Writing is survival: A post about depression

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a posting something about depression and whether it belongs on a blog about careers and creativity, but coping with it has been biggest impediment to my career and personal life.

What swayed me is the prospect of helping somebody else by shedding light on something that people rarely want to talk about. Depression makes people uncomfortable, yet oddly enough the only way past it is to talk about and acknowledge that it exists. So that’s what this is, a simple affirmation of something that I’ve gone through and the way I’ve come to cope with it.

It’s difficult to be successful with a black cloud hanging over everything so writing has been  a way to make it rain and allow those clouds to disperse. Rationalizing those dark thoughts and giving them a way onto the page makes them subject to scrutiny. More often than not I’ve come to find purpose and meaning in recounting my worse moments so in some ways I’ve learned to cope with monsters by giving them some form and substance.

This won’t be a personal story about getting better and fixing all the problems that ail me. In fact, I don’t think any of the personal details matter all that much because circumstances mean little when you feel depressed. Everything takes on a dark tone no matter what good comes into your life. The next mistake or catastrophe feels like it’s just around the corner and when you’re constantly on the lookout for something bad to happen, it will inevitably come.

There is no way to escape the way you feel whether it’s good, bad or indifferent and the way forward is learning ways to accept the emotions that come no matter what form they may take. I’ve found the only way past darkness is to confront it not with gritted teeth and balled up fists, but a gentle smile and a whole lot of compassion. Fighting is really silly when the enemy is yourself so I’ve learned to laugh and love the person that I am. When it starts to pour rain its a welcome sight for I know the clouds will part and the sun will shine again.

Writing is Survival

Writing is survival, a means to express what is buried deep within my soul. Pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, the very actions have forged a path to peace that felt so goddamn elusive before.

There are some moments when it feels like reality is trying to destroy me. When thoughts become my enemy, when responsibility becomes a crush of stress and anxiety that are so overwhelming that it’s difficult to get out of bed in the morning. I’ve overcome the monsters that haunt my steps by allowing them to pass onto the page and contained within a paper prison where they can roam around all they like.

So I’ve come to slay my demons with pen and paper and built a sanctuary out of steno pads and word documents. Thousands upon thousands of words to exorcise the darkness so that joy and enthusiasm may come forth so I can be at my best.

Writing is an act of stillness and my best work, the ones that I am most proud of, emanate from a quiet mind. Hesitation and thinking brings the type of criticism and judgement that mars what is such a joyful process. Every piece of writing: every word, every sentence and every letter has meaning when it comes from that quiet place.

A new piece of writing is often something that evolves from the terrors and nightmares that stem from uncertainty. This exercise in giving form and shape to the things that tend to torture the soul is the only way to unfurl that knot and get myself straight again. When the darkness stands in front of me in the form of words can be analyzed and critiqued,  there is a path beyond the fear and doubt that used to exist as shadows in the mind.

So writing is about accepting whatever dwells in the soul. It’s a wonderful act, an often a scary one, and definitely not for the faint of heart. Not many have the desire or fortitude to dive into the unknown, yet every day I take that plunge and dive ever deeper into the place where monsters dwell and come back up with treasures seized from their gaping maw. What I find in taking that journey is strength, resilience and best of all a sense of peace that never really leaves me.

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Profiling Professionals: Sci-Fi Fantasy author Kate Elliot

My first impulse when entering a place that is wall-to-wall books is to visit the Science Fiction and Fantasy section. It’s my favorite kind of genre fiction and I will often pluck books off the shelves like fruit then bring them back to a tiny nook tucked in the corner and peruse them all searching for something to sink my teeth into.

During one such excursion to the local library I happened upon the works of Kate Elliot. Among the large stack of books piled high on the desk was Spirit Gate, the first in the Crossroads trilogy of books written by Elliot. Epic fantasy is usually not my thing. I love the worlds, but don’t have the patience to find things like character and story buried beneath so much minutiae that it takes three chapters to tell me everything about a craggy mountain range.

It took a chapter or two to get hooked on Spirit Gate and over the next few months I finished off the other two books in the Crossroads Trilogy Shadow Gate and Traitor Gate. The books were true to its genre with a universe filled giant eagles, political intrigue and great battles to satisfy the most ardent fans, but it was also felt different than the others.

Perhaps the best description of the Crossroads series comes from the author in a brief description on her website:

I wanted to write an epic fantasy series with the complex and dense interpersonal relationships I was watching (at the time of writing) in great tv shows like The Wire. Also: giant justice eagles (eagles the size of Cessnas from which reeves–like sheriffs–dangle hang-glider style in order to patrol the countryside).  — Kate Elliot  

The Crossroads trilogy built a world that felt realistic and showed complexity in the way characters interacted with each other and the society they live in. It examined those in power and those that weren’t and showed how they were intertwined. It’s very much like The Wire, a show that explores the drug trade in the mean streets of Baltimore and how both cops and traffickers aren’t all that different from each other. Both The Wire and Elliot’s books have this in common: both are grand in scope and handle interpersonal relationships within their respective worlds with a level of nuance I don’t see very often.       

Since finishing off the Crossroads trilogy, I’ve read a lot more of Elliot’s work and became became an ardent enough of fan to visit Borderlands Books in San Francisco to get a book signed by the author herself. I did end up getting my copy of Cold Magic, book one in the Spirit Walker trilogy signed by the author, but also got a lot more than a brief conversation and a signed book from the encounter.

It eventually led to a lengthy interview and a profile here on The Art & Business of Creativity.

I have a soft spot for fiction authors because it’s a profession that this writer had dreams of doing, before journalism got its hooks in me. The biggest reason for this post is to answer a lot of my questions about what it takes to be a writer and possibly help someone else interested in writing fiction to make an informed decision.

So here are some lessons from a woman who has done this before and continues to do it. My hope is that you come away inspired and find yourself thinking that a writing career is possible.

 

Where you came from and being a writer

Writing is deeply personal  for Elliot, that much is apparent. The profession is so much apart of her identity that she would, “cut off an arm and a leg rather that stop writing.” Needless to say, that type of passion struck a chord with me.

[I] Never felt there was anything else I could as passionately. I took piano lessons, but it didn’t take me more than two or three years to realize I wasn’t willing to work the way you had to work. Writing is the one thing I am willing to work 16 hours a day for.

Being a successful writer doesn’t happen by accident, it’s a product of choices that are sometimes conscious and other times not. Choosing a profession is deliberate, but it is often guided by the things that hold weight and meaning in the personal life. Values differ for each person, but it plays a role in choosing a career. Perhaps there is an alternate universe version of Kate Elliot that is a piano player, who knows, but writing is the thing she couldn’t stand to live without.

Passion is a good starting point when choosing a career. While it may not be the end-all-be-all, when it comes to paying the necessary cost to doing it well, best to choose something you’d be willing to lose limbs over (metaphorically speaking.) Now some can separate the personal and professional. People make the choice all the time to find work that is financially fulfilling and find personal fulfillment elsewhere, but for someone like Elliot the two sides are completely intertwined.

Elliot grew up in rural Oregon and spent much of her time outdoors and amongst nature. She was a self-described “outdoor child” and a reader. During our interview she spoke of drawing maps and writing stories constantly as a child and while those moments are small ones, it’s an experience she holds dear. Boil it down to its simplest elements and really the most important work in fiction is just that — writing stories. When the most important parts of the profession carry emotional weight, then there is an investment in the work and a sense of satisfaction that goes beyond a paycheck. Now that’s not to say personal and financial fulfillment are mutually exclusive, people value work purely for the financial stability it brings (or simply don’t have the option to choose,) but boy does it feel so much better when the two are one in the same.

The past can inform the present profession in a more nuanced way as well. Elliot’s mother was a Danish immigrant that came to the US at an early an early age and that had a big influence on her career. Elliot said that even though she was born here, she was privy to an experience and way of living that people embedded in the US can’t see. She would continue to explore other cultures later in life by travelling to other countries and forcing herself to confront differences and see a wide range of human experiences.

The cliché phrase write what you know bears out in her work. The Crossroads is a series that deals with clashes between large civilizations and really examines what happens when different parts of those societies come in contact with each other. The Spiritwalker trilogy is a much more personal story, but the big conflict is still one between cultures.

Elliot’s professional aspirations originate from her experiences growing up and many of her strengths as a writer are also born from the life she has lived. The decision to pursue a career in writing is one made out of an emotional connection to the art and that passion can be traced back to childhood.

Writing, like any other artistic endeavor, is about expression and pursuing it as a profession requires a fundamental desire to communicate. Anybody that writes for a living recognizes the impulse to be heard and to know that what gets put into words is understood and recognized by those who read them. To take the leap and call it a career requires the answer to a more fundamental question — just how much does writing mean to me?

When writing is something that you can’t live without then the decision is an easy one.


The Nuts and Bolts

Kate Elliot sets herself apart because she builds fantastic places that are still familiar. There are instances where I feel that other authors in the genre get lost in the worlds they build or the ideas they bring up. I don’t pick up a work of fiction to read a polemic essay or a thinly veiled geography lesson, but to read about people in a world that feels lived in and real.

World building is no easy task, especially when it involves so many fantastic elements. Things like magic and giant eagles obviously don’t exist, but in a fictional world their presence and function need to feel real. What gives the worlds Elliot creates weight is the way society and culture operates in conjunction with so many of the fantastic elements in her novels. Her worlds inevitably feel grounded and carry a sense of history.

I wanted to get a sense for how Elliot does this so we discussed world building and the process of creating these complex fictional places. The process begins with a careful and thorough self-examination.

The first thing is try to be aware how easy it is to grab general common knowledge and generic things we see out of Hollywood and half-baked knowledge of the past. A lot of times people have erroneous as in shallow views of the past.

Stereotypes are quick and easy, but also lack the depth to be truly meaningful. Now it’s easy to confuse depth with minutiae or disguise depth with spectacle. Giving the most accurate description of what something looks like or imploring the reader to look at that awesome mystical creature is not depth. What she is referencing are the people living within that world. Having a flat or erroneous assumption about society and the people living within it (even a fictional one) will inevitably lead to a caricature of one on the page that a reader can see through right away.

A good start to getting beyond stereotypes is cleaning up the lens that you look at the world through. That means taking inventory of personal biases and recognizing the things you don’t understand. I am a man and person of color and that impacts the way that I see the world and other people. That will differ from the way that a white woman or a gay man would see the world and it’s important to recognize the way other people may see certain choices within a work of fiction and account for them.

So what does this have to do with world building?

It’s recognizing that the author is not a passive participant in the world they create. They bring all the baggage of their upbringing and worldviews to the table and being ignorant of them means there is a blind spot that could impact the way a character or fictional society comes across to the readers. A fiction writer can’t be partial to parts of their world. They have to be in tune with all of it and that means understanding how the ghastly and unsavory parts of society think and operate just as much as the virtuous and right. It also means stepping back and becoming aware about how those depictions will come across to the reader. Now that doesn’t mean making changes based on whether or not it will upset the reader, but it’s better to step into a pile of poo willingly than suddenly find it all over your shoes.

Realism depends a great deal on how characters interact with the world and acquiring a  level of understanding necessary to begin writing depends on the author. There is no magic bullet or correct method to do this, but exploring the line of thinking that went into the worlds that Elliot created takes some mystery out of the process.

The Spiritwalker series takes place in a steampunk universe where science and magic are at odds with each other, but its also alternate version of European history. Her aim was to write about a Europe that is much more demographically and ethnically mixed. She didn’t just turn to academic writing for insight into european history, but examined several layers before starting to write.

What I often do is start with well-written children’s books. They often give basic information to situate yourself. Once you can situate yourself you can look for more. The next layer of history is popular history. Once you become familiar with this topic then you can start moving into the really academic books and cultural reading.

Elliot said that she does take notes and creates notebooks, but much of the world building happens in her own head. She described it as hitting a certain fill line and once she got there it was time to start writing.

Her novels also tend to have a large cast of characters. In addition to a deep understanding of the culture she creates is an approach to characters that is focused on their relationships. There are often a lot of characters, some major and others minor, but all of them memorable in some way. Kate said that she keeps track of characters not by individuals and traits, but by their relationships to each other because in real life people are band animals and that is how they process relationship.

I use a rubric where I hierarchize characters. There are ones whose stories drive the plot and there are secondary characters that get a lot of screen time and often have their smaller story arc. Then there are tertiary characters and I try to make them memorable.

World building is as much about people more so than anything else and the best ones have a keen understanding about that. It’s important to create an accurate setting, but properly situating the reader within a fantastic world requires a keen understanding of relationships. World building has everything to do with the character’s relationship to each other, their land, society and their culture.

Return to the familiar and a new venture

This is a big year for Elliot who has already released one book and is poised to release two more by years end. A collection of her very best short stories appropriately dubbed The Very Best of Kate Elliot released in February. While primarily a novelist (she quipped about writing twice as many novels as short stories,) the collection is an excellent introduction to her works.

The summer brings the book Court of Fives, which is slated to release on Aug. 18. The novel is her first foray into the Young Adult genre. The impetus for writing this novel is a little bit more personal to her.

I get tired of debates in epic fantasy whether women characters should be in there. I didn’t get many adventure stories when I was a girl and I wanted to write the kind of book I wanted to read at 16.

Having a woman protagonist is not new in her novels. The Crossroads Trilogy had Mai and Spiritwalker revolved around Cat, but the difference in Court of Fives is in the age and focus of its narrative.

Spirit Walker is a college age story about [a woman] fighting who she is. Young adult has a teen protagonist. I had to write something that is very focused on the main character and how she saw the world.

The story shares traits with many recent forays into the genre as of late, but it also looks to have a little bit of her flare as well. Jessamy is a young woman of mixed race who escapes her station within a restrictive society by participating in an intense athletic competition called The Fives. She of course falls in love and has to deal with jealous nobility threatening her family. The intriguing part about this is that the novel still feels like epic fantasy despite the genre promising to explore themes of class and privilege.

This fall marks her return to epic fantasy and a familiar universe. Black Wolves is tentatively slated for a release this November and marks a return to The Crossroads trilogy universe. Fans of the series will remember a reference to the Black Wolves in Traitors Gate, the final book in the series. Elliot said that the book takes place after what happened in Crossroads, but it is written in a way so that it functions as a standalone novels.

She wouldn’t divulge and details but she said, “Yes, you will see characters you will recognize.”

 

Art & Business of Creativity- The return engagement

Its been two years since this blog received an update and that is far too long for a good thing to be idle for. Perhaps that’s my fault, I simply wasn’t ready to sit down and fully realize something like The Art and Business of Creativity, but the concept resonates even stronger now than it did back then.

The Art and Business of Creativity returns today and this time I assure that it isn’t going away. I’ve gotten to a point both personally and professionally where a project like this one is now possible.

So what exactly is The Art and Business of Creativity?

Essentially it’s a platform to talk about careers, but personally it’s a reminder of what a career is supposed to be. I once thought that my personal and professional life is supposed to be separated. It felt as if the pursuit of my professional goals were ultimately going to be at odds with my personal values. They don’t have to be and to make such a compromise leads to the stress and malaise on both fronts.

In the simplest terms, this blog intends to prove that the work we do can be just as satisfying to the soul as it is to the pocket book.

I’ve spent much of my career as a journalist, working in newsrooms and skype rooms alike covering everything from video games to sports. The subjects and stories that will come out of this will run the gamut, but one thread will tie them together. There is value and inspiration in telling the stories of those who pursue their passion in a way that is both personally and professionally fulfilling. I simply want to prove to myself and others with this blog that doing both are possible.

JournalismMuse: Sticks, Stones and story types

Breaking into a freelance market is about being strategic about my stories. It’s about leveraging opportunities to reach more lucrative assignments.

I think of it as casting stones into a lake. Each story is a stone cast into the marketplace and it’s a matter of making a large enough waves that it’s impossible for anybody to ignore. Obviously, hefting boulders is a great way to make a name for yourself, but a sustainable career is built on throwing regular sized stones into the water until the big one rolls along.

After getting forced out of the newspaper world, I opted to spend my time covering video games. This was an intimidating prospect after covering prep sports for four years. At the newspaper, I was comfortable because the sources were familiar and it was a small scope. It wasn’t long before coaches I talked to for stories were on a first name basis with me. They were familiar with my work and we knew what to expect out of each other.

The first step when breaking into a new market is building relationships. Starting out, my first priority was speaking with people responsible for making games because I didn’t know anybody that could help me. At first, many of the stories I chose to write at contained at least one primary source because it forced me to reach out and speak with people that make games. Interviews and profiles give the most important people involved a chance to talk about their game and add to my sense of how the industry works.

The backbone of my freelance career are my connections and its imperative that every person that appears in my stories is willing to speak with me again. A source is someone who won’t hesitate to pick up the phone when I come asking for an interview and it’s important that the people that matter think of me that way.

Now it’s possible for a journalist to thrive on relationship building stories alone, but it’s also important to leverage my own growing expertise into stories people want to read. The more I learn about video games, the more confident I am talking sharing my views. Columns, opinion pieces and reviews are stories that are predicated on my knowledge of the industry. These are marketing type stories that showcase my expertise for readers.

A big part of covering covering games is the ability to look at them critically. Reviews are marketing type stories and a staple of many video game websites. I need to be skilled at writing them and make sure that readers trust my opinion. I want the people that read my reviews to come away thinking of me as a fair and trustworthy judge of games merits.

Columns, opinion pieces and blog posts work the same way. These types of stories show that I am engaged and pay attention to my beat. The trick to these stories is riding the wave. A well timed blog post that touches on a particularly hot topic of the day could garner a wide audience if it goes up at the right time. Combine timing with intelligent and engaging commentary is a sure fire way to build a loyal audience.

Both types of stories will get you to paid work. When pitching to a magazine, the first thing I do is take inventory of all the sources I’ve spoken to for other stories. I think of their expertise and come up with an angle that makes use of their unique insight. Making connections with a diverse group of sources expands the number of topics I can write about with authority.

Marketing stories are a source of confidence. It shows that I am willing to stay informed and offer up my own insight. Provide insight on buzz worthy topics enough times and the right people will take notice. An editor may notice my name when looking over a pitch or even seek me out to write a story.

Freelance success is about working with what I’ve got and slowly build my sphere of influence. I build relationships to fill out my toolbox of sources and offer up my insights to build an audience. This takes time and patience, but throw enough stones and sooner or later you’ll pick up that big one.

MarketingMuse: Hitting the perfect pitch

I love writing enough to make a career out of it and sometimes that involves writing for other people. Those assignments are just as important to me as any personal piece of writing because paid work allows me to write the things I want to. Landing those assignments is difficult though because it takes time to develop a relationship with editors willing to pay for my writing.

Being a professional writers means convincing other people I am a pro. That requires a keen sense of who I am and one of the best ways I gained clarity was thinking about the pitch. The pitch is a professional introduction that explains what I do for a living in a succinct fashion. This is easy when writing for a big platform. For example, my first big job was writing sports at the Vallejo Times-Herald newspaper. The pitch was simple as saying “My name is Jose San Mateo and I’m a sports reporter with the Vallejo Times-Herald.”

It’s tricky for a freelancer because it is not quite as impressive to say “I’m a freelance writer.” That could mean anything and in a worst case scenario it could lead to negative assumptions. Coming up with an effective pitch as a freelancer took a little bit more work.

The best place to start was figuring out what my pitch was supposed to do. I wanted to make sure people got a positive impression of what I do for a living. What I came up with wasn’t long: “I am an editor for Indie Haven,  a website dedicated to covering indie video games. I’m also a freelance writer that covers other geek related topics like comic books and speculative fiction.”

It’s important to keep in mind that the pitch doesn’t end here. More details will come out naturally during the course of  conversation. It’s impossible to predict what other people want to know about me, but it is important to have answers for key follow up questions.

For example, it’s important for a freelancer to explain how they work so I have to practice talking about my creative process. The ability to explain how I go from idea to story is reassuring to the people that pay. “I’m a journalist that is skilled at writing features for print and web publication. I’m a confident interviewer that can produce written stories, video stories and promote my work effectively on social media.”

People are going to ask about profit eventually, so it’s important to be comfortable talking about it. Honesty is always the best policy, but never be afraid to let them know you have vision even if reality doesn’t point to success at the moment. “Indie Haven is only a few months old so it is a free site right now, but we are growing. I want the site to become large enough that advertisers take notice and support us.”

The pitch is about marketing and being a saavy about that leads to paid work. I couldn’t write for a living without help and the pitch helps helps convince other people to do just that . It’s rare the pitch happens exactly how I’ve thought it out, but clarity brings confidence. When the conversation shifts toward my profession, I know how to answer and that makes all the difference

 

 

Short fiction review: “86, 87, 88, 89” by Genevieve Valentine

Part of being an effective writer is learning how to be a good critic. This will be an ongoing series of posts that will review pieces of short fiction in order to both highlight other writers and help me think critically about the things that I read.

The first review is the short story “86, 87, 88, 89” by Genevieve Valentine. Her story appeared in Clarksworld Magazine and can be found here http://bit.ly/10wSD00.  You can also visit her website at http://www.genevievevalentine.com/.

When a city takes action against its own, the ones that are left end up picking up the pieces.

Genevieve Valentine’s short story “86,87,88,89” looks at domestic terrorism through the eyes of those who have to live with the consequences. When terrorists blow up the American Museum of Natural History, the result were raids by the government that left huge swaths of the city in ruins.

The story followed one of many archivists hired by Homeland Security to collect evidence following the raids. The archivist is unnamed, but clearly a New Yorker. Through her, the reader sees a government seeking to justify its war on terrorism.

“When you applied to Homeland Security, they asked a lot of questions about how many questions you asked.”

— Unnamed

The use of secondary documents like reports and email correspondents were central to the story. The documents revealed a government that was obsessed with cataloguing seditious material. This was particularly effective when put up against the unnamed archivist’s narrative.

The archivist believed that the government was doing right at first. That she was doing her part to rid the city of terrorism, but her perspective changed after weeks of picking through through the wreckage and dead bodies.

Seeing her perspective shift was the power in this story.

The archivist was forced to confront the narrative that government needed to find and eradicate terrorism at all costs. Even if that meant turning the guns on its own citizens. Her partner Jesse pointed out the government spies amongst the archivists. They were there to ensure that none were sympathizers.

The most powerful scene involved another archivist named named Kepler who followed the rules and turned in turned in seditious materials to Homeland Security. She watched as Kepler was whisked away for interrogation.

“It would have been someone, eventually. The city needs examples.” — Jesse

What was left at the end was a sense of resignation. That raids could never be undone and whatever sliver of truth the archivist saw on the job would never come to light.

Write and survive

Writers are survivors at heart. They are unbreakable, resilient and ultimately unstoppable because they have conquered the most insidious of foes — uncertainty.

Uncertainty is simply not knowing. This isn’t inherently bad, but the unknown leads to fear and doubt. Writing is filled with uncertainty. There’s the blank page, the next word, the next project or the next pay check. All of these things can lead to fear, doubt and quitting.

When there is value attached to writing there is an even greater chance for uncertainty to become fear. Writing that term paper is difficult because there is a grade on the line. In those moments of struggle, its easy to venture into the possibility of failure. Suddenly its so much easier to procrastinate because the prospect of failure is hard to face in large doses.

The professional writer has it worse because there is so much riding on those words. Suddenly, the  stakes are bigger and the level of uncertainty that much higher. There’s a reason its difficult to become a full time writer. Not many people are resilient enough to face that kind of uncertainty day after day.

The best writers never forget that they are survivors. The survivor accepts the possibility of failure and welcomes the prospect of success. They know that the only way to success is to work until  the job is done.  When it comes down to those moments of uncertainty the survivor chooses to see things through till the end. Finishing doesn’t guarantee success, but he knows that its impossible without it.

The finished story is a treatise on survival. All these times that uncertainty crept in the writer never wavered. Over and over again he chose to work until the job was done. Successful writers are the ones that never forget that they are survivors. They finish their work then take a deep breath before embarking on that crucible again.