The Writer’s Sacrifices?

Source: Menonsstocks from IStockPhoto.

The Writer’s Sacrifices?

Eric Witchey

Across the table sits a youngish woman of maybe 30. She’s earnest, excited, and surprised I agreed to meet her for lunch. I ran into her husband, a random encounter in a store I frequent, and he offered to help me with a problem. After realizing he didn’t work there, I still listened to what he had to say because the way he asked the question was specific enough to suggest he might have some knowledge. Turned out, he did. In fact, he probably had better knowledge than the store clerks. We got to talking. “Oh, you’re a writer! My wife just finished her first novel.”

He’s a young man. I was sure his wife was too. Politely, and only cringing a little, I ask, “What kinds of things does she like to write?”

He said, “She writes fantasy! She’s really good.” His kindness to me along with the way he glowed when he talked about his wife warmed my heart. I gave him a card.

Now, at lunch, she asks, “What do I have to sacrifice to be a writer?”

Ouch. My soup goes cold on the spot. How do I answer a question like that?

The first flippant response that comes to mind is a cliché. “Everything. You have to offer all of yourself on the altar of the muse.”

Bullshit.

Then, “Time, your soul, and the beating heart of your first born.”

Colorful, but also bullshit.

Other clichés come to mind. “Beat your head against the wall until you can use the blood as ink in your pen. Sit down to the keyboard and open a vein.”

Luckily, the waiter interrupts with our order of tea before I say anything stupid. Sometimes, the universe is kind.

Grateful, I start doing what I always do when my mind is left alone with a question. I tease out the questions that make up the question.

Do you have to sacrifice for craft? For anything? Is craft painful? Can anyone answer that question for anyone else?

Then, the deeper issue hits me.

The question has an underlying assumption that there’s some reward for sacrificing—for the hard work of practice and study. The belief is that writing is somehow a meritocracy with rules for succeeding and penalties for not working hard enough or on the right things.

If we produce the right number of pages a day, do we get a passing grade? An A?

If we write the right book, do we get rewarded with a mansion?

If we spend enough time alone and depressed, will we be happy someday?

Do I have to have a cat?

Okay, I’m pretty sure writers have to have a pet or six of some kind, and that thought opens the gates to the flood of jokes in my mind.

How many divorces does a good writer go through? All of them.

Why don’t your kids ever call? I’m a writer.

How do you make a small fortune as a writer? Start with a large fortune.

Where’s your office? In the refrigerator box behind the bookstore.

When and where do you write? Late at night when I’m sure I’m alone, and I wash my hands when I’m done.

The waiter leaves. I look across the table. Her eyes are filled with hope that I will tell her what it will cost her to be a writer. Behind the hope, I see determination and fear. She wants to pay the price, and she is praying it is a price she can pay.

“Nothing,” I say. I smile and repeat. “You don’t have to sacrifice anything.”

Hope shifts to confusion. “I heard that writers have to—”

I can’t leave it alone. I interrupt. “Writers have to write. That’s all. That’s everything.”

“How much? I mean, how hard? Do I have to quit my job? What about my husband?”

I lock eyes with her. “Your husband loves you very much. The glow in his eyes and the excitement in his voice when he talked about you and your writing was the best compliment he could give you. He wants you to be happy.”

She blushes, and I am once more moved to like this young couple.

“If you like writing,” I say, “write. There’s no sacrifice. Do it because you like it. If you like doing it more, do it more.”

She nods as if she understands, but I can see the dark shadow of the Puritan Work Ethic haunting her psyche. American cultural training will cause her to strangle the joy and turn the pursuit of the magic relationship between word, mind, and heart into a chore.

“Look,” I say. “The question assumes there’s a goal, an end-point, a moment of success that you can reach if only you are willing to give up joys in life. That’s backwards. There’s only a process of engagement in life that includes writing. The joy in your husband’s eyes is life. Writing about it is sharing that joy.”

She squints at me. “I write fantasy.”

“And you want to sell it.”

“Exactly.”

“Put him in your fantasy the same way he has put you into his.”

She cocks her head like a crow trying to figure out if a bottle cap is food.

I backtrack and take another trail. “Do you think turning writing into a job will let you have money?”

She nods.

“And what else? Will turning it into a chore make it pay off? Give you a new car? A house? Respect? When will you feel the moment of success in your distant future after all that hard work?”

She seems to think about it.

I eat my cold soup.

She says, “I read an article that said real writers treat writing like a job.”

I nod. “Maybe. What makes them real?”

“They get paid to write.”

“So, they don’t treat it like a job. It is their job.”

“Yes.”

“How do you apply for the job?”

She sips her tea and thinks.

I ask, “Where do you go for an interview?”

Sudden confidence radiates from her smile. “Writer’s conferences.”

My mind spins up. In one way, she’s right. In several others, not so much. I say, “To interview with an agent? A publisher’s acquisition editor?”

She nods and smiles, sure she has found a path through the maze of questions.

“What if they say no?”

The smile fades.

“Does that mean you aren’t a real writer?”

Hesitantly, she says, “I guess not.”

“What if an agent says yes, but they don’t sell your work? What if a publisher says yes but never publishes the piece? Are you a real writer?”

The confused, disappointed look on her face makes me feel like I kicked a puppy. I have damaged her hope.

I didn’t come to lunch to discourage her. I remember many lunches with writers I admired. Almost all of them were encouraging, and I thank them all for their kindness and support. I have to turn this around before my sandwich arrives.

“Writers write,” I say. “They engage with the craft. It is a source of perpetual fascination—a path that can never be fully mastered and will forever challenge heart and mind. It teaches us to see the world. It lets us explore and share perspectives. Just doing it is the reward. If that’s how you feel about it, it isn’t a thing you have to sacrifice for. It’s a thing you get to do. Anything else that comes from it is extra.”

“I get it,” she says with confidence. “But I want to sell my stories.”

I feel like a puppy that has been kicked. I nod and focus on finishing my soup.

Her salad arrives. My sandwich arrives. The waiter leaves.

We dig in, and she seems happy with her lunch fare. I look at her salad and wonder what I can say that will lift the burden of false responsibility from her heart.

“Do you think the chef eats food they cook?”

She nods. “I imagine.”

“Do you think they only eat food they might sell?”

She looks up. She’s quick, and her smile tells me she has realized I’m back at my theme.

“Seriously,” I say. “Do you think they learned to cook only what they could sell, or do you think they learned to cook what they sell because they loved to cook?”

Wary, she says, “I’m going to say the second one.”

I nod. “What about tailors, painters, sculptors, and potters?”

“That’s different,” she says.

“How?”

“They get immediate results. They can hold the thing they make in their hands.”

I pull out my pen, scoot a napkin close to me, and write a sentence on it. I hand it to her.

She takes it and reads it. “You are holding my sentence in your hands.”

“You know what I mean,” she says.

I say, “Watch a child fingerpainting and think about what they will look like standing in a gallery in thirty years. Will they still smile at the smell of the paint, at the moment when they dip a brush, at the smile on someone’s face when they see a piece for the first time?”

She looks awkward, now. Uncomfortable. I’m pressing too hard on her preconceptions about the struggling writer. I know I need to let it go, but I take one more chance on her.

“Take joy in writing. The more you write, the better you will get at giving your joy to others.” I start on my sandwich. I talk with my mouth full. “Sometimes, you’ll even get paid.”

She focuses on her salad.

We eat in silence for a while.

Eventually, she says, “I think I get it.”

I nod and smile. She has gone from sure she gets it to a little bit of doubt. That’s as good as I’m going to manage over one lunch.

As I walk home, I review the conversation. Walking into my office, I hope I heard myself.

I smile and sit down to the keyboard.

-End-

Karmic Writing: Doing Becomes, by Eric Witchey

Karmic Writing: Doing Becomes

Eric Witchey

We write stories for as many different reasons as there are people who write. Some people write as personal therapy. Some write to set the world straight. Some write to heal others, and some to heal wounds from their childhoods. We have stories that instruct, deny, teach, explore, justify, and warn. We have stories that do all these things at once. Yet, aspiring writers still ask these perennial questions:

  1. How do I become a writer?
  2. Where do I start a story?
  3. What should I write?

In order, the truest answers I know are:

  1. By writing.
  2. With the writing.
  3. And whatever you write.

You may have chuckled in humorous agreement after you read the questions and their answers. You may have become a bit angry and resentful at my apparently useless and flippant answer. You may have just skimmed forward to get to the bits you think you need.

Please don’t laugh, resent, or skim.

The questions are legitimate.

The answers are true.

We have all asked them, and we have all had to answer them for ourselves and others.

Let’s look at them one at a time.

How do I become a writer?

The word “writer” is the agentive nominalized form of the infinitive verb “to write.” In the strictest sense, a person who writes is a writer. If that’s as far as we take the answer, the writers were justified in their little chuckle. The haters were justified in their little moment of resentment. The skimmers were justified in moving on.

However, I want to bring a bit of karma into the concept of becoming a writer. Some writers are born into families where professional writing parents read stories to them in the womb, where the family played endless word games for fun, where no TV was allowed, where a giant dictionary lived in the living room, and where telling stories to one another was a form of entertainment every night after dinner. From families like that, writers emerge into academic and commercial circles carrying the burden of “talent.” Those writers are not kidding at all when they say things like “Just tell the story,” “I know if it sounds right,” and “the characters just do what they are going to do.” For those rare and highly talented people who were genetically predisposed to solid language skills and then internalized the patterns of success in language and story at very early ages, “Just write,” is a true, complete, and self-sufficient answer to the question.

I wasn’t born into one of those families. Most people weren’t. Sure, we all have some degree of the magical thing called talent, but talent is just the degree to which you were genetically predisposed to then trained to early life fluency in language and story. Luckily, many successful writers had little or no talent when they came to the craft. They compensated by working hard. It turns out that behaving like a writer creates writers.

That’s what I mean by karma. One definition of karma is that every choice we make turns us into a person who has made that choice. Having chosen, we benefit from all the pleasures and pains that go with that choice. If we choose to drive on the wrong side of the road, we gain the freedom and joy that comes with being unconstrained by law. We might even live through the experience. We might also experience the accident and death that can come with having made that choice. Either way, we create ourselves into the person who experiences the result.

By writing, we become writers. Showing up every morning at the keyboard causes our bodies and minds to adapt to the task of writing. By attending seminars, classes, and conferences, we train body and mind to become sensitive to the patterns of success in behavior and technique that make a writer a writer.

A person who says, “I am a writer,” but doesn’t touch the keys is the same person not writing today that they were yesterday. A person who says nothing but does sit down at their desk and reads, studies, and practices the craft becomes a writer. Mind and body adapt to what we do. Writers write. Writing makes writers.

Where do I start a story?

The entry point to any story can be any moment in the story. By entry point, I mean the first text on the page. I do not mean the opening line. As you would guess from what has come before in this little essay, it means that writers write in order to figure out what they are going to write.

Since the first shaman spit pigment onto a cave wall, writers have been struggling with blank stone, clay, or page. I can’t count how many different methods of beginning I have studied over the years, and all of them have been correct. I will say that my all-time favorite came from Meg Chittenden, who taught the Carlo Rossi Method of plotting, but that’s another story and not really mine to tell. Here are a few non-Carlo Rossi entry points along with an example of each:

  • Start with A Theme: e.g.: Developing listening skills creates understanding, deeper respect for others, and greater success in family and life.
  • A Social Issue: Prejudice against intelligence
  • Personal, Emotional Issue: Unrequited love
  • Trauma: Limitations in relationships because of early life sibling abuse
  • Random Topics: A dirty coffee mug, a newspaper article about hauling ice from glaciers in Canada to L.A. as a water supply, and a Country Western Song. (This starting point actually became my sold short story “Running Water for L.A.”)
  • Idea in The Shower: What would it be like to be a spider living in the sewer?
  • Image or Images: My reflected house on a dew drop on the rust-damaged petal of a blue rose.
  • A fast Scene: Just wrote five pages as fast as I could. Now, is there anything in there to work with?
  • The Beginning: Her first day at Garver Road Middle School was triumphant and terrible in equal parts.
  • Someplace in The Middle: By the time Gordon arrived at the farm, the dogs had eaten most of the flesh from Millicent’s corpse.
  • The Climax: She held the flame of the sword close enough to his head to singe the hair of his beard and raise acrid smoke. When he closed his battered eye to avoid the flame, she said, “For my sister and my village.”
  • The Final Moment: Susurrate waves tickled his toes and tugged at the beach sand, washing away his foundations and forcing him to shift his footing from time to time. The Corrilla’s black flag disappeared over the horizon. The breath he’d been holding slipped past his lips in a long sigh before he turned toward home, his wife, and their new child.

Any one of these could become the entry point for a story. Any one can provide the spark that allows the writer to begin asking the questions that define context, present a problem for solution, and result in answers that drive the project forward toward completion.

What would it be like to be a spider in a sewer? Replace spider with rat and watch the film Flushed Away. Go back to spider, and ask what makes the spider worth following in the sewer? She loves her children—deep fried with vinegar and salt. Nothing in the sewer can satisfy her hunger. Why does that matter? Because she is the only spider of her kind in the sewer and the other sewer spiders shun her for her culinary peculiarities. So what? She can solve murder mysteries in the sewer, and that will bring her back to the bathroom where she meets her grown children but no longer only sees them as food. So, the sewer is a metaphor for her exploration of the shadow self and her resentment that her children are a part of herself she wants to recover by eating them, and the murders force her to recognize the deeper value of every life and the interconnectedness of each life to all….

The above example of uncensored, question-driven brainstorming would not end with the ellipsis. It would go on and on until enough silliness and non-silliness appeared on the page to allow the writer to begin to see a story worth telling.

The point is that writers start by starting. Any start is a start provided we keep going.

What should I write?

Did you read the bit about the spider? Did you shake your head and think, “Oh, for the love of…”? Now, go back and look at the list of starting places. Which one is the one we should pick as the story we want to write?

Exactly. Any of them. All of them. Just pick. The one that you picked is the right one. Don’t pick. Start a different way. Toss a coin and write about the glimmer of it spinning in the sunlight. Travel to a festival and write about carnies. Write about not being able to write. However you start is the right way to start. Whatever shows up in your writing is the right thing to write about. Later, you can do the work of turning it into a story.

One of the most disturbing phrases I hear from writers at conferences and in seminars is, “My story is about…” Compare that opening phrase to “This story is about…” Writing a lot of stories allows writers to learn faster, understand story more deeply, and discover which stories, themes, concepts, and issues are most powerful for them. Additionally, writing a lot of stories results in, well, a lot of stories. More stories provides a broader range for possible sales and reduces the worry surrounding any one story.

Let’s change the question just a little bit. Instead of asking “What should I write,” ask, “What the hell did I just write?” The answer will often be, “Huh. Well, I’ll be damned. That was fun.”

As one of the mottos of the Literary Non-Profit WordCrafters says, “Don’t be a writer. Be writing.” To become a writer, write. To start a story, write. To figure out what to write about, write. The shaman who spit pigment over their hand on the cave wall didn’t get it right the first time. They choked on ashes, ochre, and dust. They practiced. They experimented. They figured it out. The doing creates the doer. The doer does in order to create.

Cancelling Art from the Edges

Source: Khafizh Amrullah

Cancelling Art from the Edges

Eric Witchey

I have an author friend whose books I love. I’ll call her Barb. However, I must admit that when I read Barb’s work it is hard for me to avoid hearing her voice. It’s a difficult problem. Do I like her books because of my experience living the illusion of the story, or do I live the illusion of the story more completely because I like the author?

This question leaves no doubt in my mind that a reader’s experience is influenced by their understanding of the author. Whether imagined or based on personal experience, the influence of the author haunts the reading experience.

In my university days, some of the classes were designed to expose students to “controversial voices” from various periods of literature. Admittedly, the voices were usually, but not always, safely from the past. I was in no danger of meeting Aldous Huxley, Lord Byron, Sylvia Plath, or Alexander Pope. Each of them had critics, haters, and people generally cooperating to undermine their work during and after their lives.

Paraphrasing their haters, past and present: Huxley was a known associate of homosexuals and an evil leftist. Byron was an entitled hedonist, opium addict, profligate, and seducer of men and women. Plath was a pretentious, intellectual woman who wasted her time writing about lesbians and other topics best left unspoken, and, after all, she was mentally ill, friends with a drug user, and she and her friend both committed suicide. Alexander Pope, well, certainly a man who advocates cannibalism and attempts to undermine the order of the Kingdom should be ignored if not imprisoned and executed! Don’t even get me started on the founding fathers. Those godless, treasonous, insurrectionist slaver hypocrites were the worst of all! Shouldn’t we toss out the constitution instead of trying to extend its benefits equally to all people? The very idea of extending the state’s protection of freedom and equality to all goes against the long-standing traditions of respect for superior bloodlines bestowed upon the chosen by divine right!

Given the parochial attitudes and beliefs of the masses and the self-serving alignment of power against these writers, I cannot imagine what the lives of these artists might have looked like under the scrutiny of the internet microscopes we apply today.

Personally, excepting the authors I’ve known well enough to hear in my head while reading, I’ve never had trouble separating the artist from the art. That doesn’t mean I excuse authors of responsibility for their behavior, and it never means I support themes that justify behavior that hurts other human beings in any way. However, understanding the value of the work in the context of culture and “liking” a theme or an author’s personal behavior are simply not the same thing. In fact, I find it both a joyful thing and sad that the internet has become a place where all opinions, no matter how undiscerning, can be heard and amplified. It is, in a very real way, a great equalizer—an experiment in open democracy. In another way, it is limiting in that it raises the value of unconsidered opinions that once required editorial vetting before reaching the public eye.

The Purple Rose of Cairo was a brilliant film. Enjoying it on a thematic and technical level is very easy for me. At the same time, I find myself in gut-level agreement that the cancellation of Woody Allen’s biography was much deserved. That said, I have no personal evidence for the latter. I’m only reacting at a gut level to my exposure to the unfettered, mob information available via feeds, social media, and popular new services.

Years ago, before any controversy surrounded Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game was the first full book I was able to read after the burnout I experienced from grad school. Because of the profound relief and gratitude I felt when I finished that book and fully internalized the knowledge that I was still able to read a science fiction novel for the sheer pleasure of immersion in the world and ideas, Ender will forever be part of my life. I followed Ender with Seventh Son and its sequels in the Alvin Maker series, and I loved them. That said, and my relationship with all organized religion being strained at best, I have no desire to meet Mr. Card even though I know he might well be a grounded, intelligent, generous, kind soul. I certainly have no personal experience to suggest otherwise, but the swirl of noise around his name has triggered my own deep defense mechanisms and made me resistant to the idea of meeting him.

Still, I am grateful to him and the difficulties of his life for giving me Ender and Alvin.

I believe liberals and conservatives alike should read Atlas Shrugged even though I find it reprehensible on a thematic level and would never, ever want to meet the author. When I met Terry Brooks, who brought so much magic into the lives of readers, he came across as condescending and rude. Perhaps I triggered him. I know he is kind to others, and I saw him being very kind and generous with others. My impression of him from a weekend of interaction where we were both teaching at a conference doesn’t mean I went home and burned the books I loved so much in my teens and twenties. I have no idea what his life is like. I don’t know how he came to the moment we met. Nothing he did or said to me had any influence over the many hours of pleasure I received from him through the pages of his work—work crafted by a complex human being to create those experiences for other human beings.

When I met Christopher Moore while we were both teaching at a conference, he screwed up the inscription on a gift for my brother’s birthday because he was flirting with a conference minion. We grew up 11 miles apart in Ohio. My assumption of common ground in my 30-second chat after standing in the signing line was completely ignored. The experience was deeply disappointing, and at some conferences experienced by a different person, that moment might have resulted in a growing storm of rumor-based resentment that spilled over into blogs, Instagram reactions, and Tweets. For me, it was annoying, but I have to admit the minion was willing and worth a little flirtatious banter by a bored author signing book after book after book. I still read Mr. Moore’s books because they make me smile. My brother loved the gift and even the flawed inscription. Mr. Moore went on to write more books I like, and we will meet again someday.

Anne Perry was convicted of murdering her friend’s mother. Should we never read her mysteries? Do we toss out the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton because of drug abuse and because they committed suicide? Should we dump George Orwell because he was socially awkward, had complex relationships, advocated certain popular prejudices of the day, and was a leftist? Ayn Rand for her acidic Spencerian Darwinism? Hemingway for his depression, drinking, condescension, willingness to trick aspiring writers into absurd behaviors, and cruelty to animals?

Hmm… Tricking writers and abusing animals may be the same thing.

Personally, I believe I would have disliked Hemingway for many reasons, but I still hold dear The Old Man and the Sea, and, much like King Lear, every year I age Santiago’s fishing trip becomes more powerful to me.

In thirty years as a full-time, freelance writer, I have never met a writer who didn’t have brilliant light and deepest darkness tangled up inside them, haunting them, and driving their behavior on some level. When the darkness takes their behavior across societal, and legal, boundaries, they often create responses and consequences they deserve. When that same combination only appears in their private lives and between the covers of books, they may be no less a monster in the world. Nor are they any less a saint when the light inside them dominates their behavior. The insight of the most troubled people at the edges of our world may tempt people who want to simplify the human experience into good and evil to mount campaigns of cancellation. However, time and history have shown that the insights from the brightest and darkest edges of human experience are often most valued over time. Sadly, which insights are the brightest and which are the darkest can only be determined by the readers of the future—provided those works exist for consideration.

For me, the works of artists of all kinds stand alone and are, in some measure, born of the perspectives that are part and parcel with the individual’s twisting, tangled mix of light and darkness. I would have it no other way.

-End-