Why We Do That VooDoo We Do

I tap the screen of my Surface Pro, opening up yet another writer’s blog asking me to identify why I write. The question evokes pangs of guilt, not to mention a modicum of shame at my inability to answer it. A frown creases my forehead. Other authors seem to have no problem defining their motivation. So, why couldn’t I come up with an acceptable rationale for doing what I do?

One blogging author claims his raison d’etre is the drive for pure creative expression. His stories offer the perfect venue for building other worlds peopled with folk of his conjuring. Yup, I say to myself, that’s a cool reason to write. Maybe I just feel the need to do me some creating.

Another writer vows she writes because she has no choice but to obey an Inner Command to do so. I cock my head at the implied nobility of that statement. Maybe that’s why I write. I DO sometimes feel compelled. No, really. Then I wonder what consequences might befall a writer who ignores the internal commander. Would she expire? Would she explode into unfulfilled bits of gelatinous non-writer? I sigh.

With a grateful heart I read where one blogger admits to purely mercenary motives. Time to get new carpet for the living room? No problem, just whip out a blockbuster. As a retiree living on a clenched-butt fixed income, that thought set off a responsive gong. Perhaps paving a pathway to a gratifying payday is my true motivation after all.

Yet another writer offers details of his writer’s grist borne of pain. His life experiences infuse his writing with angst, his words a therapeutic outlet, a means of exploring and giving voice and depth to his stories. Here was a motive I could sink my teeth into. But although sixty-six years of life has brought the standard ups and downs my way, nothing could compare to the vicissitudes endured by some of the Greats.

Then there is the writer who believes he has important information for the world. Words of wisdom, or answers to the mysteries of the human condition. And there are indeed those writers whose words change the course of history. But alas, pleased to un-dangle participles and duct-tape split infinitives back together, I don’t even aspire to saying anything of such magnitude.

One woman suggests her writing career began upon reading a book that, in her opinion, was sub-par. After her initial disbelief that something so poorly written was published by one of the Big Four, she decided she could do better. And maybe she did. Any writer will confess to head-scratching after perusing some of the stuff that finds its way into print. Maybe this could be my reason. Then my hard-nosed internal editor sends up snarky questions on the quality of my own writing. Was my plot tight enough? Did my dialogue sing? Should I have included at least one scene of graphic sex? Or horror of horrors, did my characters behave uncharacteristically? Although the exercise of critically analyzing my writer’s modus operandi proved beneficial, it got me no nearer to answering The Question.

An endless list of possibilities played leapfrog across the silver screen of my mind. Perhaps I write to give the finger to those high school chums who snubbed me. Or maybe to prove to my college history professor that the “C” she awarded my essay was unwarranted. Or perhaps I feel the need to justify my mother’s never-flagging faith in my abilities, while jabbing a finger in my dad’s eye for suggesting I get a real job.

I cringe. Did my inability to name the tune to which my writer dances signify a lack of imagination – an incipient death knell to fiction writing? Or was I over-thinking this whole thing? Might it be acceptable to the august ranks of stratified writing royalty to admit that I just want someone to read and enjoy my stories? And when it comes right down to it, how much do I really care what other writers might think of my reasons for putting fingers to keyboard? Wasn’t any reason acceptable?

So, by the time the self-doubting, self-castigating, and reflection was said and done, I’ve arrived at a couple of conclusions: Sometimes I write for all of the above reasons, and sometimes for none of them. Mostly I just write because I want to. And that’s good enough for me.

How Bad Do You Want It?

Today I’m setting up book signings and library book talks, emailing press releases to the local newspaper as well as to the paper in the city of my birth. I’m doing it all. No agent. No nanny. Any marketing of my book is down to me.

Surely the current book publishing business bears little resemblance to what it was even a few decades ago. I mean, did Hemingway have to market his own work? And, no, I’m not comparing my first effort to Hemingway.

But all things change. The world changes. People change. Needs change. And from the arrival of Gutenberg’s amazing contraption, the publishing business has certainly done its share of changing.

Now days, it’s not enough to write a good tale. The author must school himself in the fine art of marketing, and that includes hacking his way through the social media morass, among other venues.

I’m not complaining, you understand. Just commenting.

In fact, my publisher, The Wild Rose Press, Inc., has been terrific to work with. Beginning with their swift and kind response to my query, moving on to giving me an amazing editor, and then putting my book online and making it available in paperback in record time. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have my words in print. Actual print. I didn’t have to learn yet another skill by having to figure out how to publish it as an ebook. No slam against those who do…I’m just not ready to add that tool to my burgeoning tool chest.

For the next few weeks, I’ll be talking about lessons learned through this process. Suffice it to say, the trip’s been enlightening.

I’m Baaaack

Thanks to my amazing daughter-in-law, Erin O’Donnell, my website has been updated. And thanks to her, my mystery novel, AN ARM AND A LEG, may now be purchased on my website (see the book icon at the right of each of my pages).

It’s been an interesting few months – a couple of book signings, lots of hoop-lah from family and friends. Lots of lessons learned. And lots of marketing ideas fomenting.

But now I find myself obsessing about book number two. Questions like: Should I do a sequel? Or should I do a Stephen King and gin up a completely new set of characters? And is it okay to do an Isaac Asimov and work on several novels simultaneously? Because right now I have about three stories floating around in the alphabet soup that makes up my brain.

At this point, all I know is I gotta keep going. No over-thinking allowed. So, in the words I’ve used dozens of times when I wore a Trainer of Trainers hat (a different lifetime ago), I’m going to trust the Process. Can’t wait to see where that takes me and anyone else willing to go with.

 

Life Lesson No. 15: Life Scripts & Could-a, Should-a, Would-a Thinking

I’ve heard that introspection is good for the soul. Last week I spent, as the old joke goes, a few decades plumbing the nooks and crannies inside my head. I wondered which decisions I made over my lifetime brought me to the life-space I currently inhabit. More importantly, how many of those decisions were really my own choice and not borne out of an unwillingness to fight back, to hold firm against the onslaught of someone else’s ideas of what I should do—someone else’s image of who I should be? It’s a sad reality that people often move through their whole lives stepping to the beat of someone else’s drummer. But is that always a bad thing?

I believe it’s a matter of perception. I’ve made a few life-choices that I regret. But which ones could I honestly say made that much difference in who I’ve become?

A friend of mine is a successful psychiatrist who always wanted to be an artist, but who went to school to please her parents (who were also paying the bills). Years later, she was still unable to completely silence that inner artist. As we chatted over hot tea, she said she’d always wondered what her life would have been like had she been allowed to go to Spain and study painting as she so badly wanted to do as a teen. We followed that thread of thought, and brainstormed possible outcomes she’d have faced had she not listened to her parents. For one thing, we agreed her life would have been immensely different. Whereas she currently made a great living as a practitioner for mental health, she would most likely have struggled to make ends meet as an artist—for years. Maybe throughout her whole life. It is the exceedingly rare exception for an artist to sell enough paintings to live the high life—or even cover the cost of living. Most of the time, it’s the people who invested in her art who make money off her labors—and that’s usually after the artist is dead.

We decided my friend’s life-path hadn’t been such a misstep after all. Now she’s attending art classes at UNM. She works her bill-paying job by day, and happily dabs in oils in the evenings.

As for me, a retired educator (having obeyed my dad’s directive that I needed to be a teacher like my mom), I have the time to pursue my writing. Paying my bills AND living my dream. Not a bad combination.

Life Lesson No. 14: Never Say Die

I’ve been working on a novel for nearly seven years. The path has been slow-going and fraught with frustration. Trial-and-error learning, especially in the absence of any real feedback, is incredibly time consuming.

Things I didn’t know seven years ago: whether or not I needed an agent, which publishers accept unsolicited submissions, acceptable word count, genre requirements, how to build suspense, importance of conflict, what makes for good dialogue, the uber-importance of the first words of the novel, consistent POV, back story placement, and how to make use of all five senses, to name a few.

The first iteration of my novel weighed-in at 45,000 words. It opened with a description of the weather (a huge no-no), and I hadn’t yet learned that each chapter needed to include conflict and end in suspense. However, excited to have managed to get the story down on paper at all, I sent out a spate of submissions to potential agents. Most didn’t respond; others sent boiler-plate rejection letters.

So I signed up for a creative writing class and bought a couple of how-to’s. Armed with fresh information, I edited. Along the way, potential scenes bubbled up from what Stephen King calls “the boys in the basement,” and my novel grew to 55,000 words. I confidently sent out another salvo of submissions to potential agents. Result? See the preceding paragraph. A slurry formed in the pit of my stomach: rejection mixed with feelings of ineptitude. I questioned whether I actually had what it took to be a published writer.

However, determined not to give up, I bought Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, along with enough books on writing to fill a small bookstore. I read each one, highlighting salient points in pink, yellow, blue, and green. I took another class, then edited some more. I entered a couple of contests and paid extra for critiques; I attended a couple of conferences. I established a daily writing schedule and stuck with it. My novel grew to its current 75,000 words.

Having learned that first-time, unpublished authors have about as much chance of acquiring an agent as they do getting hit by a monkey falling from a spaceship, I plumbed the Predators and Editors website for small publishers (I started at the end of the alphabet, figuring most writers would start with the A’s). Carefully following guidelines found on each publisher’s website, I again began the submission process. This time, I hit pay dirt. After having accumulated enough rejections to paper our guest bathroom, I was offered contracts from three publishers within a space of about four days. Thrilled into near-catatonia, I researched each, and decided on the one that had most authors in their stable as well as most titles in print.

As a poly-published author once said at a conference I attended: I’m not aiming at the Pulitzer Prize. (Huzzah to those who are.) My aim is to pull my Readers out of their reality and into another for a bit. We’ll see how that pans out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life Lesson No. 13: Ignore the Audience

For a period of about five years during my mid-thirties, I enjoyed working in a community theater. I sang roles such as Mad Margaret and one of the Three Little Maids from School in a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas. And I learned the hard way not to look at the audience, lest I get caught up in someone else’s facial expressions and forget my lines. It pretty much boils down to focus.

I’ve come to believe the same holds true for life in general: one can either follow one’s inner truth, or risk losing it in the face of someone else’s views. And there will always be someone ready and willing to tell the rest of us how we should live.

Someone once said the most important thing in life is to be true to one’s self. I believe that to be one of the few Supreme Truths on this earth. We’re born into a Role (not into a Script, which is the subject of a different Life Lesson), or dealt a specific hand of cards, if you prefer. To do ourselves and the rest of humanity full justice, and in the interests of wasting not one single hour of our allotted time, we must follow our Truth – what some call that still, small, inner voice.

While that may sound like fuzzy, leftwing drek, it isn’t easy to actually do. It takes courage – especially in the face of opposition – to decide against doing something most of humanity is doing simply because most of humanity is doing it.

I’m no philosopher, but the happiest times of my life have been when the decisions I made were in keeping with my inner truth. And my worst living nightmares have been the results of decisions I made that went against it.

Lesson No. 12: Oh Wad That The Giftie Gie Us…

According to a personality inventory quiz I recently took, I’m an introvert. Not altogether surprised about that, since I never really enjoyed meeting new people, and being in a crowd saps my energy. But it did give me a chance to do a bit of introspection. And I figured out something about myself: I often gave people gifts so they’d like me. I’m not talking about family members. I wanted to give them things—wished I could have given them more. I’m talking about people I barely knew, people I worked with, neighbors and people I went to church with. And I often gave people things that cost more than my modest income would comfortably allow.

Realizations: 1. Giving gifts or deferring to someone in hopes it will make that person like you doesn’t work; they’ll just take your flattery/gifts and despise or mistreat you anyway. My mind flashes on the image of a puppy with its tail between its legs, piddling on the floor in an act of submission. 2. Giving overly expensive gifts is in reality a passive-aggressive way to put the receiver in your debt, making them uncomfortably aware that they owe you. Of course, if that’s the intention, give oh give away. But understand that along with feeling beholden, they’ll resent you. 3. While I’ve not had the mixed blessing of falling into this category, giving an overly-expensive gift could be a way to tell the world you’ve arrived, you’re wealthy, you’re relevant. 4. Or perhaps you feel guilty you’re a HAVE, while those around you are HAVE NOTS.

Don’t get me wrong—I still believe it’s better to give than to receive. In fact, I feel stronger than ever about the importance of helping those in need. It’s not just important, it’s something I believe we’ll be called on to answer for. But I’m not discussing altruistic behavior. I’m talking about covert ways to control someone else’s feelings or behavior.

So I’ve decided to try to make my gifts appropriate to the recipient. And I realize just because something costs a lot doesn’t necessarily mean it has value.

Lesson No. 11: Will the Real Center of the Universe Stand Up

I well remember the day I learned I was NOT the center of the universe. Probably one of the most difficult lessons of my childhood.

My 10th birthday was approaching. I was uber-excited at the prospect of getting a gift, and maybe even a birthday cake – two things that were in short supply during that time in my family’s financial condition.

By today’s standards of over-the-top gift-giving, my excitement over a single gift must seem a bit sad. But in a house of seven people, the idea of receiving something that would be all my own was cause for celebration.

At any rate, for several days I must have yammered away non-stop about what my folks were going to give me – begging for clues, offering suggestions. Pop, the beaker of his patience completely emptied, scolded me. Besides commanding me not to say one more word about it (a no-brainer for me, since Pop’s spankings ranked fairly high on the scale of things to be avoided), he said no one owed me a gift. He said gifts were given, not earned. Then he said not only was my onslaught “enough to drive a wooden man crazy,” but that he and Mom were going to teach me a lesson by not giving me anything at all that year.

And they didn’t. No cake. No gift. Not even so much as a spoken or sung Happy Birthday. Pop even commanded my siblings not to mention my birthday. I must admit to being crushed.

Many would frown on Pop’s tactic. I frowned, and still frown on it. But he was a product of his generation – a time when children were seen and not heard. And his effort had the desired effect: I was never again quite sure of getting anything for birthdays. Or for Christmas. And when I did, I was grateful.

Life Lesson No. 10: Sparkles, Bling, & Such

At the time I was a child of about ten, our family would by today’s standards have been considered economically challenged. Poor. Whenever we traveled, Mama brought a loaf of bread, mayonnaise, and bologna for sandwiches. At the time, I thought it was great. Like we were having a picnic. An adventure. But as the saying goes, when the student is ready the teacher will appear.

The summer I was to go into fourth grade, my Pop decided we needed to take a road trip to some of the Civil War battle grounds. The drive from Gallup, New Mexico, took two ten-hour days. We stayed in a motel, a particularly adventurous thing for me, as I’d never before done that. We also ate our supper in a restaurant – another first. My little brother and I were allowed to share an order of fried shrimp – a delicacy I’d only heard about but never tasted. Full of that marvelous repast, we walked out the restaurant and into the evening darkness. As we walked to our car, I spotted something shiny on the parking lot asphalt. Glinting from the reflected light of a street lamp, the thing looked about the size of a quarter, which carried the same weight as pirate treasure in those days of penny candy. I joyously stooped to pick up the glittering prize.

But my fingers did not encounter cold metal. Instead, they slid through a sticky, wet gob of phlegm. I commanded my stomach not to hurl its prize of fried shrimp, wiped my fingers on my skirt, and then slumped to the car – dreams of a paper bag of licorice pipes and candy lipsticks evaporating like ice in the hot sun.

Takeaway? Other than as a life lesson, not all bright and shiny things have value. They may, in fact, be quite toxic. Or ugly. Or both. And sometimes the price of obtaining them is more than they’re worth.