The Wannabe Industry

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Unless you live in a wifi-less cave, you’ve probably seen ads like this, where organizations or individuals market their (ahem) industry expertise to the aspiring masses. It’s the kind of thing I like to call the wannabe industry.

As a shallow, celebrity-worshiping culture, we tend to glorify certain professions: writer, filmmaker, musician, pro (insert sport here) player, and many other creative professions. At a holy-shit-how-cool emotional level, it’s understandable. After all, who wouldn’t want to be a famous actor, walking the red carpet?  Or a best-selling author? Or a multimillionaire sports star? If you’re stuck in a dead-end career or struggling financially, it’s tempting to daydream about an if-only life in a highly compensated, so-called glamorous career.

Still, it never fails to surprise me how otherwise intelligent, ostensibly rational people get taken in by the wannabe industry, ready to believe wildest claims from (let’s face it) people who often aren’t any closer to the center of an industry than Pluto’s orbit is to the sun.

CAVEAT EMPTOR – Here are my biggest red flags for the wannabe industry. Feel free to add more of your own.

Questionable credentials. ‘Industry insiders’ often don’t have any more experience within their specialty than the folks they’re selling their expertise to. If this sounds circular, that’s because it is. So before signing up and handing over your hard-earned money, do a background check. If your expert’s resume is chocked full of awards you’ve never heard (or can find anywhere) or his / her lists of accomplishments look iffy, move on. Sadly, this wannabe-teaching-other-wannabes dynamic is prevalent in an industry near and dear to my heart: fiction writing.

Style over substance.  Your spider-sense should tingle if you come across an organization that relies a bit too heavily on slick promotional materials and paid endorsements. And if they offer financing, don’t walk, RUN for the nearest exit. Creative arts academies are a classic example. While there are hundreds of imitators with glossy takeaway brochures, there’s only one Actor’s Studio.

Small Business with a Famous Name Wrapper. Private sports leagues for kids come to mind here. Think your local Chelsea or Manchester United soccer academy will teach your child the secrets of the Premier League pros? Think again. These organizations are small businesses that pay a fee to license a famous name. A logo on your kid’s overpriced jersey (and socks and shorts and don’t forget the personalized backpack and team-approved shoes!) doesn’t guarantee a meaningful learning experience. Don’t believe the marketing copy, these clubs have about as much contact with their professional namesake as your local priest does with Pope Francis. And they certainly don’t have a monopoly on good teachers and role models for your children.

Outrageous claims. Success (however you define it) in any creative endeavor is a combination of innate talent, hard work, and serendipity. And oftentimes these elements work together in strange ways. There are penniless, unknown artists with incredible gifts who simply never get a lucky break, and there are talentless hacks whose relentless work ethic earns them a seven-figure income. There is no secret sauce recipe, no right or wrong way to the top of the mountain, and what works for one person may not work for someone else. The only guarantee creative professionals can count on is there are no guarantees. And to quote a favorite movie line, “anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.”

Question everything. Be skeptical and do your homework before shelling out the big bucks. And beware of the wannabe industry, it preys upon your deepest hopes and aspirations, and it counts on your willingness to ignore that little voice telling you, “you might want to step around this, it smells like bullshit.”

Help Me BBC, You’re My Only Hope

Last night I saw something that frightened me, a BBC News program hosted by a woman wearing pancake makeup and tight-fitting clothes emphasizing (gulp) ample cleavage. After doing a double take, I started to worry, wondering if she represented a kind of turning point, the BBC’s concession to the ever-lowering bar of mass media standards where image has long since triumphed over content.

I didn’t lose my faith in US news programs overnight. It was more a gradual slide into disappointment that started in the nineties, when if you watched any national US news program (except maybe the MacNeil / Lehrer NewsHour on PBS), you might not have seen any coverage of mass atrocities and genocide in Eastern Europe and Africa. Newscasts were dominated by, or more precisely obsessed with, an intern and her relationship to a politician and his cigar collection.

Time passed and I noticed other changes. 60 Minutes seemed to throw in the towel at some point, pivoting more to celebrity profiles and less to investigative journalism. And then Frontline started using slow camera pushes on teary-eyed victims, ominous music scores, and every Hollywood trick short of a Hitchcock zoom to maximize the dramatic punch of their programming.

So I turned to the BBC. There was a content-over-style approach to the news I found refreshing. And I loved the journalists’ intolerance for PR-crafted talking points and dogmatic answers, the way they tenaciously pushed for the truth behind the bullshit. And there was a delightful absence of tabloid fodder. No Paris Hilton, no Kardashians.

But then last night I saw this woman, her chest nearly bursting from the top of her blouse, telling me something about some place (for whatever reason I can’t remember). And I began to worry. I don’t want a BBC News program without frumpy journalists, their unfortunate hair, wrinkled shirts, and bad tie choices.

Please don’t follow us to the bottom, BBC News. It’s cold and dark down here. Sure, everyone looks great, but we don’t know who’s lying to us.  And worse, a lot of us don’t seem to care anymore.

The Time I Accidentally Wrote Feminist Fiction

I once wrote a story that unintentionally ended up being a kind of a feminist litmus test. Now you might be thinking, wait, I thought you wrote dystopic science fiction?

Let me explain.

The story featured a bold, determined female protagonist with an assertive, unconventional sexuality (and in case you’re wondering what that noise is, it’s the sound of a can of worms opening). She was a tribute of sorts to women I’ve known personally and admired for their strong character and proud, defiant individualism. I had no idea her story would be a literary poke in the eye to many readers, but that’s exactly what it turned out to be.

In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that, for the most part, a certain demographic (white, male, over 50) HATED her. And now that I think about it, maybe I was more surprised by the strength of the reaction than the reaction itself. When I ran early drafts across beta readers, the visceral, red-faced animosity from that certain demographic was not a pleasant thing to be on the receiving end of (I wouldn’t last two hours in Gloria Steinem’s shoes). The words “whore” and “slut” were never used, but the value judgements were unmistakably there, the subtext of their angry feedback, like a shark lurking just below the surface of the water.

Women beta readers, for the most part, liked the character. Imagine that. I eventually sold the story (to a woman editor, respect), and to this day it remains one of my favorites.

The whole situation reminded me of a discussion in an undergraduate literature course, when my professor brought up the topic of the “unintended narrative.” The thinking is that the writer, in addition to the intentional story and its related themes, also imbues his or her work with unintentional meanings and messages. In other words, the artist communicates more than he’s aware of.

Did I write the character intentionally provocative? Yes. Did I think some folks would have a problem with her? Undoubtedly.

But did I deliberately want to take a jab at chauvinists whose laughably archaic views on gender roles have no place in modern, civilized society?

Not really. But you know, that kind of sounds like something I’d do.  😉

 

 

 

Photoshop, Creative Cross Training, and the Art of Writing

When I was three, a preschool teacher showed my mom a crayon drawing I’d made of a dinosaur. My mom shrugged and said, “Yeah, he draws dinosaurs all the time at home.” To this the teacher replied incredulously, “Three-year-olds don’t draw dinosaurs.”

As a kid, drawing was my first creative love. I’d draw my own comics, sketch cartoony portraits of my family, and (as I approached adolescence) create disproportionately-endowed females with come-hither eyes. At some point in my teen years, though, I lost interest in drawing, but even as my attention began to bend toward literature in my college years, I’ve always maintained a keen interest in the visual arts. I make movie selections based on director / cinematographer pairings, I’m fascinated by 20th century Spanish and American painters, and I consider British street artist Banksy a modern genius.

Recently, on a whim that felt similar to the one that brought me back to writing a few years ago, I bought a drawing tablet and Photoshop. Over the past few weeks, I’ve slogged through online tutorials on figure drawing, perspective, and other ‘art 101’ primers. Really, really fun, but really, really challenging as well.

And unexpectedly, this new creative outlet has improved my ability to write. After sketching for a few hours, when I come back to writing it seems relatively easy. Not objectively easy, mind you, just by comparison. While my skills as a writer undoubtedly have lots of room to improve, they’re certainly well past the stick figure stage, and this is a comforting thought.

A similar thing happened when I suffered a knee injury that forced me to stop training for a marathon. For several months, instead of running, I cross trained with weightlifting, swimming, and riding a stationary bike. When I finally came back to running months later, I found my performance was higher and running just seemed, somehow, easier.

Maybe creative muscles are like the physical ones in the sense that a bit of cross training helps develop your core strength, whatever that happens to be. Maybe painters can improve their landscapes by writing stories. Maybe actors can improve their monologues by taking up knitting. Actually, the knitting example may be a bit of a stretch, but in my case a bit of creative cross training seems to have helped.

I’m interested in learning if any of my writer friends have had similar experiences with creative cross training. Let me hear from you!

Choosing Teams: Science Fiction vs. Literature

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me.

“Oh,” someone says, “so you’re a writer?” His or her eyes light up with admiration.  “What kind of things do you write?”

When I answer, “science fiction,” the person’s face goes blank, they nod slowly, and then they say something politely dismissive along the lines of “Oh, that’s nice.”  With just two words, my position on the cultural totem pole goes from somewhere near Hemingway down to somewhere near the person who corners you at a party to talk about UFO conspiracies.

When you type up a story, you’re just a writer, just a person with an idea in their head, with some story to tell. But when you get around to the business of selling a finished piece, you have to choose a team. And while there’s a wide array of divisions and sub-divisions in the publishing marketplace for fiction (for non-writers out there, think the sections you see in a Barnes & Noble), when you get right down to it there are only two buckets: genre fiction and literature. And for someone like me, this really stinks, because I’m what you call a tweener.

I’m the guy in high school who enjoyed sports but also hung out with the odd-dressing, screw-everything crowd, who loved B.B. King as much as the Sex Pistols, who had friends in nearly every social circle. As an adult, I’m the English Composition major who loves science fiction, equal parts literary snob and genre nerd. A walking contradiction, welcome to my world.

As a writer, being a tweener sucks. It’s like straddling a kind of literary Chinese Wall where a fair amount of people on both sides have little interest in — and often contempt for — the territory beyond their homeland. For too many of the folks on one side the wall, it’s a waste of time to read (much less love) the snooty, more-style-than-story literary works of Joyce Carol Oates or Zadie Smith or Tobias Wolff. And for the other side, science fiction is a literary ghetto, a dumping ground for sub-standard fiction, a file drawer that Kurt Vonnegut once famously said serious critics regularly mistake for a urinal.

For reasons that are as much commercial as cultural, you can’t straddle the wall indefinitely. At some point you have to choose which side is yours, and the home I chose was science fiction. Why? Because Isaac Asimov’s idea of psychohistory turned my teenage brain upside-down. Because Ray Bradbury fired my imagination. Because 1984 blew me away. Because William Gibson, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Ian McDonald. Simply put, science fiction is the literature (yes, I said it) that’s closest to my heart.

It’s a funny thing, though. When I jumped off the wall and landed on the SF side, I noticed something. The wall wasn’t solid.  There were large holes that had been created by people on both sides, chiseling away little by little. And there were people crossing back and forth through the gaps, distributing subversive literature like the SF issue of The New Yorker, short stories by George Saunders, novels by Philip K. Dick, and other works that refused to play the zero-sum SF-versus-literature game.

The wall still doesn’t have enough holes, though, and there aren’t nearly enough people passing through the existing ones. But I just heard a woman on the literary side discussing Heinlein without sarcasm, and I noticed a man on my side talking about Salman Rushdie without rolling his eyes. And for a tweener like me, that made my day.

Texas Internationalists…Yes, We Exist…

There are two things about me that never fail to elicit surprise from people. The first is the ability to speak Spanish. Native speakers from Latin America or Spain always (and I mean literally every time) do a double take when they first hear me speak their language fluently. The second thing is my love for English soccer. When I express my disgust with Tottenham’s treatment of Harry Redknapp with English friends, they invariably look at me as if they’ve just found a unicorn in their driveway.

As a fifth-generation Texan, I’m generally expected to wear cowboy boots, speak only English (preferably with a Ross Perot-like drawl), carry a handgun, kill forest animals, drag Jesus into all political discourse, and have an upper-quartile body mass index score. If that’s what you were expecting, sorry to disappoint you.

Stereotypes blow. They’re a linguistic and intellectual trap we all fall into more than we should, pre-shaped thoughts that allow us to conveniently attach an easy-to-read label on someone, or a whole nation of someones, so we don’t have bother with the more time-consuming, contemplative, personal approach to knowing and understanding others.

And stereotypes are sticky. It’s hard to free ourselves of them. But there are cures.  In my case, for example, I’ve been lucky enough to develop deep, meaningful relationships outside of my home culture and country, and for me this has been a continuous, lifelong stereotype-shattering experience. What I’ve found is that no matter where you go, there are people you can trust and people you shouldn’t. There are introverts and extroverts, the bawdy and the bashful, the generous and the selfish, the frighteningly intelligent and the unforgivably stupid. There’s no place (at least no place I know) where you don’t find the complete spectrum of human qualities, good and bad, in abundance. And no country or culture has a monopoly on ignorance or the tendency to stereotype others — this human failure, sadly, abounds everywhere, from the least educated emerging countries to the most progressive of European nations.

So take it from a fifth-generation Texan who talks with Argentinians about Manchester United’s midfielder problems — don’t believe the hype. We are all — me, you, everyone — more than a label, more than the place we come from, more than what, at first glance, you might think. Take some time to connect with someone you think you don’t have anything in common with, and I promise you, almost every time you’ll find a friend where you least expect it.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Corporate-Speak

I work at a place, one of those Fortune 100 companies, where corporate-speak is the lingua franca. Every day when I walk into the office, I check my normal vernacular, which has a certain bent toward bluntness and desert-dry humor, at the door.

Words and phrases that have clear, unmistakable meaning have no use at my workplace. Here we trade in ambiguity and generalities, the kind of language that’s inoffensive (for legal reasons), unspecific (for corporate politics reasons), yet somehow still manages to convey authority and erudition (for gravitas reasons…think three-syllable words that business majors use in an attempt to sound articulate…”My deliverables are a fundamental part of this marketing ecosystem“…Dang, look at all them fifty-cent words!!!).

I’ve often thought they should hang a sign over the entryway that says ‘Caveat Orator’ as a reminder. Although in my part of the country, a fair amount would mistake such a sign as a Spanish-language infringement on their English-language workplace and rip it to shreds.

I used to hate corporate-speak for its lameness, its imprecision, its Orwellian nature as a vehicle for prepackaged thought (this is not a 1984 reference, but a nod to the wonderful essay by George Orwell, Politics and the English Language…I highly recommend).

But you age and you soften, as people do, and at some point corporate-speak became less of a tedious nuisance and more of a tolerated absurdity, sometimes even a game. So much in the same way we used to make three-hour business meetings tolerable by pooling money and betting on how many times our department V.P. would nod off (never less than four), I decided to have a bit of fun with my long-time linguistic nemesis. I hope this list of translations is as educational for you as it was diverting for me. In corporate-speak, that’s what we call a win-win. Enjoy.

CORPORATE-SPEAK: “Let’s try to think out of the box.”  COMMON ENGLISH EQUIVALENT: “You’re clearly incapable of creative thought. Please stick to your spreadsheets and keep your lame, hack ideas to yourself.”

CORPORATE-SPEAK: “Are there any best practices we can leverage here?”  COMMON ENGLISH EQUIVALENT: “Sally doesn’t know what she’s doing, can someone please throw her a life preserver before she drowns in the endless sea of her own incompetence?”

CORPORATE-SPEAK: “What’s the value-add here?”  COMMON ENGLISH EQUIVALENT: “Does your overly wordy, meandering presentation have a point, or did you just wake up this morning and decide you wanted to waste someone else’s time today besides your own?”

CORPORATE-SPEAK (also used frequently in PARENT-SPEAK): “We’ll have to see about that.”  COMMON ENGLISH EQUIVALENT: “No.”

CORPORATE-SPEAK: “I’m not sure we can do that.”  COMMON ENGLISH EQUIVALENT: “No.”

CORPORATE-SPEAK: “We’ll have to get executive approval for that.”  COMMON ENGLISH EQUIVALENT: “Ask my boss if you want to, moron, but the answer’s still going to be no.”

If you’d like to add more to this list in the comments below, please do!

Meet the Writer

Now that blogs are decidedly passé, I figured it’s the perfect time for me to start one. I’ve always been a late bloomer.

I sat on the fence about a personal blog for a long time (pre-Millenials like me still cling to a few vestiges of pre-internet privacy…Silly, I know).  But with the crowding of Twitter and the increasingly pay-to-play Facebook model, at some point good old-fashioned blogging started to look like a good way to connect with people.

2013 was an interesting year.  I went to Spain with my brother in the spring, moved to Houston in the summer, and met lots of writer friends in person at WorldCon who I’d previously only known online.  I also managed to connect with a group of local SFF writers in Houston and start a local critique group.

Sounds productive, right? Not so much, actually.  What I didn’t do enough of in 2013 was writing. I sold a few stories, and that’s always nice, but my actual output of work (vs. 2011 and 2012) dipped significantly, probably because of the new job / family move / life-getting-in-the-way stuff.

Now that things have settled a bit, I’ve set some modest productivity goals for 2014, which hopefully I’ll stick to, and perhaps even ratchet up a bit.

For those of you who don’t know my writing background, I published a few stories in my early twenties, but then when I decided not to pursue a career in academia I pretty much stopped writing.  Fast-forward twenty years and, out of nowhere, I got the itch to write fiction again in 2011.  Since then I’ve sold seven stories, and it’s been a fun journey so far.  We’ll see where it goes from here.