Upon approaching my house, after you passed the salmonberry, blackberry, and huckleberry bushes, you’d see a sign mounted on the corner of the house, next to the fenced yard. You might mistake it for a beware of dog sign, especially if my dog was outside barking. But, no, my sign says: Beware of Werewolves.
If you were to enter my home, more artwork in the same vein would follow.
I have on occasion pondered what this obsession with monsters, disease, and death says about me. Recently it was brought to my attention while at Folklife Festival. This is a fair filled with local folk artists (both visual and oral), stalls filled with this-and-that’s and fair foods. I have attended since I was a little girl and my favorite activity was dancing to steel drum music.
Nowadays, I pick up a household decoration.
Last years selection
Dining room art
This years selection
Horns and a gas mask…why not
As I paid for this years delightful piece, with my mother looking at me like ‘how did I raise this child?’ My husband smiling indulgently and the vendor looking at me with surprise. A picture of me standing there formed in my head- young(ish) white woman in a lace skirt, accompanied by my mother, my husband and with a three year old child on my hip and here I had decided to decorate my home with a gas-masked monster.
Now, at home I have those things one would expect a frilly girly girl to buy, lace curtains, a hutch filled with china but as beautiful as I find those things… I see equal appeal in pickled monster heads and robot bears. Even the occasional Sweeney Todd/Jack the Ripper reference (have one framed in my dining room.)
This fascination with the macabre, the awful, the dark underside drives my own art as well as my purchases which I’ve given up questioning. Still, it must all come from the same root. That part deep down that makes the serial killer’s habits more fascinating than the biology of bunnies (or some such whatever.) For me there is a beauty in the dark unknown, an ecstasy in the shiver down your spine. Something infinitely lovely about death and fear because they are a warped mirror allowing me to look past my own faults, to find an cling to that basic kindness and morality that shimmers at the heart of most of us.
Plus gas masks are cool.
“That’s not how I do it,” I would whine.
“Well, how you’re doing it isn’t working,” my mother/father/brother/ husband responds
“But it does work…it worked before. I don’t know what’s wrong now.”
I’ve had the preceding argument so many times in my life that both my loved ones and I have it memorized. Taking advice has never been my strong suite. No one will admit that faster than me.
My resistance doesn’t extend to professional advice (except when my husband tries to teach me about computers.) I take advice from books just fine. As a teenager, I even took advice from insane quizzes on the internet (those never served me well.)
The crux of the matter is that nothing burns like admitting a loved one is right and I am wrong. Or I thought so until I started taking advice from complete strangers, with no qualifications beyond those I could attach to myself. Yes, for those of you who are any sort of artist this may sound familiar. The idea of a peer group of people who have not made it into the industry all advising each other… and on the internet where certain types of advice seem far more common than in any face to face group.
Recently, I’ve been taking a lot of advice from other would-be authors. At first, the process was productive as I hammered out some of the basics to clear up my narratives. However, over the past few months, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the process.
My issue? Listening to people who from a logical standpoint are in no position to give advice, who don’t seem to realize that the dynamic needed for a peer group to is respect, equally contributing partners and encouragement.
There are four main types of advice givers that grate on me.
The first is the know-it-all. The person who instructs as if they are an agent or editor, with no (orvery little) regard to support or encouragement. These well-intentioned souls only offer criticism. Sometimes, they don’t even give you examples of how to fix things, they just make sweeping statements about your pieces faults. If you question them invariably, their response is ‘An agent or editor wouldn’t tell you how to fix things, you’d be lucky if they even told you what was wrong. I’m just being realistic.’
They aren’t. The reason this method is infuriating- they aren’t agents and editors. Professionals who I solicit can and should be able to give know-it-all advice because I went to them specifically. They have a professional opinion that you as an artist are seeking out.
The second type of well-meaning advice giver is the skimmer. They don’t really look at your piece. Just enough to make a few comments, misunderstand a bunch of stuff and the criticize you for not being clear. What they really want is your advice without taking the time to earn it. In my opinion, the skimmer is the worst because unlike the know-it-all, they don’t want the best for you.
The third type is the ego-stroker. These are usually either people that just aren’t quite as advanced, but sometimes this happens if you stick with a certain partner for too long. They become afraid of offending and get too nice. This is the easiest to take because often it doesn’t happen every critique…and hell sometimes a little encouragement is needed after the other stuff!
Last, is the drama queen. They will find one or two aspects of your story they don’t like, latch on and exaggerate how awful it is, how much it bothers them. They will find a way to claim they are confused about every paragraph because apparently they have no comprehension whatsoever of metaphors. Or they will decide that they don’t like your character and spend the entire time telling you how flawed/irrelevant/non-sensical the characters actions are.
Drama queens are the easiest to take because they are so easily ignored.
All of these types minus the skimmer have one thing in common, they are all legitimately trying to help. And despite my natural proclivity for resisting advice, I listen to them all and take what I can. I’m sure that some people are equally annoyed by my advice. And I know looking back (I never know it’s happening when I’m doing it) that I’ve given critiques in each of these styles at least once.
Now a bonus, there is actually a fifth style of nasty advice giver. These people don’t want the best for you. At best, they don’t give a flying sparrow fart if you succeed. They serve up canned rants, drill how hard the industry is and how you’ll never succeed, they judge you and your work without looking or with barely a glance. I’m not saying these people want you to fail, they aren’t evil, they’re just more concerned with being heard than with helping.
The same way as a child, I was more concerned with being heard than with being helped.
The odd part about all of it though is that learning to give advice and seeing how absurd people who ‘know how it is’ sound when really they don’t… Is teaching me how to take advice. How to listen and try. To put aside what I think because I don’t want to be a know-it-all advice taker.
And hopefully, my new attitude will transition over to when my techie husband gives me computer advice…after all he actually does know more about the topic than me.
For anyone who is part of critique circle who I may have worked with, none of these types are based on any one person. Despite the frustrations voiced here, I have yet to encounter someone who was truly just cruel or working with malicious intent.
Step inside my office and you might know I’m a writer. You might know I dabble in painting and charcoal. But you’d definitely know I’m a reader. Besides my six foot bookcase double stacked with things ranging from Madame Bovary to Neverwhere to the complete works of Shakespeare, my desk is littered with well-worn tomes, odd books stick out from behind knick-knacks. In fact, there is a volume of Greek Tragedies sticking out from under my desk.
I’ve noticed that recently I’ve been reading a lot less. Unless you count critiquing on critiquecircle or following the odd story here and there on Wattpad. Which for the purposes of absorbing good writing through good reading, I can’t really count. Some of those stories are wonderful of course, some of those writers may be the next Steven King, or Neil Gaiman…who knows. But what I’m reading is their works in progress not their polished masterpieces.
Having made this observation I decided I was going to pick up some of those books that make the genres I write in what they are. First I plucked an old copy of Ursula K LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness.
Now this novel won awards and sold some gratuitous number of copies that make wanna-bes like me salivate. I remember reading it years ago but picking it up couldn’t recollect a thing about it. I remember finding it interesting.
I’ve read very little by Ms. LeGuin, and I wondered to myself looking at the book if I wouldn’t have enjoyed it more if I’d ever gotten past the fact that alphabetically her books always sat next to Tannith Lee’s. And there is nothing more heartbreaking to a young reader in a used book store then knowing you’ve found the right spot on the shelf (see there is Ursula K LeGuin) and not seeing the books you really want. So I’ve always had an unfair distaste for Ms. LeGuin.
I thought for sure if I went back and reread I would love Left Hand of Darkness. Not so much. It has a wonderful idea, beautifully rendered characters and a control of the language I envy. But I found myself skimming over paragraphs that almost exclusively covered at least half a page each. I spent the first three chapters believing Estravan and Agravan were the same person because their names were so similar. Finally I through the book down about a fourth of the way through, frustrated because I didn’t see how I could learn a thing from this (other than how to have a wonderful idea but since I can’t rip hers off…)
Don’t get me wrong, I would recommend this book to most sci-fi readers I know…but if you are a writer trying to master the craft this probably isn’t the direction for you.
Next, I picked up Carrie by Steven King. This choice was made because I have seen the movie (the old one not the new one) more than twice and I feel like an awful reader that I never actually read the book.
I finished at midnight last night having read the entire book in twelve hours. I probably can’t say anything about that book that hasn’t been said what I will say is, I was brought back into the days I read for fun and fun alone. Did Carrie break the rules…hell yes… but in a way I could follow and felt intentional. And it worked.
Then I lay in bed thinking, both of these master writers break the rules (selectively of course) and found great success. It makes me question my own ability to judge, leaving me in a no-man’s land right when I thought I was beginning to get it. But maybe I don’t have to…maybe what I need to be learning is that not everything is about a lesson. Some things are about looking at the clock at 11:10, seeing you have 20% left on your book and forging ahead anyhow.
If you haven’t read Carrie…do.
Another week gone past. The sun is out, the grass is mowed and I spent hours staring up at our pine trees. Staring, thinking and writing but also reading.
Does anyone else have those books they just read over and over… and over. Well I do, I think I’ve read some as many as a dozen times. One of those books is this completely unknown treasure titled Kiki. Ostensibly about a very fancy sex doll but really the doll is little more than a catalyst. I’d say the book is about a grieving father, the breaking points that hide within all of us and survival.
I went on Goodreads a while back to discover the book was on there with no reviews. I gave a review and moved on.
Well I read it again this week as I lay out on the lawn and realized how very personal my attachment to that story is.
But rereading with a more critical writer’s eye, I began to wonder what caught me about this book. That its cover had a sex-doll and I found it at a point in adolescence where sex was both completely taboo and amazing? But then why as a thirty year old woman would it still have any appeal? And anyhow other than a brief moment there isn’t any sex or reference to sexuality.
So why do I read it? The answer— a single scene at the beginning where the protagonist is choosing option for the doll and his acute discomfort dealing with the sales person. That’s it, a moment that reached out to me and said ‘you are not alone.’ I who can’t even talk about sex in the privacy of my bedroom, who finds attention from store personnel slightly terrifying, instantly felt a kinship with this person.
Sometimes that’s all I need. A little snapshot that reaches out and connects for one reason or another. Something that makes me feel.
So this week I have an image, one of my own creation, one that has haunted me fore years lurking at the foot of my bed (and if you’re interested a link to a story I wrote in conjunction with the picture.)
I wonder if the pace of writing, editing, submitting, ext. bothers other writers of my generation. Raised on constant feedback the waiting part of it all just kills me. Waiting for beta readers to respond, critiquers to critique, editors to respond, anytime my manuscript is out of my hands it feels like some inventive form of torture.
I’m sure earlier generations weren’t fond of waiting. No one likes waiting- I’ve never seen someone more excited about the line than the rollercoaster. But I think it’s gone to a sickening extreme with those of us raised with cell phones. I’ve never been more aware of my own generational weakness than when I’m checking my phone every other minute to see if someone commented on my Wattpad story, or someone critiqued my story on critique circle, or I have an e-mail from an editor.
Ah instant gratification, you are deceitfully pleasant.
It’s been a rough week for me, I admit. Wrote a short story, all the feedback has been ‘eh’ or ‘well this is cliché.’ Got another rejection letter. But the part that makes throwing up my hands in defeat is the incessant waiting. Am I good enough? I can’t tell because no one will tell me!
Notice me! It’s like a mantra and I want to escape it so badly. Why can’t I be one of those people who doesn’t care what others think? Or better yet just be less high strung than a Chihuahua puppy. That would be good.
So what can I do about it? Aparrently not use my limited writing time to write. Instead, I’m going to go out and lay under our plum tree and enjoy the sunshine. Maybe I’ll even leave my phone inside.