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An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2010-06-25 05:38
Subject: [writing] Idiots and assholes
Security: Public
Tags:calendula, personal, process, writing
Apropos of nothing in particular, I was thinking of the "idiots and assholes" theory of driving while I was on my exercise bike this morning. (Yes, even cancer patients need their exercise.) That's the idea that whatever speed you're driving at is the one you think is right; anyone driving slower, and therefore in your way, is an idiot; anyone driving faster, and therefore tailgating you or blowing by you, is an asshole.

Mind you, this is not a theory I consciously subscribe to any more, nor have I for years, but I suspect it lurks in there somewhere. This is very much a part of human nature, sort of like the same guy who will cut you off hard on the street outside the bank will hold the door to let you in when he sees you as a human being and not as an idiot/asshole automobile in his way. This analogy has a lot of implications in Internet debates where anonymity is used as an accountability-free platform for all manner of viciousness, but that's a topic for another time.

The thing is, if you drive a distinctive car, as I have off and on over the years, and as calendula_witch does now, you can't be an idiot or an asshole, because people will recognize and remember you. In a very small and sort of strange sense, you have a brand.

Writers are the same way. With the recent releases of Pinion and The Specific Gravity of Grief, I've published about a million words of fiction over the past ten years. I haven't done the math, but I'd guess I'm somewhere between one-and-a-half and two million words of blogging in the same time frame. Every last word of it, with a few very rare exceptions, under my own name. The name you'll hear in the convention bar or in line at the bank.

Am I an idiot? On occasion. Am I an asshole? Also on occasion, though hopefully as rarely as possible. Certainly if you want to prove either thesis, all you have to do is even lightly touch the corpus of my work, and you could prove literally anything about me from written evidence. Strip off the sarcasm in some of my blog posts, and you could prove in my own words that I am a hardcore neoconservative. Strip off the humanism in some of my fiction, and you could prove in my own words that I a cast iron bastard who believes people deserve exactly what they get in life. Neither could be further from the real, nuanced truth of me, but, hey, there I am. With the tiniest bit of cherry picking and a little bit of interpretive gloss, you could just as easily prove I'm a Christian, a Communist, an activist, a reactionary: pretty much anything you wanted to. My brand is backed by a little bit of everything.

And that's one of the risks of being a writer, of being a public person. You do have a brand. Your words speak for you. People will interpret those words how they will, with whatever needs they bring to the text in the moment. As I've often said, "the story belongs to the reader." Maybe a more accurate statement is "the words belong to the reader."

Still, it's incumbent upon me as a decent human being to be as little of an idiot as possible, and as asshole as rarely as possible. More to the point, it's incumbent upon me as an author to write good, interesting fiction; and as a blogger to right engaging posts.

This is not a career for the faint of heart. Unless you're very good at either engaging with people or at ignoring them.
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Kari Sperring
User: la_marquise_de_
Date: 2010-06-25 13:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That's a very interesting point. One thing I've noticed, curiously, is that I have an almost schizophrenic in how I react to response to my writing. If it's related to my academic non-fiction, then it's part of the package -- we write to some degree in order to open and engage in debate and while sometimes people say things that make me wish I'd covered an area more thoroughly or whatever, it almost never feels like I'm being misinterpreted. (I don't react well to comments which come from the grounds of my perceived Englishness as against Celticness, because they are stupid, insulting and, well, wrong, because accent or no, I'm about 75% Celt myself anyway). On the other hand, I'm far more sensitive about my fiction, which in a lot of ways makes no sense, because most of the time I genuinely believe that something that's out there is now a shared, not a unique, thing. And I tend not to mind crit group feedback, however fierce. But I did not take well to the review that complained that I can't world-build as well as a particular author whose works are, shall we say, not amongst my favourites. Nor to the person who had apparently read a book with the same name but wholly different political agenda. Hmmm.
Edit: I can't type. Sigh.

Edited at 2010-06-25 01:36 pm (UTC)
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it's a great life, if you don't weaken
User: matociquala
Date: 2010-06-25 13:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Ain't it the truth?
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User: mastadge
Date: 2010-06-25 13:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
If only we'd all caravan with friends of friends, everyone would soon end up going the same speed!
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User: joycemocha
Date: 2010-06-25 14:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think this is an aspect of writing professionally that few stop to consider.

Or of being a politician, either. Once you've put yourself out there as a public figure, you've lost some of the protections you've had in the past against what people can and will say about you (which is something people on the lower levels tend to forget). Being a political activist, as I have been in the past (and seem to be heading toward yet again), means that you open yourself up to a lot of mean-spirited public commentary about you. You can either devolve to that level in response or you can avoid being/doing the idiot thing and rise above it/ignore it.

In my political past, I've seen some hideous things done, including one incident involving a City Council race in Eugene (and my boyfriend at the time). Stuff can and does come back to haunt you--and the lesson I learned from that incident was one reason why I said "no thanks" to tentative attempts to recruit me to start building up the resume to run for political office. Certainly, back in the early 90s, I was at that point and place where I was being recruited, and I probably could have parlayed myself into a position where I'd now be working as a politician or political staff. But I have a couple of skeletons that would have had mighty impacts upon other people, so I chose not to do so, as running would have meant denying a certain part of my past, and essentially lying about it.

I do have a story in my mind which is essentially the Big Oregon Political Novel that would be one heck of a great thriller-chiller barnburner...but to write it would still open up things that I can't open up yet because of those impacts. Still, there are fun pieces of it that were Stranger Than Fiction that would make a whopping great story.

The skeletons are less of a concern now, but still not something I choose to stir, even though the political scene has significantly changed since then. I'll talk about them face to face but not online.

And, in addition, I look at anyone who howls about how they've been misrepresented in print with a jaded eye. Because of my political background, I've seen how even favorable press can twist your words to say what you really didn't mean. Because of my journalistic/writer background, I can understand the editorial reasons for focusing on a message which may not be the primary message you wanted to get out there. That's why you have to think about what you say or write.

Ironically, teaching is even more restrictive than writing or politics. Written and unwritten morals clauses govern a lot of teacher behavior--and while my car is a fairly common model, my bumper stickers make me stand out. It's not entirely a bad thing but it does make me cautious. And given what happened to the Principal Who Never Was (essentially, odds are that in just about any other profession what he did would have earned a slap on the wrist, but in education was a job-killer), as well as reports of teachers who've been dismissed for simply being seen with what looked like drink cups even off-duty on their own time...there's no question that even in today's environment, the unwritten morals clauses tied to teaching contracts and teaching licenses still exist. If you're a teacher, being circumspect on your own time still is a requirement.

There are times when I find teaching more constraining than politics or writing, especially given the hypocrisy at upper administrative levels in education. Further, deponent sayeth not.
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User: kellymccullough
Date: 2010-06-25 15:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Oh hey but doesn't this comment jangle a few sympathy bells. My career currently: Fantasy novelist/elected county board supervisor. My wife's career: Physics professor and department chair.

I think I really surprised the board's corporate council when I started asking informed questions about transition from limited public figure type authorial, to either add limited public figure type local politician, or simply public figure and which exactly I was doing. I actually need to bug him about that again at some point again, since I didn't get the clearest answer.
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User: joycemocha
Date: 2010-06-25 15:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't know that there is a completely clear answer. I think the best course of action is to be careful.
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User: kellymccullough
Date: 2010-06-25 16:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yeah I've pretty much opted to try to be as cautious as if I were simply a full on public figure since the lines are fuzzy, though I think the answer falls something a bit short of that.
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User: torreybird
Date: 2010-06-25 15:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Ironically, teaching is even more restrictive than writing or politics.

Amen. Strangely, too: teaching in public school is more restrictive than teaching in Catholic school. But neither is more restrictive than being a foster parent, where ones opinions must change with the headlines in order to stay as inoffensive as possible.
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User: joycemocha
Date: 2010-06-25 15:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Relevant link:


Especially in light of what I wrote earlier.
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