Personal Experience Effect

No matter the effort to avoid it, personal experience—from the drama of relatives to political shenanigans—creeps into every writer’s work, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. The Confederate flag hoopla and the fight for and against the rights of people of color, women, and homosexuals are examples of issues that have proved provocative, disruptive, even destructive in interpersonal relationships and a godsend for the political powers who use division as a control device. Buying into the propaganda of political and media organizations, we make extreme decisions that affect our interpersonal relationships for the rest of our lives. When those decisions involve a writer, you can bet the effects will be reflected in the writer’s work.

Politics is naturally contentious, each generation viewing its own political tomfoolery as more contentious than what came before. Since the advent of 24/7 “news” channels, whose primary purpose is not to report news, but to stoke fear, frustration, hatred, and anger, politics has been exploited fully as a tool to divide and punish rather than to find compromise and serve the common good. I’m not so naïve to believe this use of politics is something new, but its in-your-face nature has strengthened exponentially in recent decades, thanks to technology. We’re assaulted relentlessly through our televisions and radios, computers, smartphones, tablets—umbilically connected to designer “news” sites that feed our prejudice and fear to the point we lose grip on reality and rationality and strike out at all who differ in opinion, worldview, gender, sexuality, religion, lifestyle, or race.

I grew up in South Alabama and Northwest Florida during the late 1950s through the early 1970s. The region wasn’t then nor has it become one of the most tolerant of diversity. Flaming midnight crosses lit up country pastures. Robed, hooded figures gathered like kids at a mega weenie roast, singing angry, hateful campfire songs about folks born of different race or religion, preaching the end of the world was nigh if lesser races acquired the same rights whites already enjoyed. Oh, save us, Jesus! It’s Armageddon! Color me silly, but I don’t think Jesus the Jew would be welcomed at such an event.

A close relative was then and remains a man of the white robe, flames flickering in his eyes, despite his interaction over the decades with a variety of people of color and cultures, thanks to his public sales business. He has never felt a need or desire to question the region’s prevalent stereotypes and fears of people who’re different, to overcome the hatred, to grow. Why, I don’t know. To my knowledge, he’s never suffered physically, financially, or mentally due to malicious acts by any person of color. And he certainly hasn’t lost his rights to groups or individuals gaining their own. He has, however, been a willing, unquestioning consumer of the Wallace/Thurmond/Trump/Helms/Cruz/Santorum/Fox/et.al. stream of fear and hate mongering, never once seeking objective verification to even the most extraordinary claim, never once attempting to understand any issue through a viewpoint other than his own bigotry.

During a phone conversation four years ago, I voiced support for the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. “Don’t you tell me,” he growled, “you like what that communist nigger’s done.” I wasn’t shocked by his response. We’d debated his use of such small-minded epithets on numerous occasions, especially this particular word which he uses not only in reference to anyone black, but also to persons of Middle Eastern, Mexican, and other cultural and racial backgrounds. I suspect he used the word this time simply to anger me as he began a litany of irrational charges against President Obama, that the President had “ruined” the economy, that he’s Muslim, that he’s waging war against Christians, that he’s not even American—all the batty, right-wing talking points and conspiracy theories that even reality can’t counter in the true believer’s mind. Then he asserted that the U.S. should have never pulled out of Iraq, that Obama had secured the destruction of America by doing so.

“We never should have invaded Iraq in the first place,” I said.

He took a breath. “That’s something we agree on,” he said. “We should’ve nuked the hell out of them because them A-rabs ain’t even human.”

That was it.

We were done.

After a lifetime of shared, reluctant tolerance, our relationship had abruptly come to an end.

Earlier this week, my spouse received an email from one of her relatives, an email purporting that the factual histories of the Civil War and Rebel battle flag are instead myth, that the war had little to do with slavery, that the flag is a symbol of only southern heritage, not racism. The sender did not copy me on the mail, perhaps because she understands my view of such bigotry and did not want to risk rebuttal. When my spouse replied to the mail, she copied all to whom the original had been sent, and she copied me as well, addressing the original mail as though her relative had offered it as an example of how gullible people are when something supports their bigoted worldview:

“People will believe anything rather than admitting that it’s been 150 years since the end of the Civil War and we still have racism. How sad and disappointing. As a nation we have made progress, but we still have far to go.”

A day later, the following landed in my mailbox, thanks to my spouse’s relative who hit “reply to all.” It’s presented unaltered:

“No one living today is a slave or has owned a slave, am I wrong in not liking group of people who have different views of life than I do? I have always been told ‘your rights end when they intruded on mine’ how much longer do we as Americans need to bend over and take it up the as…before these people realize they need to start to take care of themselves? This crap has been going on for years. The American public has, in my opinion done way too much to make amends for what has happened in the past and they still want more, work for it like the rest of us have done and quit asking for a hand out.”

It would have been wise not to reply to the rant, but I’m not a wise man. I thought that, by engaging the writer in a rational, fact-based discussion, he might look beyond the hyperbole of pundits, might change his mind. So I responded, copying all on the list:

“Thanks for your entertaining mail. If you would like to engage in a rational debate on specific issues, backing your points with objective, valid sources (not political organizations such as Fox News or DailyKos), I’d be happy to debate you. However, specifics are required. For example, instead of generalizations such as ‘these people,’ define whether they are black, of Mexican descent like yourself, Jewish, Middle Eastern, East Indian, Asian, etc., since the average southern white lumps all races of color into the same lesser-than category. Another example would be ‘handouts’ and the group to which the so-called handout is provided–social security, Medicare, food stamps, housing assistance, etc.–and how it affects you and how or why it is right or wrong. Back your argument with objective sources. Another example is ‘your rights end when they intrude on mine.’ Be specific. For example, do you mean you have the right to fly a Nazi flag on your property, but you don’t have the right to demand government or public entities to fly the flag on their buildings or property since that property represents all people? Or I have the right to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster but not to force you to say my prayers in school?

“You get the idea.

“If you and the others in this mail exchange do not desire a rational debate but would prefer to vent anger and frustration over issues based on the ‘factual’ nonsense regarding the Confederate flag that began this exchange, I prefer to be left out of the loop.\

“Take care…”

A few moments later: “Fuck you.”

My response: “Okay.”

Then: “Just forget my email address and I don’t ever want to see you or any of your family again. Chris you are a looser.”

“For future reference,” I replied, “it’s ‘loser,’ not ‘looser.’”

When we refuse to engage in rational discussion, when we set our minds so rigidly based on irrational hatred and fear, when we refuse to consider another point of view unless it agrees with our own, when we refuse to grow, all of us are losers.

From fiction to poetry, creative nonfiction to straight reporting, personal experience colors my work in some way. One example of experience influencing my nonfiction work began with intervention in three on-the-street domestic violence incidents in Hawaii in the early1980s, which led to an article for Honolulu Magazine on the state’s problem of domestic violence, what police termed “local love.” The article helped in a small way to push a mandatory arrest bill through the state legislature to become law, requiring police to arrest aggressors when responding to domestic violence calls. In fiction and poetry, the above relatives, as well as others, have provided models for characters in stories such as “Side-Road Shack” and “Luau,” the novel Big Daddy’s Fast-Past Gadget, and in many of the poems in White Trash & Southern ~ Collected Poems, Volume I.

We writers are grateful to the relatives who manufacture drama, the politicians who stir the pot of fear and hatred, the citizens in our communities who fuel suspicion and discontent. By simply being who they are, these people prove an ironic benefit to writers. We thank them for helping us to explore the irrational, the hateful, the destructive through the characters they inspire. If, by chance, our work benefits the reader or society at large in any measure, we owe them that much more gratitude.

Yes, we’re deeply indebted to them.

I wish we weren’t.

The Cooperative Option

Publishing has experienced extraordinary change over the last 35 years. I began writing as a journalist, first for newspapers, then for magazines, both on-staff and freelance. I wrote about sports, about politics and politicians, about laws made and broken, about things that affected people’s lives, but the writing was journalistic and strictly a vehicle for information, information that was readily available via other vehicles. So I turned to writing fiction and poetry, writing that enabled me to communicate more than bare facts, writing that allowed me to explore reality through fantasy, truth through lies. The most difficult obstacle, however, wasn’t developing a style or voice. It was finding a publisher.

Back then, self-publication wasn’t an option, at least for me. It suggested the writer’s work wasn’t good enough to be published by a legitimate publisher, which meant it wasn’t good enough to be published at all. Self-publishing required an extra helping of self-confidence and a solid bank account because publishing wasn’t cheap. Self-published writers were suspected of being well-off egotists, satisfying their vanity by buying a byline. It’s not quite the same now. Thanks to a conservative traditional publishing industry and significant advances in publishing technology, the stigma once associated with independent publishing has vanished

Traditional publishers always have been somewhat conservative in the projects they take on, limiting risks because getting a book to market requires substantial investment. As large publishers gobbled up smaller publishers, decreasing diversity and competition, they became even more hesitant to take on new authors and new ideas, resulting in today’s homogenized market of copycat copycatting. Occasionally, however, something new breaks through. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me come to mind, both starting out at small publishers where their works proved successful enough to entice major publisher backing, backing that set about exploiting every possibility that could be connected to the works. Success stories like theirs, however, are the exception rather than the norm.

Despite random breakthroughs, traditional publishers have systematically narrowed offerings into predefined marketing niches, limiting diversity and denying opportunity to authors whose work penetrates the boundaries. And the writers who do sign with conventional publishers find themselves saddled with increasing responsibilities once the publishers’ sole domain—promotion, design, production aspects, and more. In short, publishers once took care of business, and writers took care of writing. No longer. Writers today progressively are burdened with the bulk of pre- and post-publication tasks while receiving a shrinking percentage of their book’s net earnings.

Enter technology and the path to accessible independent publishing, enabling writers and artists to get their work to audiences affordably and without the assistance of conventional publishers. Technology upended the music industry in the 1990s, and now it’s doing the same to the publishing industry. Unbridled access, however, enables both the talented and talentless to publish easily. For conscientious writers, for professionals, some basics of traditional publishing must be retained and maintained. That’s where writers’ cooperatives come in.

Frustrated after thirty-one years of writing professionally for traditional publishers, I’ve joined with other writers, musicians, and artists around the world to form Cooperative Ink, a collective of creative individuals with decades of experience in traditional publishing who have decided to seek broader audiences for their work through independent publishing. Professional artistic cooperatives offer no haven for the vanity author. Instead, a cooperative’s strength is built upon creative people assisting creative people, from basic editing to book layout and publishing, from drafting news releases and development of conventional promotional avenues to managing social networking and personal appearances—all with the goal of providing a diverse variety of high-quality, professional literature, music, and other entertainment to audiences bored with the umpteenth version of the latest copycat darling.

A place will always exist for traditional publishing and those within who make their living off the work of writers—editors, marketing personnel, agents, etc. But technology now affords worthy writers once shunned by an industry insisting on conformity the chance to take their work economically and professionally to the public. Both writers and readers are far better off for it.

Please visit the Cooperative Ink website at http://www.cooperativeink.com as members release new work they’ve enjoyed creating, work they hope you will enjoy experiencing.

The Business

Samuel Montgomery-Blinn is the publisher/editor of the extraordinary magazine Bull Spec. Recently, I contributed to the magazine’s web-column, The Hardest Part, where authors contribute articles on the “hardest part” in bringing their latest books to publication. Contributing to the column was a pleasure and honor in several ways because the book, Rise Up, on which the column centers, takes its name from the story “Rise Up,” the cover feature of Bull Spec’s debut issue. It is always a delight to work with Sam and Bull Spec. Please visit Bull Spec’s column site for this article and more by other authors on “the hardest part.”

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I am not a businessman. Nor am I a public relations expert. And I do not want to be.

So it’s no surprise after nearly three decades as a professional writer–newspaper staffer, magazine editor, and freelancer—the business of writing—manuscript marketing and book promotion—remains for me the hardest part of the process. That doesn’t mean everything else comes easily. Creative writing is work, no matter how many Joe Blows brag “I’ve got a really great idea for a novel I’m going to write as soon as I get a little extra time.” The talent for writing creatively, contrary to hot air declarations, is not developed overnight. In fact, most career writers rarely feel they’ve developed the craft fully, no matter how long they’ve been at it. But they understand and accept the devotion, self-motivation, and sacrifice of time with loved ones required in choosing writing as a career, forsaking pursuits that may offer more immediate rewards.

The ability to hook publisher or agent interest in a manuscript is a mystery to me, a tall hurdle to clear, and I’m astonished with each success. After all, an author must compete with an ever-increasing number of seasoned and novice writers by summarizing a complicated plot and months, perhaps years, of work into a single paragraph that delivers everything a publisher or agent requires to say yes, even though the book/story/article is probably no better or worse than the majority of its competitors, only different. Talk about odds… Once that first sale is made, subsequent sales may become easier—Rise Up, my latest book from Mundania Press (I’m quite proud the title story appears in the debut issue of Bull Spec) may have had an easier time due to an established relationship with the publisher and the fact that most of the collection’s stories have been previously published in magazines—but the business is rarely, if ever, a cakewalk.

The second hurdle comes after publication when promotional responsibilities–including those traditionally assumed by publishers—fall increasingly upon writers. Writers are now charged with securing most reviews, promoting through blog events, arranging signings and promotional events for which the writer supplies the books to sell (all once upon a time the publisher’s responsibility), purchasing and placing advertising, and more. For those who haven’t had the good fortune of hitting the bestseller lists—meaning most writers—promotional funds are usually a tad limited, crippling the ability to promote effectively. So writers must go after less costly opportunities, from the obvious free copies to reviewers in the hope of scoring a published review, to contributing to various blog events, to exposing the book to potential readers through channels such as my bimonthly newsletter, developed to promote my work and the work of other musicians and writers, regularly offering special perks such as free eBooks and music. Further, a writer must maintain a presence on social networks such as Facebook.com (crap) and Goodreads.com (excellent), operate an active, frequently updated website, participate in conferences, conduct workshops, and engage the press at every opportunity. For someone who shuns the personal spotlight, these activities are quite daunting, consuming precious time that could be devoted to producing new work.

Beyond the hurdles of manuscript marketing and book promotion lies the reward of engaging readers by providing what I hope is a story that’s entertaining and thought provocative. To personalize Rise Up, I include a short introduction to each story, detailing story inspiration or specific challenges encountered from the original publisher. Connecting with readers is something I relish, second only to the creative process.

As for the business of writing, I crave its elimination, an impossible eventuality. Of course, I could do an Emily Dickinson, shoving my work into a drawer to languish until I’m dead and gone, but that’s simply not an option. So what’s left? For me, it’s to continue the figurative pounding on publishers’ doors, enticing reviewers, participating in an endless array of promotional activities—in other words, doing whatever it takes to get my work into the hands of readers. And though the business is the hardest part, I refuse to cave in desperation and defeat. I love the act of writing and the engagement of readers too much to give up.

Critically Speaking

Recent heinous acts by extremists, motivated by intense critical rhetoric, have set the media abuzz, with pundits defending and condemning critics for denying responsibility for their words. Critics have come a long way, applying their observations to every facet of private and public life with strident rhetoric that has elevated them to a level of prominence and power never before possessed. American journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken warned long ago that “Criticism is prejudice made plausible,” something that every writer with work to come under a critic’s damning gaze had already realized by the time of Mencken’s observation. “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics,” English playwright John Osborne confessed, “is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs.”

Plato may be the one responsible for infecting society with criticism as a profession when he condemned poets and poetry in his work The Republic. Aristotle didn’t help matters with his critical counter response in Poetics. He, instead, ensured someone would write a counter-counter-response, which ensured a counter-counter-counter-response, which ensured a—well, you get the idea—until a good number of complainers figured out that, by condemning or praising someone else’s work, they could make a buck. Critics have since gnawed their way through the arts to infiltrate every aspect of life with the blather of critical analysis and condemnation twenty-four/seven.

Lucky us.

Critical analysis, whether the topic is literary, musical, political, social, or whatever, is made through and delivered from a specific person’s worldview of reality, just as this essay is written from my own personal and quite prejudiced viewpoint. The problem arises when the critic expects or, increasingly, demands that the audience accept critical analysis without question or examination, to see and judge the subject of the analysis through only the critic’s narrow viewpoint.

My book Divorced Dads: Real Stories of Facing the Challenge explored how divorced fathers in uncommon and extreme circumstances maintained close and positive relationships with their children, offering pointers and solid, productive advice to fathers in less extreme situations. The point, as detailed in the book’s foreword, was to provide perspective for divorced fathers and examples of fathers who, in uncommon challenging circumstances, maintained healthy relationships with their children, no matter the forces working against them. The intent escaped one critic who called the book the best gift a vindictive divorced woman could present to her ex-husband if she wanted to finish him off emotionally. The critic was certainly entitled to his opinion and to his inability to comprehend the book’s message, even when stated outright, but was he entitled to inflict his views on others, to mislead and prevent some fathers from improving their situation by learning from the fathers detailed in the book? Yes, he was. It wasn’t his responsibility to be honest or fair. It was the reader’s responsibility to think independently.

An extraordinary genre magazine debuted last year, featuring some up-and-coming authors whose stories proved extraordinary. Every critic reviewing the magazine admitted as much, but each felt compelled to point out something “wrong” with the magazine and/or the stories, no matter how far-reaching. While one admitted that the technique of flashback worked extremely well for a particular story, he didn’t like the technique personally and, thus, concluded the story suffered because of that. Another suggested that the premises for most of the stories were thin, sacrificed for the sake of plot and characterization. Perhaps the critic thought the same about classics that employed such thin premises as persons physically transformed into wolves by a full moon, or the presence of gravity on starships zipping through a weightless void, or impressive kabooms when death stars explode in the vacuum of space, or some alien monster uncovered after centuries under arctic ice, able to change its cell structure to match its dinner, or maybe some mad scientist whose potion turns him into Piltdown Man. Thin premises, it appears, result in extraordinarily entertaining stories, critical analyses notwithstanding.

Critics today have surpassed the danger level with their analyses, threatening to lose any ability to provide unbiased or sound guidance about their subject. The majority of today’s critics cheat, fool, berate, and belittle listeners and readers into believing and thinking as they tell us to, suggesting and even convincing us that their views, sound or warped, are our own views. We forget we have choice. We forget we have voice. We forget we are individuals.

Remember the 1976 movie Network? It accurately predicted the demise of journalism, particularly television journalism, into a clown act of entertainment, audacity, and critical extremism. Peter Finch’s character, Howard Beale, the veteran journalist who became the movie’s messiah of broadcast news, upon realization of the social harm being perpetrated by the new “news media,” urges his huge TV audience to go to their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” And he tells them to turn off TV, to turn him off, to think for themselves.

It’s time we listened to Howard Beale, even if he is a fictional character. We all benefit by turning off the critic—TV, radio, print, internet. Eliminating the relentless palaver of negativity can decrease the acts inspired by insipid and vitriolic critical rhetoric. By using our own intellect, we can better choose our entertainment, our politicians, our brand of body lotion, our cars, our futures. We can contemplate, comprehend, and decide on our own once again, defining likes and dislikes based on our personal and individual realities and worldviews, not the views of others.

At the same time, we must put the challenge to critics to tone down their rhetoric, to approach subjects calmly, rationally, to take the same advice as Thumper took in the 1942 movie Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Or, at the very least, be constructive and respectful.

Enough said.