Writing again

Writer’s Confessional: A List of My Sins

 I am an unrepentant writing sinner. There. I’ve said it. I suspect I’m not alone, but it’s rare to hear anyone admit to these  human problems. Today I’m coming clean, and it feels good. I think I’ll call it pixel therapy. Most conventional wisdom  rubs me the wrong way every time I read it. (Every. Single. Time.) The litany of the writing profession labels me a woeful sinner in desperate need of salvation, one who must change her ways to succeed. According to various guidelines issued by Real Writers (TM)  I am the worst writer in the world.
Today, I’m saying, “Suck it, world. You’re right, but I don’t care.”  This is my little corner of the interverse, where I get to shout out my happies, my sads, and, yes, my sins. How am I a sinner? Oh, let me count the ways.
If you read the previous paragraph, you know I’ve got this one. I know what stories I want to tell, and if they don’t fit the standard forms, then the forms can suck my toes. I know what works for me. I know what’s best. I’m prideful, because Real Writers don’t behave like that. Real Writers listen eagerly to suggestions, offer their work up for criticism and change it in response. They diligently follow the strictures of the craft that have been set down by older, smarter, and traditionally-published writers.  I dodge the classic definition of this sin only because I know I am not nearly as wise, as talented. or as knowledgeable as many others. I do invite and listen to criticism. I do know the forms and standards. I simply reserve the right to willfully reject them. Willful, that’s me, and I am considered a lesser writer for it. To which I say, phhhhffllbbt. Because prideful.
I get jealous. When other people sell writing I consider no better than my own, I turn quite pea-green on the inside, and that makes me a wretched sinner.  You see, Real Writers don’t admit jealousy. Real Writers become gushing fonts of pep when confronted by success. Oh, it’s fine to feel envy. Everyone feels it, but it’s tacky and unprofessional to admit it.  Think the successful writer’s work creaks? Too bad!  Shut up and wave those pompoms. Believe in your heart of hearts that your work is superior? Who cares? Throw the confetti and glitter! It’s the way things are done. It’s mature. It’s professional.
It’s bullshit. What a horrible cultural norm this is. It can cut like knives to see others rewarded while you stand rejected in the shadows, and I don’t think anyone should be judged harshly for bleeding. (And yes, my opinion is what counts. See: Pride)  There is plenty of middle ground between “you don’t deserve that,” and “Your story is so great. No wonder you’re getting famous!” Hypocrisy poisons everything. I’ll never believe anyone who tells me my work is good to my face, because I know that the indie author culture does not reward honesty. (Don’t even get me started on the damage inflationary reviews and ratings cause. That’s a whole ‘nother post.)
Hoo, yes, I get accused of anger.  In my defense, what I call anger wasn’t always a sin. At some point during the last few decades, the sin of wrath — overreactive, disproportionate anger — became conflated with any display of negativity. Be positive is the order of the day now. Think happy thoughts. Focus on successes. Find the bright side to every black moment. Wish and make it so. Banish negative people and negative energy.
 Give me an effing break.  (But please, do not give me the cognitive behavioral therapy party line. I will drop links on you. This is not a condemnation of that. I reject only the sweeping misuse of a useful tool.)  The heat of anger can be a powerful motivator. I could more easily remove my own appendix than excise my sense of injustice and its attendant indignation. Unpleasant emotions can drive growth and feed creativity just as well as warm fuzzies. Sunshine Bear is not my avatar. Stitch is. Call me sinner.
I want more. More time, more ideas, more recognition, and yes, more readers. My measuring stick for success may be modest by worldly standards (a dozen positive reviews by people who don’t know me personally, enough profits to cover editing & shipping costs) but it exists. Real Writers create Art for Art’s sake. They have muses. I have a supportive husband. I write for the express purpose of being read by others. I write to connect. I. Want. More.
Early writings that mention this sin called it acedia. It’s one of those old words that translate imprecisely. “Sloth” can be legitimately defined as despair or listlessness rather than laziness. And despair–that emotion, that behavior and its consequences–that deserves a post of its own. Next time.
Here endeth today’s confession. Did any of it sound familiar? Any other sinners out there? What do you think? Do we have a shot at salvation?
Watching for sinners.
New Post

Time for a pit stop

Today’s writing analogy is brought to you by my long-overdue viewing of the 24 hours of Le Mans. Yup. That’s right.  I’m about to compare my writing and publishing experience to racing cars.

 Let’s say I can do the writing part. Let’s say I’m a great driver of a fantastic writing machine. All my talent and passion and hard work with my vehicle won’t get me to the finish line of a race. I can’t fix the car’s tires, pump the fuel or tinker with the gearbox. I can’t keep up with the maintenance, do the repairs and drive at the same time. No one can.

This is not a writer’s pit crew.

I need a pit crew. There are aspects to this publishing gig that I cannot do myself. I need to face that reality as I move from amateur to pro status.  I am an unknown beginner entering a race right along with a field of seasoned professionals.  I need a solid team of devoted backers with me for every trip around the track if I ever expect to fight my way into the standings.

This isn’t about requesting a little help when I need it, or fielding opinions here and there. This is about not having to ask.  It’s emotionally exhausting to have to repeatedly approach others with metaphorical hat in hand, begging for crumbs of attention over and over. It poisons every conversation I have with friends, and it reduces my fragile psyche to the useless, disgusting texture of pink slime.

When a race car goes into the pits, people swarm all over it without hesitation. The driver doesn’t ask for help. The need is anticipated. A bunch of specialists work together to get the vehicle ready for the next stage. The crew members tag in and out of the action, and they don’t do the same thing on every visit, but every time, that team works with the driver to get the car moving again.

After two solid years of writing effectively in isolation–years spent learning how to race, to stretch my analogy–I’ve spent the last few months struggling over each new word. The reasons finally gelled for me while I was watching that never-ending race coverage. I’m patching the gas line when I should be concentrating on the track. I’m concentrating on my weaknesses instead of my strengths. That’s a traumatic thing to do, mentally, and stressed minds do not create. They disintegrate.

I’m looking for a few special people willing to step up and say, “Yes, rely on us. You don’t have to wonder what will happen when you pull onto the shoulder with smoking tires and a bumper hanging loose. We will be there–ready, willing and able to put you in order and keep you up and running. We officially want to be part of your unpaid crazy venture into independent publishing. We want shoulder patches and matching teeshirts and mentions in the dedications. We want free books.”

Pit Task Descriptions:

Like members of a real pit crew, you might only be able to do one thing, or you might want to be on the line for every check-in. Beloved In-House Reader has volunteered for all these duties except cover art, but there’s only one of him. The idea is to get as many people doing each job, all at the same time.

Alpha Reader
“Be willing to read short snippets of work in progress and offer basic critiques and encouragement in a timely fashion.” This means that when asked, you can respond within a few days and cough up basic commentary within a week. An example of basic commentary would be, “It doesn’t suck. Keep going. The first page was a little confusing. Also, where did the owl come from?” I need this now, I need this regularly. I am a needy person.

Beta Reader
“Be willing to read a completed rough work from beginning to end and offer extensive feedback on plot and character.” I would provide some ideas, but your input could come in whatever form you prefer. Example questions might include “Did the beginning catch your interest right away, or was there a point when you would’ve put it down? Was there any character who didn’t feel real?” Etc. You could provide feedback in any form you like. Lists, track-changed docs, crayon on construction paper, whatevs. The kicker piece is time again. If a month isn’t enough time to skim through a story and throw your gut impressions down in print, then don’t sign on for this job.

“Be willing to proof completed beta-passed manuscripts prior to official electronic publishing.” This meshes well with beta reading for some people. Some beta readers can’t work without proofing as they go along. I’m one of those. The thing is, an editor who’s been a beta reader might have to read almost-the-same-manuscript twice.” I wouldn’t need this for novels — I have a great pro editor, but I don’t have the money to spend on pro editing for short pieces.  I would gladly shower gratitude on any and all volunteers who would tackle those.

Cover Art: I am not an artist. I always need suggestions, stock art, and feedback on my dumb ideas…

Every pit crew has a guy who stands in front of the car with a little sign that says “stop” on one side and “go” on the other. I always wanted that job. Anyone could do it. That’s promotion, on my pit crew. Anyone can brag to their friends, family and total strangers about this fantastic author they know, the one who writes kickass stories about men and women living in worlds a lot like ours, only different.

As a matter of fact, I would beg everyone on the pit crew help with promotions now and then (for reasons that will get a post of their own)  plus keep an eye out for creative ways to get out the word about my amazing books. “Help Karen get the word out” could be the team motto.

Anyone want to sign on for this insanity? Anyone? The perks are not stellar. You get free reading material. You get to participate in the nitty-gritty of the creative process, with the potential to see your ideas become part of a story. There might be baked goods. There would be free books.  The obligation is there too, though. This is asking for a real commitment. Don’t feel bad about saying no, or voting no by silence. It’s all good. I will still love you all as much as I do now. (I love anyone who reads anything I write a whole lot. Buckets worth. Boodles, even.)

But if you do step up to the line, if you join my crew, then we can get started designing a teeshirt logo. And a badge. Dawnrigger Publishing Pit Vipers, maybe. I dunno. What say you?

We Win!
Writing again

An Uncomfortable Stew of Shortcomings

This post has been simmering for a while. I can’t seem to bring it to a full boil, but it won’t stop bubbling, so I’m going to pour out the mess and call it done. Deep thoughts get bitter if you let them cook too long in the pot. Time to pull out the ladle and serve up my latest navel-gazing contemplations.  I’ve labeled the post with  “discrimination, harassment, guilt, and violence.” Proceed at your own risk.

I keep reading that labels are limiting, that strong people and wise ones reject labels and embrace the complexity of life. The idea makes me physically ill. I need labels. Labels shape my world. They shape me. They compress the vast, baffling incomprehensible, battering sensory chaos of reality into forms I can grasp. What I can grasp, I can shape. What I can shape, I can master.  I love defining, categorizing, dividing, organizing, sorting, and classifying things, actions, and yes, people.

Good people don’t do that. Guess that means I’m weak and stupid? (Oh, look. Labels.) Yes, social and emotional labels can be brutally destructive. They can flay egos, erode confidence, ruin lives. They can kill. Yes, all true, but the act of labeling does not do that damage. The nature of the label, the dissonance between label and self-label, the inability to move from the cave of shadows into the light of substance — that is where failure lies. Applying labels is not inherently wrong. It’s human. Moving from definition to devaluation is where things usually go wrong, and refusing to accept correction is an unhappily common evil.

When it comes to my own labels. I would rather make peace with them and grow through them than shed them. They have warped me, I’m sure. I was the selfish, ungrateful child, the oblivious dreamer who didn’t understand how the world worked.  I was the awkward sickly one. When I grew older, I added weird, bitch and dyke (Pre-internet, and naive as hell, I had to look up dyke at the library to find out why it was scrawled on my locker. Bitch, now–bitch made me cry right away.) Those labels left marks, but those pressures shaped me, and I like who I am. I won’t give up any part of myself, and I can’t struggle through my days without the freedom to look at people and things and say friend/foe, attractive/not,  interesting/not, helpful/irritating/both, male/female/notsure, fun/boring and all the rest.

I can refuse to make unthinking value judgments. I can refuse to accept first impressions as final ones. And I can work against my own label-affections to quickly adapt and change my perceptions when errors are pointed out. But I can’t stop applying labels based on what my senses tell me.

Speaking of labels, I detest the word feminist. The idea of calling myself one makes my skin crawl with disgust. That’s an horrible thing to admit, given that I believe to the marrow of my bones that men and women are inherently equal and deserve equal opportunities at all stages of life.  I applaud others for embracing the philosophy by its proper name, like I can be perfectly happy that others enjoy being called cute. (That’s another label that grates on me like sandpaper. Notice that I’m not blaming the label itself…but I digress.) I roll my eyes at any woman who says that they “don’t need feminism.” I silently judge them. I still loathe the word.

It’s the associations. It’s my own experience. It When I was in my formative years, the feminists in the spotlight were people like Bela Abzug and Gloria Steinem and organizations like NOW,  who assertively and loudly declared that women didn’t need men and that men were evil. It galls me when I hear people now insist that feminists don’t believe those things and never did. It’s revisionist history at its worst.  I read the essays. I listened to the speeches. In the 70’s, American feminist leaders did, in fact, and in print, declaim the entire male population as irreparably flawed and accuse the whole sex of deliberate, aggressive, violent oppression. They made broad sweeping negative generalizations and dismissals of the exactly the same kind they despised men for making. They did, publicly and repeatedly, disrespect women who made “traditional” personal choices. Women who didn’t toe the political feminist line on every issue were called traitors to their sex.

I believed then, and believe now, that the movement squandered huge opportunities for change by alienating people like me, who had no desire to be associated with hate-based organizations. I still deeply resent that my belief in equality is associated forevermore with the negative proclamations of those years. For me, the word is as ruined as nationalism or socialism.  Those are two other concepts whose good names were sullied not only by the propaganda of their detractors, but by the actions of their adherents. I believe in the principles. I just can’t stand the trappings.

Sexual Harassment
It doesn’t happen to me. Should I feel guilty about that? I do, sometimes. Oh, I don’t mean that I’m magically exempt from systemic oppression. I am subject to the same handicaps of any female in a male-dominated culture. Those burdens weigh lighter on my shoulders than on those of many others, though, and I have no explanation for it.  I feel incredibly lucky, and undeserving, and guilty as hell that I have never attracted random sexual attention. I have boobs and a booty. They’ve never been groped without my approval. (Possibly once on a crowded dance floor. Once. Ever.) I’ve gotten honks and catcalls as I’ve walked, sure, but never felt a sense of personal threat. I’ve never been confronted sexually, or cornered, or lewdly propositioned.

I’m not young. I was driving before the movie 9 to 5 came out. Abuse was an assumed aspect of employment when I hit the job market. Improving work environments was barely an idea, yet I have never suffered the humiliations and personal violations that my relatives and friends have.  My sister told me once about rocking and mumbling while awaiting public transit, because it deterred unwanted male attention. I’d never considered the problem. No one ever accosted me.

 There’s a comedian who talks about the element of uncertainty and threat (“is this my rape? Is it going to happen this time?”)  that colors some confrontations with men — and the unfunny truth that every confrontation has the potential for violence. I do know that feeling. I’ve observed aggressions aplenty. I’ve watched others get squashed in their seats or pressed in crowds. I’ve seen guys bothering acquaintances after a pickup line was courteously declined. The everyday hostilities do not touch me, like death’s shadow passing over the first born of the Hebrews in Egypt. I wonder, what unspoken signal do I send, what vibe do I vibe, what pheromone I exude, that I’ve so far been exempt? Or is it just luck? I don’t know. In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter. I can only go on as I have and hope for the best.

I’m left with this strange painful impression that I haven’t earned my badges. I have no street cred. My understanding is that of education, not experience. Not that I want those experiences. No. Emphatically not. Not at all, and my heart goes out to those who have endured them, but it’s a heart that can only beat in sympathy, not clench in empathy. That never feels adequate. It isn’t enough.  It’s alienating, to be in a demographic but not of it. 

So. Those are the big three topics that have been chafing my chitlins lately. There are more, but that’s more than too much for one confessional. I need to go find some pictures of kittens or watch clips of laughing babies for a while. Happy ideas to paste over the raw uncomfortable places.

There. The pot is no longer boiling over.

Writing again

Pushing Limits & Nurturing Growth

Dirty Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” but what does that mean?

For me, it means this: unknown limits can’t be tested. The only way to know what I can do is to do it. The psychological comfort zone never holds me for long. I seek out activities that make me uncomfortable, skating the edge between personal growth and emotional damage. On the physical side, I can’t stop working or playing until I’m too exhausted to continue. It’s who I am.

 For those unfamiliar with the concepts of comfort, stretch and panic zones, and their significance, here’s a little graphic. Humans learn best when we get out of the comfort zone, when we’re stressed enough to stimulate new brain connections. We stretch and grow. When people are hit with too much, too fast, however,  it pushes us out into the red danger zone, where fear erases connections and sears the brain with stress hormones.

  Prowling the hot line between stretch and panic zones might be a mild form of adrenaline addiction or an undiagnosed bipolar issue, but reasons aside, that is where I live. The new makes me giddy with enthusiasm, and curiosity is my besetting sin.  Mastery is always my goal, and repeated failure is the route to mastery. It’s a form of competition, this constant testing of myself against myself, and I am a competitive monster right down to my toes. (See this post for examples.)

This lifestyle has consequences.  One, it creates a high level of self-awareness about my strengths and weaknesses. Two, it creates a ferocious desire to protect my few comfort zone choices, because those zones are already so small and under such constant pressure.

 In the months since I first published my books, I have learned a lot from the worldwide community of independent writers.  Self-publishing experts dispense pearls of wisdom like these:
Get yourself out there. Write letters and send out work. Do con panels. Build a database of contacts. Court fans. Be sociable. Be outgoing. Negotiate with strangers. Set up signings.  Talk up your work at every opportunity. Push, talk, connect, network. I can do those things. I am a salesman’s daughter, and I can dance the social dance so well that thousands of people would swear that I’m a shiny, happy extrovert.  I have polished skills. I can sell an image. I can sell myself.

 I can’t do it and be a writer too. There’s the rub. I realized recently that I have wandered across a line, and lurched into a molten hot danger zone. Here’s another graphic, because I’m in a picture-worth-a-thousand words mood:

I’m turning my back on any possibility of making it to the top through dogged persistence and relentless self-promotion. I need to step away from it before I do any more damage to myself.

I am a challenge addict who craves all that is difficult and untried, but I am also a deeply fragile introvert, one who needs long periods of solitude and only blossoms in emotionally inclusive spaces. If you think that dichotomy sounds odd, try living it. Balancing contradictory traits is an exhausting job, and every lurch off-center results in painful cycles of misery and self-loathing.

 When I strip off the polished shell and open up my raw heart, the demands of marketing recede so far beyond comfort that they end up in a different time zone. I know promotion isn’t easy for anyone, but there’s hard, and there’s adamantium hard. There’s stretching, and there’s being strapped to a medieval torturer’s rack. Writing is already a huge stretch out of my comfort zone,  a major undertaking I can’t safely manage alone.  I need to protect the tiny comfort zone developing beneath that growth far more than I need to develop myself as a brand.

As of today, I am sinking back into the bluish depths, writing and stretching in a limited way with the help of some few others. I’ll continue on my own unsteady schedule and present the work in my own hesitant, self-deprecating way.  I will remain unknown and unread. I’ll salve the pain of obscurity with the balm of choice.

 Call me unprofessional. Call me lazy.  I’m ready to accept the insults, if it means my soul quiets enough that I can hear the whispers of story again. Sneer away. Pity me for the cowardice of refusing to reach the biggest audience possible. Go ahead. I won’t mind. I”ll be over there in the corner, writing.

This is me, stepping away from the line, being a cat who walks by herself.