Adding fuel to the fire

Pilgrims Burning Books

I’m only just crawling out from under my great big deadline, campers (ah, the romance of a working writer’s life!), so I should probably get some serious sleep before I start professing to give advice again. At least on anything important like querying, submission, craft…

Or pretty much anything else we habitually talk about here at Author! Author!, come to think of it.

I’ll be getting back to all of that tomorrow, of course, but right now, I could not think of a better way to spend the few non-horizontal minutes I have before restocking my depleted backlog of Zs than in noting today’s rather important literary anniversary: on this date in 1973, history tells us, the Drake, North Carolina school board so violently objected to a high school English teacher’s having assigned Kurt Vonnegut’s classic science fiction critique of World War II, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE that it not only forbade him to teach it — the school board fired the teacher.

Not the first time that ever happened, of course, nor, sadly, the last. What made this school board response special was that they rounded up all of the students’ copies of the book and burned them.

SlaughterhousefiveIt would be easy to dismiss the incident as the kind of thing that doesn’t happen anymore, but SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE has been one of the most consistently banned books in the world ever since. Reading it was forbidden in Levittown, New York in 1975, North Jackson, Ohio in 1979, and Lakeland, Florida in 1982. The Washington Park High School of Racine, Wisconsin was barred from buying it in 1984; by 1986, only students who had written parental permission could take it out of four Racine high school libraries.

slaughterhousefive3In 1987, its residence on the shelves of LaRue County High School in Kentucky was challenged, and it was banned outright in all the schools in Fitzgerald, Georgia. The following year, the school board in Baton Rouge, Louisiana was urged to remove the book from all public libraries on the grounds that it was vulgar and offensive; the year after that, parents tried to have it removed from a high school course on the modern novel because of offensive language and the portrayal of women in the book. (A book which, incidentally, contains only two substantial female characters — not that any of Vonnegut’s female characters are ever especially substantial — an ex-adult movie star kidnapped by aliens and the protagonist’s unattractive wife.)

slaughterhousefive4Seem like ancient history? Okay, try these on for size: in 1996, parents at the Round Rock Independent High School in Texas unsuccessfully tried to get the book removed on the grounds that it was too violent. In 1998, its presence as an summer reading option for incoming eleventh graders in Prince William County, Virginia raised quite a furor. In 2001, the book was removed from a tenth grade required reading list in Coventry, Rhode Island because a parent complained that it contained vulgar language, violent injury, and sexual content.

slaughterhousefive2Still too long ago to make you a tad nervous? In 2007, a newly-elected school board member challenged SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE and eight other books on the Arlington Heights, Illinois Northwest Suburban High School District 214′s reading list. Her objection arose, she said, not from having read any of the books herself, but from excerpts she’d read on the web. In the same year — that’s a scant two years ago, people — it was also under threat of ban in a high school in Howell, Michigan. That conflict escalated to the point that the following year, the county prosecutor actually had to rule on whether distributing the book was a criminal act.

It was not, as it turned out — comforting for writers everywhere, because that ruling was last year.

slaughterhousefive5Why all the hoopla over whether high schoolers have free access to a book that, frankly, is far less sexually explicit than quite a bit of the YA currently on the market?

It’s a great question, because despite the novel’s strong criticism of US military policy in World War II and the fact that it would be rather difficult to write meaningfully about a war without at least mentioning an act or two of violence, the stated objections to the book are almost invariably about sexual content and language. Which, as I said, are not particularly shocking by the standards of any of our lifetimes; the totality of justifications those who decided to ban the book from the Owensboro, Ky. High School library in 1985 could scare up were “foul language, a section depicting a picture of an act of bestiality, a reference to ‘Magic Fingers’ attached to the protagonist’s bed to help him sleep, and the sentence: ‘The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the fly of God Almighty.”‘

Not precisely NC-17, is it?

As long-term readers of this blog know, I’m no fan of censorship — nor, I think, should any writer hoping to make a living at it be. Barring a handful of books may not seem like a big deal to non-writers, but to us, it’s the thin edge of the wedge: if the late, great Kurt Vonnegut’s writing is subject to death by flame, so is every other writers’. Especially those who write anything edgy, or about unusual topics, or indeed, in non-traditional ways about society — which, in case anyone hadn’t noticed, is occasionally vulgar, violent, and yes, even sexual.

As both writers and readers, it’s tempting to fall into the comforting assumption that good writing will always find an audience, and stories worth telling will always get told. Neither is always the case.

How do I know? The single most commonly objected-to word in SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE, the one that crops up in virtually every formal objection to the book, is one that I cannot use here on the blog, because if I did, the screening software employed in many high schools and public libraries would block this page. For school-age writers to be able to continue to tune in, I have to keep what I write here PG-rated.

I’m not saying that the word isn’t offensive — it is. (It refers to something Oedipus did with a close female relative.) I’m just saying that censorship does not have to be as overt as tossing a book into a fire to affect what ends up in front of readers’ eyes.

Write something interesting today, please, in honor of Kurt Vonnegut and that bonfire of books. Write something that nobody has ever thought of writing before. Write as if there were no such thing as fear of a book ban.

Which is to say: as always, keep up the good work!

The Immortality of Writing Restrictions, by Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence Grand Prize Winner, Sophia Gorgens

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Welcome back, campers –

I’m very excited to bring you today’s contest winner, 16-year-old Sophia Gorgens, grand prize winner of the Author! Author! Award for Junior Expressive Excellence. Congratulations, Sophia, and may this be the first of many literary honors in a long and illustrious writing career!

That immense ruminating noise you hear out there in the ether, Sophia, is the sound of literally millions of your elders grinding their teeth in regret that they didn’t (a) believe in their own talent when they were your age, (b) have the internet to showcase it if they had, and (c) possess the confidence to send their work out then. So huge kudos from all of us here at Author! Author! for having the incredible courage to write and submit this particular short story; would that every talented teenage writer were as brave as you.

Or spelled as well, bless your heart. Or had as firm a grasp of complex grammar that, frankly, eludes many a gifted adult author. Heck, it eludes many a published author.

Trust me on that one. There’s a reason that copyeditors make pretty good living.

As if that weren’t enough of a virtuoso (virtuosa?) performance, Sophia’s managed to tuck a darned good formal essay into the middle of her short story. The judges got a big kick out of her essentially submitting both a fiction and nonfiction entry. Admittedly, they got a bit more of a kick out of how much most of their own high school teachers would have objected to the basic premise of this story, as well as envisioning what might have happened had they turned in such a story to any of their high school English or civics teachers.

See the comment above about older authors wishing they had your guts, Sophia.

So please join me in welcoming a young writer I suspect will be continuing to surprise and delight us for years to come. We’re privileged to hear this promising voice here first, and I, for one, couldn’t be more thrilled to witness her initiation into the community of writers. I think it’s going to be a more interesting place now that she’s in it.

Take it away, Sophia!

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A single tear trickled down the sad and crumpled face, carving a path in the layer of grime and dust. Matt, a boy of thirteen, bit back his sob while wiping the tear angrily away. Men did not cry.

He panted heavily as he continued to shovel away furiously at the hard packed earth. The hole he was standing in was already three or four feet deep. He wouldn’t have to dig much longer.

At his side lay a cheap wooden box made crudely out of plywood. Wood was scarce now, but Matt felt that Leal deserved whatever luxury he could procure. Here, in his barren and dirty backyard, with darkness falling fast, Matt could hardly see the coffin anymore, but he couldn’t keep himself from picturing his beautiful Labrador retriever, old and worn, in that cold coffin.
It was not like his day could get much worse, Matt decided gruffly. His English paper had been returned to him with an F for “inappropriate content” although all it had really said was that the rights of the students were being utterly repressed at his school. That paper, averaged to the rest of his rebellious collection, averaged his grade out to a D. His father would not be happy when he heard about this.

Matt’s eyes were brimming with unshed tears of anger and grief. He thrust the shovel into the dirt aggressively, determined to forget his troubles. The shovel, driven into the ground with force, clunked against something.

Angrier still for this complication, Matt began to dig around what he knew must be a rock. His anger dissolved when he realized he could use the stone as a grave marker for Leal. If nobody knew, he might even be able to write something on it.
Excited, Matt eagerly dug the stone out and lifted it out of the hole. Only then did he notice, catching his first real glimpse of it in the dying light, that it was not a rock at all but a small metal box. Matt felt a sting of disappointment, but he was determined not to let it ruin his friend’s funeral.

After he had lowered the coffin into the deep hole, Matt filled the grave with a feeling of dread. Each shovelful of dirt flung onto that wooden box was shutting Leal out from the world of life and light with a finality that was hard to avoid. Not even the handful of daisies that Matt placed reverently on the fresh earth could ease the sense that he was abandoning his friend.

Dragging his feet, Matt returned to his one story house which he shared with his dad. With the shovel slung over his shoulder and the strange metal box tucked under his arm, Matt began to wonder for the first time what the box might contain. It would be easy enough to open, for it had only a simple latch to keep it closed. A curious box indeed.

After he had taken a shower, Matt lay under the sheets of his bed with the box, cleaned under the heavy jet of the shower, in front of him. It almost seemed to be looking back at him out of two flower-like eyes that blended in with the decorative carvings in the box. Turning it over, he saw a tiny set of letters in the far right corner.

Made in China ©2008

2008? Matt stared at the box in amazement. That was over two hundred years old! He wondered eagerly what it could contain, then bit his lip in hesitation, his hand already on the lid. He was supposed to be in mourning, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy himself, did it? Tentatively, he lifted open the lid.

An old pen (who used those things nowadays, anyway?), a marble figurine of a dog, a faded picture (it wasn’t digital!), and a small stack of papers met his eyes. Taped on the inside of the lid was a piece of paper that declared it to be “Lauren’s Time Capsule, 2008.”

Well, that wasn’t very exciting, Matt thought as he flipped gloomily through the paper stack. There was an article on the government, clearly cut out from a newspaper, and a paper written by Lauren apparently on… censorship? Matt was momentarily baffled, but then he saw the neatly scribbled note from the teacher, congratulating her on her improvement and giving her an A minus for the overall paper. She must have been proud of the work, Matt decided.

Carefully separating the paper from the article and tossing the paper clip aside, he began to read.

The Constitution of the United States of America [he read] includes the right to freedom of speech, press, assembly, and expression in the Bill of Rights. Throughout history, cases such as Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969 and New York Times v. US in 1971 expanded these rights, but many of the privileges expressed in the first amendment do not apply to underage student. An attempt to expand the rights of students was made in 1969 in the case of Tinker v. Des Moines, but it has done little to curtail the power of schools and adults to restrict the freedom of speech for students. The cases of Bethel and Hazelwood, for instance, allowed administrators to censor student speeches containing sexual language and student newspapers that contained “sensitive” material. Children and young adults who are still in the developing stages of their life are, in the Court’s opinion, often in a separate category than adults when freedom of speech and press is concerned.

Underage students do not yet have the right to vote and can therefore not vote for a new law to be passed to help their cause. For young people to therefore change policy, they must rely on presenting a case to the court and having a particular law or restriction overturned. However, most students do not have the financial means or commitment (as some cases take years to go through the court system) to challenge every unreasonable restriction placed on them, resulting in censorship on essays, school magazines or newspapers, and general self-expression. Students must conform their essays in a way that dulls the sharp edge of individuality. They thus must fall into the conventional pattern the school establishes for them so that thoughts expressed in their works are not theirs at all but the school’s. How can the public, parents or otherwise, understand what these young people truly think if, upon picking up a school newspaper or listening to a student speech, they learn only what the administration, the “editors,” think?

Schools are not the only problem point in our society for young, underage adults. Contests and blogs also often have restrictions on what young people can and can’t write. The requirement of no vile language, for example, hampers the author who thinks a character must swear for effect. Even if the author were to swear incessantly and use the crudest language, it should be their choice to write this and those who are opposed to the style of writing should simply not read it. However, this brings up the point of necessary censorship, rules, and restrictions. How will a person know what contains excessive inappropriate language? It would not be unreasonable to have an author’s note of warning in these cases. Rules can again be helpful and even desirable in formatting unless, as is it may be in a poem, individual formatting is necessary to express the mood of the poem. Otherwise, unitary formatting makes it easy for judges, fellow writers and readers, as well as potential publishers to read.

The most gruesome and erroneous type of censorship [Matt noticed a smiley face from the teacher here because of the interesting word choice] is the subtle censorship that society imposes on young a blossoming writers. Society is an expectant tiger waiting to pounce on those who stray from the path of conformity. In Dead Poets Society, for example, a group of boys who show a spark of individualism are berated by not only the school administrators but also by fellow students and parents. The mob-like mentality of people infuses them with a desire to please society. For young authors, this means writing about what friends think are “cool” topics and perhaps even developing a style that is pleasing to peers. The mind becomes restricted by invisible barriers and the desire to live up to one’s own expectations as well as society’s.

Whether it’s in the rules established by schools and other institutions or the yearning to fit into society, young writers often show the world a different side of who they really are, a fabrication of sorts. Fused together by the ideas of others and restrictions in our society, this fabrication can never convey to the public what the young populace think, feel, or want.

Matt put the paper down with a sigh. He had always thought the future he lived in was a better place, more advanced with its hover cars and reusable fuel cells, but it appeared that when one really examined the facts, censorship and restrictions on the freedom of writing for teenagers had always existed in one form or another. And with a society as protective and majoritarian as America’s was, he suspected it always would.

sophia-gorgens-author-photo Sophia Gorgens was born in Washington D.C to German diplomats Lutz and Ulrike Gorgens. Along with her family, including two brothers and an older sister, she moved to Bonn, Germany; Boston, Massachusetts; Ankara, Turkey; and Atlanta, Georgia, where she currently resides. Sophia has acquired a love for traveling and has visited over twenty countries and most of the United States. She is currently attending Woodward Academy high school as a rising junior. She enjoys reading, writing, skiing, participating in marching band, and spending time with her Bernese Mountain dog and cat. She has started bee-keeping and quilts in her remaining free time. She is currently working on two novels, Dagger: A Horse’s Tale and Rebel Angels.

Tennis Balls and Broadsides, by Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence First Prize Winner, D. Andrew McChesney

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Hello again, campers –

As part of the ongoing jollity surrounding Author! Author!’s 1000th blog post, let’s take a gander at what first place winner of an Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence D. Andrew McChesney has to say about self-censorship, shall we?

Did I just sense some of you out there doing a double-take? “Two first-place winners, Anne?” the masses cry. “How is that possible?”

Well, if you’ll consult the rules, I think you’ll find that I’d been a contest judge often enough to anticipate that the judges would keep saying, “But…but…” when it came right down to ranking the top few entries. (I’m not all that into linear hierarchies, anyway.)

I was tickled that Dave McChesney — as he’s known around these parts — had an entry that made it to the “But…but…” stage of competition, I must admit. There’s a certain symmetry to it: Dave was the first reader ever to post a comment on Author! Author!, so he’s presumably been here for the unveiling of pretty much all of the first 1000 posts.

When he’s not commenting here, Dave also blogs, as well as sharing his naval adventures on his Stone Island Stories website. As if that weren’t enough to keep anyone busy, he’s also president of Spokane Authors and Self-Publishers. And I have it on good authority that he painted the naval scene behind him in the photo below.

What does he do with the rest of his time, you ask? Read on…

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For the past five years I’ve spent three mornings a week cleaning tennis courts at a private athletic facility. Tennis balls are covered in pale green fuzzy stuff that flies into the nether at a glance. Striking one of these lime colored orbs with a racquet, or letting it to bounce off the sandpaper-like surface of the court causes wholesale shedding. The fuzz doesn’t drift away and disappear, but settles on the court’s surface. Depending upon air currents, it also collects in various corners and turns into phosphorescent green dust bunnies.

Pushing a heavy court sweeper for two or three miles before most people are awake requires a certain amount of physical stamina, but demands on my intellect are minimal. I use a battery-powered sweeper-vacuum machine to rid the playing surfaces of the accumulated fuzz. The chore is somewhat akin to mowing a lawn as it involves walking around in circles while ensuring I don’t miss a spot and clean another one seventeen times.

Because I work early, my lunch break occurs at a time when most “normal” people first leave home for the day. I’m not usually hungry but enjoy the relaxation a break affords me. I kick my shoes off, drink a cup of coffee and read. After finishing nearly all of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, for once following the order of Hornblower’s career, I felt compelled to re-work a story I had originally written in high school.

The hour and a half it takes to clean the tennis courts lets me turn loose a large portion of my imagination and come up with characters, plots, and scenes for the story. I’m not always satisfied with what I arrive at, but I’ll be back at the same task in a day or two and can revisit and revise to my heart’s delight. The biggest difficulty is remembering my thoughts until I have a chance write them down. Even if I don’t remember things word for word, I usually retain the basic idea. These times also allow me to mentally compose query letters, conceive face to face pitches, and consolidate all I am learning about being a writer.

Having a unique story I want told in a singular way, I must conform my personal creativity to several sets of rules. If I disregard the basic rules of writing, how easy will others find it to read my work? Do I spell as I see fit, or punctuate as I desire, it makes it more difficult for the reader to comprehend my intended thoughts. The basic rules of writing establish common ground between readers and writers, enabling them to “speak the same language.” The more difficult it is to read a particular work, the more likely a reader will become frustrated and set it aside. I do not want anyone to quit reading what I have penned, until, of course they have reached “the end.” If I want people to read my work, I must also adhere to the rules of publishing. I need to understand the conventions of the book-selling world.

Within these guidelines, I do have choices. In making my selections, I effectively establish a third rather fluid set of rules. These can apply to a single work or to everything I write. I might change them within a particular work if doing so better tells the story. All the while I must ensure my personal rules don’t run afoul of pre-established conventions, nor befuddle any readers.

Long fascinated with the sailing navies of two centuries ago and a devoted reader of C. S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian, and others, I write Naval Adventure. The story that has become or is becoming the Stone Island Sea Stories has bounced around in my cranium for decades. Over the years a fantasy angle has manifested itself, largely because of certain self-imposed conditions. In the original story the island was small; a mere pinprick on the map, so it was easy to pass off as being undiscovered. But as ideas for future stories grew, so did the island. It got big enough that I couldn’t justify or explain its existence in this world.

Realizing that Stone Island exists in an alternate and somewhat parallel world also allows me the freedom to tinker extensively with history than if my imagination had remained in this world alone. Other writers sometimes alter history to fit their stories or have characters perform historically significant acts attributed to real individuals, but I dislike doing so. I prefer that events and characters in my stories contribute an additional dimension to what really happened.

While the fantasy angle creates a unique story situation, it also causes problems with marketing. If I pitch the first book as “Fantasy, cleverly disguised as Naval Adventure,” the intrigued agent scans the first fifty pages and asks, “Where’s the Fantasy? I had to read the synopsis to find it.” If I promote it as Naval Adventure or Mainstream Fiction, I am told that the Fantasy aspect might be a turn-off for those who buy what they think is a traditional nautical novel. I have pitched and queried Beyond the Ocean’s Edge extensively over the past few years and admit a certain amount of frustration with the process. I get an ego boost when a professional reader praises my writing, but I feel equally depressed when in turn that reader indicates difficulties in placing my work in today’s marketplace.

I tell the Stone Island Sea Stories in a linear fashion, centering the tales on a single protagonist. I wrote the original in first person, not because I see it through his eyes, but because of a paradox I wanted to include in the original ending. Coming to know Edward Pierce better, I cannot picture him relating his adventures in detail, which he would theoretically be doing if I wrote in first person. Third person allows me a bit of flexibility with point-of-view; although I sometimes hear critical comments from those a dear friend calls “POV Nazis.” Rigidly maintaining a “close third person” point of view can be cumbersome when I want readers to see the situation from other perspectives.

While I write these stories for the adult market, I believe they will appeal to younger readers as well. I discovered Horatio Hornblower in my first year of high school. My daughter had read the entire series by the time she reached that same age. Yet I understand C. S. Forester meant these stories for adult readers. When Commodore Hornblower was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post it contained the first fictional account of adultery published in that magazine.

With the possibility of younger readers, I limit “adult” content and language in the Stone Island Sea Stories. I don’t feel it is needed and believe certain mature situations can successfully be implied, rather than described in throbbing detail. Having served for twenty-two years as a U. S. Navy Bluejacket, I personally have no problem with the use of “colorful” language, yet such words and phrases might not be appropriate for younger readers. (Would these readers object, or would it be those who monitor what younger people read?) Therefore, as I began the first book I determined that I would not use certain words and phrases.

However, about a third of the way into the second volume a situation arises where the protagonist’s most natural reaction would be to use one of those “forbidden” words. Feeling his use of this particular word would be appropriate, I altered my rules to let a very angry Pierce say, “At your earliest opportunity, do look as I have, at the very underside of the keel, amidships and aft. Then we both might know why this vessel did not so easily show her heels to those (expletive deleted) frigates!”

Having loosened my restrictions regarding this particular word, I might have peppered the remainder of Sailing Dangerous Waters with it. I may have gone back to earlier scenes or even the first book to include it or other “forbidden” words where they might seem essential to the story. I did not because I did not eliminate the rule. I merely gave myself a little leeway in enforcing it, and if truth be told, I use the particular word a time or two again near the end of the second book.

I’d like to believe that my choices in writing are mine, but I know many are based on what others expect. In setting forth the stories dwelling in my mind, I inadvertently combined two different genres. To be published by the traditional industry, do I need to pick one and confine myself to it? Do I maintain a level of artistic integrity and keep the stories as I envision them while seeking out alternative routes to publication? In like fashion, are my choices regarding person, tense, and viewpoint, the way I really see the stories, or are they an attempt to conform? Should there be sufficient objections to the decisions I have made, do I alter my style, or do I stand by it as it is written? Do I choose to avoid detailed descriptions of “adult” behavior and limit certain language because it is what I really want, or do I limit them to avoid possible controversy about my stories? Are my views as to what is acceptable really my own, or are they the result of what society as a whole has imposed upon me? These are questions that I do not have answers for. My lack of responses means I will always have something to think about as I clean pale green tennis ball droppings from the courts.

American writers do not face actual punishment for what they write, yet we are expected to follow certain guidelines. Those who step outside of these established boundaries find it more difficult to have their works published. In essence they are forced to write what the public supposedly demands the way the publishing industry wants.

dave-mcchesney-author-photoFollowing a twenty-two-year US Navy career, D. Andrew McChesney continues a passionate interest in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century naval history. Long fascinated with USS Constitution, he was privileged to be aboard “Old Ironsides” for a turn-around cruise in Boston Harbor. A tour of HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England while serving aboard USS Forrestal provides further inspiration as he crafts a series of naval adventures having fantasy elements. Beyond the Ocean’s Edge and Sailing Dangerous Waters are complete. Work is underway on Darnahsian Pirates.

Dave inherited his parents’ love of reading and developed a strong imagination, spending his comparatively isolated early childhood on a homestead forty-one miles outside Fairbanks, Alaska. Creative and imaginative play kept him and his younger sister busy and entertained. Once in the “lower forty-eight” and exposed to television, series such as The Swamp Fox on Walt Disney Presents kindled an interest in history ranging from the American Revolution through the War of 1812. Interest in the later conflict developed when his grandfather gave him a drawing of Constitution made by a friend during the frigate’s visit to Puget Sound in the 1930s. Discovery of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower in high school solidified Dave’s interest in that era’s naval history.

He writes, edits, prints, and distributes the Rear Engine Review, the monthly newsletter of the Inland Northwest Corvair Club. Dave is currently President of Spokane Authors and Self Publishers (SASP), and also belongs to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA).

He resides in Spokane, Washington with his wife Eva, daughter Jessica, a 1962 Corvair Rampside pickup known as “Tim,” and a 1965 Corvair Monza coupe identified as “Ralph.”

Death by Dust Bunny, by Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence First Prize Winner, Auburn McCanta

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Hello, campers –

The festivities celebrating Author! Author!’s 1000th blog post continue! Today, I am delighted to introduce the first place winner in the first periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, Auburn McCanta. Congratulations, Auburn!

A blogger herself, as well as a Citizen Reporter at the Huffington Post, Auburn’s name is far from unknown here at Author! Author! She’s a regular, enthusiastic, and thoughtful commenter — behavior we like to encourage around here.

I’m especially tickled to bring you her first place entry, because she was one of the few entrants brave enough to take me at my word and submit a short story, rather than an essay. I think you’ll enjoy the results.

Take it away, Auburn!

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Cecile Martine was fixed on two thoughts as she sucked in her final breath: Darn that person for walking on my clean floor and How could I have missed that huge dust bunny behind the toilet?

She’d always heard that one’s final moments are splendid with golden light and an instantaneous remembrance of every detail from the moment of one’s birth. Apparently, that was not so. Cecile was disappointed to be denied her life’s account. She’d always wanted to tick off those events and qualities that shaped her as a woman. A simple woman. One who could locate the tiny curl of pleasure that resides in the gleam of another woman’s silverware, one who noticed every errant speck of dust.

A cleaning woman.

She had once written an article that outlined how home had an influence which was stronger than death. It was a law to the heart, binding its occupants with a spell which neither time nor change could break; the darkest villainies which disgraced humanity could not neutralize it.

After one trembling attempt to publish that smartly-written article in the Monthly Home Manager’s Guide, Cecile disappointedly gave up writing. Holding up a rejection letter as proof of her ineptitude, she vowed from that moment on to concentrate on improving the only thing left — cleaning for others. She anointed herself a Home Management Professional, although the fancy title didn’t change the fact that someone didn’t love her writing, that someone didn’t think the title, “Home Doctoring for the Modern Age” would contain a compelling read.

Now, more than anything, Cecile wanted her final accounting. She wanted to know that, although she’d lived a hard life and that she’d failed to capture that one magazine editor’s imagination, she was nonetheless a glorious writer living a peasant’s life. It wasn’t fair that she turned out a simple cleaning woman, dying on a bathroom floor, with a dust bunny peering back at her from behind the toilet.

Somehow, though, a smile tilted the corners of her lips. She found the one glad and notable thing within that moment; a small, yet unnerving sound that wound into the dark whorls of her rapidly closing ears—the tiny squeak of rubber soles on a still-damp floor. With gleaming eyes, she saw a man’s dark silhouette retreating from the bathroom, leaving her to the beauty of knowing that, in the end, she’d not failed as a cleaning woman. Perhaps, yes, she’d failed as a writer. Certainly, she’d failed to perform the next thing on her list — polishing Mrs. Connor’s silverware to an everlasting glint.

Still, she’d not failed as a Home Doctor.

Alone now, Cecile crumpled to the floor. She lay on her right side, one hand under her cheek, the other across her thigh. Her fingers — splayed open like a fluttering opera fan — seemed the only indication of her physical agony. She felt as if she were falling, sinking, being crushed by a great weight. Stupid, stupid, stupid, Cecile thought. Any first rate housekeeper knows one never mixes bleach and ammonia in the same container. Even a beginner is aware of this obvious fact. My goodness, she’d even written that fact in her article — the one turned down by that editor. How ironic can this be? Killed by a warning that was never published.

Her breath was ragged now; not much left of it. She wanted to push herself high upon her elbows, to rise above that gaseous, noxious mixture that was draining the life from her. But the burning in her nose, her throat, her lungs, was more than she could bear. Her body reacted by flooding her lungs with moisture. She was drowning in her own fluids. Cecile opened and closed her eyes, wondering if the next time she opened them, they would find a different sight. A sight of loveliness. Something she could hold onto, something that would carry her through this concrete moment. But the blink of her eyes didn’t make the horror any different. There was no question that she was on a bathroom floor, chlorine gas rising from a plastic mop bucket, her life slowly and exquisitely leaving her body.

She hadn’t expected to die today, but she was ready. Lord knows life hadn’t been easy. What with her husband, Darrell, and all and his heavy-handed ways, her father’s recent passing, her mother so close to death as well. Certainly, Cecile knew the fragility of life more than anyone. She simply didn’t know that today was her day to be fragile.

Her elbows slid downward on the wet, sticky floor.

It was such a pity that today was the day to die, because with her mother’s impending death, Cecile would finally have been rewarded for all her years of hard work, endless days of sore knees and reddened hands; her lifetime of serving others. She would have enjoyed an inheritance that far surpassed anything she ever needed. She didn’t even mind sharing it with Darrell. Of course, that all meant nothing now as her last, wild inhalation was nothing more than a faint whisper.

All that was liquid within Cecile now issued forth. All on her clean floor. Except now she remembered, it wasn’t her clean floor. That stupid, stupid, stupid person who had mixed the bleach and ammonia together (because they didn’t read the warning in her unpublished work) was the same person who had carelessly mopped over the floor — over an unswept floor, no less. It was the same person who had carelessly missed that laughing dust bunny in the corner behind the toilet.

On the still-damp bathroom floor, Cecile seemed to alternate between pain and pleasure, pride and disenchantment. She felt as if she’d been tossed into a diminishing wintry night’s fire without enough fuel left to continue flying its red sparks skyward. Her body’s warmth was pulled into the cool of the room, beginning with her feet and hands, spreading slowly until the cold reached the core of her heart.

Oh, thank the heavenly stars, Cecile thought as her eyes turned blank and blood began to pool on the underside of her body. Yes, thank the heavenly stars she’d been a rejected writer. Who knows what would have happened had she sent out another query letter? Had she been published, she might never have turned to the womanly art of cleanliness. She never would have found honor as a Home Management Professional.

She never would have noticed that dust bunny floating in the breeze of her last breath.

Auburn McCanta author photoAuburn McCanta is a Pacific Northwest girl gone south. After growing up literally surrounded by her mother’s prized Portland roses, McCanta now lives in Phoenix with her husband, one Golden Retriever and one impossible Labradoodle. She’s become accustomed to the Sonoran Desert with its occasional neighborhood coyote and scorpion rout.

After the 1994 removal of a sizeable brain tumor, McCanta found writing as a source of therapy. Her early work appeared in Cruising World, Hobie Hotline, California Cat, as well as the Sacramento Bee and Arizona Republic newspapers. Much to her amusement, McCanta’s first work of full-length fiction received a fourth place award from the National Writers Association. In 2007, her second novel was a Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary finalist. She was honored in 2008 with a third place award for poetry by PNWA.

Prior to last year’s presidential election, McCanta was selected from thousands of hopefuls by Huffington Post to serve as a Citizen Journalist. She continues to regularly write for HuffingtonPost.com. She also blogs at DancingBirds.com.

When not writing or undergoing yet another surgery, McCanta enjoys the tradition of her distant Irish heritage by eating potatoes.

The Words Not Written, by Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence Grand Prize Winner, F. Gerard Jefferson

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Hello, campers –

As part of the festivities celebrating Author! Author!’s 1000th blog post, I am thrilled to present the Grand Prize winner in the first periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, F. Gerard Jefferson. Congratulations, Gerard!

You might want to remember that name; I suspect that you’re going to be seeing it grace bookshelves in the not-too-distant future.

I could go on and on about why this entry captured the judges’ hearts in the face of some quite stiff competition, but since part of the purpose of the contest was to help bring new writers’ work to a larger audience, I’m going to get out of the way and let his words speak for themselves. So please join me in giving a big Author! Author! welcome to a very talented up-and-coming writer, F. Gerard Jefferson.

Take it away, Gerard!

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I’m black but I don’t wear it on my sleeve. With a post-racial president in the White House it’s not the chic thing to do anyway but inevitably when I write, query, do all of those decidedly non-author tasks like considering audience and marketing, I find myself at an all too familiar fork in the path — a choice between what I think is acceptable for a writer of my genus-blind talents and what the publishing and literary magnates are slobbering (or, more often, not slobbering for) from a writer like me. I make a choice between the branches because I have to, going with my gut. Not surprisingly, I write to match.

In addition to my race, I’m also the gambling sort who often mistakes his recklessness for confidence, but I feel neither reckless nor over-confident by claiming a fraternity among authors. Authorship is a solitary path but far from peculiar. If you’re reading this then surely at some point in your journey you’ve come to a similar fork in the path — you’ve made a choice. We all have. Maybe you recognized when it happened and maybe you didn’t, but the capital A Author you dreamed of being as a child and the adjective author you’ve become as an adult are two separate authors altogether. Be it romance, sci-fi, black, [fill in the blank with whatever your group is, italics please], or, for the special major among us with many affiliations, MFAs (multiple flouncing adjectives) — whatever the case may be we are a family so lost in the winding forest of specialization and genre and the subtle censorship it employs that our readers need prescriptive directions on how to find us. Conversely, despite all that flouncing, the adjectives make us that much easier to ignore.

The reasons for this I will leave for an anthropologist to explain (perhaps from the fossilized remains of another unheard traveler who has died along the way) but I recall a famous adage about authors striving to remove themselves from story. This guides my decision at the fork but presents a dilemma when art meets market and the gatekeeper at the conference is saying, “The writing’s beautiful, but [your group]… they don’t necessarily constitute a book-buying majority, do they?”, and I’m saying, stifling my anger because what I’ve written has implications beyond the group(s) I nominally represent, “How do you know that?”, and they’re replying, definitively, “BookScan, of course. Seventy percent of all hard cover book sales.”

When you’re faced with that kind of irredactable evidence of what the market will support how do forget about the MFA author that you’ve become? And how do I, when the black, male, married without children, thirty-one year old cheese grits lover that I am says so much about what I should be writing, and what I shouldn’t?

I am, of course, being facetious about BookScan and any other self-corroborating market analysis that willfully ignores the chicken-or-the-egg paradoxes their numbers represent. That’s a mouthful so allow me to translate: self-doubt’s a predator in these here woods, and if I spent my energy viewing the future from an outpost constructed from the past I would’ve succumbed to the nighttime caterwauls and weariness a long time ago. Instead I prefer to believe in a different future, a different world where possibility, even in publishing, is not restricted to those things that can be plotted on a moving average trend chart. I prefer to be as delusional in my belief as the gatekeepers are willfully ignorant and trusting in their data. I prefer, in short, to believe in truth that is stranger than fiction.

Just the same, though, as any unpublished author is told to do, I pay attention to national and regional bestsellers lists, and stay abreast of deal making through Publishers Marketplace. I read the bets that are being made by independent and major bookies alike; I recognize the regurgitation of theme and plot and an infatuation among many for old stories newly told. I’ve become aware through observation of something I never expected when I was learning to read with Dick and Jane — storytelling as the original green industry.

And I have my moments of weakness. Gatekeepers want comparables so they can link historical data and establish precedence, but book and author are inseparable entities. My novel can be similar to another but I have yet to find an author whose passion for cheese grits matches my own, and that difference (among others) invalidates the comparison, and possibly the sell. Not so in post-racial America, you say, but I’ve been told fiction is a subjective category, and in matters of subjectivity I have to wonder when and where the data parsing stops.

Which makes me linger occasionally at the fork in the road when most of the time the choice is unconscious. There’s a way to end this interminable wandering, a novel I could write. I see pieces of it through the undergrowth down the other path, the byproduct of scientific prognostication and market-savvy adjective art run amuck: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man…with fangs.

This high concept novel may be self-explanatory but allow me to translate anyway: are you telling me in this perilous market climate that some literary honcho wouldn’t clear his or her schedule to read about a teenage, 1930s vampire in an inter-racial relationship (meticulously researched, of course) whose need for blood is just as conflicting as his need for social justice? Is that your stance?

Wait. Before you answer, someone in the peanut gallery just keeled over from The Wiz revulsion. For those who don’t know, The Wiz revulsion is a gag response brought on by an acute sense of entertainment embarrassment that makes your unprocessed food want to get on down get on down the road…

But I’ve lingered at the fork too long. In truth, the shunned path is neither commonplace nor unremarkable and it’s a lazy man’s game classifying it as such — it’s a personal choice. Like everything else in these woods the difference between something familiar and something merely cliché is subjective. I, like every other traveler, must make that distinction and I’ve made it, following a creative process the US Banking system could’ve benefited from, booking my value as an artist on my ability to be original rather than derivative, an A Author rather than a MFA author. Oh that I have chosen wisely and there is a sigh in this for me somewhere ages hence. I don’t know that there is — I don’t know if there can be. I have a feeling, though, that if there is, I’ll rejigger the facts in hindsight à la BookScan and say my choice made all the difference.

gerard-jefferson-author-photoAccording to family lore, F. Gerard Jefferson’s claim of “always wanting to be a writer” dates back to kindergarten when, after the first day, he came home upset because he still couldn’t read. He would follow a more traditional arc after this — writing for enjoyment in spiral notebooks, becoming yearbook editor his senior year in high school, fleeing the craft because of the sobering fiscal realities of becoming an artist — but the “I still can’t read!” episode is, by far, the most telling expression for the ambition that defines F. Gerard Jefferson’s life and, hopefully, his writing.

After a five-year hiatus in college mastering electromagnetism, thermodynamics, and other logical pursuits with guaranteed earning potential, F. Gerard Jefferson returned to language arts in 2002 to recover a missing part of his soul. In addition to winning an Author! Author! Expressive Excellence Award, he was also recently honorable mention in the Obama Millennium Awards competition in New Millennium Writings. He lives north of his native Georgia in Cleveland, Tennessee with his wife and is working on a soft science fiction novelization of “The Road Not Taken.”

Where our fiction really lives, by guest blogger Linda Gillard

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Hello, all —
Under any circumstances, today’s guest blogger, award-winning romance novelist Linda Gillard, would require little introduction: the good folks who decide which of each year’s new fiction to honor with prizes have already seen to that. However, I have even less temptation to be long-winded this time around, because Linda has a genuinely astonishing story to share about her road to publication.

Even if romance isn’t your proverbial cup of tea, you’re going to want to read this, I suspect. So I’m just going to get out of the way and let her tell her story herself.

Except to say: for the benefit of those of you not already familiar with Linda’s writings — and so those of you new to writing blurbs for your own books may see how the pros pull it off — here is the publisher’s blurb for Linda’s EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY:

emotional-geology cover Gillard smallRose Leonard is on the run from her life. Taking refuge in a remote island community, she cocoons herself in work, silence and solitude in a house by the sea. But she is haunted by her past, by memories and desires she’d hoped were long dead. Rose must decide whether she has in fact chosen a new life or just a different kind of death. Life and love are offered by new friends, her lonely daughter, and most of all Calum, a fragile younger man who has his own demons to exorcise. But does Rose, with her tenuous hold on life and sanity, have the courage to say yes to life and put her past behind her?

Quite the grabber, eh? Here’s the blurb for her second, A LIFETIME BURNING:

A lifetime burning cover gillard‘I think I was damned from birth,’ Flora said, staring vacantly into space. ‘Damned by my birth.’

Greedy for experience but determined to be good, Flora Dunbar spends a lifetime seeking love, trying to build a future out of the wreckage of her past – an eccentric childhood spent in the shadow of her musical twin, Rory; early marriage to Hugh, a clergyman twice her age; motherhood, which brings her Theo, the son she cannot love; middle-age, when she finds brief happiness in a scandalous affair with her nephew, Colin.

‘If you asked my sister-in-law why she hated me, she’d say it was because I seduced her precious firstborn, then tossed him onto the sizeable scrap-heap marked “Flora’s ex-lovers”. But she’d be lying. That isn’t why Grace hated me. Ask my brother Rory…’

That one sounds like a real barn-burner, doesn’t it? Here’s the blurb for STAR GAZING:

star-gazing-cover gillardBlind since birth, widowed in her twenties, now lonely in her forties, Marianne Fraser lives in Edinburgh in elegant, angry anonymity with her sister, Louisa, a successful novelist. Marianne’s passionate nature finds solace and expression in music, a love she finds she shares with Keir, a man she encounters on her doorstep one winter’s night. Keir makes no concession to her condition. He is abrupt to the point of rudeness, and yet oddly kind. But can Marianne trust her feelings for this reclusive stranger who wants to take a blind woman to his island home on Skye, to ‘show’ her the stars?

It just goes to show you: even a short paragraph is enough room to tell a good story, as well as to show off one’s skills as a storyteller. Remember that, please, the next time you’re groaning over the task of compressing your 350-page plot into a two-minute pitch.

Oh, and before I sign off, those of you reading on this side of the pond might want to know that Linda’s books are available through the Book Depository in the UK. Why should that interest US and Canadian romance-lovers? Because the Book Depository ships worldwide for free.

I just mention.

So please make yourself comfortable in order to hear an interesting, informative, and dare I say it, inspirational story of one author’s climb from the Slough of Despair to successful publication. Take it away, Linda!

emotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillardstar-gazing-cover gillardemotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillard
When a disturbed pupil took a swing at me in the middle of a maths lesson, I saw the punch coming. I dodged and the blow landed on my shoulder. While the rest of the class waited, open-mouthed, to see what Miss would do — retaliate with a left hook? — I sent the boy out of the room, re-assembled the remnants of my shattered dignity and finished the lesson.

What I didn’t see coming was that the blow would signal the end of my teaching career and the beginning of a long mental illness. Nor could I ever have imagined that my illness would usher in a new career as a novelist.

I was teaching in a school that served a socially deprived area and I was already struggling to maintain my mental equilibrium. The kids were challenging, but lovable, despite the fact some of the boys (those who could write) would have listed their hobbies as martial arts and drug dealing. Gallows humour kept the teaching staff going, but we taught in a climate of fear — fear of verbal and physical abuse from pupils and their parents — and fear takes its toll.

My doctor signed me off sick, suffering from stress. Stress became profound depression. I was prescribed a series of anti-depressants, none of which seemed to help. My moods fluctuated wildly, from highs that took me on shopping sprees, to lows that had me planning the perfect suicide.

Teaching had been my vocation, but I was too ill to return to my old job or look for a new one. I was 47 and, as far as I was concerned, on the scrap heap. I sat at home, alternately doped and hyper, not getting any better. For some reason — the teacher in me, I suppose — I kept a chart of my mood swings, the black days and the better days. I became convinced there was a pattern and concluded that perhaps what I was suffering from was severe pre-menstrual syndrome, so I asked to be referred to a gynaecologist.

We were no more than ten minutes into the consultation when this wonderful man pronounced the words that would change my life (and possibly saved it.) He said, “You aren’t suffering from PMS. I think you’re suffering from bipolar affective disorder.”

Manic depression.

I knew nothing about this illness that wasn’t seriously bad news. I seemed to be the first person in my family to suffer from it (it runs in families) but as I learned more about the spectrum of behaviour, old tales of temperament and eccentricity took on a new perspective. And so did I. As I stood in a bookshop, poring over a medical textbook, I was appalled to see myself described in forensic detail. What I’d thought was my mercurial personality turned out to be a life-threatening illness. My world fell apart.

But I was a teacher. I’d also been a journalist, so I made it my business to educate myself on the subject of bipolar. I read psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir, AN UNQUIET MIND. She’s bipolar herself and was the first person to alert me to the idea that there could actually be some positive aspects to the disease. (On my website. you’ll find a Mental Health section and a celebration of famous manic depressives: a long list of high-achieving people, dead and alive, many of them creative artists, some of them geniuses, all known or suspected to have been bipolar.)

My condition is mild and once on the correct medication, I stabilised. With the help of a supportive psychiatrist, I began to rebuild my life. Unemployed, technically disabled, I had a lot of time on my hands, so I read a lot of books and sewed a lot of patchwork quilts.

I read all sorts of fiction but struggled to find any that reflected my life and experience. There was very little that featured women of my age. Romantic heroines over forty simply did not exist. Mature women appeared only as somebody’s mother or somebody’s wife and they never had sex, unless for comic effect. (The publishing world appears to think that, although most books are bought and read by women over 40, they actually like to read about women much younger and thinner than themselves.)

Then one day, when I was reading Louise DeSalvo’s WRITING AS A WAY OF HEALING, I came upon a paragraph that changed my life:

I didn’t know that you could write simply to take care of yourself, even if you have no desire to publish your work. I didn’t know that if you want to become a writer, eventually you’ll learn through writing — and only through writing — all you need to know about your craft. And that while learning, you’re engaging in soul-satisfying, deeply nurturing labour. I didn’t know that if you want to write and don’t, because you don’t feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.”

That was how I felt. Erased.

I laid the book aside and — as if in a trance — walked over to my PC, sat down and started to type. I wrote about “a woman alone in a light, white room”. I could see the room and sense the atmosphere. I could see the woman and she was writing a letter, but I didn’t know who she was or who she was writing to. With no thought of publication or even of writing well, I just started typing the first page of what was to become my first novel, Emotional Geology.

emotional-geology cover 2 Gillard

I didn’t plan to become a novelist and I didn’t plan my first book. I was a sick woman. On bad days, compiling a shopping list was a challenge, so I just wrote.

To begin with, I wrote lots of short, self-contained pieces that could be read in any order. If they told a story, it would be cumulatively, as a sort of collage. As I wrote, I noticed two things. The pain stopped. All kinds of pain. Writing, it seemed, was morphia for the soul. (And, incidentally, just as addictive.) I also noticed that time passed. I looked up and it was lunchtime. I looked up again and it was midnight. Hooray! I was exhausted and could sleep.

The word count grew, but still I avoided planning. Ducking the issue, I wondered if I could I write a “book-in-a-box,” a non-linear novel that didn’t need to be bound because the pages could be read in any order. (As a teacher I’d been a big fan of those Choose Your Own Adventure books.)

That idea worked for a while, but in the end I realised it did matter — from a dramatic point of view — what order you read the pages in. A final running order had to be established so I had fun carpeting the floor with printed sheets of A4, “designing” my book in much the same way I arranged blocks when assembling my quilts.

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Emotional Geology wasn’t autobiography, nor was it fictionalised memoir. I managed to avoid some first novel pitfalls by wanting so very badly to escape. It was bad enough living my life; I certainly didn’t want to write about it. But I did want to tackle the issues.

I didn’t know it then, but what I was did was reject veracity in favour of emotional authenticity. Later, I realised this is an essential digestive process if the raw material of our lives is to be transformed into palatable fiction. Student writers often think a faithful, unflinching account of real-life events and feelings is enough to make something readable, possibly publishable. This is not the case.

As writers we have to accept the difference between something being true and something being convincing. Paradoxically, fiction can tell truer truths. If a reader is to believe (or suspend her disbelief), truth must be edited for fictional purposes and presented in the best form to do the job. This is what good fiction is: true lies.

If you find this idea difficult, think about raising money for charity and the photographs or news footage you might use in your campaign. You wouldn’t use material so upsetting that people would turn the page of the magazine or switch channels. You want to disturb, not repel, so unvarnished truth might not serve your purpose.

This isn’t a cop-out, it’s careful mediation. If we record “undigested” truth in our therapeutic writing, its therapeutic value exists for the author, not the reader. (To be sure, all writing is therapeutic to an extent and probably all writers begin writing therapeutically, but we need to move on from there if we’re to develop our skills, especially if we seek publication.)

When I wrote my first novel, what I wrote — instinctively and therapeutically — was an alternative autobiography, what my life might have been like under very different circumstances. I was married; my heroine was single. I quilted as a hobby; she was a professional textile artist. I lived in a Norwich suburb; she lived on the bleak and remote, Gaelic-speaking Hebridean island of North Uist, which I knew from family holidays on the west coast of Scotland.

I set out to write a thinking-woman’s love story that tackled real issues. I wanted to put a sensitive, creative woman in the spotlight and ignore her age, just look at her heart and mind. I was able to write with passion and paint-stripper honesty because I knew my novel would never be published. (My mentally ill romantic heroine was 47, and so was I. A less commercial proposition would be hard to imagine.) Hooked on writing, in love with both my heroes, I was fascinated to the point of obsession by the technical challenges of my story.

Was it possible to make a bipolar heroine sympathetic?

How could I convey her bouts of “madness”?

Could I depict the dreadful toll manic depression took on carers?

Was it possible to explore the undisputed links between creativity and bipolar without glamorising a potentially lethal illness?

Could I make depression interesting?

Could I, in short, come up with some good news about living, loving and working with bipolar?

I hadn’t the faintest idea, but I needed to do these things if I was to make sense of my own life, so I set about my self-imposed tasks with a will. I was writing for my life. Gradually writing became my life.

Structure was a problem from the start. Emotional Geology is a book in which nothing much happens, but all sorts of tumultuous events have occurred in the past. What the characters are dealing with in the present is fall-out. My heroine, Rose, lives alone but is haunted by her past. At times she’s barely able to distinguish the new man in her life from the one who got away. And that was the point. There is no escape. (My teacher-hero quotes Milton to her: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”)

I tried to construct a book that was confused, but not confusing. (My working title was SCRAPBOOK.) I came up with a kaleidoscopic structure, moving backwards and forwards in time, sometimes writing in first person, sometimes third. As I wrote, I delved into the layers of Rose’s memory, all of which existed simultaneously, like an archaeological dig. Landscape and particularly geology became the book’s dominant metaphors and so I arrived at my final title: Emotional Geology.

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I wanted to take the reader inside my heroine’s troubled mind, so I opted to write in the present tense throughout, to create an “as it happens” feel for all events, past and present, since for Rose, the past was just as vivid as the present. (I discovered the present tense also stops you over-writing. It’s very exposing, like those bright, unforgiving lights in changing rooms. Verbal flab is spotlit.)

But how was I to convey Rose’s manic states? The problem with conveying mania from the inside (i.e. from Rose’s point of view) was that I had to portray a state of mind unfamiliar and alarming to most people. Was there a way to draw a reluctant reader in?

I’d noticed that at moments of drama or emotional stress my prose was straining toward a different, heightened style. Eventually I acknowledged — with considerable surprise — that what I was repressing was an urge to write poetry. (If I’d had any aspiration to publication, the introduction of poems as part of the narrative surely sounded the death knell for my literary hopes.)

The poems seemed to write themselves, even though I’d never written one before. This might have been because I wasn’t trying to write good poetry. (It’s wonderfully liberating when you stop trying to be “a good writer.” I recommend it. Aspiration can be artistically crippling. I never ask myself now if what I’ve written is any good, the question is rather, “Have I said what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it?” If I have, then for me it’s good writing. How could it be better?)

Emotional Geology depicted an internal, dislocated world of shifting time and place. The present tense and the poems allowed the book to float in various limbos and the layout of the poems on the page drew useful boundaries: Rose occasionally went off the deep end. When she did, she broke out in poems.

Well, it all made perfect sense to me. That white room was both Rose’s island home and her “cell” in the mental hospital. It was also the deeply medicated blank space of her mind. There was a process going on and, in Zen-like fashion, I just needed to get out of its way.

Even now, working on my fifth novel, I find I don’t always understand what I’ve written, or rather why I’ve written it. I don’t actually think it’s necessary to understand. I do think you need to be able to trust what you’ve written, which means trusting in yourself as a writer. That’s hard.

It’s also hard to trust intelligent readers to complete the process; to bring, as co-creators, their own experience and understanding to your text. It wasn’t until I started getting feedback from readers that I realised a book isn’t just the words we write, it also exists in the spaces in between the words. As authors we have no control over those spaces, but we can (and should) create them. They are where our fiction really lives.

I wrote my first novel just as a treat for myself, but I had a change of heart and decided to try and publish it after I read the results of a Depression Alliance survey in the UK which said 26% of those questioned did not believe mental illness was a genuine illness.

That’s one in four. Clearly, there was work to be done.

Encouraged by my writers’ e-group, I sent my weird but now completed typescript to agents. To my astonishment, one took me on. (I think she fell in love with my hero. Or maybe it was the Hebrides.) Then we struck lucky. A new imprint, Transita, was looking for books written by, for and about mature women. (This is no longer the case, so please don’t send them unsolicited manuscripts.)

Transita bought Emotional Geology and published a wide variety of novels which were a hit with readers of all ages, but were dismissed by the UK media as “HRT Lit” (Anne here: that’s Brit-speak for hormone replacement therapy, i.e., menopause treatments), “Hag Lit” and “Romance for Wrinklies.”

Aged 53, with my first novel published, I concluded that my biggest “disability” as an author was not that I suffered from bipolar affective disorder, but that I was middle-aged, female and had had the temerity to write about a sexually active middle-aged female. (The ageism and misogyny of British culture beggars belief. But hey, they used to burn us as witches! Things are definitely looking up.)

Emotional Geology fared better than some of Transita’s lighter books, perhaps because it defies categorisation. It comforts and confronts. It has appealed to people who have no knowledge of, or particular interest in mental illness and was short-listed for the Waverton Good Read Award, given to the year’s best first British novel. Well received by the mental health press, Emotional Geology was also runner-up in Pure Passion a light-hearted library promotion of romantic reads.

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At author events readers complain to me in a good-natured way that they’ve been up till 2.00 am, unable to put the book down. But very little actually happens, so how can it be un-put-downable?

My theory is, since I write my books not knowing what happens next, nor even the final outcome, suspense and “hooks” for the reader are built in. Nobody wants to know what happens more than I do, so I’m writing as fast as I can, to find out. And that’s how readers like to read.

For this reason I’m anti-synopses. Publishers need them, but many writers don’t. Your subconscious — if you let it — will write a better and braver book than your conscious mind. After that, it’s all in the editing.

Planning a novel and writing a synopsis might encourage you to opt for the obvious in character and plot. You won’t arrive at your artistic decisions in an organic way. (E.M. Forster is supposed to have said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”) Would I have dared plan poems for Emotional Geology? The idea wouldn’t have occurred to me and, if it had, I would have dismissed it as pretentious. It was only in the writing of the book that poems presented themselves as the solution to a technical problem.

Faced unexpectedly with publication and the inevitable PR, I had to decide whether to be “out” about my own mental health history. Was I going to set myself up to be dismissed as a one-book wonder or an author of fictionalised memoir? (I didn’t realise then grounds for dismissal could just be middle age.)

I’d complicated matters by moving to Skye, another Scottish island, which made my novel look far more autobiographical than it was. (Be careful what you wish for… Writing my alternative life gave me the courage to go and live it.) A double bereavement and both our children leaving home had led to some domestic stock-taking. My husband and I decided to live our dream and move to a big house on a hillside, facing the spectacular Cuillin mountain range on the Isle of Skye.

cuillin-mountains-isle-of-skye

So I did what I thought was the only honest thing. I’d written a book in which manic depression was just one aspect of my heroine and secondary to her creativity. That’s how it had to be for me too. So from the start I was “out” about my mental health history. Readers have come forward, in emails and in person, to thank me for the book and for standing up in public to demonstrate that there’s life after breakdown, after diagnosis; that it is never, ever too late to reinvent yourself.

I no longer live on Skye but I live a quiet, creative and productive life. I write, teach workshops and speak to groups about writing and mental health. My third novel, Star Gazing, set on Skye, was short-listed earlier this year for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award, organised by the Romantic Novelists’ Association.

star-gazing-cover gillard

This time, I created a romantic heroine whom most readers would regard as disabled. Marianne is middle-aged, widowed and congenitally blind. Much of Star Gazing is written in the first person, from Marianne’s blind point of view and this raised a number of technical problems. I learned a lot as I solved them — and not just about writing. I began the book thinking of blindness as a disability, but by the time I was halfway through, I was convinced the blind have other ways of “seeing”. (Or as the sighted hero, Keir says to Marianne, “You have perfectly good eyes, they’re just not in your sockets.”)

As writers we agonise about originality and commercial appeal. The more anxious among us fret about copyrighting our ideas. But Christopher Booker says there are only seven basic plots. (Did you know LORD OF THE RINGS incorporates all of them?)

But what is unique to each of us is our way of seeing the world. That is the commodity writers have to sell, the “story” we have to tell. When we discover our true voice, it’s as unique as our fingerprint. But it might take a long time — and a lot of writing — to find.

In the meantime, aim to say what you want to say, in the way you want to say it. That’s good writing.

How could it be better?
emotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillardstar-gazing-cover gillardemotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillard
Linda Gillard author photo IILinda Gillard studied Drama and German at Bristol University, then trained as an actress at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Whilst under-employed at London’s National Theatre, Linda developed a sideline as a freelance journalist. She ran two careers concurrently for a while, then gave up acting to raise a family and write from home.

Twelve years later, she re-trained as a teacher and taught in Norfolk for some years. She moved to the Isle of Skye where she lived for six years in a house on a hill overlooking the Cuillin mountain range, featured in her first novel, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY (short-listed for the 2006 Waverton Good Read Award.) Linda now lives near Glasgow.

Her second novel, A LIFETIME BURNING was published by Transita in 2006 and STAR GAZING, set partly on Skye, was published by Piatkus in 2008.

Hobnobbing with the famous, however briefly

ticker-tape-parade

No time for a long-winded missive today, I’m afraid: you’d be amazed at how much the work can pile up while a writer’s on retreat. I’m fairly confident that my desk is in fact underneath all of the papers in front of me, but it’s going to take another week or two of digging to confirm that.

Since I’ve been back from my writing retreat, I’ve noticed that acquaintances’ inquiries have been falling into two basic categories. Non-artist inquirers, without exception, ask about the touristy aspects of getting to and from a medieval village in the mountains of southwestern France; they want to be regaled with photographs of ruined castles. Admittedly, they probably don’t actually want to hear as much about the 12th-century Albigensian heresy as I tend to tell them while showing them the requisite pictures — I was in the part of France where the Cathars ran to escape folks who wanted to burn them at the stake for their beliefs — but they’re very nice about it.

Mysteriously, artists seem less interested in who got massacred where and if I have a photograph of the church built upon the spot. They ask, “Did you get a lot of writing done?” and, if they’re savvy about artists’ colonies, “Were there any famous artists/writers at the retreat?”

Don’t laugh — the answers to neither are foregone conclusions.

As anyone who has ever been on a lengthy group retreat could tell you, it’s far from uncommon that writers and other artists show up on a long-anticipated retreat — and then don’t work much on their art. There are plenty of reasons for this, of course, ranging from having unrealistic expectations about how much one can get done in a week, two, or a month; being totally exhausted due to working double shifts in the weeks leading up to the retreat, in order to be able to afford to come (it’s really, really rare that even a top-flight, highly competitive residency will give you money to pay your bills while you’re taking time off your day job), wanting to hang out with all of the other fascinating people who tend to turn up at artists’ retreats, and/or just needing a vacation really, really badly.

And then there’s the most common reason of all, writer’s block.

Did that giant collective gasp I just heard indicate that some, most, or all of you weren’t aware that even well-established writers who win fellowships to luxurious artists’ colonies sometimes fall prey to writer’s block? Of course they do: all writers do, from time to time; it seldom has anything to do with talent.

So what does it have to do with, you ask? Usually, in a retreat situation, the kind of elevated expectations I mentioned above: the prospect of writing/starting/finishing a big chunk of a book (or a short story, or a proposal) within a short, intense period of time can be darned intimidating.

Whether a time-challenged writer is at a retreat or at home, the very notion of wasting so much of a second of time and space that was so hard to carve out can be paralyzing. And if the writer in question has, as so many first-time retreatants do, been putting off working on a particular piece of writing until he’s safely ensconced, the pressure to write quickly roughly triples.

If this happens to you, take a deep breath. Remember that part of what artists do on retreat is think — and that thinking is a legitimate part of the artistic process.

After you’ve taken a nice, long walk and thought about your project, come back to your writing space (which, I hate to break it to you, will probably be much, much smaller than the palatial digs I enjoyed at my most recent retreat; chandeliers are in fact optional), take out several sheets of scratch paper, and diagram your story or the argument you’re making in what you’d planned to write. (Everyone knows how to do that, right? If any of you don’t, drop me a line in the comments on this post, and I’ll do a short how-to.)

Once you have a visual representation of your project in front of you, circle or highlight the bits you have not yet written. Which parts would be the easiest or quickest to do? Which would be next easiest, quickest, least emotionally jarring, etc.?

Once you’ve decided which would be least challenging, sit down and start there. Don’t even think of tackling any other part of your writing project until it’s done. Once it’s completed, move on to the next on your list.

Repeat as often as necessary until you get into a writing groove.

Do I hear some sounds of scoffing out there? “But Anne,” some folks who have dreamed long about running away on retreat protest, “I could work incrementally at home. If I have a big, unbroken chunk of time free of distractions in front of me, shouldn’t I be using it for, you know, something more ambitious?”

Not if you’ve come down with a bad case of writer’s block, you shouldn’t. Demonstrating to the frozen creative part of your psyche that it’s also productive to chip away at smaller portions is a great way to loosen up the writing muscles.

That’s not the only strategy for overcoming writer’s block, of course, or the only one that would work in this situation. For more suggestions, check out the aptly-named WRITER’S BLOCK category on the archive list at the bottom right-hand corner of this page.

The second question, the one about running into anyone famous, arises from the fact that many artists’ colonies will offer residencies to well-established writers and other artists as an inducement to the less-established to cough up the change to come to the retreat as well. And that’s not just my cynical take on it, either: just as writing workshops and conferences use the famous names for marketing purposes, many retreats are perfectly up front about selling access to big-name artists-in-residence.

Don’t believe me? Check out the grants, fellowships, and residencies section of Poets & Writers magazine, one of the best sources for tracking down same.

A quick caveat emptor to those of you who find the prospect of hobnobbing with the illustrious tempting: check the fine print. Just as a famous author’s speaking at a conference doesn’t necessarily mean that any individual attendee is going to have one-on-one time with him, being in residence simultaneously with a literary bigwig doesn’t automatically translate into long literary lunches and impeccable feedback on your work. Unless the retreat’s promotional materials actually mention that God’s Gift to Literature will be offering classes or critique to co-residents, assume that the answer is no.

Remember, established authors occasionally like to go on retreat for precisely the same reason that any other writer does — to get some time alone with their manuscripts. Unless they’re specifically being paid to help out those struggling along the earlier steps of the path to publication — as many retreats do — they’re under no obligation to invest their retreat time in reading or critiquing your work.

Or in providing you with contacts, finding you an agent, writing you a blurb…

I always feel a little funny saying this point-blank, as this just seems like basic courtesy to someone who grew up around famous writers, but established authors are not required to help the aspiring. Yet writers trying to break into the biz rush up to the famous all the time, essentially demanding their attention and a leg up, as if it didn’t take a darned long time to read a total stranger’s manuscript. If you want their assistance in a situation where they’re not being paid to provide it, approach with the awareness that you are in fact asking a pretty darned big favor of someone you’ve just met.

As luck would have it, an extremely well-known Irish poet was in residence with me at La Muse, but thankfully, everyone was too polite to thrust poems-in-progress at him. (Although not everyone was similarly restrained when they learned that I edited professionally, unfortunately. It’s amazing how single-minded writers can be in pursuit of publication.)

The good news is that if the retreat is indeed paying the lauded one to help out the other residents, they’re not going to make a secret of it. Since it’s actually rather difficult for the average mid-list author to make a living out of book sales alone (again, hate to be the one to break it to you), plenty of very good writers supplement their income through teaching gigs, conference presentations — and, yes, hanging out at residencies.

Do be aware, though, that being a well-known — or even brilliant — author doesn’t necessarily render one a good teacher of the craft. Or a good reader and feedback-giver, especially outside of one’s own particular book category.

Heck, it doesn’t even guarantee being a nice person who won’t gratuitously hurt an aspiring writer’s feelings. As I believe I may have pointed out 1700 or 1800 times before in this venue, professional feedback is harsh, and standards do in fact vary a bit from genre to genre.

Again, this may be self-evident, but before you take the emotional risk and plunk down the cash for cohabitating with, taking a class from, or showing your manuscript to a famous writer, make sure that that the illustrious one has at least a passing familiarity with your type of book. Otherwise, you’re not likely to get as much usable feedback as you have a right to expect.

If it’s part of what you’re paying to receive at a retreat, that is.

The best way to assure a good fit, of course, is to select a residency (class, conference) that features a laurelled one with a consistent track record of publishing in your chosen book category. Preferably recently, as being treated to long, well-meant lectures on what agents and editors were looking for thirty years ago may not help you please them now.

Even then, you may need to take what you hear with a grain of salt.

Many years ago, I spent a month at an artists’ colony that routinely imported both well-established sculptors and painters to give emerging artists feedback on their works-in-progress and a famous author or two every couple of weeks to impart wisdom to those treading the earlier steps of the path to greatness. Excited at the prospect, but aware that I would get more out of the feedback if I were familiar with these authors’ most recent work, I naturally rushed right out and indulged in an orgy of literary preparation.

The first of these authors, a well-established author not yet a household name and the one whose work I preferred of the two, spent a week on-site. She read excerpts, gave constructive feedback, helped writers over manuscript difficulties, and even gave a couple of impromptu lectures on craft.

Yet I couldn’t help but notice that not all of my fellow retreatants were as happy with her input as I was — but then, she wrote comedy, and so did I. She liked the chapter I submitted for critique, so we spent a charming hour chatting about my work, hers, and how I could make my writing more marketable.

Those whose work was less similar to hers did not fare so well, I’m told.

This mixed result is far from unheard-of at retreats that offer brushes with the Great — or at conferences, workshops, or even literary contests judged by them. There’s no way to assure that you are absolutely exempt from falling victim to it, but doing your reading in advance can certainly help. If your writing style is radically different from the critiquing author, consider seeking feedback elsewhere.

In any contest with celebrity judges — i.e., famous writers who make the final selections from amongst the finalist pool — this goes double, or even triple. If your writing doesn’t resemble the famous judge’s in form, think twice before bothering to enter.

I can feel you wincing. Crunching a few dry crackers should help with the nausea.

Back to our story already in progress. A couple of weeks later, the Living Legend scheduled to shed her effulgence on the residents sent word that she would be arriving a trifle too late for the meetings the retreat organizers had insisted that we book a week in advance, but in the meantime she was reading the excerpts we had submitted to her industriously.

One forgives such things in National Book Award winners, naturally. Good-naturedly, all of the writers in residence rescheduled our appointments with her to the next day. And then to the day after that.

When she arrived late in the afternoon of day 3 of her week-long residency, again too late for any but the last of the scheduled meetings, she announced that she could stay for only a couple of days — the absolute minimum, the cynical speculated, to collect her honorarium for meeting with us.

She wanted, she said, to meet with each of us right away. As in could each of us drop what we’re writing in mid-sentence and genuflect at her feet now?

Because I was — believe it or not of a writer on retreat — deep in the midst of a chapter, I signed up for one of the latest of the possible appointments. The Great Lady didn’t like that much, but one-on-one meetings we had all paid for, so she couldn’t just give us feedback in one big group, could she?

Seriously, could she? She honestly wanted to know — and seemed annoyed when we all demurred.

Now, I have to be honest here: I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from the much-delayed meeting, and not just because she had been, well, not delivering what we had been told to expect. I was prepared to be very diplomatic about it, but the fact is, I didn’t find her writing very engaging. Not to blow my own horn, but this restraint did require some near-heroism on my part, as my extensive reading binge had revealed that her literary output since 1957 had consisted largely of telling and retelling the (apparently autobiographical) plot of her first critically-lauded novel in slightly different forms.

None of which evinced the smallest modicum of humor. So I was quite prepared for her to dislike my chapter, of course, but I made the mistake of assuming that as long as I didn’t let her feedback vex me into blurting out some version of, “Why on earth did anyone ever consider you for the Pulitzer?” I would survive the occasion with aplomb.

You can feel the impending doom, can’t you? Wait — it’s even worse than you’re imagining.

Practically the moment I walked into my scheduled meeting — yes, it did eventually occur — She Whose Name Will Live Forever launched into a vigorous diatribe about the inherent weakness of a particular scene in the submitted chapter. The only trouble was, I hadn’t written the scene that had so upset her sensibilities; another writer in residence had.

Entirely disregarding my polite, gentle hints that perhaps she had mislaid my manuscript, the august lady proceeded to blast my fellow writer’s work for a good ten minutes. As nearly as I could tell from her tirade, she had decided that I must have written the short story in question — although I do not write short stories — because the character in the story looked a bit like me. ( As do literally millions of adult women of Mediterranean extraction, I might add.)

I had absolutely no idea what to do. Surely, when the other writer came for her session (which, because Nemesis has a dandy sense of humor, was scheduled for immediately after mine), the grande dame would realize her mistake — and something in her regal bearing gave the impression that she was not overly fond of admitting her own mistakes.

It took me several minutes to convince the Grande Dame of Literature that I was telling the truth about who I was and what I had written — she actually ARGUED with me about whether I’d written the chapter she’d been lambasting. By the end of our brief argument, both of us had realized that she had not yet read my piece at all.

Embarrassed for her — far more than she, apparently — I offered to reschedule our appointment on the following day, but she was adamant that she was only prepared to give me (her phrase) an hour of her time, period. As about 35 minutes of that time had already elapsed, I proposed that we should devote it to chatting about the writing life in general; again, no.

Somehow, this was my fault; if the writing in the piece in question — i.e., the one by somebody other than me — had been better, she implied, she never would have been confused at all.

After an intensive five minutes of rooting about in her battered Serious Literary Person’s satchel, she finally managed to dig up my submitted pages, mangled and folded into an intriguing shape that resembled a failed attempt at an origami swan. With a sigh of irritated relief, she plumped herself down to read them in front of me.

I sat uncomfortably, marveling at her speed-reading prowess. Fortunately for my ego — or unfortunately; I’ve never been able to come to a satisfying conclusion on the subject — she evidently did not find any error glaring enough to point out. I suspect it would have been a relief to her if she had, because then she would have had an excuse to dismiss me, or at any rate to vent her evidently copious spleen.

About two pages in, she gave the kind of titter that frightens dogs and small children, then announced with finality, “Well, you have some good lines here. But Greeks have been done.”

Because I have been to graduate school — the untrained should not attempt this level of logical gymnastics at home — I was able to translate this to mean that she’d seen MY BIG, FAT GREEK WEDDING (which had come out a year before) and had decided that single point of view represented the experience of every Greek-American currently roving the planet.

Clearly, she was not the ideal audience for this particular chapter.

But did I fight with her about the reasonableness of rejecting writing about an entire ethnic group at one fell swoop? Did I take her to task for not having read what it was her obligation to read? Did I dip into my well-justified dislike of her literary output to point out that she had been writing about her Irish-American family since the late 1950s — and that, in fact, had been done once or twice before, too?

No — because the literary world is small enough that if I blew up at that moment, I might end up as the butt of an anecdote about how bad writers are at accepting honest critique, the last thing I needed while my agent was shopping a book of mine around to editors.

(Did a light bulb just switch on over your head? Yes, it can be that easy to get a reputation as a feedback-resenter.)

Eventually, I talked her into reading the remaining 15 pages. After she finished, she glanced up at me warily. “It’s good,” she conceded, clearly cudgeling her well-laurelled brains for something constructive to advise.

Having been well brought-up, I waited politely for her to continue — and I must say, I’m still waiting. To fill up the remaining five minutes of our meeting, we chatted about the writing life in general, as I originally suggested.

Specifically, I engaged her in a discussion of the relative merits of the writing of David Sedaris (whose work she reported disliking, presumably because it is humorous) and Jeffrey Eugenides, that’s what. I didn’t even bother to point out that they are both Greek-Americans who write habitually about, you guessed it, Greek-Americans; I trusted that the irony of the situation would strike her in a week or two.

True, I didn’t glean any useful feedback from the exchange, but we did part on cordial terms (overtly, at least), which is more than merely maintaining a stoic, frozen visage or screaming at her would have achieved. To this day, in fact, she says hello to me by name at literary events. She has even introduced me to other authors as “an unbelievably good sport.” I doubt she divulges what made her draw that conclusion.

And that, boys and girls, is how flexible a new author sometimes has to be.

I wish I could state positively that La Belle’s behavior was uniquely horrible, but the sad fact is that one frequently hears similar stories about write-your-way-in conferences and artists’ retreats that offer on-site professional feedback from well-established authors as an incentive for writers to apply for residencies. It just goes to show you: not all feedback from professionals is professional feedback, nor will all of it be helpful.

But I’m relatively certain that had I not already sought out and received scads of genuinely thoughtful, well-informed critique of my work before I watched the Famous Gentlewoman unsuccessfully trying to critique my work on the fly, I would have been crushed by her lack of professionalism.

The moral: just because someone famous reads your work doesn’t necessarily mean that their feedback is going to be useful; just because a conference brochure touts a critique opportunity doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for your manuscript. Do your homework, invest your conference-going dollars carefully — and accept that sometimes, you’re going to encounter a dud. That’s the nature of one-size-fits-all critiquing.

All of which is to say: retreats can be marvelous things for a writer; so can feedback from the famous. But if you walk into both expecting something less than perfection, you’re probably going to end up happier with the overall experience.

Okay, that’s enough terrifying you for one day, I think. Caveat emptor — and keep up the good work!

The Most Insidious Form of Censorship: The So-Called Market, by guest blogger Roland Tec

A railroad CEO conducts a sensitive business negotiation parked on a live railroad crossing in the Nebraska segment of We Pedal Uphill: Stories from the States, 2001-2008.

A railroad CEO conducts a sensitive business negotiation parked on a live railroad crossing in the Nebraska segment of We Pedal Uphill: Stories from the States, 2001-2008.

Hello, campers –

My writing retreat in France is drawing to a close, to coin a phrase — and yes, of course I’m going to tell you all about it, as well as giving you some tips on finding, applying for, and happily surviving a formal artists’ retreat. (None of which are the easiest things in the world, let me tell you.) So if you’ll kindly hold your proverbial horses for another few days, to permit me get back into my usual blogging rhythm, I’ll be overwhelming you with advice, insights, and low-level complaint about the writing life again soon.

In the meantime, I’m thrilled to introduce today’s guest in Author! Author!’s ongoing series on censorship, subtle and otherwise, film and stage director, writer, and all-around stupendous human being, Roland Tec. He’s also the founding editor of the performing arts blog Extra Criticum, as well as serving as Director of Membership for the Dramatists Guild of America.

He is a busy guy, in short.

Especially in the last six months, which saw the openings of both his most recent film as writer/director/actor, We Pedal Uphill, and his latest foray into producing, a film version of Nechama Tec’s, Defiance, directed by Edward Zwick. (While I’m at it, here’s a link to the book itself, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. And if you’re even vaguely interested in World War II, Nechama Tec’s Resilience and Courage: Women, Men and the Holocaust is quite literally the most interesting book I’ve ever read on the subject — and considering that I used to teach a university course on the subject, I believe that’s saying something.)

To say that I’ve been attempting to blandish Roland into sharing his thoughts on writing with the Author! Author! community since I first began the blog would not be entirely accurate. If memory serves, I have been trying to drag him in front of groups of aspiring writers for years before that.

Why? Well, for one thing, he’s a heck of a good playwright and screenwriter. You don’t have to take my word for that, either: his play BODILY FUNCTION won an Edward Albee Award in 2000 and was an O’Neill finalist in 2001. The Los Angeles Times called his first feature film, All the Rage, “one of the sharpest, sexiest and most amusing satires of gay life and values ever filmed.”

But none of that is why I’ve asked him to speak to us today.

Throughout this periodic series, our various guests have discussed many means by which good writing (and good writers) are discouraged, dissuaded, and in some cases flatly banned from presenting their artistic visions to the world. Yet as those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while have no doubt already noticed, we talk a lot here about writing for a market.

Hmm, think the ever-changing demands of the market — real or perceived — affect who writes about what? Or whom agents decide to represent, and what kinds of books are published? And, in film, what kinds of stories the public is allowed to see?

Who better to enlighten us on the last, I ask rhetorically, than someone who has spent the last twenty years trying to stretch that particular envelope? None, I say.

So please join me in extending a great big Author! Author! welcome to film boundary-stretcher Roland Tec. Take it away, Roland!

Roland's film We Pedal UphillRoland's film We Pedal UphillRoland's film We Pedal UphillRoland's film We Pedal Uphill

Something creepy and disturbing is afoot in the world of moviemaking and unless we face up to it, I’m afraid we may all be doomed to a lifetime diet of nothing more than pre-packaged market-tested promotional dross in our movie theatres.

There is a system in place now that includes major studios, their distributors and big theatre chains who are behaving more and more as though they were corporate divisions of studios and less and less like independent players. This model has more or less been in place since moviemaking took off in the early part of the last century, but what’s new is the degree to which the big guys have an airtight lock on the distribution channels out there.

It’s a dirty little secret of the film business that in the past couple years, ticket sales at the multiplex have soared, breaking records year after year, while attendance at the art houses has been dwindling. In fact art house attendance is down this year by 60% from last year’s numbers. Why?

One of the reasons, I think, is because one of the old reliable tools used by independent filmmakers and their distributors for grabbing the attention of their audience has all but disappeared.

I’m referring, of course, to printed newspapers. As their advertising revenue has evaporated, so have their column inches, particularly when it comes to Arts coverage. Not a week goes by when one doesn’t read about this or that favorite critic being shown the door.

This is purely anecdotal, of course, but my own experience reveals a marked shrinkage in actual space devoted to independent films in the past ten years. I’m in a unique position to observe this, having produced and directed two feature films which were released theatrically almost exactly ten years apart.

My film, All the Rage, was released in 1999 and We Pedal Uphill, my tapestry of post-911 American fear, just came out this March. Both films were made for less than one million dollars. Both were topical, smart and featured performers not unknown to theatre aficionados but without typical Hollywood Box Office cred.

What’s striking is that if you lay the reviews side by side, the amount of space allotted has shrunk by slightly more than 50%. A simple word count of both New York Times reviews illustrates the decline quite clearly. In 1999, the Times review of my little film which opened on one small screen at one theatre in the Village ran 454 words in length. Ten years later, my little film opening on another small screen in the same neighborhood garnered a review half the size, at 216 words.

Now, I know this is totally unscientific, but it is striking. Isn’t it? What is astonishing, of course, is that in the weeks leading up to the release of We Pedal Uphill, a Hollywood film called I Love You, Man (which opened on the same day as mine) received not only a half-page review but a huge feature story.

The reason for this discrepancy? I Love You, Man took out several full-page ads in the paper while our little film could only manage one two-incher.

What is perhaps most troubling about the scenario I describe is that many of you reading it will simply shake your head and say, “Well, duh!” The assumption that money talks (and should) is now so deeply ingrained out culture that no one questions it. And to do so invites ridicule and pity.

Do we want to live in a society where the culture available to us is decided by a bunch of suits in an air-conditioned conference room overlooking the 101 Freeway? I know it may be hard for some of you younger readers to fathom this, but there really was a time when an independent film with two people just sitting around talking for two hours could play to empty houses for weeks until, slowly but surely, word of mouth spread and the thing became a phenomenon.

(It was called My Dinner with Andre and it eventually grossed a respectable sum at the box office).

If we’re content to live in a world where that can’t happen, I say, we’re doomed. Doomed to live in the Dark Ages in which our likes and dislikes are determined for us by a bunch of guys in suits. In Medieval Europe the suits were the lavish drag of the Catholic Church. Today the suits may look different, but the cultural serfdom is much the same.

Roland Tec bio picRoland Tec is a writer, producer, composer and director. His film, All the Rage, released by Strand Releasing, was hailed as “one of the sharpest, sexiest and most amusing satires of gay life and values ever filmed” by the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times described his most recent picture, We Pedal Uphill, thusly: “Neither self-righteous nor bombastic, these wide-ranging mini-tales coast on a gently insistent tone of regret. Without pointing fingers or naming names, Mr. Tec reminds us that change does not happen overnight.”

Tec also served as a producer of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and Edward Zwick’s Defiance. He has also had several plays produced Off-Broadway including: Bodily Function, Gratuitous Nudity and The Wreck Behind Us. Roland is the founding editor of the group performing arts blog, Extra Criticum, and he currently serves as Director of Membership for the Dramatists Guild of America. For more info on his current projects, visit the Pinkplot website.

Yeas and Nays in the Bard’s World, by guest blogger Sandi Dollinger

ethel-merman

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
But now, heaven knows
Anything goes.

Back in 1934, when Broadway was belting out Cole Porter’s sassy lines, a new world was dawning, so it seemed. One where a playwright could saywhat she wanted without fear of reprisal.

When Porter penned his sassy lyrics for his soon-to-be Broadway hit, he did it with tongue in cheek, I’m sure. The twenties were over, dragging down with them that infamous cast of characters, which included bootleggers and those party-going recipients so willing to wallow in their booze, fling off their clothes and take baths in the bubbly while getting ready for the next round.

Yes, the Crash had sounded the death knell, a din which became louder and louder as gangsters like Legs Diamond got gunned down in the backs of boardinghouses. By 1933, it was curtains for Prohibition.

Americans had sobered up and just Anything did NOT go.

Porter certainly learned this lesson when he wanted a white woman cast as the call girl singing Love For Sale in 1930. He had to change the setting to Harlem and make the singer black, because of what the song was about. And again, in “Anything Goes,” he had to amend a number called I Get a Kick Out Of You. Remember that famous “Some get a kick out of cocaine” line?” When I got the script many many decades later, the line had become “Some get a kick out of champagne.”

But Porter was willing to do it.

It’s different when the essence of an entire script is challenged, however. And the challenge is subtle. What theatre calls the “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” syndrome.

I call it shunning.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. When I was in my salad days, back in the sixties and seventies, I thought censorship existed only in totalitarian societies, societies such as Soviet Russia or the Franciscan Motherhouse, which was my address at the time. I remember, as a nun, so desperately wanting to study theatre.

I even mounted a production of A Man For All Seasons, using nuns as actors (nuns showing their hair and wearing costumes, God forbid!) Eventually, I was pulled aside by Reverend Mother, who wanted to know if I was willing to sacrifice my religious vocation for the work of the devil.

You can well imagine the breath of freedom that went through me when I traded in my nun’s serge habit for a pair of hip huggers and a used eggshell blue VW.

It was the time when Leonard Bernstein’s Candide had opened in New York, along with Equus and all those anti-establishment pieces of theatre. I was on a high. I got my Master’s in Speech and Theatre from Marquette University and drove myself to the Big City.

I had a taste of playwriting in Milwaukee, adapting children’s books such as Tom Sawyer and Heidi for the stage. I was pretty avant-garde, but no one seemed to mind. (Not like people in the late nineties, who questioned me on one of my adaptations of Mark Twain’s classic, asking me why I wanted to expose young people to the anarchy of the Wild West.)

But to return to the late seventies. When I got to New York, I found a job at Henri Bendel’s collection agency. A hundred dollars a week kept me in popcorn and Rice Krispies for dinner and afforded the privilege of studying under a Cuban refugee. Andres was great with the Stansilavsky Method, but he didn’t want his actors selling their wares elsewhere. I did comic roles for Chekhov, Ibsen, and Oscar Wilde plays and then I wanted to move on.

I auditioned for Actors Advent and got a role playing Miss Margarida of Roberto Athayde’s one-woman play, Miss Margarida’s Way. The role was a
reaction to the fascist leadership of Brazil. It was about a teacher who behaved the way church and civil authorities were behaving in South American countries at the time. Miss Margarida informs her class that “Happy are they who obey,” while telling them to give up fornication. Not even kissing is allowed, even if they would like to kiss Miss Margarida.

Miss Margarida’s Way was loudly heralded in the off-Broadway theatres. It was comedic, darkly so, but times were different. They hadn’t become Teflon-ized yet.

Today, My Name is Rachel Corrie has found great trouble making its way to the New York stages. This play about a young activist-journalist in Palestine has met with great resistance. It finally got a booking, but friends of mine have had a great deal of opposition getting it produced upstate.

After Miss Margarida, I set my sails on provocative theatre and began collaborating on such plays as Stage Hands Never Wear Hawaiian Shirts, about a woman with an eating disorder-caused by the social mileu of the early eighties. People were looking more inward by then, and my friend Jimmy Rossi and I wanted to tell a story about a woman overwhelmed by the food world of gourmet consumption. We had a huge phallic-looking croissant swinging across our set.

Our Brooklyn audience was very receptive.

At around this time I began to write full-length plays and moved to Albany, New York. My first play, The Emancipation of Mamie Stutz, told the story of an older woman obsessed with seven locks on her door. At the play’s end, all the locks are broken. She leaves her dwelling with everything she owns in paper bags to sit in front of a library in Bay Ridge.

The college and the psychiatric center where the play was produced gave me good feedback, but I found on sending it out that I was having my first real experience with “shunning.” I was told the play had difficulties because of the language and the ethnic stereotyping. I felt it was something much darker –perhaps an older woman having sex? I wasn’t sure.

I went on to write another full-length, my current play, “Yours Till Niagara Falls”. This play has virtually written itself. I didn’t rein in my characters, and this is the story that wanted to be told. It’s a play about an older woman, as my earlier play was, who has kept a dark secret inside of her.

When I think back, storefront plays like Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free, along with other outrageous plays (Dario Fo’s, for example) have made me fearless in being sure I will not back down in what I need to say.

First of all, every play is about love, on some level. What I said about love in my play is that I believe there is something deeper than physical love which binds the hearts of two human beings, though the physical can be an expression of it.

The characters in my current play come from my own background: grandchild of Eastern European immigrants, and also a second family which claimed me — an Italian family ( also an immigrant family). The protagonist, Rosie, came to Ellis Island from Warsaw with her little brother, Mouse. She had virtually raised her baby brother (he was ten years younger), and now she was being sent to America to get married and raise money to send back to her relatives. The time period was prior to World War I.

When the play opens, it’s already the 1950′s. Rosie’s Italian husband, Shrimpy, has just passed. Rosie is left with a teenage daughter to raise. She is beside herself for Shrimp has left her with nothing but debts. They own a religious supply store called Heavenly Merchandise, but Rosie refuses to open it, lest sleazy characters wander in, claiming they are owed lots and lots of money.

Finally a neighborhood friend, Bettina, recommends Rosie see the parish priest to help her. Bettina, the priest’s housekeeper, promises to go over with Rosie when a visitor comes through the door — Rosie’s long-estranged musician brother Mouse! Bettina is overjoyed and leaves, but not before she flirts a bit with Mouse. As soon as she is gone, Rosie tells Mouse he must leave. But he has no intention of doing that. He explains he has been kicked out once, by her husband, and will never leave again.

As the play moves forward, we come to realize it is Rosie who has had her husband throw Mouse out. She could not stand to be with him as he grew into a man. Now she sees her feelings have only deepened and it frightens her. In the final act, Rosie’s brother invites her and her daughter to return to Brooklyn with him. Rosie begs a sign from the Blessed Mother.

The final moments of the play are a showdown between Rosie and Mouse, when Rosie is finally able to say what she needs to the man she has always treasured. It remains for Mouse to speak. All happens in the final moments, and then the play is over. Outside. the snow begins to fall. A heavy snow, but a silencing one.

When I first had my reading of this new play last December, I was encouraged by an audience member who asked if she might have a copy to submit to an artistic directors who seeks plays with one set, few characters, and heart. I really was encouraged, because some people I have given this play to have looked on me as some kind of ogre, some wicked, shameful thing who has violated all manner of political correctness.

But they are allowed their thoughts. I need not censor them. I just need to be attuned to those who find something there, who may make minor requests. Most recently a man named Wally Truesdell asked me for two more scripts. He said my play reminded him of a Polish Awake and Sing. (Clifford Odets)

Bet your dupa, Wally! I had the scripts out to him in the next hour’s mail.

Second, those writers– edgy ones — who have gone before me have given me strength to write about older people as main characters. I get a lot of negative feedback about this. The character in my new play, Rosie, a Polish immigrant, is sixtyish. I have gotten feedback that young audiences don’t like to look at old people — especially old women. They want eye candy.

But in both my plays, my characters are older women. I will keep them there.

I think I want to be real and will forge ahead. When Yours Till Niagara Falls was shown in an Arts Center in Troy last year, I had a very unique experience. Someone asked me for the script! She said it was a play with heart — and she really likes the main character! I am now sending the play out to theatres who respect women and their issues. I think it’s important for me to acknowledge their inner strengths and beauty.

I also got negative feedback about presenting plays with eastern European immigrants. But these exist in our country. They are people and have a right to have a voice. They have gone through much hardship — and shunning.

I want to encourage you to treat you dramatic “child” well, also. We have enough Grendels to last another century! (Remember that character who terrorized everyone — until a Beowulf stood up to him, and spoke to him in a whisper?)

Oh, we know anything does Not Go. But once in a while, something does! Tell a story — a real story with lots of heart. Get your character to a boiling point, don’t let her or him off the hook — and see what happens!

Some may say “Nay.” I prefer to say “Yay!” Just tiptoe like a mouse around the
nay-sayers — there’s a piece of cheese waiting on the other end. In theatre, 98% is work, even grunt work, but, oh – – that two percent of applause is of another world!

Always remember: don’t bury your head (or your writing) in the sand. When the curtain rises, history begins!

So break legs, as they say in the trade, writers!

The Hilarity of Carnage, by guest blogger Jonathan Selwood

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Hello again, all — Anne here. For those of you who have found the ongoing Author! Author! series on subtle censorship a trifle, well, depressing, I have a great treat in store for you today: a guest post by Jonathan Selwood, in my humble opinion one of the funniest dark comedy writers currently drawing breath within the continental United States.

Who better, then, to share his thoughts on dark comedy with all of us here at Author! Author! — or to talk about the risks a writer takes by walking the thin line between outrageously funny and just outrageous? Or, frankly, to lighten all of our moods whilst enlightening us?

How funny a writer is Jonathan, you ask? Well, while reading his first novel, THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE (Harper Perennial), on an airplane, one paragraph started me laughing so hard that passengers in adjacent rows came tumbling out of their seats to come to my rescue, convinced that I was having some sort of fit that required immediate medical attention, if not actually turning the plane around. When I had caught my breath enough to apologize and read the relevant paragraph to my would-be helpers, their laughter kicked up such a din that two flight attendants came running. (They thought the passage was pretty funny, too.)

That’s right: parts of this novel are so subversively funny that they disrupt air travel. Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb:

pinball theory cover selwood

For years, painter Isabel Raven has made an almost-living forging Impressionist masterpieces to decorate the McMansions of the not-quite-Sotheby’s-auction rich. But when she serendipitously hits on an idea that turns her into the It Girl of the L.A. art scene, her career takes off just as the rest of her life heads south. Her personal-chef boyfriend is having a wild sexual dalliance with the teenage self-styled Latina Britney Spears. If Isabel refuses to participate in an excruciatingly humiliating ad campaign, her sociopathic art dealer is threatening to gut her like an emu. And her reclusive physicist father has conclusively proven that the end of the world is just around the corner.

Now, with the Apocalypse looming — and with only a disaffected Dutch-Eskimo billionaire philanthropist and his dissolute thirteen-year-old adopted daughter to guide her — there’s barely enough time remaining for Isabel to reexamine her fragile delusional existence…and the delusional reality of her schizophrenic native city.

Would this be the right moment to tell you that THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE is available for sale at Powell’s, Amazon, and other purveyors of fine books? Or that if you want to read more of Jonathan’s words of wisdom on the writing of startling comedy, you could also check out his earlier guest post on this very site?

Or that he’s recently yielded to popular demand and started a blog, Terminal Alienation? He describes it as n exercise in Evangelical Absurdism. Its goal is not just to support the billions of terminally alienated people around the globe, but to help snuff out the last flicker of hope in those still holding a tenuous connection to the culture at large.

All of which is to say: I’m overjoyed that he has agreed to guest-post. I hope that those of you who are planning to push the proverbial envelope in your writing pay close attention and come up with good questions, because it honestly is rare to be able to glean insights from a comedy writer this talented.

So please join me in giving a big Author! Author! welcome to Jonathan Selwood. Take it away, Jonathan!

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“An amateur thinks it’s really funny if you dress a man up as an old lady, put him in a wheelchair, and give the wheelchair a push that sends it spinning down a slope towards a stone wall. For a pro, it’s got to be a real old lady.” — Groucho Marx

1992 was the year I first read the novel Lolita, first saw the movie Reservoir Dogs, and first decided to dedicate my life to writing. The connection? Dark Comedy.

As far as literary genres go, Dark Comedy is usually considered something of a bastard child. While it can certainly sell well, it rarely rakes in the staggering sums of mass market blockbusters like Da Vinci Wears Prada Traveling Pants. And yet, it’s precisely its lunatic fringe position within the culture that makes it — in my unbiased opinion — the greatest genre.

Tragedy, in simplest terms, is the story of a character who falls away from society and its rules and therefore suffers — think Oedipus. Comedy is the story of a character who is initially alienated from society and its rules, but happily rejoins in the end, traditionally with a wedding — think Elizabeth Bennet. (Yes, I know these are gross oversimplifications, but bear with me.) Dark Comedy combines elements of both Tragedy and Comedy to critique society itself–think Humbert Humbert.

By its very nature, Dark Comedy has to be the bastard child. A comedic novel with a sociopathic child molester for a protagonist (i.e., Lolita) is always going to upset the mainstream, because it’s supposed to upset the mainstream. It’s hands-down my favorite novel of all time, and it even upsets me — particularly now that I have a child of my own. But given the truly deplorable state of the economy, the environment, and just about everything else in the world right now, WE SHOULD BE UPSET!

Lolita is not some sick attempt on Nabokov’s part to make us sympathize with child molesters, it’s an absolutely genius attempt to make us reexamine American society as a whole. There will always be “mainstream” people trying to ban Dark Comedy — from Catch-22 to South Park–precisely because it’s a very real threat to society and the “mainstream” they hold so dear. At the end of a Dark Comedy, there’s no tragic lesson warning us not to break the rules, nor is there a society-reaffirming marriage. But if the work is successful, it can expose the flaws in society itself.

As if that wasn’t enough, where a regular comedy (or, to be more derisive, a “Light Comedy”) will make you laugh, a Dark Comedy will make you gasp. The most obvious example is when a standup comedian tells a joke that’s right on the line. If it goes over, it will likely be the funniest moment of the entire show and elicit that bizarre “Ahhhhhh…” sound that humans produce when the laughter center of their brains suffer petite mal seizures.

Of course, that’s a big IF the joke goes over. Not only is Dark Comedy the funniest form of humor (again, in my unbiased opinion), but it’s also the most likely to flop. And while a standup comedian can quickly move on to the next joke and at least have a chance of making the audience forget, a novelist is most likely going to get his book tossed onto the bedside table for good.

So, in addition to being the greatest and funniest literary genre, it’s also the most risky. But hey, if you were a coward, you never would have thrown your hat into the literary ring in the first place, would you?

Let’s face it, people don’t make a “rational” decision to become writers. It’s an inherently irrational pursuit, and in the years since I decided in 1992 to be a writer, it’s only become more irrational. (If you’re a writer and don’t know what I’m talking about, than I think it’s safe to assume you require immediate hospitalization.) So if the pursuit is irrational in the first place, and we’ve already established that you’re not a coward, why not go all the way?

I invite you all to join me on the Dark Side…

Oh, and if you live in the Northwest (or anywhere else, for that matter), pre-order a copy of Portland Noir. Not only do I have an (unbiased, yada yada yada) masterpiece in there, but it’s really a great collection.

portlandnoircover selwoodExplore the dark, rainy underbelly of one of America’s most beautiful but enigmatic cities through brand-new stories by Gigi Little, Justin Hocking, Chris A. Bolton, Jess Walter, Monica Drake, Jamie S. Rich (illustrated by Joelle Jones), Dan DeWeese, Zoe Trope, Luciana Lopez, Karen Karbo, Bill Cameron, Ariel Gore, Floyd Skloot, Megan Kruse, Kimberly Warner-Cohen, and Jonathan Selwood.

From the downtown streets littered with strip clubs and gutter punks to the north side where gentrification and old school hip-hop collide, Portland, Oregon, is a place that seems straight out of a David Lynch movie. It’s a city full of police controversies, hippie artist houses, and overzealous liberals, where even its fiction blurs with its bizarre realities.

Portland Noir is an encompassing literary journey where your tour guides take you to the Shanghai Tunnels, dog parks, dive bars, sex shops, Powell’s Books, Voodoo Doughnuts, suspiciously quiet neighborhoods, the pseudo-glitzy Pearl District, Oaks Amusement Park, and a strip club shaped like a jug. Violent crime, petty mischief, and personal tragedy run through these mysterious tales that careen through this cloudy, wet city.

Portland Noir is sure to both charm and frighten readers familiar with this northwest hub and intrigue those who have never traveled to this proudly weird city.

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selwood-1Jonathan Selwood is the author of The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse. He also enjoys talking very loudly when intoxicated, composting kitchen scraps, excessively rolling his Rs when ordering burrrrrritos… using ellipses…