The Un-Conference Kitty

by RS on November 12, 2014

Image: AMI Wallpapers

Image: AMI Wallpapers

A week ago I was in Salem, MA, attending the very first Writer UnBoxed UnConference. During the first evening, I sat at a table with a group of people I’ve been online friends for at least three years. We were a motley group from all over the U.S., but also from Australia, Canada, and Spain.

Before the start of the conference, we communicated via the Un-Con page on Facebook. At some point there was an informal poll about introverts and extroverts, and it appeared the conference would be attended by a majority who are shy and reticent by nature.  And yet, I believe many of us fibbed. With the exception of one person out of eighty attendees, we were a boisterous group with enough words spoken to fill pages and pages of books. Now I am dubious when a writer says he or she is an introvert (and I should add that I’m not as aloof as I’ve claimed in the past).

Before leaving for Salem, I was nervous. Skittish I would miss the turn-off to the Mass Pike and end up somewhere in the deep south (I didn’t). Anxious whether my roomie and I would get along for five days (we’ve become friends). Uneasy about the WIP and how long it was taking me to write (so what? There are others in the same situation). These were silly worries, but I had real apprehension about who we are online versus who we are in the actual world of hard knocks.

Eighty writers. Think about it for a minute. Eighty individuals with a knack for observation and eavesdropping. Eighty people who use real settings, real problems, real people for inspiration to craft a story. Eighty artists with opinions about good versus bad writing. Eighty coffee drinkers; eighty imbibers of spirits; eighty neurotics of varying degrees.

I’ve participated in workshops and writing groups in the past—both on and off-line. I stopped attending because many fostered a mean-spirited competitive environment. The first workshop I attended one writer proudly announced she never read a Stephen King book. Her scorn for King and his readers set a nasty tone for the entire workshop, dividing the class into those who read horror and popular fiction versus those who read literary fiction. Did I get anything out of it? Just a $600 hole in my checking account.

In another workshop egos were bundled in neat packages along with the notebooks and sample WIP pages. Cliques formed (the instructor led one); harsh and unconstructive critiques ridiculed both the story and writer felt like those ALS buckets of ice water dumped on you. Another $600 hole in my checking account with the added hurt and humiliation.

Suffice it to say I was nervous about spending so much money for what could  amount to an unstatisfactory experience. The surprise—and a breathtaking one—was all egos where checked at the door. Published authors shared their trials and tribulations about writing, marketing, and frustrations about the industry. Newly agented writers shared their stories of rejections until they landed a prized agent; writers who were struggling to get their stories right commiserated. There was no genre snobbery. We were all united. We were all equals. Our online selves were no different from our offline selves. We were and continue to be genuine, or borrowing Therese Walsh’s term: velveteen.

Therese Walsh, co-founder of Writer Unboxed, The Facebook Writer Unboxed Moderator Team—Vaughn Roycroft, Valerie Chandler, Heather Reid—have nurtured a community of writers where we feel safe. No head or guilt trips; no public shaming. Instead we share our concerns about a competitive business; perservering and continuing to tap away at the keyboard; our insecurites and struggles; our stories. No judgments, but encouragement to keep writing. The same spirit we have online was alive and thrived in Salem.

I have $1000 less in my checking account, and although I didn’t play in the nightly poker games, I feel as if I won the entire kitty.

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History Lessons

by RS on September 26, 2014

For the past few evenings, I’ve been watching The Roosevelts on PBS, and it has spurred me to revisit books I have on the shelves that center on the history of American progressive movements.

Some of what I’ve learned about Teddy Roosevelt, will creep its way into Julius. It might become backstory to flesh out the characters, especially Corinne, who was most likely named after TR’s sister. But most of visiting of the past will go back to FDR’s first term and the early part of his second term.

My interest is these two men were their views about the role of government and their reform policies. They both shared the concept that government was for all people of all classes and not cater to those who held the corporate purse strings.

Theodore Roosevelt considered himself to be a “steward of the people” and would take whatever action necessary for the public’s good unless it was forbidden by law or the Constitution. “I did not usurp power,” he wrote, “but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power.” And of course his opponents, like the bankers and industrialists took issue with that because he couldn’t be controlled in the manner that was beneficial towards their business and personal interests.

Now there are a many aspect of TR that goes against my grain like the avid enthusiasm for war, the big game hunting, and his somewhat mixed attitude towards African-Americans, but  in August 1910 just as he left the White House (he would later run as progressive for a third term) he gave the Square Deal speech, which outlined many of the concepts of what would become The New Deal:

Practical equality of opportunity for all citizens, when we achieve it, will have two great results. First, every man will have a fair chance to make of himself all that in him lies; to reach the highest point to which his capacities, unassisted by special privilege of his own and unhampered by the special privilege of others, can carry him, and to get for himself and his family substantially what he has earned. Second, equality of opportunity means that the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable. No man who carries the burden of the special privileges of another can give to the commonwealth that service to which it is fairly entitled.

I stand for the square deal. But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service… When I say I want a square deal for the poor man, I do not mean that I want a square deal for the man who remains poor because he has not got the energy to work for himself. If a man who has had a chance will not make good, then he has got to quit… Now, this means that our government, National and State, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests. Exactly as the special interests of cotton and slavery threatened our political integrity before the Civil War, so now the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit. We must drive the special interests out of politics… For every special interest is entitled to justice, but not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office. The Constitution guarantees protection to property, and we must make that promise good. But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation. The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man’s making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have themselves called into being.

I remember in 2008 when Obama and McCain were duking it out for the presidency and both men compared themselves to Teddy. Obama, the liberal, for his progressive views on labor; McCain comparing his maverick ways to Teddy’s. I don’t like these self-comparisons in part because the general public has a weak understanding of history and their past leaders, but to ride on the coattails of a man’s personal legacy is plain silly, especially if they haven’t held the office of president.

What irks me, though, are the criticisms that government is too much in our lives, and it comes from people who benefit the most. The Ol’ Man’s mother is 93 years old. She’s been collecting social security for 28 years and she has Medicare. Yet she is vociferously against Obamacare and blames the new law for the long wait to see a neurologist. When I hear these complaints from anyone who has benefitted from “too much government” and tells me it is her right to receive social security because she paid into it, I remind her that it was  “too much government” that passed the legislation for anyone over the age of 67 to receive full SSI benefits and Medicare.

There’s a reason you should know your history. Make an effort to read or watch programs like The Roosevelts, because the next time you open your big, fat pie hole you won’t come across like an ass.


You Are Who You Are

by RS on September 24, 2014

Have you noticed how practical matters seem to disrupt the creative process? At the end of July, I accepted a part-time position at our local Chamber of Commerce. I thought it would be a nice change of pace to have somewhere to go to three days a week, earn some pocket money, and spend the rest of the time working on other projects.

The transition to work outside the home and back to an office was difficult. In fact, I hated it. I didn’t like to talk to anyone on the phone; I wasn’t comfortable answering questions about the area, and there were certain things I learned about the town and some of the people that I didn’t need to know. The romantic view I held of our little forest hamlet was trampled by a herd of moose.

Although I was the one who wanted the job, I resented having to go to an office Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. I missed out on events occuring in other towns; I was stuck sitting at a desk on beautiful days instead of taking a long walk with the knuckle-heads; it completely disrupted my workouts; but, more importantly, the job threw in disarray my writing schedule.

The job in of itself was not difficult. It was public relations with a side of administrative responsibilities. You don’t need a graduate degree to do the job, but you need to have an outgoing cheerleader personality. And if you’ve followed my stories throughout the years, you know I rather be among a pack of coyotes instead of a group of my own species. Why did I accept it?

It’s a good question and one I’ve asked myself often throughout the years when I worked in PR, but also when I pushed myself to be more outgoing. It may seem I am describing myself as socially awkward or inept, but I can function at  parties and it looks like I’m having a grand old time, and I am, most likely, enjoying myself.  However, afterwards I’m drained and exhausted because it’s a performance. And that’s what this job was a performance. Three days at the office left me not wanting to write, read, workout, or think. And I resented it because I promised I would still be able to start and complete the other projects that mattered to me.

The reality was, and still is, that I quit my previous job, because—and even though the income and benefits were was nice to have—I wasn’t happy working in a corporate environment. The personalities of the managers and clients; the incessant meetings where nothing was ever accomplished; the non-stop ringing phone-calls and pinging emails; the office politics, the mind-numbing administrative duties and so on.

For this little job, I’d be scrambling to get ready to go to the office on the weekends, muttering curses under my breath for an hour. When I’d arrive, my plastic smile would be pasted on my face. Yet after a couple of hours the veneer of faux good cheer would peel away and the look of “I need to get out of here” would be plain to see.

The job came to an end Saturday. I was told that it wasn’t a good fit (I knew that). I was planning to say so long after I returned in November from the Writer UnBoxed UnConference, but it caught me off-guard because I like to leave under my terms. I was  disappointed, but at the same time I was relieved because I can be me again.

After stewing about it Saturday night, I went to bed realizing there’s a lesson to be relearned: no matter how much you rationalize that a certain job, individual, or activity might be good for you, the moment that doubt creeps in leave under your own terms and don’t look back. Know yourself and and be true to your beliefs, ambitions, and desires, because you are who you are, and you control your future.

Now that I’ve set it aside as an experience that’s not worth remembering, I can enjoy my forest hamlet again, be clueless of all the petty politics, and get back to writing.