Friday, 22 February 2013

Ditch the Snake Oil

In order to be accepted as the creative genius that we are, we have to prove ourselves a top notch snake oil salesperson first.  Marketing, on the other hand, silences the writing demons.  It’s counter-intuitive to the work, yet, if a writer has a problem with using all her fingers and toes to create, network, market and have a personal life, there’s something wrong with her.  

For fecksake, of course there’s something wrong with me.  I spend nine hours a day writing to an invisible ‘friend’.  Disparagement isn’t much of a deterrent to me pointing out that the emperor is in the buff and his butt cheeks sag. 

Ever go to one of those Meet the Agent gigs?  A group of us were taken to London but before we went, our sponsor gave us a type of Writer’s Deportment Class.  I dutifully learned the Elevator Pitch, kept my doubts to myself.

We go to London, are crushed into an historic but down-in-the-heel pub with unlimited drinks and no food.  I stood helplessly by while one of my colleagues marched up to an agent, introduced herself and gave her pitch.  The agent’s smile took on a bit of rigor mortis, eyes rolled back in her head.  As soon as my colleague paused for breath, the agent turned to me.  I hadn’t a clue what to say but I certainly wasn’t going to give my pitch.  The agent wandered off to join a clutch of other agents with their backs to the writers in the room.

The evening progressed with agents in retreat, writers getting drunk.  When I did manage to talk with an agent, I went into therapist mode, asked how they got into their field, what it was like, what they were looking for in a book.  If they mentioned a genre that one of my colleagues wrote in, I introduced them.  I ended the evening with ten queries and never once had to expose a bit of my dramatic arc.

I suppose my problem with this system is that I used to have a normal job.  I went to uni, got several degrees, passed the licensing exam, did my CPD’s, developed a specialty, took home a pay cheque.  Nobody waited until I had an internet following before they took a chance with me.  When I was still green, they threw me into the deep end.  Sink or swim, off you go, the psyches of the traumatised in my care.  If I screwed up, a client’s suicide could be a very real consequence.

If a writer screws up, it’s bad reviews, poor audience turn out, low book sales.  Pft!  As if that were on a par with a client’s death.  But as a writer, I have to prove myself a hundred times more than I did as a trauma therapist because we’ve put the money people in charge of the creativity. 

When I worked in mental health, my boss was someone with a degree in mental health.  The finance people were kept in an office with a bar across the outside of the door.  They didn’t make the big decisions.  They balanced the books and moaned a lot.

However, until our creative people take charge of the money or our society values the creative arts as much as we do paying the expenses of our politicians, this is the system we operate in.  So, here’s my advice:

  •           Do what we do best.  Communicate with honesty.  Someone once asked what I wrote and I said, in the Nobody-Wants-To-Publish-It genre.  I was the eighth person in the group to be asked that question; my publishing credits wouldn’t have been remembered.  My honesty was.
  •            Be a huckster with people skills.  Not manipulation.  People skills.  You’ve been observing people all your life.  Writing about them, creating them, putting them in tight spots, getting them out.  You know how people want to be treated.  Treat them that way. 
  •           Expect to be treated with respect yourself.  Evaluate your rejections.  Don’t interact with people who don’t respect you.  I once had a  session with an agent whom I found so rude, I wondered why he’d been allowed to live.  At the end of our meeting, he asked me to submit something.  When I did, he wrote the most scathing rejection of my thirty year writing experience. 
  •           Surround yourself with writers who support you.  Writers, mentors, tutors who read your work only so you’ll read theirs (or worse, never read yours), tell you that what you write is too mad to be in print, are intimidated by your work, steal your ideas, who have no sense of humour, are not going to help you no matter how much prestige they have in your literary community.  Dump their sorry asses.

When I was a trauma therapist, my most important tool was myself.  The writer’s most important tool is the same.  You’re not selling snake oil.  You’re a creative genius with an honest core.  Hold it as precious.

Friday, 15 February 2013

A Dearth of Magic

When the yellow knobs of aconite show themselves in February, they usually bring that feeling of, I’ve made it!  Well, my aconite are sunny of face, the snowdrops are huddled in gossipy clumps around the garden and Sir Lawrence Olivier keeps muttering about my winter of discontent not being over yet, toots.  It feels like a reality overload, to be honest.  Never a good thing for a writer.

I’m quite happy that civilisation evolves but we as a race do seem to be detoxing ourselves of magic.  Did you see Channel 4’s special on Richard III?  Whatever the truth is, the story as presented by Channel 4 is that a woman named Philippa Langley runs an international organisation to study and promote the history of Richard III as a benevolent king.  In this country, that seems a bit looney, which unfortunately is how Langley is presented.  The show is moderated by a comedian and has several clips of Philippa becoming emotional when scientific information is given to her.  By the end of the program, the scientists themselves aren’t making eye contact with Philippa and deliver their findings to the comedian instead.

What is said early in the program, but glossed over is that the Ricardian organisation did legitimate research to locate Richard’s grave, raised substantial money to fund the dig.  Philippa stands in the parking lot and points out where she thinks the grave is, which causes titters, not least because the spot coincidentally has a large R over it.  When the skeleton is subsequently uncovered there, Philippa says, without evidence, That’s him.  And she’s right.

I don’t know Philippa Langley, but the therapist in me has seen too much magic in the most unexpected places, when it comes to anything human.  What I am somewhat versed in is Carl Jung’s theory of personality.  Most theories in the behavioural sciences get their share of the poo-poo, but Jung’s theory has an interdisciplinary acceptance in business and education as well as in psychology.  A personality test based on Jung’s theories, the Myers-Briggs, is used by HR departments for screening perspective employees and team building.  There’s even a TED talk on Jung’s concept of introvert/extravert in terms of learning styles.

What we don’t hear about much is Jung’s idea of the intuitive.  This is someone who knows, let’s say, that an English king is buried under the parking lot over at Social Services without geophys or DNA results.  A bit mad, you say?  Not so, says the Myers-Briggs, but a measurable human function for processing information.  Philippa Langley didn’t walk out her door and get a message from God.  She did years of well grounded research and reached a conclusion using a roadmap the archaeologists don’t believe in.

Einstein said that, ‘The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.  We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.’  In my interpretation of Einstein, science is here to prove that intuition is right.  The two need work together to find a king’s burial spot, to write, to make magic, to live.

As writers (or artists, actors, musicians) in a time when money is tight, culture of low status, we are asked more and more to count beans, to promote and market, to enter the world of commerce and sell our magic to the unbelieving.  We are given less and less time to play, to ponder, to dance in fire pits and listen to owls.  No one in the vast wasteland outside our offices, studios, attic garrets is going to give our magic a priority.  We have to stake our claim, hold onto it as the life’s blood that it is.

In the frenzy which is the writer’s life, give yourself some calm.  Resist interrupting your staring-in-space work with the pressures of housework.  Give yourself suggestions before you go to bed to hash out that difficult scene or put some order to your blog on magic.  Write a journal to the right side of your brain about what you’d like it to communicate to the left side of the brain.  Face your demons and let them scare you.  Remember to laugh.  Congregate with other writers.

Our society needs magic.  Don’t let anyone wrest it from your hands.  Do your research.  Hug a scientist.  Balance your bank statement.  Cite Carl Jung and TED talks to support your position.  Then make your magic.  No one else’s.  Your magic.  The rest of us need you.

Friday, 8 February 2013

My Dissonant Self

I've lately had some wonderful discussions with my son about the writer's identity.  Flannery O'Connor says that we can't escape our roots from injecting themselves into our writing, even when we're in conflict or out of step with where we've come from.

Like O’Connor, I was raised Catholic in the American Bible Belt.  The things I can tell you about southern American writers are charms on my bracelet – the influence of religion, the sexism, racism, poverty, the music, the good food, the distillation of human nature living that close to the swamp.  But as aware as I thought I was, there was something else wanting my attention.

‘Why do you write about war?’

I couldn’t understand why people asked me that.  IEDs and high velocity weapons aren’t gender specific.  If I were a man, blah, blah, blah, until Rush Limbaugh would burn my bra if only I’d shut up.  I heard the words they said, but not the question. 

                                     A not infrequent scene around my house.

So ask me again.  Why do I write about war?  I was born into a medical military family and after my son was grown, married into another medical military family.  After three years of writing about military doctors, I realise how conflicted I am over that aspect of my life. 

I write about war because those are the vibrant colours on my palette.  At nine years old, a man proudly shows me his stump and tells me that my father cut off his leg.  Several decades later, I grip the phone as my husband, 3600 miles away, can’t get the words to come because there’s too fucking many burned children in the field hospital. 

War to me isn’t patriotism or national security or world domination.  It’s personal.  It’s people I love and their participation in something that makes no sense.  Worse, they participate in something brutal.  War’s a vicarious blackness inside me that demands expression and at the same time, makes me want to vomit.  It’s part of my psyche.  Which is to say it’s part of my identity as a writer. 

                              Sometimes I want to correct the dissonance. 

That would be a mistake.  Holding dissonance as dissonance is genuine, even when it’s not PC.  It leaves the writer vulnerable, invites the nasties in, makes people turn away, raises things in the mirror that a writer doesn’t want to see.  It’s probably why some of us go mad.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Austen & Twitter

Since last I wrote, we've celebrated the 200th anniversary of Pride & Prejudice, and my list of Twitter followers broke the 20 threshold.  The conglomeration of synapses which is my brain combines these two things to ponder the constant flux in culture.

I’m the one never given a Netflix vote in our house because inevitably, I choose a costume drama.  At sixteen, my favourite author was Tolstoy and even today, I’m not above causing a pained look on my son’s face by admitting in public that I really love Dickens.  Along the way, I’ve read everything Austen.

                                                           My current read.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m happy with my era.  While I quite fancy Georgian breeches, they in no way compensate for the lack of antibiotics.  It’s the effect of time and place on perception that intrigues me.  Who would I be, had I been born a hundred years earlier than I was? 

                                                   Obviously the hired help.

But cultural change happens today at a rate I imagine is unprecedented.  If you were walking down the street and overheard a conversation between two strangers, would you interject?  Would you interject abusively?  If you were at a party talking to an interesting person who changed the subject to something that didn’t interest you, would you walk away without excusing yourself?  

                                         Or would you cut off their virtual head?

These things happen on the internet all the time.

Being a newbie, the Twitter culture still fascinates me.  The  compression of complex communications into 140 characters, the etiquette, the sudden and truly wonderful connections with a wider community.  Followers come and go so quickly, it has nothing to do with me.  I’m the person followed, but the following isn’t personal.  When I post a blog pertinent to the texture and flavour of bananas, then I collect a banana enthusiast following.  When my next blog is about the evils which be snow, I lose banana followers and gain snow invasion conspiracists. 

                                                        Big Nosed dog rescue.

This may seem basic e-procedure, but it’s also a cultural dynamic.  With the information overload on the web, we have to discern and discard quickly.  It’s what our brains do in order to set aside the superfluous when there’s a tiger stalking us.  In fact, we have a wonderful ability to habituate and ignore irrelevant stimuli.  Stick a rose under your nose and see how soon you stop smelling it.

But . . . on the other side of the snow blog that you’ve rejected, there is a person.  We are changing the way we interact with and habituate people.  Don’t think I’m gearing up to rage about the erosion of society.  This is an observation on society in flux.  Just as I look backwards via Austen, Tolstoy and Dickens into an imperfect representation of their societies and try to imagine that experience, I look forward to myself growing old in a society that puts an electronic spin on interpersonal dynamics. 

So the Tolstoy loving teen that I was didn’t own a mobile and had limited access to the telephone because there was no call waiting.  Notes were passed, not text messages, and depending on the situation, might be confiscated by adults loitering in my environment.  Letters often took a week to arrive, were written on paper chosen to designate the level of intimacy with and personality of the sender AND the handwriting was as personal as the message inside.  Communication took time, attention to detail and could be attributed to its source.

Today, if you wait 24 hours to answer an emotion wrought text or email, you’re ignoring the sender, rather than giving it the weight you may think it deserves.  The generation growing up with electronic and instant communications has to field and respond at what my teenage self would have thought was an impossible speed.  There will be a trade off for this virtual age, but I believe humanity will still want to belong, will still want authenticity and intimacy in its relationships.  I hope I’m founded in that belief because I think it will be a singular challenge.

                              Unlike our excursions into the past, we won’t have a map.