brain flotsam

That smirking boy is me, or, the old world has a thing to say

In my home country of Taiwan (and probably in many other cultures), your elders are not to be questioned. Whatever they say goes. There is no discourse, no discussion, and you are most definitely in for a world of hurt, both physical and psychological, should you dare question that line of thinking. You just live this way, with these values.

The only L.A. Times story my parents ever clipped out and kept for me to read was about a Vietnamese-American girl who served her father first at dinner and then stood behind him as he ate, before eating her own meal. My parents said they wished I could be this obedient, this good.

Now, I know a lot of Asian kids who might yes-ma’am-yes-sir with the best of them. I also know these same kids did things like hiding their live-in relationships from their parents. (Whenever the phone rang–this is in the days before Caller ID–the kid with the parents who might care answered the phone, and not the relationship. If the parents came to visit, the relationship moved out.) These kids lived double lives. They might have done like me, and changed clothes in the school bathroom twice–once before going to school, once before coming home. They might have dated behind their parents’ backs. They might have pursued a Creative Writing degree while blithely telling their parents engineering classes were going great, thanks.

But they never, ever, would have raised their voices to their parents, to hear my parents speak of it. Rolling their eyes would be, like–Wow, you’d better duck for the slap that was surefire coming your way. They would never have questioned anything. They would just go along with, and know that it was for the better.

This is a lesson I never learned. Whether by innate personality, rearing, or perfect storm of circumstance (or perfect storm of all three), I cannot abide it when someone tells me something my gut knows is wrong. Or says something I’m hurt by. Or remarks on anything in a way that is rude and unseeming. Even if it comes from someone older. I got into a lot of trouble with my parents, growing up.

Here in America, there seems to be a kind of respect for elders. But I’ve also seen–and watched, and read–a lot of media portraying kids as talking back to their parents, or even shouting at them. These kids are portrayed as standing up for themselves, thinking for themselves, having healthy debate and discourse with their parents. I’ve seen such a thing happen in real life, even. And in the American media my parents watched growing up as kids in Taiwan–think James Dean, think Elvis, think Steve McQueen and others–there was always the kid who talked back to adults, who treated them with disrespect, calling them outdated or in general showing elders just what they thought of them, just because they were older, less strong in body.

The adults in American culture were not respected, is the message my parents walked away with. Not so in Taiwan. And therefore, their children would be raised according to Taiwanese traditions.

This did not work for them. It probably didn’t work for a lot of parents who had kids who wanted to be “more American.”

I really, really longed for an American-style relationship with my elders. I craved discourse, conversation, learning from them in a fashion other than being lectured at.

*

When I was in Taiwan last winter, I bought my SIM card from a MyFone store in the village center. I was with one of my elderly aunts. The girl behind the counter was maybe in her twenties. My aunt asked her if she was married. The girl said, “Nope! No time.” My aunt said, “You should make time.” The girl grinned and nodded.

My aunt then said to me, “She’s so cute! Look at her hair!” The girl had a messy mop of curls cut short on the sides, so her whole head fluffed  at the top, kind of, and the whole thing moved exaggeratedly with her every movement. “You look like a little rooster,” said my aunt to the girl, and the girl obligingly bobbed and nodded her head, and the whole thing moved, and my aunt laughed, joyfully, and the girl smiled with her eyes and a little quirk of her lips. She bobbed again, just to make my aunt laugh again.

A few minutes later, an old woman who had once worked in our household when I was a baby walked into the store. My aunt introduced us, or re-introduced us, I guess. I didn’t remember her, but she knew me when I was still pooping my pants. “Your aunt says you’re married,” she said, by way of introduction.

“I am,” I said.

“Children?”

“Nope,” I said, girding myself.

“Have some, why don’t you?”

“Too late!” I said, maybe a little stridently.

“You’re still young. You can do it!”

“My ovaries are shriveled!”

“It’s better if you have some. Try.”

“I’m too lazy!”

At this point something popped in my head. What the hell was I doing? Why was I struggling? Why not just tell her okay, and move on?

  1. I probably was never going to see her again.
  2. No one really has any stakes in this conversation.
  3. No one’s mind was going to be changed about anything during our interaction.

It struck me then that I’d be a lot better off in a lot of my interactions with my parents if I could just stop taking everything like it was criticism. And, maybe, if I cared just a little bit less. If I were better at “live and let live.”

In the case of the interaction with this particular elder, in my parents’ parlance, if I had just respected this woman more, maybe it’d be easier. Instead of arguing with her, the answer was to just nod and say, “Yes, uh huh, okay.”

But it’s not about respect, you might say. And yet, in my home culture, it is. No matter what you think, or feel, treating someone with respect looks like you’re giving them their due, letting them have their say, giving them the room they’ve earned.

Later, my aunt told me that this woman’s own daughter had run away. That they don’t speak to each other.

*

Earlier this week, the Indigenous Peoples’ March happened in Washington, DC. Nearby, the March for Life was also going on. You all know what happened. Some people from a Kentucky Catholic school stared down, shouted over, and in general were disrespectful to some Native American elders who were singing a traditional song. (There is another interpretation to this, and if you watch an entire two-hour video, or even just read this post, you can make your own decision. But I don’t think that changes, much, what I’m saying here.)

The teenagers apparently mocked the elders. In one portion of the tape, one can be heard saying, “Yo, this is deep,” and others are shouting to drown out the elders’ song, making tomahawk motions and some other stupid shit.

We should all agree that this is disrespectful behavior. And disrespectful behavior towards our elders is on my mind a lot lately, as I spend more time with my parents and look ever inwards to my culture and my own behavior. Where does the urge to roll my eyes come from? Where does the need to second-guess my elders and their frame of reference come from? Where does the need to meet them head-on, like an angry bull, come from?

Sometimes, second-guessing is healthy curiosity. But most times, I think, it comes from a need to defend myself, a need to prove that I Have Degrees and that I’ve Learned Things and Been Places. This fragility leads me to act as someone not myself; it leads me to be mean where I don’t need to be mean.

Perhaps most importantly for my own sanity, it leads me to be angry when I don’t need to be.

More germane to this conversation: I have been this young man, at least to my own parents. I have mimicked them behind their backs. I have stared them down. I have openly, flagrantly, confronted them.

I have been intolerant of their views.

I’m not equating myself with these young men. I’m certainly not calling for you to understand them, or give them a pass. And I’m definitely not equating what happened this weekend to what happens in my own head and heart on a day-to-day basis. The parent-child relationship is deserving of more than this simple comparison.

But what I am saying is this: When we speak of disrespect, we must know that, at any given minute, we are a hair away from being just like these young men. You might think it’s different because we’re not disrespecting people from another culture, say, or disrespecting someone from another age group, or of another body type or of a differing level of ability, but it’s disrespect, all the same.

I still struggle with this, when it comes to my own family. I still think everyone has a right to their opinion, and that there is a moral, humanitarian right and a corresponding wrong. At some point in my life, I told my dad that it was because I respected him that I wanted to have what I termed “the good fight.” But he didn’t see it that way, and he still doesn’t.

Families are one thing; society is another, but we still must, at a minimum, tolerate each other. We must practice this tolerance. We must understand that respect for each other also doesn’t always come naturally, especially when it is countered by intolerance. So we must practice this as well.

Practice with the people you naturally respect. Listen to all they have to say. Then carry that through, to people you don’t always agree with, or even respect.

Practice tolerance. Practice respect. Head off the simmering desire to disregard someone else’s point of view; to shake your heads mournfully at their ignorance.

I work on this every single day. Now, more than ever, I work on it. Maybe it’s the right thing to do; maybe something bigger and stronger is needed. But the sorrow I experience from seeing the smug, awful look on that young man’s face only makes me wish that he had had parents and a culture like mine, one where elders were never, ever to be disrespected.

*

Ultimately, I want to live a life where I’m not as angry; where I’m not as frustrated, by things I don’t have to be angry and frustrated by. This means a lot of heading things off at the pass. When I first lived in New York in the mid-90s, it took me ages to realize that getting angry at the subways being late was only not useful; it was downright silly. I couldn’t do anything about it in that moment. If I was going to get angry, it should have been years ago and on a larger scale; campaigning for more straphangers’ rights, say.

Letting go of that anger did wonders for my state of mind.

Not swearing as much unless I really meant it (another long project) was a part of that, too.

This is way bigger, obviously. It has huge implications, this letting the elders have their say. Yes, they’re wrong a lot of the time, but so am I. And anyway, I think the point is to not react to so much with anger, so much defensiveness.

*

I have a friend whose default questioning expression is, “Hmmmmm.” This expression accomplishes so much. It tells you she’s mulling things over; it buys her some time; it doesn’t express one opinion or another.

(For contrast, my default questioning expression is one raised eyebrow, or a squint, and a relatively explosive, “Hunh!”)

Moreover, I think my friend’s expression is very, very respectful. By the same token that it tells you she’s mulling things over, it tells you that she’s giving what you’ve said or done some thought, letting it knock around in her head.

I’m not sure that she means all of that in that one long, drawn-out syllable. But at the very least, “Hmmm” takes a lot less energy than “Hunh!” and my raised eyebrow, and expending less energy can go a really, really long way towards a happier, less angst-filled life.

I tried it on my parents at dinner the other day. It made for a much more pleasant evening, took the charge out of everything.

I think what happened is that my parents felt heard, rather than challenged.

Who knows? Next month I may discover a more worthwhile coping mechanism. But for now, this, this thing I had formerly lumped in with other unfortunate side effects of colonial lag–this I think is something I can put to good use.

What’s your preferred method for defusing charged situations? Tell me below. 

 

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The lenses through which we see may not be our own

When I was 18 or so, I went to Oregon to be a camp counselor. All the counselors had camp names–Seaweed, Alpine, Whinny, Weed, Shaggy, Scribbles, Moondog, Kramer. One of the ones I admired the most was about my age, but she was way, way cooler than I was. Or am. I only remember her real name, if that’s any indication. Anyway, she had a boyfriend who came to visit. I met him once, and he was coming to visit us at camp at some point in the summer. Just before he came, Turtle, whose real name I also remember, asked me what he was like. Or maybe she didn’t ask me.

See, in the family I grew up in, my parents just gave opinions, willy-nilly. They didn’t ask if anyone wanted to hear them; they just gave them, because no one but your family would ever tell you the truth, or some other adage designed to excuse the hurt such opinions could cause.

Anyhow. I started talking, talking, talking, telling Turtle about the guy, and then Turtle said something like, “How about you let me meet him first?”

It was the first time it ever really occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t be influencing other peoples’ opinions with my own jabbering. It was the first time, actually, that it ever occurred to me that maybe I didn’t need to have an opinion, really. And maybe it was the first time that it occurred to me that other people most definitely didn’t need to hear my opinions on everything.

(That last part is constantly a work in progress; the pressure to seem relevant is always there.)

Anyway, it’s been slowly occurring to me that anything we do or say; any time we appear, is meant to imply, to impress something upon the viewer, or the reader, or the persons you interact with. I’ve had this thought a number of times over the last two decades or so: People walking their dogs in their pajamas, for instance, imparts for me not an admirable sense of independence, but, rather, a sense of sloppy insouciance, a lack of pride in one’s appearance.

Likewise, when I walked down the street with my dog off-leash, it was meant to imply confidence over a blatant disregard for the rules, but I couldn’t have that much control over people’s reactions. Or could I?

When I wrote for the J. Peterman and Patagonia catalogs, those pieces were meant to convey very specific emotions built around getting people to buy things. Earlier this week, I gave some brief remarks on behalf of a nonprofit I volunteer for; I did it in a logo’ed top and an exaggerated houndstooth-print skirt and walking boots, an outfit I chose to convey the efficiency and yet, continued relevance and constantly evolving nature of the charity.

Sometimes these things go awry. Years ago I delivered an earnings report in a nice suit, but I did it leaning against the wall, in a posture meant to convey confidence and a modicum of intended arrogance (it was a complicated relationship) but I know for a fact–could sense it, even while I was doing it, that would backfire. And I once walked into a meeting of marketing people with my huge French cuffs deliberately undone, but they flapped while I was talking, causing a terrible distraction.

All of these things seem sartorially bent–it’s the easiest thing for me to think of–but really what I’m referring to is narrative. What I’m referring to is context.

Take, for instance, the podcast Serial, which I’m finally listening to. (If you haven’t heard it yet, pick it up here.) In the first season, the reporter tries to make sense of a murder case she feels has gone awry. I haven’t heard the end of it, so I don’t know what we’re going to find out. But there are so many moving pieces to this story–the characters, the settings, the very social backdrop of the time the murder took place–that I couldn’t help but wonder why this reporter chose to tell this story in the way she did. Why, for instance, is it crafted in segments like this?

Why does she feature the defendant’s voice in some episodes over others?

Why does she include her own musings as she’s reporting?

Why does she follow the very specific timeline she follows?

For me, all of these questions are leading to even more questions, and although I’m only just nearing the end of season 1, I’m worried that I’ll walk away from the podcast feeling like I’ve been played–that I won’t actually feel happy about the outcome of this particular series, because it will have just opened in me–has opened in me–the desire to see it for my damn self, to root through the stuff, before I can believe what the reporter has told me.

Some things are like this. Maybe the whole intent of Serial is to make you ask questions, make you realize what else might be out there that you’ve either misinterpreted, or just taken for granted because something you deem a higher authority told you so.

Or if, like Turtle, you’d been primed to see something one or or another because of something someone said.

It strikes me that this is a key part of art, the capability to shape someone’s view of things, to prime them with a narrative of your own making, before they even get to witness the thing themselves. Last weekend we took my dad to see a photo exhibition featuring pictures his friend Dr. Dean Hsu had taken on his travels around the world. Every part of that show–from the photo itself to the placement of the photos and the editorial choices made by the curators–was meant to imply and help you to form an opinion of the places Dr. Hsu had been, even if you’ve never been there yourself.

We walked around the town of Visalia a little bit between lunch and the exhibition. I took some photos of the buildings there, because I love the buildings of that era, and I like to do watercolors of them. They’re my safe spot. And before lunch, we took a tour of the cancer care practice Dr. Hsu used to work at. It was such a warm, lovely place.

I never thought about it this way before, but the intent of the drawings I do is meant to convey to you, the viewer, my own impressions of the place I’ve visited. So when you look at these pictures, the first of a window in Dr. Hsu’s office; the second of a building I particularly liked, I hope you get the sensation that these are places that made me feel warm and happy. Whether or not they imply the things I want you to feel is a mark of the work’s success–or failure.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing and teaching about intent and its importance in writing stories and essays, but this is the first time I’ve thought about my visual art this way. Which is funny, because surely there must be some kind of internal desire around each painting I do.

It’s good to approach everything, I think, with intent, whatever that may be. The conveyance of who we are and what we’re about comprises these small details. More importantly, we have the power to change the way that others see things, and I think that’s not something to be wielded lightly.

For my part, I like to keep reminding myself that these things have more weight that we might have otherwise considered–or intended.

What have you seen, read, or heard that’s irrevocably changed your opinion or the way you think and view things? Tell me in the comments below.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Yogis I have loved

When Mr. Gooddirt and I went to our first-ever yoga class in Chicago in the mid-2000s, we only knew a little bit of what to expect. We hoped it would change us from being tight-hamstringed runners and cyclists into better athletes. I’m not sure mindfulness, or whatever, was really of interest. But since then, we’ve found ourselves repeating over and over again a phrase that first yoga instructor we had used. For me, the phrase has become a little bit of a situation barometer. (I’ll explain below.)

Since then I’ve been to several more yoga classes and encountered several different instructors, obviously. Some were great. Some were downright terrible, including one right here where I live who felt it her right and place to engage in publicly shaming people in class. (Yes, I complained. No, they didn’t care, which just underscored the impression I sometimes have of yoga here in America being the domain of the privileged—see here for more reading.)

But I want to tell you about the ones who stuck with me in positive fashion:

Chicago Parks System, 2006ish? 2007? Can’t remember exactly

It was almost always cold and dark when we walked the two short blocks to our yoga class at an offshoot of the Chicago Parks System. It was winter, and I think we were looking to try something new. Our instructor was about as far away from the modern interpretation of a yoga instructor could be: short, in her late 60s, maybe, tight curly hair and dressed in a tracksuit. The room was huge, lots of space for everyone, and darker than I expected.

Her pacing, tonally, was about what you’d expect, though, slow and measured, and out of her mouth, with every stretch and bend, came this phrase:

“See…what…it…will…do.”

With this gentle phrase, she encouraged everyone to take their muscles and limbs a little further, and also, to bend a little the bounds of what you think your body can do.

I don’t think we went to very many classes, maybe a handful? But that phrase is linked now to every situation where there might be a squishy variable:

“Our timing looks tight tonight. Do you think we can get Huckleberry to the dog park for a little bit?”
“I don’t know. Let’s just play it by ear.”
“Yes. See…what…it…will…do.”

“I don’t know if I can make it up this hill.”
“Well, just…See…what…it…will…do.”

This instructor’s voice happens internally, too, whether I’m sending out submissions or puréeing veg for a little soup. “Ooh. I’ve never tried this before. Let’s See…what…it…will…do.”

It’s a remarkably handy phrase.

Claremont Club, 2017ish sometime

If I could take this next yoga instructor around with me in my handbag, I totally would. Her name is Emily. We don’t belong to the club anymore, but she is easily one of the most supportive people I know on a cursory level.

In contrast to the yoga instructor I told you about earlier, she’s exactly what you’d think of when you think of a yoga instructor. Tall, but muscular. I wouldn’t call her willowy. Perfect manicure/pedicure every time I’ve seen her. Long dishwater blonde hair. Great yoga clothes. Emily runs her classes without using a mat herself. She’s confident and also intimate. If you need to approach her about a problem you’re having (I first started coming to her when I had a back problem) she sits down across from you and talks to you about it, taking all the time you need before or after class.

She is demonstrative. She spends a huge chunk of her time walking around the class, showing people poses from different positions, correcting you when she can, using her body as ballast or support for you if you’re trying something new. She’s hands-on, and hands-down, my very most favorite ever yoga instructor. I did my very first headstand in her class, and I did it because of rambling commentary like this:

“What’s going to happen if you fall over? Nothing. You’re not going to fall very far. Just try it. And see if you can touch the floor. Ready? Boop! Touch the floor.”

(I wish I could remember what pose we were doing when she said this. It was some kind of warrior into half-moon into crescent pretzel horrible thingy.)

Emily is a master at sound effects. It turns out she’s a kindergarten teacher, which explains so much. I was encouraged to do stuff in her class I never even thought I could do. I got stronger.

I spend a good portion of my energy trying to be like Emily to others.

Hangar 18 Climbing Gym, last week sometime

Genuinely unlike any yoga class I’ve ever been in. This one takes place in the upstairs loft portion of our climbing gym, which we only recently joined after giving up our stupidly expensive membership to the Claremont Club. ($179 a month for two of us, and the benefits weren’t what we wanted, although the facilities were gorgeous.)

The space is freezing, because the windows are open to accommodate sweaty people climbing and bouldering downstairs. It’s in the 40s outside. People are falling off walls onto mats and calling out that they’re on belay or climbing. It’s a climbing gym, so high walls and echo chambers are everywhere.

Our instructor is a young man in glasses that are my favorite shade of blue. He’s in climbing pants, which are basically pants you might see on the hiking trail. There’s very little yoga garb in here, because a lot of people have probably come straight from climbing to yoga.

Because of the noise, Tylor has to shout. Like each yoga instructor I’ve mentioned above, he’s encouraging, but he doesn’t come by and correct you or anything, although he does position himself so folks can see what he’s doing from different angles. And he does verbally target things you’re probably doing wrong. “Pull your shoulders away from your ears.” Oh, hey! That’s me.

This is a different type of class. I get the sense we’re not working on our practice or whatever, we’re getting stronger with an end purpose in mind. Of course, this could just be me.

At the end of the class, when we’re in corpse pose for way too long for such a chilly, chilly space, Taylor talks his way up our bodies, from toes to crown of head, telling us that we should be mindfully encouraging our individual body parts

“…to relax.”

He repeats this over and over again, shouting over the noise in the gym. When you get told

“to relax”

over and over again, some part of it probably begins to sink in. Now, recalling it, I remember, certainly, how cold I was. But I also remember Tyler voice, yelling “to relax,” and although the grammar bitch part of me wants to tell him to change up his phrasing so that we just hear “relax” instead of the infinitive, well, there’s something weirdly, uh, relaxing about hearing that phrase over and over again.

It’s weird, the things that stick with you over time. I’m glad for things like this, popping up in unexpected places, that give me tools to play with at times when I might need help.

What phrases have stuck with you over the years? Tell me in the comments below. 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

New Year’s Eve in Morro Bay

I met some people over the two days and a night we were in Morro Bay.

Well. That’s not entirely true. I met one person. Watched another from afar. And found an item that helped me to write the first entry to my new column at The Writer magazine. (Launches in print in April, and it’s about the things I learn from my various writing and editing and teaching jobs.)

I don’t know either of the person’s names that I’m going to write about, but they made an impression on me. I wish I’d gotten photos of the one I talked to; he was a real gem. The odds that I’ll run into him again are low, but he was pretty special.

He was walking along the beach, in a helmet, drysuit, and booties, carrying a surfboard. He was walking north along the beach, checking the waves, and so I asked him: “What kind of water are you looking for?”

“Oh,” he said. “You want a wave that kind of peels, but with an open end to it. There, there! Like that one, but…oh, it’s closing up now. You want to be able to ride it for a long time, see.”

We talked for awhile longer. He said he’s been surfing for sixty years, and that he’s never had a shark encounter. He also said he’s been a white-water kayaker, a race-car driver, a sky-diver–and that surfing is the sport that he loves the most. But he also said that, in every other sport he’s ever tried, there’s been a kind of community, a kind of sharing. Surfing, he says, doesn’t have that. “There’s a kind of selfishness,” he said, but differed with Jim’s assessment that it was about preserving the best breaks for yourself.

I wish I’d had a chance to talk more, but he wanted to get on the water. I don’t blame him. I just thought he was really cool, and I wanted to share him with you.

All I have from the second person I want to tell you about is this photo:

No big deal, right? We’re on a beach, so why wouldn’t someone be barefoot? Well, it was January 1. I was bundled up in a sweater and a jacket and jeans and a hat; Jim was wearing a jacket, even. We were both wearing gloves. This guy, RayBans on, bluetooth headphones flapping around his neck, was in shorts and T-shirt, striding through the water, up the beach and then back down it. He had his shoes in his hand.

It was easy to imagine some self-affirmation stuff going on in through his headphones, especially because of the way he was walking: toes pointed slightly outwards (you can’t really see this in the photo above, but I’m telling you), chest out. He was in a navy-blue V-neck top and white shorts. He was short, a little bit pudgy. He had a full  head of black, wavy hair, and he was Feelin’ It, whatever it was he was hearing through his headphones. He was On a Mission.

I would have been freezing. But he was out there, struttin’ like a seagull. It was pretty cool to see.

Here’s the last thing I wanted to tell you about:


Sometimes you find rocks on a beach that have a lot of holes drilled in them. They’re usually thicker rocks, great big lumps. The holes are made my sponges or sea snails or piddocks that live in them. But this one was probably a mistake, like someone started drilling and went, “Oops! THAT’s not going to be an appropriate home!”

Anyway. I spotted this one and really debated about whether or not I should take it home. I like to leave cool things for other people to find, especially since it’s so easy now to take photos of them. But then I put it to my eye, and I knew I had to have it.

Why? Because looking through that tiny little hole made everything clearer. This little rock gave me the metaphor I needed to write my first column, so you’ll have to wait until then to see what I learned from it. In the meantime, hope everyone is having a great start to their new year. I am.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Measuring your career and profitability: Live-blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 15 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-14 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“When your book hits a major best-seller list, it does create a meaningful ripped effect—more people hear about it, more sales get triggered…and you’re likely to get more invitations to do media or to speak.” (pg. 220)

“It’s important to see and track where the work comes from as well as the profitability of the work.” (pg. 229)

These two quotes come from two different sections of Friedman’s book. The first is from a chapter on book launches, and the second is from a chapter on making a freelancing career.

I see them as being related. My book career is, more and more, related to my freelance writing career, and I am looking to streamline this even more, as I get older and, uh, mature in my career.

Hopefully you’ve seen by now how a lot of writing actually mirrors a lot of the way we would work in any other career: tracking your successes, doing your research, training for success, making sure you have the right resources to succeed, are all par for the course, just as they are in any other field. This is as it should be.

For today’s post, we’ll talk a little bit about what it was like for me before and after my book was published.

My book was published in 2016. Before then, I was doing a lot of marketing writing and content creation. I still do this, because I really enjoy it, but the bulk of the things I was hired to do was either pitched magazine articles or corporate work. A large part of this is not only my actual qualifications, but where I felt most comfortable offering expertise. Even while I was in the process of getting published—a long year, because that’s how long it takes in the traditional publishing world—I didn’t feel quite comfortable talking about what it was like to write fiction or publish it.

Most of my speaking gigs and teaching gigs up to then leaned on my expertise as an editor for the Tahoma Literary Review: I would come into classrooms and talk about things like working with an editor, what editing careers look like. I focused more on the broader field of publishing, since I had a lot of experience in that already, on both the publishing end and the editing and writing ends, as a freelance writer.

After I published, though, it was like a switch flipped in my head. I could see the various options that were open to me more clearly, and, probably most importantly, I felt confident in my offerings. Here’s the key, though: Nothing had changed in terms of my expertise at writing fiction, but the book—that product in my head—gave me key currency with which to trade.

Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu debuted at number 5 on my distributor’s fiction bestseller list. And it crawled its way up to number 3, and then eventually fell off the back end, after eight long months. And although this is not one of the major best-seller lists that Friedman refers to, it gave me even more of a leg to stand on, if only in my own view of my career as a published writer.

After I published, I felt much more confident pitching magazines with articles on the art of publishing and the craft of writing. And even the nod I got from the Thurber House (Marty Wu was a semi-finalist for the Thurber Prize in American Humor) gave me the added emotional impetus I needed to pitch and write an article on black humor, a topic I’ve always wanted to cover.

This where tracking the profitability of these ventures, though, becomes paramount. It’s very easy to lose yourself in the headiness of chasing after speaking gigs and teaching opportunities, or penning blog posts and interviews. And, because much of this work is done with no immediate financial return on time investment (no, you do not usually get paid for doing Q&As about your book), it’s also easy to fall into the trap of justifying this time spent as moving towards more book sales and more speaking gigs.

But you have to work to balance these out. You must acquire paying gigs in order to offset the “free” work you’re doing in order to promote your book and its work.

Pre-publication, that work looked like marketing work for me. Post-publication, it’s paid articles about writing and publishing. It’s also adjunct work.

When I visit college classes, students often ask me if it’s “still possible” to earn a living off of writing books. I tell them yes, but that it’s time to expand the definition of what that means: “Being a writer” means, to me, sharing what I have learned with others. It means building on the capital I’ve acquired and leveraging that.

I mentioned tracking your profitability in the headline of this piece, and I think, the things I mention above are all parts of that puzzle. But one tool you must use is a time tracker and invoicing service. I have used Harvest for many years, thanks to my colleague at TLR, Ann Beman, who introduced me to it ages ago. It comes with a built-in set of parameters that include billable and non-billable hours, so that I can see where my time is spent. I have a complicated formula in my head that allows me to “weigh” what I’m doing against its inherent value, which I’m not going to share with you here because it is too involved—and frankly, I’m not 100% sure of what it actually is.

But I do value the work, on both a practical and an emotional level. And in our society right now, which is based on money exchange and not on, say, the barter system, well, measuring your profitability is the only way I can see of being sure that we are valuing our work on the same level everyone else does.

Here are some tips for you:

  • If you’re doing work for free, be sure you offset it with plenty of work that pays well.
  • Measure or track your time. Be clear about this; no wishy-washiness. You need to know where your time is going.
  • Find your own sense of worth and value around your work. Experience counts, so you can’t expect to command top dollar if you’re just starting out.
  • Finally, don’t underestimate the emotional value of a hard piece of “currency,” whether that be your published book(s), articles you’ve written, or your degree. I mean this mostly from an emotional standpoint. And if you don’t feel ready to make an offering because you haven’t published or are mid-degree or whatever, that’s okay, too, but be realistic about it: many great writing coaches don’t have MFAs, but you may not feel comfortable stepping into that field without one. Everyone is different, and respecting your own parameters is good. But so is pushing your own limits.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Shade Mountain Press, on Small Presses: Live-Blogging The Business of Being a Writer

This is Part 7 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-6 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“If you undertake the submission process without an agent, you’ll have to evaluate the qualities of small presses, and look for signs that they will be a good business partner and likely to produce a successful book….Here are some questions to ask when researching small publishers or digital-only presses.” [The Business of Being a Writer, page 102]

Friedman lists some very good questions to ask of any small publisher, and I thought this would be a great opportunity for you to hear from an actual small press, and one I have some experience with. I asked Rosalie Morales Kearns, the publisher of Shade Mountain Press, to weigh in.  (Shade Mountain is also the publisher of my debut novel.)

watercolor of brown tree with red books as fruit.

Here are Morales Kearn’s answers to Friedman’s questions.

Where are [the press’s] books distributed?

Our distributor is Small Press Distribution (SPD), which sells its titles to “independent book stores, chain stores, other wholesalers, jobbers (who sell to libraries), libraries and on-line booksellers” (this quote is from SPD’s handbook for publishers, available online).

Does the publisher invest in a print run or use print-on-demand only?

We do print runs, for several reasons. We had to have finished books, not advance review copies, to show to our distributor when we applied to be added to their list. Also, the problem with using a typical print-on-demand (POD) purveyor with distribution through Ingram, for example, is that many bookstores simply won’t stock POD books, because (1) there are issues with returning unsold books; and (2) there’s a perception that POD books simply aren’t the same quality (in terms of layout, paper, printing, and binding) as more traditionally printed books.

For digital-only publishers, what value do they provide that you need?

I would advise authors to think long and hard before having their book published in ebook format only. Many review venues and literary awards simply won’t consider books that are ebook-only.

For the author, there’s really no down side to having a book that’s both ebook and print, but a very small operation like Shade Mountain press may find that the record-keeping tasks become onerous after the first year or so. This is why I’ve given the ebook distribution rights of our earlier titles back to our authors.

What’s the publisher’s editing process like? Will you be assigned an editor?

This is a good question, but I’m not sure how informative it will be to get an answer. What a publisher thinks is adequate might not be the same as what an author thinks. It’s pretty common for small presses to do very minimal editing, and the expectation is that the author is responsible for the proofreading stage, and possibly all the stages, of the editing process beyond some light feedback. Since I’ve been a freelance copyeditor for more than two decades, I do content and copy editing myself, and hire a professional proofreader.

I definitely don’t expect my authors to catch the mistakes that are still on the page. That’s just not realistic.

What marketing and promotion do your titles receive?

This is probably the most difficult part for a first-time author to understand. And some small-press publishers don’t have a firm grasp on promotional matters either. For some small presses, promotion tends to be as minimal as editing, and if you’re lucky, your publisher will admit to that up front. But your publisher may think that what they’re doing is perfectly adequate, and won’t spell out what you as author can do to participate in promotional efforts.

Try to get clarity from your publisher about when they send out advance review copies (ARCs), and in what format. The major pre-publication review venues want that ARC at least four months in advance of the pub date, and preferably earlier than that. Many others want a similar lead time, and won’t consider publishing a review of a book anytime past its pub date. Also, in my experience, most reviewers still prefer hard-copy, not PDFs.

If your publisher says they’ll send out ten or twenty ARCs at their expense, ask whether they can print a larger number at your expense (if you can afford it). You will need to start researching at least six months ahead of time, preferably longer, to find out what reviewers and what venues are publishing books like yours—meaning literary work from small presses by writers with not a lot of name recognition. Then get the contact info for those venues and ask the publisher to send press releases to those venues.

There are some small presses who do the minimum in terms of sending out ARCs, and they fully expect their authors to do most of the effort (creating a press release; drafting queries; finding venues and contact info; paying for extra ARCs). If that’s the case, it’s important that they communicate that clearly to the author.

Same thing with literary awards. Often the author needs to do the research on deadlines and requirements, and also to pay the submission fees, postage costs, etc.

For each book, Shade Mountain Press sends out queries to over a hundred editors and reviewers, and mails out about 50 or 60 ARCs, most of those going to editors/reviewers who have specifically requested them. I do the market research for both reviews and awards. I definitely don’t expect my authors to do it. By the same token, that workload is partly the reason why I usually publish only one title a year!

How can [the author] terminate the deal?

This varies by publisher, but there should be some provision for this in the contract. Make sure it’s there.

Can [the author] speak to recent authors?

This is a great question, and the answer is yes, especially if you can talk with a writer whose book has been out for a year or more. Ask them how many reviews the book has received, and of those, how many were a result of the publisher’s efforts. Same thing with awards.

And one more thing…

One general thing I would add is that if your manuscript has been accepted by a small press, bear in mind that you’re not dealing with Random House, Simon & Schuster, etc. Chances are that the founders and editors are literary authors just like you, whose books have been published by other small presses. They’re not necessarily experts in publishing, but by the same token, they’re not doing this to get rich—or in many cases to get ANY income at all. They’re trying to expand the boundaries of literature, draw attention to work the mainstream overlooks, etc. They’re trying to participate in and give back to the literary community. So please don’t approach the contract discussion with an attitude of suspicion, as if these are people who are looking to rip you off.

Thanks, Rosalie! Myself and all the women under Shade Mountain’s aegis are so proud to call you our publisher. And now, some takeaways from my own perspective of working with a small press:

  • Always ask to speak to prior authors. These interviews are invaluable, for so many reasons. (I made a friend out of mine!)
  • Know and understand the contract offered by each publisher before you sign. Do not get all willy-nilly excited and sign shit. (This is probably #lifelessons, actually.)
  • Pay attention to the rights you can assume if they’re not spelled out in the contract. Mine gave me audio and film and TV rights, and now, ebook rights. Pretty cool. Think of all the ways to be creative!

What things do you want to see in a relationship with a publisher? Tell me in the comments below. And next Monday, keep an eye out for a post on your MC’s motivations, part of how to pitch your book. 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Word Count: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 6 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-5 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Publishers think about the books they’re considering in terms of word count…The average book in today’s market is 80,000 words…If you have a manuscript that’s between 20,000 and 40,000 words, you haven’t written a book. If it’s fiction, you’ve written a novella.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 89.)

The agent, whom I already really liked as a person, and whom I really, really wanted to like me, leaned across her wine glass. “I need you to write 6,000 more words,” she said, all wide eyes and guilelessness.

Four and a half years later, I still admire the way she delivered this news. Calmly, evenly, as if there were nothing to these 6,000 more words. I like to think that I reacted with just as much calm and guilelessness, but on the inside, I am pretty sure I was screaming, to paraphrase a friend, “OH SURE LADY I’LL JUST WRITE THOSE WHILE I’M POOPING, SHALL I?”*

What the agent was trying to do was get my book into saleable condition. See, the thing sat neatly at 55,000 words, which is neither novella nor novel.** She knew this was problematic. I was beginning to know it. What I didn’t know was that adding those 6,000 words, which would stretch into 7,000 (about 25, 28 pages), would change some crucial things about the novel. All I could hear was that without these 6,000 more words, this novel would be a no-go.

I had gone to grad school to fix what I knew was a key flaw in my writing. For the longest time, I couldn’t put a solid finger on conflict, and page-turnability. I learned a lot while I was in classes there, but while you can fix a thing academically, you’ll never really know or understand what the solution looks like until you test it in the real world. My thesis, which was the book I was pitching, had passed muster for graduation purposes, but I had queried a number of agents already, and despite high personal response rates to both query letter and sample chapters, I wasn’t getting the solid bites I wanted.

This agent, though, had actionable advice. And it was time for me to put practice to work and get the book into a form an agent could work with.

How was I going to add 6,000 more words, though? Where would I put it? I knew this wasn’t going to be the kind of change that involved more character descriptions here and there, more little personality quirks or long passages of lyrical description of setting. In the first place, my character isn’t the type to wax lyrical for very long, and since the book is told in diary format, that wasn’t going to fly. Second, the character’s a little self-centered, so she wasn’t going to do anything that involved a whole lot of descriptions of other people.

What I ended up doing was introducing a whole new character, an archetypal bad boy for my character to be distracted by. And even though he started out being a distraction, the introduction of this character, just a little less than halfway into the book, had serious ramifications for the rest of the novel.

Most importantly, the addition of this character added depth to my own main character, my protagonist. She was forced to make some choices that didn’t even exist before, thereby granting her an agency she didn’t have before.

And, of course, the addition of this character allowed me to reach the desired word count.

I no longer remember the book as it was without this addition, and I’m reasonably sure I couldn’t stand to look at it if I dug up an old draft.

I didn’t end up going with this agent, but I will always be grateful for the advice she gave me. It may not seem like much, but I’m sure she knew that asking me to add that many more words and pages would force my character into a situation that would give her more to do.

Takeaway tips:

  • Be open to advice from people whose job it is to sell your book. Assume good intention, always.
  • If you ever do find yourself in a position to need to add words, don’t look to tinker. Look to revise.
  • In my editing for clients, I often see a lack of conflict. If you’re looking for places to ramp up the story, look for places where your character lacks agency or where conflict is lacking.

What’s the biggest revision job you’ve had to do? Tell me about it in the comments below.

The next post in this series will occur at the end of next week, as I’m deployed for ShelterBox USA, a disaster-relief agency, for the rest of this week.

*I really, really wish I remember who gave me this line. Whoever you were, thank you.

**I also wish this could be a post on how frustrating it is that there is this weird no-man’s-land between 40,000 words and 60,000 words, where no one actually knows what to call your book in terms of length. Alas, it has no answers in this regard. Sorry.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Branding: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 5 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-4 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“A successful brand isn’t a sign of pandering to readers; rather, it evokes and emphasizes the why, or what the publication or publisher stands for.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 74)

I think a lot about branding. It’s part of my day job as a copywriter, after all. But this week, it’s been thrown into full light with Kate Spade’s death.***

I was so moved by the stories people told about their first Kate Spade bags or purchases, in part because Kate Spade has not been a part of the company she founded for over a decade: She sold off a significant portion of it as early as 1999, just six years after it was founded, and stopped designing for them ages ago.

And yet, so many people wrote about how “Kate” made them feel “quick and curious and playful and strong,” and there is a definite sense that, with that passing of Spade herself, that iconography of a “quick, curious, playful and strong” woman–a quote often attributed to Spade herself but which I think actually was born in the brand’s copywriting department–has lost its originator. And this, this wonderful tie between what people feel and what is, even if it’s not exactly right–is the beauty of a strong narrative.

There are very few companies who have been able to pull off this kind of branding. Nike, maybe. Cheerios, or Mr. Clean, or maybe, better yet, Cap’n Crunch. But even those don’t have the immense personality that Kate Spade did. That’s because there’s no person behind those brands. And it’s the reason brands have to hire brand ambassadors.

Kate Spade was her brand. Even more, she memorialized a certain moment in time, I think, a certain New York minute, even as it stretched into two impressive decades. Her brand was hitting her stride the same time I moved to New York, the mid-nineties. Even I, not a fan of bows and ruffles and personal slogans, associate Kate Spade with my New York life, with buildings and walking tall because I was earning a liveable paycheck and going to parties in lofts and establishing my own brand of wit, trying it out on cocktail conversation and failing a lot, at least three times a week. Say “Kate Spade” to me and the words evoke a rush of memories attached to all my senses: pavement under my feet; the wind from Fifty-first Street rushing up Sixth Avenue as I rounded the corner to meet friends in that subway bar; the damp Manhattan summer night; the chatter of a restaurant at lunchtime.

In the end, Kate Spade’s brand succeeded because it knew exactly who it was talking to. It placed aspiration within reach of so many women, whereas other aspirational brands keep their wares just squarely and deliberately out of reach. With a Kate Spade bag, and later, in Kate Spade shoes and dresses and displaying a quirky quote on your notebook, you could be everything you thought Kate Spade hoped for you.**

When I bought a literary magazine with some friends last year, it was one of the best things I could do with my literary life. I had a lot of thoughts already on art, and what role it might play in these fraught times we live in, and being co-owner of a literary magazine that we could use to execute our (thankfully) aligning missions was really, really attractive.

In the light of the quote from Friedman’s book above, and with Kate Spade in mind, I’m thinking about the people behind why we do what we do.

For years, Tahoma Literary Review had been operating on a solid, three-legged platform. Those three legs were:

Transparency. The magazine tells you exactly what it does with every dollar.

Sustainability. We paid our writers first, so as to helps writers to continue their creative lives.

Community. TLR strives to promote, to our best capacity, the work of those who have published in our magazine.

When we took over, nothing really changed, except we made it a priority to even out the pay schematic, so all genres got paid the same, and started paying production crew and editors as well. But it wasn’t until I read Friedman’s words above that I was able to gain a deeper understanding of our mission. (TLR has a mission statement, but I think most mission statements can be made stronger with a firm grip on the why of a thing.)*

This is a slippery thing, see. And it can be uncomfortable. Some explorations of the why you’re driven to do a certain thing end up leaving you cold, because they’ve exposed you to be heartless. Or insecure, or selfish. For instance, how many of us start a literary magazine because we want to boost our own profiles, or volunteer someplace because we want to build our own skillset or meet people who are interested in similar things?

I think, at the end of the day, while we don’t have a specific end user in mind like Kate Spade does, we are similar to her brand narrative in one regard: Ultimately, we are about the reader. We are about the reader-as-consumer-of-words and the reader-as-writer-of-words, and yes, I do mean all those hyphens exactly where they are. We are about making the reading experience great by way of making the writing experience great.

We are about giving writers a leg up towards producing their very best work, and ensuring a great reading experience. We are about paying everyone involved in the production of our magazine, and ensuring sustainability of that great reading experience for years to come. We are about the new-to-short-stories or new-to-poetry or new-to-creative-nonfiction reader, and helping them to understand just what goes into making this reading experience for them.

Readers, in all their variations, are the why of Tahoma Literary Review. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity to say so.

Takeaways:

  • Consider your origins when you look at sussing out your whys.
  • Look broadly at the things you admire, the things with great narratives. Don’t think of just literature. Think of the things you have loyalty to.
  • Conversely, look at the things that drive you in your life outside of reading and writing. What are those things?

What’s your“Why?” Do you have an end user in mind? Tell me below. 

*These statements are independent from what our founding editors, Joe Ponepinto and Kelly Davio, may have said. Second, while I’ve talked to my co-editors and co-owners (Ann Beman, Jim Gearhart, and Mare Heron Hake) about this, these statements are largely my own thoughts.

**As I was editing this this morning, the news came through about Anthony Bourdain. He was another whose personality built his brand, and although I only saw his show “No Reservations” once, I have so many friends who admired him, and it’s for their loss of a personal guiding star and point of aspiration that I’m sad, as well.

***Racked.com has a wonderful, thorough discussion of Kate Spade’s brand.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On “Content,” and Writer as Artisan: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer._

This is Part 4 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1, 2, and 3, on networking, “Good luck,” and MFAs, respectively, are here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“The more business-oriented and consumer-facing the publisher, the more likely you’ll hear the word ‘content’ used instead of ‘writing.’…’Content’ can be reshaped, reconfigured, and reimagined for many different people, places, and purposes.
“This, too, can upset writers, who may have a more artisanal outlook on publishing.” (The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 62.)

A long, long time ago, I told someone that I loved writing marketing and corporate copy. He hitched a short laugh, and then double-took. (Is that a thing? Can you past-tense double-take? Anyway.) “Wait,” he said, “are you serious?”

We were having drinks, and I wasn’t sure if he was joking, so I laughed, too, and then I was like…wait a minute. “Yeah,” I said, finally. “I really do.” My friend went on to say that he was surprised, since I’m “literary.”

So then I had to explain to him why I think marketing writing and corporate copy is so great: When it comes to working for small businesses, it’s about helping someone to get their message across, helping to crystallize someone’s brand. When it’s working for large companies, it can be about fighting a tiny battle to keep sloppy, imprecise language from conveying whatever makes a product or a company unique. So yes, I love copy. I love content. I love anything that helps a thing to convey itself.

This idea that content and copy is somehow less than writing of a literary sort–oh, excuse, me, littttrrrraaaaaary–really rankles. And, as Friedman notes in her pages, it’s not unusual to hear someone lamenting marketing work as hack work, or “just to pay the bills.” But there’s something really off about that, and I don’t just mean for its abject snobbery. What I mean is this: Working on content takes just as much skill as working on a novel or a short story or a poem.

(For an idea of what I mean, here’s a post I wrote awhile ago about coming up with a new tagline for the back of my business card, and my editing business.)

Think about the way we talk about writing: We talk about it in terms of  craft. We sometimes refer to it as wordsmithing. We talk about it as something requiring skill, and training. If writing copy, if crafting a message for a brand, isn’t inherently artisanal, I don’t know what is.

Marketing and advertising copy, or content, is also accessible to everyone. It’s made to be. There’s something really beautiful about that concept, that anyone can “get” what you’re trying to say. And it also takes skill. (Have a look at William Zinsser’s wonderful chapter on business writing, in his book On Writing Well, for a refresher.)


If some work is artisanal, is the other work junk?

I won’t get into that whole attractive notion of pay for work (content and marketing copy pays a hell of a lot better than short stories, I can tell you that right now), since that’s a no-brainer. And I utterly refuse to get into an argument about whether or not writing you get paid for is better or worse than writing you toil over, only to get paid nothing or a stipend for. Those are…I mean, it’s not even apples and oranges. It’s apples, and, like, battleships, or something.

(This reminds me of the day I complained to my cousin Otto, who is way smarter than I am, that movies made from books were way worse than the books. Otto blinked, all speed-processing behind a casual slow-lizard exterior, and then said, “Well. They’re two different things. You can’t compare them.” There followed a short silence during which I ate my hat.)

In the end, I think my view is this: Copywriting and content writing is a thing which requires a great amount of skill. Writing short stories and novels and poetry and essays is a thing which also requires a great amount of skill. Some of these skills are shared. Some of them are unique to the job. But more importantly, neither of these is more or less artisanal than the other. They are both equally hard. One of them pays with more regularity than the other. That’s the only thing that should be up for conversation. The rest is just a conversation about whether, in fact, you have the right skillset to do one or the other.

Some tips:

  • Try your hand at all kinds of writing. Don’t be fooled into thinking one is better than the other.
  • Be aware that each kind of writing takes different skill sets. Yes, even the social media stuff.
  • You’re producing all kinds of content, all day, from the comment you posted on a friend’s image to your Instagram caption. Look at those as room to practice. 

What’s your take on content and marketing writing, as opposed to literature? Tell me in the comments below. 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On MFA Programs: Live-Blogging Jane Friedman’s _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 3 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1 and 2, on networking and the concept of “Good luck,” respectively, are here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

…”Third, it can be worthwhile to enroll in an MFA program based solely on its faculty and networking opportunities…Don’t take it on faith that you’ll love any program or faculty sight unseen–get as much exposure as possible beforehand.” (The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 37)

Up until the moment I got accepted, selecting MFA programs had been easy. I wanted a low-residency program, so I could continue on with my day job and stay near my husband, and I wanted something that felt new. I didn’t much feel like taking graduate school exams, but I wanted something that would allow me to teach at the college level if that’s what I wanted. I wanted a faculty that comprised working writers, and an alumni pool that was also working as writers. I knew, too, what I wanted out of an MFA, so that made things even easier.

It came down to two low-res programs. One was much more established, and I knew people who had graduated from it. The other was new. Scrappy. So scrappy that it had sprung from a writer’s organization, and wasn’t affiliated with a college or university. Its facility boasted a live otter cam, and it was based out of a place I’d never really visited. The facility it hosted its classes out of boasted a live otter cam.

(not that kind of ottercam, you guys.)

They each had things to recommend them. Program B’s faculty looked as if they were all steadily working writers, and they said they only ever wanted to produce working writers. Program A, the more established one, had some faculty I had heard of, and they were renowned for their work in the young adult genre, a field I was pretty sure I wanted to work in. But in the end, it came down to the student body. Program A had both graduates I knew and had heard of. Program B had neither of these things.

But program B offered to put me in touch with their students. Program A took a few days to get back to me. I was very clear about who I wanted to talk to: I wanted to talk to working writers who were in the fiction genre. Writers who were working on long fiction, preferably. Within a few minutes of my sending a query to the program director, the e-mails from students and alumni of program B started rolling in. Four…five…six…seven and more students all had things to say, and all were willing to talk to me. All were working in fiction; all were able to address my specific questions and concerns, and if they didn’t know the answer, they pointed me to another student.

By contrast, program A sent me to a playwright, a guy who was in jail, and a graduate who said she wasn’t quite sure why Program A still had her on the list of people to talk to about their experience at Program A, since she was still doing the exact same thing she was doing before her degree and didn’t see a future in writing. I did not get to talk to the guy in jail, but the playwright was interesting, and completely not useful.

Friedman’s right: you should get to know the faculty. And I’ll never know what it’s like to have gone to that other institution. But, as I’ve previously mentioned, I leaned and still lean so heavily on my co-hort from my MFA and the huge number of guest faculty that I met while I was in school there. I think a good set of peers is at least as important, for many reasons, and maybe even more important, for another set of reasons.

I also want to point out the following, which has been thrown into sharp light now that I’m running a writer’s retreat of my own: the best faculty members are not necessarily those who are the biggest and brightest stars of literature. In fact, we had a few guest faculty lecturers at program B who were bigger names and who were, frankly, terrible instructors. Finding people who are talented, giving, generous educators and great writers isn’t always the obvious equation you think it’ll be.

Nope, for me, I’m happy I chose my MFA program based on the students who were there and who had graduated from the program.

Some takeaways:

  • Always ask to speak to students at whatever MFA program you’re considering.
  • Be intentional about why you want to get an MFA.
  • Be open: Although I wasn’t interested in making friends when I enrolled in my MFA, it happened despite me, and now those friends are colleagues, and I couldn’t be happier.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for exactly what you want. It’ll save time on both ends.
  • Have a look at the faculty member’s teaching resumes, or look for information about their teaching backgrounds otherwise.

 

2 Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.