Why do I let myself be muzzled by the PC police?

Thoughts from a first-world-Topic discussion on my Facebook page

Sorry I selected an image of a white male to accompany this article. There was a black male with a tape across his mouth on the iStock photo page but for about 100 reasons you can probably guess, I did not feel comfortable posting that. There was a young woman with a muzzle, but I did not want to go there either. People might think I was trying to avoid facing my age, among other things. Various subjects had both muzzles and chains. Nope. So I ended up with a white male. The PC Police will be right with you.

Apologies for selecting an image of a white male to accompany this article. There was also a black male with a tape across his mouth on the iStock photo page, but for about 100 reasons you can probably guess, I did not feel comfortable choosing that one. There was a muzzled young woman, but I did not want to be accused of denying my age. Various subjects had both gags and chains. Nope. So I ended up with a white male.
The PC Police will be right with you.

This morning I posted a statement on my personal Facebook page on a subject about which I have been thinking for quite a while. Here it is:

How ironic is it that the barbarians among us feel more free than they ever have in my memory to say aloud and do the most despicable things imaginable, while the humanitarians are often discouraged from speaking at all, for fear of being judged politically incorrect?
One of my many intelligent and interesting Facebook friends replied:
People gotta learn to speak up and damn the consequences. There is a word for that. It is called courage. And we must encourage people to say what they feel, or do what they feel.
Injustices were never corrected by not speaking up.
Evil triumphs when good men remain silent.
The future lies not in the stars but in ourselves.
Thus it has always been.
And then I said,
I agree, but when it reaches a point when I am hesitant to support a group or position that I actually agree with, not because I fear the reaction from people who disagree with the position, but because I have been made to feel that I have no right to comment on an issue where my demographic has been part of creating the problem (e.g., aboriginal issues, Black Lives Matter), or that I have no right to comment because I am one of the entitled (Caucasian), it makes my brain go into a twist that I can’t untie. I post comments [on FB, about current issues], and then I take them down.
And when I don’t agree with a position of a disadvantaged group (e.g., certain Palestinian leaders), I don’t even think about saying anything.
The same friend replied:
Yes, you are right Mary. Those who disagree are marginalized by the marginalized. You are immediately dismissed and your voice becomes irrelevant in the discourse.
If you do not support the prevailing ethos you are treated like a bad person with bad ideas whose views should be ignored and eradicated.
Then another of my intelligent and interesting Facebook friends said:
[W.B.] Yeats made the same point and I paraphrase: “A time will come when the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Written in 1922. Could have been yesterday.
And I marvelled at how much more clearly and succinctly Yeats had said it than I had. The line is from the wonderful poem “The Second Coming,” which contains another of my favourite lines: “Things fall apart: The centre cannot hold.” That, too, seems painfully relevant today.
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On a more positive note, watch for an upcoming article here on The Militant Writer entitled How I gave away 19,159 copies of the ebook version of Rita Just Wants to Be Thin, and finally started selling the book on a regular basis in the US, the UK and Canada five or so years after it was first published under another title, thereby restoring my self esteem and motivating myself to get back to work on my next book.” Or something to that effect.
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As always, I welcome and encourage your thoughts on these or any other matters relating to writing and the militancy necessary to get it done.

What a great idea! Books on the Bus in Red Deer

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 9.46.58 PMI am grateful to Write, the newsletter of The Writers’ Union of Canada, for alerting me to a brilliant initiative now underway in Red Deer, Alberta (Canada) called Books on the Bus.

Buses in Red Deer now feature mini-libraries from which riders can borrow a book to read to themselves or their kids as they wend their way through town. They can also borrow the books for the weekend or the week, or even longer, and return them when they’ve finished reading them – or  they can “share the books with friends and family” and never return them at all. They can also donate books for the mini-libraries at various Red Deer locations.

Like the neighbourhood book boxes that are (happily) appearing everywhere, all of this happens at no cost to readers (aside from bus fare, in this case). “Books for all ages and reading abilities are available including children’s books, graphic novels and fiction and non-fiction for adults,” says the City of Red Deer’s website, which goes on to point out that “Providing access to literacy materials is a poverty reduction strategy identified by the Central Alberta Poverty Reduction Alliance (CAPRA).”

Genius! I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard of this idea before, and I think it should be happening everywhere. Which is why I am telling you about it.

 

Not every editor is the right editor

I’ve just been reading an article called “The Trouble of Rational Thought” by Miranda Popkey in The Paris Review about a writer I’d never heard of until today – Helen DeWitt. The subtitle of the article – “How Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai cultivates ambition in its readers” – caught my attention immediately, and by the time I’d finished reading the article, I’d ordered the book. (Which shows how someone writing a review or an article about your book can help sales.)

Quite aside from how intriguing the book itself sounds, the story of how it came to be published gave it an irresistible mystique. (“News of it traveled by word of mouth—and if that word reached you, it said something about the kind of reader you were: attracted to the recondite, undaunted by formal difficulty, unconventional in your tastes,” Popkey says.) Due in part to the challenges built into the structure and content of the novel, DeWitt had serious problems back in the mid-nineties trying to find an editor who was interested in what she was actually trying to do with her novel – who was willing to allow the writer to write her story, as opposed to the story the editor thought she should be writing.

It is clear that DeWitt’s novel was both unusual and ahead of its time – we’d be less surprised today to find different fonts and different languages in a published novel ostensibly in English than we might have been fifteen years ago. However, her story serves as yet another reminder that despite how important it is to have an editor (two, in fact – one for substantive editing and one for copy-editing) for your book, you also cannot just settle for any editor. The one you work with must appreciate that the book she is editing is your book, and not hers.

“My view was that the book benefits from the undivided attention of its author. And this turned out to be a scandalous… I mean it wasn’t even scandalous: it was so outrageous a point of view that it didn’t even cross anyone’s mind that one might think that: obviously what you needed was guidance.” – Helen DeWitt

As writers, we can always benefit from the knowledge and guidance of good editors. The authors of (almost?) every brilliant book I’ve ever read have acknowledged the contribution their editors have made to getting the manuscript into its final format. However, we also need to be aware that just as there are times when we need to listen, there are also times when we need to push back – even just a little, by saying “that’s not what I am trying to say,” or “That’s not how I want to say it.” And if we can’t get the editor to hear us, maybe we need to find another editor.

The story in The Paris Review led me to watch an interview with DeWitt herself, which is one of The Paris Review‘s “My First Time” series. In it, she recounts her problems with editors of The Last Samurai. Check it out:

 

Subsequent poking around the Internet has led me to discover that DeWitt’s problems with the publishing industry were not restricted to the experience of getting her first novel published. Her second novel, Lightning Rods, took ten years from completion to the bookshelf, and that experience also nearly drove her crazy.

I don’t know why I find DeWitt’s story reassuring, but I do.

How do you beat writer’s block?

How do you beat writer’s block?

WritersBlock.jpgI suppose that some of you have never had writer’s block. I’ve heard about people like you. I’ve read about people like you. I guess I even know some people like you (I am thinking here of a long-time writer friend who seems to be writing morning noon and night, in pubs and coffee shops, on scraps of paper and in notebooks: his fingers fairly fly across his keyboard when he’s on a computer; and I’m thinking of another, more meticulous writer friend who sits herself down at a certain time each morning and writes for a specified number of hours every single day, then stops).

Life with a block is bad

I have been through several periods of writer’s block, some brief  (about one of which I have written previously on this blog) and some extended, and I detest them. They make me feel depressed and lazy. Most of them arise from a lack of confidence, and of course they also contribute to a lack of confidence. They are almost impossible to “will” away.

Sometimes the lack of confidence is in the particular piece I’m working on, and this has led me to abandon quite a few stories, articles and even books, half-written. Sometimes it’s a lack of confidence in my ability to write anything of value. In those periods I can write if I force myself to do it, but when I read what I have written I am overly critical and I start cutting everything out. There is no point to continuing, and I stop.

And sometimes I have no confidence in the entire enterprise of writing: particularly the closely crafted writing of long pieces that I particularly enjoy. I decide that no one is reading anything longer than a caption or more complex than a set of instructions any more, and that what I am doing is an absolute waste of time. In those periods I consider my decades-long writing career to have been pointless, and think about all the things I could have done instead that would have paid me better. However, I am unable to do anything but write, nor can I even begin to contemplate the act of giving it up. Despite my wonderful family and many friends, my life would be barren if writing wasn’t in it. So I am stuck.

Life without a block is good

Happily, at the moment I am not blocked. If anything, the opposite is true. All I want to do is write. I have recently completed three short stories that had been simmering for months or years, and I am pleased with them. I have dozens of ideas for blog posts that I want to write – not only here, but also on my I’m All Write blog site, and on my Success After Sixty blog site. Everything suddenly seems like a topic that needs to be explored with words. My confidence has returned.

What got me out of my writer’s block this time was a period during which I forced myself to write, despite how hard it was, no matter how pointless it felt – mainly because I couldn’t stand living in my brain if I wasn’t creating something. I started by leaving  my usual surroundings and writing in Second Cups and Starbucks, on airplanes, even on the subway. I used a writing competition deadline as my impetus, and tried to convince myself that the deadline was as inflexible as one for an editing client would be.  I got one story finished and submitted, and then I did another. Getting around to the third was easier – I was able to do even the preliminary work on that one at home. And now I’m eager to start the fourth. It’s fun again.

I’m not the only writer to have experienced writer’s block. A whole article about the condition appeared recently in the New Yorker. The author, Maria Konnakova, tells us that Graham Greene kept a dream journal to avoid it. She goes on to discuss opinions on the subject of writer’s block from psychotherapists and psychologists – two of whom concluded that we are not all created equal: there are four different kinds of blocked writers, they decided. (It is interesting to read their list and to figure out where on the spectrum you might fit.) These two – psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios – even developed a therapeutic intervention that seemed to help blocked writers.

When you have a writer’s block, no one cares but you, but you care about it so much that it affects everything else you do.  I hope I never have it again – maybe if I never stop writing again, I’ll never have to start again? – but if I do I’m going to re-read this post and Konnakova’s article.

So, how about you? Have you had writer’s block? How did you overcome it?

Get with the times, Ros Barber: “Self-published” no longer means “inept.”

(A rant, and a challenge)

Yet again a major media outlet has granted space to a writer who wants to rail against self-publishing and to denigrate those who have chosen to pursue that route, particularly those who write fiction.

None of the arguments Ros Barber sets out in her recent article in The Guardian  is new. In fact, they are all so old that they have begun to smell – or, at the very least, to bore writer-readers who are not already members of the choir half to death. (Writers who are in Barber’s corner love to read the list of self-publishers’ shortcomings over and over again. They will never tire of it –until they become one of us, or die, whichever comes first. Despite the fact that it would force her to rethink her views, I wish upon Ms. Barber no novel that fails to sell to her publisher’s expectations, thereby banishing her from the traditional publishing firmament forever.)

I am not going to waste space taking Ms. Barber’s arguments apart. I’ve been taking the same ones apart for years, as have dozen of other respected and respectable writers on blogs and in numerous other venues. What she (and, it seems, the team of editors in the Books section at The Guardian) takes as cutting-edge insights are merely misguided opinions that have already been widely and frequently debunked.

What bothers me are not the points she makes, but the tone in which she makes them – and specifically, the utter lack of writerly fellowship that her article betrays. Such supercilious opinions as “good writers become good because they undertake an apprenticeship,” which suggests that those who self-publish do not know how to write, are utterly insulting to the innumerable writers who have completed agonizingly long “apprenticeships,” but whose writing is deemed by agents and/or commercial and/or financially hard-pressed (!) literary houses to be too offbeat or too marginal or too kinky or too similar to something that came out last year to be worthy of their imprint. Barber’s success in attracting even a £5000 advance for her most recent novel speaks more to blind luck or favourable industry connections than it does to talent.

The one point on which Ms. Barber almost indicates a passing knowledge of what she speaks is the one in which she says that self-published authors must invest 9/10 of their efforts in marketing, leaving only ten percent of their time for writing. (Although I do argue with her numbers: she has failed to consider the time it takes for any writer to earn a living while building up a readership.) However, as I’m sure she knows, it is fallacious to use the marketing imperative as an argument against self-publishing. If Barber’s publisher does not require her to spend a good deal of her time promoting her book, she’s not having the experience of most of my traditionally published colleagues. (I think she does know: anyone who can get an article into the Guardian is no slouch in the marketing department.)

I am sick and tired of finding it necessary to apologize not for the quality of my two most recent novels (for one should never attempt to defend what one has written), but for the way in which they were published. Who the hell cares how books reach the market? Readers certainly don’t. Nowadays, only small-minded, defensive writers seem intent on railing against those of us who have chosen to take our fates into our own hands.

The challenge: I invite Ms. Barber (and anyone else who wishes to do so) to request a complimentary copy of either of my self-published novels (Rita and Don , to read at least a decent chunk of it, and then to point out either publicly or in private the precise locations where the novel displays either a lack of publishing quality or dearth of literary talent. But people like Ms. Barber won’t do that: they’ve made up their minds ahead of time.

Ros Barber, please do not tar everyone with the same brush. You may have chosen to publish traditionally, but increasing numbers of us are choosing to do otherwise. Canada’s primary organization of creative writers, The Writers Union of Canada, now admits self-published authors whose books have been approved by its membership committee. Granting agencies and awards programs everywhere are going to need to consider how to manage the books by many younger writers who (like young musicians and film-makers) are choosing to go indie from the outset.

We are all in this together. We are writers. Some of us write better than do others, but increasingly this has nothing to do with how our writing reaches readers. A traditional publisher is no longer the only imprimatur of quality, if it ever was. The opinions in your article show you to be as disdainful as you are out of touch. I hope your fiction, notwithstanding its apparently historical nature, is more current.

Virtual Reality and The Writer

Last weekend, I read an intriguing article by Simon Haupt in the Globe and Mail about the impending reality of virtual realityIn “Reality Check,” Haupt explores the downsides as well as the upsides of being able to put on a headset (“…really, just a pair of special goggles attached to a smartphone,” he says) and be immediately transported to somewhere where you’re not. I’ve considered the possibility of virtual reality before – who hasn’t? – but I’ve never before considered the impact it could have on my own life… the benefit it could have, to be specific.

Here’s the thing. As I have groused elsewhere, often, I have wanted my whole life to travel, but I have only now started to be able to do it. The list of places I want to visit has been growing over the years to the point where I am sure I will never get to all the destinations I want to reach before I am too old to get to them.

Now, I have an alternative! If I can travel to the places at the top of my list while I still can, I can spend the next decade virtually visiting the ones I didn’t reach. (Although I do have a caveat: the virtual reality [VR] experience needs to include smells, because smells are – to me – a very important part of travelling. They’ll have to add a smell recorder to the Google car, I guess. By the time my knees and stamina for actual travel have given out, they should have been able to iron out that wrinkle.)

[Virtual reality is] coming very soon to a home near you, with the potential to transform not just gaming, entertainment and social media but social justice advocacy, tourism, education, marketing, shopping, and dozens of other everyday experiences. – Simon Haupt

After I’d finished thinking about how I could travel to Johannesburg from an armchair using only a headset and my iPhone (think of the money I will save!), I started thinking about the effect widespread access to virtual reality might have on writers, specifically of fiction. Haupt mentions that a VR experience based on The Martian is already in the works, and at least one VR creator he interviewed for the piece predicts that simply placing viewers in VR situations will not satisfy consumers for long.

Haupt relates his conversation with James Milward, president of Secret Location, a Toronto marketing company that is already making award-winning VR content. “Soon, he says, we’ll need stories, or ‘something you’d demand in any other medium to make it meaningful. So I think that’s inevitable. We’re going to have to continue to push how we make things, and what we choose to make, in order to make it meaningful’.”

I cannot begin to fathom how difficult it would be to create a novel that translates easily to to a virtual reality format, and I’ve already decided that Rita Just Wants to Be Thin is not likely to appeal to most people who are consumers of VR. Who wants to actually go through the experience of trying unsuccessfully to stick to a diet? Maybe once or twice, but not the number of times it takes Rita to finally figure out how to live a life that is not associated with overeating. The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid on the other hand? That might be fun.

What do you think? Can you imagine writing something that can be reproduced in virtual reality format, or is it going to take a whole different kind of creators to make appetizing “stories” for virtual reality consumption? Maybe it isn’t possible at all, and (as Haupt also suggests) perhaps this is just a fad that is blowing in the wind.