March 10

Lost in the Shuffle

I’ve been writing long enough to remember how it was when I had to write a cover letter, print up a copy of my manuscript, stuff it all in an envelope, then apply postage, mail, and wait. And wait. And wait to hear back from a magazine or publisher. I’ve also worked on the other side of that coin. I was the poetry editor for a literary magazine, an assistant editor for a news and entertainment magazine, and a production assistant for a newspaper.

This means I’m familiar with the fabled “slush pile”. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it refers to the pile of unread manuscripts that would cover a portion of every desk in the production office. More often than not, these piles would grow dangerously tall, threatening both life and limb if they were to topple over. For the staff they were the mountains we could never conquer. For writers, they were the black holes that swallowed our hard work and dreams.

Nowadays, I think the traditional slush pile has faded into obscurity, replaced by folders on our computer desktops or on one of our various drives. While less dangerous than their predecessors, they still have the ability to overwhelm magazine and publishing house staff. They also still swallow the hopes and dreams of aspiring writers. The more things change the more they stay the same, right?

Over my careers I’ve probably spent more time preparing, submitting, and waiting for a response to my short stories than I spent actually writing them. It’s a frustrating process and I can sympathize with parties on both sides, but as a writer I know how terribly annoying it is to send a story out for consideration with the understanding that someone will get back to you in a few months, only to have the deadline pass. I know I’ve sent many a polite inquiry, only to continue being ignored by the staff. What makes it even worse is when magazines or publishers say “no simultaneous submissions”…so I can’t even send my story to another place because I haven’t heard back from the first one. Argh!

I went back recently and reviewed a spreadsheet I used for tracking story submissions. It was interesting to see that, for example, out of thirty stories I submitted over a five year period I had five acceptances, ten rejections, and the rest disappeared into the ether. I liken these lost submissions to those socks that go missing when you’re doing laundry. I just hope they’re in a happy place frolicking among their own kind.

So at what point do I marked the submission as a lost cause and move on? What if I submit a story to a second publisher, but then the first one gets back to me (even though it’s three years later)? These were things I worried about because what’s the point of being a writer if you aren’t anxious and indecisive?

About two years ago I decided, no more! I’m no longer going to submit my work to other entities. I’m done with the process, with the waiting, with the lack of responses. I’m going to self-publish from now on. No more being lost in the shuffle. I feel that my stories deserve better. They should have the chance to see the light of day, for someone to read them. I know, I know, magazines and publishing houses can reach a broader audience, can market my work, and I can make more money. But that’s not why I do this.

To me, it’s more important to simply put my stories out there and let people find them. I don’t want to waste my time managing a spreadsheet and waiting for responses that may never come. My stories deserve better, and so do I.

RB

March 9

Competition and Rivalry

Why do so many artists feel like art is a competition? They dismiss the work of other artists, some even going so far as to sabotage or undermine them.

I don’t get this mentality. What’s the point? Do they lift themselves up by putting others down? It’s not like it’s going to make their own work any better or popular. In fact, in my opinion it makes them less interesting to me.

I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t experienced artistic bullying, but I have seen it happen to other artists. And it’s not a new phenomena. There are all sorts of examples of artists who have tried to – or succeeded – in undermining the work of others. One famous example is Mozart and Salieri. There’s also Picasso and Matisse, Hemingway and Faulkner, Wolfe and Updike. The list goes on. Some artists seem to love to insult the work of their peers.

In a way, I think that a friendly rivalry can be healthy. A perfect example of this is the rivalry between The Beach Boys and The Beatles back in the 1960s. The story, as I know it, is that Brian Wilson (songwriter for the BBs) heard Rubber Soul and was blown away by it. It inspired him to write Pet Sounds. When Paul McCartney heard Pet Sounds, he responded with Sgt. Pepper’s. It was a rivalry between two of the biggest bands at the time, but it never turned nasty. In fact, we ended up with a couple of amazing albums because of it.

Going back to the competition theme, I can’t help but believe the reason why some artists do turn against their peers is because they feel they have to compete for an audience. They must think that there’s a limited number of readers or aficionados in the world and they have to do whatever it takes to get their attention and keep it. Or maybe they think that stirring up controversy will bring them publicity. As the saying goes, bad publicity is better than no publicity.

Maybe I’m naive. I’ve always tried to encourage other artists, provide support and constructive feedback. Supporting other artists might inspire them to do the same, and in the end we all benefit from it. Sort of like paying it forward. Besides, supporting other artists is also supporting the art itself. If you think about it, it makes sense. A positive writing community will attract readers because people are drawn to that kind of energy. We all feed off it.

Don’t misunderstand this, though. I’m not saying that we need to all write positive, life affirming stories. Write what interests you, regardless of whether it’s horror, science fiction, religious, romantic, or weird stories. The point is that we – the writers – need to be more positive with one another. We need to support and encourage. We need to provide constructive feedback. And yes, we need to have friendly competition. In the end, we all benefit from this. How? Because we’ll all be more inspired, more creative, maybe more collaborative.

In my humble opinion, the world is dark enough as it is. We’re inundated with nasty politics, racism, hate, fear of the other, and ignorance. As writers, we’re obligated to bring these things to light, to chase the cockroaches back into the shadows. We can start by helping each other to improve and be better writers. In turn, we’ll write better stories.

Like I wrote above, maybe I’m just being naive. But even if I am, I’m going to continue trying to help other writers and artists and hopefully get others to do the same. What have I got to lose?

RB

March 8

The Prometheus Project Podcast, Ep 25, is Available!

Oftentimes, we’re told we need to follow the rules when it comes to art, but where’s the fun in that? Join me as I discuss the necessity of following the rules and when you should break them.

The podcast is available at iTunes, GooglePlay, Spotify, and PodBean. I also post it on my YouTube channel.

If you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to contact me to share your thoughts and ideas. You can reach me through the Contact page.

Additionally, I’d appreciate it if you can leave a review on whatever platform you download it from.

RB

March 6

Is a Muse Necessary?

I was reading a post on Reddit the other day where a writer was asking how to get inspired. Their complaint was that they weren’t coming up with any good ideas and felt like they were in a slump. “How can I find my muse,” they asked.

I used to think this way. I felt like inspiration was supposed to be a bolt of lightning. That great ideas were gifts from the writing gods. That a writer had to be tormented in order for their Muse to grant them the grace of a story or novel.

Boy, was I wrong.

It took me a while to get out of that mindset. And no, it’s not easy to change the way you think about something, especially if that’s all you’ve known. All through high school and into my early 20s I thought I had to wait for inspiration. That resulted in a lot of long nights sitting in front of a blank screen, crumpled wads of paper piling up in the trash can, and a lot of frustration. I didn’t know why my Muse was ignoring me, or maybe torturing me. I was an artist, dammit! I was struggling, depressed, anxious. I was hitting all the right notes…so where were my great story ideas?

It took me a while to realize that this whole Muse this was bogus. When I looked around I saw that other writers weren’t waiting for inspiration to come knocking on their door like a pizza delivery. If they were, then how could so many authors be so prolific? It didn’t make sense.

That opened my eyes. It was then that I discovered that there are stories everywhere: In the news, in history books, in nature, in the people I encountered every day. All I needed to do was open my eyes.

I’m sure that pissed off my muse. I mean, she’s been toying with me for years, expecting that I’d just keep coming back for more. Basically, it was an abusive relationship of my own making. I was finally able to break away from this mindset. My Muse wasn’t necessary any longer. I could function just fine as a writer without her. In fact, I became more productive once I kicked her out the door.

Learning to see the world differently, as a toy box full of ideas, isn’t easy. It takes time and patience. But once you do you’ll be surprised at all the possibilities that present themselves.

My advice for any writers – or any artists – is to give up on your Muse. She’s nothing but trouble. And not the good kind. Find the inspiration yourself. It’s all around you.

RB

March 6

Fear of The Other

When I was in college (or university, depending on your location), I minored in Humanities. Mostly because I love art, but also because I had the opportunity to take a couple of classes with a great associate professor. He was one of those teachers who didn’t just go through the same motions class after class. No, he dug deep, showing us context, the things that motivated the artists, and the repercussions when their art was seen or experienced by the masses. It was enlightening.

One of the things he repeatedly touched on was what he called “Fear of The Other”, which sounds like a great name for a goth band. Unfortunately, it’s not that cool. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it refers to people being afraid of anything that’s different or out of the norm. Many people are comfortable living in a bubble where everything they know and experience is safe and secure, it never changes and that gives them a sense of security and possibly a sense of superiority. It can also indicate a dislike of change. Things need to be just-so and should remain that way indefinitely.

This fear has its tentacles in all sorts of dark areas of the psyche. It can be seen as the basis for racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and general hatred. At the root is fear, fear of change, fear of things that aren’t understood, that seem strange or weird. When these things are encountered, the mind is closed off and the person feeling this fear usually reacts in an aggressive manner.

While fear of The Other is both sad and frightening in real life, it’s a perfect catalyst for fiction. Of course, fiction is the best way to explore the different facets of fear and the way it affects us. Once you’re aware of it, you can see it in all sorts of fiction, from short stories and novels to movies and television. It’s prevalent in sci-fi…encounters with aliens and alien societies explore the fear, but you can find it in other genres, as well.

Personally, I think that fiction can be used as a tool to combat this fear. Sure, the unknown and unfamiliar can be uncomfortable and scary, but at it’s most basic level I think it’s just a fear of change. Well, fear of change and a refusal to accept change. The thing is, the world is constantly changing. Nothing stays the same. Entropy and all that jazz. The problem arises when people refuse to accept that. Here in the U.S. we can think back to the advent of the civil rights movement. On one side you had people – both black and white – who felt that change was needed to level the playing field. On the other side you had people who resisted the change. “That’s the way things have always been” was the mentality.

Change is inevitable but no one needs to fear it. When I’m in a situation where I encounter something new or strange – like a new ethnic restaurant or a type of music I’ve never heard before – I don’t run from it. I look at it as a chance to learn, to expand my horizons.

I use my fiction to explore the strange and weird. I don’t expect to change the world, but I do hope that I can make a reader think differently. Maybe even change their perception of The Other. It might not be much, but every little bit helps when it comes to making things better for everyone.

RB

 

 

March 4

Making Magic

Do you ever feel like being creative is like making magic? It feels that way to me, especially when I’ve written something that I feel is fantastic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with the majority of the stories I write (they’re never perfect, but close enough). It’s just that every so often I write one that, when I’m finished, I feel is just…well, just a damn fine story.

I’ve had a few of those. Even with repeated readings I still feel a chill when I set it down. And it’s not just stories I’ve written. I’ve read fiction by other authors that has that same effect on me. There are also paintings and songs that hit all the right notes and give me tingles on all my nerve endings.

Isn’t that what magic is all about? Giving the audience a sense of wonder, of displacement from reality, of something otherworldly. There’s nothing supernatural about it, it’s just art that hits all the right pleasure points. It thrills, it excites, it releases endorphins or something into our systems. And most of all, it’s rare.

The thing is, art like that is difficult to reproduce. I know that I can’t define the specific ingredients. It’s like coming up with a recipe in the kitchen that everyone loves, but the next time you make it, well, it doesn’t turn out the same. Even if you write down the recipe and follow it exactly it just seems to be missing something. Maybe it was the mood you were in when you made it, or the temperature of the room, or the time of year. It’s still good, satisfying, but it’s just not the same.

Like catching lightning in a bottle.

I think this is one of those things that I just have to accept. And in a way, I think it’s good that we can’t create something magical every time we write. That would end up being boring, wouldn’t it? Redundant? Having it happen every so often makes us appreciate it more when it does happen.

After thinking about this for a while I’ve realized that I don’t think I’ve ever read more than one magical story or novel from the same author. Well, except for Raymond Carver. He wrote two stories that resounded with me. The first one that blew me away was “Cathedral“. It was the first story of his that I ever read. After that I went through all his stories. The other one that I felt was magical was “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love“. If you haven’t read them, please check them out. They’re both quick reads, but so well-written and so powerful. At least, they are to me. I hope you feel the same.

But that magic, that’s something we all strive for but rarely achieve. The point, however, is that we continue to try. That’s all that matters. Magicians don’t get their tricks right every time and writers won’t, either.

Just keep on writing. The magic will happen when you least expect it.

RB

March 3

Where Does Your Creativity Come From?

I’ve been writing, drawing, and playing musical instruments since I was a kid. It’s just something I’ve done. I never thought much about the why, other than I had a need to be creative. It’s simply something I do.

But recently someone asked me where my creativity came from. Were my mother for father creative? Were there any other artists in the family? I had to think about that for a few moments because I hadn’t thought about it before. I really don’t know about my biological mother – she died when I was very young – but my father didn’t have much inclination to be creative. He was into sports and not much else.

My step-mother, however, is creative. She’s done quite a bit of painting over the years. I have a handful of her paintings in my home. I also had an uncle who was a damn fine woodworker. But that seems to be about the extent of it. No full-time artists in the family, but a few who did creative things as a hobby.

So where does mine come from?

I think it was something that I sort of fell into by necessity. I spent a lot of time by myself as a kid. Alone time meant that I had to rely on my imagination to keep myself entertained. I’ve never been much of a television watcher. Going to the movies is expensive. My outlet has always been reading, both books and comics. Those were the mainstays of my life growing up, so I guess it’s safe to say that my creativity spawned from the things I immersed myself in.

I spent hours listening to music and reading, so eventually I began to write things on my own, play around with guitars and keyboards. Eventually, I began to develop some skill which, in turn, became a passion for me. Writing took the lead and I’ve never questioned where it’s lead me.

Do you ever think about this, about where your creativity comes from? Was is natural, something you inherited, or were you like me and developed your skills over time?

I’m curious about what other artists think about this subject. If you would, let me know your thoughts. Leave a comment below, send me a note via the contact form, or catch me on social media.

RB

March 2

Juggling Projects

I often find myself slightly overwhelmed by creative projects. I know, nice problem to have, right? But no I’m not complaining. Just trying trying to figure out my balancing act.

Unfortunately, my creativity doesn’t necessarily pay the bills, so I have to work a full-time desk job. That means I have to schedule time to work on projects while still having a life. I’m sure that many creators feel the same way.

So how do we figure out when to do what? In between working on various fiction projects, blogging, updating my journal, maintaining my social media accounts, podcasting, and working on cooking videos, I don’t seem to have much time to simply relax. You know, sit back and watch some mindless programs on TV, or read one of the books stacked next to my bed, or play with my dogs, or spend time with my partner.

There’s always something to do, isn’t there? I guess it part of being an adult. I think we take that for granted when we’re younger. We have all this free time, very little responsibility, and we simply don’t appreciate it. Then we grow up, we have relationships, jobs, kids, chores…and we begin to realize that we don’t have the time to do all the things we want to do.

I’m envious of the people who have all that free time, who get to work on whatever they want whenever they want. But not in a malicious way. I don’t begrudge their luck…just wish they could share a little bit of it with me.

Sure, it would be easier to simply focus on just one thing – like writing – and forget about the other creative outlets. It would free up so much time for me, give me some breathing room, let me simply sit back and relax. I wouldn’t feel quite so stressed about my self-imposed deadlines, constantly thinking about the next project.

However, I also wouldn’t be as happy. Strange, right? The thing is, creativity is fun. If I have a tough day at the office, I know I can come home to a couple of slobbering mutts and spend a couple of hours writing, or sketching, or making music. Creativity is a pressure valve. It distracts my mind, or in some cases, allows me to vent. Either way, I end up feeling better afterwards.

Truth be told, I don’t think there’s any reasonable way to balance everything in my life. Chaos is commonplace. But it’s a good kind of chaos…there’s little drama, no fighting. I leave the bad mojo at the door when I come home (the dogs won’t allow it in the house) and any residual tension gets wiped away once I lose myself in one of the many creative projects I have in play.

And yeah, I know that I could create an actual schedule, set up slots of time for this project, followed by X amount of time for that project. Boring. Where’s the fun in that? Too much structure ruins creativity, right?

When it comes down to it, I need the spontaneity of a slightly chaotic life. I need a little bit of pressure to motivate me. I need to always have another project to work on. It keeps my mind occupied, keeps my hands busy, and most of the time, I find it far more entertaining than watching TV.

RB