Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Alchemy on the Internet and Other Thoughts

Once again, the creative seesaw of my life has been tipped more toward writing than cooking; I haven't been doing a lot of new recipes to cover here. I have been reading a lot of blog posts about writing, and I am trying to put some thoughts together about what I have read and how. It's going to be confusing because I want to address two subjects, sort of connected, and I think I am of two minds.

The first subject is The Gap. Not the store. I tend to divide the writing world into three sorts of people. Wannabes who never have been published (and, let's be realistic, probably never will be, and yes that does include me, but I'm different--right? more on that later); new writers, who are embarking on the journey of publication, and experienced writers, the ones who have been around the block umpteen times and whose main problem seems to be coming up with more things for their fans to read.

It sometimes seems, looking at it from the outside, as if the publishing industry is where the old alchemists went. If someone were to buy my book tomorrow, I would obviously still be the person I am today. Or would I? I read blogs by published authors with more attention than blogs by random people. Would other people find my thoughts more interesting, more worth their time, more persuasive? Would people suddenly want to leave comments, to have contact with the world beyond the veil? What if I got five books published, or ten, won awards, got a movie deal? Would my thoughts automatically be worth more? (Certainly no one is begging me to sit on any convention panels right now.) It seems from observation that this would be the case and yet... they would still be the same thoughts, would they not? The same me having them--perhaps a few experiential scars added to that me, but how much does experience change the self, once one is an adult?

So that is one set of thoughts I hold in mind, that there is this gradient between know-nothing and wise elder that is to at least some extent imaginary and kind of silly. Even sillier if you think about the fact that all of this emotionally-wrought exchange is rooted in writing and reading novels for entertainment, a pastime some people do still consider a complete waste of time. I am (obviously) in favor of it, but there have been days I found it difficult to defend. Not as if we're curing cancer, here.

On to the second set of thoughts, and back to wannabe/newbie/master of the literary universe. The internet age has done some strange things to this continuum. Even ten years ago, if you wanted to meet a famous author, your only real bet was to stalk them in the real world, attend a convention where they might be speaking or a bookstore doing a signing. You might get ten seconds of their time. Not a bad thing, maybe. You could send them fan letters, and maybe they would write a note back if the letter actually found them and if they were that sort of person. But there was a chasm or rather an office building in which a publisher-alchemist located itself, standing between the wannabes with their dog-eared copies of Writer's Digest and even the new, let alone the established authors.

That blockade has vanished. Now we have blogs. All serious writers have blogs. Anyone who wants to be a serious writer ought to have a blog, we are lectured (on other blogs) because it's how, in this day of evaporating publicity budgets, a new author builds a brand, which is vital. Many authors--particularly new authors, the more established ones seem to take the whole thing more casually--dutifully blog (and tweet, and whatever new flavor has appeared since I wrote this), and their fans read their blogs and leave comments on their blogs, and it can be a conversation with both the author and each other, which is much better than that ten seconds, right? Poof! No more chasm! Death to The Gap! A direct exchange, a new currency based on admiration--whether or not that admiration has any particular basis (see above) and what I am tempted to call noblesse oblige.

Along with direct author contact, the internet is exploding with advice for writers, support for writers, some of it supplied by those same authors, some of it by other insiders, some of it by... well, who knows. Everything from how to use commas to what to avoid in your query letter, how to put Ass In Chair Now and how to stimulate your creativity with Other Things Than Writing, what music to listen to while writing, tchotckes you can put on your desk and stare at while writing, software to help you plan your story (you do that, don't you? you know about three-act structure don't you?). NaNoWriMo--a goofy idea and one I fully support if only for that reason, mind--is evolving into a  year-round industry.

It leaves me with a nagging doubt that all of this is doing anyone any good.

I like the internet, sometimes despite itself. I like blogs (obviously), I even like Twitter, much to my own surprise. But I frequently wonder if what you get at the end of the online day is something that only looks from the outside like wisdom. The word used to be "sophomoric." I know all the rules! I know my way around without referring to the map! I know the lingo and the names! I am Building My Brand, I am querying agents, I am avoiding passive tense and all adverbs ending in -ly and everything else the voices of experience have told me to do. I have even written my own lists of advice, that's how well I have this shit down!

But I'm still a wannabe, so the elders and even the newbie authors obviously do know something that I don't, even if I and possibly they are not entirely sure of what that knowledge consists. No matter how many writers I follow on Twitter, Facebook, and daily blog checks, the chasm is still there, the alchemy hidden behind an illusion of closeness. Until the day that you aren't, and then you find yourself turned inside out, somehow, and everyone else pays you much more attention, because you must have a Magic Key, it must be in one of those lists you linked to.

I did say that this is confusing.

It's nice to have all of this support around. I'd be lying if I told you I never tweeted about feeling down in the dumps about the whole writing endeavor, that I didn't like getting the occasional reassuring message. It's nice to feel part of a community--but is that community, too, an illusion? How many of these people earnestly posting their daily wordcount are writing something that has any chance of seeing the light of day on a printed page? (Or e-reader, I suppose.) Are they delusional? Am I?

The only way to not fail out of sheer despair is to believe that You Are Different, You Are Special (regardless of what all the agents say), that You Will Be The One. To simultaneously believe that The Gap has meaning--because otherwise, what would be the point of trying? vanity publish and be damned--and does not--because it would be impossible to bridge.

I am not at all sure where this leaves me, other than right back where I started: confused. I wanted to write it down in hopes of imposing some order on my thoughts, and I highly doubt I have succeeded. But maybe at least I've confused you, too....


Adrienne Martini said...

I wish I had some grand thought here, other than you've described a lot of what goes on with other pursuits in life: what does x know that I don't.

I guess, speaking as A Published Author (but not fiction), the process isn't nearly as magical as it looks from the outside. There is no special key. The goals change. And you realize that there is a large component of luck as well as a heaping helping of craft.

THe better question to ask is: why are you writing in the first place? Is it to gain access to a club? Is it to buy a mansion? Is it the story? All three are valid, mind.

Jenn said...

I think you're touching on a core artistic questions:
- Can writing be taught?
- How do you measure the success of a writer?

A writer is a person of interest when she proves herself such. The most visible proof arrives as book deals, awards, movie deals, and large advances. But writers who don't have those credits aren't categorically less worthy, they are just less popular. That isn't to undervalue the process of writing a book and rewriting it more times than you'd like to admit. However, that process is more likely to make your work something people want to read and make you someone they want to know.

But can writing really be taught? Navigating the publishing business, learning the conventions of a genre, and also recognizing the traps of cliche are all very useful nuggets. Knowing them is certainly going to earn credits in some publications, but I just don't think that's enough. Certainly the internet would like to tell you different. But how do you write something that will change the world?

I agree with what you say that there's no clear path to success. Isn't that the definition of art? We just have to keep working at it and hope that the process of working will improve our work and make us into better people, who will deserve the recognition we will somdeday (hopefully) recieve.

An instructor of mine once said, "Write the story you're not smart enough to write because during the writing of it, you'll become that smart." Maybe you do need to believe that, with your words, you are curing cancer and that's what will lead you to write the thing that will earn the ear of an audience.

RJS said...

Thank you for the responses! I very much appreciate both of your thoughts.

I'm still sort of muddling through what I was even trying to say in the first place--think I still have some unpacking to do. For one thing, the "why" question turned out to have many more layers than I first assumed (writing technical documents is sooo much easier that way!). I suppose there are as many reasons as there are writers.

The luck factor is also something I hadn't really thought to address. Is it possible that it exacerbates a tendency for those on the lower rungs to behave, well, superstitiously? Hoping the fairy dust will rub off, or something like that.

Perhaps it's all just a twitter-induced overdose of navel-gazing? I should turn off the internet more often.