My Classic Rock Soundtrack

October 1, 2016

rockstar_55-xlI’m a music fan of the baby boomer generation, so how could I possibly resist writing a novel about a rock band? Handmaidens of Rock (2014) centers on a musical outfit that forms at a suburban Maryland high school like the one I graduated from in 1970. Before they can legitimately call themselves a band, the three members—lead guitarist Preston, keyboardist Neal, drummer Brad—must first prove they can hang together long enough to play a gig at a school dance. Once onstage, they must come up with a name on the spot, so they call themselves Homegrown. They amuse their classmates by mocking the local singing star they’re supposed to be backing up, mutilating the cheesy songs he attempts, such as “Love Potion Number Nine” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

To that point, the story is perfectly recognizable and plausible. No doubt there were bands forming all around me at my high school, but since I wasn’t intimate with any of them, I had to make up one of my own. The late 1960s-early 1970s era was a time of improbable rock dreams. The music we were hearing on the radio provided plenty of inspiration to push the envelope of our placid suburban lives. Musically, at least, we could revel in free love, dream in psychedelic colors, and march the streets to demand an end to the Vietnam War and all forms of civil strife. Those songs became closer to true life as many of us moved on to college, the military, and other real-life experiences.

Startup bands have always been lucky even to get a taste of local fame. To make my imaginary band compelling, I had to portray it as more talented than most, or at least extraordinarily lucky. One way Homegrown distinguishes itself from the musical dregs is to pick up some classy groupies, the “handmaidens” of the title. Candy, Hope, and Theda have more going for them than a strong determination to ride the band’s coattails. They’re “handmaidens,” but with ambitions of their own. They aspire to be a journalist, a fashion designer, and an actress-musician respectively. One of them, conveniently, has a powerful attorney father with connections to the music industry.

Any band that aspires to long-term success must write its own songs. How could I get my musicians to do that realistically, when I’m not enough of a musician myself to hear original songs in my mind? One technique was to keep classic rock stations playing on my computer for inspiration. Listening to songs that were popular back in my day, I’d imagine my band trying to write similar tunes. For example, “Time of the Season,” a seductive tribute to the Summer of Love by the Zombies, turned into a piece by Homegrown called “Grooving under the Desk.” The Status Quo song “Pictures of Matchstick Men” used to pound in my head all the time, since I heard it daily on the cafeteria juke box in high school. My band’s take on this was a psychedelic sex dream called “Hot Teacher in Tights.” I always loved the Doors tune “Tell All the People,” a catchy but vague call to arms with shout-outs to youth that could mean almost anything (Set them free! Follow me down! See the wonder at your feet! Your life’s complete!) My take on that was “Revolution for Amateurs,” which might or might not be an actual call to revolution.

Sad songs were part of the band’s repertoire. My lead guitarist Preston, having lost his mother at an early age, mostly hides his feelings behind a hard exterior but occasionally exposes them in song. His heartbreaking “Signals from the Clouds” bears a resemblance to King Crimson’s “I Talk to the Wind.” Idealism is also part of the musicians’ mindset. In “Peace Conquers All,” they envision a new era of free love in the streets, irresistible to the public and cops alike, as in the Animals’ “Warm San Francisco Night.”

Fresh out of high school, my band makes an amateur mock-detective movie with a witchy theme song called “Hex” (something like a popular Cream song, “Strange Brew”). With that in the can, they start writing songs with feverish speed and come up with an eclectic album inspired by that same band’s classic, “Disraeli Gears.” Further adventures follow, including trips to England, Scotland, and California. Scotland proves the most fruitful in terms of new musical directions. They spend time in a commune run by a defrocked priest known to have harbored draft resisters. Their near-worship of him inspires a spate of religious-themed songs, like the one called “Peace Warrior,” inspired partly by Jethro Tull’s “Hymn 43” (with the same refrain, “Oh, Jesus, save me!”) and partly by the Animals’ “Sky Pilot.”

The band changes its name to AMO, which sounds more grownup, and tries to find itself. While attending UCLA, the musicians become involved in a rock festival that ends tragically. Ironically, this is the event that propels them to national fame. Despite their newfound notoriety, the effects of the violence are devastating enough to send them flying off in different directions. The girls break up with their respective musicians and move on to presumably more adult relationships. Still, the wildly creative and romantic ride they took as “handmaidens of rock” can’t be forgotten. A five-year reunion concert takes place in the same high school gym where they first made a jubilant mess of backing up a semi-famous singer. Preston, emerging from a turbulent and fallow period, experiences enough of a creative resurgence to come up with two new songs: one about his inner turmoil called “The Stranger Within” (a take-off on Traffic’s “Stranger to Himself”), and one that celebrates his new marriage to a free spirit, called “Free Spirit of the Road” (which somewhat resembles the Doors’ “Queen of the Highway”).

Assigning a genre to Handmaidens of Rock has been somewhat challenging. No doubt it can be called “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” but how about “contemporary women’s fiction”? That is one of the more popular classifications these days, yet it doesn’t quite fit an early 1970s story. Some reviewers and advertisers have called the book “historical fiction.” That makes me feel ancient, since I remember the era so well. Still, maybe it’s the best way to describe a story with a classic rock soundtrack.

0601161425Traditional publishers will probably never embrace independent authors as equals. They will be loath to admit that the terms of engagement in this ongoing battle are changing, that the combatants are becoming more equal, and that some authors even find a way to go “hybrid.” It’s becoming increasingly clear that the trads are losing the high ground they once held in the area of editorial standards.

Examples of bad editing crop up more and more in the traditional world. For example, there are few authors more successful at traditional publishing than Anne Rice. She also specializes in the hottest subjects in fiction, vampires and werewolves. Yet Floyd Orr, editor of the long-running review site PODBRAM, and a rabid Rice fan, reports: “Anne Rice’s 34th book contains more errors than I have ever seen in a top-selling, traditionally published hardback! There are errors of every kind: repeated common words, misused spellings of words that are real words that actually mean something else, misuse of tense, and various other types of boo-boos. What do these errors all have in common? They are the sort that appear in books because human eyes did not read and reread and proofread the text before publishing it. There was an obvious reliance on computer programs to find the errors. Was this by Ms. Rice, her editor, or Knopf in general? Who knows?” Floyd kindly goes on to point out that the error count of Rice’s book easily surpasses those of several of the self-published books he has reviewed, including my own Handmaidens of Rock.

Trads were guilty from the start of not fighting this war honestly, but things have progressed to the point that self-published authors don’t have to suffer the same nonsense anymore. They can take or leave “friendly advice” from self-appointed arbiters of what deserves to be published. No doubt these experts will persist in warning us against “vanity” publishers, a term that should have been deep-sixed years ago. We can now call out websites that masquerade as help for the self-published, but are actually designed to discourage us. Certainly there are bad self-published books, but the argument that we’re all equally bad doesn’t hold water, any more than the argument that traditional publishing guarantees quality.

Several years ago, I sent my 2007 novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming, to a site called “The Self-Publishing Review,” a blog run by an author who’d had a fair amount of success in publishing non-fiction. Some speculated that her generic-sounding name might be a pseudonym to protect herself from backlash. Certainly the name of her blog was misleading. Once I had read a sampling of her “reviews,” it became clear to me that these were something else altogether. By any fair standard, a reader who purports to provide a review must, at the very least, read the book. Her object was to throw cold water on authors by subjecting them to the kind of treatment they would receive if they sent their manuscripts to a “legitimate” publisher. Admittedly, that might be a useful service, but it was not what she advertised.

To be fair, she warned us: “I’m an editor, and expect published books to be polished. I’m going to count all the errors I find in spelling, punctuation and grammar and when I reach fifteen I’m going to stop reading. I’ll work my way through up to five pages of boring prose or bad writing before I give up.” Despite that stern warning, I felt okay about sending her my novel, although it had to be shipped overseas at some expense. I’ve been something of an editor myself during many years of technical writing for the Federal government. I knew I had gone over my novel carefully and that it had been edited by professionals.

My book, like almost every other that this hot-shot editor “reviewed,” was discarded after about seven pages because of alleged mistakes. I was sure there were not fifteen errors of the type she warned against in the whole book, much less in the first seven pages. When I asked for an explanation, she admitted that there was nothing wrong with my “spelling, punctuation and grammar” per se. My sin was “exposition,” apparently a common complaint against self-published authors, and a handy one if the arbiters can’t find more obvious mistakes.

What does this sin consist of, exactly? Wikipedia defines exposition as “the insertion of important background information within a story; for example, information about the setting, characters’ backstories, prior plot events, historical context, etc.” The article quotes fantasy and science fiction author Jo Walton on the importance of “scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information.”

My problem with this criticism, legitimate though it might be, is that famous authors do it with impunity. I pointed out that two of my favorites, Pat Conroy and Gail Godwin, tend to not even start their stories until the scene is thoroughly set. If any arbiter tried to impose rules on them, about exposition or anything else, they’d laugh in that person’s face. Ah, the arbiters say, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. All I conclude from this is that it’s always wrong when self-published authors do it.

What about the credentials of these arbiters? Despite their successes in the non-fiction realm, they tend to be sitting on piles of unpublished novels like everyone else. Ironically, that’s where they’re offering their harshest criticism. Since self-publishing is for losers, they disdain that route—although they might admit to putting excerpts of their novels on the Internet, as if that were not a form of self-publishing.

We’ve all heard plenty of those traditional “success stories,” touting the efforts of authors who kept writing and rewriting the same story for fifteen or twenty years, submitting it to numerous agents and publishers, revising and starting over to suit each new critic, perhaps even trying to re-envision their stories as plays or screenplays. Sometimes two decades of effort and perseverance are indeed “rewarded,” but that’s not my idea of success. How many other stories could these authors have been writing during those endless years spent twisting their original vision a hundred different ways to suit one critic after another? Was the original inspiration even recognizable by then? Fortunately, no one has to settle for this kind of treatment any more. The fight rages on, with one of the combatants, in my opinion, looking increasingly desperate.

How Not To Write Best Sellers

February 26, 2016

thNobody needs to be told by now that self-publishing and marketing novels is no picnic. We all knew that from the start. Some of us have been at it for more than a decade now, and it hasn’t gotten much easier. True, there is far more acceptance for our efforts than there was at first, and that’s a great development. The drawback to that, of course, is that there’s also far more competition.

The trouble with enduring truisms like “it’s no picnic” and “it never gets easier” is that there are some indie authors who are making it look easy. Although it’s still like winning the lottery, there are a handful among us who’ve mastered the art of the self-published best-seller.

How do they do it? It’s not that they have more time than the rest of us, because many are encumbered with jobs and families like “ordinary” people. It helps if the jobs are flexible and the families are understanding, but that isn’t always the case. Some of these self-sustaining authors are generous enough to explain their methods on KindleBoards and other sites. What they do requires writing fast, and writing a lot of books, often in a series. These hot-shots seem to have enough physical stamina to stay up all night if they have to in order to meet some self-imposed goal, possibly one book every two months. I’d have to guess that they’re decades younger than I am, as well as much more into currently hot genres like zombies, sci-fi, apocalyptic, and historical romance. If they’re particularly lucky or prescient, they hit on a winning formula the first time, something involving characters or a fantasy world so compelling that it only needs to be tweaked slightly in order to churn out numerous sequels. They build up a fan base that is enthusiastic enough to forgive a lack of arduous editing. That is not to suggest that just because these books are done fast means they aren’t good. If they weren’t serving a need for readers, they wouldn’t sell.

Even those authors who are making real money with their ventures are not easily satisfied. I come across plenty on the Boards who complain that they “only” sell a hundred or so a month, a result which sounds mighty good to me. In fact, selling 1,000 a year would be a pretty good result for self-publishing. It would enable most authors to cover the investment they made in advertising and printing, with maybe coffee money left over. The problem for the truly ambitious is that it’s not a living. The real measure of success among the aspiring big sellers is to be able to quit their day jobs. Or better yet, attract the notice of one of those traditional publishers who have proven themselves perfectly capable of swooping in to reap the benefits of an indie author’s preliminary hard work.

How do you pursue goals like this if your writing style doesn’t lend itself to speed? You probably can’t. I’ve always preferred mainstream fiction to genre fiction, and I like it to be “literary.” My favorite novels take their time unfolding, and emphasize character development over action. That’s what I try to emulate. I was greeted with incredulity on the Boards when I said I had taken three to four years to write each of my novels. They have numerous characters and complex plots that hopefully fall into place for a reader patient enough to stick with them. I’m still not good enough at writing to do it fast. I make outlines, but don’t stick to them. I run my stories piecemeal through a tough critique group. Even after I have a whole product, I reread it relentlessly and put it through several rounds of editing from outside critics.

So what’s your reward, if wealth and fame seem out of reach because you’re just too slow? It can only be the personal satisfaction of doing the best work you’re capable of, no matter how long it takes.

girls-no-9-the-bell-jarI first encountered Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in 1972, when I was a sophomore in college. It was not assigned reading at that time, yet it was catching on like wildfire, especially among us young English majors. Apparently the novel was having a similar effect on many other college campuses. It was originally published in England, Plath’s adopted homeland, only a few weeks before her suicide in 1963. She had used a pseudonym out of belated concern for the many people close to her whom she had trashed mercilessly in the autobiographical story.

Plath was reportedly disappointed in the tepid reaction to the novel. Her only previous book, a collection of poems, had suffered a similar underwhelming fate. She had recently separated from her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, who at that time was much better known than she was. Motivated by both pride and desperation, she was trying to find a way to support herself and their two children. American publishers were initially skeptical about the book’s salability, and she was unable to get it accepted by a U.S. publisher during her lifetime. Several years later, when imported bootleg copies began selling by the hundreds in bookstores, The Bell Jar finally caught the eye of the so-called American literary experts.

Having reread it recently, I can see what put publishers off. It details a nervous breakdown suffered by a young, talented college student. Plath’s forte was poetry, and it shows. The novel reads like the effusions of a poet trying to write a novel. It features a plethora of metaphors, which make for lovely writing but at times can look like showing off. Apart from this stylistic problem, the story suffers from something of a disconnect. As pointed out by one of the publishers who turned it down, the breakdown doesn’t seem to follow from the ordinary angst of a teenaged girl. The observations of a perceptive young woman, who’s going through a tumultuous time in her life, don’t prepare the reader for her plunge into suicidal depression.

Yet something about Plath’s novel certainly spoke to us young college girls. What brought it to life was that by the early 1970s, we knew it was chillingly real. Plath had indeed tried to commit suicide at 20 years of age, and she succeeded at it when she was 30. Like her heroine, Esther Greenwood, she was a scholarship girl at a prominent Eastern women’s college in 1953, who won a writing contest that entitled her to spend a month working at a New York-based fashion magazine. Like her character, Plath was beset by overwhelming ambition that was essentially stymied for girls growing up in the 1950s. She wanted both personal happiness and professional success. The magazine job turned out to be tedious and unsatisfying. She had a boyfriend who wanted to marry her, but who assured her with complete certitude that once she had kids, her creative life would become irrelevant. When she returned to suburbia from her New York adventure, everything seemed lifeless. Her mother’s van reminded her of a prison. The neighbors struck her as nosy and dowdy.

The college years can be a tough period of self-discovery and fear for the future. I hardly knew anyone in those times, including myself, who didn’t go through an episode or two of depression. Fortunately, few of us crashed as dramatically as Plath did. Yet in her later life, Plath came tantalizingly close to fulfilling that “having it all” goal. In fact, at the start of The Bell Jar, she almost brags about it. For a long time after her breakdown, Esther says, she hid away the gifts she accumulated in New York from various fashion companies, such as sunglasses and makeup cases. But “when I was all right again,” she brought them out, and “cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with.”

For a while her marriage was almost idyllic, at least on the surface. She and Hughes took turns caring for their child while each managed several hours of writing time each day. But unfortunately for Sylvia, she married a man with a roving eye. The marriage seemed to grow more troubled after the birth of a second child, which made their childcare chores more complicated. However, her final breakdown was not triggered by her separation from Hughes. In fact, that trauma inspired her to write the anger-fueled poems that became Ariel, the collection which made her name. A more likely explanation is that the publication of The Bell Jar tipped her back into the adolescent angst that she thought she had escaped.

The seeds of self-destruction were always there, regardless of her circumstances. “Sylvia was doomed,” remarked her high school English teacher when he heard of her suicide. Even when she had posed as a fun-loving, carefree high school girl, he had detected the rigidity and falseness behind that sunny mask. It’s noteworthy that there was a history of depression on both sides of her family. She was able to make art from her illness, but the more prosaic truth was that she was mishandled by the psychiatric profession. That is one of the messages of The Bell Jar. Effective treatments for her condition either did not exist or were in an early stage of development. She became something of a guinea pig for drug regimens and electroshock therapy. So I conclude that Sylvia Plath speaks to us, but not for us. We understand her struggles, but most of us, thankfully, can’t begin to understand the desperate remedy that she seized.

How Not To Write

August 12, 2015

rockstar_08-LLike most amateur writers, I wrote a couple of novels that were disastrous, meandering failures before I managed to produce one that at least had an identifiable beginning and end, and something of a coherent narrative. I thought these early attempts were great, at least while I was writing them. I didn’t yet have honest critics to tell me otherwise. Only when I started listening to those tough-but-fair opinions did I start to improve.

I see now that these early monstrosities broke every literary rule in the book. Not that I’m a stickler for rules, especially now that I’ve self-published four novels that probably continue to break a lot of them. Traditional publishers are always trying to convince us outsiders that there are all kinds of rules that we’re constantly violating, and that’s why they dismiss us out of hand. Only they can let us in on the secrets that make their authors successful–and only if they choose to. The only problem with that theory is that I often catch my favorite traditional authors breaking those so-called rules with impunity. They’d laugh at the notion that they should follow any vision other than their own.

Nevertheless, I realize there are common-sense tricks that you can ignore if you like, but at the risk of putting your readers to sleep. One of these is knowing when to “show” and when to “tell.” I once tried to write a novel called Sycophants, about a record and film production company based in New York. Besides not knowing much about the subject matter, I seemed to have a real flair for showing when I should have been telling, and vice versa. For example, there’s a scene in which a dynamic African American preacher bowls over a roomful of mostly white football wives, who never saw his like before. How does the reader know he bowled them over? Because I said so! I thought the reader should take my word for it.

Even worse than this is the wooden dialogue, which sounds about as realistic as a blowhard Senator filibustering by reading the Congressional Record aloud. That sin is compounded when the conversation is supposed to be intimate. For example, here’s the female CEO of the production company taking a telephone call from a boyfriend working on the other coast: “Hello, dearest! Just the man in whose ear I’ve been desiring to whisper all day … if you hadn’t called soon, dearest, I was about to fly off into God knows what stratosphere. You know how essential it is for me to touch base with you at least once a day, to maintain what little ballast I have in my hectic life.”

How do you deal with a pile of unusable crap from your past? Do you write it off, or do you return to it years later and try to salvage what you can? I’m now trying to eke out some story lines from the mess that was Sycophants. It still stings that I went so far off track in the first place. But I suspect there are no short cuts you can take when you don’t know what you’re doing; you just have to do it, and take your lumps.

Piles-of-books-001Several months ago, The Washington Post carried a heartbreaking story by Cynthia McCabe about a struggling writer, Dennis Williams (alternate name: Katry Rain) who became despondent and suicidal when he concluded that his writing life, and consequently his entire life, were finished. Williams published one book with a small press, had one play produced, and self-published several “philosophical” works and novels based on that philosophy. He was also a teacher of English in Japan, apparently popular with his students, and had garnered some press attention many years earlier with a stunt to protest the Nixon administration.

But the writing success that he longed for wasn’t forthcoming. In a heartbreaking “give-up” gesture, he dumped a load of his unsold books on the doorstep of a used bookstore under cover of darkness one night. Eventually, he planned his death and announced it in advance, e-mailing several prominent journalists, all strangers to him, one day in advance. Was this a ploy to get the attention he’d never had? If so, it was somewhat successful, but he didn’t stick around to enjoy it. He threw himself off a building, exactly as he said he would. He wasn’t interested in being talked out of it (although at least one of the journalists sincerely tried to). Nor was he forcing anybody to read his work. He was just “done.”

Can struggling writers learn anything from this sad story? I don’t believe “struggling” has to mean “despondent.” Most of us learn to embrace the struggle. If our wildest dreams are punctured, we settle for more modest success. Williams seemed to have failed even with his forays into social media, which in my opinion should be nothing but fun. He had very few “likes” on his pages, much less “friends.” I suspect he was desperately seeking the approval of followers instead of trying to get to know them.

As for his novels, Cynthia McCabe tried to read them sympathetically, only to pronounce them didactic and boring. He must have cared more about lecturing readers about the “truth” than entertaining them. A writer has to decide which is more important. If we’re not mesmerizing as many readers as we would like, can’t we at least entertain ourselves? And why should we ever consider ourselves through with writing as long as we’re alive and there are still stories to tell? My advice, if you ever feel devoid of ideas, is to check out the daily newspaper. It’s depressing as hell most of the time, but it’s a panorama of life, full of all the agony and ecstasy you’ll ever need for inspiration.

Writing For Revenge

July 23, 2014

revengeIs it possible for writers to get even with various adversaries by fictionalizing them? I’ve met enough snobs in my life, for which I hold long-standing and useless grudges, to populate several novels. If I couldn’t do that, my deep-seated resentments might give me ulcers.

My old college dormitory, way back in the early 1970s, served as part of the inspiration for my 2007 novel The Rock Star’s Homecoming. I imagine it could’ve also given rise to stories like “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Mean Girls.” There always seemed to be “popular corners” where the cliques lived together in cozy groups.

I had a rough time as a college freshman because my roommate considered herself socially superior to me in every way. We suffered from basic incompatibility, as I was too academically serious for her. She critiqued my struggles to fit in, but had no real interest in helping me out. We were mostly cordial on the surface, but not being quite the idiot she took me for, I gradually became aware that she was bad-mouthing me behind my back. We broke up at the end of the year when she chose one of the more popular girls to room with the following year. She sprang it on me one day, asking with pretended concern who I had lined up for next year. Her plan, no doubt, was to create her own popular corner with her new roomie, and live happily ever after.

Only it didn’t quite work out that way. I don’t know what happened, but I picked up some gossip about their ugly breakup, after only a few months, during which my ex-roommate reacted like a screaming, jilted wife. Karma, perhaps?

Things like this shouldn’t happen in adult life, but they do, right into middle age and beyond. I’ve encountered “popular corners” in my various workplaces. As I wrote in my office drama, Secretarial Wars, there are “Gigglers” and “Whisperers” in every office. Cliques tend to form naturally, and there is no sense in fighting that. But when supervisors cultivate elite groups within their staffs, issues of fundamental fairness come into play.

The Federal government lacks the drama of “The Office,” with its love triangles, mergers, and sudden firings. We are supposed to have various civil service protections, but discrimination can be subtle and hard to prove. For example, although we’re supposedly protected from age discrimination, I have no doubt my gray hair torpedoed my career.

Somewhere along the line I acquired a new supervisor who claimed to appreciate my abilities proven over many years, but promoted two new, much younger employees over me and spent most of his energy cultivating them. Since he was nice to me on the surface, it took me a while to realize he was saddling me with grunt work and forgetting to include me in the important things. I’m sure the “one percent” syndrome thrives in many offices, a system rigged to ensure that those who are already privileged reap nearly all the benefits available.

The situation upset me greatly, but anticipating retirement, I lacked the energy to look for another job or to fight back much. I exchanged real self-respect at work for an easier life. In turn, my employers missed out on what could have been at least a few more productive years by failing to utilize my true skills and keep me engaged. I read a review of the final episode of “The Office” which summed this up nicely: that the loss of passion for a career can be liberating if it sets you free to pursue other passions.

Even in the adult world, “popular corners” tend to break up of their own accord. They involve flawed individuals, after all. I began to suspect some of the closed-door meetings from which I was excluded weren’t total love-fests. The fact is, privileged workers can easily turn into children who’ve been showered with too many toys. They don’t really appreciate it. When it came to paying the price of fame … which I suppose would have required them to be on call more than they wanted to be … they balked.

Getting back at real-life snobs on paper can give you a psychological boost. But there are times when real life doesn’t need any fictional embellishment … when trusting to Karma works out just fine.

South_Carolina_flag_mapOne of my favorite novelists, Pat Conroy, has written a couple of memoirs that explore the roots of his fiction. The latest one, The Death of Santini, tackles the most painful source of his inspiration, the brutal treatment he and his siblings suffered at the hands of their father, a Marine Corps fighter pilot.

Conroy was always destined to be controversial, with such an array of dark and violent subjects to choose from. His first book, The Boo, was originally self-published (something we indies can take to heart). His second, The Water Is Wide, described his experience as an inexperienced teacher in an impoverished African American elementary school. His methods got him fired after a year, and his indictment of the segregated school system provoked a fair amount of outrage in the South. Since then, Conroy has continued to deal with the hot topics that roiled the nation during the 1960s, such as southern racism, civil rights, and the Vietnam War. He also tackles the most personally sensitive topic imaginable: his own experiences with mental illness, including the psychosis of a sister, the suicide of a brother, and his own periodic breakdowns.

Conroy’s writing tends to be lush and metaphor-filled, something that many so-called experts frown on. Certainly we indies get slammed if we’re perceived to be too flowery. That’s why I was delighted to read his blast against the naysayers: “I trained myself to be unafraid of critics, and I’ve held them in high contempt since my earliest days as a writer because their work seems pinched and sullen and paramecium-souled.”

A paramecium-souled critic! Has anyone ever put it better? I’m certainly not knocking constructive criticism, which authors need, but haven’t we all encountered our share of these paramecium souls? Don’t we know what it is to be willfully misunderstood by readers who refuse to suspend disbelief long enough to accept our vision? That kind of automatic dismissal precludes thoughtful judgment and lends itself to nit-picking. And don’t even get me started on the hordes of anonymous trolls who feel qualified to write a “review” based on a two-minute skimming.

Conroy also goes on to explain why he doesn’t write reviews, or at least bad ones: “I made the decision to never write a critical dismissal of the works of another brother or sister writer, and I’ve lived up to that promise to myself. No writer has suffered over morning coffee because of the savagery of my review of his or her latest book, and no one ever will.” We could all take a lesson from those words: a thoughtful critique is one thing, a hatchet job quite another.

Obsession And Art

September 10, 2013

obsessionA few weeks ago I read a letter to a popular advice columnist from a married woman who confessed to harboring an obsession for an unidentified public figure with a less than sterling image. The comments section went wild with speculation about who the object of her obsession might be. Some commenters were sure they had identified the man, and berated the woman accordingly. Others belittled her for endangering her marriage over a fantasy.

What brought out the sharpest knives, however, was her confession that she was a writer who had been in an artistic drought for a while. It seemed she had gotten a spark from these illicit feelings, and was writing a novel with this person as a central character. Most of the commenters tore apart her project without knowing any more than that. They insisted that there could be nothing worthwhile about a story conceived in such a manner. Without a doubt, it would be a self-indulgent piece of crap. She was assured that “it will never be published” by some literary expert who apparently never heard of self-publishing. Others were sure if it ever saw the light of day, it would merit one star from every reviewer who came across it.

This barrage made me wonder how many of these premature critics ever felt a creative impulse themselves. If they had ever attempted something as complicated as a novel, I would think they’d realize there are many possible sources of inspiration. At least the advice columnist, who teaches creative writing on the side, showed some sympathy, offering advice on techniques the aspiring novelist could use to disguise and fictionalize her subject. My guess is that most writers of fiction, famous or not, get at least an occasional boost from obsessive thoughts that they would never reveal in polite company. The trick is to acknowledge these dark feelings and use them creatively instead of destructively.

On the other hand, obsession is never healthy if it leads someone to confront the real-life object of her passion. A while ago I blogged about the near-fatal shooting of baseball player Eddie Waitkus in 1949 by a deranged fan, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who lured him to a hotel room. What if Steinhagen had been a writer?  It’s possible that her murderous impulse would have remained safely in the realm of fiction. It took Bernard Malamud to transform the real-life tragedy to art in his 1952 novel The Natural.