This is not what we look like

Standard

…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*

Listen to your mother

Standard

As a senior in high school I needed one more elective to fill out my fall schedule. My mom suggested that I take a typing class.

Yuck. Typing class? Everyone else I knew was taking cool stuff like word processing. I’d been typing since she gave me a Fisher-Price typewriter when I was eight years old, so by that point I considered myself an expert, albeit an expert two-finger typist. Wouldn’t that be like taking a class on walking?

Her reasoning was that since I was a two-finger sight typist (i.e., as opposed to a touch typist), imagine how much better, faster I would be if I took a typing class and learned to use all 10 fingers and become a touch typist?

Since I’m a lazy person and didn’t want to think any more about my fall schedule, I went along and signed up for it. Monday to Friday, 8:00 am-8:50 am, IBM Selectric typewriters. I found out on my first day of class, when the teacher had us test our typing abilities, that I was a 35-wpm, two-finger sight typist, which apparently was pretty good.

By the end of the semester, I was clocking in at about 55 wpm and, as my mother promised, using all 10 of my fingers and typing without once looking at the keys. Nearly thirty years later, I’m at about 120 wpm and averaging no more than 2 errors. As it turned out, this is a damn useful skill when you’re a technology worker and a writer.

Thanks, mom!

Want

Standard

photo-1455482354547-b410119934cf

It’s just a typewriter. But it’s also red, sleek, stylish, and did I mention it’s a typewriter? Just looking at it makes me want to take off for the weekend to Key West, hide under a shady tree in Hemingway’s yard, and not leave until I’ve finished at least a dozen short stories.

Art Matters, So It Shouldn’t Be Free

Standard

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.

Amazon to pay Kindle authors only for pages read – Telegraph

Standard

Amazon’s new system will cut the royalties for self-published authors who fail to hold a reader’s attention until the final page

via Amazon to pay Kindle authors only for pages read – Telegraph.

This is horrifying and a terrible precedent. Frankly, I don’t understand the position of author Kerry Wilkinson, who is quoted in the article as asking, “If readers give up on a title after half a dozen pages, why should the writer be paid in full?”

If I go to the emergency room with a heart attack and die on the operating table because the EMTs didn’t get me to the hospital in time, is my family still liable for the bill?

If I buy a dress but then take it altered to my favorite tailor because I think the hem should be 2″ shorter to truly flatter me, should I get a refund from the designer for whatever percentage of the dress I cut off?

If I book a flight to Paris, but then fall in love with someone while on layover in London and decide not to continue my journey, should I demand that the airline reimburse me for the percentage of the flight that I didn’t complete?

And yes, as Peter Maass is quoted as saying in the article: “I’d like the same in restaurants — pay for how much of a burger I eat.” Or a glass of wine I drink. Or if I walk out of a movie halfway through, I only want to pay half the bill. Or better, yet, hell, just give me all my money back.

Yes, it’s true that writers can “opt out” of the Kindle Select program, and frankly, it’s not that great a deal anyway since you’re essentially getting pennies so that someone can read it for free. But it sets a terrifying precedent to a future in which writers are mere commodities in the same way that education has become a commodity, valued only for what it can produce for in a free market.

I used to think that I wanted to live forever, but now I just want to die before it all goes to hell and writers will be mere content producers, not the scribes of an age.

The Quantified Self as a Writer

Standard

Using Scrivener at Starbucks.

Using Scrivener at Starbucks.

I’ve been a dedicated follower of the sci-fi writer (and software developer by day) Jamie Todd Rubin, ever since I read one of the blog posts extolling the virtues of going paperless. He’s an Evernote Ambassador (apparently an unpaid honor that entitles Rubin to a free Business plan and an audience of Evernote fans to tap into to promote his own writing), and as a productivity devotee and Evernote user myself, it didn’t take long for his name to pop into my consciousness.

Rubin’s in the middle of a massive writing streak. Massive, as in, he’s been writing at least once a day for nearly 700 consecutive days. He hasn’t missed a day since July 21, 2013.

Rubin doesn’t have a word count goal, nor is he aiming for a specific number of pages per day. Rather, he simply squeezes in as much time as he can in his very busy days to get some writing done, whether it’s a couple hundred words a day or 1,500. Since he launched his writing streak, though, he’s discovered that the more he writes, the more efficient he’s become, the better his writing, and the easier (relatively speaking) the writing gets. Writing is never easy, of course (not to me, anyway), but like with anything else, as Rubin has demonstrated, you do get better at something the more you do it. It doesn’t matter how little talent you have to begin with (and Rubin is clearly talented) – if you keep at something and persevere, you will get results. You may never find yourself playing solo at Carnegie Hall someday, but if you push yourself to practice the piano every single day for years on end, you will improve.

It’s a discipline I’m working on now as I hit my mid-forties. I dreamt once of finishing a novel by the time I actually reached 40, but clearly that’s well behind me. Still, the big war novel is begging to be completed – I left my protagonist stranded in steamy Singapore, waiting to learn of his fate, wondering where the Girl is and if she’s still alive. I’ve several bookshelves groaning under the weight of dozens of World War II novels, biographies, and histories. I think this book, this story – even if it’s fiction – belongs up there, too.

Rubin uses a script he created (did I mention that he’s a software developer?) to automatically tally up his word count every evening. He writes directly into Google Docs so that he doesn’t have to mess with learning a new program like Scrivener, which is beautiful to use and packed with features, but which does have a bit of a learning curve. As a quantified writer who likes to track not only his writing output but also his sleep and his fitness milestones and probably his diet, too, Rubin doesn’t want to waste time that he already has so little of on something not directly related to the act of writing itself. There’s something to that. I’m surrounded by at least 5 dogs nearly every day, have a full-time job that demands a huge chunk of my mental processing power, a husband with his own demanding career, and a house that needs occasional upkeep. Once my head hits my pillow each night, I’m usually asleep within five minutes. Every day is a packed day.

As much as I’d love to try out Rubin’s script, I think I’m going to aim for the already-challenging goal of writing 500 words a day. Not 200 or 100 or 50, which is the pitiful low barrier I’ve been hurtling myself over, but something that will actually get me closer to my goal of completing the damn thing. Fifty words is better than zero, but it’s so easy to lose momentum that way. I like to let my hands do the writing and let my brain hang around for the ride. It can make for some interesting detours in the story sometimes (I switched POVs halfway through), but that’s what the editing process is for.

Have you Pressed Publish yet?

Standard
Press Publish in Portland, OR.

Press Publish in Portland, OR.

I’ve been on WordPress since at least 2007 (maybe earlier, but my aging memory doesn’t go back that far), but in all honesty my blogging journey was really launched on Google’s Blogger.com. In fact, it wasn’t until well into my tenure here as a Happiness Engineer at Automattic that I finally took down my Blogger site and moved everything here to WordPress.com. I still have a few self-hosted sites that I maintain (namely this one), though, and have been passionate about WordPress and its credo of open source software since I built my first, admittedly primitive self-hosted site in the mid-’00s.

Still, until I volunteered at last year’s WordCamp San Francisco, I’d never attended a WordCamp or even a WordPress meetup. I’d been evangelizing WordPress for years and built client sites exclusively on the platform, but the WordCamp universe always eluded me. It wasn’t just the fact that I was running a business, volunteering, taking care of a busy household with a professional spouse and 4 active dogs, and otherwise living a pretty full life – I still found plenty of time to attend networking events and even the occasional out-of-town client meeting or conference. But a local meetup of fellow WordPress enthusiasts? I dunno, it just didn’t appeal to me.

I figured out pretty quickly that it wasn’t so much the busy schedule that kept me from attending, but rather this perception that the meetups and WordCamps were all populated largely by technically savvy developers and designers, the kind of folks who literally spoke a different language and generally dwelt in the deeper parts of a software that I wouldn’t dare go.

Sure, I’d built plenty of sites, but I used premade templates and taught myself basic php — just enough to add a function or two, maybe tweak a design feature here and there. But my sites — all for small, local businesses or microentrepreneurs with miniscule budgets — were a result of some basic hacking on my part and a little help from a more tech-savvy developer friend.

I couldn’t imagine what I’d have in common with the folks who attended a WordPress meetup. I’m a writer. What do I know about plugin development and APIs?

Of course, now that I work closely with developers and designers in my everyday job, they’re not so mysterious anymore. Sure, 75% of what they talk about whiz right over my head (insert whooshing noise here), but my comfort level just being around them is so much higher now. I don’t mind asking questions, pleading ignorance, and sometimes even diving in and exploring some bits of code when it drifts by my desk. I have no desire to ever be a programmer, but it’s not quite the black box it used to be. Now, I’ve not only attended a few WordCamps but have even spoken at a couple of them. In fact, god forbid but I’m also part of the organizing committee for the DFW WordCamp coming up in the fall.

And yet.

I’m still a writer at heart. Not a content contributor or content marketer or whatever Fast Company uses now to refer to words or text strung together to deliver a message or tell a story. I like reading blogs, writing posts, and meeting other bloggers. One of the best features of WordPress.com is the Reader, which makes it so easy to keep up with my favorite bloggers and even discover new ones via the Freshly Pressed and Recommended Blogs sections.

And now, with the Press Publish series of WordPress conferences exclusively devoted to the storytellers and bloggers who use WordPress, I’ve found yet another reason to be excited about being a part of the community.

I not only attended but also spoke and helped out behind the scenes at both the inaugural event in Portland in late March as well as the most recent one in Phoenix this past weekend. The organizers packed each one-day event with a tight, carefully curated schedule of brilliant speakers and workshops, all focused on providing attendees with both information and inspiration on how they can become better bloggers and writers.

My own talks were on social media, DIY PR, and a little bit on how to make money from blogging (affiliates, ads, ecommerce). I’d like to think that most attendees found some useful tidbits of information from my presentations, but really, every workshop, tutorial, and speaker presentation was well-attended. I’m not sure that a lot of folks were especially interested too much in the monetization aspect of blogging, which is so alien to me, coming from a heavily PR- and marketing-focused universe where everyone wants to become the next Dooce.com and rake in a million dollars a year in advertising fees. In other words, I loved it. Thank god they only gave me 15 minutes for the monetization session. I don’t think I got more than one question about that topic in each city.

Yes. Writers. I so ❤ that it was all about writers.

Automattic is evaluating the Press Publish series to see if it’s something that we can and should continue, but in the meantime the videos for each event should be online very soon. If you’re a blogger and are interested in attending a future event — assuming we have others — be sure to follow the event’s official site to get the latest updates.

The Weird Things I Find Oddly Amusing #3,539

Standard

I used to write a weekly column for a local paper when I lived in Colorado. The town leaned heavily conservative, and being a liberal, proud feminist of color, I received my fair share of nasty letters and the occasional death threat.

I was still surprised, though, when an email landed in my Inbox an entire year after I’d already stopped writing for the paper and had moved back to Dallas. What surprised me wasn’t the content but the fact that this reader felt such a burning desire to hurl virtual flaming torches at me for a column I’d long since forgotten already. This much, I remember: it was about abortion.

Screen_Shot_2015-02-26_at_10_46_47_PM

What I found most amusing was that he actually thought I’d be remotely interested in engaging him by responding to the email.

Er, no. But it does make good blog fodder.

My latest favorite book (and inspiration)

Standard

CT daily-rituals01.jpgI finished reading Mason Currey‘s Daily Rituals recently. It’s one of those books that you have to read with a highlighter in one hand and a hot cup of tea or coffee in the other. A notebook might be nice, too, but it’s not required.

I can’t remember how I first heard about this book (probably from Arts & Letters Daily, one of two websites I must read every single day if I’m going to feel complete before I tuck in at night — the other one being NPR.org), but I’m sure that when it happened, I must have immediately opened a browser tab and searched for it on Amazon. I went to several Barnes & Noble shops over the next few weeks, but not one of them had a copy. I guess I could have called each one rather than wasting so much time and gas traipsing from one to the other, but I like going to bookstores. Bookstores are my Tiffany’s — nothing bad could ever happen to you in there. You get rid of the mean reds, blues, violets, and blacks.

Except, of course, if you don’t find what you’re looking for, which was the case in my search for Currey’s book.

I wanted to give my local bookstore a chance to make me happy, especially after the disappearance of not one, but all of the brick-and-mortar bookstores in my town last year, but I finally gave in and ordered it from Amazon.com. Once I had it in my hands, I devoured it in two sittings.

It’s actually a pretty short, quick read. Currey collected interviews, essays, and vignettes about various creatives — over 200 of them — from Stephen King to Henri Matisse, Somerset Maugham to Twyla Tharp. You can dive in and read a one- or two-page written snapshot of how each creative professional worked, their routines and habits, even their tools. It’s not meant to be a little encyclopedia of artists, and Currey doesn’t really even bother explaining who these notable figures are. If you pay any attention at all to the worlds of arts and literature, you will likely at least have a passing familiarity with just about everyone featured in this book (Louise Bourgeois, Friedrich Schiller, Knut Hamsun, and Maira Kalman, are just a handful of folks mentioned whom I had to look up on Wikipedia), but really, it’s not really necessary.

Currey goes into intimate detail with many of his subjects, from Picasso’s habit of sleeping late and rising late as well, getting to his studio by 2pm to begin his work of the day; to Alexander Graham Bell’s own regimen of working around the clock, which he eventually had to modify to take his wife’s pregnancy into consideration. If you’re looking for techniques on how to be creative, or tips on how to call forth the muse when you’re stuck on a paragraph or a blank canvas, you’re better off looking elsewhere.

What I got instead, however, was a deep appreciation for the sacrifices artists must make in order to engage in the hard, unrelenting work of creating something: a book, a painting, a piece of music, or a piece of software. Austin-based writer, artist, and blogger Austin Kleon frequently laments the creative’s practice of sharing only finished work with the world and hiding all the messy, gut-wrenching process that made that work possible. Currey’s answer to that was this book, a wide-open door into what artists throughout history have had to do in order to make time and room for the act of creation in their lives. Whether it meant working feverishly around the margins of a day job, or a family’s demands, or crafting a rigid schedule of daily hours, these folks got it done.

I have it on my desk now as a reference, right next to a lot of history books and notebooks (and receipts, pens, random Post-Its, and folders), and dip into it frequently. I’m still working on a schedule that works for me and the many things I juggle with on a daily basis (home, work, dogs, volunteering, extended family needs, reading, and writing), and this book reminds me that others with far more demands on their time were able to carve out the space in their lives to make art.