The inspiration I’m given to write does not belong to me. It comes from the same source that created me, you, and everyone you love. It comes from Being itself. I’ve always had qualms about selling the fruits of that inspiration. It’s taken years of contemplation, waffling, and facing fear – yes, fear. Fear that by giving away my stories I will be seen as lacking dedication to the literary craft. Fear that making my stories free will somehow hurt other writers who want and need to make money from their art. Fear that even if the stories are free, no one will read them.
I don’t want to be a best seller. Writing isn’t about self-aggrandizement. It is pure gift, and gifts by their definition are outside of commerce. After years of contemplation, I finally realized that the “price” of free says nothing about the purity of my intent when I write. I can give you a gift, and still be dedicated to my craft. My only goal is to keep learning to be a better writer. I’d love for you to join me on the journey.
I’m sorry if you are a writer who feels this hurts you. I respect the effort you put into your creations. I pay for your books – happily. If you are a writer who is following the same path I am, and I read your story, I will click your Donate button. The nature of the gift demands reciprocity. Money (sadly) is still the easiest way to make the return, and to show appreciation.
If no one reads my stories, even free, that is not mine to carry or change. Words move those they are meant to move, and it is not within my control to decide how many people or who or even when my words reach them. That said, empirical evidence on Wattpad and Smashwords indicates people are reading my free offerings. I am working to get price-matching to trickle into Amazon, but even though that hasn’t happened yet, I feel a great soul-contentment to have every one of my published works available for free – as a gift – on Smashwords.
I’m planning to make the shift to giving away all of my fiction for free. I’ve cut production costs for any given publication by investing in the tools and skills necessary to do formatting and cover design, but editing – that’s a non-trivial expense. I’m not complaining. My editor charges a fair rate for the excellent work she does, and I come away from each piece we produce feeling like we’ve made something worthy – together. However, the shift to entirely free raises the question: should I continue to pay hundreds of dollars per story if I am not selling the books? I am fortunate in that this is a separate question than the one of being able to afford to pay an editor, and yet…. I’ll admit, I considered skipping editing. It gave me a twinge, and whenever something twinges in my conscience, I ask Mr. Aniko what he thinks. He was the one to remind me of the movie Chef, which we watched a few weeks ago.
Mr. Aniko: You remember that scene in Chef, where the son wants to serve the burned sandwich to someone who wasn’t paying, and the father (the chef) prevents him?
Me: Yes. That was one of my favorite scenes.
Mr. Aniko: The chef said that they couldn’t serve the sandwich, and the son said, “Well, they’re not paying for it.” Then the chef explained that to his son that cooking is both an art and a labor of love, and if you love something, you do it to the best of your ability, no matter if someone is paying for it or not.
If I were to skip editing, I’d be casting myself as the son giving away burnt sandwiches. It wouldn’t be respectful to readers. It wouldn’t be respectful of the gift I have been given nor of the source of that gift.
Recently, I listened to a sermon on the nature of God’s light. Each person is a unique expression of love, and this love is produced as light. The preacher meant literal light – as in glowing, white light coming from people who had removed enough of their false selves to let the inner light shine through. It reminded me that we’re all made of star dust. It reminded me that “namaste” means “the light in me reflects the light in you.” It reminded me that readers aren’t some nebulous entities who are there to read&review my stories for my benefit. To give them anything less than my best effort would be disrespectful to them, and through them, right back up to the source of that star dust, that light.
As a former co-worker always said, “There’s only one way to do any job: the right way.”
There is a hollowness in my metaphysical gut. It’s not depression. Depression feels like being a small, guttering flame trapped between a thickening wall of glass and an abyss. It’s not fear. Fear feels like little rat-teeth tearing at your sanity when the clock on the nightstand is stuck at three, always three. It’s not anticipation. Anticipation feels like seeing the man you love strolling down a long, brick walkway and you are too far off for even your loudest shout to get his attention. This hollowness is none of the things I recognize. It might have something in common with sadness. When I try to put it in words, to explain to those who know me why I’m not smiling as often, I simply say I feel sad all of the time – but that’s not accurate. Words are never accurate.
I have been obsessed with the lives of the monastic religious. There was a rather silly week where I was upset that I can’t be a Jesuit. I don’t meet the four basic requirements: I’m not Catholic, I’m not male, I’m not debt-free (the mortgage counts) and, even if I were to suddenly fit the first three requirements, I’m almost too old to be admitted. Oh, and I’m married. Marriage is kind of a deal-breaker for monastic life. I’m smiling as I write this – hollowness be damned. I love my husband. He’s been a constant friend and ally for nigh near half of my time on this (sad, sad) Earth. He is my magnetic North.
So I can’t be a Jesuit and I can’t be a Trappist Monk and I can’t be a Nun. It seems I’m stuck out here in the secular world. Maybe I can apply some of the rules for monastic living to my life as it is, and find something to replace this hollowness? It was Thomas Merton who got me into this whole examination of contemplative Christianity, so I turned to YouTube and Google (where else?) to help me learn more about the life of a Trappist monk. There are three basic sections of Benedictine Rule, or the principles that shape monastic life. The first is Stability, which is a life-long dedication to a community and to relationships. The second is Obedience, which is to follow the instructions of the Abbot and God’s word. The third is Conversion, which is the willingness to be open to God as he works through you and the people around you. There is much more to the monastic Rule, but these three principles give me a place to start to make my life more meaningful. Maybe if I can imbue meaning and spirituality into the structure of my secular life, I will find that I am not so far from who I am meant to be. I really don’t know, but that’s my hope.
As is often the case with spiritual seeking, there has been a confluence of input lighting my path. I am reading Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umberto Eco and amongst the humor and the intuitive leaps of the narrator & company, there is a strong thread of the idea of an all-connecting spirituality. Oh, and Jesuits just entered the plot, stage right (they’re EVERYWHERE, once you notice them!). One Friday evening, mind all mush from a week of intense concentration at the day job, I decided to let Netflix entertain me. I picked an indie film named Something, Anything. As is the case for most Netflix descriptions, it was scant and only faintly evocative of the actual story: A woman suffers a loss, and re-evaluates her life. That could be … anything. Or something? I decided to give it a chance, and the huge, intense (and intensely sad) eyes of the lead actress convinced me to finish the film. There is an awful, heart-wrenching scene near the beginning of the movie (the loss) and many quiet, almost shy scenes of contemplation. And, wouldn’t you know it, she ends up visiting Gethsemani Abbey, Merton’s Trappist monastery. Something, Anything isn’t a movie for the general public; there’s no action, there’s no sex; there’s very little dialog. It turns out to have been the perfect movie for me, at the perfect time. Even the exercises in my craft class have these gorgeous lines that speak to me on a spiritual level. In Ode to the Lost Luggage Warehouse at the Rome Airport, Barbara Hamby writes, “…you take a careful waltz through the months, and find nothing in the midst of so much.” In Driving the Heart, Jason Brown writes, “Hearts travel at night.” And those lines connect like the information narrator & company of Foucault’s Pendulum feed into Abulafia (their “super” computer), and I start to sense a vast network of meaning and hope thrumming around me, but nearly hidden by the rush and furious sound of our modern, status-and-thing-focused culture. It’s enough to make me think that maybe, in my own quiet way, I can find what I need.
Paramount Theater, Austin – April 14. Doors 7p, Show 8p.
“If you’re not allowed to love people alive, then you learn how to love people dead.” – The Thing about Things, AFP
I left work and walked north on Congress. I wore a blue dress with pink polka dots. A woman at the burger bar called to me, “I love the dots!” “Thank you,” I called back, utterly surprised at this new burger bar, and at not being invisible. I am still getting used to the fact that people can see me. I don’t think I understood that until much later than most – maybe when I was twenty-eight? I knew the optics and the physics and the biology of them seeing me, but that’s not the same as SEEING. It’s SEEING Amanda Palmer means when she says, in her TED Talk, “I see you.” That’s more than just light waves, perhaps it’s a side effect of the enigma that is wave-particle duality. As I walked down the street on the night of the concert, evening sunlight brightened my path in an exact replica of my anticipation. I was going to meet a writing friend, T., who I hadn’t seen in almost two years, and we were going to see a woman with a controversial approach to making art. We were going to spend an evening with perhaps one of the most influential musician-philosophers of our generation: Amanda Palmer. At one of the smaller cross streets, I saw a woman wearing a great pair of boots. She had a confidence to her stance and there was something about her that seemed familiar. Her large sunglasses obscured her face, and as she passed me, I heard a rich, contralto voice say, “And the venue was…” I didn’t hear the end of the sentence. I don’t know what the venue was, or where it was, or if the venue has been devoured by Cthulhu. What I do know is that the woman with the great boots was Amanda Palmer. I saw the artistic arabesque of her eyebrows behind the rim of her sunglasses. I had a moment where my step faltered, and I considered calling her name. Then I remembered that she has no idea who I am. And I remembered that T. was waiting for me and I kept going. I had a small moment of horror when it occurred to me that one of us, either Amanda or me, was headed the wrong way, and maybe it wasn’t her…
T and I stood in line for tickets, catching up on the last couple of years of life. A woman sat at a small table, typing poems for cash donations. We discussed rotary phones with our line-neighbors, and then we were inside the sumptuous and aged elegance of The Paramount. T treated us to plastic cups of wine (sauvignon blanc for her, chardonnay for me). We went to the second floor and stood at a balcony overlooking the lobby. We discussed the particular, agonizing decisions we face as women. We moved into the theater, talking there of times when the bruises from writing transmogrified into in to an inability to read. It is the worst kind of paralysis, to be a non-practicing writer who is unable to read. The Smiths played in the background, reminding me of college and the overweening rush of being young and not yet realizing I could be SEEN, or even that there were people who wanted to SEE me. I got us a second drink (more chardonnay for me, water for T), saying, “This will guarantee the show will start because I won’t be in my seat.” I was right, and entered the theater just as Amanda Palmer took the stage; I was her shadow, cast in a dark room.
Amanda didn’t say a word. She wore a gold dress that flowed like water over the curves of her pregnant body. Her feet were bare. She touched her keyboard lightly, and innocent notes floated out like heaven-bound souls. Then she raised raised up, Kundalini energy personified, before slamming her hands on the keys. A harsh, angry sound swept through the hall. The show went on like that, rolling waves of contrast flowing through the high-ceilinged, classically painted theater. Abortion, pubic hair, statutory rape, fear of how her art will change with motherhood, more abortion, several songs about the nature of love – all of these topics were channeled through Amanda, into songs, and received by open, hungry souls. There was transcendence. There is always transcendence when we are emotionally vulnerable and humble enough accept and follow our calling. Amanda Palmer incarnates her calling with a purity that is untouched the number of f-bombs she drops (a lot!). She is the archetype of the artist. She’s completely human, and completely supernatural – all at the same time. I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like if we were all brave enough to stop playing as if being our own shadow was enough.
Amanda is funny. The show was in Austin (still weird), so of course there was a lounge upstairs for cuddling – by professional, “non-rapey” cuddlers. At one point Amanda discussed that after the show there would be cupcakes, and the cuddlers would be back in their lounge. She said, “This is a nice night. Cupcakes and cuddling. The days of blow and hookers are in the past!”
My favorite part of the show was when Amanda answered questions from the audience. Someone asked if Amanda knew how she could stop being afraid to make eye contact with strangers. Amanda had the house lights brought up, and had us each pick someone sitting near us who we didn’t know. I smiled awkwardly at the slender girl sitting to my left. Amanda told us that now, we’d spend thirty seconds just looking at one another. Not laughing. Not making a joke of it, just really SEEING. My partner said, “I can do this all day. I’m in customer service.” I said, “I’m in software, Engineers don’t look at people!” Then, for half a minute, we looked each other in the eyes. Blinking. Smiling, but not laughing. Two strangers, who, for thirty seconds took the time to really SEE one another. She cried. It was incredibly overwhelming. There is something that resonates when you strip bare the act of looking, and it’s beyond words. In the silence, we saw it together. And, yes, at first it felt really, really strange. Overly intimate. But it was worth it. If more people took the time to SEE “strangers,” I think the world would be more loving, less cruel, and the horns of impatience would stop blaring at every crossroads. If one person following her dream can inspire one moment of transcendence and truth, maybe if all the millions and billions of us followed our dream, the world would become the welcoming, compassionate paradise it yearns to be.
So. I entered a raffle to win tickets to see Amanda Palmer at the Paramount Theater in Austin. I’m not sure why I did it, except that I know that when someone or something disturbs me, that means I have something to learn. When I first heard Amanda “Fucking” Palmer’s TED talk, The Art of Asking, my initial reaction was one of … disquiet. I thought I didn’t like her. I thought, “She’s too brash, too – herself?” That startled me. Can a person be too much of who they are? It’s taken some introspection to realize what makes me uncomfortable about Amanda Palmer is that her way of being challenges my way of being. I feel like there are certain immutable requirements governing how I need to be; for instance, and very trivially, I feel like it’s a requirement to shave my arm pits. It is a requirement to feel like my body is something that must be hidden because it’s not “perfect.” It’s a requirement to feel like I should bottle up my emotions or repackage them so as not to seem like a “bitch.” It’s a requirement to have a traditional job. It’s a requirement to keep my yard looking at least as nice as the neighbors. And on and on and on. Amanda Palmer throws away every single one of those “requirements,” except maybe the one about the yard. I don’t know if she has a yard. The point is that Amanda Palmer decides for herself how she’s going to live life, rather than letting society tell her how to be.
I didn’t dislike Amanda, but myself. Of course, it’s easier to blame her. It’s really scary to think that maybe all these requirements that guide and order my life are only optional. This doesn’t mean I want an open marriage (I don’t), or that I want to be naked on stage (I don’t), or that I want hairy armpits (I don’t). The point is that I can CHOOSE what I want, and how I want to live. How has it taken me thirty-seven years to finally realize that!?
A lot of my fear, and my knee-jerk loathing of Amanda came from my own sense that I’m not being enough of an artist. I know that to write is my calling. It is not a requirement, but a personal, deeply embedded categorical imperative. Amanda’s way of living makes me realize I’m a coward. I’m too scared to take a chance and put writing first. I’m too afraid to trust. I’m afraid of having to ask for help.
My mother in law passed away a little over two months ago. Her death was sudden, and entirely unexpected. It shocked me to realize that her years ticked past, my years are ticking past… it was upsetting to realize I’d never taken the time to ask her the real questions about who she was. It was upsetting to realize I’d never asked myself those same questions.
I’m asking now. I’m still afraid. But, I’m asking.