WORDS FROM THE WISE/PART 24 – Jeremy Robert Johnson
(The JRJ masterclass)
Jeremy Robert Johnson
We’re back after a few months off! Time to get straight back into it…
So, I think there’s always a danger with a project like ‘Words from the Wise’ that the authors you ask to take part will start covering the same territory (the last thing that’s useful to a young struggling writer is when his elder-statesmen start reiterating platitudes). It seems almost inevitable though, to overlap. I mean, how many times can you say “never give up man!”, “keep writing, keep rewriting” or “try your best to find your voice”? This kind of advise gets thrown around too often to ever be interesting or thoughtful.
That said, I think so far we’ve managed to avoid any glaring re-treads, but there have been some (we are 24 guest posts in guys!). Jeremy Robert Johnson is one the best writers of his generation (I mean that sincerely, ‘We Live Inside You’ is one of most haunting and significant books you’ll maybe ever read). Jeremy is fearless but humble. He’s also something of an indie-lit darling these days, but there’s still no trace of an ego. He is someone to truly aspire to. Like his fiction, his ‘Words from the Wise’ post is genuinely insightful and avoids platitudes like British royalty avoid taxes.
Here’s the JRJ masterclass…
Expect nothing from a writing career, but appreciate anything good that comes your way. Stop in that moment—first short story sale, first good reading, first time you don’t want to kill yourself after reading a final draft—and look at it and be grateful. Buy yourself a beer and a burrito and just be happy for a second before worrying about whatever the next thing has to be (and dodge the search for too much outside validation, as this can turn an actual achievement into a bummer). Writing is a career which features wildly intermittent reward, so recognize those tiny moments and ride that wave for as long as you can. It may help you through the horse latitudes.
Use reason when absorbing advice. Accept wisdom from only those proven capable in the field of which they speak. I don’t know Joe R. Lansdale, but his interviews and career are a guiding light to me. I stop before major decisions and take into account the following question—What Would Joe Lansdale Do? I sincerely believe this methodology has saved me from many stupid decisions, and boosted my day-to-day writing production and discipline.
If you’re going to marry or shack-up with somebody long term then sure, romanticize writing on the front end, but before the relationship goes too far it’s best to hit them with the truth: the odds are against you being rich, famous, or even read, and your job mainly involves you sitting still in a room, sweating imaginary bullshit and mumbling to yourself. Also be honest with yourself about how long the other person in your life might be willing to tolerate a bohemian lifestyle. Having a day job and writing ain’t impossible, it’s just harder. And there’s no solid reason your life shouldn’t be harder. Struggling’s no insult.
A couple pieces of advice which frequently pop up in my head are as follows (and are clearly paraphrased—I can’t replicate either writer’s wonderful syntax).
I don’t care if you’re on the smallest press or coming out of New York with the best publicist money can buy, you have to have the mindset that you are the only person on Earth who gives a fuck that your book exists, and act accordingly.—Tom Piccirill
Every word you leave on the page should have killed and drank the blood of five other words to have survived.—Cody Goodfellow
Don’t be afraid to take literature far too seriously and brood and fuss and wear the tightest turtlenecks. Don’t be afraid to take it as a lark and have fun and find joy in it and do readings where you wear colorful wigs. Either way’s fine. Do look for the balance between those modes, if that suits you.
Internet’s full of psychic pollution. It’s always good to check your own emission levels and adjust accordingly. Buy My Book Bots and jealous grumblers and posturing dilettantes and obvious troll reviewers are a few of the Hummers of our shared mental roadways. (I’ve got plenty of online behavioral regrets—I can mostly move past them but they like to come back around at 3AM and remind me of all the dumb shit I’ve done. Feels like the internet’s a hard place to be human, but I think it’s worth a try.)
Whatever you think you shouldn’t put on the page—whatever you’re afraid of folks reading—is probably the first thing you should write.
IAIN SINCLAIR – HARD TO BEAT
(In conversation with Chris Kelso)
What is there to say about Iain Sinclair that hasn’t already been covered a million times before in a million different interviews? Well, probably not a lot actually. Lauded and derided in equal measure, as flaneur, grand inquisitor, counter-cultural historian, compulsive chronicler and a pioneer of Situationist psychogeography, Sinclair is pretty candid regarding most aspects of his long-serving career (and always has been!).
With latest new book “American Smoke”, he keeps his hallmark polychromatic prose but dares to offer us something a little different this time round – a true homage to the great Beat generation. Like I mentioned before, the release of a new Sinclair book is usually a highly divisive affair – whether he’s delving into Hackney’s substrata, criticising the cities bleak artificial landscapes, comparing peasant poet John Clare to ‘the elephant man’ or offering his satirical readings of the Heathrow hinterlands, you can bet he’ll be engendering controversy.
One thing is certain though, and that’s that Iain Sinclair will be remembered long after his death as the countries ultimate post-punk diarist.
I’m honoured to welcome the great iconoclast himself –
NOTE: The first thing to make clear is that this is not actually a conversation – except in the way that Nabokov regarded the interview, as something to be composed at his leisure, faked ventriloquism. Author often providing both questions and answers. I prefer to talk face to face, to digress, listen, before trying to arrive at a place we haven’t visited before. So the form of the blog collision, with which I’m uneasy, is like a delayed-detonation playlet. A TV report from somewhere remote, with the interrogator waiting, painfully, for the question to register. And the interrogated standing dumb, in midshot, beside a road or a ruin, outside a secure building. The questions, in my case, sat on the desk for days, weeks – and then, a gap in the schedule appearing, they were dealt with at a rush, in a stuttering monologue.
CK – Iain, you’ve lived in London for half a century now, what is it about the city that fascinates you so much?
IS – Its unknowability. Its headbanging provocation. The way that every walk over the same ground is different. London started for me as the point of access to films I would never have tracked down on home ground. And now it’s about keeping neural pathways open.
CK – Of course, you’re actually Welsh. Is national identity important to you? Has your homeland been as influential or inspiring as London when it comes to your writing? Are you ever compelled to write sprawling novels that explore human ecology and dystopian modernity in places like Cardiff or Swansea?
IS – I’m suspicious of any form of nationalism. I grew up in Wales, but my father was of Scottish ancestry. He was gripped by the stories of his grandfather, a world-wanderer who wrote about his expedition to the headwaters of the Amazon in Peru. He was tasked with evaluating unknown (to London) territory on behalf of a coffee-planting company.
My allegiance has always been to place, to certain long-remembered landscapes. I could never have attempted, without living there for years, a ‘sprawling’ novel about Cardiff or Swansea. But I was happy, thanks to the publishers Little Toller, to have been given the chance to return to Wales to write the monograph published as Black Apples of Gower.
CK – Is it safe to say you’re pretty unhappy with the contemporary London landscape and its architecture? I’m almost reluctant to bring up the Millennium Dome…
IS – We’re living now in what I take to be ‘the last London’. A city so much estranged from its earlier identities (always shifting and revising) that it is unrecognisable. The process could be described as beginning with Margaret Thatcher and the manufacture of Canary Wharf and Docklands out of the isle of Dogs. The Olympic Games (and other such grand events) were seen as the perfect smokescreen for enclosures, investment silos, improving the image of destruction. But I’ve talked myself out on these topics. The trick has been to find projects that pull away from those dead zones, and the promotional language of politicians and puffers, into ritual acts of exorcism. Walks, films, books. Downriver for Thatcher. London Orbital for the Dome and other millennial follies. Ghost Milk for Westfield and the Olympic piracy. London Overground for the doughnut of speculative railway suburbs, new-build blocks with artisan coffee and balconies for bikes.
CK – In “American Smoke” you actually leave London and relocate to the USA. Were US writers a big influence on you, the Beats especially?
IS – My romantic side was drawn to the energies of Beat writing from way back. I was reading the Kerouac books as they appeared. And I was lucky enough, in my early twenties, to spend time filming with Allen Ginsberg at the time of the Dialectics of Liberation conference in 1967. It seemed to make sense, as a way of shaking free of the black-hole gravity of post-Olympic London, the corporate state, to reconnect with the myths of the Beat writers, as well as with pre-Beat outsider figures like Malcolm Lowry, and the post-Beat Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño. American Smoke – which I enjoyed writing very much – is about bad journeys, terminal quests, not getting to Mexico.
CK – I read the book on the movie “Crash” you did for the BFI, I think it’s safe to say that Ballard has been significant influence on your work. Aside from appearing beside him briefly in the Mary Harron documentary and his contribution to “London: City of Disappearances”, did you know Ballard well?
IS – I got to know Ballard late on, around 1999, after hearing much about the seminal years of New Worlds and the fragmentary assembly of The Atrocity Exhibition from Michael Moorcock, a good friend. We used to have meals, around Shepherds Bush, every few months, with Ballard and his ‘girlfriend’, Claire Walsh. So I became familiar with social aspects of the man, but I wouldn’t say that I got to know him any better as time went on. He was always engaging. He never talked about his work or the books he was involved with. He might call for a special bottle to celebrate the end of some project and the start of the next one. Beyond anything else, he remained the professional writer. He wasn’t as alien and forbidding a presence as William Burroughs, but the central mystery was always a mystery.
CK – I heard you have a few Burroughs first editions in your book shelf too. You corresponded briefly with Burroughs via airmail. Can you tell us about what kind of relationship you both had?
IS – I didn’t know Burroughs at all. Even though I met him a couple of times and spent one long afternoon with him in Lawrence, Kansas. He was an earlier and more viral influence than Ballard. As I got to know Jim, I appreciated what he was doing more and more. The coolness, the clarity. The heroic and undeceived perversity. Burroughs wasn’t perverse, strangely enough. He was a prose-poet with a formidable sense of otherness. You had to know him much better than I did to excavate the humanity and the bite of the humour. I corresponded with him as a student and published one of his pieces in Dublin. Then we tried to set up a film for West German television, but he decided, at that moment, to get immersed in Scientology.
CK – Can you tell us a little about Psychogeography?
IS – I don’t think there is any more than can be said. The topic has outlived its usefulness and become a brand.
CK – Do you see similar parallels between you and Kerouac? Do you think “On the Road” could be considered one of the original staples in the field of psychogeography?
IS – On the Road, even after the editors ‘normalised’ certain aspects of how the work is presented, is about raw excitement, long-breath, open-field composition; neurotic rhythms, risk, astonishing sensory memory and fluid juxtaposition of detail. It’s not a Situationist work or a strategic, confrontational piece. It’s ripe with premature nostalgia and celebration of territory, shamanic restlessness.
CK – Do you think you’ll return to poetry or the graphic novel format in “Slow Chocolate Autopsy”?
IS – I never left poetry, as such. It’s just that the way I published became more and more covert. I preferred to operate on my own terms, through micro-presses (including my own). I have a new gathering called Seeschlange coming along from Rod Mengham’s Equipage. Etruscan Books, run by the ever-engaging Nicholas Johnson, published a substantial selection of the poetry I produced after Suicide Bridge, as The Firewall. With a generous introductory note from Michael McClure. But I’m not sure that anybody noticed. Skylight, a press based in Cheltenham, did a new edition of Lud Heat and a revised and extended edition of Suicide Bridge (the version I’m happiest with, even though they sold about six copies).
I don’t see any way, at the moment, to get back to the stories and graphic strips of that collaboration with Dave McKean, Slow Chocolate Autopsy. There are new and uncollected Norton stories. And Norton has been promoted into making cameo appearances in Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. If there was any publishing interest – unlikely – I’d be delighted to make a return to this form.
CK – You have your own distribution label. Do you have any thoughts or opinions on the current state of the publishing industry in general?
IS – With mainstream publishing ever more corporate and short-termist, it’s a good time for the independents. Great things are still being produced, but nobody makes any money. Which gives it all a certain survivalist edge. And relish.
CK – IYR featured a comic strip by Steve Aylett that originally featured in Alan Moore’s “Dodgem Logic”. How did you and Alan Moore come to be associated with one another?
IS – I met Alan around the time of From Hell. He was interested in, and generous about, the weirdness of Lud Heat with its arcane speculations and the conspiratorial aspects of White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. We were involved in a number of subversive London performances. And I came to Northampton to read with Brian Catling. An evening that ended with a gunman among the graves. An episode Alan draws on in Voice of the Fire. Alan was part of the recent English Journey tour. And he did nice turns in the two Andrew Kötting films, Swandown and By Our Selves. I’ve just finished reading Alan’s remarkable local epic, Jerusalem. It will take five years to absorb it fully.
CK – What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
IS – I’ve never had a job – parks gardener, white-lines-on-Hackney-Marshes, ullage cellar in a brewery, loading and unloading containers in old Stratford – that wasn’t frustrating or infuriating at certain times. But, in essence, I enjoyed them all. For themselves. For what they told me about London. And my fellow workers. And as future material for written and unwritten books. The worst days were probably handling toxic materials or dripping sheep casings in Chobham Farm in the bitterest deeps of winter. But, as ever, the worse it got, the better the potential routines. All life is a paragraph waiting to be shaped and exploited.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Philadelphia writer Alex Kudera, whose debut novel, Fight for Your Long Day, won the regional IPPY gold award for best fiction in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Alex was kind enough to pass me along an advanced reading copy of his follow up, Auggies Revenge. I can strongly recommend it.
Alex currently teaches literature and writing at Clemson University in South Carolina and is, above all else, a lovely guy. Enjoy…
You can also check out his stuff here – http://kudera.blogspot.co.uk/
CK – Hi Alex. I was a big admirer of your first work, ‘Fight for your Long Day’ – a satirical novel about an adjunct professor, Cyrus Duffleman (a William Stoner archetype who teeters between Un-hero and the everyman) – I wanted to ask you about the protagonist from ‘Augies Revenge’, Michael Vittinger.
AK: Thank you for the positive feedback, Chris. It’s greatly appreciated. I haven’t read Stoner, but I am curious about the success of this book.
CK – Now, both characters share some similar traits. Vittinger’s decision to turn his back on teaching to help abrasive pick-up artist Augie is an inspired turn, but do you think it’s fair to say you have a certain preoccupation with a particular type of character – the downtrodden intellectual struggling to make ends meet in the harsh landscape of academia?
AK: Yes, absolutely, not everything I write includes the “downtrodden intellectual struggling to make ends meet in the harsh landscape of academia” and more generally increasingly expensive and unequal urban America, but I am interested in this “type.” So much in America privileges not thinking but doing (practice over theory, money over cerebration) that it interests me to consider how people who require more cerebral forms of sustenance survive here. I grew up near urban universities and was always more curious about the transient adjuncts than the affluent tenured professors. The small dark apartments of the forgotten knowledge cogs, lived in by thoughtful folks with PhDs offered more to consider than the competitive, even combative, tenured professors in the neighborhood. From an outsider’s perspective the tenured professors seemed more interested in having more than others than they were in sharing the wealth of knowledge, which, at least presumably, they were contributing. If they were doing such, etc.
CK – There’s a nice contrast in lifestyles between intellectual and menial occupation and circumstance. Is this something that interests you? I assume it was an intentional observation you made.
AK: As a teenager I would get paid to walk the almost crippled German Shepherd of a history PhD who lived in a small dark first floor apartment, and I knew several adjuncts as well. These off-the-beaten path educated people, often middle-aged men, made an impression.
Also, in Philadelphia, and in the section I grew up in, it was very notable that even as some PhDs had little, this small slice of life was more than what was possessed by many other kinds of employed people of somewhat limited means. Then there were always another more downtrodden group that had little to nothing in the background—homeless or “semi-homeless” (a friend’s term, referring to people, often adult men, living with relatives, on couches, paying week-to-week, in and out of shelters, etc.). These contrasts continue to persist, so strangely enough, I work with academics off the tenure track whose student-debt loads and small salaries cobbled together from various adjunct positions make for surprisingly humble lives. At the same time, just to have one’s own place, an efficiency apartment with a lock at minimum, places the adjunct or other struggling worker above menial workers or unemployed citizens who have less, including urban residents with nothing at all.
CK – Your first novel is a compassionate study of middle-agedness, an academic man who genuinely wants to do well by his students. Vittinger turns his back on the whole notion. I was wondering, you once taught at university level, is this character based on any aspect of your personal life?
AK: Yes, to some extent, both characters are derived from personal experience although the wildest scenes, or maybe all the scenes, are fiction, not fact, and I write novels, not memoirs (although I hope to try memoir at some point). But yes, once one gets into adjuncting, there typically is no room for academic promotion (the university craves the fresh new face, not the tired older one, when tenure-track slots appear), so these are the two choices: do the best you can for your students, persist against the odds, or determine to take the plunge into the rest of America by turning one’s back on teaching and the life of the mind.
CK – Does Duffleman share any of your own neurosis?
AK: One would have to be somewhat neurotic to write a novel; first, one has to have all kinds of thoughts swimming in one’s head to get past, say 50 pages (in the middle of the night, Philip Roth famously scribbles post-its and sticks them to his forehead when he wakes up with an idea and is too tired to get out of bed). So, yes, a novelist has to be a worrier to some extent, and I am one of these people although Cyrus has an over-the-top constant thought-churning that might move beyond the ordinary neurotic. Of course, his primary concerns—his aging, his chances for love and survival—are things we all consider.
CK – Did you have a desire to break out of the confines of your institutional handcuffs like Michael Vittinger?
AK: I haven’t left teaching, not yet, but yes, I think leaving teaching as an act of liberation is something I think of. We don’t know exactly what it would be like until we do so, of course. But I’ve been on the outside, I’ve worked in all kinds of menial jobs (book clerk to busboy) as well as commission-based sales, so it would not only be for the students or devotion to “life of the mind” that I would want to stick with academia. I’ve had other experiences.
CK – The classroom edition of ‘Fight for your Long Day’ just came out. How do you feel about it being taught in schools?
AK: I think Fight for Your Long Day is a great selection for the classroom because it raises some great questions—why did we create a society where college teachers struggle? where they may not be able to see a doctor? where students and families pay increasingly unbelievable prices for education necessary for a decent life or any survival at all?—and then to contrast against the “war on terror” that government’s role is to protect all of us, how did America in 2004 come to be? Of course, it’s possible that for many, by America 2014 or 16, conditions are even worse although many some pockets of America may be prospering. A current internet meme claims that only 20% of Americans are part of financially secure households although an academic study suggested the figure was closer to 30%. And then the contrast with the rest of the world—the possibility that contemporary America is about as good as it gets when compared to the common lives of citizens of many other countries. Cyrus Duffleman is trudging through unusual times and almost against the official rhetoric of his times.
CK – Your work is often compared to literary lynchpins like John Kennedy Toole, but who are your main influences?
AK: I like A Confederacy of Dunces, but I see other favorites as closer to my work at least thematically. Writers like Melville, Faulkner, and Pynchon were favorites in college and after, along with many Russians, the big 19thcentury names but also lesser known ones like Andrei Bely and Yuri Olesha.
Today I like many different kinds of writers including transnationals such as Ha Jin, Bharati Mukherjee, Aleksander Hemon, and Roberto Bolano. John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts was a long academic novel I read before I returned to writing a fiction after a five-year period of too much teaching and too little writing. I also like gritty writers like Buk, and the Fantes, and sometimes I think of my writing as Saul Bellow crossing over to the shadier side of town where the Dan Fantes of the world drive taxis and scrape by although of course Fante came from Malibu means even as Bellow started off in immigrant flats.
These economic migrations still persist in America and the larger world, and that is an interest of mine. I grew up in an apartment on the same block as the houses of tenured professors and other far less affluent adults living in group, communal situations and less than two blocks from crack or drug houses. My origins, seeing these disparities and idiosyncrasies have been on my mind.
CK – Thanks again Alex, it was great talking to you!
WORDS FROM THE WISE/PART 20 – Lynda E. Rucker & Simon Kurt Unsworth
(It’s all about the Work)
Lynda E.Rucker/Simon Kurt Unsworth
We’ve got a double whammy for you this month, two emerging raconteurs of the macabre. Lynda Rucker and Simon Kurt Unsworth are both on the cusp of obtaining their own eternal mantles in mainstream horror – but success wasn’t easy to come by for either of them, it took a lot of hard work and perseverance.
Here’s their Words from the Wise…
The question posed to each author is – “A young author comes to you seeking advice. They’re riddled with insecurities and completely overwhelmed by the publishing industry. What are your Words from the Wise?”
LR – Well, if you’re a beginning writer, the first thing I would say is that if you’re worrying about the publishing industry, you’re putting the cart way in front of the horse. Throughout your writing career, it’s first and foremost about the work, the story, and the words on the page—not the publishing industry, not literary squabbles or personal feuds, not social media, not whatever you’re hearing about what’s hot in your genre right now.
It’s all about the work. This is the most important piece of advice I would give to anyone, at any stage of their writing career.
Don’t get distracted. By any of it. The writers who become great are not the ones who worried about what editors were buying this year or anything else like that. This sounds horribly pretentious, and I kind of want to slap myself for saying it, but it’s true: you have to find and follow your own vision wherever it takes you.
As for the publishing industry, one of the best pieces of advice I got early on was from Jeanne Cavelos, who runs the Odyssey Writing Workshop and used to be a senior editor at Dell. She said you should think of writing and publishing as wearing two different hats, and when you’re writing, you slap your writing hat on and you don’t even think about publishing, you ignore it completely. And then when it comes time to publish, then and only then should you put on your publishing hat and start thinking about things like marketing and become a hard-nosed business person. (Or, I would add to that, finding an agent to be your hard-nosed business person, because that is not something that comes naturally to most of us writers, and that’s okay.)
Keep at it. If what you write is even a little bit unconventional or not the flavor-of-the-month, it might take you a lot longer to get where you’re going than you could ever imagine. Writing is hard. Rising above the slush and getting an editor’s attention is really hard, especially in the first few years when you’re a nobody. People write a lot of words, a lot of short stories, a lot of novels before they hit on something that gets published…and then sometimes a whole lot more before anyone pays any attention.
Just because you aren’t getting published quickly or aren’t getting attention quickly doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing it wrong. In fact, it might mean that you’re doing it very, very right—you’re telling the stories that only you can tell in a way that only you can tell them, and if that’s the case, it might take the editors and readers a little bit longer to catch up to you.
SKU – So, you’re riddled with insecurities? Full of doubt? You feel overwhelmed by the publishing industry? Good.
You should be insecure and doubtful, because to be secure and sure is to be smug and complacent and stop evolving. The trick is to not let the doubts and insecurity overwhelm you or prevent you from so starting in the first place, and there’s a simple way to do this. Are you ready to hear it? Are you listening closely? Good, because here is comes: write. Keep writing, and then write some more.
The first thing you write will be terrible, the second a little better, the third a little better again until eventually, hopefully, you’ll start to be a good writer, but don’t ever feel that you’re as good as you can be because every time you write something you should be stretching to be better.
Listen to criticism that’s helpfully given, value your rejections and listen to the reasons why you’ve been rejected when they’re offered, learn how to judge when a thing is done, and stop tinkering with it right there and then. Remember that it’s okay to disagree with your editor’s suggestions for improvements if you’re sure that they won’t actually improve anything, be polite and support your fellow writers, and write.
And then write some more.
WORDS FROM THE WISE/PART 19 – Seb Doubinsky
There isn’t a lot about Seb Doubinsky I haven’t said a million times before.
He is an aberration – a writer of considerable renown who is humble, kind and seems to enjoy sharing his (akashic) knowledge of the creative process with budding writers more than witnessing his own success.
He is based in Denmark, of French extraction, speaks better English than I do, and teaches at the University of Aarhus. Seb has time for everyone, I mean EVERYONE. I’m convinced there is no one more accommodating in the alt-lit community. What’s the point of this gushing preamble? – He is a real friend. Someone I both trust and respect. Someone who, I believe, has my best interests at heart. Seb likes to see other writers do well. He lacks basic human foibles like jealousy or spite. You need to surround yourself with people of a similar constitution. Here’s Seb’s Words from the Wise –
The question posed to each author is – “A young author comes to you seeking advice. They’re riddled with insecurities and completely overwhelmed by the publishing industry. What are your Words from the Wise?”
SD – First of all, don’t trust any writer who gives you advice. Never. Each writer has a personal experience and career that is unique, as well as working methods that might or might not work for others. Probably won’t, as a matter of fact.
First, about feeling unsecure: true insecurity is the best way to write good things. Pseudo-insecurity is the most dangerous for talent, because it actually is a narcissistic way to fish for compliments. You don’t need compliments if you’re a good writer. And you don’t need insults either. What you need is solid friendship and respect – you need a small crowd of people you trust (not necessarily people you love, either), but people who can tell you things you don’t want to hear without making you angry or wanting to kill yourself. These people are people who focus on what is written, not what they think should be written. What I mean by that is in “constructive criticism”, the most important word is “constructive”. If you don’t get real constructive feedback, don’t ask again. Ever. It’s no use. Your friend might be good to go out drinking with, fooling around with or travelling with – but not evaluating your manuscript. And it’s perfectly OK. My wife doesn’t care much about most things I write. I love her anyway – or, should I say, she loves me anyway.That’s the important part. As for my own works, I am lucky to have people around I can trust and who give me the feedback that I need (Chris Kelso is actualkly one of them, by the way). I don’t need to hear that I’m a genius, or that I completely suck: I need to hear what works in the story and what doesn’t. Period. The rest I can read on Goodreads, Amazon and blog reviews.
Friendship and respect are therefore very important, in my eyes, in the construction of the writer self. And they always have to go both ways. Don’t be a prick: help others too, the same way you have been helped. I have never forgotten the great people who have read my stuff in the beginning and treated it with respect. “It” – not “me”. That’s very important: you are not your work, and your work is not you. People who compare works to babies should be shot. A work is a work. A book, a short story, a poem, whatever. And you wrote it, yes. But when people read it, when it begins to circulate, it becomes itself and you have to accept that. If you have many readers, then you will have many readings, and you’ve got to chose which ones YOU find adequate. Don’t defend your work if it’s attacked, don’t justify yourself, but listen to good criticism and to good compliments. You’ll know what I mean when you hear them. I can’t tell you. I am not you. I will never be you. Remember? So you have to find out for yourself.
At the same time, you should also know, deep within yourself, at the core of your bleeding heart, that yes, you’re a fucking genius and that nobody can take it from you. But keep it to yourself and only use it when you’re thrown on the ground and that nobody will help you back on your feet. Use the secret flame only when yiou need it – otherwise it will poison and destroy you. Many famous writers have fallen to its charm, and many unknown assholes too. So you be careful with that flame, but it’s OK to blow on it once in a while, when the winter night gets really cold.
Second: publishing. Ah – yes. That is a very difficult question right here. I am going to be very honest with you: there are only two main factors in getting published. The first one is who you know and who can help you. To have good friends who are already published is the greatest help, not to mention those who are publishers. This why the friendship and respect part mentioned above is so important. Writers do help writers, if they’re not assholes. (But yes, there are a lot of assholes). Networks, in the positive sense of the term, are therefore essential: get in touch with other writers you feel close or related too, join poetry clubs, get in contact with magazines, online or print, go to readings, if that is possible… – in a word, move your ass and get out there. That’s how you will meet people, get read and eventually get published.
The other thing is luck. Pure and simple. Many famous writers are famous because they were born in a literary network, or went to the same school as other famous people, etc. That is where Fate is tilted from the start, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But luck is blind, and you’ve got to believe in your lucky star. That’s actually what happened to me – and still is. To meet the right person at the right time, when you’re the least expecting it. It’s like love or a white shark. Except a white shark is generally considered bad luck. So be ope to everything and take your chance when you see it. The old Greeks said that everybody meets a God in disguise in his or her life once. I can tell you it’s true, and that it can be a God or a Goddess. And I’ve met quite a few, now.
Finally, don’t get sucked into the romantic vision of “being a writer” only if your book sells well. Books don’t sell well if they’re not calibrated products. Period. I don’t sell well – and yet, yes, I am a writer. Absolutely. I even have some fans. Selling books is the necessary consequence of being a writer, but the number doesn’t matter, unless you want to live off it. But you’re not THAT naive, are you? You’re going to keep your day job, right? And your night job too? Promise? You are still a writer if you do other things than write for a living. Hell, you can be an asshole and a teacher. Why can’t you be a writer and a teacher? Or an asshole and a writer and a teacher? Mono-identities are for losers anyway.
OK, I guess that’s it. As I said in the beginning, you can take it with you, or throw it in the garbage can. I don’t know you, what do I care? And yet – strangely enough – I do care and I want you to make it. Big, Huge. Enormous. So you can eventually, in your turn, help other writers.
WORDS FROM THE WISE/PART 18 – Pat Cadigan
(Get out of your comfort zone)
It’s easy to fall into bad writing habits, to let your ego get in the way or fall into the oncoming traffic of a rambling narrative. Another problem – one I myself am guilty of – is writing the familiar. In fact, I’ve written seven books set in the Slave State for the past 4 years, without any real deviation from that universe. There’s only so much you can do with the premise that we’re all 4th dimensional prisoners who work in mining enclaves at the behest of alien overlords! Pat Cadigan has been awarded the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1992 for Synners and again in1995 for Fools and a Hugo Award for Best Novelette for The Girl-Thing who Went Out for Sushi. Here’s her ‘Words from the Wise’…
The question posed to each author is – “A young author comes to you seeking advice. They’re riddled with insecurities and completely overwhelmed by the publishing industry. What are your Words from the Wise?”
PC – For writers, the most important thing is that we *write*––which is to say, we apply ourselves. Instead of procrastinating, we sit at the desk (or, as in my case, lie on the sofa with iPad and keyboard on lapdesk) and stare at that blank space, paper or screen, until beads of blood form on our foreheads and the words come into being.
However… The words have to come out of something, out of some source experience that gets fed into the black box of imagination so that it comes out as vivid, three-dimensional story. Reading, of course, is absolutely vital. But reading isn’t *everything*. Sometimes you have to go out in the world and have an adventure. I’ve had a lot of adventures. When I was four, a carnival set up long-term on an empty piece of land next to our trailer behind the gas station where my father worked. It was there for quite a while. I remember being taken there with my cousins on my father’s side. And then one night, when things were particularly bad at home, I ran away to join the carnival. I guess the carnies recognised me because they kept me sitting in the food tent until my mother found me and took me home. A little over 36 years later, I had the privilege of travelling with Carnival Diablo for the sake of writing an article about them for Omni Magazine (thank you, Keith Ferrell, for giving me the go-ahead). Now, I was a theatre major at university (although for various uninteresting reasons, my degree is actually in general studies), but I was well out of my comfort zone with Carnival Diablo––and I loved it. It wasn’t an easy trip––it was December and we had to drive from Calgary, Alberta to British Columbia, which took us through the Canadian Rockies. (In a van. And only two of us could drive.) We were so high up at one point that we drove through a *cloud*, and it’s not like driving through fog.
CK – How important do you think it is for writers to expand upon their contact lists and creative relationships to other types of people? I imagine it’s common that writers all cluster together in daily life, or even at conventions, because of their shared medium.
Setting up, solving problems, finding things we needed, making sure the performance went as it was supposed to––in return for access, I helped out as much as I could, ran the videocamera, made sure the bugs and worms stayed alive so they were obviously squirming when Lady Julianna had dinner onstage, and on one occasion, informed a motel manager that no, there was no way we were staying in or paying for rooms where the temperature was below 40 degrees Farhenheit and if he didn’t turn the heat on before we were in for the night, we’d be going elsewhere, thank you so much I’m sure. It was glorious. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I came back with a head full of ideas and experiences that still haven’t run out…and the friendship of a lifetime, with Scott McClelland, who will always be among those who are for me what brothers and sisters are for other people. My point––and, as Ellen DeGeneres says, I do have one––is that writers have to write…but they also have to have something to write *about.* Get out of your comfort zone––if you can, make friends with people who *aren’t* writers, people who inhabit other worlds, other realities.
CK – So, be bold – run away with the circus basically?
You don’t have to run away with the circus or the carnival but you can go to an event that maybe you wouldn’t consider ordinarily, or take a class in something you never thought you’d be any good at––pottery, cooking, photography, jewellery-making, dance, acting/improv, I don’t know what-all. Meet different people, talk to them. Maybe you won’t become BFFs…but then again, maybe you will, and maybe they’ll open up a world of something new and different. Maybe you’ll go somewhere you’ve never travelled gladly beyond all experience. Maybe you’ll have the time of your life, maybe it will be thrilling and scary and wonderful and you’ll be glad you were in the right place at the right time. Serendipity: chance favours the prepared mind. If your mind is prepared and receptive, the most amazing things can happen to you. It’s good to be alive.
CK – Any other pieces of advice before we sound off Pat?
The other piece of never-fail advice I have for writers is, never give up. I took writing workshop at university with students who were light-years beyond me in terms of raw talent. I would tell you their names but I don’t remember them now. They didn’t pursue their writing as tenaciously as I pursued mine. Maybe it just wasn’t what they wanted to do, I couldn’t say. But when I started out, I was unremarkable. No one pointed at me and said, Hey, she’s going to win awards someday!
Writing is a muscle. You can improve a muscle with exercise; you can improve your writing
simply by doing it. It won’t seem like you’re making much progress for a while; then suddenly you’ll realise you’re doing a lot better than before. You’ll write something and then realise that you turned a pretty good phrase, or you’ll find that not only is your plot motoring along nicely but a lot of details are falling into place that give it even more momentum. Lawrence Block says writing can’t be taught but it *can* be learned. You learn by doing, and you do it because it’s what you want to do
WORDS FROM THE WISE/PART 17 – Usman.T.Malik
(Find out who you are as a writer)
Usman encourages us to get introspective by asking ourselves the question –‘what kind of writer am I, and what kind of writer do I want to become?’
UM – Find out who you are as a writer.
This seems obvious, but I see a lot of new writers (myself included) struggle with this and themselves for a bit. Are you someone who labors over every word or can you write lightning fast and are usually happy with the product? Are you largely a stylist or a minimalist? What sort of audience would you like and what sort of vindication (awards, money, fame, controversy) would satisfy you?
I think these are useful questions to ask yourself and even though the process may take a while, in my opinion, it’s worth it. Otherwise, I think most writers just need to read, read, read. The better quality of fiction and nonfiction you read (genre doesn’t matter), the better your own produce will be.
Usman’s website – http://www.usmanmalik.org/