Gatekeepers

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The other day, a friend was critical of the arts granting process, objecting to the fact that writers had to have had 2 or more ‘professional’ publications to qualify for a grant, effectively excluding self-published writers no matter how successful they had been at selling their work. He went on to suggest that similar restrictions were not placed on musicians or dancers or painters.

The latter statement is simply not true. Except for occasional special programs to encourage new artists, (Canada Council used to have a category called Explorations grants – I applied unsuccessfully several times when I was starting out), all grants require that artists demonstrate they are professionals or on their way to becoming one. The wording differs but essentially it says you must be making an effort to make art a significant part of your work and livelihood. One of the ways you have historically done that is through professional publications (or performances in a professional venue or showings in a professional gallery).

But, of course, the world is changing. More and more people are self-publishing or, if you prefer, indie publishing. Some of them are quite good. And granting agencies and professional organizations are responding. For example SFWA – the organization representing professional science fiction and fantasy writers – recently changed their membership requirements to include indie publishers, provided they had made an income from their writing equivalent to the minimum advance required for traditional published writers (roughly $3000USD in a single year). In this case they are using the marketplace to establish your professional standards. Given how few indie authors make that, it still represents a significant barrier and keeps the organization ‘professional’ in its mandate.

The Canada Council of the Arts studied ways that it can be more relevant and helpful in the digital age. It is doubtful they will base their qualifications on income but nonetheless they are looking for ways to include professional artists who have been previously excluded. I strongly suggest those interested to provide input in the still on-going consultation process.

But why have qualifications at all? Why not let anyone who claims to be an artist apply and let the chips and grant dollars fall where they may?

Two reasons come to mind. First most professional artists served an apprenticeship, years or sometimes even decades working on their craft – getting rejected and then accepted, taking courses and workshops and finally winning acceptance from the larger community. A lot of them – myself included – resent the fact that all that might have been pointless. We could have just slapped together a document on our first try and then with the click of mouse published it on Amazon. We take some comfort that most of those books don’t get read but take even more in the idea that they aren’t viewed as professional.

For grant agencies there are practical concerns. They already can’t fund all the proposals that do get through the qualification process. Dropping those requirements would lead to flood of applications – almost all of which wouldn’t and, in fact, shouldn’t be funded. The purpose of government grants is to fund people to become self-supporting artists not to support their hobbies or whims. Sorry. And, on top of that, the only way they could judge the quality of someone’s work – without the screening of professional gatekeepers – would be to actually read the self-published books themselves.

Not only would the workload overwhelm the lightly-paid juries, it would probably burn the eyes out of their heads. Because while some self-published work is very good, the vast majority is unreadable drek. Trust me – having read some of the things at the bottom of my own slush pile, I know. Oh, god, how I know.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

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Write Drunk

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The best advice I ever got as a writer was an off-hand comment Hemingway once made: Write drunk, edit sober. I often use that quote in workshops and on writing panels at conventions.

Of course, like all things in literature, it shouldn’t be taken literally. It is a metaphor for writing without inhibition, with passion and emotion. Hemingway also claimed that writing was easy; just sit at a typewriter and bleed.

I’ve read a lot of well-crafted fiction and I can always tell when the writer hasn’t bled in the process of making it. Restraint in the creative process always carries with it the faint stench of cowardice. As a writer or any other type of artist, you need to take risks – put things out there without censoring your thoughts, words or emotions. Say anything, feel everything – at least in your first draft.

Of course, throwing everything on the page doesn’t mean it has to stay there. Editing sober is as important as writing drunk. Then you have to exercise your craft, your understanding of what belongs and what is excess. Not everything we write when we write a story needs to be in that particular tale. It may not belong anywhere in your published work. But if you don’t tell your secrets even to your first draft, your work will always have the feeling of contrivance rather than creation. Well-crafted sentences are good – unless they are boring.

Frankly, creation is a messy business.

But how do you do it? How do you turn off the inner editor and let it all hang out? Practice is the best answer I can give you. Keep trying to write as if no one is reading and after a while you may get the hang of it. Write fast is another solution. Thomas Wolfe was known to write 10,000 words a day on occasion. By hand. No wonder he died young.

Hemingway himself was more restrained. According to his own records, he ranged from 500 to 2000 words a day – also mostly by hand when he was doing first drafts – at least on the days he was writing at all. He went for weeks or even months at a time without putting pen to paper, sometimes arguing that he had to let things ferment until the writing demanded to be done. But even when he was writing, he was only going at it for a couple of hours each day – always stopping when it was going well and he knew what was coming next.

Scott Fitzgerald took another tack. He suffered. He struggled. And when he put it down on paper, it was all filtered through that pain. Sylvia Plath was said to have taken the same approach.

Of course, it might not wise to follow the advice of these writers too closely. They all died young – Hemingway was about my age when he ended it all. The rest didn’t even come close.

Still, no guts no glory. If you are not willing to suffer for your work, you can hardly expect readers to respond with anything more than superficial emotion.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go check on my supply of bourbon.

And, that’s ten minutes.

The End

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This is the end. A little over 20 months ago I began this 10 Minutes of Words blog. Since then and counting today, I’ve written 591 of them – totaling more than 300,000 words. If I had written that many words of fiction, I’d have more than three novels. Which I guess is a lesson for those who say they can’t find time to write.

Of course, I wouldn’t have written 3 novels (fiction is such a different process) – but I might have written one. Or a bunch of short stories.

To be fair, during the first few months, writing every morning for ten minutes or so (I occasionally went longer) was a great way to start my day and get my brain up and running. For someone who can’t even imagine being a morning person that wasn’t a bad thing. But eventually, I found I dreaded it. I’d sit and stare at the screen for five minutes or more before I even had an idea what to write. Sometimes I’d have to start over when my thoughts refused to follow a logical path. More than a few times I erased an entire blog and started again with a different topic.

In short, this ten minutes began to stretch out to 30 on some days. It was no longer an exercise in thinking and writing – it became a central focus of my day. Some nights, I’d even lie awake in bed trying to work out a particularly complex argument. Ten Minutes began to occupy an inordinate amount of space in my head.

I tried various strategies – writing out lists of possible topics, writing a series of related blogs and so on. Often I’d look at the list and wonder what I had had in mind. The series almost always seemed forced. I eventually decided that winging it with a blank slate at least had the advantage of being spontaneous. Sometimes, they were the funniest blogs I wrote if not the most profound.

Still, I think I did hit profound on occasion – at least based on the responses I got from my readers. Eventually I may go back and see if I can mine these nuggets to see if there is enough gold to make a short e-book worthwhile. Or not.

For those who have been regular readers – all 40 or so of you – I appreciate your loyalty and support. On occasion it has seemed pretty lonely in here. Other times I’d hit a resonant note and several hundred people would drop in and see what I had to say. My record was the piece I wrote about the shooting at the Ottawa War Memorial which garnered over 700 views since it was published. Not exactly best selling territory. The least read entry was one about Gardens which attracted only 8 readers.

In any case, it wasn’t all about numbers – though obviously if I had 10,000 readers I’d probably still be doing it or actively looking for a book deal somewhere. I’ve enjoyed the process and the contacts I’ve made.

But this is it. I may be back from time to time as the mood strikes me but it won’t be a regular, or even frequent, thing. I’ve got other stories to tell in other venues. If you look for me – you will find me.

And that, at last, is ten minutes.

Focus

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The ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all others is a great skill. It is far superior to multi-tasking, which gets all the good press. But, really, multi-tasking is simply shifting your focus rapidly from one thing to another. Or it’s a sign you are easily distracted.

But focus is not something that can be achieved in a moment. Deep focus takes effort. You have to learn to push aside all other thoughts, all emotions, even all sensations. Focus is what lets athletes play through pain; it is what allows scientists to concentrate on a single variable at a time as they work to a solution. Focus is the only thing that will allow you to complete a significant work of art.

I’ve always been good at focusing on things – at least for a time. I can immerse myself in a complex effort, like doing the year-end books or writing a short story and lose all track of time. Later, when my back is throbbing or my eyes are itchy and irritated, I sometimes wish I couldn’t.

Focusing on tasks is one thing; focusing on a career is quite another. That is a skill I’ve struggled with. It’s not so much that I am easily distracted but that I am easily bored. I do something for a while but then it ceases to be challenging; it ceases to hold my attention.

For a while now, I’ve been multi-tasking my life. I have a job – one I’ve been doing for fifteen years. Trust me, there isn’t an issue I haven’t seen before. I’ve acquired expertise in a variety of topics only to forget it all when the job required a different emphasis. Well, it’s not really forgotten – just put aside until I need it again. I seldom find myself having to do anything original these days.

Publishing is a complex process, especially when you are pretty much managing or doing all aspects of the job from reading slush to marketing books to doing the books. Still, it has its rhythms, its repetitive tasks and while each book is unique, the work required to get it on bookshelves is not.

I’ve also been writing for years and, again, while each story I tell is different, there is a familiarity to the task of plotting and crafting and writing that makes it all the same. I wrote most of a short story this weekend and, at a certain point – about ¾ of the way through, I thought: I know how this all works out. And only an effort of will, an application of focus, actually made me write down the words necessary to get to the end. It was satisfying but…

Another thing I’ve been doing is experimenting with being a ‘public intellectual.’ It started as an off-hand remark to friends but I got such positive affirmation, I experimented with it, in part right here. Robert J. Sawyer thought enough of the concept that he made me a political pundit in his latest novel, Quantum Night. At the very least, I’ll be able to say: I’m not a public intellectual but I played one in a book.

So now, it has come time to choose: what will I focus on for the next 10 years, perhaps the last decade of my active engagement with the world? That’s an answer I’ll have to focus on before I can tell you. Or myself.

And that’s ten minutes.

Write Off (and On)

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I’ve been writing since I was about 15. Not every day of course, not even every year. Still, it is the one artistic thing I’ve ever been good at. I actually failed art in school. Can you imagine that? Who fails art? Me. I was a little better with music but only because musical notation is a lot like math. I can read music; I just can’t play it.

I tried. Saxophone of all things, because it would be foolish to take up an instrument where it was easy to fail. No one blames you when you fail to master the saxophone. Though it’s not like the bagpipes where they actually thank you when you give them up. A few years ago I bought another saxophone thinking I might do better at 50 than I did at fifteen. Not so much – but it is nice to look at.

Sax

On tour with Silver Donald Cameron

But writing was something I could do – well, not really well for the first fifteen years I was doing it. I’m not big on keeping memorabilia but I do happen to have a play I wrote when I was in Grade 11. To call it crap is an insult to sewage. I also have a notebook with my first short story and pages of really bad poetry. Of the three forms – poetry, play and short story – the prose was the best. Not good mind you but better than the other two.

Yet, strangely it was the theatre that got me writing in a serious way back in the late 80s. I wrote a number of plays – about 20 – and some of them even got professionally produced. I would have liked to be a successful playwright – theatre parties are such fun – but I suspect that my motivation was focused on the wrong things.

Instead, for better or worse, I settled on prose fiction and most notably on science fiction. I have written some fantasy, a mystery or two and even some literary fiction – and published some of what I wrote – but if I’ve learned anything about writing over the years, it is that it is better – for me, at least – to pick one thing and try to do it well.

You might think by now I would have developed my work habits to the point where writing was something I did every day or at least every week. Not so. I have over the last thirty years or so gone long stretches where I didn’t write at all. I think my biggest gap was when I first moved to Ottawa in 2002; I didn’t write a word of fiction for over 18 months.

In recent years, I’ve spent so much time editing and publishing other people’s work that I barely have time to write at all. Saturday was an exception. I invited my writing group over to have a day-long write-off. We all get together and write (and chat and snack). It can be productive but for me, not always. The last few, I snuck off and did some publishing work instead.

Fortunately I had brainstormed a story a couple of weeks ago – come up with most of it in 20 minutes in a coffee shop while waiting for a meeting. Brainstorming is a technique I teach but have failed to use myself recently. Duh. So I actually wrote – over 2000 words. It felt pretty good. Think I’ll do it again over Easter. Because I can.

And that’s ten minutes.

Erin Go Bragh

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

I’ve had a long, if somewhat oblique, relationship with Ireland. My English grandfather was stationed in Ireland during the 1920s. He was regular army – not the much hated Black and Tan who came later – and always expressed sorrow over the difficult lives experienced by so many of the Irish, both Catholic and Protestant.

As a teenager interested in fantasy, I was drawn to Celtic mythology much of it based in the legends of Ireland. I still have a copy of Nora Chadwick’s ‘The Celts’ on my bookshelves. Given how often I’ve moved and how many books I’ve given up, that’s an indication of how important it was to me. On the fantasy side, Lord Dunsany, an Anglo-Irish writer, was a favorite.

the celts

Over the years, I read many Irish writers. Some like Yeats and Joyce were readily identifiable as such; others, like Beckett, less so.

In my mind, Ireland was a green land, filled with mist and bog and surrounded by a tumultuous ocean. It was a land of faerie and myth. It was much more than that, of course. Though the common image of the Irish church is one of oppression and backwardness, this was a modern development. Irish monks had been essential to the preservation of much of the legacy of ancient times. While libraries were being burned across Europe, they preserved and protected books and eventually returned them to the mainland. The Irish may well have saved western civilization. Irish theologians were also the strongest defenders of the idea that women had souls – a matter of some dispute in the 9th century.

In the 1990s, I wound up becoming the Artistic Director of the Liffey Players in Calgary and was introduced to the majesty of Irish theatre. I directed half a dozen plays by Friel and Heaney and Keane. I even had a chance to chat briefly with Seamus Heaney – the year before he won the Nobel prize. I wrote a play of my own – thankfully lost now – loosely based on the poetry of W. B. Yeats. The highlight of my time with the company was directing Bold Girls by Rona Munro.

The Cure at Troy

The cast of The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney

A couple of years ago I finally visited Ireland itself – or at least Dublin – where I walked the banks of the Liffey and cruised the many museums and parks that fill the city centre. Dublin was a little down at the heels – Ireland was swept up in the banking madness of the early 21st Century and is still suffering the consequences. But it was still a pleasure to see.

We visited numerous pubs where we heard too many versions of ‘Whiskey in the Jar” but also some great traditional music. Liz and I spent a fun evening dancing to live music in what passed for a pick-up bar in Dublin. We even tried to get the locals up on the floor. The lasses were willing but the lads went so far as to fake injury to avoid participating. At the end of the night, one of the women took Liz’s hands in hers and told her in a beautiful Irish lilt: You’re lovely.

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The River Liffey

Which is pretty much how I felt about Dublin. I look forward to returning to it and the surrounding countryside someday.

And that’s ten minutes.

Making Stories

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A couple of months ago I was asked to submit a story to an anthology. The theme was interesting but nothing I’d ever really thought about. To be frank I didn’t have a clue where to start. Besides, I thought, I’m too busy to write a short story – I’ve got slush to read, novels to edit, an anthology to put together, not to mention year-end books to do, a web-site to build and marketing that won’t do itself. And that doesn’t even take into account my day job. Or the people I mentor or the workshops and contest judging I’ve promised to do.

But then my wife suggested I was working too hard and that was why I was tired all the time. I liked her diagnosis better than my doctor (he thinks all my troubles are caused by wine). We agreed that we would take the 4-day Easter weekend off and just have fun.

Great! Now I can spend four days not working. I can write a short story instead!

Now, the only problem was: what to write? I still didn’t have a clue and the deadline for the anthology is looming. I suppose I could write something else – but the anthology pays so well and I already have an in with the editors. No guarantees, of course, but better than a blind submission.

On Thursday, I was finished my lunch and had twenty minutes to wait until my next meeting began – which was being held in the same Yellowknife coffee shop where I had just eaten. I took out my note book and a pen and wrote down the theme of the anthology (as best as I could remember it). I stared at it for five minutes. I scribbled down a random disconnected thought. A minute later I wrote down a possible name for the protagonist. Then a few of the character’s basic features.

Then I thought about what they might want (notice I haven’t decided on gender yet) and then what might be standing in their way. Things were starting to happen but I only had ten minutes left.

Where does the story take place and what does it look like? What colours predominate this world, what smells, what textures? What does all that have to do with the story and the character? Well, maybe this person has been shaped by their environment. But that takes time – so now I had a sense of how old the person was.

So I knew what was standing in the way of the character’s goals but since it was largely an internal conflict – regarding duty and values – how might that be manifested? Could there be a physical representation of the conflict. Yes, I thought, the environment itself might be a character and since this is science fiction – that means the spaceship they (now there is a bunch of people – sort of) are riding in or rather the artificial intelligence that runs it.

All that was left was to discover the theme of the story – which needed to be a reflection of the anthology’s theme. I wrote down a sentence that encapsulated the conflict and what it meant to the character and the larger world.

My appointment arrived – but I had a story in two pages of notes, words, arrows, shapes and connections. Because that is where stories come from.

And this is ten minutes.