Working, or Why Making Art is a Fulltime Job

A-hand-writing-with-a-pen-006While following a symphony orchestra labor dispute recently, I was reminded of the public’s perception of professional orchestral musicians, i.e. these people don’t work hard or fulltime. Wrong! It’s the same thing with writers although with professional writers, the professional tends to go in quotes and work is actually hobby. Makes my blood boil.

It doesn’t help that getting paid for one’s art is so difficult. If I were to have gone into journalism and written as a journalist, there’d be no question that my writing was worth my salary. But a novel? Short stories? Just how much work goes into creating fiction? I’ve written before about creative writing as a job and what the job description would look like. There’s a lot more that goes into the work than people know or even think about. It’s not a matter of simply sitting at a desk and putting words to paper (or computer screen), although that’s part of it.  I can safely say that I’m working at my writing all the time, even when I’m at my part-time job. Writing requires thought. It requires inviting the imagination to come out to play. Writing requires the study of language and vocabulary. And it requires a dedication and determination most fulltime jobs don’t require.

For example, I listened earlier today to a video of a composer and a writer talking about an oratorio that they had created together. At one point, the writer talked about writing one section while he was driving his car on a short trip. He wrote down the words as he drove. That writer, although he was traveling to do something else, was working on the oratorio as he drove. I tend to do some of my best writing in the shower or walking outdoors.

Writers need to keep their imaginations in shape, stimulating them in whatever way works for them. For me, I read voraciously, attend theater, movies, and listen to classical music. I indulge my curiosity often.  I also pay attention.  Let me repeat that: I pay attention. What does that mean? It means to be in the world, in the moment, and open to all that is surrounding me. I do not commute to my job with earphones in my ears and my head bent over a smartphone. I listen to the voices around me (often one side of a phone conversation) and how they use language or look out the window at the landscape, or I read with ears always listening. I laugh out loud every time I encounter someone on the street who’s bent over a smartphone, furiously texting, oblivious to where he or she is walking. Oblivious to the physical surroundings, to Nature, to other people who are present, in person, in front of them. Be observant. How can you write about something without knowing it? Observe human behavior. Listen to the way people speak. Observe human bodies and the way they move, unique to individuals. Observe and research. Leave no stone unturned, as they say.

This is the work of writers. Living as well as observing life. And then writers take the tools of their profession — language, pen, ink and paper — and draw from their extensive pool of raw material from all that observation, research, and paying attention to compose stories. It is beyond a fulltime job. If a writer slouches off, the writing and the stories suffer. It’s not easy. Most people just don’t have what it takes to do it.  They write a family history or a couple short stories or poems for themselves and a small group of family and friends. But they are not committed to it.

How are writers like professional orchestra musicians, then? Well, people who don’t know think that musicians only work during rehearsals and concerts, like they think writers only work when they sit at their desks. Maybe an hour or two of practice. But that’s it. The reality is that musicians, like writers, work nearly all the time — they must practice at least 4 hours a day to stay in shape technically and to learn new pieces of music or relearn old. This work is in addition to rehearsals and concerts. The orchestra musicians who also teach add another layer to their music work.

I sometimes rage against a society that does not value its artists or what they produce. It’s fine if you’re a Stephen King or Jackie Collins because you make millions and have proven that you’re a writer. And that’s what capitalism does to art which is another blog post entirely. Let me end with the words that writer I mentioned earlier wrote while driving his car, and that were set to music by the composer:

Hymn to the Eternal Flame

Every face is in you,

Every voice,

Every sorrow in you,

Every pity,

Every love, every memory,

Woven into fire.
Every breath is in you,

Every cry,

Every longing in you,

Every singing,

Every hope, every healing,

Woven into fire.
Every heart is in you,

Every tongue,

Every trembling in you,

Every blessing,

Every soul, every shining,

Woven into fire.

–Michael Dennis Browne




Photo: Steven Mosborg

Photo: Steven Mosborg

Outside my window this morning, dense fog obscured my view of the lake and furred the edges of the buildings and trees. The word that popped into my mind was Nebel, the German word for fog. The world outside reflected the way I’ve been feeling lately. Foggy mind. I know that when I’m like this, it’s not a good idea to work on fiction, or any project that demands concentration. Better to dream.

Photo: Steven Mosborg

Photo: Steven Mosborg

Then I stumbled on this blog post from Drew McManus at Adaptistration in my e-mail: “Monday Inspiration.”  I hadn’t realized that this fogginess was a result of feeling threatened by the recent political events in America. Drew called attention to a letter written 9 months ago by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock about carrying on as artists in the face of horror.  The entire letter is here.  It’s not a step by step process to overcome my foggy mind, but it’s given my mind some things to begin to wrestle and wrangle.

  • First, Awaken To Your Humanity
  • Embrace And Conquer The Road Less Traveled
  • Welcome The Unknown
  • Understand The True Nature Of Obstacles
  • Don’t Be Afraid To Interact With Those Who Are Different From You
  • Strive To Create Agenda-Free Dialogue
  • Be Wary Of Ego
  • Work Towards A Business Without Borders
  • Appreciate The Generation That Walked Before You
  • Lastly, We Hope That You Live In A State Of Constant Wonder

Fear often makes my mind foggy. Art’s sun burns it away. Action burns it away, too. In light of the election results, I’m beginning to think that it’s important for all artists, but especially writers, to make certain that the GOP majority government does not take steps (that they’ve threatened to take) to deprive this country of the arts. They don’t get that they don’t get it.  The big question is: are they open to learning?

It’s important for everyone, not only artists, to be vocal about what they don’t agree with in the coming months. Contact all your Congresspeople, not just the ones you agree with. Contact the Congressional leadership to make your wishes known. They need to hear and recognize and respect the voices of dissent in this country. The president-elect has already demonstrated that he has no self-control and will take to Twitter over the most ridiculous of issues. We need to start a petition or something for Twitter to deactivate his account for the duration of his presidency or something.  The Dallas News published a commentary by Timothy Snyder about what you can do to stop tyranny.

My fears about this election being the beginning of the oppression and loss of freedom at the hands of the wealthy elite that occurs in Perceval’s Secret is playing out as I feared. The future is now here. How will you respond?

Obstacles and Creating Suspense in Fiction, or “The Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis

book-cover-doomsday-bookWhat would it be like to travel back in time in Oxford, England to the Middle Ages? A young historian finds out in The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. The “present” is December 2054. The young historian, Kivrin Engle, is to be sent back to December 1320, a time deemed relatively safe by the powers that be in the history department at Oxford. Two sections of that department are involved in this project: Medieval and Twentieth Century, the latter because they’ve had more experience doing time travel, and have more experienced techs to operate the “net,” the mechanism for the time travel.  What could possibly go wrong?

When I began reading this novel, I knew absolutely nothing about it. I was reading it on the recommendation of several friends. The time travel aspect really intrigued me. And then, the medical detective story surprised and delighted me.  What truly fascinated me, especially as a writer, was how Willis used obstacles to build and maintain suspense throughout her story.

Structure first: It is a 3-act dramatic narrative structure with two distinct threads contributing to it. The first chapter is the set-up or first act. The second act lasts until about the last chapter overall, but there are also climaxes for each of the medical stories.  So, there is the overall time-traveling story that alternates between 2054 and the Middle Ages, and two sub-stories regarding medical issues, one a virus, the other a bacterium. There is Kivrin the protagonist, and then there is Mr. Dunworthy, the point of view character and protagonist in 2054.  What do they each want? Once Kivrin arrives in the Middle Ages, her primary goal is to find “the drop,” i.e. the place where she arrived. The first obstacle in her way is falling ill when she shouldn’t have fallen ill.  Once Kivrin has left 2054, Mr. Dunworthy becomes aware that there was some kind of problem with the drop. He spends the rest of the book trying to find out what went wrong, why, and how to rescue Kivrin.


Manor in the Middle Ages

The obstacles: In the Middle Ages, Kivrin starts out being so ill she’s delirious and hallucinating. She speaks modern English which the people who find and care for her don’t understand. She must overcome their suspicions about her and gain their trust. She must fix her inner translator so she can begin by speaking Middle English. She’s cared for by a noble family and a parish priest. They believe her to be from France, of a noble family because of her clothing, and that she had been attacked and robbed on the road. Once she begins to recover, her translator kicks in, and she learns about her rescue. She realizes that she must find the location of the drop so she’ll be able to return to 2054. She believes the nobleman’s prive knows the location because he found her and brought her to the village and their manor house. She spends most of the rest of the book trying to either find him or talk with him. The customs of the Middle Ages, especially those governing the behavior of men and women, and the way people communicated, stand in her way. The matriarch of the manor stands in her way. And then the children stand in her way. And then she discovers that something had gone wrong with the drop, and a dangerous bacterium threatens to stand in her way. Each of the obstacles arises organically from the time, the people, or the customs. Kivrin’s focus on finding the drop keeps the pressure on and increases the suspense.


The obstacles: In 2054, the first obstacle to Mr. Dunworthy is that the tech who did the drop falls deathly ill with a mysterious virus. That virus needs to be identified, and then the source of it identified, in order for the doctors to be able to treat it effectively.  Arising out of this obstacle, Medieval’s head, Mr. Gilchrist, refuses to let Dunworthy back into their time travel laboratory because Gilchrist is afraid the virus came through the net from the Middle Ages. Because of the highly contagious nature of the virus, the Oxford area is quarantined by the government which restricts the movement of supplies and people into Oxford. As a result, the quarantine becomes a major obstacle to Dunworthy — the phones don’t work well, travelers are detained and must be housed and fed, techs outside of Oxford for the Christmas holiday refuse to return, and the sick tech is too sick to tell Dunworthy what the problem was with the drop. Poor Dunworthy. Wracked with guilt about Kivrin, pushed and pulled this way and that by the people in and around the University, all he wants is to get into the lab, solve the problem and get Kivrin back.

By writing in close to each protagonist’s point of view and mind, the reader witnesses the chaos of emotion within them as well as their thoughts. This also contributes to the suspense. There were times I began to feel some irritation at Willis for having Dunworthy or Kivrin keep repeating themselves about their goals, but that just enhanced the pressure of the obstacles thwarting them. When Dunworthy falls ill, all looks lost.

What a wonderful example of a novel for creating and maintaining suspense! And what a riveting story. I loved the characters, I loved the humor that Willis injected into the very serious situations, and I loved the emotional release that the ending provided. A masterwork of fiction that I highly recommend to anyone interested in reading speculative fiction, time travel stories, historical fiction, or medical detection stories.  Bravo, Connie Willis.

Made America Great Again

banner-make-america-great-againTy squatted to paw through the wastebasket’s contents before emptying it into his giant gray thick plastic barrel on wheels. Rich people threw everything away. He’d found treasures in their wastebaskets sometimes. One night, he found a brand new children’s book that he took home for his daughter’s birthday. Another night, he found a perfectly good tie, a beautiful tie of dark green with subtle thin black diagonal stripes. He wore it to Mass on Sundays. Now he hoped to find something for his patient, hard-working wife.

She had warned him not to trust a liar and cheat. That man would not keep his promises. Why should he? He was rich. He didn’t need to work to put food on the table, pay for expensive medicine for his wife, pay health insurance premiums, and the rent. All that man cared about was getting more money for himself and his friends, no matter how he did it. Ty hadn’t believed her. That man had said everything Ty’d been thinking, and promising to make America great again. But nothing had changed.

Ty spotted a spiral notebook toward the bottom of the wastebasket. He pulled it out, opened it. Writing in ink filled only two pages. The rest of the notebook’s pages were clean. His daughter could use this in school. He dropped it into the cloth bag he wore around his waist. Ty had been cleaning rich men’s and women’s offices at night for the last two years. During the day, he taught third grade at an elementary school two blocks from their apartment. He could walk to that job, but he had to drive to the night shift job. Buses stopped running after about 12:30 a.m. His wife drove the car to her day shift in “catering” at one of the big hospitals in the city. Gas was expensive.

That man had turned back the clock really. No, not turned it back. Ty had studied history in college and knew that in America democracy had prevailed for 240 years. Then that man took over. A celebrity businessman used to getting his own way by any means possible. And his family, giving his kids big jobs in the government like dictators usually did. He hadn’t a clue about who really did the work in America. And he didn’t want to know. Yeah, the first thing he did was to stop the flow of information as he banned one media organization after another from covering his activities. He used the courts to keep them so tied up they didn’t have time to do their jobs. He signed off on “reform” that ended Social Security so that “people will have more money in their paychecks now and save more for the future.” But wages hadn’t increased. How was he supposed to save when he could barely make enough to support his family?

That celebrity businessman wanted to show the top 1% that he was truly one of them and not some wannabe. So he made certain that business got what it wanted, and unions didn’t. He made certain that the tax breaks benefited the wealthy so they could keep all their profits. He made certain that he got the money from Congress to do what he wanted even if it meant gutting all spending even for the military. But he still ran up the national debt as if he could just declare bankruptcy again, no problem.

Ty regretted supporting that man. But what could be done now? He and his party were in power and changing the government to suit themselves. They called it “a permanent majority.” He didn’t like that at all. They weren’t helping him or anyone like him and his wife. Ty emptied the rich CEO’s wastebasket into his barrel and moved on. They were all bullies really. Now they were in power, they bullied all they wanted — even other countries. That celebrity businessman decided that America got nothing from being in NATO, from being allies with other countries, from free trade. He made America isolationist again. And his young daughter endured all sorts of bullying in school.  It wasn’t safe for anyone who didn’t look like that celebrity businessman, that ugly celebrity businessman.

His back ached. His wife thought it was because of the lifting he had to do, but Ty knew it was because of his shoes. But he couldn’t afford new shoes that would give his feet the support they needed. So, his back ached. He massaged his lower back as he pushed the giant plastic barrel out of the CEO’s office and down the hall to the next office.

CEO's Office?

CEO’s Office?

Why write?

Photo credit: Stefaninspanien

Photo credit: Stefaninspanien

This has been a rough and stormy year for my writing. My goals in January now strike me as over-ambitious and without consideration of my need to pay bills. I miss my writing life, i.e. when I wasn’t working for someone else and I could focus all my time on writing. That was an extraordinarily important time, I realize now, because it gave me the opportunity to experiment, to study, to write what I felt the need to write, and to grow…a lot. Now that writing doesn’t have 100% of my time, I struggle like so many writers and then I begin to wonder just why I’m doing all this struggling.

And then I happened to clean out one of my professional e-mail accounts where I receive a lot of writing information, including the Funds for Writers newsletter. The editor/writer, Hope Clark, writes a short piece at the top of the newsletter usually about a topic that has come up in her writing life recently. In one of the September newsletters, she wrote a piece entitled “Why You Have to Write.” It was a reminder to me about what’s important in writing. I want to thank Hope Clark for writing that piece, and I include it in its entirety below.


I read a piece in Marie Claire titled “I Published My Debut Novel to Critical Acclaim – and Then I Promptly Went Broke.” And I caught my head nodding in agreement with the writer.

About once a year I find myself at a crossroad in my writing. I love freelancing, and FundsforWriters, and novel writing. I wish I could do just one of them, but the fact is these days you cannot just do one. You must diversify and spread your name (and talent) around to reach all the pockets of readers out there. It takes diversification to earn a living.

Look at the names out there other than the mega-authors like King, Grisham, or Patterson. Joanna Penn comes to mind. She writes novels, but I guarantee that she makes more money with her speaking, freelancing and affiliate connections. They all feed off each other. That is how a writer makes a full-time living.

And if your heart is in writing novels, well, read the above article in Marie Claire and you’ll pull up short. That author explains that having a bestseller sold through a New York agent to a New York publishing house still doesn’t bring in enough money to pay the bills.

So . . . back to the crossroad I mentioned earlier. When I receive a disappointing royalty check, or lose sleep trying to put the finishing touches on Chapter 20 while trying not to think about the royalty check I just received, I make myself take a moment.

What do I do with that moment? I allow a while to mourn. Mourn that writing isn’t exactly as I hoped it would be. Mourn that I have to do administrative and other writing work that don’t exactly feed my muse. Then I always ask myself the following question: “Why do you write?”

Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, 
but all the happiness and growth occurs
while you’re climbing it.

~ Andy Rooney

That’s right. It’s about the journey. When you are rushing through a manuscript, you miss that experience. When you write for the dollar, you get distracted from the enjoyment of the expedition. Recall why you started writing in the first place . . . for the thrill of story, the pleasure of seeing words come together in remarkable ways. And the legacy of putting your thoughts down for others to read after you.

To master the sweat and pain, to weather the disillusionment, recall why you started writing.”

And I vow again to write, and write, and write what thrills my soul to write and not let anything stop me. At the same time remembering that every experience daily is part of who I am and therefore part of my writing.