giving her rides to work– tries to preserve those relationships by not overly taxing them. It seems to the well-off person to be short-sighted, but in full context, it is actually a long-term view. Money problems may come and go, but your sister is going to be your sister for life, and she has a good memory.) The bootstrap theory is overly simplistic.

On the other hand, I sometimes cringe when I read defenses of the poor written by sympathetic college-educated, middle class people, who are aware of privilege but who have no personal experience of poverty. It is far too easy for empathy for the difficulties of the poor to morph into something like fatalism and pity. “There are all kinds of systemic obstacles. A black inner city kid can’t be expected to….” Birth is not destiny. A person from a marginalized group, with no money, has a much harder time of it. But it is as big a mistake to speak of those obstacles as defining, and to assume the person has no chance for positive change as it is to write the obstacles off as minor inconveniences.

Therefore we need more narratives written by and about competent, strong people who can paint vivid portraits of the drama of these obstacles.

“This is one of the rarely spoken truths of publishing: Most writers come from backgrounds of economic privilege,” Shetterly wrote.

The discussion about publishing and privilege tends to focus on traditional publishers. Self-publishing is supposed to be the great democratic force in publishing, allowing writers from groups that have been traditionally under-represented by the big houses to have their voices heard.

I wonder, though, if independent publishing can live up to this promise or if it will actually exacerbate the problem. I thought about this the other day when I was looking at some of the marketing options on Createspace. (I used Createspace for my current novel.)

These days publishing a book can be as easy as uploading a pdf  or Word file. Publishing is no longer the hard part. What is a challenge is bringing your book to the attention of readers and getting it to stand out among the glut of independently produced books. In other words, it is much easier to get a book into print than it is to get anyone to read it.

Reviewers have a lot on their plates and they are not interested in reading garbage. The few major reviewers who consider independent books look for ways to separate the wheat from the chaff. Kirkus, I discovered via Createspace, will review your book for a fee of $425, or in my terms, two car payments.

The idea behind this, if there is one besides a desire to make some money from the self-publishing boom, is that if someone is serious enough to invest in marketing the book, they were probably serious in its production as well.

I read quite a few blog posts written by authors trying to decide if the fee was worth it. It is probably “worth it” in that it grants a certain respectability to an independent title, especially if the review is positive. If you were to buy advertising in a publication with such status you would expect to pay this or more. It gives the indie writer a foot in the door. But if you do not have the economic means, the question is moot. There is no way a person living in poverty can come up with that much money– no matter what the benefits.

Of course a writer can, with a lot of effort, find a few bloggers he can personally persuade to champion his book. Book bloggers are absolutely inundated, and many try to reduce their load by limiting their selections to traditionally published books or those that are part of a blog tour.  Virtual blog tours are a great way to guarantee a few reviews without having to do the legwork yourself– but they are not cheap either. A typical price for a blog tour with a half dozen stops is $75-$100. A highly motivated author can substitute labor for money and can achieve similar results. It is just much, much harder.

Traditional publishers may favor books by authors from similar backgrounds to their own, but when they do publish a book they put in the money to make sure it is professionally edited, designed and marketed. In self-publishing all of those costs come out of the writer’s pocket.

The great democratic future of publishing runs the risk of becoming a playground for those who have some money to spare.