Friday, September 25, 2009

The necessity of self-promotion

The Washington Post Style section ran an article yesterday about author Kelly Corrigan who, despite having two books in print, had to cobble together a web site, a trailer, a book tour and other forms of self-promotion, paid entirely out of her own pocket. Apparently, she is not alone.

The article, On Web, A Most Novel Approach, says this is now a common occurrence among not-yet-well-known writers:
Book publishers actively market and promote authors, of course, particularly the big names, but for thousands of writers it's a figure-it-out-yourself world of creating book trailers, Web sites and blogs, social networking and crashing on friends' couches during a tour you arrange.

Strangely, the WP article fails to hyperlink to Corrigan's web site in its online version of the story. It's here: Kelly Corrigan.

After viewing her self-made trailer, I'm a little shocked that it helped further her career. In the first few seconds there is a shot of her dad in bed, with the voice-over saying, "He calls his bed a fart sack..." OK, I'm probably not going to read this book if that is an example of its scintillating prose. But it must have been effective. The Post article says it has been viewed more than 100,000 times, and that it helped lead to her getting a booking on a network morning show.

I've always made a distinction between writers who blog and writers who publish books. There's a little bit of class distinction there, in my mind, despite my being mostly a self-published, Internet-based writer these days. I always figured that a writer in print had MADE it, that they would be taken care of by agents and publishers once in print. This article was disillusioning. Now I see the difference between a blogger like me and a blogger/web site creator like Corrigan is that, while we're both providing our words for free, her web site and blog promote something tangible, which can be purchased, and which can provide her with an income. Her blog is an ongoing advertisement; my blog is what I'm writing right now.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Why I blog

After I published my Popularity post (in which I lamented that stupid videos on YouTube can claim a million viewers in a matter of days while this blog had only had 1,200 hits in a year), a Facebook friend wrote me, saying: "Charles Bukowski wrote an entire poem about how you should only write because you HAVE to - I think that is probably a good enough reason, whether or not anyone else reads or likes it." [I think the poem he referenced is So You Want to Be a Writer.] Perhaps my FB friend was trying to console me, but I found his message a little depressing since Bukowski's poem about writing for the pleasure of writing had obviously been published and was enough-known for someone to reference it.

I knew from the outset that a blog about creativity and writing was not going to garner as many hits as blogs about vacuous celebrities (e.g., TMZ, Perez Hilton, et al). And, to be truthful, I’ve never wanted it to be that popular—if I knew that thousands would read each posting it would probably leave me tongue-tied, frightened of a voracious public appetite.

But since I received his message a few weeks ago, I've been thinking about why I write this blog when I could be doing something else with my time. I've come to realize that the blog serves several purposes for me:

  • It’s an electronic journal, of sorts, much like my Facebook status lines.

  • If it didn’t exist, I might not write at all, for days at a time. There is an artificial deadline hovering over me each week; if I haven’t published a new post by Friday I start feeling an antsy obligation to put up something new.

  • It’s easier for me to justify making time for a blog post than it is for more personal kinds of writing. I would never tell someone that I am going to go and write something in my journal—it’s private and, for some people perhaps, the act of journal writing (rather than mowing one’s lawn or cleaning one’s house, when both obviously need to be done) verges on narcissism or a waste of time. But tell that same person you’re writing for a blog and it seems more concrete, justifiable, with an edge of glamour even. And it’s something I can talk about since it’s public: my blog has a URL (which I sometimes put on my business cards); my journal doesn't.

  • It has given me a compilation of essays (or essay embryos) that I otherwise wouldn’t have. There are 80 posts on this blog right now that would not be here if I'd never created the blog. Having to write something every week often gives me a chance to start riffing on whatever is on my mind at a particular time, capturing thoughts that might have evaporated or evolved differently if I hadn’t put them down when I did.

  • And, it often gives me a respite from my otherwise overly to-do-listed weeks. I found this entry in my journal today, written late summer, which is what prompted me to write this post today:
"How simple it is for me, then, to sit down for an hour a week and write a blog post, then to take a few moments to look for a photo I might use for it, convert it to sepia, and load it up on Blogger. It is a moment of solace and peace. I wish I could have it for more than an hour a week."
(Photograph by Beth Blevins)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

In defense of paper

At a PTA meeting I went to a couple of nights ago, some parents argued that, for ecological reasons, the PTA newsletter should no longer be printed and mailed. They argued that parents should read the newsletter online and not expect a paper copy, which costs the PTA thousands of dollars each year in printing and mailing costs. The counter-argument was that not all parents have computers and/or Internet access. So an ad hoc committee was formed that will look into providing computers to parents who don’t have them in the home. (Although, now that I think about it, I’m not sure that the energy required to manufacture, ship and run a computer is all that much ecologically better, in the long run, than printing and mailing a bi-monthly newsletter).

I receive the PTA newsletter by email because it arrives a week earlier that way, but I don’t want to receive all my news—or all the words I read—this way. The primary reason is that it hurts my neck to read at the computer for long stretches of time. And online text glows, which never feels natural to me. Stare at it too long and I start getting eyestrain and an ache in my forehead. I never had a headache in my life—or neck problems—until I started to use a computer in the late 1980s.

If everything goes online, I’m afraid readers of the future will be awkward head-jutting, Advil-popping creatures tethered to the computer screen (since that will be their only access to any kind of writing and all measures of entertainment), unable to move away since their physical misery will keep them from wanting to get up.

Of course, there are portable devices that lack the glow of a computer screen, and which you can read as you eat breakfast, but as I said in a previous post, unless the Kindle becomes so cheap I can buy it at the Dollar Store, where I buy my sunglasses, I’m not likely to own one. Leaving the paper Style section of the Washington Post behind on your Metro seat is no big deal; reading it on a Kindle and leaving the Kindle on your Metro seat is nearly tragic, given its current cost.

But beyond cost and discomfort, I would miss paper because books and magazines are more inviting to me than hyperlinks. Sure there are splashy web pages, but looking at a publication online, I miss the typical Table of Contents, being able to physically thumb through a magazine, letting things catch my eye. More than anything, I'd miss layouts—I rarely see an online layout that compares to a great two-page spread.

And, since I have chosen what comes into my home, the books and magazines I own or borrow from the library usually have more authority than whatever pops up in a Google answer. One of the best books I own is The Indoor Kitchen Garden, which I bought 20 years ago—$14.95 seemed so extravagant at the time. I used it to start an herb garden in my high-rise, no balcony apartment in D.C. and still use it to figure out what plants can go on my deck in containers. Plant by plant, it tells me how big the pot must be to provide for the roots, what the soil pH should be, etc. I’ve tried to find similar information on the Internet but when I type in “basil,” I’m given hundreds of pages, most not specific to container gardening, many written with god-knows what expertise. I can try to sift through and navigate the many possibilities on the Internet, or simply go to my bookshelf, pull down my well-worn book, and have my answer in a just a minute.

Postscript: I wrote this on my laptop a couple of days ago and uploaded it today, finally realizing the irony of complaining about reading on the Internet via a blog post that I now hope people will read on... the Internet.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Writer Profile: Dustin Beall Smith

Dustin Beall Smith has been many things—a skydiver (in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Smith helped pioneer sport parachuting in the United States); a college dropout; a political campaign worker (he worked as an advance man for Robert Kennedy’s senatorial campaign and for the Norman Mailer-Jimmy Breslin mayoral campaign); and a key grip in the film industry (see Dustin Smith at the Internet Movie Database). He currently teaches writing at Gettysburg College.

Smith’s work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, BackStage, The Gettysburg Review, Hotel Amerika, the Louisville Review, the New York Times Magazine, Quarto, River Teeth, The Sun, Writing on the Edge, and elsewhere. His honors include the Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize in Nonfiction for his book, Key Grip. A Memoir of Endless Consequences; fellowships in 1995 and 1996 at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Knowing his past experience as a skydiver and a member of the film industry, I was expecting someone who was arrogant and overtly masculine when I met him at the Conversations and Connections conference in D.C. last April. Instead, I discovered a gentle, humorous man who was willing to talk to me about writing and life as a writer even though I am not well-published, nor writing all that much these days. (We were introduced by his partner, Kim Dana Kupperman, an old college friend of mine.) He is also a patient man—this interview began by email prior to that in-person meeting, and continued in bits and spurts for a few months after.

For more on Dusty, and to see samples of his work, see his web site:
Dustin Beall Smith.

Why are you a writer?

I don’t think I have a choice in the matter. It seems to be in my DNA, even when I’m not honoring the gift—or the proclivity, I should say. There are times I envy people who have no need to write—wrongly, of course, since they have other needs. My own need comes from a basic inability to make sense of the world in any other way than writing about it. If I go for long periods of time without writing, I tend to sink into a curmudgeonly mood. My focus then tends to become negative. When I write, especially about things that disturb me, I often discover a brighter, more optimistic side to myself—one that involves more generosity of spirit. Humor informs me, whereas, without writing, depression is always lurking in the wings.

In your book, Key Grip, you describe yourself as being a writer-wannabe for many years. Now you teach writing, and you have a book in print. Was there a moment when you knew you were writing for real, or was it a gradual transformation? Was earning an MFA part of that transformation?

It was a gradual transformation, actually, beginning with a piece I published in the New York Times magazine over twenty years ago. Appearing in that venue was enormously energizing—it has over a million readers—and I was so taken with my success that I began immediately to write a novel. That project turned out to be a five-year-long detour from autobiographical writing, and because I was still working long hours on movies, I often felt like I was drowning. Not until I entered the MFA program at Columbia did believe I was writing for real—that I somehow “belonged” in the writing community. It helps to believe you have an audience—which is to say that you have an effect as a writer. Breaking into the ranks of published writers has always been a daunting task, but more so today than ever, I think. The world is full. With fewer and fewer high-profile publishing venues, and more and more writers looking to publish, the MFA system—its teachers and its students—has helped absorb the overflow by providing the community—the network—the audience.

Many of the chapters in Key Grip were first published separately as pieces in different publications. When did you start to think about compiling them into a book—and, did it require any rewriting (for transitions, etc.)?

The chapters in Key Grip were first published as discrete personal and autobiographical essays. They are arranged in reverse chronological order, honoring the Native American concept of the heyoka—the sacred clown, who does everything backwards in his performance (a subject discussed in the first essay). I submitted the collection as a “memoir-in-essays,” but Houghton Mifflin published it simply as a memoir, I guess because essays scare away readers. I intended it to be a perverse collection, one that forced the reader to connect some dots, rather than a straight-forward beginning-to-end description of my life. My life has been episodic; the book is episodic. My task in putting the collection together was basically to remove repetitive autobiographical material, and to solve the problems that arose from reverse chronology. The book can be picked up at any point. It can even be read backwards—something a few of my students did, to their apparent satisfaction.

What are you writing now?

I am now chomping at the edges of another memoir, this one having to do with my experience of coming to the profession of teaching, late in life—how I got here, what informs me as a teacher, the pleasures and vagaries of connecting with young people, the bittersweet task of passing the torch—the flame. It probably won’t be composed of discrete essays, and might well turn out to be anecdotal and chatty. I’m still looking for the right format. I like small books, but brevity is vastly harder than long-windedness. So much is being written these days. I just want to fit in edgewise somewhere. I’m just finishing rewrites of a 400-page novel, and hoping to get that out soon—even though the market is terrible. For me, writing fiction is a wonderful balance to writing nonfiction. Summer is a blessing: it’s mine, mine, mine. No student work to read, just my own feeble drafts.

What other types of writing have you done? Do you feel established with memoir, or are you itching to try new genres/types of writing?

I’ve gone through stages where poetry bubbles up in me, but I’ve never been happy with those results. I rework my poetry to death. And I wrote a screenplay that never got produced—about a college professor who gets involved in a terrorist plot to shut down America (in the early 1990s). I still toy with revisiting these genres, perhaps because I also teach them, but I think my real voice emerges when I write directly about my own experience, in relation to some larger theme. I can tell a story. And I have stories to tell.

Do you ever write with a target publication in mind, or do you only start to look for markets after a piece is completed?

I do now, but only if I’ve published there before, or if the editors have asked for more material. Generally, I think it’s a bad idea to put the cart before the horse. You are your own first (and best) audience. Writing specifically for The New Yorker, say, could cause you to pander to an imaginary audience (who is The New Yorker, really?) rather than to write from the heart in a focused, unself-conscious manner.

The piece I published in the NYT Magazine was about drinking and failure and promise. I had to write that piece. Its publication was just the icing. There’s a lesson there: if the voice is right, it will be heard. If I’d had a million magazine readers in mind when writing about failure, I’d have failed, I’m sure. Better just to write what you have to write, making urgent the subject, not the publication—or the exposure, or (rarely) the money.

How did you get that piece published?

I happened to be cutting public trails with a guy who lived in my town, and I got to talking about this little piece I’d written. He asked to see it. The next day, he called me and asked if I’d mind if he passed it along to his boss, the editor of the Magazine. A few days after that, his boss passed it down to another editor, with the dictate: publish this. My exhilaration was entire, I can tell you, but the success also felt appropriate: I’d had to examine my failure before I could achieve any success.

Do you have a schedule for writing (daily, weekly, monthly)? Or, how do you set time aside for writing?

I’m almost afraid to answer this question honestly, for fear of being a bad influence on writers seeking role models. But the truth is that I don’t have a schedule at all. Writing either takes center stage and dictates that I do little else with my day, or it stands smoldering in the corner like some reprimanded child—always nagging at my consciousness. To be fair, I also teach, and my teaching schedule changes every semester, so that dictates my schedule to some degree. In any case, I’m a believer that not writing is often as important as writing (Is it possible to write too much?), in the same way that leaving a productive field fallow for a season produces a greater yield in the long run.

Has working in the film industry affected your writing in any way (other than it being a subject of some of your memoir pieces)? For instance, does that experience help you see things visually, or to pay more attention to detail?

Work in the film industry is episodic; you’re always on to the next project. In that sense, it mimics writing. The old saying that you’re only as good as your last job holds true for writing, too. Some projects work, some work better than others; some fail. You move on. The secret is to move on: to get acquainted with the rhythm of beginnings, middles and ends. I believe we write against a backdrop of cosmic loneliness, perhaps even to relieve that loneliness. The bittersweet feeling that accompanies the wrapping-up of a film mimics the bitter-sweetness that accompanies publication. Success is great, but it isn’t immortality—even for immortal writers. It is impermanent and fleeting. Keep beginning…that’s the answer. That’s why the “beginning” of Key Grip comes at the end.

Does teaching writing help your writing?

Teaching helps to remind a writer that writing is all about process. That’s something we tend to forget, especially after a book is published and the book tour is done, and suddenly you’re staring at a blank page again. We begin with nothing, then suddenly a voice descends and we have an opening—an urgency of some kind—and from there on, it’s all just hard work. What feels good at the end of the day, often feels terrible the next morning. But knowing that it will work is invaluable. When you watch this struggle with creativity in your students, you learn to be more forgiving of yourself, more tolerant of process, less wowed by and concerned about the polished product. Antonio Porchia once wrote that nothing that breathes is complete. That’s the beauty of writing—and the payoff of teaching writing—watching the incomplete self unfold on the page.

If your house was burning down and you had to grab one or two things you’ve written (not a hard disk, but actual things on paper) what would they be?

No question, I’d grab the two large boxes containing my fifty-odd notebooks. Not because they contain special writing or special accounts of what I’ve done and where I’ve been, but because they contain my dreams. I’ve lived a life guided by dreams. Dreams are the ultimate nonfiction—perhaps the ultimate biography.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Facebook as fodder for fiction

[This is the second in what may be an ongoing series on Facebook for writers].

"It's complicated."

When someone's relationship status on Facebook changes from "In a relationship"(or, perhaps more tragically, "Married"), there is a short story there, both obvious and hidden. I'm surprised that friends bare themselves so nakedly in this way, even more surprised when strangers do.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who has gone through Facebook looking for the open-to-the-universe pages of people I barely know or don't know at all. The excuse I have at-ready is that I am a writer—I am plumbing the depths and superficialities of modern life and romance, as well as seeing:
  • what people do in their spare time;
  • what they believe in or don't believe in, who they voted for;
  • what books or concerts they consider the most important;
  • what old TV shows people are watching on DVD.
And to display some of my own honesty, of course, I'm also seeing what old boyfriends and classmates have done with themselves and/or what they look like now.

But the thought occurred to me the other day: Facebook is a fabulous tool for fiction writers because there are a million names there with pictures attached to them, and sometimes there are life summaries, freely available to all.

For instance, if you were writing a short story set in Oklahoma City and you wanted to name your main character "Chris Palmer," you can search for Chris Palmer of Oklahoma City (as I did just now), and there he is. I suppose you could still name your character "Chris Palmer" but you might want to switch cities, or you might at least make him look different than the young man with a crewcut I happened to find in FB just now.

Or, what if you want to include in your story a 30ish woman with black hair and blue eyes. By hyperlinking through friends' or random Facebook pages, you should be able to find someone who looks like what you imagine who is telling the world her taste in music, movies, etc. She could enter your short story, with some of her real-life personality intact (but don't use her real name), or mixed in with aspects of other people, perhaps also randomly chosen.

But—and there is almost always a but on the Internet—FB is both a potential idea-generating wonderland, and a labyrinth of links, updates and invitations. On one's Home page, especially when you have more than 100 friends or your friends frequently update, a cacophony of voices rises daily, which a writer might drown in. Writing is lonely work and it's seductive to have so many "friends" trying to talk to you, making themselves available to read what you write without fear of rejection, or having to wait months for a response. And, like other web sites, accessing FB on the same computer you use to write means that it is sometimes hard to pull away, to make the transition from absorbing text to producing it.

So, I offer a cautious endorsement of FB as a tool for writers. Like wine, it can be beneficial in small doses, but detrimental if you drink too much.


1. Choose a day at random; write down, or cut and paste, the descriptions in the status lines of all of your friends. Rearrange and use to compose a poem, or make each status line the start of a paragraph in a short-short story.

2. Random FB short story: Take 3 friends. Hyperlink 3 times away from their FB pages (click on the third friend on their FB page; then click on their third friend; then click on their third friend). Use the first and/or last names of the people you find as characters in a short story. Use real life personalities or descriptions of their appearance (but mix up so the first person's description matches the second person's name, etc., and no real person's name is linked with a real person's looks or hobbies).

3. Write a short story titled "It's Complicated." Base it on any non-friend's FB page you find with that in the status line, or just make up something. Write it in the form of reverse chronological FB status lines.

P.S. If there are writers already producing FB-based work that has gotten the attention of serious publications, please let me know by writing me at: thebethblevinsATgmailDOTcom. I might mention/examine it in a future post.