Tuesday, March 5, 2013

"And both will be exalted"

"The Art of Asking." It's the title of the TED talk that Amanda Palmer gave, talking about the relationship between musician and fan. It's a great talk, and Amanda says a lot of things that are well worth listening to and thinking about.

(Watch it. Really.)

One of the things that really resonated with me in her talk was the idea that there is a connection between the artist and the fan, that when that connection is made, it's a way of seeing each other. It kept calling to mind this quote from the novel Howards End, by E. M. Forster:

"Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer."

Here is Forster himself, talking about writing novels. Two things from this brief excerpt stuck out for me. When he explains why he stopped writing, he says that part of the reason was "the social aspect of the world changed very much." And when he talks about what is in his writing, he says, "and anyone who has read my books will see what I high value I attach to personal relationships."

Here is one more thing I want to add to this mix of things that I am thinking about, in terms of art and connection. It's Chuck Wendig's post in response to Amanda's talk, where he ponders whether the philosophy she's set out can work for writers as well:

"The audience is empowered. The artist is among them, not outside them.
We must make the connection easy. The bridge must be a short walk from audience to artist, from creator to collaborator. We all have to be a simple tweet away. A digital handshake, an invisible high-five. Stories that are not scarce or hidden but set on the box in the town square for all to see. Is that enough? Too much? Is that right for everybody? Wrong for too many?"
If you're reading this hoping I'm going to tie all these things up together and give you an easy answer, probably you should stop now. There aren't any easy, one-size-funds-all, answers here.
Part of why I make art is to connect with people. I sit down at my desk and write because I believe that I have a story that is worth telling, and that only I can tell that story in that particular way. I publish my writing because I want to share those stories, because I feel that in them, I can make some sort of connection with the people who read them. I believe that, because that is how art affected me, how art continues to affect me. I have been moved to tears - of sorrow and of joy - by book and film and painting and sculpture and dance and music. Art matters deeply to me. It is a thing that helps me reach outside of myself, to be bigger and better than I was before.
The social aspect of the world has changed. The artist is among the audience. I see you. You see me.
When I had my first signing, I had been a published author for less than 24 hours. And it wasn't for a novel. It was for a short story, "A Life in Fictions," in the anthology Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio. The event was at Columbia University, and it was a reading with Neil, and Joe Hill, and Jeffrey Ford, and Walter Mosley, and Larry Block. And me. When the reading was over, I was so sure no one would want me to sign the book (as one of my friends said, "Kat, you're the only one in here I've never heard of."), I went straight back to the green room to thank the organizers. Except there was a woman (Teresa Jusino, who I will always remember as being the first person I ever signed a book for) waiting for me in the hall. And someone else who stopped me later. And a man on the stairs, who said, "I thought maybe you didn't want to talk to anyone."
I did. I just didn't know anyone wanted to listen. The social aspect of the world has changed. 
The thing about asking, is that by asking, you're saying what you do has worth. I have never doubted that art matters, matters a lot, can honestly save a life, but it is hard for me to say that  my art matters when saying that it matters is attached to saying, "give me money or other non-monetary support, and help me make it." It's not that I don't believe artists should get paid - I do! Believe me. I don't send my work to markets that don't pay professional rates, and I believe those stories are worth the checks I deposit. But saying "here is this thing, and I wrote it, and it's on my blog, and if you like it, maybe you could pay me so I can eat and have coffee and also an apartment and health insurance? Or even if you can't pay me now, maybe later? Or send cookies, or a nice letter?" that's a scarier kind of asking. That's saying, "this matters because it matters."
I don't know if the kind of asking that Amanda talks about translates for a writer, is the other thing. Maybe it does - the social aspect of the world has changed. The artist is among the audience. Maybe there should be a traveling group of writers who go from city to city and tell stories, like musicians on tour. I'd sign up. I use social media all the time to tell people their work has mattered to me. I buy music direct from the artists. I've donated to writers who have been going through difficult times.
And yes, I know I could self-publish. I know I could crowdfund. But I don't want to be my own publisher (and editor, and cover designer, and copy editor, and pr person, and and and). And those things don't solve all the problems. Not everyone is online (most of my work is, and my Mom prints out copies of my stories to send to my grandparents, who want to read me, and can't unless they have physical copies.) Not everyone can afford an ereader. Self-publishing and crowdfunding don't get my work into bookstores, into libraries. I want to write. I want to connect.
Which I guess brings me back to the question Chuck asked: How do writers and storytellers ask for your attention and your help?
How can we better connect? How can we see each other?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Sweeney in New York

One of my favorite figures from myth is poor mad Sweeney, who angered a priest, and got cursed into being a bird.

You know, like this:

"My curse fall on Sweeney
for his great offence.
His smooth spear profaned
my bell's holiness,

cracked bell hoarding grace
since the first saint rang it - 
it will curse you to the trees,
bird-brain among the branches."

Seamus Heaney, from "Sweeney Astray." (Sadly hard to find in the States, worth whatever you have to pay to get a copy.)

Or maybe you recognize him here:

"The circles of the stormy moon
Slide westward toward the River Plate,
Death and the Raven drift above
And Sweeney guards the horned gate."

T.S. Eliot, from "Sweeney Among the Nightingales"

Buile Suibhne, or The Madness of Sweeney, is a terrific story, a national epic, like Beowulf. I love all the pieces of it.

And so I wrote a story, about poor Mad Sweeney, and took him across the sea to America, to New York City. It's called "Painted Birds and Shivered Bones," and it is out today, in the Spring issue of Subterranean. Thank you to Bill, for asking me to try my hand at writing something longer, to Geralyn, who knitted me the Scarf of Encouragement, to Birdy, whose cover of "Terrible Love" I listened to on constant repeat while writing this. Thank you to my beta readers, and to my excellent agent Joe, who took me for soup dumplings once I had sold this. Thank you to Seamus Heaney, who first introduced me to Sweeney, and to Neil Gaiman, who was the reason my students had any clue at all who Sweeney was when I taught the poem.

I hope you like it.