Monday, June 15, 2015

On "The Swerve" and being nothing...

Good news: you're nothing.
Photo by Salvatore Gerace via Flickr

Some time ago I wrote a post called What if We are Nothing. It's basically an essay on the idea that humans are nothing more than a material part of this world and this universe, no greater or lesser than any other life form..or any other form for that matter.

The essay was an attempt at helping me live better with the objective world I am presented with daily--murder, defeat, death, horror. I didn't expect the idea was new, of course, but it was something that I don't think I have contemplated with any seriousness in the past.

Recently, my husband and I were on a road trip and the radio stations in the car kept going in and out so we did quite a bit of surfing. At one point, we caught part of an interview on NPR with Stephen Greenblatt on his book, The Swerve. What I got in the little bit that I heard was that the book was about an ancient poem by Lucretius, written in about 50 BCE. It was lost to us for centuries, then found by a scribe on the hunt for just such literary treasures. The finding and dissemination of this poem, Greenblatt said, helped to usher in The Enlightenment.

As soon as I got home from our trip, I ordered The Swerve.

More than about Lucretius' On the Nature of Things, The Swerve serves as an early history of books, literature, and writing or rather, copying. Various parts fascinated me, while others angered me. The discussion of the manner in which Christians murdered Hypatia and went on to effectively destroy much of our world's literature, as well as our pagan and freethought culture, was difficult to accept. Suffice it to say, we're lucky we have what we do of the time period in question.

But what surprised me most--so far, as I haven't finished reading yet--was the synopsis of points found in Lucretius' poem. If I'm understanding correctly, the poem was not merely Lucretius' philosophy of life, but also an homage to Epicurus--a much maligned and denigrated individual (along with his philosophy) guessed it...Christians.

In general education, we are taught in these modern times that the idea of evolutionary theory is relatively new, sparked by Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Not so. Evolutionary theory--early, rudimentary--is there in Epicureanism and outlined beautifully in Lucretius' On the Nature of Things.

But what spurred this blog post was this passage, in which Greenblatt explains Lucretius' thoughts on being and nothingness:

Understanding the nature of things generates wonder.
The realization that the universe consists of atoms and void and nothing else, that the world was not made for us by a providential creator, that we are not the center of the universe, that our emotional lives are no more distinct than our physical lives from those of all other creatures, that our souls are as material and as mortal as our bodies--all these things are not the cause for despair. On the contrary, grasping the way things really are is the crucial step toward the possibility of happiness. Human insignificance--the fact that it is not all about us and our fate--is, Lucretius insisted, the good news.
It is possible for human beings to live happy lives, but not because they think that they are the center of the universe or because they fear the gods or because they nobly sacrifice themselves for values that purport to transcend their mortal existence. Unappeasable desire and the fear of death are the principal obstacles to human happiness, but the obstacles can be surmounted through the exercise of reason.
The exercise of reason is not available only to specialists; it is accessible to everyone. What is needed is to refuse the lies proffered by priests and other fantasymongers and to look squarely and calmly at the true nature of things. All speculation--all science, all morality, all attempts to fashion a life worth living--must start and end with a comprehension of the invisible seeds of things: atoms and the void and nothing else.
It might seem at first that this comprehension would inevitably bring with it a sense of cold emptiness, as if the universe had been robbed of its magic. But being liberated from harmful illusions is not the same as disillusionment. The origin of philosophy, it was often said in the ancient world, was wonder: surprise and bafflement led to a desire to know, and knowledge in turn laid the wonder to rest. But in Lucretius' account the process is something like the reverse: it is knowing the way things are that awakens the deepest wonder.

I struggle trying to understand and come to terms with the behaviors of humans and I still cannot understand the ability of most of them to turn away from what is all around them every day.

My first thought on reading this passage was a revulsion of the human condition--one that suffers and scratches and tears at existence with no awareness of what we really are. We are temporary; what we are is eternal. I wonder if there aren't some of us who imagine a future in which humans have evolved into a deep and satisfying understanding of their existence--I bet there are.

I'm not one of them.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Year of the Office: Don't grovel...

Dandelion flower.
Photo taken on the trail up to the observation deck on Mt. Mitchell, NC

Progress is great on my new little romantic comedy. The only problem I had was slipping from past tense into present. I started it in present tense, unconsciously, and made myself work in past, but the present kept working its way back in. Part of me thought this meant it ought to be in present tense, but my head told me that's not right. That started me questioning my use of first person! I researched it, though, and after much thought, I'm sticking with first person, past.

The series is about a quaint little historical downtown area and all the lovely divas who work there. The first book is about a girl who works in the used bookstore with her grandfather. She falls madly for a gorgeous new guy in town, but soon decides he's not the one for her. If only he would agree.

Anyway, this post is about publishing and the idea came from my table-sitting at a convention recently--a convention at which I had a good time. For the present, I will keep doing these conventions and book festivals, although, and I'm being perfectly honest here, I'm not sure they're all they're cracked up to be. What I mean is this: There are a lot of people out there telling authors how to get published and how to sell books. And I'm starting to think that very, very few of them know what they're talking about.

Some of the things authors are told to do are: 1. Become a speaker. 2. Have a blog about writing. And 3. Attend book signings.

Becoming a speaker is great advice for nonfiction writers. Generally, they have a topic of expertise. Becoming a speaker might be good for children's book authors. They can go into schools and talk to the kids and sell some books. But that's all local. And I don't mean local, as in your home town. I mean local, as in selling some books to that school at that time. And it's a lot of work.

I've tried blogging about writing--advice and such--and it's not for me. And who reads those blogs about writing? Other writers. Can you sell some books that way? Sure, if you get famous doing it, you'll sell a few books to some of the writers who are reading your blog. But I look at this in much the same way I look at following a bunch of writers on Twitter. All they're doing is talking about their books. Some of them (most?) do nothing but tweet about their books. I've seen some pages on which the author has absolutely no interaction with anyone. It's all tweets about her book. I don't follow that. And if I find it, I unfollow it.

I want to interact with people. And if they buy my books, that's great. But I don't want to be sold to, and I'm uncomfortable selling to people. Do I do it? Occasionally, yes. But when I do it, I'm doing it to the people who follow me because (I hope) they find all my other crazy tweets entertaining. I guess what I'm saying is...talking to other writers is not akin to finding readers for the books I write.

Attending book signings is offered as a way to make connections and network with other writers. I haven't figured out why this is so important, yet. I think the idea is that writers sell other writers' books for them. And while, sure, I blog about my experiences sometimes and link to the websites and Amazon pages of some of the writers I meet, I can guarantee you that I'm one of the very, very few (maybe the only one) who does that.

Other writers are not my target audience. Readers are. I just want people who like to read the stuff I write to be able to find my books. And I don't think that any of the advice I'm hearing is the way to do that. Honestly, I think the only way to do it is to write a lot of books, do the best job you can, get them out there online, tell your social media about them once in a while, and just keep doing that.

And now I'm going to go on a little rant. I sat in on a workshop at this convention that was supposed to be about one thing, but quite a bit of it turned out to be about scolding authors for not being nice to, not people, but agents, reviewers, and publicists. 

One person there was familiar to me. He's a local reviewer. He walks around local book festivals treating authors as if they should kiss his feet and praise him and he might deign to review their books. Of course, he expects you to hand over your book to him free of charge. At this workshop, he instructed the audience about being nice to him, about the proper way in which they ought to massage his ego to get a review. He said, "If I don't like you, I won't stop at your table." Well, he didn't stop at my table at that convention, that's for sure. And why doesn't he like me? I guess because I didn't give him any of my books and kiss his ass the first few times I met him. I wasn't mean. I didn't tell him to get lost. I treated him with civility and respect and told him I'd consider the whole thing. And he moved on. I always thought, after that, that he didn't stop by my table because he remembered me, had already introduced himself a couple of times, and figured I'd approach him if I was interested. Now I know it's because he doesn't "like" me, ie: I didn't bow down and grovel.

So, here's my advice to all of you writers out there, and we can consider it an entry into my 'advice for writers' writing blog: 

Don't kiss anyone's ass

Do your thing. Be honest with yourself and with others. Don't worry about being blacklisted. These people are not your target audience. Readers are. There are millions of them out there. Millions of them! And they don't care what's going on in publishing. They don't care who agents like and don't like. They don't even know! People involved in the corporate, traditional side of publishing want your business and your money (and reviewers want free books--give them to the reviewers you like and trust, don't give them to reviewers who look down their noses at you for daring to write a book). They should be groveling to you.

I think that's what's wrong with the entire traditional publishing industry--agents, editors, publishing houses, and certain reviewers. They have never truly valued the talent. They think they are the talent. They think they create talent. They believe they take raw, poorly written stories and mold them into great works of art--they believe authors can never do that without them. They make stars! Well, no they don't. 

Authors are the ones the readers want--who they care about. 

It's the ones who write the stories that butter traditional publishing's bread (and I'm saying this mostly as a reader) and I think they're starting to find that out.

So, keep writing. Keep publishing. And have a good time.

Taken and revised from the blog at