On writing: Thank you, Ursula

Though the American holiday of Thanksgiving is long past, there's still a reason for many writers to be thankful, and it has nothing to do with Pilgrims, pumpkin pie, or U.S. history. It's a message for struggling writers, especially those dedicated to fantasy, the supernatural, and all related genres.  Next time you feel a pang when you hear that some high school sophomore has had her first book, about young lovers in a war-torn dystopian world, optioned by Paramount after publishing a few chapters on Wattpad … take heart.

Let Ursula Le Guin slap some sense into you with the speech she gave at the recent National Book Awards ceremony.

Neil Gaiman with Ursula Le Guin at the NBAs

"Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art," she told the audience.  "Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit … is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship."

You can read more of her incandescent plea that's directed at you -- yes, at you, my friends  -- by following this link to the virtual pages of The Guardian.  It's not a long piece, but it packs a powerful, inspirational punch.

And when you're done, I'd ask you to think about that sharp pang of jealousy/frustration that you felt over someone else's incredible luck.  Why does it bother you so much?

Think about what Le Guin says.  Are you part of someone else's marketing plan, or are you a writer?

Do you want a big payday from your writing -- if you do, why not try something else?  Go into real estate … build a stock portfolio … write a TV sitcom… success is more likely in one of these areas.

As for the rest of us, we embrace the scrivener's craft, as A.R. Williams nicely puts it in her recent post here at the Call, to find the grace inside the madness.

And when we manage to find it, there's nothing quite like it in the world.

Onward, my dear friends. Take good care.

On writing: Grace in the Madness

(My friends, so pleased to be able to share the following guest post generously provided by A.R. Williams, owner and sole proprietor of the very fine blog, Entropy: The Other Constant … enjoy!)



"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice. "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Not so long ago, there was an internet tempest in a teacup over a divorce lawyer who created a hot/crazy chart as a satirical teaching tool to help other men sort the women they were dating into one-night-stands, dating potentials, and wife material.  Redheads were all lumped into the “no go zone” of crazy.  Of course I thought that I belonged down there in unicorn territory, being a solid 8 and reasonably sane.  This turned into a conversation with a friend of mine, who rightly pointed out that the writer thing raised my crazy quotient considerably.  Even if I dyed my hair brown, I’ll never make it into the unicorn zone.


I couldn’t argue.  I wanted to, but what grounds did I have?  I make implausible stuff up, I think obsessively about creating amazing stories, I agonize over characters and plot choices, I careen wildly between thinking I know what I’m doing and the conviction that I’ll never be good enough.  And I do it of my own volition.  For not much by way of a tangible reward, at least none thus far.

At the very least, this isn’t normal behavior.

van goghThe crazy artist thing is an overused cliche.  Poor Van Gogh is at least as well known for slicing off his own ear as he is for Starry Night.  Every time someone wants to talk about art and crazy, out comes Van Gogh and his severed ear again.  The truth is, there are all kinds of crazy.  Climbing Mount Everest is madness too.  Does that make the climber crazy, or just the climb?

Because I still want to argue that it isn’t exactly that writers are crazy, it is that writing is madness.  A madness filled with grace.

We write.  Rejections from agents and publishers.  Still we write.  Thousands of words sliced from the manuscript and discarded because one thing you hadn’t thought of yet occurs to you and changes everything.  And we write.  Ideas get plucked out of the ether and someone else gets to the story first.  We write.  Writer’s block.  Still we write.  That writer over there is better.  We write.  Real jobs and commutes that leave little time for any more than laundry and groceries.  And we give up sleep so we can write.  An audience you can count on two hands. Yet we write.

There’s no explanation for it.  It isn’t self-dismemberment crazy, it’s the kind of madness typified by behavior that lacks an obvious antecedent or a clear reward.  Writers are, for the most part, harmless.  We hoard words and observations, constantly both there and not there, participating in and watching life concurrently, a little late on the response when asked a question in a meeting because we were somewhere else.  Writing.  Fixing other people's sentences for impact, sketching characters, thinking through that imagined scene to get to the mystery even we haven't sorted out yet.

prometheusThere’s some crazy involved.  Of course there is.  You’d have to be just a little off to think of Persephone as a means to sooth our ancestor’s fear over a permanent winter.  Unicorns, Frankenstein, Dracula, the Faerie Queen...  Just like I’d never in a million years come up with the idea to make and then eat Foie Gras, normal people could go forever and never come up with the story of Prometheus.

We’re just not right.

And the “not right” thing shows up in the relationship to the work.  Every word can feel like you’re both the eagle and Prometheus: the predator digging around in the hot muck of entrails for the next word, the body feeling the sharp claws wrapped around the appendix as that knife-like beak goes searching for exactly the right bit of liver to follow the last one.  And yet we do it.  Perhaps cursed by the gods for some infraction on their dignity in a past life.


“Have I gone mad?   I’m afraid so, but let me tell you something, the best people usually are.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I called it a madness filled with grace a few paragraphs ago.  What grace is in this thing that owns me, where not writing is just as difficult as writing?

I don’t know.

Perhaps it is that storytelling is the first thing that made our ancestors different from the other animals around them.  Lions eat and drink and copulate.  They do not lie around after the fact with a belly full of wildebeest and create new worlds out of words.  They don’t create Alice in Wonderland to delight the object of their inappropriate affection.  That’s the purview of humanity.  Before there were accountants and lawyers, there were storytellers.  As far as age-old professions go, I would wager only only the prostitutes can claim a similar history.

We’re human.  We need stories.  We need to tell stories.  It’s what we do.

And then you get it right. It all comes pouring out: the thing you mean to say in the most economical arrangement of nouns and verbs imaginable, both evocative and open-ended at the same time.  Specific to the thing you want to say, but with enough room in it for the whole world.  There’s no feeling in the world that is as deliciously satisfying, at least not in the same way.


Like climbing Mount Everest, writing is the hardest thing you’ll ever do.  But the words are like photographs.  You take them out and finger them later with a profound sense of peace, like you can travel back in time and comfort your then-self with assurances that there will be a time after.  Like your then-self can travel forward to the moment you’re in now to remind you that you are exactly where you need to be.  Equally, you can imagine your words doing the same, traveling around the world, bobbing into the future with comfort and companionship for people whose name you’ll never know.

And therein lies the grace.  It is in the connections: to your self, to those fire-lit cave-dwellers with their fanciful explanations for comets and seasons, to the worlds you create out of nothing, to someone halfway around the world who needs to hear that one thing only you can say, and to the future.  Seriously, how many of us have called Jane Austen a friend, centuries after she put pen to paper?

Or maybe it is just that God/ess is a storyteller, and writing is the part of us that connects to the breath that gave us life.

And so a secret kiss Brings madness with the bliss --Tom Waits, Alice


Entropy: The Other Constant


Staying up late with A.L. Kennedy

Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 4.45.09 PM I've mentioned before how much I adore A.L. Kennedy's columns on writing in the Guardian. There are many people who post items on this topic, and not very many are successful at it. Either they sound too academic or preachy or remote from anything that we care about.

But not Kennedy -- her pieces have always managed to blend the personal and the practical in a way that leaves you feeling inspired, and realistic, about the tasks ahead of you.

And I've been dealing with withdrawal symptoms ever since they stopped appearing last year.

What did I really expect? That she would want -- or need -- to keep dissecting aspects of her experience as a writer for my benefit forever? Did I think she'd forsake her fiction just for that (her new book, by the way, is the story collection "All The Rage.")

Oh, c'mon now.

Instead, the Scottish author's ken has gotten much wider with a new piece that appeared in the past week at the Guardian. With "Insomnia and me," she talks about something that troubles plenty of people at bedtime.

Her writing life is still there, skirting the edges of the column and informing much of what she says. In a short space, she also offers some affirming perspectives that sound like they've been truly hard-won, not platitudinal:

…[T]ime alone in bed with an unreliable mind is still a battle. When I can't sleep I recite the fears that would harm me most: harm to the man I love, or my mother, ill health, bad ill health, penury, death. It's horrible and pointless. So now I try to use the inventory to rehearse my appreciation for the good I have about me, to promise I will seize the day. What we love can be lost, so why not love it a lot while it's here?

In the end, this column, like all the rest, reminds us that what the best pieces do is communicate and connect us. And the best writers, like Kennedy, very rarely stay settled in one space, one topic, when their curiosity is too great and their voices are pulling them somewhere else.

I'm just glad she's back.

For more of Kennedy, find the link in the blogroll here at Call of the Siren.



A tightly-controlled world: A.R. Williams on 'The Camellia Resistance' (pt. 1)

Screen Shot 2013-11-11 at 4.50.26 PM The novel The Camellia Resistance by A.R. Williams starts off in a comforting place, a warm bed, as the narrator watches her lover dress. But the world outside is far from a comfort — a future landscape, painted in apocalyptic tones and colors. It's become a familiar world in the past decade or so, thanks to writers like Suzanne Collins, Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Justin Cronin and big- and small-screen entertainments like The Walking Dead and Elysium.

But Williams' story -- which is part of a trilogy -- manages to find its own niche in this crowded genre, drawing on aspects of today's politico-socio climate to project a plausible future -- a world in which intimacy and love are threatened at the national, and viral, levels ... where latex, body condoms, and SaniCheck have become the norm. Government muscle is flexed to a suffocating degree, ranging CAMELLIA RESISTANCEfrom government agents to the little tattoo that marks infected people, and Williams shows its full effect with compelling style.

She's also a thoughtful interviewee, and I asked her a few questions about her novel -- presented in this post -- and about what she learned about the craft of writing as she finished this novel (coming soon in Part II of the interview).

I’d recommend that you print out this post, pour yourself the beverage of your choice, and sit back and listen to what Williams has to say about her novel and her experiences: It just might provide unexpected insights for you as you push ahead with your own project. Enjoy, my friends.


The book opens with an intimate description of Willow’s lovemaking with Zacharias Vendelin—her beloved “Ven.” She savors their time together because such intimacy isn’t allowed in their society, isn’t that right? Why not?

Willow is pretty isolated. She's bought into the protocols and assumptions of her culture, but she's lonely. There's a fundamental conflict between her early childhood experiences of affection with her biological mother and the life she's living now. She remembers being connected to another person, but it isn't really a part of her adult experience until she meets Ven. Her isolation makes her vulnerable, so when Ven shows up and touches her, her choices reflect her own ignored needs, not any well-placed trust in this virtual stranger.

Isolation's the norm, isn't it?

Intimacy is tightly controlled in the world she lives in. It's recognized as a necessary evil for the procreation of the species, but messy things happen with intimacy, and hers is a society that doesn't have much tolerance for messiness. This is a world where there's been a massive pandemic that's wiped out most of the population. What's left is a reactionary government built around the premise that if you can just control everything tightly enough - the biggest focus is on health and cleanliness - then you can prevent bad things from happening.

williams author photoHow did you come up with the idea for this novel, considering that there are so many end-of-the-world narratives out there already? 

The novel evolved considerably from inception to publication. I started writing it for National Novel Writing Month in November 2009 -- kind of before the whole dystopian thing was a thing.

It must have been daunting to come up with an idea that's "new."

The plan was never to write something "new": In the initial stages, I just wanted to get 50,000 words by the end of November. As it grew in size and scope, I realized there were things I definitely wanted to talk about and the dystopian future provided an uncluttered framework for the discussion.

It's all imaginary, if you're working in 2044 instead of 2006. If it is a literal world you're writing in, you've got to conform to the rules of the real world. Twisting the basic assumptions about the world, even just a little bit, gave me both the grounded nature of a recognizable environment and the freedom to question things that we take for granted.

That's an interesting position to occupy. It's so flexible.

I really just wanted to talk about what comes after the worst thing you can possibly imagine happens. I was raised in a super conservative Christian sub-culture where we were afraid of everything. The way I grew up, if you could just be good enough, if you just kept to the rules strictly enough, then everything would be okay. I didn't know I was writing about that experience at the time I was writing, but I found that I really wanted to talk about fear and where decisions made from fear lead, both for society and for the individual.

In the end, I don't think any of us get away from the things that scare us most. There's something liberating about getting to the other side of the worst possible outcome and coming to the realization that you're still there and you still have to figure out what's next.

The dystopian setting served as an allegory, not as a considered starting point for writing something new. I really wasn't thinking about what else was out there or the trends in contemporary commercial fiction. The end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it environment just provided enough distance that I could talk about this notion of fear and culture without being tied to an exacting account of reality.

Mark of the fallen: The tattoo worn by infected people in "The Camellia Resistance."

What inspired the ideas of the two opposing groups, the Ministry and the Brethren (science vs. faith)? It seems like there are many public figures today with Ministry-like solutions to massive problems.

Given the way I was raised, I have a fundamental mistrust of anyone who wants to offer a single, simple answer. Usually presented like this: "if you just do what I tell you to do in the way that I tell you to do it, then everything is going to be okay." The reality is that things are only simple when the variables are constrained. When it comes to people (and what of our massive problems aren't people problems?), there's never going to be a single big answer. It's always going to be a multiplicity of small, often contradictory answers.

So the Ministry, as well-intentioned as it might be, is a metaphor for what happens when a single idea or answer is allowed to dominate to the exclusion of all others. Huge elements of what it means to be human get repressed, to everyone's detriment.

I see there being three groups in a kind of triangle: the Ministry and the Brethren being rather closer to each other than they are to the outliers; the loosely associated groups of misfits, a vaguely criminal element; and people that (in the American tradition) simply don't want to be told what to do. So the conflict is between control, either through science or faith, and the pragmatists who are more agnostic in their assumptions about what the right answers might be.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 12.14.38 PM

“Life before the Ministry” – Willow asks an old cabdriver to describe what life was like before the Ministry. What he describes, in a nutshell, sounds like U.S. society today, is that accurate?

Yes. There are a few people in 2044 who remember what it was like before the pandemic and they are rightly ambivalent. Not everything about how we live right now is beneficial. In fact, a lot is wrong with our inability to come to some sort of an agreement that some things just aren't good for us. The food industry is far more interested in keeping their shareholders happy than they are to the general health and well-being of the consumer. There is a lot that we've got going on, just health-wise, that is really not well-considered or beneficial to anyone.

Everything costs something.

That's a running theme in the book. It isn't that the trade-offs shouldn't be made, just that I think there is value in being aware of what those trade-offs are. We can have unfettered freedom of choice when it comes to our food consumption, but then the cost of that is skyrocketing medical costs and a massive problem with obesity.

We can give up some of those freedoms (like the NYC attempt to ban super-size sodas), but what do we lose with that choice? What do we gain? And does anyone really need 32 ounces of Coke in one shot?

Some of the issues that Willow faces could have taken place in a “regular, normal” world, but why did you want to set her plight in a futuristic situation instead?

A lot of what Willow faces happens to real people in the regular world all the time, but her experience is really only the catalyst into the bigger questions: Is fear a productive basis for making choices? Which is better - a messy life lived genuinely or a controlled life without authentic connections?

You don't have to live in an apocalyptic world to face those questions.

That's right. Sooner or later, we all come to an "end of my world" situation. For some of us it's a divorce; for others, it's a health crisis or a job loss or some other event that forces us to question who we are and how we've been functioning in the world. If I've done my job as a writer, this book will reach someone in the middle of that kind of a crisis and will hopefully give them an alternate perspective and a reason to have a little compassion for themselves.


Coming soon: What the writing process taught A.R. Williams.