Writing: what you imagine, versus what is

from Arts Renewal International

There’s “Ask” culture – the one where you make an effort to assume nothing, or you assume from the beginning you do not know/may not understand what you just heard or read.

Then there’s “Guess” culture- where you make an assumption and move forward on that premise. Writers spend a lot of time guessing. We guess what the editor wants. We guess what our audience will like. We even guess what we might get paid, if at all, for our contributions.

In the US, we’re transitioning from “Guess” to “Ask.”  While we do this, we have people littered throughout generations on one side or the other of this premise.

Pagans, if asked, would insist that they are “Ask” culture – it is, after all, viewed as the more considerate, inclusive, non-judgmental way. You make no assumptions about race, religious creed or sexual preference. You express your feelings authentically, saying “I feel,” or “I feel like” rather than resorting to physical outbursts or projective rants. You try to overcome the overculture most of us knew, the ones where our mothers and fathers never talked about their feelings and often praised avoiding even mentioning let alone acknowledging the ills in the family that were destroying it from within. ((Which is why more than 80% of American families are now classified as dysfunctional. Because they’re terrified to admit they’re screwed up, they’re even more screwed up.))

Pagans are still human, and as much as we are naturally and actively different from those around us at times, we don’t like to admit that sometimes we make the same assumptions as everybody else.

We really, really do.

Especially when it comes to writing.

I’m not innocent here. I have delusions about writing, but I am trying to rid myself of them, rid myself of my childhood acculturation.

I was raised in a “Guess” household, and I subverted that by using it do what I wanted with my life instead of pursuing parental approval. My parents could say nothing without admitting they were being assholes, and I have pretended for years that I simply guessed wrong about what they wanted. The truth is, I believe they had no business “wanting” anything about my future, because my future and my life belongs to me, not them. They could never “guess” this about me; part of guess culture involves not concerning yourself with what the person “beneath” you thinks and believes.

I want the system to change, yet I use a loophole in the system to my own benefit. I will not like it when culture changes so much that that loophole disappears.

I have made many assumptions. I apologize when I realize what I’ve done, but sometimes, I’m just not paying attention.

So, somewhere between Guess and Ask, this is what I’m confronting in what people imagine about me as a writer:

1. That I’m a Noob.


They’ve never heard of me.

Even in a genre as small as New Age/metaphysical, it’s not possible to have heard of every writer, no matter how informed you may consider yourself.  Authors you’ve never heard of are everywhere: in genres you know and read voraciously, in traditional publishing houses, and in your own city. Some even make a living while you know nothing about them. It is not a living that will get them followed around by TMZ. There are even other Pagan writers whose names I do not know.

They know my age

I’m not that young, but I used to be. I wrote – and published – a lot while I was young. I’ve been releasing paid work since I was 16. The average writer doesn’t really take off until age 34-35, and I’m there now. I’ve written for years without lift-off.

Because they doodle at writing, but have not published themselves, and assume I am automatically the same as themselves.

Projection, projection, projection. It’s the bane of my life. I am not a mirror, a movie screen or a parrot. Yet so many people behave as though I am one. You should see/hear the stupid shit I’ve been confronted with involving other peoples’ feelings about marriage, divorce, family and writing. Your experience is valid, but it is NOT ALL EXPERIENCE.

2. That I’m doing it for callous money-making reasons.

We’re only starting to untangle the fucked-up behind that one, but since it goes back to the Puritans, it’s too long for me to unspool here. Just too much fucked-up for me to fix. Let’s go with this: poverty does not make you a better person.

Money is not awful. It’s how we use it and how we think about it that’s all fucked up.

But writing books, etc. is like building handcrafted furniture: you don’t keep doing it if it’s just about money.

The core assumptions that come out of this are the following:

  • Authors do it for the fame and fortune. Writing, like priesthood, is often a calling. It’s just a calling that is at times pleasurable.
  • Speakers fees, workshop fees, asking people to buy a copy of your book, are somehow viewed as an insult. Publishers do NOT pay for those plane tickets, campground fees and hotel stays.
  • Marketing is EVIL. I am on both sides of this. Marketing that’s relevant to you isn’t horrible, it’s information. You’re not obligated to use it, or to give it your attention if it doesn’t suit you. I spend a good portion of my day annoyed by marketers; I have a good sense for what is good behavior and what is just not. I also spend a chunk of my day marketing. I’ve found sending out happy magic thoughts quite limited in bringing new people to my work.

3. That “good writing” equals “perfect” grammar. Also, that I conform to another person’s definition of perfect – a person who is NOT an acquisitions editor.

By this I do not mean standard good grammar. I cringed as much as anyone at the advent of 4chan and text-speak. By this I mean the people who will find any excuse to keep me from publishing a work, pointing out typos, offending commas and at least twice misspellings that weren’t.

Notably, the people who have done this are never themselves published writers. Yet these same frustrated non-producers think of themselves as my competitors. That I mostly just compete with myself doesn’t register at all to these folks.

Sometimes, it’s actually a touch of condescension from someone younger than myself. These are the ones that complain about typos, and “offer” to help, the help involving sitting on a piece for weeks without touching it, and then getting angry when I go ahead and release it without their “permission.”

I can think of two specific examples of this happening, both when I first opened my Etsy shop. One person insisted on rewriting my listing copy (she never explained what she found lacking in what I wrote.) Her copy came off as cutesy, had its own misspellings, and while it did get hits, it became obvious to me people bounced off of it fast. When I rewrote the copy, I had less hits – but sales doubled. People who were looking for what I had to offer read what I wrote. They bought based on what I had to say, not on what a marketer perceived as the way to get attention. I drew less casual searchers and more serious buyers.

In another case, someone else took a view of my marketing writing as somehow flawed, and rewrote it in a way that dumbed it down. I let her re-release with her copy to people her company had relationships with. I kept my own version, that I ran by someone else who was a professional writer rather than a marketer, and released that version to other publications. My release got follow-up from reporters. The revision of my release the other woman used did not.

I may not have perfect grammar and indeed, when I can afford an editor, I will hire one. But imperfection does not equate with failure.

Good writing is not the same thing as good grammar. I’ve read scores of grammatically correct work that just sucked. While necessary for comprehension, grammar comes AFTER a work is fully developed.

4. That the publishing business hasn’t changed.

If that were true, Borders would not have closed, Pagans would not have passionate arguments demonizing or deifying e-book readers and self-publishing would still live only in the vanity category.  There are multiple small metaphysical stores completely unaware that in fact, they can get in on the ebooks gig right now, if they are willing to invest in getting proper technical support with an informed technologist.

From there follows a whole lot of assumptions that have gone the way of Camelot:

False: Publishers pay for marketing, publicity, and book tours.

Nope. Unless you ARE someone everybody has heard of, that’s on you – and book tours are usually a loss.

False: Publishers pay a lot.

Nope. Even in the increasingly rare case of a book advance, the money typically comes to something that might float you for a year if you live very minimally and have no student loans or credit card debt. It’s still living paycheck to paycheck, just with you getting your paycheck much less frequently and in bigger chunks.

5. That I’m at the same place in my writing career as they are.

Sometimes this is true, but you just can’t know that. If I say I’m looking for an agent – I’m looking for an agent.  If I want to issue an academic book, it will say “this is an academic study.” I am choosing an unrestrictive in my approach to my current projects. I wish to release well-researched work,  but I have no interest and see no benefit to myself or improvement to the greater body of Pagan work by being snobbish.  What if I write something wonderful, incisive, and paradigm-changing, but it’s too boring to finish? The only people that will finish it will be those who are doing so to fulfill their ego/projected self-image as “elite.”

Most writers that know me in day to day life do not read my work. I am fine with this. But if you comment on my career without reading my work or knowing what I’ve already done, I will respond with irritation.

6. That my feelings about my profession and industry are the same as theirs.

I’m not scared, I’m delighted.  I’m not angry, I’m curious.

Perhaps this is my FAQ about writing to my Guess culture readers. Please, don’t guess – ask.

I’ve seen so much stuff by people who wish publishing was “the way it used to be,” and who for some reason expect me to agree. Others, unpublished non-industry peers, have expected me to hand my work over for their approval.  Still others have actually tried to convince me to stop writing and to drop certain projects.

These behaviors are not OK.

Learning and adapting to the publishing world takes vigilance and I’ve made that commitment. I don’t know everything – but I very much know exactly which people do know what they’re talking about when it comes to writing.