This is not what we look like

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…writers have looked like other people even when they write (though sometimes their lips move, and sometimes they stare into space longer, and more intently, than anything that isn’t a cat); but their words describe their real faces: the ones they wear underneath. This is why people who encounter writers of fantasy are rarely satisfied by the wholly inferior person that they meet.

“I thought you’d be taller, or older, or younger, or prettier, or wiser,” they tell us, in words or wordlessly.

“This is not what I look like,” I tell them. “This is not my face.”

— Neil Gaiman,
*The View from the Cheap Seats*

Why books will always trump e-readers

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People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, and not merely an electronic version, are in some sense mystics. We believe that the objects themselves are sacred, not just the stories they tell. We believe that books possess the power to transubstantiate, to turn darkness into light, to make being out of nothingness. We do not want the experience of reading to be stripped of this transcendent component and become rote and mechanical. That would spoil everything.

— Joe Queenan, One for the Books

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Art Matters, So It Shouldn't Be Free

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In a previous life, I worked as a wind energy developer. It meant lots of long trips to exotic places where people are usually not (at least, not in great or even middling abundance): places like Sweetwater, TX; Minot, North Dakota; Ozona, TX; and Santa Rosa, NM. Don’t get me wrong — these are all lovely places with very kind, welcoming communities. But wherever there is plenty of wind to support industry-scale wind projects, there is typically not much in terms of population.

Anyway, I remember vividly one day trip I took to some North Texas county (I can’t remember which one anymore, but it was a very rural, remote area with a lot of trees and, as we soon figured out, not as much wind as we’d hoped) one spring day. The company I worked for had sent over a young intern named Adam from Irish HQ, so as an educational experience and for some company I took him with me.

During the long, two-hour drive to the meeting, we somehow got to chatting about artists (musicians in particular), creativity, and the bubbling tension between the need for these artists to make a living and the demand of their fans for free content. This was a post-Napster, pre-Spotify world, when Pandora was just starting to find its audience and YouTube was exploding with illegal uploads of both official and “unofficial,” fan-made music videos.

Adam believed that artists should make their work freely available on the Internet and suffered not an ounce of guilt from downloading copyrighted content without paying for it. He genuinely believed that because his generation (he was about 19, and this was the mid-2000s) had grown up accustomed to paying little or nothing for music, movies and books because of their wide availability on bootleg sites, they shouldn’t be expected to suddenly pony up for access to them. Sure, he was happy to pay a few hundred dollars for an iPod, but for the music and other content he would actually play on it and without which the iPod would just be an outrageously priced paperweight? Nada. When I asked him how in the world he expected these artists to survive and continue to create without compensation, he said, “They can get a full-time job and create in their spare time.”

Artists have always, always struggled for respect and an adequate income for their work. Distributing content without artist compensation is a longtime tradition — it’s why copyright law was invented in the first place. But with technology making it so incredibly easy to distribute any creative work on a mass, global scale, it’s become even harder for artists to control their work and earn a living wage from it. If even musicians with vast financial resources and the power and influence of corporate money behind them can’t make money solely from their creative output but must hustle to make themselves into a “brand”, is there much hope for the “independent artist” who would rather spend their time and energies actually making art and not shilling t-shirts and plastic wrist bands out of cramped apartments?

I could never convince Adam that artists deserve to be paid every single time their music is downloaded, their film is viewed, and their book is sold. But while the conversation happened nearly a decade ago, it stuck in my head and comes out periodically whenever I read articles like this one, which calls for basically an overhaul of society and more expansive public investment in artists and their art.

Despite what I just wrote above about the importance of compensating artists for their work, I’m of two minds about the idea of devoting public funds to support artists. The Depression-era programs put to work thousands of writers, photographers, filmmakers, and visual artists left an astounding legacy of documents, films, and artwork that serve as a rich repository of content about a particularly critical time in American history.

On the other hand, the content, while voluminous, wasn’t exactly created solely for the sake of art. As this article carefully points out, “Nothing was published that was not first approved by Washington and the entire process required that the author remain anonymous.” Government money is rarely offered without strings, even today, and while I consider myself fairly liberal, I hesitate to endorse any arts program or idea that relies so heavily on government largesse. Socialist art has rarely produced anything of lasting cultural value and more often than not serves as a propaganda tool. The artist should only ever be beholden to their creative impulse, never to an outside agency with its own agenda.

Still, I also don’t think that we can expect the “masses” (who my former political science prof often referred to as “asses”) to suddenly have a change of heart and refuse to download anything without ponying up a royalty to the artist. One program I find appealing is Ireland’s Artists Tax Exemption. Rather than requiring artists to submit exhaustive applications and compete with their peers for a limited amount of earmarked funds — a process ripe with bias and the stifling of free speech and creativity — the program offers a simple blanket benefit to all artists who make money from their work. It’s not a perfect program: the government is still the final arbiter of what it considers “of cultural merit” and thus eligible for tax exemption. But it does strike me as an easier and more liberal means of supporting artists by removing or at least minimizing the burden of supporting oneself through one’s art. Like everyone else in society, the artist must still organize her paperwork and receipts to prepare for filing the appropriate returns, but at least she’s not enduring the soul-sucking business of filling out reams of grant applications, writing one more goddamn essay about why her work should be funded, and gathering reference letters and budget forecasts.

I’ve not spoken to Adam since I left the company in 2006, but I wonder what he thinks now, a decade later and 10 years older, about the state of the music industry. Folks wanting unlimited free music have never had it better — I listen to Spotify all day long and have never paid for it. But as a writer who works hard for every word and every page, I’m terrified of what the future holds for creatives who want and deserve to be paid for doing what they love and doing it well.

Art Matters, So It Shouldn’t Be Free

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In a previous life, I worked as a wind energy developer. It meant lots of long trips to exotic places where people are usually not (at least, not in great or even middling abundance): places like Sweetwater, TX; Minot, North Dakota; Ozona, TX; and Santa Rosa, NM. Don’t get me wrong — these are all lovely places with very kind, welcoming communities. But wherever there is plenty of wind to support industry-scale wind projects, there is typically not much in terms of population.

Anyway, I remember vividly one day trip I took to some North Texas county (I can’t remember which one anymore, but it was a very rural, remote area with a lot of trees and, as we soon figured out, not as much wind as we’d hoped) one spring day. The company I worked for had sent over a young intern named Adam from Irish HQ, so as an educational experience and for some company I took him with me.

During the long, two-hour drive to the meeting, we somehow got to chatting about artists (musicians in particular), creativity, and the bubbling tension between the need for these artists to make a living and the demand of their fans for free content. This was a post-Napster, pre-Spotify world, when Pandora was just starting to find its audience and YouTube was exploding with illegal uploads of both official and “unofficial,” fan-made music videos.

Adam believed that artists should make their work freely available on the Internet and suffered not an ounce of guilt from downloading copyrighted content without paying for it. He genuinely believed that because his generation (he was about 19, and this was the mid-2000s) had grown up accustomed to paying little or nothing for music, movies and books because of their wide availability on bootleg sites, they shouldn’t be expected to suddenly pony up for access to them. Sure, he was happy to pay a few hundred dollars for an iPod, but for the music and other content he would actually play on it and without which the iPod would just be an outrageously priced paperweight? Nada. When I asked him how in the world he expected these artists to survive and continue to create without compensation, he said, “They can get a full-time job and create in their spare time.”

Artists have always, always struggled for respect and an adequate income for their work. Distributing content without artist compensation is a longtime tradition — it’s why copyright law was invented in the first place. But with technology making it so incredibly easy to distribute any creative work on a mass, global scale, it’s become even harder for artists to control their work and earn a living wage from it. If even musicians with vast financial resources and the power and influence of corporate money behind them can’t make money solely from their creative output but must hustle to make themselves into a “brand”, is there much hope for the “independent artist” who would rather spend their time and energies actually making art and not shilling t-shirts and plastic wrist bands out of cramped apartments?

I could never convince Adam that artists deserve to be paid every single time their music is downloaded, their film is viewed, and their book is sold. But while the conversation happened nearly a decade ago, it stuck in my head and comes out periodically whenever I read articles like this one, which calls for basically an overhaul of society and more expansive public investment in artists and their art.

Despite what I just wrote above about the importance of compensating artists for their work, I’m of two minds about the idea of devoting public funds to support artists. The Depression-era programs put to work thousands of writers, photographers, filmmakers, and visual artists left an astounding legacy of documents, films, and artwork that serve as a rich repository of content about a particularly critical time in American history.

On the other hand, the content, while voluminous, wasn’t exactly created solely for the sake of art. As this article carefully points out, “Nothing was published that was not first approved by Washington and the entire process required that the author remain anonymous.” Government money is rarely offered without strings, even today, and while I consider myself fairly liberal, I hesitate to endorse any arts program or idea that relies so heavily on government largesse. Socialist art has rarely produced anything of lasting cultural value and more often than not serves as a propaganda tool. The artist should only ever be beholden to their creative impulse, never to an outside agency with its own agenda.

Still, I also don’t think that we can expect the “masses” (who my former political science prof often referred to as “asses”) to suddenly have a change of heart and refuse to download anything without ponying up a royalty to the artist. One program I find appealing is Ireland’s Artists Tax Exemption. Rather than requiring artists to submit exhaustive applications and compete with their peers for a limited amount of earmarked funds — a process ripe with bias and the stifling of free speech and creativity — the program offers a simple blanket benefit to all artists who make money from their work. It’s not a perfect program: the government is still the final arbiter of what it considers “of cultural merit” and thus eligible for tax exemption. But it does strike me as an easier and more liberal means of supporting artists by removing or at least minimizing the burden of supporting oneself through one’s art. Like everyone else in society, the artist must still organize her paperwork and receipts to prepare for filing the appropriate returns, but at least she’s not enduring the soul-sucking business of filling out reams of grant applications, writing one more goddamn essay about why her work should be funded, and gathering reference letters and budget forecasts.

I’ve not spoken to Adam since I left the company in 2006, but I wonder what he thinks now, a decade later and 10 years older, about the state of the music industry. Folks wanting unlimited free music have never had it better — I listen to Spotify all day long and have never paid for it. But as a writer who works hard for every word and every page, I’m terrified of what the future holds for creatives who want and deserve to be paid for doing what they love and doing it well.

The ‘great and cursed work’ that was the Encyclopédie – Ideas – The Boston Globe

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Here’s the great difference between the Encyclopédie and the Internet, between what reading meant then and what it increasingly passes for today. While Diderot encouraged differences of opinion and perspectives among his closest contributors, he knew that all of them — from Voltaire to Rousseau, Baron d’Holbach to the Chevalier de Jaucourt — took the act of writing as seriously as did those who read it. No activity was more noble.

via The ‘great and cursed work’ that was the Encyclopédie – Ideas – The Boston Globe.

Dictionary.com or bust?

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The wonderful Betty C. recently got me to thinking about my dictionary usage. As a writer, I have an endless fascination with words. I’m not always enamored over the actual process of writing (what? You think it’s all wine and roses and glamorous book tours? I wish.), but I do enjoy mulling over a sentence, trying to find just the right word to express what I’m trying to say. It’s that whole precise vs. accurate conundrum. If I say “fat,” would it actually be a better description to say “overweight?” “Obese?” “Enormous?” “Flabby?” All these words have shades of meaning that differ from each other, and to substitute one over the other would change the meaning of the sentence. Really good writers would know the difference. Readers will have different intellectual and emotional reactions to each word.

I have a dictionary that was published sometime either in the 1970’s or late 1960’s, one that’s been in my family’s possession since at least we first arrived in the United States. I think my mom bought it at a yard sale. I used to pore over it when I was a kid, finding funny words or interesting words or words that just stumped my eleven-year-old brain. I would highlight them, so that during an idle moment while I’m flipping the pages I would stumble upon these bright yellow words and ponder over their meaning. Again and again.
Betty C. just bought the Oxford English Dictionary, complete with CD-ROM, and I now have dictionary envy. I’ve gotten lazy of late, relying on Dictionary.com for all my look-up-the-damn-meaning needs, but now I wonder if I should update my bookshelf as well and get a new dictionary. Awhile back I was on the hunt for a dictionary published around 1940, to use as a reference for my World War II-era novel, but now I’m thinking I should go contemporary and retire my poor old dictionary. It’s still in fantastic condition, but it’s hard red cover is showing lots of wear and tear, and the gold-colored embossed title is worn. The spine is starting to separate, although the rice paper-thin pages are remarkably still bright and hardy. Today’s books are poor cousins by contrast in terms of quality of binding and materials.
Anyone care to share their favorite print dictionaries? Do you have a particular dictionary of choice that you consider the definitive reference for writers of all stripes?

Sarah Palin book on Amazon.com

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You know they were just waiting for this to happen.

I heard an interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday this morning with Kaylene Johnson, who apparently just published a book about Sarah Palin. Whaddya know, it’s already out of stock on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. According to Borders’ Web site, they have it in stock, but I don’t trust them to have it delivered to me before we leave for Singapore. Epicenter Press, the book’s publisher, appears to have copies available for purchase on their Web site, too, although again, it won’t arrive in time for my trip.

And someone’s already taken advantage of the situation by posting a brand-new copy on Amazon.com’s Marketplace and pricing it at $150.00. Just an hour ago there were two sellers offering a copy each; the cheaper one was $105.00. If (here’s hoping) the Republican ticket loses, I wouldn’t be surprised if that copy ended up in some yard sale in six months, regardless of Gov. Palin’s historic run.

Writer and journalist Ms. Johnson must be over the moon. If you listen to her on the NPR interview, it’s obvious that the writer is unfailingly complimentary to the Alaskan governor. When asked of Gov. Palin’s weaknesses, she had a gushy, worshipful answer about the VP candidate being all strong and amazing. I guess for now we’ll have to settle for what may be a biased book about Palin, at least until a few other journalists and political pundits have finished furiously penning their own books about her in time for the November elections.

When work is a work-in-progress…

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There seems to be a rash of broken promises by editors of late.

Well, okay, maybe it’s not a rash necessarily, but definitely a worrisome trend nonetheless.

Recently I received an email from yet another editor — from whom I’d received an assignment to write a travel piece — letting me know that, whaddya know, they changed their mind about the article and that they would not be accepting it. Weird thing is that the editor had sounded so enthusiastic about it when I first pitched him the idea, or at least as enthusiastic as one can get over email. The fee was a mere pittance; I just wanted another project to include in my portfolio.

This is the 2nd time this year that this has happened to me; the first time was with an actual print newspaper who assigned 2-3 big articles to me, then rescinded their acceptance a month later, after I’d already done all the work, when they abruptly switched editors. Not professional, not cool.

Sometimes I do wonder if I chose the right vocation to pursue. Freelance writing has its advantages, the freedom to write what one wishes being first and foremost. Independence. No boss telling me what to do. No strict schedule to adhere to. No fussy or whiny or otherwise boring co-workers to have to deal with. No office politics.

Still, the downsides are making themselves much more visible of late. Constantly chasing after work that in the end pays very little gets awfully tiring and demoralizing. It can be lonely. Not having a strict schedule to adhere to can mean weekends and evenings spent working. And the marketing can be exhausting, especially for someone like myself to whom it doesn’t come at all naturally. I mean, writers choose the profession partly because it means not having to deal with people, right?

I still have several projects to complete before we leave, so it’s not as if I’m hurting, although I could always use more. Again, the pay on most of them is shockingly low, and even then I won’t see most of those checks until after we return from Singapore. (Why can’t everyone use PayPal?) I know that building a business takes a lot of time and a lot of sacrifice. It’s just that sometimes, when you can’t see the pot at the end of the rainbow, you begin to wonder if it’s actually there.

And now for something not-entirely-or-completely different…

Am reading a fascinating book by Anna Fels called Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives. In it the author, a clinical psychiatrist, writes about the ambivalence women feel towards ambition and its role in their personal and professional lives. Fels points out several times that women of color from working-class, low-income backgrounds are more likely to embrace their ambitions without hesitation, as their upbringing has generally been more geared towards achieving success via employment and professional careers rather than some amorphous definition of womanhood, one that involves selfless motherhood, economic and emotional dependence on a male spouse, and an almost narcissistic obsession with physical appearances.

I can see that. Not that I don’t already have a narcissistic obsession with physical appearance (hey, I admit it, I run not just because it feels good but also because it makes me look good), but having grown up in a poor home headed by a single mother, I’ve never been shy about wanting professional success, which to me means both power and money. I meditate endlessly on the line between making money and making art, but at 36 years old, I’m beginning to realize that one doesn’t necessarily have to sacrifice one in order to pursue the other. Playing the whole starving artist role gets sooo old sooo quickly, y’know?

Anyway, the book can be rather dry at times, and awfully academic, despite Ms. Fels’ claim at the beginning that she intends for it to be read by a mainstream audience, but it’s an interesting and thought-provoking one all the same. I’m at that stage — yet again — where I need to rethink my “business plan” and figure out if what I’m doing is worth pursuing for another year, or if I need to tweak it all again so that I can maximize return for my efforts. Reading this book highlights some weaknesses in my approach to my business and my ambitions. I guess it’s back to the drawing board. Again.