“Artist” Is Not A Dirty Word

Just a few thoughts today, since true to form, the feast part of “feast or famine” has just hit and I’ve more work than even I know what to do with. This is a happy state of affairs, however, and one I wish to continue. So it’s time to put my head down and chew away at the problems one at a time.

* Slushpile.net on Outdated, Stodgy Ivory-Tower Attitudes That Cripple Writers:

But, if you’re a writer who wants to be taken seriously by your peers? Then you’d better not do a damn thing other than put words on paper. And you certainly better not expect to earn any income from it. And in some ways, we hinder our own profession with that antiquated notion.

Yes, you have the choice to maintain complete focus on your writing if that is what you choose to do with your career. Take the Cormac McCarthy or JD Salinger route. Be “pure” and “unsullied.” That is a perfectly reasonable and respectable decision.

But don’t criticize another writer for diversification. (Slushpile.net)

I wrote my Hack Manifesto partly in response to this. I also wrote the Speshul Snowflake Bedtime Story partly in response to this dynamic. We have this ongoing assumption that writers don’t deserve to get paid for what they do, maybe because every fricking celebrity or chef can “write a book.” There is very little understanding of the hard cold fact that bringing an actual book (as opposed to a celebrity PR exercise) from original idea/inception to finished product is WORK. Lots of work, plenty of it thankless and drudging.

I’ve grown to hate it when people say, after finding out I write for a living, “Oh, that’s neat. I’ve always wanted to write a book. When I have time someday.” The assumption is that all they have to do is sit down and vomit up a few thousand unconnected letters, sentences, and paragraphs, and fame and fortune will inevitably result. I know they mean well, and I know they have no bloody idea. But I often want to reply, “What do you do? Oh, you’re a dentist? I’ve always wanted to come to a dentist’s office one day when I have time and mess around with the drills. How hard can it be?” I almost always restrain myself, and content myself with quietly pointing out that it’s hard work and I’ve been doing it for years, and only recently (by the grace of Steve, no doubt) have reached a place where it provides a decent, if not terribly steady, income.

The Slushpile’s point is slightly different, of course; I’ve yet to attend a group of writers where the implicit assumption that if you make money you’re not very good or dedicated or truly deserving to be called an artist doesn’t rear its ugly head at least once in some way. This assumption, that artists don’t deserve and shouldn’t sully themselves with cold hard cash, is endemic in our society. Personally, I blame the Puritans and their “anything that is a luxury is SINFUL, and writing is a LUXURY so it is SINFUL FRIPPERY” attitude.

Perhaps it’s just knowing what side my bread is buttered on, but I agree with Mario Vargas Llosa that writing, literature, etc., is not a luxury:

They earn my pity not only because they are unaware of the pleasure that they are missing, but also because I am convinced that a society without literature, or a society in which literature has been relegated–like some hidden vice–to the margins of social and personal life, and transformed into something like a sectarian cult, is a society condemned to become spiritually barbaric, and even to jeopardize its freedom. I wish to offer a few arguments against the idea of literature as a luxury pastime, and in favor of viewing it as one of the most primary and necessary undertakings of the mind, an irreplaceable activity for the formation of citizens in a modern and democratic society, a society of free individuals. (Mario Vargas Llosa)

I’m not saying I’m George Orwell or anything. But a vibrant literature holds a place for me to make a living, and my refusal to give anything less than my best to any project I sign a contract for is my implicit and explicit agreement with my Readers. From that agreement we both draw strength and sustenance. It’s bloody hard work that I do with a song in my heart because I believe it’s important.

* Stacia Kane approaches this from a slightly different direction in a wonderful essay:

But I do think there’s a weird kind of pressure on genre fiction writers to not let on that they see themselves or think of themselves as artists. There’s a definite pressure to act like their art means nothing to them, like it’s an entity completely separate from them.

Think of it this way. If a painter has a gallery show, and a critic ravages his work, does anyone frown and kick up a fuss if the artist gets upset about it? Does anyone remind him that reviews don’t exist to make him feel better, but to inform art lovers whether or not his work is worth their time? Not as far as I know. People expect the artist to be upset about terrible reviews. They expect him to be temperamental; hell, we all know what the phrase “artistic temperament” means, don’t we?

Now, I am NOT, absolutely NOT, implying in any way that reviewers don’t have the right to say whatever they want about books, or that reviews aren’t for readers and not writers–they absolutely are–or that writers should be allowed to freak out all over the internet and threaten people or name crack whore characters after people who gave them bad reviews or whatever. No, no, no, I’m not saying that at all, not one bit; you all know how I feel about that. This post isn’t about reviewers or reviews, except insomuch as they can be another example of what I feel is the expectation that genre fiction writers not consider themselves artists, not think or talk about themselves as artists, and not act as though their art is important to them. Like caring about your work has become synonymous somehow with freak-out rants and threats, instead of just…caring about your work. I’m not implying in any way that this sort of pressure comes solely from reviewers or readers, either; it comes from other writers just as much if not more. (Stacia Kane)

The implicit assumption that genre is filthy, “disposable”, and that only the idiotic hoi polloi read it as escapism is just as damaging as the assumption that artists don’t deserve to get paid. And you can tell just where I like to suggest people stick both those assumptions.

Later in the essay, Kane asks “We’re all so worried about being professional, about being easy to work with and seeing our work as a commodity and ourselves as commodities and all of that…have we become so focused on publishing as a business that we’ve forgotten about the magic of it?”

Which I think hits the nail squarely on the head. There is magic. The writer’s job is to show up consistently to help that magic birth itself, in a variety of ways. The reader plonks down hard cold cash because they like, want, and need the magic. Both invest time (in the form of money or effort) in the magic, and both get a reward from it. The difference is the writer’s reward is often implicitly denigrated, or it’s even suggested that the writer deserves no reward at all because they should be Just Doin’ It For The Arte And The Luv.

I don’t like this. For obvious reasons, I think it’s unfair. I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep or cry into my coffee over it, but neither do I have to put up with any shit over it. It’s about the best one can do in this situation.

* Which is why I love Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and think it’s so valuable. Cameron unpacks this dynamic and the various ways the stereotype of the self-destructive artist and the idea that art is a useless frippery are both used, by artists and against them. And if you want a productive long-term career in the arts you could do a lot worse than the exercises she suggests for catching that dynamic and kicking it in the balls before it messes up your head, your workspace, or your life.

That’s pretty much all I have today. Now I’ve got to turn my attention to Perry and Jill and some very interesting implications of gifts and imputed obligation. Plus there’s the structure of the Essay of DOOOOOM to rip apart and put back together, and a couple edit letters to plug into and start thinking about. Never rains but it pours.

All else aside, I’m very happy about that.

Over and out.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

Where Did Spring Break Go?

Rock climbing classes for the kids start this week. My own class got pushed back to May for some reason. Oh well. Plus there’s a trip to the dentist in my future. Fortunately the dentist’s office understands about My Issues: “Tell me what you’re going to do before you do it. Keep me updated. If there is a chance of it hurting, warn me. If I lift my left hand or wave, stop and tell me what you’re doing. I find this stressful and this will make it easier for both of us.”

You know, once you start setting boundaries it just never stops. *snort*

I’m also trying out a new workspace, sitting on an exercise ball instead of cross-legged in the CHAIR. We’ll see if that ameliorates some of the pain issues I’ve been having. Changing around the workspace is a good way for me to really prove I can write whenever, wherever. So, we’ll see.

Also, I am considering a Mac for my next laptop. I hear good things about them. So, if The Great Interwebs can answer a few questions, I’d be grateful.

1. How’s the keyboard action on a Mac? I love my current Asus, but the keyboard really leaves a little to be desired.
2. Does MSOffice work okay on Mac? I love Word and Excel and don’t want to change to a new word-processing program. Specifically, does Word on Mac have trouble opening .docx files?
3. Is it worth the initial price? I mean, do they last longer than PC laptops?
4…oh, there is no 4. I guess it’s just three questions. Comments and answers appreciated.

Also, I am a bit silly from a late night last night. Nothing dire, just up chatting with a friend. Wrenching my schedule back to normality from the chaos of Spring Break (most days I slept in until *gasp* 9AM! Unheard-of, I know!) is predictably making me a little goony today. If you see me on Twitter, it’s probably going to be goofiness. You’ve been warned.

Last but not least, can I please write one short story that doesn’t require three or four effing starts thrown out before I get something usable? I’m under deadline here, Muse. Kthxbai.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

Hand On Sword, Eye On Prize

When you get up at 6AM with a whole week’s worth of to-do collapsed into a single day…everything turns into a blur. Especially when you’ve been awake half the night stressed out about All The Things You’ve Decided To Do Today. I was up pretty early this morning, and I got everything accomplished. My list, which looked like a mad scientist’s scratchpad, has EVERYTHING crossed off. If I wasn’t so damn tired I’d go get myself a glass of wine to celebrate. Unfortunately the wine would put me straight into a coma.

So I’m just checking in with a couple of quick things.

* To Reader Shelly H.: your letter made me cry. It’s those types of letters that get me through and remind me why I’m doing this on days when I’m deluged by bad reviews or deadline panic, revision hell or Muse bonbon shortage. Thank you for taking the time to write. You really made my day. Hell, my month. Keep swinging, kid. I’m right there with you.

I do read every piece of fanmail you guys send. I can’t respond much (if at all) because of Deadline and Life Pressure. I know you guys understand because you tell me you do, often in the the first paragraph. I do read and treasure–and in some cases, reread–your letters. Thank you so much for writing to me. You’re all awesome.

* I’ve signed myself and the kids up for a rock-climbing basics class in April. (The Krav Maga place was always closed when I went by to check it out. Oh well!) It’ll teach belaying for me, and other stuff for the small ones. They’re absolutely thrilled. I hadn’t realized we had TWO community centres with indoor rock walls in Vancouver. (The mind boggles.) Plus there are other ones in Portland.

However, I know next to naught about climbing. I’ll be climbing indoors for the foreseeable future. Reader TJ Tradekraft (hi TJ!) has already given me some great advice, and if anyone else around here is a climber, feel free to advise me in comments or drop me an email. Yes, I am actually asking for advice. Don’t look surprised, I do this all the time.
I’m looking for stuff like:

what to look for in a good climbing wall
what to look for in a good instructor
general safety tips
general comfort tips (like TJ says, “tape your fingers!”)
general advice

That about covers it. I’ve got dinner cooking and some wordcount to get in so today is a total win instead of a qualified win. I suspect I’ll feel better with more food in me; lunch was good but it was hours ago.

Whew. Off I go…

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

I Am Not Them, But I’m Just As Scared

Cross-posted to the Deadline Dames, a year old and still going strong.

I can definitively state I AM NOT MY CHARACTERS.

Most of them–Danny and Jill spring immediately to mind for some reason–come from a pretty dark place. Others, not so much. I’ve had some scary experiences in my life (and something tell me I will have still more, life being what it is.) Some of those scary experiences are fuel. Others are just…there. They don’t go into books, they’re too personal. I have to come to terms with them in other ways.

Using the fuel of scary experiences can be good. It can help you process, it can help you deal. There are several different types of artistic fuel, however, and getting hooked on one to the exclusion of all others is a chancy proposition. Art does not live by one fuel alone–and trying to make it can have bad effects on you.

Case in point? Well, me. I’m in a state of highly personal, highly charged change right now. Some of the fuel I was using while I was miserable five years ago, or two years ago, or six months ago is no longer around. I don’t have that whip to push myself on. I am, to put it bluntly, afraid that if I get healthier or happier I will no longer be able to peer into those dark places or face them with the courage needed to pull those characters out of the shadows.

Most of me knows this is silly. As someone wise recently told me, “Those miseries were ways you had of coping and surviving. They worked to keep you whole and protect you. They’ll still be there if you need them again.” I know it’s true–I can put them back in my toolbox and get them out if I need them.

But, dear Reader…I’m scared. I’m scared the characters won’t talk to me if we don’t have the pain-points in common. I’m terrified that I’m a one-trick pony. I’m scared that getting healthier and happier will change something in my makeup and send me spinning and careening off into the woods, where my career will die a lonely death and I’ll end up hungry on the street.

I know it’s not rational. I know I’m feeling this because change is inherently frightening. When you add personal change to the cauldron of insecurities writing can and does uncover, it’s about as comfortable as bathing in a tub full of very angry cobras.

So how do you get through? How do you reassure yourself the words will still be there even if you change?

I suppose a simple answer is faith, with a large helping of stubbornness. I did not get to where I am today by listening to the fear or letting the rejection stop me. The words have been there during every other damn change in my life; this one just feels different because I’m suffering it OMGNOW! Time will add a measure of perspective that will drain my panic.

None of this helps with the agony of indecision, fear, and agitation I am experiencing, yea even at this very moment.

Which gives me hope. Over the course of a book, I take people apart. I feel their agonies while I whack away every single solid thing they rely on and put them through the wringer. They risk everything because they have no choice. It’s who they are, and living requires the courage to do no less.

I guess we’re not so different, my characters and me. Which brings me to my bone-deep stubbornness again. If they can make it through everything I can throw at them, I can make it through this. Jill would set her chin, glare out of her mismatched eyes, and stride forward. Danny’s thumb would caress the katana’s guard, and she’d wear that little half-smile. Kaia would grin and brace herself. Even Theo, the calmest and sweetest person I’ve ever written, would fold her arms and get that determined little glint in her eye.

No, they’re not (and never will be) me. But the strength to write them is and always has been mine. If I’ve lost the fuel of misery I’ll find something else to burn. If I’ve kept the fire going this long, I’ll likely find something else to throw on it. I have to trust–not my gods, not my characters, not other people. I have to trust in my own willingness to let the words come through me. I have to trust that I’m still interesting even when I’m not broken. That this will only make me stronger and better.

I’m not my characters. They can still teach me something. And I can look back on creating them and know there’s no shortage. Remember? My job isn’t to make the magic. My job is to show up every day.

I can do that. No matter how scared I am.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

Answering Questions

The first day back from a vacation and already I’m looking at the pile of work in front of me and feeling like…oh, weeping would be an alternative, wouldn’t it? No, of course not. And besides, I worked all the way through vacation, so it’s not so bad. True, I did put some things on the docket for the first week back because, well, it was supposed to be the holidays. So, today and tomorrow are for short stories and wordcount.

Since it is the first day back, I should take this opportunity to answer a few questions. Yes, I do read all the mail my Readers send me. I can only respond via email rarely. If enough people ask a question, I answer it here or put it on the FAQ.

Let’s see:

* A few of you asked when the next Jill Kismet is out. I don’t know precisely yet. I do know that it’s in the revision process, and as soon as I have more concrete information I’ll update the site and announce it. Fear not, there are two more Jill books forthcoming.

* Many of you are intrigued by the words “Latin self-study”. It’s like juggling more chainsaws; I’ve had some luck with it but not much. More than finding a Latin class in my area that doesn’t require an hour of driving either way, that’s for sure. For those of you interested, I recommend Wheelock’s, and also Artes Latinae. Rosetta Stone also has a good program, if a bit spendy.

* Loyal reader TP recently asked this very interesting question:

Why read at readings? Yes, the name of the event answers the question but really, why is it that you, or any other author, must read passages from the book (doesn’t it get boring?)? I have always thought that reading a book is immersing oneself into a new universe but seen and heard through the filter of one’s own mind. Hearing the author reading does neither good nor ill to that universe, I just haven’t found that it adds much to it (then again, I have gone to perhaps only 4 in my life, one in which the author didn’t read but just talked to and with us). From your end, as the author, does reading passages do something for both you and your interaction with the audience that I’m missing?

The short answer: I don’t know, I do what the bookstores (who are kind enough to invite me) ask me to do.

The longer answer: I think it does add something, and I’ve been asked by fans to read a certain chapter and do a podcast. (When I get a microphone, editing software, and some time, yeah. I love you guys, but the actual writing comes first.) Yes, reading the book invites you into the universe the writer has created, you can experience it through the filter of your own mind. On the other hand, your experience of that universe can be deepened and enriched by hearing where the author places emphasis. I’ve had people tell me they came away with a new understanding after listening to me read, especially from the Valentine books. (Hearing me “channel” Japh’s sardonic, flat tone is apparently hilarious.)

Then again, I enjoy reading aloud. I’ve done it a lot and sometimes I’ll read a sentence aloud a few times to get a handle on emphasis and pace. Being taught to stop at punctuation marks and to look for the natural “breathing points” in poetry or lines delivered onstage is far from the worst experience one can have when looking for hitches in the smooth reel of the written word.

Oddly enough, the things I’m most asked at events are either spoileriffic, or about aspects of the world I’ve thought about but couldn’t cram in the books because of space considerations, or about the act of writing itself. I think a lot of people view writing as a sort of Black Arte and are looking for the turn. The actual process is fascinating. It just becomes normal when one does it every day.

Hm. Long answer is long. But I found it a very, very interesting question. I’ve fallen into doing readings because bookstores ask me to, and I’ve found I enjoy them a bit. Except for the parts where I want to pause and correct/revise something on the page. ARGH.

And that’s all that I’m fit to blog today. I have a hot date with breakfast and some coffee, since I’m up anyway. Good luck out there.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.