An Anniversary, And A (Sort Of) Love Letter To Writing

As of today, I have been a published children’s author for a decade. What started as an idea I had while I was teaching big kids to ask big questions is now 13 books (with #14 in the works), 14 apps, a bunch of videos, and a big pile of parent/teacher resources. Along the way, there have been conferences, workshops, and a handful of awards. It’s been a good ride.

I’ve got 10 years of learning, and deadlines, and fretting over typos. I’ve got a 10-year stockpile of stuff that never quite fit into our plans, and stuff that should never see the light of day. And yes, I have 10 years of friendly, writerly, publisher-ly advice to give to anyone who’s willing to listen.

After some careful thought I’ve distilled it down to one key thesis, with a handful of footnotes. There’s one thing I need you to know about this line of work.

Making books is really, really, really hard.

I’m not interested in turning anyone off the act of writing, but there’s this weird and, quite frankly, damaging mystique around it that is just begging to be dispelled. I’m not sure if there are very many professions that are quite as misunderstood. So, as a show of reverence and respect to wordsmithing, I’m going to take this anniversary as an opportunity to throw in my two cents.

First things first: a writer is someone who writes. You don’t have to be paying your rent with your words in order to be a writer. You don’t have to have critical acclaim. You do, however, have to do it on a regular basis. You are not a runner if you don’t run. You’re not a chef if you don’t cook. A writer isn’t someone who has an idea for a book, or who thinks it might be cool to have a bestseller on their CV. “Writer” is not an honorific or the expression of a wish. “Writer” is a verbal snapshot of someone in the act. This may sound pretty obvious, but I’ve had to explain it to a lot of people over the past 10 years.

Admittedly, writing is something you can do without a specific degree or period of professional training. There are some excellent writing programs out there, but it can be self-taught. This does not, however, mean that writing is easy, or that anyone who wants to can do it on a whim. Writers, good ones anyway, are able to produce evidence of their skill, some sort of credentials. If someone walked into a law office and announced that they were certain they could be an excellent lawyer because they’d gobbled up a TV series, they’d be shown the door. No one gets to do surgery because they’ve always found blood and guts fascinating. Airplanes are not piloted by people who think it might be fun to play with a big metal toy. Like any profession, writing requires study and practice, and if you’re looking to be taken seriously by anyone in the industry, you need to be familiar with the process, well-versed in the lingo, and able to cough up some work. Good work.

It’s also essential to recognize that a finished piece of work is not the same as a good piece of work. A great deal of any writer’s portfolio is garbage, and will/should never see the light of day. All writers need to be honest and brave enough to let some things go. Everything we write is useful practice, but it’s not all worth sharing. I have a giant backlog of old writing, and I see most of it as a collection of souvenirs. Been there, done that, got it down on paper, cried a bit and said some grown-up words while trying to make it work, moved on.

Over the last decade, I’ve been in both a writer’s and a publisher’s shoes, and I need to share a very important insight. The publishing industry may be mean and nasty, but publishers themselves (as in the people who make decisions) really aren’t. I used to stare at each rejection letter (and there are always plenty, by the way), and try to picture the face of the person who wrote it, so I could imagine the sorry so-and-so who turned down my masterpiece. I wondered what a complete stranger could have against me and my work. Now, I’m over it. This book stuff is more expensive, and time-intensive, and mind-boggling than anyone outside the industry could ever imagine. The powers that be don’t have the resources to publish every good piece that comes their way. In the case of indie publishers, it might be one or two things a year. Success means being really picky and focused. That’s the reality, and it sucks. No one’s trying to be a snob or a jerk. Pinky swear.

I sound like a royal downer, don’t I? The truth is, I’m sharing all of this because I love books. I love reading them, I love writing them, I love publishing them, and I love transforming them into other stuff. It’s a common affliction for writers that they can’t not write. I don’t feel like myself unless I’ve got my hands somewhere in the process. Kafka wasn’t kidding when he said “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” It’s this profound affection, this ever-looming insanity, that makes me desperate to have others understand the mad, loving scramble that goes into producing each work, the complex tangle of tasks and ideas. It would be such a disservice, maybe even a betrayal of my profession to let anyone think that it’s easy, or that a book just shows up. This or that book didn’t have to be here. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, it was pretty unlikely that it would be written, let alone polished up, noticed by someone in the right place at the right time, and then published. Knowing all of that should take our breath away.

So here I am, a decade in. I’m a little scuffed up in spots, a little bit proud, admittedly a little bit smug, but still enamoured and in awe.

Given the chance (and I hope I’m given decades’ more chances) I’d do it all over again, with minimal revisions.

 

I Ain’t Afraid Of No Questions: Why Being A Philosopher Is Like Being A Ghostbuster

Maybe I’m a bit of a broken record about Mary Midgley’s “philosophy as plumbing” metaphor, but it’s always helped me get my mind around what I’m supposed to do (maybe what I’m supposed to feel) as a philosopher. Like plumbing, philosophy is something that most people don’t think about on a regular basis. It’s “just there”, behind the proverbial walls, nestled under the floorboards. When things are ticking along and functioning as they should, we’re happy to have it out of sight, out of mind, but when things get backed up, when there’s an overflow and a weird smell, we panic. We call in an “expert” to fix the leaks, replace defective parts, and then we go back to just not seeing it anymore. We should all be on the lookout for problems, we should all cultivate some level of skill and knowledge about handling them (and preventing them), but we don’t.

Maybe it’s because I’m shut in and bored, maybe it’s because there’s a new Ghostbusters flick on the horizon, or maybe there’s much wisdom to be found in quirky sci-fi classics, but this quote popped into my head the other day:

“I tried to think of the most harmless thing. Something I loved from my childhood. Something that could never ever possibly destroy us. Mr. Stay Puft!”

It sparked something in my philosopher’s brain. It rang true, and summed up so much of the sentiment that’s out there at the moment. While I’ve been attached to the idea of being like a plumber for a long time, all of the sudden, I feel more like a ghostbuster. Here’s why:

With reference to the quote given above- I (like most philosophers, I’m sure), hear about a lot of ideas that seem harmless and innocent that, left unchecked and unexamined, turn into monsters. These ideas, like Mr. Stay Puft, blow up, and become destructive. Being a philosopher means treating ideas with caution, thinking carefully about them, because they’re very rarely “just ideas”. You let one slide under the radar, and the next thing you know, it’s crushing entire city blocks. How many gargantuan, bloated, deceptively jolly ideas are we fighting with lasers at the moment, trying frantically not to cross the streams or be sucked into an alternate dimension?

Philosophers, like Ghostbusters, deal with all kinds of remnants from bygone eras, sometimes in the form of thinkers, and sometimes as long-standing worldviews and assumptions. Not all “ghosts” are unfriendly. Some are downright interesting and perhaps even useful, but they still have a tendency to creep back in when least expected, often in giant spectral blobs. All of them need to be caught, contained, and studied before we let them roam freely.

Philosophers and Ghostbusters both tend to mull over concepts like:

  • identity and free will (“There is no Dana, only Zull!”)
  • life, death, and the nature of reality (“And dig this, there was a prophecy. Just before his head died, his last words were “Death is but a door. Time is but a window. I’ll be back.”)
  • responsibility (“Janine: You are so kind to take care of that man. You know, you’re a real humanitarian. Egon: I don’t think he’s human.”)
  • truth (“When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes!”)
  • gender roles (“Safety lights are for dudes.”)
  • the scientific method (Back off man, I’m a scientist!)
  • the nature of belief. (“If there’s a steady pay-check in it, I’ll believe in anything you say.”)

These are at the core of both of our job descriptions.

Philosophy, like ghostbusting, works better when it’s inclusive, and spans a variety of disciplines, skillsets and perspectives. Someone needs to know physics, someone else needs to have a background in history and theology, another needs to be great with tech. There’s value in having a class clown, a loyal friend, or a bit of a daredevil in the mix. And yes, I would assert that the franchise was made richer with an all-female team in the third movie (haters, go home).  There’s still lots of room for improvement in cultural and other forms of diversity, and I’m holding out hope for that too, both in the movies and in philosophical circles.  In short, the more perspectives, the better.

Philosophy, like ghostbusting, is intended to serve some useful purpose, and should be seen as a public service, if you will. Does everyone treat philosophers (or Ghostbusters) as useful or relevant all of the time? No. No one wants to hear that they’re being “haunted”, that the weird creaking noise in the attic needs taking care of.  What’s more, no one wants to be told that sometimes the only way through a problem is effective critical thinking and asking very difficult questions. Philosopher and Ghostbusters both get a lot of doors shut in our faces, a lot of eye rolls and disparaging looks, but we’re actually helpful. Really, really helpful. We might even save the day, from time to time.

Being a philosopher, like being a Ghostbuster, is unexpectedly cool. Even when everyone thinks you’re a modern day Chicken Little, when you’re dealing with demons, when you’re covered in slime (all metaphorical, of course), you can’t quite imagine yourself doing anything else. To be a philosopher is to see stuff. Weird stuff. Undeniable stuff. Amazing, interesting, life-jangling, mind-changing stuff. I highly recommend it.

Perhaps the best part of this philosophy-ghostbuster connection lies in admitting that, deep down, we all kind of want to be one. While those with aspirations to take on the paranormal might be disappointed to find themselves without a proton pack or a pumped-up hearse, pretty much anyone can give philosophy a whirl, with no jumpsuit or PKE meter required.

So tell me, who ya gonna call?