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Posts Tagged ‘#SFWApro’

My friend uses the phrase “having a literary life” to mean, as far as I can tell, having a traumatic childhood. You know, the kind that would feature in a literary short story or possibly even form the foundation of a brilliant autobiographical debut novel with a two-word name, like White Rain or Sublime Bodies or Orchids Burning. (Maybe I’ll call mine Broken Magnolias, after the magnolia tree branch in my backyard I accidentally broke when I was six or seven. It would feature a call-back to Duras’s famous Moderato Cantabile, although in my novel the magnolia would symbolize a loss of innocence instead of female sexuality.)

Carolyn See wrote a book for writers called Making a Literary Life. It concerns establishing a regular writing routine (I think this is the first place I read about having a daily word count), becoming okay with submission and rejection, and writing charming notes to writers you admire.

By both of these metrics I have a literary life. But I would like to offer a third metric.

When I think about leading a literary life, I think of the way writing pervades every aspect of my existence. And don’t think I’m exaggerating; it really does.

When something bad happens to me: well, at least this might come in handy for my writing someday.

When looking for a place to live: does this feel like the kind of place I could write? is this part of my story of myself as a writer?

When engaging with the world: I am curious about all the things because you never know when I might need this knowledge or experience for a project.

When being impulsive: It feeds my creative well when I’m leading an exciting, romantic life. Plus this will make a great story later.

When not being impulsive: I need to focus on my work.

When wallowing: Tragedy! I am experiencing tragedy! Now let’s pour this all out into a cool creative project.

When socializing: If I understand people and their behavior and motivations more thoroughly, then think of the interesting characters I can create.

When out and about: People watching. More people watching. More people watching.

When appreciating the small, the mundane, the ordinary: This vividness of experience will translate so much more strongly on the page. Telling details for the win!

When making decisions: I want to lead the kind of life I wouldn’t be bored to write about, and be the kind of character I wouldn’t be bored to read about.

Such is my literary life.

Books books books!

Books books books!

 

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I ran across an excellent article on an economics blog I follow called “Amateurs versus Professionals.” It very much applies to what I’ve observed about writing, and I imagine it holds true for many other pursuits and professions as well. I thought it would be fun to expand on some of the points made. (Yes, this is totally what I do for fun. Welcome to my mind.)

After reading this list, it occurs to me that much of the difference between an amateur and a professional is a state of mind. This means that even during the earliest stages of a career, we can aspire to professionalism. And I believe this state of mind will make it much likely to eventually find success.

Here are some points I find particularly relevant:

Execution: Amateurs don’t see their work through. They don’t finish. They don’t find the time, or they get distracted by other shiny ideas, or they allow themselves to be held back by their own fears. To a professional, execution is paramount: “Sure, they occasionally abandon a project when they see further effort is fruitless, but the mark of a pro is someone who begins and ends.”

Image: Amateurs are concerned with image, whereas professionals are concerned with their work.

It can be fun to be involved in the industry, to network and name drop and know “important” people. And knowing writers definitely livens up my social life. But it doesn’t matter who you know if you’re not doing the work. It doesn’t matter how connected you are if you are not finishing any of your projects. The work trumps everything else. And professionals know this in their bones.

Confidence: This one is interesting, because if there is any profession in which professionals are insecure, it’s writing. But professionals tend to express it differently. They are less likely to express their insecurity publicly on the internet. They are less likely to make extreme self-effacing remarks in public. They are more likely to be matter-of-fact about their insecurities if they happen to come up. And they are more likely to deal with their insecurities with their close friends instead of with whoever happens to be around.

A writer must have the confidence to envision entire new worlds in her mind. Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

A writer must have the confidence to envision entire new worlds in her mind. Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

 

Empathy: Professionals recognize we all have to pay dues, we all have to navigate a series of “breaks,” and we all have our own set of problems.

I wince whenever I hear one writer talk about a professional difficulty, only to have another, usually less experienced writer say, “Oh, I wish I had your problems.” NO. Just NO. First off, problem comparing is not helpful. Second of all, that other writer just passed up a golden learning opportunity. Who knows when this “coveted” problem might be your own? Third, the writer sharing the problem is going to notice the lack of empathy offered and the relationship might be weakened as a result.

Talking/Listening: Amateurs interrupt; professionals listen. Amateurs tend to go on and on with a minimum of prompting. They talk for twenty minutes straight about their current project and then never ask about yours. They inadvertently reveal ignorance because they are so busy filling the space with themselves.

One of my favorite things to do in a professional setting is find someone whose knowledge and opinions I respect and get them talking. And then I sit there asking questions and soaking up everything they say like a super-absorbent sponge. The amount of information I get from doing this is priceless. I already know what I have to say; I want to learn about what other informed people think.

What do you think are important marks of a professional?

 

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I recently read an article by PZ Myers about how silence is political, and it gave me pause. While I do place a lot of importance on having a voice, I am frequently silent. In particular, I often remain silent about the controversy du jour of the science fiction community, of which I am firmly a part.

I remain silent because it is the easy thing to do, and it is my privilege to be able to choose to do so. I remain silent because I want to be liked, and I usually have friends on both sides of the issue. I remain silent because it takes a lot of energy to produce a well-crafted statement of opinion, and sometimes I don’t have that energy to spare.

The choice to remain silent is, however, inherently political. I am choosing not to rock the boat. I am choosing not to expend the energy. I am choosing what is important enough that I’ll brave the inevitable conflict for speaking about it. I don’t know that this is incorrect in that I have finite resources, but it is an act of privilege that I feel I can afford to stay silent, that I even have a choice at all.

Photo Credit: _Zahira_ via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: _Zahira_ via Compfight cc

It is with this in mind that I’m going to talk about my recent decision involving SFWA. For those of you who don’t know, SFWA is the professional organization for science fiction and fantasy writers. My membership came up for renewal last month, and I was quite torn about whether to renew. Much of this, I confess, came down to the mundane fact that I didn’t particularly want to spend the $90 required, but I’ve also been disturbed by the controversies regarding sexism that have been rocking this professional organization for the last year or so. What to do, what to do?

I was speaking about SFWA to a friend of mine who stated he didn’t think he’d join once eligible. He talked about how all the scandal has tarnished SFWA’s reputation and how they don’t behave like a professional organization. He criticized organizational decisions and responses and behavior. He made several valid points.

And to my surprise, I found myself defending SFWA. When an organization is striving to make large and systemic changes, it is bound to be messy and slower than we would wish, I argued. But if I support the intended changes towards more professionalism and less sexism, can I in good conscience abandon the organization before giving them time to correct? The latest revamped Bulletin (the organization’s newsletter) is an excellent example of something deeply positive and helpful coming out of all the controversy of the last year.

Ultimately I feel that my decision as to whether to remain a SFWA member is also political. And this year, I chose to pay my dues and stay a part of the organization.

I believe that communities cannot change without experiencing growing pains. And a lot of the controversy of the last year and a half is happening because people are no longer staying silent. Having people speak up about difficult issues almost always causes a push-back. Just as some people in my life were unhappy with my decision to leave my people-pleasing days behind me, so some people in SFWA have been unhappy with those members who have chosen to speak out against the sexism of the Bulletin, among other issues. Change is hard and painfully slow. But the only way the change will stick is if the people invested in the change hold the course.

So yes, sometimes SFWA does not act like the professional organization it is striving to become. Sometimes its officers make errors of judgment. Sometimes it seems like its responses are ridiculously slow. But I believe it is on the course to becoming more professional. And I’m willing to give it some more time to see if it’s able to continue to transform itself into an organization of which I am proud to be a member.

Next year I’ll probably go through the same mental gymnastics in order to decide whether to renew. But for now, I’ve put my money where my mouth is, and I’m speaking up about my decision.

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