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A Time to Eat: On Making a Living as a Writer

A pleasant simple habitual and tyrannical and authorised and educated and resumed and articulate separation. This is not tardy.

A pleasant simple habitual and tyrannical and authorized and educated and resumed and articulate separation. This is not tardy.

Slate had a review of a new book called Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living with has some great observations and information about writers such as Cheryl Strayed and the nuts and bolts of how much they earn from publishing their books.

I spent my twenties in writing programs. A small press published my first book in 1999, and have published eight books with a ninth coming out later this year. I spent my thirties teaching creative writing in a continuing education context (University of Washington Extension, Richard Hugo House, The Writing Center in Bethesda) or as a volunteer, and then spoke at the Associated Writing Program (AWP) on panels over a couple of years (2012-2015).

I learned that the writing industry (when it comes to prose) is predicated on – like acting – the starry-eyed concept that you too can MAKE IT as a writer. This means if you have the skills, you will pay the bills with publishing books. Conversely if you do not have the skills, you will not pay the bills.) Sitting at the book fair table at AWP  I could overhear the gaggle of graduate students strolling past the small press table where I sat talking about agents, book advances, about getting out of school and really getting down to writing once they got a book contract. Some of these students had paid a lot of money for the training to be a novelist. Many programs cost more than 50,000 a year. They were looking at coming out of a two year program in debt more than 100K. They were going to be need a pretty generous advance on their first novel.

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Resist the Hivemind, thoughts on the Jack Straw Writers Program

2007 Jack Straw Writers

Nine years ago I was pleased to work with the following group of writers at the Jack Straw Writer’s Program: Doug Nufer, Anna Maria Hong, Susan Landgraf, Cheryl Strayed, Charles Potts, Corrina Wycoff Kathryn Trueblood, Laurie Blauner, Vis-a-Vis Society(Sierra Nelson and Rachel Kessler), Willie Smith, Howard W. Robertson, and Molly Tenenbaum.

In 2007, I was a curator for the Jack Straw Writer’s Program, a program created by Rebecca Brown and Joan Rabinowitz, and last night went to a reading at Jack Straw and it was kind of comforting (considering) to hear and see many local writer’s able to work, publish, and exist in the Pacific Northwest. I wrote the following essay in response to the question about curating the series and that every writer I was able to listen to them then, and they remain writers I listen to now even I haven’t been in touch with them for a long time. You can find audio of that year and following years at Jack Straw.

Resist the Hivemind

from the Raven Chronicles new issue “Celebrating 20 Years of the Jack Straw Writers Program, 1997-2016

On Facebook, I often read appeals to “Hivemind.” They write, ”Hivemind, can you tell me…” They do it without apology, as if all of our individual capacities as thinkers are reduced to a kind of communal processing capacity. We are the mental equivalent of ants. Writers resist this conception of thought. Writers who eschew cliché, doggerel, and sentimentality strike out toward the strange wilderness of what they think. When they are deep into what they really think and how they think their alien thoughts, their written or spoken work provokes me as a person. I can recognize myself in them, but also recognize someone who is not me. A book or a poem inevitably provides relief from the incessant pressure of my own presence.

A community somehow levels the progressive nature of the written word. It joins us into a structure with conventional standards of decorum and the watchful guidance of our fellow, polite, thinking ants in the Hivemind.

In late 2006, around the time that Facebook was opened to everyone over the age of 13, I was asked to be a curator for the Jack Straw Writers’ program. This allowed me the chance to listen to and engage with a collection of writers who could offer access to their interior thoughts. I felt myself drawn toward writers (or in the case of the Vis a Vis Society, a pair of writers) who adhered directly to that. Willie Smith embodies this urge. Willie will be the first to flog his writing with the communal standards of the Hivemind. And yet, year after year, he is incapable of bottling up his urges, confessions, and lurid suburban Cold War tantrums. I have had coffee or drinks with some of these writers, but I don’t claim to know them. We are not part of a physical community. Yet, we are a gathering of individuals who had cultivated, and continue to cultivate, a method of capturing our inner voice. I was pleased to hear how they read their work in 2007 and hear them speak aloud their inner voices. Nearly ten years later with Facebook used by 13% of the world’s population, they are still thankfully engaged in their work of writing as singular voices and not as part of the Hivemind.

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Genre of Silence by Matt Briggs at Connotation Press

From Robert Clark Young, Connotation Press‘s Nonfiction Editor:

Matt Briggs Genre of Silence

Genre of Silence, an essay, Connotation Press, 9/1/2016

“While Connotation Press is far from the first magazine in the history of the publishing world to run photos with a story, or even the first online magazine to do so, one cool thing about our website is that we can put up all manner of multimedia projects just with a click. The photos in Matt Briggs’ “Genre of Silence” do a beautiful job of illustrating—in the best sense of the word—the story, much of which has to do with his father. This piece covers a lot of ground and is an absolute joy to read—and view.”

You can find my essay at Connotation Press.

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Literary Fiction is the Neo-Con Genre

a human face

Humans have a face.

It is odd to me how conventional thought and identity are represented in fiction. Most literary magazines and most literary fiction generally present a highly conventional sense of identity on the part of the humans that are in the stories. These humans stream-of-thought sounds similar (to us). The way they interact with the world is similar (to us). Even the larger structures such as plot assume certain motivations and actions (that we can relate to). As readers we expect these conventions to be in place.

Anyone who reads I suspect is either fitting their encounter with actual people into these conventional molds, or the are, as I am, happily confused by the strangeness of other people. In my case fiction, even naturalistic fiction, is as realistic as high-fantasy. The sympathetic narrator is as alien to me as an elf. Continue Reading →

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Kickstarter Campaign for Total War – War in Globalism

armsdealer1

Hey baby, need to buy some weapons, some serious arms?

In the American Civil War a doctrine called the Industrial Production and Capacity Utilization was likely the most important determination of victory in the war. This may be the first war where this was understood by one side, and it would be the way in which the World Wars were fought. Victory in the world wars depended on disabling the capacity of the enemy to produce the material of war. The idea of total war had also been simmering and came into existence during the war between the Federalists and Confederacy. The wars of the Middle Ages were no less brutal, but were in fact kind of guided by ideas of chivalry and divine right but also were limited by the human scale of industrial production. Labor in the Middle Ages was the labor of humanity and animals. This had gradually given way to wars inflected by technology and more so by the industrial capacity of nation states at war. The World Wars saw the logical conclusion of war as a conflict between the economies of nation states. These wars of factories and the reproductive capacities of vast nation states. Without much of a surprise the losers of the war were industrial titans, Germany and Japan, and the winners of the war, The United States and Russia were monolithic and totalizing systems from top to bottom — Industrial Capitalism in one corner and Industrial Communism in the other. China was present in this war but was violently shucking off its colonialism and then embarked on the rational path of Industrial Communism.

But at the end of the war, technology and industry had produced the destructive capacities of the Nuclear Age, and at the same time, produced the networks that would give rise to Globalism. Globalism would in the end become the epoch that would replace Modernism with its nation states. In Modernism the corporation belonged to the nation state and while profits were vital to the mission of the corporation it was within the construct of the nation state. In the transition period between Modernism and Globalism, which might be called Post-Modernism, corporations gradually eroded their ties to nation States. For example corporations such as Apple Computers while being born in California in the United States by the first decade of the 21st Century relied on components from a global supply chain, Chinese labor, and sales to a global market. Apple is hardly as much a United States corporation as it is a Chinese corporation. It is a global company and does not really belong to any nation state. Continue Reading →

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The State Does Owe You A Job or 2 Millions Dollars

road_coke

We drink Coke. IA Richards is wrong. A paleolithic man wouldn’t drink a Coke, nor would he have any interest in Hamlet. In all Post-Apocalyptic stories the survivors want to roll the clock back; that is their central theme. If you have ever actually tried to survive in the wilderness, you know that water taps and central heating are worth the trade. Survival is not liberty, either.

Generations ago we traded our ability to support ourselves off the land for the coordinated, collective action known as The State. We traded this ability for the collective gain in productive power so that we could benefit from the bounty of this increase known as the division of labor. This trade came with an obligation from The State to provide for us. It is not possible for a contemporary human to survive off the land. A contemporary human does not in fact own enough land to survive. Because of this we are in fact entitled to support for our survival. The existence of The State makes the phrase an Nanny State an oxymoron. All nations are Nanny States.

We are entitled to support in the same way that a fish is entitled to water, a bird to air, a contemporary man to his Nanny State. Our greatgreatgrandmother’s gave away our ability to support ourselves long before we were born to The State. The State, in turn, must make certain that we have food, shelter, and education. In the United States this contract is the promise of the Constitution and includes the slightly weird concept of “the pursuit of happiness,” not happiness itself, but its pursuit. You can chase it if you want. Happiness I suppose is the carrot. Unhappiness is the stick. But any threat of starvation or denial of anything else at the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy is breaking the contract.

If The State breaks this basic provision of food, water, shelter, health care, personal security, privacy, education, and the time and freedom to make and maintain social bonds then The State has broken its contract and should provide you with the ability to do this for yourself. So at my age that means the basic survival of my family will cost about 2 million dollars (with education and health care being completely covered on top of that). This figure came from the The Self Sufficiency Calculator for Washington State.

If The State fails to honor this agreement, than the agreement would seem to be null, and yet the void of no state — the appeal of zombie narratives, Mad Max, and other end of the world narratives — is another world and one that in which we are not designed to survive. Even in these myths the survivors end up like maggots surviving on the corpse of The State and the only way that the survivors survive is by creating a new state.

Why would anyone want to void the existence of The State? We traded our ability to take care of ourselves for the reality of cooperative action and the effecinces of the division of labor. The State does not have ability to restore us to our condition before this trade. It is merely a myth to think that we could return to what we were before The State. As a species we have been altered forever by The State.

If I were you right now to give you a parsec of land, like the Romans did to their citizen soldiers, could you turn that land into a living? Of course not. In America, only a libertarian nostalgic for a golden aged pioneer world that never quiet was would yearn for such a thing. Continue Reading →

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On Work

Women leaving work for the day, Hana Shoe Factory, Lewiston, Maine, August 1973 Photo by Alex McPhail.

Women leaving work for the day, Hana Shoe Factory, Lewiston, Maine, August 1973. Photo by Alex McPhail.

Americans are obsessed with work. It is the one cult that I think most Americans willingly belong to. Just work hard and everything will be all right. The cult ignores the obvious reality that if you are being exploited, labor is an aspect of your miserable conditions. It is not your salvation. It is the terms of your oppression. The cult ignores the obvious reality that the richest people in the country are free from labor. We like to believe that Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison, and so on have became what they were through hard work. And if you work hard enough as well, you too can be a Koch. I talked to Jeff Bezos once for five minutes. I was aware that in those five minutes, if you measure a person’s time by the dollar, those minutes were easily worth more than my annual salary. Labor itself cannot buy you freedom.

Of course I’m typing this on the third weekend in a row when I am working… blogging itself is labor and it is labor I am not paid to do. If only I work hard enough I will crack will open in the sky and money will pour out. Even the folks at The Stranger praise work. Christopher Frizzelle pointed out at an after work even that itself was on the clock for The Stranger staff and only obliquely leisure time for myself, that then books editor, Paul Constant, had written more than 10 blog posts a day for his entire career so far at The Stranger (in addition to doing his other work.) In reading a sociological study of the bums that lived in the Hooverville in the Duwamish during the Depression, the bums were praised for their industry. My father’s highest praise for someone: She is a hard worker. Socialism and Communism are derided by many Americans because they makes people lazy. Even the so called slackers are now seen as hopeless rubes for the expansion of the work week. The millennials are regarded with alarm because they value leisure time. I’m sure that will be fixed by the time they start to have children, mortgages, and run out of forbearance on their college debt.

Okay, I need to get back to work after taking a break to do some work.

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Controversy on the Class Room Floor

Hollow or Not? Teach both sides.

About four years ago in Federal Way, screenings of an Inconvenient Truth, were restricted when a science teacher in middle school showed the film to a class. An evangelical named Frosty Hardison had a daughter in the class, and he complained. Because of Policy 2331/2331p, which states that both sides of controversial issues need to be presented to classes, and this hadn’t been done, then a moratorium was placed on the film.

As an evangelical Frosty lives in a mythical world filled with a number of beliefs dictated to him by his faith. He doesn’t believe that global warming is caused by human activity but if it is true at all it is the result of divine intervention. He believes the end of the world is coming and heat will contribute to the end of time. He believes that an omnipotent deity who is human shaped and has a beard watches over all human activity. He believes that this deity created the Earth 6,000 years ago. In fact many of Frosty’s articles of faith or myths or whatever you want to call his deeply held convictions are “in conflict” with the teaching of science, biology, and history. To juxtapose his beliefs and the canonical text he holds to be absolutely true — The Holy Bible — with a science textbook is to find a great deal of controversy.

Which is true? Continue Reading →

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About Story Units

Story Units

Story units in my brain.

I have a review coming out in a couple of days where I use the term “story unit.” And I’m putting this here is a kind of footnote so I can link back to this spot when the review is posted.

A story unit is my way of referring to a granular chunk of narrative that is separate from the words used to tell the story. You can think of a story occupying layers. There is subtext, text, and then narrative wrapped up in a pretty package of context. As a writer I find very simple schemes useful as long as they are kind of right. For instance, the mantra: “subject, verb, direct object” has been very helpful for me as a kind of writerly Prozac.

These pieces of narrative are called different things by different people depending on their discipline. I have tried several times to read about narratology. Since I write stories it would seem to make sense that studying the “science of narration” would have something useful to say about the writing of stories. I believe it does, but the texts I’ve read came from a discipline intent on distancing itself from the various competing forms of linguistic theory and an assortment of structural, post-structural, formalist, and neo-formalists theories. These various academic and ideological fights were so old and entrenched that I couldn’t make any sense out of what I was reading. A few times I’ve met writers and academics who have know their narratology, such as Trevor Dodge and Peter Donahue. But when I mention, okay, help! I want to know what is in these books. They seem kind of exahusted by it and change the subject. These are both reasonable people and I figure they would tell me what was there if from a writing stand point there was anything there.

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My Poor Handwriting Is a Nice Font

I used this great, free program online, YourFonts, to convert my handwriting into a true-type typeface. I spent a long time saving up for a copy of Fontographer — it cost about three hundred bucks — and drawing matrices with its crude vector editor in 1998. It took me months to come up with something that looked twice as cracked as the typeface I made in about six minutes using YourFonts‘ free Web site.  All I had to do was print out their template, write my handwriting, scan my template, and upload it, download the font, and install it. It’s amazing. I have no idea why they are doing this unless they are collecting some kind of massive compendium of folk typefaces for a writing recognition program or something. But it is well worth the ten minutes to create a typeface.

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