Living On Spec: Why Don’t We Like To Pay Artists?

artist-palette-1172463

There isn’t a creative type on the planet who hasn’t heard at least one of the following:

  • “It’s a hobby, right? So, what’s your real job?”
  • “If you’re so passionate about it, then why does it matter if you get paid?”
  • “Why don’t you do a sample for free, and if I like it, I’ll pay you for the next one.”
  • “Aren’t artists supposed to be starving? Isn’t the romantic part of it?”
  •  “How do you put an hourly rate on creativity?”
  • “We’ll pay you in sample copies.”
  • “Isn’t exposure enough of a reward?”

Yup, this is going to be another whiny blog post from an artist who would like to be financially compensated for her work. If you’d really rather look at pictures of kittens, or read about the latest antics of a reality TV family, feel free to click off (that sounded ruder than I expected). But I’ve got a few decent points I’d like to make, if you can spare a few minutes. This one’s on the house.

Here are a few reasons why we don’t like to think about paying artists:

1. We don’t see artists as having skills. Being able to put someone’s guts back together in surgery involves skills. Doing someone’s taxes  involves skills. Building a basement rec room involves skills. However, when it comes to creative stuff, not so much. Let me tell you first-hand that creative work does not get produced by chance. Artists go to school. They train. They learn from mentors. They practice (oh, do they practice), and they produce a lot of crap in the process of perfecting their craft. Are there crummy artists? Well, yeah, but there are also crummy surgeons, crummy accountants, and crummy contractors. Whether you wield a pen, a paintbrush or an instrument, it takes skill to produce anything good.

2. Along similar lines, we think anyone can produce art. Okay, this one involves a lengthy philosophical discussion about what art actually is, but seriously, have you ever watched the audition rounds of a talent show on television? It’s pretty clear that some are better at it than others, and wanting to “be a star” is not sufficient. We wouldn’t expect that just anyone could be a scuba instructor, sushi chef, mathematician, or zookeeper. Whether it’s because of a lack of natural talent, inclination or training, I don’t think I have any of these careers in me, and I praise those who do. I hope that those who aren’t adept with language will show similar respect to my writing.

3. We think all artists want to be rich and famous, and maybe the ones who are don’t always set the right example. I like not being recognized at the grocery store. I’m cool with not being asked to headline at festivals. Don’t get me wrong, I love knowing that people read my work once in a while. It’s thrilling to share ideas, and I don’t care if my work gets me a villa in Tuscany or a bronze statue somewhere. “Steady” is a word I would like to associate with my paycheque, not “gargantuan.” If, by some stroke of cosmic luck, I someday make a lot of money from my art, I promise I’ll behave myself and do something useful with it.

4. We’re really not sure what we get when we pay for art. You go to a baker, and you get bread. You go to a salon and you get your nails done. You go to a mechanic, and your car run stops making noise. Art is a little more slippery, a little less tangible. What do I take home after a concert (besides a souvenir t-shirt)? When I’m finished with a book, is it really just a wad of paper that lingers? What do I point to after I’ve left an exhibit? Art is a business of producing ideas and experiences, of calling forth emotion and memory. It’s much more difficult to box up and sell, and we can’t return it if it bugs us. From a product standpoint, it is admittedly ethereal, but we have to keep in mind that everything we love that’s artistic, from the music on our devices to the pretty shoes on our feet, had to come from somewhere, with a creative, talented person putting themselves out there.

5. We think artists have chosen a lifestyle that involves poverty. We think they secretly enjoy it. Nope. This wordy, idea-ish stuff happens to be what I’m good at (most days). I’m also good at eating, and would like to be able to pay for that. I’m good not living in the rain, and would like to have a roof over my head. I’m good at leaving my house and going out into the world, and I’d like to be able to afford a little of that too. Okay, you could say art is my calling, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make a living from it, and let me tell you, between time and supplies, it ain’t free.

6. We see art as a luxury, something we don’t need or deserve. If there was ever a time when art wasn’t a luxury, it’s now. We’re in a little bit of pickle these days (thanks a lot, 2016), and while booze, weapons, and other distractions may provide some sort of outlet for our angst, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that whether you’re an artist or an art appreciator, there isn’t anything else that helps a human being deal more effectively and productively than art. It’s our collective soul. It’s universal. It’s primal. My human friends, we all deserve art. It’s not amusing or adorable. It’s freakin’ important.

Okay, now’s the part where I’m supposed to come up with a plan for how we should pay artists, who should pony up the dough, and I’m so sorry, but I’m still working on this. Could it be considered a civil service job, with the government footing the bill? Should we take a tip from Shakespeare and get wealthy patrons on our side? Do we just go on strike, and leave the world a little uglier and more dull until we get our point across?

My guess is that art needs to undergo a massive re-branding. We need to put our assumptions about art and the people who make it through the ringer. Before making one of the comments mentioned above, perhaps ask yourself “Would I say that to a lawyer, or a school custodian, or a daycare provider?” If the answer is no, and you feel guilty (or if the answer is yes, and you don’t feel guilty), consider paying some creative type for their hard work, even if it’s just giving a busker the price of your morning latte, going to see an indie film, or buying something locally-made to hang over your sofa. Don’t ask your musician friend to perform at your wedding as a favour, don’t ask a graphic designer to give you a freebie, and don’t balk at shelling out a few bucks for an eBook when you’re reading it on a $200 device. The more an artist is able to actually live off their art, the more time they’ll have to devote to it, and the better it’ll get.

An Editor’s Guide to Intolerance

crumpled paper

Leave it to sarcastic, satirical Broadway puppet productions to make complex issues seem less murky. Case in point: Avenue Q, specifically, the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (see below). This number says a lot. We’re human beings. We’re (often) colossal jerks to one another. We say incredibly inappropriate things to one another, but as far as discrimination is concerned, maybe it’s preferable that we just fess up, get it all out on the table, and deal with it. Better out than in, as the saying goes.

I have to agree that we’re all a little bit racist (and sexist, classist, ableist, ageist…oh brother) and I’m also on board with the notion that holding it in and pretending it doesn’t exist serves no one. I do, however, think there’s another step to be taken in our efforts to be better human beings, and it can be described with an analogy (sorry, I’m a writer. It’s how we function).

Aspiring to be less of a racist jerk (or a prejudiced jerk, in general) is kind of like being a good editor. Editors, like everyone else, make grammar errors, spelling mistakes, and typos. Even after years of practice, digging into the inner workings of language, they still screw up from time to time, and things get missed. The difference is that they’ve developed a kind of instinct for recognizing screw-ups, a type of muscle memory, if you will. They not only spot their own mistakes, but they know how to fix them. They know why this verb doesn’t agree with this subject, why they need to use an adverb instead of an adjective, why it’s inappropriate to use slang in some situations. They know why it’s an error. It’s this constant diving into the why of it all that helps them to develop their editorial Spidey Sense in the first place.

I’m a human being, and every so often, stupid thoughts about other human beings ping-pong around in my head. Honestly, I don’t even believe these things are actually true. These thoughts are basically echoes of historical and cultural “bad grammar”, bits of misinformation or ignorance that I’ve heard often enough to have them lodge themselves into the dark corners of my brain. For some reason, they’ve been allowed to stay on the page when they should have been run through with a line of angry red pen. Every so often, probably more often than I’d like to admit, these nasty little “grammar errors” pop up again, messing up the nice, neat, enlightened narratives I’m trying to construct about life. They’re misplaced modifiers, verbs that don’t agree with their subjects, adjectives that should be adverbs. I get that they’re not logical, not supposed to be there. I know why they don’t fit. Moreover, I want what I put out into the universe to be right. I really do, from the bottom of my heart, want to do better.

In a sense, we’re all writing narratives like this, and the trick isn’t to hope we’ll never make mistakes, but rather to develop a sense that something about them just isn’t right, that they’re the result of sloppy thinking, fatigue, or frustration. If we hope to be less discriminatory, we need to start thinking like editors. No editor has ever written something of their own that was spotless and perfect, but they do force themselves go back and figure out why they’re making mistakes in the first place, why it needs to be this way instead of that way.

When it comes to catching discrimination, there is no “spell check” option. We can’t rely on mechanical, one-size-fits-all solutions. Every form of discrimination has its own ethos, it’s own aesthetic, it’s own history and evolution, as does every individual who willfully perpetuates it.  Every story has to be edited as a living thing, by another living thing. Even the most enlightened, tolerant, free-thinking soul will spend his or her entire existence going over their worldview with a fine-tooth comb, looking for slip-ups. The style guide with which they edit will change over time.

You’ve had the sensation of looking at a word or a phrase you’ve written and thinking “What am I missing? Why doesn’t that seem as it should?” The fact that you’ve had alarms go off is good, right? What do you do next? You take another look, show it to someone else, look it up, try writing it another way. You do this enough times, and it becomes instinct, at least the drive to look at it again, to revise, becomes instinct. Most importantly, you know you want to do it properly, to fix what’s askew. When you want to be less racist, sexist, any-ist, you do the same thing. You accept that the mistakes will be there, and the only crime is in not wanting to catch them.

You heard it from your grade 9 English teacher, and now you’re hearing it again: In writing, and in the pursuit of being a better human being, you need to proofread. We all do.

 

 

Do All of Humankind a Favour and Read!

shutterstock_179302175

Many moons ago, I took a class on existential philosophy. Like most philosophers, our professor was a great watcher (notice I didn’t say admirer) of human behaviour. It’s kind of what we do. Being an existentialist, he was also a great lover of fiction. Philosophers of this persuasion tend to at least dabble in it, for better or for worse. It was the opinion of this instructor that it was pretty darn hard to be a sociopath and a fiction lover at the same time. To read stories, he explained, was to get a glimpse into other minds and other lives, to gain some understanding of what it was like to be another being. That’s not to say that sociopaths are illiterate, or that a trip to the library is a guaranteed cure for this kind of disconnect. However, if a person had any inclination at all towards being empathetic, a good book would at least give him or her the opportunity to try.

The idea stuck with me and I find myself talking about it often. I admit, being a writer and a literary geek, I’m a little biased. Yes, I want people to read as much as possible, both because I think it’s cool and because I’d like people to support my industry. However, personal interests aside, I still think there’s merit to the notion that reading and cultivating a love of stories makes us better people in some way.

Before you call me a snob or an elitist, I need to tell you that I get that reading is a luxury of time that others can’t always afford. A lot of my adventures into novels happen in five to ten minute bursts, often scrounged together before I fall asleep. I drop books on my face all the time as I doze off. I also get that reading is difficult and frustrating for some. To this, I say that reading anything counts, whether it be a comic book, a graphic novel, a tabloid at the supermarket, or quick few pages in a magazine. Fiction happens in a lot of different forms, especially now that we’re nostril-deep in the digital age. If you hate Shakespeare, don’t read Shakespeare (but please don’t dis him with me in earshot or you’ll break my heart a little).

The wise words of my prof come to mind a lot these days, as there’s constant chatter about this public figure or that celebrity being disconnected from the rest of humanity. We hear things like “How could they possibly think that was okay?” Maybe we’re feeling generally adrift from one another, and a little scared at what that might encourage. Perhaps we’re no longer afraid to call it as we see it, to tell someone they’re a little bit of a psycho when they act like one. I’m not going to name names here, but there are times (a lot of times) when I want to leave a bag of paperbacks on someone’s doorstep and test the theory.  I need to know if big meanies didn’t get enough bedtime stories as children. I want to see if getting into the right novel can actually be life-changing. I’d like to hear if other people finish a book and then suddenly see the characters mirrored in people they see on the street. What gaping personal and cultural caverns can we bridge by reading each other’s stories?

If we could demonstrate that all of these things actually happen, that there is some sort of documented cause and effect relationship between reading fiction and reading fellow human beings, what would we do with this information? Would we stop seeing stories as a luxury and start seeing them as a necessity? Would we see storytelling in all its form as a career, instead of a hobby? Would we take advantage of the new media and new technology available to us to start telling stories in new and amazing ways, so that we could reach as many readers as possible? Could metaphor be officially recognized as medicine, the way it was thousands of years ago?

Food for thought.

 

The Fear of Being Froggy

megaphone

Last week, I lost my voice. The cold that was in my sinuses took a sudden trip south, and I went from Tom Waits, to Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”, to Marcel Marceau. My family listened to me honk and squeak my way through rudimentary sentences with a mixture of amusement and discomfort. I couldn’t sing in the car and I couldn’t answer the phone. I became a human whisper.

When I could manage a little more sound, I went back out into the world, and immediately had three different people smile knowingly and ask what I was afraid to say, or what I’d been prevented from saying. Never one to ignore a serendipitous mind-body connection, I started thinking about the whole idea of losing one’s voice, literally and metaphorically. If you haven’t already gathered from my choice of career, I have a hard time with silence, especially my own. Being mute sucked, but it wasn’t just about the failure of my pipes, but rather a larger fear of going unheard.

Someone in the medical profession once told me that they saw an inordinate number of people with throat-related ailments who are employed in writing or communications. They also told me that these malfunctions seem to happen during times of professional stress, like when a manuscript gets rejected, or writer’s block strikes. In eighth grade, when I landed a major part in our school musical, I spent opening night squeezing my lines through a gravel-lined throat. In truth, I’ve always been a bit on the squeaky side, even when in good health. I’ve also always been a writer.

Writing through social media probably adds sandpaper to an already-sensitive condition. It’s the most horrible, fickle source of validation, but I admit I’m tickled when something I’ve posted gets retweeted, liked or shared. Those little alerts on my phone are like candy to me. Even an irrational, screwball comment means someone out there is listening, right (look at me, trying to pretend that I don’t get irritated by these)? I also confess to feeling a little horse just thinking about the millions of other little voices in the great mix, and of the very slim chance that anything I send out into the interweb will fall upon the right pair of willing ears.

The source of my swollen larynx and subsequent hush was most likely microbial (pesky rational explanation). It does, however, seem strange that it happened when I’m right on the verge of hitting “publish” on one of the biggest projects I’ve ever worked on (stay tuned). More than ever before, I need my voice to be heard, and it scares me that it might be perceived as a whimper, as opposed to the grand aria that I planned. Fear or not, I’m taking deep breaths and having hot tea with lemon, because the only thing worse than not being heard is not saying anything in the first place.

Wish me luck….or just volume.

Dodging the Meteorite: Why Writers Aren’t Going Extinct

dinosaurs

Although I’m pretty comfortable with and excited about being a citizen of the digital era, at the end of the day, my skills are, well, kind of analogue. I’m good with words and stories. Grammar and spelling still matter to me…a lot. There are some pretty nifty devices with screens out there (I may even own one), but I still prefer the printed page. For a while, I was pretty nervous that I had been born in the wrong century, and that me and my like were unfortunate throwbacks from a bygone era, essentially doomed to join the T-Rex in the “it was a good idea at the time” bin.

Okay, okay, writers are prone to fits of hyperbole (and to calming these fits with large amounts of caffeine). We’re a sensitive lot, and we sometimes let our thesaurus, rather than cooler heads, lead us in our reactions to the world around us. But still, how does a writer, a person who makes their living (or hopes to, anyway) with such outdated skills, compete with things that light up and make noise? Why on Earth would anyone take time to read what what a wordsmith has to say, when there are emojis to convey one’s thoughts? Does anyone really need people like me anymore?

I’m happy to report that everywhere I look, people are still telling stories. In fact, in some ways, stories are taking a front seat in ways they never have before. Here are some examples:

  • Content marketing. It’s a catch phrase, but as trends go, it’s pretty interesting.  Advertising used to be about logos, jingles, comparisons, and promotions. Increasingly, it seems that consumers want to know what’s behind the product or service, the people who make them, and the people who had the original vision. In essence, they want to know their “story”.
  • Our obsession with celebrities. It’s gross and invasive, but we’re definitely fascinated with how the rich, famous and notorious live. Even those with their own reality shows are still hounded by photographers and reporters, looking for their real, less edited “stories”.
  • Social media. We tweet, we like, we post, and we reblog, all because we want to hear the stories of as many human beings as possible. I’d wager about 99% is pure tripe, but we’re still willing to wade through it in search of something interesting or touching.
  • Binge watching. When you read an incredible story in a book, and you don’t want to put it down until it’s finished, well, you don’t have to. Viewers are starting to do the same thing with television. We get invested in the characters and their stories, and we stay up until the wee hours with our eyelids propped open because we need to know what happens. Fandoms even fight over what should have happened, or what should happen next.

Marshall McLuhan wasn’t kidding when he said “The medium is the message.” Gone are the days of slaving away with quill and ink. You can’t even use a typewriter without being accused of acting like a hipster weirdo. The menu of media has become an all-you-can-eat, 24-hour buffet, and the stories have changed along with it. Nevertheless, even in the digital era, we still crave narrative, compelling characters, a little conflict, and an interesting denoument. It still matters that we use this word instead of that word, and that we include as many stories and as many points of view as possible. Technology screams ahead at a startling pace, but we’re still not satisfied with “just the facts”.

So no, writers aren’t going extinct. We do, however, have to evolve a little. Writing in new media requires that we learn to speak a kind of new language. We have to accept that in some instances, we have as little as 140 characters, that we have to be even more nimble and careful in our choices of words and phrases. We have to be aware that a larger, more diverse group of readers will be coming along for the ride, and that we’re going to get virtual rotten tomatoes hurled at us once in a while, often anonymously. We need to know that our audience will be readers, but also listeners, and watchers. They’re going to want to play in and with our stories, to get virtually immersed in the worlds we create. We have to be better readers ourselves, as the pool of subject matter our readers care about gets wider and deeper.

The more time passes, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that writing and storytelling are most definitely not dying arts. They’re both in the midst of a major metamorphosis, and as is often the case, change is scary, but it’s not automatically bad. There are more ways to write, more channels through which to share, more genres, more sources of inspiration and support, and more people reading than ever before. I’m going to have to ditch a few vestigial organs in order to adapt, maybe grow an extra set of legs or a pair of wings, but I’m excited about this brave new world into which I’m stepping.

 

 

The Naked Writer

thinking-chair-1546625

If I had a quarter for every student who ever told me “English class is stupid. I don’t see why we have to take it.” I could have retired from teaching a whole lot sooner than I did. Ask anyone tasked with covering language (including second languages) and communications, and as they brush away a tear of rejection, they’ll tell you that getting the their students on board is tricky. For quite a while, the study of language and literature has had a bad rap, and I have a theory about why this is so.

Okay, so you don’t walk out of English class with a set of tangible skills. We wordy types don’t generally teach people to weld (insert playful dig at foot-in-mouth politician here), or to code, or to design skyscrapers. Admittedly, if you’re going to be an engineer, you probably won’t find yourself dissecting Shakespearean sonnets at the office. English class won’t help you get into the NBA, or make you a better cook. I could launch into a diatribe about how soft skills like communication and argumentation are just as important as any technical know-how, and that our society is losing its soul as it loses touch with language arts. I won’t go into either of these, because I really don’t think they’re the reason why some people hate English class so much, why we classify it as something we have to take, instead of something we want to take.

Here’s what I think our collective fear is: writing (and public speaking too) make a lot of people feel like they do in those dreams where you realize you’re out in public and you’re surprisingly naked. Remember when you were little, and your teacher asked you to read a page out loud, in front of your leering, judgmental peers?  Remember your shock and disgust when you found that someone had stolen your diary? Remember when you wrote a straggly love poem for your teenage crush, and they weren’t impressed? Yup, that’s what I’m talking about-naked, metaphorically speaking, anyway. It’s the worst form of public nudity, actually. Nothing like people pointing and laughing at your ideas.

My very wise mother, also an English teacher, has always insisted that the key to being successful in learning any language is the willingness to take risks. You could be linguistically gifted, exposed to a number of different dialects, read to on a regular basis, and you’d still have to be willing to make a jackass of yourself at some point, screw up a little and have other people see it happen. Language is, after all, a communal thing.

When you write for a living, you get to know this fear of exposure intimately, because you put your work out for public consumption on a regular basis. You either take risks, or you don’t get read. Sometimes you are made fun of, or worse, sometimes no one responds at all. You get used to it (or not), and sometimes you forget that for people who don’t choose language as a career path, writing anything, even something technical or impersonal, can make a person feel incredibly vulnerable and exposed. Like it or not, even in the age of text messages and emojis, being able to express one’s self effectively still holds currency. Choosing this word over that word, using shorter or longer sentences, and properly punctuating all make a world of difference. Even those who claim that “English class is stupid” know this. It’s scary if you’re not confident in your ability to do these things. It’s freakin’ scary even when you are confident.

The pen is mightier than the sword. True in ages past, still true now. Also still true: the pen is heavier than it looks, and it rarely does what we expect it to do. Perhaps instead of shooting the messenger (aka our English teacher), we should be a little more appreciative of those willing to take time to train us in its proper use.

 

The Storymaker and the Elves: A Fairy Tale for Proofreaders

forest-elf-1391563

Once upon a time, there was a humble writer. He was an honest lover of words and ideas, and had toiled for years in service of the muse, struggling to create clever turns of phrases, and hopefully turn a profit. All of this toil brought eye strain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and a profound addiction to caffeine, but alas, it did not allow the writer to make a living at his craft. No matter how many submissions he sent out, he couldn’t get the powers that be to notice his talent.

One night, beleaguered and fresh out of good ideas, he decided to give up, hang up his quill, empty his ink pot and quit this wordsmithing thing. Maybe he’d teach English oversees, get a job in telemarketing, or join the ranks of the retail army. With a sigh, he turned out the lights and went to bed, his latest sloppy magnum opus splayed out over the top of his desk, dotted with angry ink in particularly trying sections.

The next morning, the writer awoke to find that same manuscript arranged neatly, his pen and ink looking alert and ready to work again. It wasn’t like theives to tidy up after breaking in, he thought as he tiptoed over for a closer look. Smartly etched into the pages were tiny correction marks, written by tiny hands. Some indicated overlooked grammar errors, some pointed to missing words, and some even made suggestions for improvements in style and organization. Feeling sheepish, but grateful, the writer set about making the changes, and when he had a new, clean copy ready, he marched it down the street to the local publisher.

The book was an instant success, and within weeks, the writer had enough money to last him the rest of the year. Bolstered by this, the writer hauled out another tattered manuscript, one that he’d abandoned to the mice years ago, and left it on the desk overnight.  To make it look extra pathetic, he rumpled the pages around and tossed a few on the floor.  Sure enough, the next morning, it stood corrected in the same fine handwriting, with the same insightful comments. Like the first manuscript, it proved to be a favourite of those in town.

Out came the rest of the writer’s past failures.  Each appeared in significantly better condition the next morning, and soon after, each became another notch in the writer’s literary belt.  When he’d cornered the fiction market in his region, he decided it was time to find out which benevolent force had helped him receive such acclaim.

Hiding in the pantry one night, he saw a group of tiny elves hunched over the pages of his latest disaster. Although they were making quick work of his corrections, they clearly weren’t happy about being there.  Their mussed hair, flushed cheeks and relentless cursing made it evident.

Feeling guilty, the writer vowed to repay them for their kindness. In anticipation of their next visit, he left a selection of miniature writing implements, a basket of mini muffins, and a small bottle of home brew. He smiled as he fell asleep, thinking he had shown true gratitude.

Evidently wee folk don’t appreciate empty carbs, and they can’t handle hooch. The writer awoke to find his manuscript befouled in unspeakable ways. The elves had left a note that was almost incomprehensible, but still managed to convey a healthy number of expletives and something about him being a rotten bastard for not sharing royalties. The wee pens and pencils he had selected for them were jabbed into the wood of the pantry door inside what looked like a crude drawing of him.

The writer may not have had a critical eye for his own work, but he could take a hint. He stopped leaving out work to be corrected. Figuring he could live quite comfortably from his previous work, he stopped writing entirely and retired somewhere in the dessert, where there probably weren’t elves.

 

What I Learned From Phil: An Arts and Science Love Story

Phil's birthday 2Four years ago, I wrote a book about robots- me, the consummate artsy-fartsy, who still to this day swears up and down that her relationship with technology goes no further than turning devices on and struggling to get them to do something useful.  Granted, the book was for kids, but it still required a leap of faith and a lot of research.  It was nonfiction, and I couldn’t just take poetic license as I went along. A bunch of parents, most of them as unversed in robots as I was, wanted to know more about them so they could keep up with their kids, and so I pulled up my socks and did it. I think it worked.  Soon after the book came an app, and teacher materials, and a handful of fun videos.  My little robot narrator, whom I lovingly named Phil (the first half of Philosophy, of course), has come with me in puppet form to all kinds of events, and this particular work has been recommended by the National Science Teacher’s Association.  Not too shabby, eh?

Writing about Phil was an education in tech, but it also made me realize something important about myself: I’ve always had a toe or two planted in the world of science.  I knew very little about actuators or pseudo code before working on this book, but I’d always had a strong laywoman’s curiosity about how the universe worked.  I’d long been a stargazer and was fascinated by genetics.  As an undergraduate, one of my favourite courses was physical anthropology (I still cough up random facts from it, years later). When I taught at the college level, I loved doing the lecture on Darwin and evolution. Phil made me get specific, but the general foundation had always been there.

What’s more, I was reminded that arts and sciences have a long history together.  A whole lot of the philosophers I had studied were polymaths, and the fact that they covered both ends of arts/science spectrum probably made them better thinkers in general. Since writing about Robots, I’ve worked with a lot of engineers, and the vast majority of them have “artsy” inclinations. Since writing Phil, I’ve done a TEDx talk on the intersection of arts and tech, blogged about it, and have given workshops about STEAM education.  It’s actually become a bit of a passion of mine, and I’m noticing that I’m not alone.

Most importantly, Phil really opened my eyes to the fact that behind just about any major development, invention or discovery are human beings, with really cool stories. All the science fiction I read as an adolescent should have tipped me off to this one. It should come as no surprise that I’m a sucker for really cool stories.

All this from a little cartoon robot.  Happy birthday, Phil!

 

 

 

 

The Red Typewriter: A Fairy Tale for Authors

typewriter

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was an honest, hardworking, humble young woman.  She had a decent job, enough to eat, and a clean place to live.  Her life was pleasant, but not all that exciting.

One day, while perusing the contents of a local garage sale, she came across an old typewriter.  It was a little dusty, but when cleaned off, it revealed itself to be a gleaming shade of scarlet, and it hardly showed any sign of wear.  The young woman fell in love with the feel of its keys beneath her fingers, the click it made when she pressed them, and the mildly musty perfume it emitted.  Her mind conjured images of lazy Sunday afternoons spent spinning yarns, a symphony of audible letters and words filling her apartment, of endless cups of tea and cozy sweaters.  What could be more rewarding than time spent crafting stories?

Of course she took the damn thing home with her. Isn’t that always the way with shiny new things that conjure bohemian fantasies like this? At first, she just played with it, typing out snippets of ideas here and there, enjoying how they looked when splattered on paper.  One day while working, she became a little bored with it, the novelty having worn off just a little bit, but she couldn’t seem to pull her fingers off the keys.  For a moment, she panicked, feeling like she was physically stuck to the thing, like her fingers couldn’t stop punching away, even when she wasn’t sure what she wanted to type anymore.  A good yank pulled her fingers free.

She didn’t touch the typewriter for a few days, fearing that the next time she used it, she’d truly be trapped by it.  She poked her head into the room a few times, admiring the shiny redness of the typewriter, catching little whiffs of the ink. Even from afar, with the terror of being stuck to it still fresh in her mind, it was still enticing.  The feel of putting letters and words together, banging them into a coherent whole as she clicked away, was intoxicating.  She missed it, and her regular everyday life seemed to pale in comparison to it.  This really wasn’t good.

Eventually, she gave in to its siren song, poured herself a strong cup of tea, and went back to typing.  Part of her wasn’t even surprised when her hands really did get stuck to the keys, when she couldn’t seem to stop them from moving from letter to letter at a frantic pace.  She typed for hours, days even, until her knuckles swelled, her hair hung in matted clumps, and her eyes could hardly stay open.  She knew she was pitiful, but she couldn’t help it.  The words just kept coming and she just kept typing.

The universe, in its infinite wisdom, (sort of) took pity on the poor creature and sent a magical fairy godmother to help her escape the enchantment under which she was slaving away. “All will be well” the fairy godmother said “if you simply chop off your hands…and stay the hell away from that infernal thing.  Seriously, what were you thinking, bringing it into your house?”

The young woman looked up from the typewriter, and her hands continued their frantic two-step over the keyboard.  She mulled the idea over in her head.  She’d have stumps, but at least she could go back to her old, simple life.  She’d have a little peace.  She’d…she’d be leaving all those ideas stuck in her hands.  Unacceptable. She hunched back over the typewriter, grunted, and told the fairy godmother to piss off. She had a deadline.

The fairy godmother sighed, her wand drooping by her side.  This wasn’t the first time this had happened, and it wouldn’t be the last.  With the sound of clicking echoing in her ears as she left, she went home and fixed herself a good stiff drink.

Are Fiction Writers Just Chronic Oversharers?

hear no evil

I used to rap students on the knuckles for it (figuratively, of course)- the tendency to confuse an author’s fictional world with his or her private life.  Time and time again I’d hear how thoughtful and kind someone must be if they wrote about redemption and love.  Conversely, students would curse a writer whose stories presented a worldview that was bleak or pessimistic.  I’d gently remind them that it was a writer’s job to imagine new things, to be true to their characters even if they didn’t walk the same path as them, to follow a plot line to its logical conclusion even if it pained them to do so.  I spoke of famous children’s writers who couldn’t stand kids in real life, political revolutionaries whose uprising on paper starkly contrasted their own quiet existence, romance writers who preferred their own quaint love lives to the tumultuous ones of the characters they portrayed.  In my class, we respected the right of an author to not share every detail of their everyday reality in the pages of their books.

Here’s the part where I backpedal a little.  Since my teaching days, I’ve met a lot of writers, and done a whole lot of writing myself, and I can tell you, the walls between what a writer lives and what a writer writes are thinner than I thought. True, you can be a science fiction genius without actually travelling through time and space.  You can produce marvelous historical fiction without having lived through an event. I’d wager many young adult fiction writers haven’t been a young adult for quite a while.  But if you read carefully enough, beyond the superficial details of a story, you’ll see them there. You can’t write about the distant future without being curious and concerned about it.  You can’t capture what happened in the past without having an opinion about it.  If you write for young people, you need to wake up the snoring, dusty younger version of you for advice.  And all of this is okay.  A little injection of one’s own philosophy makes one’s writing genuine and authentic.

What’s surprising to me is that writers also like to dish about themselves in real life.  True, there are a few hermits still out there (J.D. Salinger, please stand up), but in this age of digital confessionals, most wordsmiths aren’t allowed to put anything on a bookstore shelf without at least making an appearance online.  Just like everyone else on the planet, they’re expected to share their own story.  People want to know a bit about the mind that came up with this or that, and from what I’ve seen, a lot of writers are happy to share.  All of this is okay too.  If it’s your job to tell stories, if it’s what you spend hours every day doing, it’s difficult to stop when the laptop is closed and the notebook is back on the shelf.

A little while ago, I heard author Wayson Choy speak at a conference, and he argued that we write because we think what we have to say is important, and based on what I’ve seen of writers, I have to agree.  We think it’s so important that we stay up all night finishing it, bug our friends to read it over for us, and we talk about it to anyone who’ll listen.  We send it out to strangers in the hope that they’ll think it’s important enough to publish it.  We tweet about it, blab about it on Facebook, and yes, even blog about it (ooosh, just got kind of meta in here).

In a way, writers are kind of like that stranger at the bus stop who, in the time it takes to wait for the uptown express, manages to describe their appendectomy in gory detail.  We’re the nervous person at a party who doesn’t know what else to say, and confesses that they never really learned to tell time properly. We’re the guys who belch out loud at the office and then realize there are people in earshot.  Writers can’t help ourselves. We have to blab or we’ll explode.  Thankfully, we make it our business to make our blabbing sound intelligent, to use interesting turns of phrases, and to organize it into manageable chunks.  Most of our real lives aren’t the stuff of action/adventure fiction, but we dress up our experiences and mindsets so that they’re a little more exciting.

To those who indulge us in our oversharing, maybe even enjoy it a little, thank you.  If any of my former students are reading this and you remember a lesson such as the ones mentioned above, well…um…er, did I ever tell you about…