Monday, October 10, 2011

Grounded

I'm in big trouble.  My mom is dying to read my forthcoming novel.  She is dying to show it to people.  However, she did have a question. She wanted to know if there was anything "vulgar" in the book.  (That's classic Mom..."Kathy, don't be vulgar!"  She is one of the few people who can be forgiven for calling me Kathy.)

It's probably better that she asked this up front.  I had sent her a copy of an anthology I helped put together, and there were some stories in there with foul language.  She went to give it to a teacher friend of hers and at the last minute, withdrew the offer. I told her my novel is probably not something she wants to bring to school.

"Kathy, why do you write books like that?" she asked on the phone. "Why can't you write nice books?"

"Mom, it's about people who live on the streets," I said.  "It has to be realistic."

Okay, the street thing isn't exactly accurate because the foul language doesn't really come from street people.  And the sex scenes don't involve "people of the streets" either.  But the novel is gritty.  The lives these people lead aren't pretty.  There's a lot of poverty, crime and abuse.  It's mainly about predatory lenders and bad relationships.  And I don't believe in sugar coating.

So Mom asked if the book would be rated X. I told her no, it would be more like R.  In my writers' group, my editor friend agreed that the R rating would be accurate.  A member of our group looked at me and said, "YOU wrote an R rated novel?"  I guess he thought I had been aiming to be the Virgin Mary or something.  Anyway, he writes some pretty randy stuff himself, so he will probably buy the book--or at least I hope he will.

I'm too old to be grounded, which is good.  But I have another problem. I want to use the book to raise money for homeless shelters, food pantries and other services for the poor.  Thing is, many of these places are pretty Christian and might not appreciate realism.  Therefore, they might not want this book associated with their cause.  Since I'm not always a tactful person, I am not sure how to approach this when the time comes.

Of course, when I do readings, I certainly won't choose the "bad" parts because I would be too embarrassed anyway.  I have a partially rotten mind and sometimes a bad mouth, but even I am not about to read a sex scene in front of a group of people.  I haven't even read those parts to my writers' group.  The wonderful lady who edited my book is probably the only one who has read the thing through.  She called those parts "shocking," an adjective I would not have used until I went through and edited the whole thing again this past weekend.  She's right. 

I guess I better figure this out because my next novel will be even worse than this one, smut wise, not because I want to write smut, but because my characters are not ready to be nominated for sainthood.  Then again, neither am I.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Untitled Pseudo-Haiku

I wish I had a picture of you
just to remind me
what is.


The longer I look at you
the more I recall
I shall surely turn to salt.


Tomorrow comes the cleaner.
What will she find
in the house of my heart?


The reality is
I wish to keep my clothes on.


Sunday, October 02, 2011

Why We Write and Other Intellectual Meandering

In between teaching, writing for the local print media, finishing up a contract, running a household and launching a non-profit, I've been thinking about my writing, particularly since the galley of my novel has been dropped in my inbox and I will start reviewing it this week to make sure everything looks the way I think I want it to look before it goes to print.  I say "I think" because I know that no matter how many times I review a piece, upon print, I will look at it and say, "This could have been better if..."  The reality is, though, that first, at some point an author has to put a piece away and call it "done," and that second, publishers don't care a whit about an author's neurotic compulsion to edit interminably.  If you want to keep a publishing contract, you best not submit endless changes prior to the release.  If you find yourself wanting to change your manuscript that much, your best bet is to withdraw the submission if possible and re-write.  Your publisher is not there to hold your hand through the revision process.  By the time your work reaches the galley point, you should be comfortable enough to say, "This is okay to go as it is. It's not perfect, but I will never be completely satisfied with my work because I'm an artist who understands communication, self expression and meaning are living things.  Thus, what I write today will most likely prove lacking tomorrow."  After five revisions or more, I say, let's just go with what I have today.

There's a practical reason for this approach as well--other than the fact that publishers won't put up with artistic vacillating.  Making last minute changes is expensive, and making changes post publishing even more so.  I've learned this the hard way, having had to make changes to my other two books through Amazon.  Every change puts me more financially in the hole.  The sooner you learn that, the sooner you learn why your editor has a fit every time you decide your book doesn't meet your own artistic standards.  I say again--if you think you will have to make that many changes by the time your novel is approaching print, withdraw it.  You clearly have not finished your own editing process and you do not have the right to inflict your process on anyone else's dime. That may sound harsh, but it's the reality of the biz and, while we authors live with at least one foot in imagination, we must keep the other foot firmly grounded if we want our work to be distributed to the public.

I'm not degrading the artistic process in the least.  I began my novel draft in 2006 through National Novel Writers Month and didn't do much with it until 2008 when I added a bit to it.  In 20009, I added a great deal to the plot and character development.  From there, the novel again sat on my hard drive until an editor friend told me it had merit and deserved my attention.  So in 2010, I gave it the additional, extensive attention it warranted, and she kindly edited the format, which was a mess.  No credible publisher would have given my book a second glance had my friend not offered her professional services.  When I get rich (or at least make some money), she will be the first to benefit.  I figure I owe her at least $10,000. 

My point is, I had to go through many revisions, many sessions of feedback and many mental processes before I decided the book was mostly where I wanted it to be and was, indeed, the most it could be.  I have to edit some more during this galley phase, but I can tell you I won't be editing very much because if I start doing that, I will have to carry through all the changes which will cause me and the publisher great angst.  I'm not into pain, and I sincerely doubt my publisher is, either.

Here's another reality--getting a book out to the public is hard work that often feels unrewarding, especially when you want to be writing and not marketing.  But if you approach marketing in another way, you can make the experiencing meaningful.  First, you have to challenge yourself--or find a publisher who will.  My publisher expects me to sell at least 500 books, and I aim to meet that challenge. But that's not all I aim to do.  Through my non-profit, I aim to raise money for charities by selling my books and highlighting the books of other authors who are also trying to raise money for charities.  This venture is good for everyone--authors, charities and small publishers.  I am focusing on authors who are still largely unknown because well known authors, while they may have more capital, aren't as needy as us newcomers.  And while a well-known author might be able to contribute more to charities, there is something to be said for the widows' mite.  A good, charitable organization will recognize that.  The fundraising might be slow, but it can be long-term, which does add up.

I will not pretend my motives are completely altruistic, even though I know I won't earn much more than my overhead.  I want my work out there.  I think what I have to say through my writing is important, and I want people to get the message.  While I try not to be too didactic in my creative writing, lessons certainly can be learned through the characters, plots and themes, but I believe any good piece of literature should leave the reader with something to think about.  If my readers finish my books and toss them, I know I have partially failed, not because I think we should cater to the lowest common denominator, but because ultimately, we should be communicating through our self expressions.  So that has become another mission for me, which makes marketing meaningful.

Another selfish motive I have is being given the opportunity to chat with writers and readers at public events--for free.  There's nothing better than exchanging ideas in a dynamic setting while selling books.  Writers can always learn from one another, and they should always listen to their readers, whether the readers are offering negative comments or not.  How else will we know how we are being interpreted?  Listening to negativity is not easy to stomach, and every writer feels to defend his/her own work, but that doesn't mean we should dismiss the reader.  We have to sell books, after all.  Readers are our customers.  Back to reality--we can't forget who our customers are.

I don't think writers are inherently customer service oriented.  We tend to be introverts who are proud of our efforts and who want to be respected for our talents.  It's our beastly nature.  Chatting with customers goes against our nature and puts us out of our comfort zone, but if we want to reach the public, we have to be able to relate to the public, or at least a portion of that public.  It's good to find a niche, but don't we want to reach out even more?  For example, an academic writes a book about anthropology.  Other academics say "wow," and the book helps the author keep his/her job.  Okay, but where does it go from there?  Will the book reach an audience of students?  Can the theories be explained in a way that makes sense and makes a difference to the rest of the world?  We authors don't have to be immortal, but I think we should have higher goals than just selling or making ourselves feel good, especially since most of us will not end up rich or famous.

I am probably being very preachy in this post, but I am also driven by some higher motives. I don't like to waste my time with the superficial, and I do think patting myself on the back for publishing is mostly masturbatory.  Look, if you want to have an orgasm, you should go all the way and make love, really connect.  Life isn't about the quick and easy.  At least that's what I think.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Just for Fun

Pardon me, sir, but
that's my amor on the floor.
Would you mind picking it up?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Teaching Highs et al

Alas, it is 3:32 a.m. according to my computer clock.  I am here.  I am awake.  I can't sleep.  My stomach hurts.  My back hurts.  My knee hurts.  My hands hurt.  Everything hurts.  So why not write about teaching?  Doesn't everyone do that at 3:32 in the morning when they feel like crapola?

I guess maybe they do if they are awake and have been thinking about a specific topic.  And if they are writers.  And if they are sitting in front of a computer.  And if they are sipping a cup of hot milk with sweetener, vanilla and cinnamon in it.  I mean, why not, right?  No point in wasting the brain when it's just the rest of the body that's causing trouble.

So when I was in grad school earning my M.Ed. with a concentration in writing, I had this wonderful instructor who taught a class called "Drama and Improvisation in the Classroom."  I thought, well, I am not sure how much I am going to use this class, but it sounds interesting.  So I took it.

The lady who taught it had a strange and fascinating background.  She had completed clown school.  She had been a professional mime.  She had taught.  She had studied Japanese poetry and Buddhism, and she practiced Zen and meditation.  And she wasn't a hippie.  I had never met anyone like her.  She was funky and smart and, in the world of academia, way off the beaten path.

This class--one of the first things the instructor taught us was how to be "present," how not being present when teaching was obvious to students, how being bored or distracted manifested itself in the group.  Learning from a teacher who is not present is difficult.  Controlling a class when the teacher is not present is next to impossible.

I had no idea what she meant by being "present."  But I soon learned.  It was being in the moment, plunging heart, soul, mind and body into the very cell of a second, putting everything else away so that the only thing that can be focused on is the exact here and now.

I will never forget how she taught us to do that.

She made us mime.  To do this, we had to first turn our backs to the class, center ourselves and concentrate.  Then, we had to turn around and act out whatever it was that had popped into our heads.  We didn't really have time to think about what we wanted to do.  It had to be improvisational and real.

In the moment when my back was turned, I recall becoming a man in a shabby hat, a disheveled man, a despondent man, a man in his mid 50's who had lost his job and, because of falling on hard times, wore more years on his face than in his body.  I don't know why. I can just tell you that I turned around, looked at the floor, walked slowly towards the class, stopped, looked up with an I-don't-know-what kind of sad expression, shrugged my shoulders, looked down again, turned around and walked away.

The teacher said it gave her chills.  She said I "got it."

I don't think I got it because I'm a great actress.  Actually, I'm a lousy actress. I have a hard time memorizing anything, I get stage fright, I tighten up and can't get it out of my head that I am supposed to be someone I am not.  But in this class, I wasn't someone I was not.  Somewhere, I connected with this man who had lost his job.  I connected with a person who had taken a financial fall, who had become socially marginalized and who held sadness in his very gut.  And I think these connections had to do with empathy as well as the willingness to confront something painful in another, something in all of us.

When I teach (adult ed), I generally become animated, and I want to be that way because if I am not into what I am teaching, the class isn't going to be either.  Especially if the class is in the morning, I can maintain that animation.  I can be in the moment, be present, really connect with the ideas and the students I want to give those ideas to.  In the afternoon, it gets a lot harder.  I need a nap.  I am really tired.  And nights?  If I have to, then, yes.  I can usually get over the lags with a cup of coffee, but I don't like to drink so much coffee.  It's bad for the stomach.  I'm not about to try to kick the habit again, though, because it's a rough ride, and I've got too many other things to think about.  Giving up coffee just isn't a priority, and it's not going to kill me to drink a cup or two a day.

Back to the topic.  My friend and I sometimes talk about getting a "teaching high."  In my opinion, teaching highs are some of the most pleasurable things on the planet.  It happens when there's an energy in the classroom, an energy of learning, interest, creativity, fun, enthusiasm and understanding.  It happens when I am really present and everyone is engaged and the lesson and the students are the only thing that matter.  Some people might claim it's just adrenaline.  It's not.  There's really nothing like it, and if you haven't experienced it, what I am saying won't make much sense.

Conversely, teaching highs aren't something I like to get at night because I get revved and have difficulty falling asleep after--too many thoughts, too much excitement, too many lessons being planned, too much analyzing.  "Go to sleep, Katherine. You can make that handout tomorrow."  The morning after a teaching high can be like a hangover. I'm exhausted.  I have a headache. 

I don't know if K-12 teachers get teaching highs, because I've always taught adults. I doubt I could be present if I had to be reminding a bunch of little kids to sit still and stop eating crayons AND teach a lesson AND do all the paperwork, or if I had to reprimand Julie and Tommy who were trying to make out in the back of the class.  Nope. Those skills are just not on my personal talent tree.  I give K-12 teachers a lot of credit. I would lose my mind.

Which brings me back to thinking about my current state of mind and the fact that my computer now reads 4:14, which means I have been writing for about 45 minutes.  How ridiculous is that?  But I guess that's what I get for being a writer.  And a teacher.  And a sad, aging man in a beat up hat.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

It's Not About You.

Whenever I attend a writers' workshop, I am reminded how slippery words really are, how easily misinterpreted by the reader, how baffling for the writer and how amazing for both that the connections between text, eye and mind are so easily injured. 

What I learned long ago was that readers think it's about them, not only literally as in the case of friends, family, colleagues and enemies, but subconsciously as an audience that processes words through lenses of personal experience, levels of understanding and long-held assumptions.  In the end, it's amazing writers can get any message through at all.

The thing is this:  it is a long held belief that the author should not explain his/her piece in a workshop, will not have the opportunity to do so in most books and will hardly ever be there to tell a reader, "You're way off, dude."  In general, works are read without context.  And while it is true that a piece should be able to stand on its own, in doing so, the writing stands without any buffers.  And so the "it's all about me" myth continues, as do attempts to probe into the writer's mind when the writer isn't even present to discuss what he/she had in mind at the time of the writing, leaving the writer vulnerable to the weaknesses inherent to language and thought.

I often think of J.R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy in which good/versus evil and the various characters have been interpreted as a Christian teaching or allegory.  And yet,  in a 1971 interview, Tolkien said he did not intend the trilogy to be anything of the sort, nor did he intend his characters to represent Christ.  Of Frodo's struggles carrying the ring of power, Tolkien said, "But that seems I suppose more like an allegory of the human race. I've always been impressed that we're here surviving because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds: jungles, volcanoes, wild beasts...they struggle on, almost blindly in a way."  (See here for more:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-G_v6-u3hg)

I cannot speak for most writers, but I can say that when I write and even when I read, I am constantly looking for the larger metaphor, for archetypal themes and universal context.  Writing, I think, should transcend us and that looking at a piece of writing as simply a narrative of the writer's life or mind is superficial and misleading.  No reader can possibly be in the mind of the writer, and to believe s/he can marks self-centeredness, hubris, ignorance or all three.  Likewise, writers ought to know that readers will always take away what they will--which should leave us all humbled by our human limitations.