Thursday, March 1, 2012
I Shall Impart What Wisdom I Have Gathered Over the Years
Writing groups have fallen apart because one of them gets published. No joke.
A lot of times I notice that seasoned writers lord over their secrets and insight, only selling them as part of a craft book, a writing lab, or as a salaried instructor…if they part with them at all. This makes a certain sort of sense when you consider that creative writing barely pays for a pack of instant Miso soup and three Slim Jims; however, I also think a lot of it comes from the atmosphere created by gatekeepers and old guard publication. Instead of a society of artists doing everything they can to enrich the world they live in through each other’s talent as well as their own, we get to participate in The Art Hunger Games.
And why not? (From the publisher's point of view, that is.) If you have five book deals and five hundred writers you can dangle them like steaks in a pit full of rabid papillons and then it's a great big favor you're doing when you hand them out and they forget that you're about to make a lot of money off of their creative efforts.
Anyone else's success implies you are that much less likely to taste it yourself. Of course you find a reason to dislike them--too experimental, too commercial, too avant garde, too plot-based, too this, too that. I’m not saying writers never share a secret or don’t have writer friends, but it’s a starvation economy, so everyone’s shifty-eyed and wary. There's not enough to go around. Better make camps. People are less generous with their charitable thoughts and the sharing of insight when they think there’s only disincentive to do so. Why give someone else your edge?
Oh and the gate keepers loved this power--they loved it for decades...centuries. It kept writers weak in negotiations–honored just to be published.
If a bunch of managers were competing for a district manager position, they would not likely make friends among themselves and possibly even share limited advice, but mostly that sense of competition would set a cool timbre between them. This is where a lot of writers are, especially when they start seeing people “making it” around them. They trash each other’s work rather than foster it. If anyone has ever actually been in a writing program, they are no stranger to the fellow student who says "Well I thought this was not very good" about every single assigned text.
And while "sprezzatura" lives on in our sense of humility–and most people are usually not so crassly arrogant as to come right out and say “I’m so much better than that person”–many are not QUITE so clever as to realize their transparency when they have an ass load of "constructive criticism" about style or content of literally any writing that is not their own.
Healthy competition can be good when it drives us to excel. But when competition reaches the point that we feel the need not to drive OURSELVES to excel, but to tear others DOWN in order to have a chance, that is the point when everyone ends up with self-esteem issues, and all are diminished. At least in the art world--I'm not trying to argue evolution.
No sense of aesthetic is served by falling on each other like jackals. This is why I think some of the electronic and self-publishing developments in the industry are particularly exciting. I can declare, around tear stained eyes, "We don't have to live like this anymore!"
And indeed, bloggers and non-traditional publishers seem to be more inclined to prop each other up and encourage each other's work than falling into the pattern that there can be only one.
Two things I think you should understand about me:
Number one: I don’t think of publication or financial independence as the endgame. I think of the act of writing as the endgame. That's where the catharsis and joy and artistic fulfillment come from. I already think I’m "making it" in the ways that matter. Oh, I’ll admit a little twinge when I see someone’s name in print who I know, or when I see someone paying their bills with a royalty check. But after thirty years of doing something without a paycheck, you really start to realize the fulfilling and rewarding part is already happening. If someone offered me a lifetime of royalty checks and talk shows (and even blistering groupie threesomes) under the condition that I never again write, I would laugh myself into an aneurism. I think we already know what I would do if someone offered me a lifetime of writing without a paycheck or accolades worth speaking of. Success is the frosting on the cake. It's gravy. It's a cliché food item in a mélange of culinary metaphors.
I'm not just saying this to be artsy fartsy. I really don't care if someone “beats me to the finish line.” Truly. I may feel pangs of envy when someone's feeding themselves off their wordsmithing, but I hope we all make it.
I was at a wake about five years ago and a fellow writer I hadn’t seen seven or eight years before that, who knew I was a writer, approached me basically to gloat that he was published and paying the bills with fiction. (Though it has not escaped my notice that technically he meant editing anthologies, not his own writing.)
"How's your writing going?" he asked, and I could tell he already had a pretty good idea.
I explained about having real trouble with cleaning up my own drafts and returning to school to take an undergrad writing program and improve my craft. At that point I hadn't made any money yet.
“Well I’ve been writing for a living for YEARS now,” he said. And just to make sure I didn’t miss the I-liked-Pearl-Jam-before-they-were-big inflection, he went ahead and added a derisive snort at the end.
I’m not sure if it was supposed to make me jealous, but all it really made me feel was a little sad that after ten years that a sort of pathetic at-your-expense validation was an itch he apparently needed to scratch so badly that he thought a mutual friend's wake was a reasonable place to do so. If anyone thinks I’m in some kind of race, they really haven’t been paying much attention.
Honestly, whatever need for catharsis prompted the display that day, I hope he got it.
I don’t care if I give someone advice and they get a book deal before I do. If I enrich the artistic world I win too because that’s another book I might love to read, and I’m not going to act like it sucks that more good writing is in the world just because I didn't get my cookies. I don’t have any reason or inclination to horde my insights or experience.
Number two: I have been doing this for thirty years. And I am not fucking around.
I have a bookshelf full of books on writing. That is not hyperbole. It's a bookshelf. It's full. All the books are about writing in some way.
I have a degree in Creative Writing–a "heavily Lit based" writing program from SFSU. I didn’t just cruise through my degree and coast to graduation either. I sucked the marrow from my degree, taking every class I thought could help me, graduating with a 3.94, and knocking down 30 units over what I needed to graduate (or about a full year of coursework extra).
I’m not just saying that to brag (haha who am I kidding, I totally am). I’m saying it to make a point: it’s a pretty safe bet that I caught the gist of just about everything that happened to me during those 150 units. I have every sheet given to me about writing in a two foot stack on a shelf in my room. I kept every single assignment related to writing, no matter how small, along with any annotations I made or comments I received. I have notes that fill several entire spiral bound notebooks on my professors’ lectures. I wasn’t there to get a degree; I was there to get an education, so I was determined not to miss a thing.
So I’m not just offering to share something I heard last week about writing from a guy on BART who was asking for change.
I’m also a teacher. My life has been spent imparting knowledge to others.
Combine my skill set with my knowledge base, and it’s a pretty good bet I have a nugget or two in here somewhere I might be able to pass on about writing and the means to do so. I’m not saying this blog is going to save you the $35,000 on a college degree, but it’s a pretty good bet that I can do a bang up job on giving you the highlight reel.
And I will. I’m not stingy.
~kisses his proton pack’s particle accelerator~ Because I’ve got the TOOLS and I’ve got the TALENT!