State of the Art

State of the Art

by Eric Witchey

Packing up to head off to the Willamette Writers Conference to teach a Masters Class and generally engage in the literary debauchery that goes along with a conference, I am struck by the fact that I’ve been doing conferences for a very long time. Some of the beginning writers I met at conferences a quarter of a century ago have become New York Times best selling authors. Some of the writers I met so long ago are dead. Teenage students I first met at speaking gigs twenty years ago now have families and solid careers. Others have left the world in search of brighter days in Elysian Fields.

In short, things change. They also stay the same.

Since I first realized I was a writer, I have known that the only sustainable motivation for writing is love. Writers have to love sitting in the chair and arranging the little black squiggles in rows until they feel right. If they don’t love that process and all the little puzzle-solving moments that go with it, eventually they will become frustrated, angry, and resentful of lost time and life.

Fiction writers have to love stories. I mean that on a profound level. Arranging the squiggles is enough for most non-fiction work; however, it is not enough for fiction writers. A fiction writer has to be deeply, obsessively in love with the idea of creating the illusion of life in the mind and heart of another person. They have to love to experience the illusion created by other writers, and they have to love creating that illusion.

Now, at this point it would be very easy to drop into a diatribe about how many aspiring writers I meet who don’t actually read. I won’t bother. They are self-limiting creatures, and my righteous indignation will neither help them nor stop them from making their mistakes. Some might even learn that they need to read, and that might lead to love of reading and better creations. It does happen.

I could also drop into a riff on the limitations of the desire for fame or money, but I’d only be presenting a straw man. If you want a riff on artistic purity of heart and mind as necessary to creative health of artist and culture, I recommend looking up and reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s take on the damage of commodity thinking in the arts. Once again, the people who focus on money and fame will either limit themselves or succeed and discover a level of unhappiness the universal heart of all things has created just for them.

Instead, I want to focus on a moment in time.

Way back when, I had a degree in English and an MA that included Theoretical Linguistics, Computer Science, Literature, and training as a writing teacher. I’d been working in high-tech for a while, and I had sold my first short story to a national market. The world was a bright and shiny place filled with potential, but the mail brought rejection after rejection. It was depressing. Hadn’t I studied for years? Hadn’t I gone into debt learning everything I could about stories and writing and language?

Shouldn’t there be money? Shouldn’t there be fame?

Instead, there was only time in the seat arranging the squiggles and drinking lots of coffee.

Eventually, I had to admit that I knew Jack Shit. In fact, Jack and I were way too close. I took him to parties with me and presented him to others with pride as if just knowing him should launch me into social circles where international celebrities of letters chatted casually about the death of existential literature and the advent of post-modern, hysterical Jungian fantasy literature.

Me and Jack! Oh, the places we went.

As with all co-dependent relationships, the day came when I looked at Jack and my dreams of fame and fortune and realized they were tools I used to avoid facing my own fear—my own deep heart. As long as I had Jack and my fame and fortune fantasies, I could go anywhere and pretend I was full of knowledge and potential.

Well, let me tell you something. Combine Jack with potential, and you’ve got a recipe for spiritual, emotional, and literary bankruptcy.

So, I sought out a teacher I had heard good things about. I went to a week-long seminar. For two days, I hated him. He was a no bullshit, blue-collar work ethic, nuts-and-bolts writer who had no tolerance for the mysticism of talent.

Oh, I hated him.

I hated him because he didn’t see how much Jack had taught me and how much potential I had. What an asshole!

Patiently, I explained that I had degrees and had sold a story.

He laughed.

I fumed, but I did the exercises to prove Jack and potential were alive and well and living in me.

By the third day, I knew Jack was dead.

By the fourth day, I understood that potential was pointless.

That was the day I stopped being an aspiring writer and became an actual writer.

Writer is the agentive form of the infinitive to write. It is a verb manifest as person. Writer is a doing and being, and it only happens in the moment between heartbeats and breaths. Right now, I am a writer. Right now, I am solving the puzzle of this essay. Right now, I am arranging the little black squiggles. Right now, I am learning and moving toward new tools of craft that allow me to create compelling illusions in the hearts and minds of readers.

What is the point of being in the writing? Of being a writer?

Yesterday, I got an Amazon review that embodies the point. It isn’t fame. It isn’t fortune. It is a parent who left five stars and said that their 12 year-old boy loved my book and said he wanted to read more stories set in that world.

No award I have won for my fiction has ever validated the million moments of creation as much as that one review.

I still know Jack. I might still have potential. Sometimes, I even think about fame and fortune.

The interesting thing a quarter century after meeting that teacher and as I approach the conference Masters Class I’ll be teaching is that I know beyond doubt that in the moments between heartbeats and breaths when I am a truly a writer, Jack is dead, there is no such thing as potential, and the only validation of my skill that matters is one 12 year-old boy.

That is the state of art.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R2DT873QY1F7OU/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B0763B3JVQ

Just a Few Words

typewriter-closeup

By Cheryl Owen Wilson

Knowing the rules of a particular trade, and having applied them long enough to be confident in breaking them, seems to be of benefit mainly in the artistic realms of life. In the writing realm, I’m certain we can all come up with a best selling author who broke basic rules taught to us by our many English teachers. Cormac McCarthy and E.E. Cummings are the first two to come to my mind. One day I may be in a position to break rules, but first I must learn them.

I’m in the process, of what I hope are the final edits on my first novella. So rules, or tips on how to strengthen a story, are forefront in my mind these days. I’ve discovered books filled with rules so numerous a writer might never write a word if they took the time to read and apply them all. Thus, for the purpose of this blog I will touch on just a few I found helpful.

1st Rule— Did I need to use the word just in my last sentence? No. I discovered I use the word just along with its friend only way too often. My writing mentor Liz Engstrom, would say never to use the word just. She would also add the following to the banned list of words: very, causing, here, this, now, and today.

I write short stories. The idea of writing anything lengthier seemed absurd to me. I almost, nearly, didn’t write the book.

2nd Rule—Did my last sentence make you cringe just (I told you I really like this word) reading it? Yes. Investigate, or take out: almost, kind of, nearly, and sort of.

I recently had the pleasure of spending three days with my tribe, my writing pals. What did I do at this valuable retreat? I found the 641 times I used the word was, and reduced it to 226! A simple word, yet when removed, it transforms the sentence.

“She was crying uncontrollably.” vs “She cried uncontrollably.”

3rd Rule—Investigate every use of: is, was, are, be, being, am, and were.

I am currently searching out the simple, humble word—it.

4th Rule—There is generally a better word for it. Investigate your use of, it.

I celebrated finding my last was, and then explained to my pals it was now my quest. This elicited a most interesting discussion on the infamous often mocked and parodied phrase written in the novel Paul Clifford, by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. I’ve never read the book, but know the phrase from my favorite cartoon beagle: “It was a dark and stormy night.” It—the phrase—is a classic. It breaks all the rules, but sometimes rules are there to be broken. Just make certain you have a very good reason for doing it.

What rules do you break and why?

 

FROZEN

By Cynthia Ray

Cory Doctorow, author and journalist, said that “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you make the whole trip that way”.  But what if the headlights go out?

For me, writing is visceral, organic, profound, easy, difficult and sometimes impossible. I started a novella, as part of the Labyrinth of Souls novel series.  For those that are unfamiliar with the series, Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls is a fantasy game for tarot cards, written by Matthew Lowes and Illustrated by Josephe Vandel. In the game you defeat monsters, disarm traps, open doors, and explore mazes as you delve the depths of a dangerous dungeon. Along the way you collect treasure and magic items, gain skills, and gather companions. ShadowSpinners Press is publishing novels inspired by the game. Each Labyrinth of Souls novel features a journey into a unique vision of the underworld. You can find more here.

My story turned too dark, too sad, and too difficult, so I abandoned it and started a new one. Because I want my stories to have feeling, and meaning, I tap deep into my inner depths. But once again, I wrote myself into a dark corner with no way out.  After spending a great deal of time in the labyrinth I created, in the dark, I simply quit writing.  My protagonist is still trapped, always there in the back of my mind.  I don’t want to leave my poor heroine in an impossible situation, and yet I have no desire to return to free her.  I considered starting a new story, but in my bones, I knew that it too, would end up in the same place-that place.

shadow

You have heard the phrase, frozen in terror, but have you ever actually experienced terror so profound that your body was paralyzed, unable to move, teeth chattering, in a cold sweat?  Perhaps in a dream, or you woke from a nightmare and could not move?  I have, and it leaves a place in you that needs a light.

Last week, I spoke to a friend about the dilemma, and about the feeling of terror that seemed to emanate from wherever I was going in the story.  She said that there is no escape, only acceptance.  That night I dreamed.

Cynthia’s dream
My companion and I are being pursued by evil beings.  We run but my companion is captured.  Later, I am captured too, and taken to my friend. They have operated on her and altered her appearance with a beastly mask.  They have also pierced her chest with holes to drag her around with chains.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 3.12.54 PM.png

Toko-Pa Turner, author of Belonging, Remembering Ourselves Home, says, “What I’ve learned again and again, is that we must love the dream we’re given.  We must cradle it and trust that it contains the first step. The step from here to where we want to be is always to welcome it, to be curious about it, even (and especially) when it contains painful or threatening imagery.

When you drop your judgement against the not-beauty of your dream, it is allowed under the roof of your belonging. And so often it becomes beautiful there, unexpectedly, in the nurturing glow of your attention.”

Of course, everyone in a dream is just a part of ourselves, and I asked the evil pursuers what message they had for me.  They just looked at me, and I became aware that the terror I had experienced was over, and the causes of it were gone, but I had taken on the role of terrorizer and continued to terrorize myself,

The chains of the past could drag me around, or I could choose to remove the mask that had been artificially placed on me, and the false view of myself, and make friends with the “evil” ones.  They were not bad at all, but trying to assist me in confronting the false nature of the outer-imposed mask.  I removed the chains, the ugly mask and exposed the gentle, lovely being that had been hidden under those suffocating layers of imposed concepts.  The dream was a gift.

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Art by Took-Pa Turner

Transformation works both ways as we creatively change ourselves based on our experiences, our thoughts and our dreams.    The transformation of the beautiful into the ugly and false is accomplished by terror and fear.  The transformation of the ugly to the beautiful is accomplished through love and acceptance.  My friend’s wisdom made sense.

Perhaps one cannot write what they have not yet processed internally, or perhaps writing is one way of processing.  Whether or not the story is ever finished, it is a part of a personal journey through the labyrinth.  I will let you know how it goes.

Creativity in General (and in Particular)

by Elizabeth Engstrom

Many of my writer friends engage in a variety of creative endeavors. Some are painters of exquisite artworks. Some sing. Some dance. Some quilt, or do stained glass. I knit and dabble in this and that. But mostly, we write.

Anyone who writes knows the exasperation of the inadequacies of language. With every sentence we write, with every idea we speak, we invite misunderstanding.

It occurs to me that if we had perfect mind-to-mind communications, if we could communicate our thoughts thoroughly—including all history, nuance, and emotion—in a sublime little info packet upload, there would be no need for language.

creativity

If we had no need for language, would our need for a creative outlet vanish?  We would no longer strive to explain, to clarify, to enlighten. We would no longer need to defend, to support, to go to the enormously great lengths we go to in order to express ourselves.

We as a species, would be much the poorer.

Who would we be without the inspirational art, the moving music, the inestimable beauty, the revealing literature that has come from the anguished soul?

We would be bereft.

We might actually discover that we really have nothing to say to one another.

I often say that writers are the keepers of the literature, the chroniclers of our times. But we are much more than that. We are the ones who wrestle with language, endeavoring to explain that which has no explanation, to describe the indescribable, to put motive to that which is inexplicable.

Writers reach deep within themselves to comprehend their inner truth, and then grapple with the insufficient words of language, so that we might express it well enough to touch another’s inner truth. I have been touched many times by the brilliant writings of fearless authors, and have been changed by that interaction. That is my goal as a writer: to touch another. To make a difference.

Clearly, artists of every type spend time in anguish. A friend once told me that it is just as hard to write a bad book as it is to write a good book, and I believe that to be true. In either case, the author suffered to express.

As we go through our days, we might take a moment to appreciate the things that adorn our homes, offices, lives. Every single thing that we see was crafted by someone who put some part of their heart and soul into their work. We take it all for granted, but we should not, lest our work be dismissed as easily.

Showing Up On The Page

By Lisa Alber

Exactly two months ago I wrote a ShadowSpinners post while sitting vigil for my dying mother. In that post, I wondered about my writing—whether I’d ever feel like writing fiction again, whether it mattered.

And now, here I sit again, clacking away. The past few months have been a blur of grief, dealing with trustee drudgery related to Mom’s living trust, and skimming the surface of the “have tos” of life. Last weekend I spent three hours scouring the bathrooms. At long last I cared enough to spend energy on that task. I thought, Well, maybe I’m doing better because I cleaned the bathrooms.

A Sikh friend recently commented that Americans don’t do grief. We allow ourselves a few days and then get on with it, as if that’s all that’s required. As if compartmentalization as a life strategy works when it comes to sorrow. I’m trying to do grief better this time than I did when my dad died in 2001. Feel the feelings, acknowledge them, and try not to squash what burbles to the surface.

One way I pay attention is by journaling—A LOT. It had been years since I’d journaled regularly because fiction took priority. Not these days. You’d be correct if you guessed that I haven’t written much fiction in the past few months.

This is going to sound contradictory, but I forbade pressuring myself to write fiction at the same time that I promised myself I’d show up on the fiction page each day. Showing up means opening up the manuscript—that’s it. Read a few pages—that’s it. Sometimes I’ll noodle with a chapter and take some notes. If this occurs, great. My only goal is to show up each day.

Somewhere within me, I must have faith that showing up will get me back into my writing routines. Hopefully this is true, but the other day it occurred to me that since I’m naturally lazy, I might be using the grieving process as an excuse not to write. We can use any excuse to procrastinate, right? Grief seems like as good an excuse as any …

All that is to say that there’s a slippery slope between taking it easy on myself and milking grief for procrastinatory reasons. The fact that I’m aware of this is probably a good sign, eh?

The Commencement Address

by Matthew Lowes

This year, the graduating class at the high school where I work asked me to deliver the commencement address. I was honored to do so, and I took the task to heart. It was a rare opportunity to speak to a group of young people at a transformative point in their lives. And with the parents, family members, and friends of graduates, as well as colleagues and members of the larger community gathered in the gymnasium, it was the biggest audience I’d ever had the opportunity to speak to. I’d like to share these words with you as well, so what follows is the speech I gave, pretty much word for word as it was delivered.

COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS

Delivered on June 9th, 2018 by Matthew Lowes

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I have to say, I am deeply honored to speak with you on this momentous occasion.

Some people expressed surprise that I would accept this task. But honestly … this is an honor I could not refuse. I am immensely grateful for the education I received, and for all my teachers, both in and out of school. So to me, to stand before a group of graduates and address them like this, is one of the highest honors imaginable.

Of course, I quickly realized that being honored is not really enough in a situation like this. It’s more of a … you know … you have to say something meaningful kind of situation. And so here I am, charged with saying something meaningful to you — something that might make a difference in your life and how you see yourself and the world.

It’s a tall order.

A few of you seemed concerned about what I would or wouldn’t say. You came around and asked me to say something specific, or asked if you could see the speech. But frankly, I turned down all requests. What would be the point of me speaking if you all knew what I was going to say. Also, I admit I didn’t entirely know what I was going to say yet. But since you all asked me to speak, I knew that I would have to speak from my heart.

The truth is, I know you just well enough to know that I don’t know the funniest anecdotes to tell, or the greatest accomplishments to highlight. But I know you well enough to know that I am grateful to have met you. And I know you well enough to know that some of you have struggled to be here, and others have overcome incredible hardships. And I am immensely proud of every single one of you.

Your accomplishments have encouraged us all. Your struggles have touched our hearts. And your presence has brightened our days.

Each one of you is worthy of far more time than I have here.

Nevertheless, I hope that I can give you some piece of advice, or a perspective on life that might be helpful. And with that in mind, I don’t want to reminisce about past glories, nor speculate on all the great things you may do in the future. I don’t want to pretend that there haven’t been hard times, or that there won’t be hard times to come. I’m sure there were, and there definitely will be.

Instead, I would like to talk about this moment, right now. For it is always in the present moment that we are living. It always has been, and always will be now. In this way, everything that has ever happened has happened today, and everything that ever will happen will also happen today. That is when our lives are unfolding. And this will always be the case, for you, for me, for everybody.

So let’s think about this. The past, as we remember it, is already gone. The future, as we imagine it, will never really arrive. It will always be now. This present moment that we are experiencing goes on throughout our entire lives. So how we live, here and now, is always what really matters.

This may seem obvious, but it’s a fact that is so easy to lose track of. It’s so easy for us to become distracted, unconscious of our remarkable existence in this present moment. And it’s so easy become wrapped up in our thoughts about what has happened and where it’s all going, or to become entranced by our ideas about who we are, what we’re doing, what we’ll become, what we’re capable of, what we should or shouldn’t do in the future, what could happen, and what it all means.

Of course we need to remember the past, to acknowledge and learn from it. And we need to plan for the future as well, to set course now for our greatest aspirations. But never forget that the present moment is all there will ever be. Whatever you do, even when you’re remembering and planning, you will always be doing it now. And even when you are not really doing anything, you cannot help but not do it now.

So whatever joy you seek in life, you can only find it in the present moment. And whatever you intend to accomplish, you can only work towards it in the present moment. And whatever problems may arise in your life or that you perceive in the world, you can only solve them in the present moment. And whatever kind of person you wish to be, you can only be that person now, in the present moment.

Life can seem incredibly complicated, but the truth is very simple. Moment by moment, we live these beautiful lives. They are filled with soaring heights, mundane plains, and abyssal depths. But whatever happens, have courage for the moment. For all we can do is attend to ourselves and the situation at hand, always living in this present moment.

Wisdom has not changed throughout the ages. But it’s up to you to discover what it really is. I can only give you a taste, point in the general direction, and encourage you to discover it for yourselves.

To all those ends I say: Be kind, be curious, be loving, be truthful. And I say all these things in the deepest possible sense.

Endeavor to find out who you really are and what your true potential is. I assure you, it’s way bigger than you can imagine.

And through it all, always strive to understand what it is to be a good person.

It won’t always be easy, but moment by moment, if we can just be that, everything else will take of itself.

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Thank you, and congratulations to the Class of 2018!

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What Did You Win, Eric?

 

Littlest Death: An Afterlife Fantasy (a.k.a., Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel):
Winner: Independent Publishers Awards Silver Medal for Fantasy.
Winner: International Book Awards for Visionary Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Fantasy Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Best New Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Cross-Genre Fiction

What Did You Win, Eric?
by Eric Witchey

Last time I posted in this blog space, I talked about award sickness because one of my novels had just won the Silver Medal for Fantasy Fiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Since then, that same novel has won First Honors in the Visionary Fiction category from the International Book Awards. It also won finalist (top five) positions in several other categories, including Fantasy Fiction. At the same time, another novel of mine won First Honors in the Fantasy Fiction category from the International Book Awards. Yet another book won a Finalist position for both cover design and short fiction. The books are, respectively, Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel from ShadowSpinners Press, Bull’s Labyrinth from IFD Publishing, and Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure from IFD Publishing.

Note: Thanks are in order here for Alan M. Clark for his cover designs for both Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure and Bull’s Labyrinth.

Has my good problem, Award Sickness, gotten worse? Yes. Yes, it has. Thank you for asking. On top of that, I now have another good problem. I now have conversations that go sort of like this:

“Congratulations! What kind of stuff did you win?”

“Uh. Um.” Eric looks down and shuffles his feet.

“Really,” they say. “Cash, like the Pulitzer or the Nobel?”

“Uh. No. It’s not like that.” Eric waves his hands as if to push the assailant away and avoid embarrassment.

“Well, what then?”

“Stickers?” It sounds so tiny and pointless to Eric, so he adds, “I won some really cool stickers to put on my books. And a certificate!”

“That’s it?”

“A silver medal on a ribbon. I won that, too.” He doesn’t want to say he could wear that heavy bit of kitsch around his neck if he wanted to shout to the world that he is the worst kind of self-impressed language geek.

This kind of conversation confuses non-writers who often think recognition of excellence means income or fame. Having won quite a few awards for my writing, I can say with some confidence that awards rarely translate into income or fame. Sometimes, but rarely. This absence of fame and fortune even confuses some writers, so it’s time to come clean on the whole award thing.

Here’s what I won.

On a purely material level, I won stickers, a medal, and several certificates.

On a marketing level, I won the right to have Littlest Death presented to an international audience at the New York Book Expo and at the Library Book Expo in New York. Also on a marketing level, Littlest Death press releases went out to 800 various media, blog, and vlog outlets for consideration for exposure. Oh, and I can put stickers on the covers that appear as part of the presentation and advertising on places like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and GoodReads.

Yay! Of course, I have no idea what that means in terms of sales. I won’t know for months, and possibly years, to come.

From my personal perspective, I won validation for the Afterlife Fantasy genre, which is embodied by Littlest Death. I had been thinking about writing an Afterlife Fantasy for some time, but I probably would never have done it because it would not have fit into any existing marketing category served by the octopus imprints of the big five publishers. A book like Littlest Death would have made the rounds of the imprints for several years. I’d have received the usual “loved this but not quite right for us” rejection letters. Instead, it came out from a small press that isn’t quite so risk averse.

Most important from my perspective, I won validation for the creative process that resulted in Littlest Death.

When I teach, I often say that craft tools should be based on the underlying linguistic and cognitive principles that govern the reader’s internalization of emotion from story. The test of a principle-based tool is pretty simple. It must be all of the following:

  1. Useful as a descriptive tool for finished, text-based story.
  2. Useful as an analysis tool and solution predictor for revision of text-based story.
  3. Useful as a design tool for the production of text-based story.

To that end, I have spent about 25 years obsessively characterizing and recording tools that fit the above criteria into a personal catalog. I use these tools constantly, and I teach them to others. However, prior to writing Littlest Death, there were a few tools in my box that I believed fit the criteria but that I had never actually tested on the design level. I had only used them as diagnostic and revision tools.

I used the opportunity to write my Afterlife Fantasy to test the design power of the untested tools. Specifically, the tools I often used in revision and description but had not really applied during story design were:

  • Irreconcilable Self as a control for character psychological and sociological development.
  • Vertical Story Analysis as a design tool to support manifestation of Dramatic Premise (Lajos Egri) and Character Arc prior to composition.

I’m not going to explain these tools here. Sorry. It would take too long. I’m just saying that these tools have been in my box for a while, and I have used them to revise many stories that went on to sell. In fact, I used them to revise Bull’s Labyrinth, which won the International Book Award for Fantasy Fiction. I also used them to revise some, but not all by any means, of the stories in Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure. I had just never used them up front before initial composition, so I felt a little bit like a fraud when I taught them because I had only proven to myself that they worked on two of the three levels of proof for “tool” that I require.

Once Littlest Death went into print and I started getting emails from people who cried tears of joy while reading, I felt pretty good about having demonstrated the tools’ usefulness in design. Once Littlest Death won two awards and several finalist slots in competition against many thousands of other novels, I started thinking it might be worth considering a few more such experiments in design.

What did I win?

I won validation of knowledge, confidence in that knowledge, and the confidence that sharing that knowledge with others will be useful to them.