This essay is part of a continuing meditation on meaning in the arts.
Everyone has seen photo-mosaics – and many have made them these days – those fascinating works in which hundreds of small images are arranged so that, when seen all together, they form another, conglomerate image. Hundreds of images of birds can combine into the image of another, larger bird. Hundreds of faces or figures can be combined to show almost anything.
In this same way, the arts are a mirror held up to humanity. All our works, taken together, combine to show us what and who we are. The more works we have, the higher the resolution of the resultant ‘image.’
We may not like or appreciate some part of what we are seeing. Some of the smaller, contributing tiles in the mosaic may seem dull or unappealing, or even displeasing. But imagine if we disliked the color gray and therefor removed all the gray tiles from a mosaic, leaving white plaster in their place – how the image would be distorted, blotched and speckled.
Who wants a mirror all blotched and speckled because we block out the parts of our own image we find displeasing? That is to say, every artist, every voice, has something to contribute to a larger truth and we are better off looking for where these contributions best fit than we are in denying them a place.
This essay is part of a continuing meditation on the meaning of the arts.
For my own part, many motivations join forces to move me to create.
In one sense, it seems an absolutely essential aspect of my identity as a human being. Making art is a continuation of the playful explorations of childhood by which we learn about our world, and ourselves, and our capabilities.
Such play is a process employed in building our maps of cognitive reality, in exercising and building intelligence through practical application of what our senses reveal in conjunction with what our social training requires.
Humans are wired to create works of art (visual, musical, visceral, muscular, gustatory, literary, and more) the way birds are wired to build nests. Some might argue that nests serve a more practical, observably useful purpose than do works of art.
That would depend on how much we value cognitive maps making sense of our complex world and how we value the kind of thinking that builds bridges between individuals and society, between the worlds of the senses and of objective rationality, the kind of thinking good at finding creative solutions to the plethora of problems we encounter while living in the material world.
So, one reason for making art is that I like to explore my sensory experiences in a playful way. Different artists, obviously, produce different work. Different media, different tools and materials, different circumstances can all lead the explorations of a single artist into new and different paths.
Put pen and ink in my hands and I’ll explore fine dark lines in relation to a blank page. I may explore them abstractly, looking for patterns inspired by the movement of my hands to music or in relation to a grid, or by combining variations on the theme of a single curve. Or I may explore in relation to what I see in the world around me, reproducing the curves of a face or a tree, a landscape or cityscape. Or I may explore what my imagination or dreams inspire: drawing a unicorn, mermaid or gryphon – as informed by reality, but not confined by it. My explorations may lead me to combine any number of these differing approaches.
Put crayons in my hands and I’ll explore the potential of bright colors and thick lines and the texture of the paper in conjunction with the waxy material. A light hand shows the texture of rough paper. A heavy hand emphasizes color over texture. Crayon resists watercolor, which will flow into the gaps the wax fails to cover… Again, I can explore abstractly, representationally, expressively, surreally or in any combination – but the results will look very different from those produced with other materials.
Similarly, explorations in three-dimensional media, or in computer-generated images will produce very different results according to the potential of their types.
Exploring across multiple media teaches me to look for and recognize the potential in a range of differing creative environments. Take away my pen, my pencils, my crayons, whatever tools I’ve been using – and I will still know how to approach turning whatever materials are at hand to creative ends.
In another sense, creative work is about power. The world is vast and complex and almost entirely beyond my power to affect. Almost. All but this one spot at the point of my pencil or pen or brush. All but this word, and the next one, and the next. I have the power to change just so much, and to share what I have done with – at least some of – the people around me and make it a part of their experience as well as mine. In turn, I can see and hear and feel the changes they make. Together we create a culture of shared experiences. We create civilization by sharing our creative experiences and our understandings in this way.
In that sense, creative work is about relationships. Art builds bridges between individuals and society. No two individuals see the world from the same position at the same time. If you want someone else to see things your way, you need to reproduce what you see in a form you can share. This has gotten a lot easier since the invention of photography, and even the best photograph loses something in translation.
The potential for seeing the world through the eyes of others – that’s huge. Like hearing the music born of another heart and recognizing one’s own passions there. We lead different lives, separate lives – as becomes only too clear in times of pain or suffering. However much we sympathize, we do not feel the same pain as the individual who has been injured or suffered a loss. You don’t feel my aching toes, courting frostbite as I walk home through sub-zero weather from a bus stop. I don’t feel your stubbed toe or mashed finger or your craving for that next cig or drink or whatever it is you may be craving.
But an evocative description or representation can remind me of my own pains and needs and I can understand that what you have experienced is similar enough to warrant my sympathy. The arts give us tools for recognizing the validity in one another’s individual experiences; they create a bridge between subjective experiences and objectively verifiable reality.
Art also builds bridges between the internal worlds of the senses and a more objective rationality. The left hand may not know what the right hand is doing. I may not know how to put what I’m feeling into terms that anyone else could understand, but an abstract expressionist painting could get the idea across, not only to others who might see it, but to my own distracted, abstracted conscious ego.
Different artistic approaches reach different audiences. No one work will reach everyone. The deaf will not appreciate your music. The blind will not appreciate any of my visual works or approaches. No one will relate to every possible work from every possible artist. Our choices, our differences in these ways help to define us as individuals and to define cultures and sub-cultures and fan groups and marketing niches. It’s all very frustrating and wonderful and confusing and amazing.
*(a lot of this applies equally to gifts for guys, but I don’t want to be doubling up on my pronouns throughout.)
It’s the thought that counts. It’s lovely to receive a gift at all, knowing that someone thinks kindly of you.
Some gifts are general enough in nature that they’ll be appreciated by most** recipients: Flowers and fresh fruit – especially in the winter. Chocolates. Shiny objects.
These can be lovely gifts to let someone special know you want to please her – when you don’t actually know her well enough to have a more specific idea of her personal tastes.
If you know more about her, you can get more specific. She loves to read? but you don’t know her favorite authors or what books she already owns? – that’s what gift cards are for. Gift cards from book stores, music stores, art or craft or computer supply stores, garden stores, hardware stores, camera stores, gun shops or lumber yards… It’s amazing the variety of interests different individuals have.
The better you know someone, the more thoughtful your gifts can be. She’s been a fan of Randy Travis her whole life and he’ll be performing in town? Or maybe it’s the Grateful Dead or Weird Al Yankovich – whatever her tastes, those tickets will make a better gift than however many roses.
She’s a new writer eager to find her audience? Buy copies of her books, recommend them to people who will like them, write reviews and post them on Amazon and Goodreads – better than a string of pearls.
Or maybe she’s an aspiring astronomer who’d love a special lens for her telescope. A horsewoman who has a serviceable saddle but yearns for that high-end, hand-tooled Spanish leather version. A lifelong fan of Star Trek who’d go ape for a replica Klingon Bat’leth, a fan of Steampunk fiction with a yen to ride in a dirigible …
What are her areas of interest? What are the things she’s passionate about?
The most thoughtful gifts of all are the ones that demonstrate how you’re paying attention, how you recognize who she is, and care what matters most to her.
** Careful with consumables – some people have allergies or unexpected aversions, are on diets or medication. It’s best to find out what an individual actually prefers.
I’ve published two volumes of short stories from the files of the Fairy Godmothers’Union, True Love Local and a full-length novel, ‘Wonder Guy,’ (Kensington’s Lyrical Press) in which his fairy godmother grants super powers to grad student Greg Roberts — just so he can impress the girl next door.
When I have the opportunity, I like to ask people what they would wish for from a fairy godmother. It shouldn’t surprise me that so many people mention the same things. High on the list is healing – whether for an ailment of one’s own or for loved ones suffering from cancer or other diseases.
Many people also wish for relief from difficult circumstances, and for peace, and protection for their families in an uncertain world.
I might have expected more people to wish for money, and am glad to see so many who think first of the more immediate, human needs that money only exists to serve.
Money often seems to be the real world’s substitute for fairy godmother magic. Money can make the difference between receiving vital medical treatment and medication – or not receiving them. Money can pay for a military, for guns and security systems. It can provide food to the hungry – if there’s someone around who has grown and harvested that food. It can pay for transportation to carry us half-way around the world to visit distant friends and family, it can provide housing and clothing and essential services and pure luxuries… all depending on and presupposing the caring, hard work and ingenuity of the people who produce the goods and who provide the services…
Money only seems like magic. The real magic is in the people, in us; the money is a symbol representing the value of what we can do to change the world.
Money can help with some difficulties, but it can’t return a loved one who has died. The laying on of currency won’t cure the common cold, let alone a cancer. Money can help pay for medical research because it helps support the people with the drive, intelligence and training to do that research. Money can help support the people who care enough to work with those who are stricken by accident or disease, but the magic is in those people who care and dedicate their lives to that work.
It’s when we start thinking about the things money can’t buy that we come close to understanding this true magic. If money were the most valuable thing, why would we spend so much of it trying to extend the life of a sick dog or cat that’s only bound to die eventually anyhow? Or heck, why spend it on anything that doesn’t add to the bottom line of our own finances? Why buy books or music, games or artwork, why spend money on any but the most utilitarian of clothing?
Clearly, people are only willing to part with money because there are things we value more: life and health and the safety and well-being of our loved ones, friends and communities – just to begin with. When basic needs are met, we value beauty and meaning and amusement. Books and stories are important to me because they remind me of just how much I value being involved with people – even imaginary people in imaginary worlds.
(Cross-posted from The Writers’ Vineyard)
Genre fiction, particularly the Romance genre gets a lot of flak from some who prefer a more literary, ‘true-to-life’ brand of fiction. Romance, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and comic book super heroes, all suffer from the sin of being products of wish fulfillment. They allow events far from likely in reality. They allow happy endings. They give people unlikely successes and even super powers.
And you know what? Readers know the real world doesn’t generally work like that. Readers are all too familiar with frustrated dreams, failure and struggle, death and devastating losses. Every step we take contends with gravity. Every breath we draw and exhale passes irreplaceable moments of the limited time we occupy our planet – where countless lives have passed to dust, where empires have risen and fallen to be all but forgotten – look on their works and tremble, look on their works and weep for what is gone.
That’s life. That’s the reality we have no choice but to live with. We do what we can to adapt and adjust and better our world as best we can, and we move on. Readers are not apt to mistake happier fictions for fact.
But things are different in the world of imagination. We can imagine impossibilities. We can imagine anything we can conceive. We can experience the fulfillment of our desires. We have the power.
Consider how convincing a dream can be, how often we experience the wildest, most incredible events without ever questioning them – until we wake up. I have often flown and levitated and performed other magical acts in the worlds of dream. The experiences are genuinely experienced, if not in the world of our physical, consensus reality. Our imaginations can give us real experiences fulfilling real emotional needs. They can evoke real emotional reactions. They can give our minds and hearts some practice at successes we may not expect in life but are far more likely to be achieved if we strive than if we assume failure and never get off the couch.
The challenge of wish-fulfillment fiction is suspension of disbelief. People are so accustomed to the world of struggle, loss and failure that readers can’t believe fantasies of extraordinary attainment unless they include obstacles and conflicts and losses in the course of reaching for the prize.
In fantasy we can have the lover of our hearts desires, the fabulous mansion or quiet garden of our dreams – and without all the complications that reality entails. We can have the happy ending without worries about property taxes or paying the gardeners…
Critics of wish-fulfillment fantasies may claim that they give us unrealistic expectations, but we know better. We’ve lived in this world long enough – at least – to have learned to read. We’re born knowing how to cry. We learn soon enough that our dreams are much bigger than reality can generally fill – and that fantasy can bring us solace for all that reality denies.
This is the text for a talk I’m giving to the Midwest Fiction Writers group, the Twin Cities area chapter of Romance Writers of America. It tells the ‘Journey of a Novel’ – what was involved in bringing the story to the page and the book to market. Our chapter features one such journey at each meeting and it’s a great way to learn about different writing processes and the workings of the publishing industry.
Team Guardian – four years in the making –
Team Guardian is a compilation of three novellas, all featuring a team of superheroes operating in a near future world where the use of ‘probability bombs’ has left the world with many people who have strange powers. Not all of these are law-abiding citizens and the team is dedicated to policing their own. These stories all tend to be heroine-centric, with heroes who bring these heroines exactly what they need most in a partner.
was my first ever publication longer than a short story. It was published in December of 2012 by Champagne Books, a digital-first publishing house.
Earlier in 2012, I was still working on my second-released novel, ‘Wonder Guy,’ which features a young man granted super powers by his fairy godmother for the sake of impressing the girl next door. When my critique partner, Nancy Holland heard about a call for novellas for an anthology of super hero stories, she referred it to me and I set out to write a different sort of female super hero.
So many female protagonists in adventure novels are ‘kick-ass’ heroines, whose strengths are in fighting and martial arts of one sort or another. I thought the world needed someone whose strength lay in her emotional intelligence. Rachel, the heroine of ‘Sweet Mercy’ is a reverse-empath who can project her emotions to those around her. She has, by necessity, learned meditation techniques to calm and center herself so that she can project peace and serenity to, for instance, defuse conflicts and hostage situations and bring potential suicides in off the ledge. Rachel’s hero is, literally, the luckiest man in the world…
Unfortunately, the story was not accepted for the anthology for which I wrote it, but was accepted by Champagne Books and published in December of 2012.
2013 was a year bringing huge upheaval to my life. Not all bad. In April, my first full-length novel, ‘Spirited‘ was published – also by Champagne, and in June ‘Wonder Guy,’ my second novel came out via Lyrical Press (now the digital-first imprint of Kensington Books).
Unfortunately, between those events, in late May, my mother passed away after a long-lingering decline – completely overshadowing the fulfillment of my lifelong dream. I didn’t feel able to give my books the attention or promotion they needed. I didn’t even want to bring them to the attention of my grieving family beyond making the simple announcement of their publication.
At the same time, it became necessary for me to move from the house where I’d been renting a room. The long and short of this being that, between early August and late October, I moved house three times in those three months. Both I and my cat were somewhat traumatized by it all, but nonetheless, I never stopped writing.
I wasn’t ambitious enough to attempt a novel during all the upheaval, but I worked on ‘Safe Haven,’ the sequel to ‘Sweet Mercy.’ I also participated in a writing retreat with my critique partners, during which I worked on a series of short stories I later published independently in the collection, ‘More Wishes,’ featuring the Fairy Godmothers’ Union active in ‘Wonder Guy‘ and in my first collection ‘Three Wishes.’
The heroine of ‘Safe Haven,’ is Beth Talbot, whose power is rooted in her extreme sensitivity. For her, to touch something is to know its history, to experience the emotional residue of its past. She’s often unsettled and confused by the impressions of many different time periods converging on her. This makes her vulnerable, but supplies her Team with vital information to stop the bad guys. Her hero can nullify her ability – giving her a source of strength and stability in her chaotic world.
‘Safe Haven’ was first released in October of 2013 – when I was also conducting a blog tour for ‘Wonder Guy,‘ and making preparations to move for the third time – to the small apartment where – thank heavens – I still reside.
In 2014, my financial situation was still marginal, so my energy was divided between working on a variety of low-paying freelance gigs, job hunting for a more permanent position and writing. My project then was ‘Shining Hope’ – the third of the Team Guardian novellas. It was released in October of 2014. At that time I was applying for a position with my present employer, and visiting my brother in hospital while he underwent stem cell replacement therapy for his multiple myeloma.
The heroine, Sophia Alvarez has the more conventional power of an Illusionist, but is a survivor of date rape and her sympathy for the ‘villain’ of the story – a vigilante killer of sexual predators – causes her a moral crisis in helping the Team. Her hero has a maturity and patience that are exactly what she needs.
Two of the three villains in this trio of stories are women: powerful women whose motivations are warped. One by a need to assume ruthless control when she is fearful for her financial security, the other by a need to protect the world of women from sexual predators in whom she can no longer see any humanity.
(Once Shining Hope was completed and sold to Champagne, I moved on to start my more ambitious Holiday Enchantments series. I am currently finalizing ‘Thanksgiving,’ the first of the five inter-related Fairy Godmothers’ Union novels.)
I first inquired about collecting the three novellas into a boxed set a couple months after Shining Hope came out. I inquired again in January 2015, only to learn I’d missed a communication from my editor. She confirmed that the publisher was planning to go ahead with the idea, and we did some back and forth about title (I wanted ‘Team Guardian Affairs) and cover. Ultimately, my suggestions were not used.
After that, I heard nothing until I inquired again in March, when my editor said the publisher was moving the project to the top of her list.
And again, I heard nothing further, until late in May, when I found a pirated version of the collection being offered on a pay-for-use site. Both my editor and I were caught by surprise – the publisher hadn’t notified either of us – or given me the opportunity to add forewords to the stories, or add any new dedications etc.
I was especially disappointed, since, if I’d been aware of its release in early April, I’d had a great opportunity to mention the book when I was introduced on a panel about the evolution of the publishing industry, at a science fiction convention over Easter Weekend.
But, happily, all three novellas are now together in a single collection and finally available in print after their long journey!
At one point, when I was living at home again after college – under my mother’s roof with no idea of a future for myself, I actually set out to commit suicide by taking Valium with alcohol.
But after the first pill, I got to thinking about how things change. At the moment life seemed pointless, but if I died there’d be no option for improving things, and things did have a way of changing, and would probably look different the next day.
I fell asleep around then, and woke up the next day, indeed feeling differently. And lots of things have changed for good and bad since then, including meeting friends who’ve become important influences, having all kinds of adventures and creating some cool stuff. I hadn’t even discovered SF fandom at that point, or written a single novel.
I’ve never again set out to kill myself, but the urge has occurred from time to time, when circumstances have seemed hopeless.
I get mad at myself for it. It’s like this person who has been with me my whole life, enjoying every good time, wants to ditch me when the going gets rough.
You know how much influence our thoughts can have on our feelings. (I say influence rather than ‘control’ for a reason*)
If my self-talk all dwells on the things I want and don’t have (a mate, children, car, big house, money), or the uselessness of my works (how little I’ve impressed people I’ve striven to impress, etc. etc) and how impossible it is that I’ll ever improve matters, it tends to darken my spirits and make life seem like a dreary wait for the inevitable grave.
If my self-talk focuses on what I can enjoy here and now, I tend to stay in pretty good spirits. Also known as counting blessings and adopting an ‘attitude of gratitude.’ (All those ‘attitude of gratitude’ inspirational sayings are perfectly correct. I’ve collected a lot on one of my Pinterest boards – a lot are about inspiration and creative work, etc too). If nothing else, this focuses my thoughts on the resources available to make any changes to my situation. It’s also a kind of magic. Focus on resources makes it easier to contemplate things I can do here and now to at least improve matters, if not solve every problem in existence.
Of course, being grateful for blessings doesn’t address issues that represent real problems.
It’s easier to feel optimistic about life if I’m actually doing something (small or large) every day toward reaching my goals. To this end, I establish weekly goals. A certain amount of progress on the current novel, making a dentist’s appointment, etc. I keep myself honest by checking in with a few friends every week. “Never give up, never surrender!” (Galaxy Quest)
And we can’t just ignore feelings of sadness, frustration, anger, despair or other ego-based needs. As a writer, I tend to view all my feelings – even difficult ones like sorrow and frustration and impossible desires – as resources. Strong feelings are the stuff dreams are made of – or, at least, the stuff good characters and stories are made of.
I just need to keep some perspective, not be overwhelmed or carried too far away. Having a sense of compassion for myself helps this. Imagining a love greater than my own helps me find that compassion in myself. Conceiving a compassion great enough to embrace the worst of my feelings leads me to conceive a compassion embracing all of us, even at our worst. It’s the kind of perspective that can enable me to relate to my villains as well as my heroes, and knowing that acceptance in my own heart keeps me from giving in to the worst I could be.
(*from our Discordian teachings we know that an excess of control can break our spontaneous and playful creative spirits.)