I’ve been writing for longer than I’d like to admit. I joke about being thrown off of my father’s computer when I was six years old for typing rude words. While that did happen, I’m not certain that particular novel was ever going to come to anything. In reality I’ve been pursuing writing professionally for about ten years now with only one real gap.
That gap lasted almost a year, and it came from one major misunderstanding on my part; I was trying to be a good writer. I‘d heard that a good writer sits down every day to work. I‘d heard that a good writer edits and edits until all of the evil is driven from their manuscript, leaving only shining golden prose.
The first one led me to quit writing for a year, the second stopped me from getting my work published for almost a decade.
Write Every Day
In a perfect world I’d be free to sit down at the computer each morning and write to my heart’s content. I’m getting closer to the goal of becoming a full-time author with every book I get published, but it will still be a few years of hard work yet. Before I get to write for myself, I still have to spend about eight hours each day writing for other people to pay the bills. Back when I quit, I was working twelve hours a day in an unrelated job. Sometimes more. I had no time for hobbies. I had no time for much of anything except sleeping, then heading back to work. Writing was one straw too many. I wasn’t getting anything written even when I did sit down to do it. I was exhausted.
Unfortunately, I had to eat. I had to put a roof over my head. Like most writers in the modern era, I didn’t have rich parents or patrons to lean on. I had to work.
Writing requires energy, something that all of us only have a limited supply of. I was all out. Even now that I’m in a much more comfortable position I sometimes look at that expanse of blank white on the screen and it is too much.
The most important lesson that I’ve learned about writing is that most of the work happens long before I put my fingers to the keys. That’s why I can cheerfully churn out a novella in a weekend but writing sprints like NaNoWriMo are a nightmare to me. (The first year that I attempted it nearly prompted me to quit writing all over again, and the month long depression brought me as close as I have ever been to divorce.)
So I am a bad writer. Some days when I’m struggling I just don’t bother. I understand myself well enough to know that I’ll make up for lost time on those good days when inspiration strikes and I have the energy. When I’m working out how long a project is going to take, I average the up and downs.
Refine to Perfection
While banging my head against the wall of having no energy and no idea what I’m working on may have derailed me once or twice over the years, the idea that I could make my writing perfect by coming back to it over and over is what nearly ruins me on a daily basis.
There is an old adage that no work of art is ever completed; only abandoned. My problem is that I just can’t quite pry my fingers off of them. I’ve held onto short stories for years before submitting them. I have a folder of abandoned stories that didn’t even get that far. Too imperfect to even come to fruition. One particular story has gone through the grind of edits and revisions so many times I’ve lost count; comparing the latest draft to the very first, one is clearly inferior to the other. The writing is more grammatically correct perhaps, but the edited version has lost all the passion the first one held.
I know that I’m meant to edit in passes, the first one to put the story structure in order, the second to fix the prose, the third to fix the dialogue and the fourth to fix descriptions. That’s the way I was taught to work by older and more experienced authors when I was first starting out. As it turns out, the correct number of editorial passes for every novel that I have actually sold is one; to pick up any typos.
So I am a bad writer. I don’t edit my work before sending it off, and it is much better for it. Of course, I get pages and pages of notes and changes back from my editors but from what I understand, the situation would be the same regardless of how long I review and revise.
Be a Bad Writer
Writing is an art rather than a science; there is no “right” way to be a writer, only a cacophony of conflicting advice coming at you from all directions. Writing every day does not make you a writer any more than swimming every day makes you a fish.
It has taken me years of practice to get to the stage where I believe my work is good enough to be published. Years in which I took classes, studied the craft of writing, and read extensively.
Being a “good” writer made me miserable. Being a “bad” writer made me successful. If you can call someone who still has to eat Ramen for every other meal successful.
G D Penman writes Speculative Fiction. He lives in Scotland with his partner and children, some of whom are human. He is a firm believer in the axiom that any story is made better by dragons. His beard has won an award. If you have ever read a story with Kaiju and queer people, it was probably one of his. In those few precious moments that he isn’t parenting or writing he likes to watch cartoons, play video and tabletop games, read more books than are entirely feasible and continues his quest to eat the flesh of every living species. He is the author of over a dozen books including; The Year of the Knife, Motherland, Call Your Steel and Heart of Winter.
Her name was Jeanie, at least I think it was. She came to live with us when I was about eleven years old. I remember washing the dishes with her after dinner one evening, she was washing and I was rinsing. She accidentally splashed water on her belly. She started to giggle and told me that meant she would marry a drunk, and she laughed. I don’t know how my face responded, but inside I was astonished. Really? How could dishwater splashed onto someone’s belly mean that? What was a drunk anyway? Someone who drank alcohol, I am sure! Oh no, so will I, I have done that many times! I took everything so damn literally when I was younger.
My mother left my father when I was eleven years old. We went from poor-to poorer. My mother was pregnant with her seventh child. She moved us into a very big rental house and took in three women with “problems”. I don’t know what all their problems were, but one of the ladies, her name was Connie, she cried a lot, uncontrollably. Jeanie, I remember, was more light-hearted, at least sometimes. She could be giggly and fun, but she could also be sullen and somber. I liked her. The third woman was an old lady we called Aunt Bee. She had dementia. She wandered off a lot and my brother and I had to get on our bikes and ride around town looking for her. One day the ladies left, they were just gone. Well, except Aunt Bee, she died in her sleep one night. It was weird, I remember feeling panicked at first, but my mother was very calm. I don’t know if I ever knew what happened to Connie and Jeanie.
Many years passed before I ever thought of them again. Then one day while washing the dishes, a bunch of water splashed out of the sink and soaked my belly, and I had the thought, “I am going to marry a drunk”! I stood frozen as the memories played out like a short film. When I came back, I chuckled and thought (possibly out loud), I’d not only married a drunk, I’d become one.
I have thought of Jeanie and her little superstition (or maybe it was her way of laughing something terrible off) every time I splash water on my belly while washing the dishes, and I wonder about her, I wonder what went so wrong in her life that she needed to live in a home to be looked after. Perhaps she and Connie both suffered from depression, I suppose that makes the most sense. I think of how potentially bad things could have gone. I think of my mother pregnant, supporting six other children. The desperation she must have felt, the desperation all the women must have felt. I think of the pain and the fear. I can see Jeanie’s face and see the two of us in that moment by the sink. I can hear her words, her giggle, and my heart breaks.
Phaedra Kimball is a full-time Sociology major. After living in Los Angeles, CA. for 20 years pursuing the life of an actor, and artist, she and her small family moved to a quieter life in Montana. Phaedra is passionate about politics, societal issues, learning, new art forms, and having new adventures.
‘Irises’ Van Gogh, 1889
How to Go Pro Like Van Gogh (HINT: It’s Not About the Money)
Does the word “professional” apply to Van Gogh? He didn’t make any money and he failed to become famous (even locally) in his own lifetime. Sure, his art fetches high prices now, and is well received by nearly everyone. But that’s his work, not him.
Van Gogh was a failure if your definition of “professional” is forever entangled with financial and popular success. Of course, if you think Van Gogh was a failure, you are a fool.
Your goal is to be a serious artist. To do that means that it is time for you to start treating your work as work. Below, I’ve outlined a few of the basic requirements you’ll need to “go pro”.
You Must Retain Amateur Status
The words “play” and “work” are not opposites, they are complements. No matter how seriously I am going to urge you to take your work, it should never stop being an activity you love doing.
Being an amateur has nothing to do with your paycheck, it has to do with your attitude and motivation. The original meaning of the word “amateur” did not mean “less serious”, or broke, it meant that you were a lover of whatever it is you are an amateur of.
You can be an amateur and not be a professional, but you cannot be a professional without also being an amateur. A professional who has lost their love of what they are doing is what I would call a hack.
Know if You Are Only a Hobbyist
Creating art because you like to do it is a perfectly valid reason: it is reason enough. We should give hobbyists far more respect that we currently do. A person with a few hobbies is far less likely to be living a soul-crushingly stressful lifestyle, will have healthier relationships, and will probably live longer than the rest of us.
That said, professionals and hobbyists are not the same. How can you tell which you are?
Some might start with the following question (which I hate): “If you were rich, and didn’t have to work, what would you do with your time?” The assumption being that whatever answer you give is what you should be doing with your life NOW, not waiting until you get rich.
Here’s a better question: “If you were dead broke, and you knew (for sure) that committing to your art was going to prevent you from ever getting out of poverty, would you still choose to do it?”
If you answer “yes”, then you are not a hobbyist, you are a professional.
Van Gogh made this choice. The result was the best work he was capable of producing. A professional finds this trade-off worth it.
Work as Hard as a Professional
The 19th century writer, Anthony Trollope, had a full time (non-writing) job. Still, he would wake up early every morning and write for three hours, getting 1,000 words per hour (250 words every 15 minutes, exactly). He got his 3,000 words in every day, no matter what. He was like a machine in his level of dedication to the hard reality of creation: you have to be consistent.
Prince wrote a song a day. Steven King writes 2,000 words every day. Anthony Burgess not only wrote 2,000 words a day, but also composed classical music during the evenings.
A professional artist treats their work like a proper job — especially when not being paid for it.
Work Ethic is Empowering
The fact that hard work and consistency are the fundamental predictors of your success (not financial!) as an artist is empowering. The mark of a professional is that this fact excites and motivates them.
Van-Gogh-self-portrait creative commons
Contrary to the myth, Van Gogh was wildly successful in his own lifetime. His worked his ass off every day. He doggedly worked to improve his craft and skill levels. He produced.
If you don’t find this fact empowering (or worse, find it sobering) then you’re a hobbyist — which is awesome, but don’t ruin your fun by making your art into work.
For a professional, the whole point is that you want this to be your work! So start acting like it.
The Myth of the Muse: No Excuses
Most artists are waiting around for inspiration. Without this mythical inspiration, they feel helpless.
What a writer would call “writers block” is a sham. There is no muse! There is no magical external force in the universe that will take over your body and force your hands to create.
Most days you will put in the work, and there will be nothing special about it. Some days, you’ll be hit with inspiration. The point is to be ready for this inspiration, lay the groundwork for it, and take advantage of it fully.
A Professional Artist Goes Public
An athlete who doesn’t compete is not an athlete. They may exercise, they may train, but I’m not going to call you an athlete until you enter your first contest. Once you do that, I don’t care if you did badly, I don’t care if you always lose, I don’t care if you will never win or make money or get a scholarship, you are a REAL athlete.
Similarly, you may be a horrible artist, you might produce some of the worst work in the history of your medium, but if you put your work out there for other humans to see, read, or listen to, then you are a professional artist.
You won’t magically build a large audience just because you set up a blog to put your stories or paintings on. But you will have broken through a huge glass ceiling most artists are too afraid to face: rejection.
Putting yourself out there is something only the tiniest one-percent of one-percent of artists are willing to do. The rest don’t have the guts to do it. Do you?
You may only have an audience of one, but that’s an audience. Hell, that one person may hate your work, but that isn’t relevant. What matters is that you had the guts.
‘Wheat Field With Crows’, Van Gogh 1890
Showing Your Work is Now Easier Than Ever
We live in a world where the middlemen of art (record labels, publishing houses, etc.) are quickly becoming more of a hindrance than a help. There was a time when they were the gate-keepers between the artist and the audience. That is no longer the case.
The internet has changed the landscape of art. If you want an audience, you can find one.
I suggest that you have a blog (not just a website) where you showcase both your work and yourself. Yes, use Facebook and other social media networks. But your blog is yours. And it will never matter if Facebook changes their algorithms or rules on you.
Everyone should exercise: it’s good for you and it’s fun. Yet, for a small minority, exercise isn’t enough, they want to be athletes.
Similarly, everyone should engage with the arts. Studies abound that extol the benefits to your brain and psychological well-being. But that’s not what you’re in it for.
To be a professional, at anything, let alone the arts, requires that you act like a professional.
- Work harder at this than you do at anything else.
- Don’t allow any excuses for why you aren’t practicing and producing daily (the muse myth).
- Put your work in front of others.
Repeat. It’s really not complicated. It’s just hard. Thankfully, it’s also the most fun you’ll ever have.
Now go lift something heavy,
Nick Horton, ‘The Iron Samurai’, is a poet and musician; was trained in mathematics; and is a Zen-Atheist. Clearly a weirdo.
Be Sure to Stop When You Get to Where You Are Going
By Patrick Dwyer
Saying goodbye to all those people seemed both urgent and full of sorrow. These are some of the best and finest friends a girl had, and we had made a madcap weekend of it! Group cuddles in every bed in that big rented house, shower plumbing more complex than the NY sewer system and just as hard to turn off, long walks down by that languid and ever time-stopping stretch of the Hudson, and those faces, all those faces. Every one of them up-turned to me with love, acceptance, even some admiration, as I rushed crazily through them all, making excuses for my haste, dallying for a kiss only at my peril.
I could not stay there any longer, even though I had promised for the full long weekend. The pressure behind my eyes, the ache behind and just to the left of my sternum had become unbearable. I could hardly see straight, and I was afraid of bursting into open sobs and ruining the party for everyone. I ran down the driveway and vaulted over the door of my convertible, flinging my bag into the narrow space behind the passenger seat, slammed the key into the ignition and spun my wheels down the gravel lane to the gate. I did not stop for the road but flung the wheel hard right and slid out in a drift heading south to the highway.
Not even daring to put words to the unasked question buried deep down, I let the dashed line in the center of the road wash away the pain in my head like the hot-pulse setting on that crazy shower massage back at the house. I would be alright. There was nothing I knew to do for the ache in my chest, except maybe wear it like armor and smash my way on through the rest of my life. Sometimes I found I could not wait for the next encounter, breast forward, like a lowered lance, daring all in my path to flee. Or to stand and deliver me to my rest.
Down the highway, realizing with a start that I had not filled my tank on the way up, and the needle was near empty. Which meant in this car that I was empty and would soon be coasting. As I lifted my eyes to scan down the road for fuel, I saw across the hundreds of flat farm acres here in the valley bottom, a goodly clump of trees by the road, a copse up ahead I did not recall from the drive up. And in their midst, high in their boughs, nearest the road, as if leaping for joy over an impossibly tall white post, a winged, red flying horse.
* * *
A very small, short-legged person in a ball cap with the same red horse emblem came out of the low one-story building, letting the screen door bang behind, and waddled up and between pumps older than any I had ever seen, to stand with a small and patient smile just safely out of reach of the swing of my door. I could not tell if it was a man or a woman, or even if it was only a child. The eyes that crowned the smile were ageless and deep brown, like the river in this valley, and they had that water’s same languid flow, the one with no sense of the passage of time.
As I opened my door, she (I just have to say ‘she’, because, well, I think I needed that smile, that intimation of a peace, of a great and effortless rest, to come from another woman right then) – she reached up a hand with stubby fingers so short as to almost not be fingers at all and took the handle of my car door, like I was being ushered down the steps of my own carriage by a footman. Standing on the apron, I turned my head distractedly from left to right, catching the scent of working dirt from the surrounding lands and also, much closer, the fragrance of blossoms so familiar, but which I could not name. The tiniest whiff of petroleum drifted by too, but without the usual assault. She said nothing, her smile remaining unchanging but not frozen, rather continually renewing, and if anything, growing just a bit warmer even as it grew just that bit smaller on her wide face.
“Fill it up?” I asked, not sure why I made it a question instead of an order. She gave me a nod with only the slow blink of her eyelids, closed the door of my car as if it were the door of a vault, and made the closing sound of that great slab of Detroit steel no more than the faint snick that the lid of a fine watch makes coming home to rest. Then she went about the business of pulling down the hose, winding back the meter numbers, unscrewing the filler cap and pouring gas into my tank, as if no activity could be more pleasant or more completely ordinary. So common it might’ve been beneath my notice.
I found myself wandering across the apron, pausing to consider if I wanted to enter the low building, perhaps buy myself a cold drink, or not. I did not, though I do not recall deciding that, and went instead around the left side of the building and out beneath some of the trees, where that blossom scent grew faintly more compelling. It seemed to be coming from the trees themselves, though none of them were in flower. In fact, the maples among them had already begun to turn and the huckleberries were well into fruit, countless tiny green swellings at the ends of the stems on the low bushes scattered in openings amongst the trees. I stood there, hip deep in that sense of the familiar-but-unnameable. Willing something to emerge, to appear before me, something that would take me up bodily and, as compelling as the haunting and elusive fragrance, spin away the life I knew and cast me up gently on the banks of … what? Something new? Oh no. No more of that. I wanted to be consumed, sweetly and eternally.
* * *
When I got back to my car, the hose was hung at the side of its pump, and everything, chrome, windshield, even the paint, gleamed as if new. Better than new. My host, yes, my host was not in sight, and I became aware for the first time since I had stopped that I had not been hearing any sound of traffic on this highway. I was not bothered by the oddity, only a little surprised that I had not noticed earlier. I went to find her and offer my payment for the gas and her services.
As I opened the flimsy screen door and entered the low room, feeling a little like a giant, or maybe a troll stooping to enter human habitation, fearful for my head, even without any fear of the occupants. There was a counter immediately to my left with an old cash register, the kind with pop-up numbers on levers, but no one in attendance. There were racks of the usual notions on the counter across from the space occupied by the register and a small display of dusty maps. Chewing gum, LifeSavers, some jars of penny candy and a neat display of pocket combs. Ahead there were rows of merchandise, not at all unlike those in the ubiquitous roadside convenience stores across America, except maybe for an overall greater simplicity of presentation while offering a much greater choice and variety of goods. And to the right, a cooler. Not the kind with the sliding glass doors, but the one with the metal lid that you raise to look down inside at the serpentine rows of bottle caps in their gated metal dispensing grooves. My hand reached down and along the caps as if, by a kind of commercial Braille, I might read and select a dewy wet bottle of cold refreshment, put my dime in the slot and slide it through its gate, free it from its long hibernation, and carry it away with me to enjoy down the road, on my way to … what?
She was standing beside me, not even coming up to my waist. She would need a tall bench or a ladder to get up to the top of this cooler, to reach down and replace the bottles. I was distracted by unasked-for thoughts of the logistics of her operation here, the unending physical challenges. Until she turned away, an invitation unspoken in the lingering twist of her round face toward me as she walked. I followed her to the counter, where she waddled to one end and around it and then, as if climbing a staircase, stood with her waist to the counter top, her surprisingly agile but short fingers working the register levers with those flat, round buttons on their ends.
“Twenty-three dollars even,” she announced with just a touch of apparent pride, and that very small smile again.
Even in the voice I could not tell either age or gender with any certainty. I was not surprised at the cost of the fill, though of course I should have been. I took cash out of my pocket and paid her, returning, as best I knew how, the warmth and grace of her smile.
She started to speak. I heard “Be sure to stop -” and then I finished her pleasantry in my head before she could continue – ‘be sure to stop again.’ But that is not what she was saying, I realized only when she stopped. “Be sure to stop when you get to where you are going,” is what she said, and she said it brightly, without any portent or meaningful inflection.
Still, other than getting it wrong, I made nothing of it, nodded my thanks, and went outside. I was careful not to bang the screen door.
* * *
I walked across the pump island to my carriage, for that is what it now seemed to be, opened the door with my left hand, and as I slid into the seat, realized my right palm was wrapped tightly around the wet green ribs of a seven-ounce bottle of Coke. My left hand arrested on the inside door handle, my eyes watched a small rivulet of moisture running from the fingers of my right hand down between two ribs of the bottle of nearly black contents to drip two big drops onto my seat cover, the wet stain spreading darkly, if briefly, in the fabric.
I closed my door. I knew I’d have to set the bottle down somewhere to get out my keys and start my car, but I could not let go of the bottle. I had a thought then about whether the cap was a twist-off, but I could see it was not, and I had no bottle opener in the car. I would have to go back inside to get the cap off. And I did not want to. I did not want to drink the cold contents, feel the rush of burning bubbles down my throat, the heady lift of eye-widening stimulation reach between my ears and detonate. Not right now. I needed to be going. I put the wet bottle standing on the passenger seat, leaning against the seat back, and fumbled for my keys. Where had I put them? I raised myself up, reached with my right hand into my back pocket, then my front pocket, switched hands on the steering wheel and patted my left front pocket. Nothing. Cash in my right pocket, from which I had paid for my gas, coins in my left, from which I supposed I had paid for the Coke, but no keys. Had I left them inside, on the counter, at the cooler?
Now I really did not want to go back inside.
“Wow! Look at this car!” I heard a boy child pipe from my right side, and to the rear. I turned to see, and saw a small boy in bibbed blue overalls and no shirt or shoes, running just ahead of a girl with blond pigtails, her hand reaching forward to catch up with him.
She was larger than the boy but not by much, and she let out her own running exclamation. “Ohhh! It’s so shiny!”
They were all smiles, excitement, and caged energy as they both slid to a stop by the passenger door, my own smile helpless but to return theirs.
“Can we have a ride?!” the boy chirped.
“Yes,” confirmed the girl, “can we?!”
They both stood on tiptoe, not so much to see inside as to maintain the barest tether to a planet that could not hold them down flat. I was, in a tired old word, captivated! I looked quickly in the direction from which they had run, but I could not see another car or any older folks that might belong to these two pixies. I did not know what to say. I looked back at the store across from the pump island but there was no one at the door. Of course I could not just drive off with these kids, but I did not want to leave them either. And I really did want to go for a spin with them! I looked all around again, returning to their faces, still suspended weightlessly above their feet.
With a quick look at each other and back to my face, they spun and rushed to the back of the car, climbed the bumper, ran up the back deck and dropped into the space behind the seats, seizing my bag between them and swinging it back and forth between them as if they had stolen a great treasure on an unusual day for the Spanish Main. They shrieked together in their joy and triumph, flung the bag ahead into the passenger seat, and tumbled over after it. The precarious pile of boy, girl, bag and damp Coke bottle quickly resolving itself into both kids sitting on the seat, with the bag at their feet and the bottle in the hands of the boy, the shrieking undiminished.
“Oh, you can’t …” I started to say as they swarmed aboard, but my heart was not in it, and I let it get flattened by their onslaught. In seconds, I suppose really, though it seemed like the length of the afternoon, they settled down marginally, their bouncing subsiding into the steady thrum of an ocean liner’s engines, and turned their eyes expectantly to me.
“Let’s go,” the girl commanded but with no trace of disrespect, more the inexorable will of Royalty, not unkind, but impossible to ignore or disagree with. The boy produced a bottle opener, popped the cap on the bottle and took a long drink, handing it with a nudge to his sister (I was sure of it now) who did not take her eyes from mine but did also take a long drink. The pulse of their energy continued, the boy belched loudly, and the girl handed the bottle to me to finish. I drank it all down, feeling the bubbles rise back up, and I immediately belched myself, to the complete delight and renewed bouncing of both of them. The boy sprang up, tossed the bottle cap overboard, and replaced the opener in the front of his bib, as he began to experiment with climbing the rigging. The girl put both hands on my elbow, pulling so gently and so insistently, pleading without a trace of whine, “Please?”
* * *
It seems we spent the whole rest of the afternoon together, and in the time we played and jumped and laughed and hugged it seemed we had always known each other, and always would. We changed places many times in the seats, everyone had a chance at the ship’s wheel, everyone got to walk the plank and disappear overboard and astern, all victims of a Captain’s rough justice. And I am not sure that we did not, or I did not, fire up the engine and at least drive them around the apron more than a couple times. I could not swear we had not sailed with the tide and gone many leagues down the road and back home to port, Captain and crew, Jolly Rogers all of us. Though of course none of that would have been proper.
When my bag was stowed away behind the seat again, and the crew had taken leave and gone ashore and the sun was now visibly lower in the sky than when they had arrived, when we had each taken a silent measure of each other’s smiles and bright faces, I put the key in the ignition (yes, the lost key), started up and slowly drove out and off the apron, waved my arm back at them widely, received theirs in return, and sent my face down the road.
Born in Missouri, raised in the East, traveled a lot, became a West Coast guy, studied a lot, raised a family. After two decades of professional writing, turned (back) to fiction. I am fascinated with who people are. Really are, not just what they seem. So I write tales of adventure, whimsy, humor and grit. Looking for what I think we all have in common.
Writing With Hand Tools
In the wood-working community, over the last few generations, there’s been a revival of the use of hand tools. The reasons are obvious once you hear them.
- Hand tools provide a connection with wood that is just not possible with power tools;
- Hand tools are safer (by a long shot);
- Power tools produce dust which is a known carcinogen;
- Hand tools only produce shavings which have a pleasant odor;
- Power tools are extremely loud (requiring you to wear ear protection) and will likely piss off your neighbors;
- Save for hammering, hand tools are so quiet that you can work in the garage in the middle of the night and not wake anyone else in the house.
Power tools certainly have a place, especially in commercial environments. But for many people, hand tools provide a more personal option that increases their sense of creativity and enjoyment.
Of course, there is another reason hand tools have become more popular: we’ve learned that technological advances are a double-edged sword. For every good that comes from a new advancement, we lose something. Often, we can’t predict what that loss will be until we’ve already felt it.
Writing Without Writing
Woodworking isn’t the only field where a revival of hand tools and a back-to-basics style can be of use. Artists of all kinds, especially many writers and musicians, have become mired in the myth that without their high-tech tools, there is no way they could produce.
For most of human history, writing didn’t exist. There were no books. Hell, no one had yet chiseled a poem into a rock.
That said, creative construction with words did exist. Poetry existed. Storytelling existed.
Writing is NOT synonymous with typing. Writing is far more than that. Writing, as a craft, consists of a series of steps starting with a creative spark and ending with a finished product.
In our prehistory, writing didn’t exist, but writers did.
Writing is a Craft
Saint Francis of Assisi said, “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
All artists are laborers first, craftsman second, and only then artists. Another way of saying it is that to be an artist, you must embrace ALL of what it means to be one, not just the “heart” bit.
Masters of all crafts (in art, engineering, sports, etc.) will constantly tell you that what matters more than anything is mastering the basics. And this process is made clearer when you strip away all unneeded baggage.
Tools like Word, or Scrivener, or Libre, or Office are useful when it’s time to use them. But an over-reliance on them may be a sign that you’ve become too far removed from the craft of writing as writing.
Let’s look at a few other possible ways to write.
Pen & Paper: The Forgotten Technology
The list of writers who used pen and paper in their process is long, and includes: Vladamir Nabokov, John Irving, Susan Sontag, Joyce Carol Oates, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Jhumpa Lahiri, even Quentin Tarantino among many others.
To one of our pre-literate ancestors, the combo of pen and paper would seem a miracle of technology (magic) — and so it is! To us, it seems arcane. How times change perception….
Beginning your writing process with more basic tools may provide the novelty and the variety needed to fan the flames of creativity. Worst case scenario: you get a hand cramp.
Vladamir Nabokov said that he only wrote 160 words per day, and that it would take him an entire day to get them right. His prose is so thick and meaty, that I often think he was a poet who tricked us into thinking he was a novelist.
He wrote those 160 words on index cards in pencil. Each would be labeled with a scene header or some other information. Then he would arrange these little scenes physically in front of himself, and have a tactile and graphical display of his work in progress.
Playwrights and screenwriters often use index cards to help them build up their plots. But Nabokov literally wrote the entire novel on them.
An alternative to a standing desk is to write standing at a white board (or chalk board, if you prefer). I do this as my first draft for everything from poetry to song lyrics to articles like this one.
It makes writing similar in feel to painting on an easel. There is something about being able to stand, walk around, and visualize what you’re doing that is liberating.
Markdown vs Word Processors (vs Typewriters)
You could say that a word processor is a very complex typewriter. Alternatively, you could say a typewriter is a crappy word processor. But I think both would be wrong. In fact, a typewriter and a word processor are fundamentally different, and belong in different categories.
A typewriter produces a finished product that is remarkably basic. You don’t get bold text, you don’t get different fonts or font sizes, you don’t get spell check, you can’t copy-and-paste.
A word processor allows all of that and more. Perhaps too much more! It’s a never-ending source of distraction, primarily because you are consistently fiddling with the formatting of what you’re writing rather than about the content of your writing.
To combat this without losing some of the rather nice benefits of technology (like spell check or copy-and-paste), many writers have moved over to using the markdown format in plain text editors. Markdown is now ubiquitous in academic writing, documentation for programmers, and other places where complex formatting is required eventually, but gets in the way of the subject at hand.
Markdown is like using a typewriter in the sense that if feels very plain and basic. On the other hand, you can then convert it to a Word Doc, or a PDF or whatever you need, without losing out on the ability to format the document.
Jodi Picoult said, “Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands.” It may also be caused by imprisoning yourself into having only one way of writing.
Writing is not typing, it is crafting with words. Typing may be one method that you use to write, but you should be careful not to restrict yourself exclusively to it.
Writing with hand tools is not necessarily safer than writing on a computer, but it may help you to be more productive. And if not, it will at least give you something to talk about.
Now go lift something heavy,
Nick Horton, ‘The Iron Samurai’, is a poet and musician; was trained in mathematics; and is a Zen-Atheist. Clearly a weirdo.
In the Isle of the Beholder
Mommy and Daddy say I’m beautiful, but I don’t believe them. They are the ones who are beautiful, not me. I look nothing like them. I can spend hours touching their faces, running my fingers over the features that are much more interesting than mine. Daddy says I look just like Mommy did before they fell from the sky onto the island. I don’t believe that either. When I look at my reflection in a shiny object or a pool of water, I can’t imagine Mommy looking as strange as I do.
But those are the sort of things parents tell their children out of love, I guess. Like when Daddy was teaching me how to fish and I just couldn’t get the worm to stay on the hook. He told me it was okay because the worm really liked me and would rather spend time with me than with the fish. Or the time Mommy was teaching me to cook and I kept burning the food. She insisted Daddy liked it that way and she could never quite manage to burn it the way he preferred it like I could.
Mommy and Daddy are always telling me things like that because they love me. So when they told me I need to run and hide if I ever saw pale men in green clothes, it was hard to take them seriously. But they were very serious. Scary serious. Even after they described these strange people as sometimes wearing turtle shells on their heads, which sounded very funny, they stayed very serious and insisted I promise I would run away if I ever saw the Pale People. I told them I would, even though I didn’t believe, because I love them.
I tried talking more to them about the Pale People, but they didn’t want to. They just said they are very dangerous and were part of the reason why they were on the island. The only other time they did not want to talk about something is when I asked about the Outside World. They said it was a bad place. Very busy. People were mean to each other. People collected useless things and fought over them. Mommy and Daddy said there was nothing in the Outside World I would want. They said everything I needed was right here on the island. It was better here.
I asked them if there were other children to play with in the Outside World. Mommy and Daddy would look long and sadly at each other, then at me and say, yes, there are other children in the Outside World, but it wasn’t worth it to go into the world to meet them. It was because of the world the aero-plane crashed on the island. It was because of the world there were thirty-two piles of stones next to the aero-plane wreckage with someone buried beneath them. It was because of the world they were afraid of the Pale People.
I’m thinking of all these things because I’m standing on a cliff, looking down at the beach and there are people down there. It is far away and I can’t see them very well and I’m asking myself if those are turtle shells on their heads? It doesn’t matter, really, because they are strangers and they can only have come from one place: The Outside World. Which means they are bad. They are gathered around a big metal box that is half in the water. What is that thing? When did they come? How did they come? Why are they here?
It was luck that I came to this side of the island, because I rarely come here. Because Mommy’s birthday is coming soon, I came to this side to pick the tasty sun-fruit that she loves so much that doesn’t grow near home. Mommy and Daddy don’t like coming to this side of the island because it means passing by the aero-plane and the field of stones where their friends are buried. It makes them sad.
But because it’s Mommy’s birthday, and because the sun-fruit only grows over here, I saw the strangers in time, before they could sneak up on us on our side of the island.
Still, as I watch them form a single file line that disappears into the jungle, I ask myself again if those are turtle shells on their heads and if they are Pale People? Maybe they have children? Maybe they brought some and I just can’t see them from here?
I decide that I must investigate further. Just to be sure. After all, Mommy and Daddy will want to know as much as possible when I go back and warn them about the strangers. Daddy especially would expect nothing less. “Both a good scientist and warrior,” he says, “gather as much information as possible before taking action.”
I backtrack into the jungle and angle towards where I’m certain their path will cross mine. I hide along a creek, the bank of which is the path of least resistance they are most likely to take when walking through the jungle.
It isn’t long. I hear them long before I see them. They speak in a strange tongue that sounds more like noise than language. Just as I see their shapes bobbing in the trees and leafy plants, a breeze blows my way and I can smell them. They smell even stranger than they sound. But there is something familiar about the smell too, like maybe something I’ve smelled before near the aero-plane.
As they come closer, I gasp and quickly cover my mouth to hide the sound, and just as quickly am angry with myself for making the noise. Angry that, despite how well hid I know I am, my heart is still beating hard. “A good warrior,” Daddy says, “never gives her position away. She is calm, swift, and silent.” These words were often repeated while showing me how to move silently among dead leaves while hunting wild pig.
But this was my first time seeing the Pale People. A people I had, until now, thought were make-believe. A people my parents made up to scare me into going to bed on time when I was little.
But there they are…with turtle shells on their heads.
Their faces are indeed pale, as are their hands. But they cover the rest of their bodies with too much clothing. The same green clothes Mommy and Daddy described. Their faces are not only pale, but ugly and strange. Too smooth for a person. They are smooth like the rocks you find at the bottom of the creek.
They have all manner of belts and straps and stuff jangling on their bodies as they noisily tromp through the jungle. Even their feet are completely covered. Why wear so much stuff? Why wear anything in this heat? The very sight of them makes me uncomfortable. I get hot and sweaty just watching them an arms length away in my hiding place. And most strange of all, they carry a combination of metal and wood walking sticks in their hands. They look very heavy and uncomfortable to carry, and they aren’t even using them to help them walk.
Mommy and Daddy were right: The Pale People from the Outside World are very strange indeed…and they have no children with them.
The last of them pass by and continue on their noisy way deeper into the jungle. Towards home. Judging by the speed they are traveling, it will be easy to sneak around them and get home first to warn Mommy and Daddy so we can hide.
I step out onto the path and watch the last one disappear into the darkness of the jungle. I turn to leave by another way, but something on the ground captures my attention. I look and see a strange object. One of the Pale People dropped something.
It’s flat, rectangular, and brown in color with shiny edges on its smaller sides. One side has more shiny material exposed than the other and is crumpled like the metal on the damaged portions of the aero-plane, but in miniature. The brown portion has strange writing on it, no doubt Pale People language.
Heart racing at the idea of touching something real from the Outside World, I reach down and pick it up. Its flatness easily covers my entire palm, but it’s very light even though it’s only as thick as my finger.
I turn it over repeatedly in my hands, curious. Looking closer I see that the brown is more like black, and the surface is glossy. The writing is white, block-shaped letters that make no sense. I draw a breath when I realize it’s actually a form of paper, something like the kind of paper used for photographs. I’d only ever seen a few examples of paper, and this looked closest to that used for photographs. There were a few photographs at home from Mommy and Daddy’s former life…mostly pictures of sunsets and landscapes….and Daddy explained their creation to me once. I understood, but still found it hard to believe that paper could capture images with chemicals. Was this photo paper?
I poke the crumpled metallic looking end, making a crinkling noise. When I pull, it unfolds stiffly and remains in the last position in which I leave it. I frown at this development, biting my lower lip as I concentrate on twisting, bending, and reshaping the silvery fragile stuff, noticing in the process that it has a backside made of white paper. My frown deepens. I know this because I can almost make out my ugly reflection in the shiny side.
Mommy and Daddy should see this, I decide. If only for proof that the Pale People are here. I stand from my crouching position where I was handling it and make one last twist to satisfy my curiosity. When I did so, something crumbled at the center of the object beneath the different papers and fell out, landing at my feet.
I bend over and retrieve it, seeing that it looks like a half dried piece of mud that someone went through much trouble to shape into a perfect tiny square. Well, it would have been if one side of it didn’t have a jagged edge where it broke off from a bigger piece.
Curious again, I peel back the paper further and see that it’s merely a cover for more of the half dried mud. There was the jagged edge where the portion in my other hand had come from…and teeth marks?
I look at the small portion suspiciously. I sniff it and am surprised when I smell a pleasing, yet unfamiliar smell. It makes my mouth water.
Food? Wrapped in photo paper?
I put it in my mouth and chew. Right away the taste hits my tongue like sweet mud sending bolts of pleasure to the center of my brain. I’m shocked, but in a good way, eyes widening. Then I close my eyes, momentarily under its influence.
When I open them again, my heart stops with an icy blade through it.
I haven’t been a very alert warrior like Daddy has taught, because on the path in front of me is one of the invaders, a shocked look on his pale face staring at me from underneath his turtle shell.
My stopped heart suddenly does the opposite and jolts into flutters as I break through the jungle, leaves and branches whipping my face. Daddy would be angry at me for letting myself fall into such a panic so quickly. He would expect more from his “Little Jungle Warrior.” With this shameful thought, I calm myself and choose my steps more carefully, ducking under the undergrowth. I go into pig-chasing mode. And not a minute too soon because I can hear the man on the path crying out to his companions. I don’t understand the strange words, but it can’t be good.
I slip silently towards home, but stop suddenly in my tracks. A different Pale Stranger appears in front of me, but his back is to me as he scans the jungle, no doubt looking for me. He’s holding that strange wood and metal stick in a funny manner as if it would help find me.
I duck in another direction and sprint a little further, but stop again. More Pale People circling in. They’re not as dumb as they look. I jump under a bush and before I curl up into a tight ball, I throw a rock a ways behind me, making sure it makes a lot of noise in the jungle.
The Pale People grunt and shout as they chase after the noise. I watch them stumble by, almost stepping on me as they search the foliage with their sticks.
When they’ve passed by enough, I first crawl away a bit, then stand and sprint. I almost make it to the clearing with the aero-plane when one of them notices and sounds the alarm.
I double my speed, hurdling over the stone piles. I say an apology, a prayer really, to Mommy and Daddy’s friends who are buried beneath them. It can’t be very respectful to be jumping all over them like this, but I am in a hurry.
I make the far side of the clearing, near the aero-plane’s broke-off tail section. I can hear the Pale People are not far behind me. Despite all the stuff with which they weigh themselves down and their stifling clothing, they are actually kind of fast. Maybe Mommy and Daddy were right; maybe they’re dangerous.
At the tail section I decide to do something different. Next to the aero-plane there is a bow-shaped coconut tree. I pass it all the time and have even climbed it before, which is exactly what I have in mind when I don’t even slow down to run up the inward curving trunk.
Just as my momentum slows down and my bare feet start to slip I hug the trunk and scurry the rest of the distance monkey-like to the top of the aero-plane, scaring off some real monkeys in the process. They aren’t very happy at the intrusion and noisily let me know, which draws the attention of the Pale People who start to gather around the coconut tree.
More of the Pale People are entering the clearing with the aero-plane. One in particular captures my attention. This stranger is different. He doesn’t have a turtle shell on his head. Instead he has thick black hair. He is shorter and not quite as pale, though just as ugly. He doesn’t even wear the same clothes. His are brown, but just as all-covering with the trade mark Outside Worlder’s sweat stains at the neck and arm pits. He pauses at the site of the aero-plane and then the many piles of stones. Even from this distance I can see his face. The strange smoothness oddly makes it easier to read his emotions and I can clearly see in his brown eyes that he is very sad at the sight of the stones. The noise the Pale People are making around my coconut tree, however, distracts him and he runs over.
The Pale Men point and yell at me, kind of like the monkeys. One throws his stick over his shoulder by its strap and starts to climb the tree after me. I should run and climb the cliff next to which the tail section rests and finish the short cut to home so I can warn Mommy and Daddy. But I decide to pluck a coconut from the tree and bounce it off the turtle shell of the stranger who has the nerve to follow me. Oddly, the turtle shell makes a metallic “bong!” sound just before the stranger’s eyes roll back into his head and he falls from the tree like a stunned monkey. He falls to the ground with a loud thud, and one of his friends steps up and for some reason points his stick at me with both hands.
Almost as soon as he does, the short man with the sad face jumps forward. He knocks the other’s stick aside just as it makes the loudest noise I’ve ever heard in my life. Fire and smoke shoot about a foot out of the end that had been pointing at me less than a heartbeat before. A coconut near me disappears in an explosion, showering me with milk.
As I stare in shock at where the coconut had been, realizing that could have been my head, the short stranger yells angrily at the fire-stick wielding stranger.
I waste no more time and climb the cliff and run home.
It’s not a long journey to home: our little village of huts made from bamboo, palm leaves, and sheets of aero-plane.
I run up to Daddy and frantically try to explain that the Pale People are here. I’m talking too fast and Daddy tells me to slow down. Mommy comes over, concern in her beautiful face. I take a deep breath and tell them of the invaders, how they’ve already seen me and are right behind me.
There is only the briefest of pauses that shows a hint of disbelief…not at my truthfulness, but the fact that this day should come at all…and wise Daddy hurriedly shepherds us into the food cave. It’s not really a cave, but a hollow in the cliff against which home is built. With the tightly woven bamboo door that covers it, food tends to stay cooler and lasts longer. The door is also over grown with vines and other plants over the years, making good camouflage. I’m certain if there were time, Daddy would have taken us into the jungle and to higher ground. But there isn’t.
No sooner than we’d shut the door than the strangers come into our area of residence. Our home. We can see them through the cracks of the bamboo and vines, but surely they can’t see us.
They’re led by a Pale Person who is even taller than the others. He is barking orders in their annoying language, pointing here and there. Mother gasps, but quickly puts one hand to her mouth and puts her other arm around me protectively.
More Pale People filter in, the sunlight glinting off of their turtle shells. They start poking around our camp with their fire-sticks. Seeing the weapons again, I wish I had had time to tell Daddy about the destructive nature of the sticks. Daddy probably already knows. He knew about them wearing turtle shells for hats, didn’t he? He is watching them intently through the door now. He is holding his breath, squeezing my hand hard.
There is a ruckus among the strangers. The short stranger comes along and is having strong words with the tall Pale Person, pointing to the other green-wearing Pale People who are tearing our home apart. Chief Turtle Head shrugs and puts his hands on his hips.
As the exchange continues, Daddy gasps and mumbles something as he looks at the short stranger. I can’t hear what he says, but his voice rises as if he were asking himself a question. He moves his head closer and squints to see better through the door.
The heated exchange between the tall and short strangers is over and the short stranger steps away. It is his turn to put his hands on his hips. He looks around. He is still angry, or sad, or both. He shakes his head.
Daddy jumps back and grabs his heart.
“Hiro?” he says, tears filling his eyes.
Daddy turns to Mommy who is looking at him curiously just as I am. He says something so fast we don’t understand him, and to our shock he swings open the door and staggers towards the short stranger.
Every thing happens so fast. The Pale People react strongly. They point their weapons at Daddy and move forward. Mommy and I scream in horror. Daddy falls to his knees not far from the short man, talking quickly. The short man is shocked, but throws up his arms and stands between Daddy and the weapons, shouting over his shoulder. Chief Turtle Head shouts even louder and the Pale People lower their sticks as fast as they can. They shuffle away from the tall man, afraid.
Daddy is babbling. The short stranger cautiously approaches, disbelief in his eyes.
“Yoshi?” the short man addresses Daddy by his name.
Mommy and I gasp.
Daddy and the short man run into each other’s arms and start crying. The short man eventually pulls back and runs his hands over Daddy’s face, much as I like to do, but there is sadness and concern in his eyes. Daddy gently pulls his hands down and I catch bits and pieces of their conversation. I hear, “shot down…crash…fire…no medical treatment…both of us.”
It’s then I realize that the short man is no longer speaking the language of the Pale People, but the language of Mommy and Daddy…our language.
“Both of you?” the short man asks.
Daddy bobs his head and turns to me and Mommy cowering in the cave and waves us to come out. He tells us that it is ok. Mommy takes me by the hand and we cautiously join Daddy.
The short man looks upon us with wonder, and he has that same sadness in his eyes when he looks at Mommy’s face. It makes Mommy touch her face and look away.
The Pale People in green start to gather around, making me nervous. Chief Turtle Head is standing near, but just watches curiously with his thumbs hooked into his belt that has so much stuff hanging on it. Mommy and Daddy were right: the Outside Worlders are fond of their stuff.
“This is Hiro,” Daddy says, addressing the short man. “He is my brother. He has been searching for us for a long time.”
Mommy looks up and makes a noise of surprise, then does something I’ve only heard her explain people do in the Outside World: she bows gently at the waist. Hiro returns the gesture.
Daddy introduces Mommy and me.
Hiro’s eyes get big and he smiles. He bows again, to both of us this time.
“The Ambassador’s daughter?” Hiro asks, looking at Mommy.
Mommy says yes.
Hiro smiles big again, makes funny noises and elbows Daddy in the ribs. Daddy suddenly looks shy, as does Mommy who daintily puts her hands to her mouth and giggles a little.
I’m confused at this exchange, but Mommy just puts her arm around me.
Chief Turtle Head discreetly clears his throat and mildly says something to Hiro, who acknowledges by nodding. He first looks at Mommy and Daddy and then at me.
“My niece is very beautiful,” he says almost apologetically, “but perhaps it would be wise if she were to put some clothes on.”
It’s then that I notice that the Pale Men in green have been staring almost entirely at me this whole time. Now that I have time to really pay attention, I can see that they are really just boys not much older than me. Chief Turtle Head is older and is glaring at them like an angry father.
Mother gasps and rushes me to the nearest hut and makes me put on a dress I only rarely wear. I ask why, but she only says she will explain later.
When we return, Daddy and uncle Hiro are deep in conversation.
“…war is long over. They are our allies now. Cap-tan Ander-Sen here has been assigned to search these islands for MIA. I am his UN appointed liaison. I volunteered because I knew this is the area in which your plane went missing.”
“UN?” Daddy asks.
“Long story, but there will be time for that…”
And the conversation went on for a long time.
Eventually Mommy and Daddy pull me aside.
They tell me things are going to change. That we all have to leave the island now.
I say I don’t understand. I remind them they’ve always told me that this was home, that it was better here, that the Outside World was dangerous.
They nod and agree, but tell me there isn’t much they can do because the Outside World knows where to find them now and will never leave them alone. They have family who miss them. Their friends buried beneath the piles of stones at the aero-plane have families who deserve to know what happened to them. And they need medical attention.
I say I don’t understand.
They point to their faces and the scars on their bodies. They say these, and other injuries that I can’t see happened to them when they fell from the sky. They could die someday soon because of them, leaving me all alone on the island.
I shake my head in disbelief and start to cry. They are beautiful. I love their faces. How could there be anything wrong with them?
Mommy hugs me and rocks me back and forth.
“You deserve a normal life, a proper education,” Daddy says.
Uncle Hiro and the Pale People approach. They are already gathering our belongings, now gently under the stern watchfulness of Cap-Tan Ander-Sen.
I look up at Mommy and Daddy through tear filled eyes and ask, “Will there at least be children to play with?”
Adam Copeland is a native of the Pacific Northwest and the author of the “Tales of Avalon” series. He is a co-founder and past president of Northwest Independent Writers Association (NIWA). His world travels and life experience have played the muse in creating colorful stories of wonder, adventure, and spirituality with a touch of romance, all while pulling on the occasional heart string.
Get ‘Echoes of Avalon’ here!
Should I Write Under a Pen Name?
By James Eickholt
How do I know if I should write under a pen name? This is a question no one can answer but the authors themselves. Almost everyone who writes knows that Ann Landers is a pen name, but what isn’t so commonly known is that two women wrote behind the name of Ann Landers. Did Eric Blair and Samuel Clemens write stories so dangerously radical they needed the protection of pen names? Would Joanne Rowling’s stories have been critically impeded if she hadn’t published under an abbreviated name? Is it unscrupulous for political activists like William Penn to hide behind the fake identity of a pen name?
Although my name is James, I’ve written several short stories and a few novels under the pen name Jake Elliot. That is like Elliott, but with only one ‘t’. I mention this because most people automatically add the extra ‘t’, and then they find some other person in their Google searches. I’m just not popular enough (yet) to have Google automatically redirect lost souls to my ethereal existence on the inter-web. Eventually, I’ll discuss my reasoning for taking a pen name but first, I’ll open this discussion reflecting on popular authors who’ve written under pseudonyms.
Johnathan Swift, although this truly is his birth name, originally released Gulliver’s Travels under the name Lemuel Gulliver, and his essay A Modest Proposal was also released under a pseudonym. In fact, most of his writings were penned under a pseudonym, and by their scathing anti-British intensities, he earned his recognition as an Irish patriot. Johnathan Swift’s writings against English hegemony drew sharp attention from the mock-Irish judiciary, who in turn attempted to silence Swift by accusing him and his printer of seditious libel for one particular work, the Drapier’s Letters. These weak charges were intended more as a point of intimidation and did not stick, only instigating more feverously outspoken attacks against British rule over Ireland. However, despite the many pen names Johnathan Swift used, everyone seemed to know the real author’s name.
Which brings me to both Samuel Clemens and Eric Blair—far more successful at being known as their false names, I often wonder if these authors needed to write under pseudonyms. Both England and the United States are societies claiming freedom of speech. Animal Farm is among my favorite books—in my top twenty for sure—and although ripe with political satire, was the story of pigs and sheep overthrowing a farm so eviscerating that Eric Blair needed to write under a pen name? What about 1984? Clearly a work of dystopian fiction, 1984 seemed more an attack against communist Russia and Joseph Stalin than a criticism of England’s governing style, even if the story is set in a reformed London.
Samuel Clemens wrote several scathing stories, oftentimes against the bigotries of the southern United States, and occasionally a good-humored jeer against the arrogant flair of the northern United States. Although The Adventures of Tom Sawyer seemed pretty light in its delivery, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn cut deep against the hypocrisy of free men who kept other men as slaves. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is another humorous story with pointed criticism, but was Clemens’s work so infuriating that he needed to write as Mark Twain? I realize that ‘mark twain’ is a boating reference from the time of paddlewheel riverboats, and Samuel Clemens loved the mighty Mississippi, but did he need to write under a pen name?
E.L. James…okay…I fully understand the need for a pen name, but what about J. K. Rowling? Rowling wasn’t writing bad erotica, but great children’s fiction. And, when Joanne Rowling did write under a pen name, she was relentlessly attacked by public opinion for her efforts. Personally, I say good for her. She proved to the world that not only could she write stories for adults equally as well as she did for children, but she could be successful doing so. However, I speculate (and there is no proof to this speculation) that someone who could make more money from Rowling’s name associated with those books leaked the true identity of Robert Galbraith. I could be very wrong in my suspicion, considering there is no privacy within our new world order.
Unlike E.L. James, my first work of fiction was published under my real name. I knew fame and fortune were right around the corner and realized that I needed some sort of cover—a sanctuary to protect me from the soon-to-be mob of clothes-tearing fans. After all, being an author is a lot like being one of the Beatles, or Elvis. But a closer facet of the truth, even more important than escaping the roving gangs of relentless fans and paparazzi if I was to ever become a household name, I first needed a household name.
Verizon knows me as James Eickolp, my driver’s license claims I’m James Eickolt (at least that’s close to the correct spelling), and even the IRS has misspelled my name since I first filed for a tax return in 1988, insisting that my name is actually James Eickart despite what my birth certificate and passport say.
Chuck Palahniuk is one of my favorite Oregon authors, but I still don’t know how to say his name. Even now, I need to go to my bookshelf to make certain I spelled his name correctly (which I didn’t). No one misspells Stephen King or George R. R. Martin. I needed a name like that—powerful, dignified, and easily recognized by the fifth-grade reading level that America boasts. So, Jake Elliot it was. And yet, I have been asked more than once why I write under a pen name. “It isn’t like you’re writing smut,” some have said. Perhaps fooling people into thinking my books are naughty will be my path to fame and glory as an author of fiction, and if so, at least Jake Elliot is an easily remembered name.
James Eickholt is a hybrid author who generally writes dark fiction with mildly sarcastic and ironic edges. Most of his stories are told under the pen name Jake Elliot. With one short film, eight short stories, and three novels to his credit, he considers himself accomplished in a grossly over-saturated market. When not writing twisted little stories, or working for ‘the man,’ James and his wife enjoy going on real life adventures. World travelers, they have visited Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Ireland, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria—all of these experiences stain and bleed into James’s writings—sometimes only as wisps and smudged fingerprints.
Are you contemplating quitting your day job to freelance full time?
On January 1, 2016, my coworkers ordered a giant cheesecake. We celebrated my insanity. I said goodbye and started writing full time.
Two months later, I have some things to report. Don’t worry; I won’t describe my rash.
My biggest challenges were the things I didn’t plan for, things that freelancers sometimes mentioned on blogs, sort of, but I was so zeroed in on replacing my income as soon as possible, I missed the underlying message.
About a week in, I started to get the first symptoms.
In a way I’m lucky that I manifest stress as psychosomatic disease and that I recognized that’s what was going on. But just because I knew I was getting sick from stress, that doesn’t mean that poof, the illness went away. Turning on the light doesn’t make the monster disappear. But maybe if you know how many arms and legs and teeth (and stingers and tentacles) it has, maybe you can do something about it before it sends you to the hospital.
So what stressed me out if it wasn’t mainly financial?
Despite the fact that many freelancers mentioned organization issues in their blogs and articles, it took me the whole first month and the better part of the second to figure out that I needed a larger work area and some grown-up office supplies. Who knew? I had a spiral notebook for notes, daily tasks and to track hours, I had a couple of Excel files to track financials, and I had my giant calendar of awesome on the wall to remind me of upcoming events and projects.
It wasn’t enough. Not even close. My marketing activities increased and became more sophisticated overnight. I generated more complicated task lists, and I didn’t have the experience to prioritize them properly. Steep learning curve, that. Now, my book notes are separated by book, and my to-do list has its own notepad. My income and expenses are logged in separate notebooks and compiled into Excel files once a week. (Ahem. Most weeks.)
I also tried to do too much at once. Suddenly, because I theoretically had more time, I wanted to update my websites, which meant coordinating with my very busy webmaster in Germany. I became more active on Facebook and Pinterest, and I decided to get a smart phone so that I could participate on Instagram. I had a convention to attend mid-February. At the very, very last minute, I managed to get my books in on consignment with an awesome book dealer there. I contacted libraries to see if they’d be willing to carry my books. And of course I wanted to be involved when a local writer had a book release. I want to be supportive and active and out there, not just because I want to sell my books but because I love my community of writers. We share in each others’ successes, and our hearts ache when any one of us is struggling. But that participation level is time consuming and can be emotionally draining.
Now I’m in the middle of a book show. Ouch.
On a good day I can write over ten thousand words. I have yet to have a ten thousand word day since I started writing full time, which is fine. Those big word days wipe me out, and I almost always write half that the following day. Try to tell my stress monster that, though. Because not every day is a ten thousand word day, I must be slacking.
So I overscheduled, under-organized, and expected too much of myself. Taking baby steps and slowly increasing my workload would have been a much better, possibly less itchy idea. But even if you’re more rational and organized than I am, you’re still going to be experiencing a lot of changes at once.
This site has a free Stress Level test. It’s a useful tool that’s been around for a long time. My stress level as of this writing is 227. What’s yours, and what might it be if you decide to write full time?
Sometimes stress causes body changes that will require medical assistance. Here’s a good article that touches on that and gives some fantastic advice on managing mood:
I’m one of the lucky ones. My stress illness took the form of a rash, which is uncomfortable but manageable. It’s a thing, in case you didn’t know:
Here’s what I did:
I committed to going outside every day regardless of weather, even if my husband had already taken care of the livestock. It’s good for me to be an outdoor kitty from a few minutes up to a couple of hours every day. Gardening days are especially great for relieving my stress.
I practiced deep breathing. A lot. Our bodies are affected by our breathing patterns in ways that aren’t completely understood by science, but science has measured many of the effects of breathing on the body. Every time I noticed that my shoulders had bunched up and/or my jaw was clenching or my legs had started to bounce up and down, I stopped what I was doing and focused on my breathing. Give it at least 30 seconds. If you’re unfamiliar with focused breathing, there are lots of schools of thought. It helps that in college I practiced zazen and went to a Zen meditation retreat/clinic. If you don’t have any experience, here’s a good place to start:
I cut way back on anything that had sugar, dextrose, corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners. I also cut back on empty carbs, eating out, and (wah!) alcohol. I allow myself one or two of those things a day, in small portions. Not my favorite restriction, and I have to read labels on all the packaged food I buy, but it helped so much with my rash that I’ll keep on doing this until the rash is 100% gone.
Lastly, I’m getting in the habit of taking on a neglected household chore every couple of days. One day I put all my DVDs away and dusted the DVD racks. Another, I bought a small bookshelf and some office bins, and set up my seldom needed work-related stuff on it. Yet another day I cleaned off my dining table/desk, changed the tablecloth, and put everything back together in a more organized arrangement.
I took a day off. The whole day. I’ll do that again soon.
You get the idea. You know yourself. If stress starts to impact your life, do what helps you to relax, and try out some new strategies if the old ones don’t help. Be conscious of your choices and seek help when you need it. The things that help me might not help you. And don’t be afraid to seek therapy. You’re changing jobs. It’s not going to be easy. Let the love of writing guide you through the rough spots. Keep learning and keep growing, and you’ll get to where you need to be.
EM Prazeman writes secondary world historical fantasy with romantic elements. In other words, you get the beautiful clothes, the intrigues, and deadly duels with wit, rapier and pistol without the baggage that comes with the history of our real world 18th century. She’s a world traveler who prefers direct research like firing a flintlock firearm, paragliding, and sailing on a square-rigged ship, because it’s fun and because her readers deserve the best she can give.
“The world of MASKS is a fantasy world unlike any other I’ve encountered, rich with mystery, intrigue, and danger…. We all have our masks, and MASKS lifts the façades of its characters and its world to expose the ambiguous truths behind them.” – David Levine, Hugo Award Winning Author