Score One for Creativity

It’s important to stand out in a crowd. I know, I know, that’s not what we heard when we were kids. Standing out was not the recommended behavior for those whose goal wasn’t to be voted class clown in their high school yearbook.

Still, as writers, it’s what publishers and marketing firms and even readers tell us our books should do. I don’t know if they are right or not, as I’ve apparently not stood out from the crowd enough to discover that answer. The New York Times has not yet come calling to make sure they spell my name right on the bestseller list.

I have discovered though, that sometimes what it takes to stand out is blunt honesty. I uncovered this tactic recently while driving around the city I live in. I don’t know how many panhandlers there are in other places, but my town has turned this into a regular job for a lot of folks. And some of them are using a very creative approach to standing out from their particular crowd. In the last few weeks I’ve seen a couple that made me take note.

One went for the “let me cry on your shoulder” approach with the following sign:

“Homeless due to poor taste in men”

Another decided to throw caution to the wind and act as if we were all his buddies. His sign read:

“I want a beer”

I didn’t stop and chat to see how their attempts at creativity worked out, but they reminded me of something my dad once told me about one of his college professors. He said sometimes they would get papers back with answers marked wrong, but out to the side they would say “OTC +1”. The professor told them he’d given them one point for “the old college try”. Hopefully these folks got a least a buck for trying to stand out from the crowd. I’d hate to see that kind of creativity go to waste.

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The Economics of Writing

I have this stereotype of a writer I cling to: sitting in a small cafe for hours, hunched over a journal writing, while sipping some form of expensive hot drink from time to time (or wine, which goes better with the fact that I’d really like the cafe to be in Paris). A small part of me still believes you can’t call yourself a true writer until you do that.

As with most of my dreams, however, this one gets hit by a reality check all the time. I am your basic introvert with one quirk: I love to be in crowds. Oh, I don’t want to interact with them, at least not beyond a smile and a few words of chitchat. I think that’s why I love them. They are strangers demanding nothing more of me than basic courtesy.

And I enjoy getting out somewhere to do my writing, somewhere where I can’t see the dishes or the laundry or all the other little things that can pull me away from writing. So I keep trying to find the perfect spot to sit and write. But experience taught me small cafes have a number of limitations:

  • they are very expensive
  • most of those hot drinks they sell contain coffee
  • I hate coffee

Most of them don’t have the noise either, at least not beyond quiet, polite chatter. When I first got serious about my writing, I would sit in a local diner. It was the most creative atmosphere I’ve ever found. There were kids running around, families arguing, waitresses calling orders back. It was awesome. And it was cheap. Which was excellent because more often than not I was broke. The gas money it took to get there was about all I had to spend.

When my finances got somewhat better, I started looking for one of my dream cafes, where artists of all kind would gather and the creativity vibes would reverberate around the room. Yet the writing I did fell far short of my diner journals.

Thanks to my grandchildren, I have become well acquainted with McDonald’s. It’s full of noise of all kinds, kids running around yelling, all the things you’d think would prevent any focus on writing at all. I even got to watch two old men almost come to blows the other day.

But I’m finally ready to admit I do my best work there. And it’s cheap. I can grab a coke for a dollar, there’s an abundance of excellent character material right in front of me and as long as I don’t start a fight, they don’t appear to want to throw me out. I wonder if they have McDonald’s in Paris?

Leni Riefenstahl, Eminem and Kate Breslin

Today I was made aware of a controversy raging in the world of romance. The gist of the storm centers on a debut novel by Kate Breslin titled For Such a Time. Released in 2014, the story focuses on a rather unusual couple, a Jewish woman placed in a concentration camp and the commandant of said camp. Not every reader’s cup of tea. The outrage spun into a tornado when the book was nominated for the RITA, a prestigious award given by the Romance Writers of America.

Most reviews agree that it is well written. And many of them believe it to be the story of a captive who develops Stockholm syndrome and falls for her abusive captor, who is the hero of the story. They feel the development of the story is problematic and it should have never been published as it is offensive and racist.

I read many of the comments and reviews about the story and its controversy. Doing so reminded me of something I have found to be true about both art and artists: artists come with an agenda. All of them. Let me explain it with a couple of examples.

In a film class I took in college we discussed the work of Leni Riefenstahl. She pioneered certain film techniques and had a blossoming career. Then she became Hitler’s propaganda machine. Over the years of WWII she made films promoting the Nazi party, a choice for which she paid dearly after the war. The fact remains that she was a creative and talented filmmaker. She was good at what she did.

I was introduced to the music of Eminem by a co-worker. I found his music brutal, honest and engaging. Many people found his music misogynistic and racist. But he was and is a talented, creative musician. He was good at what he did.

From the reviews I read, Ms. Breslin is a talented writer, capable of excellent visual imagery. Her writing talent does not appear to be in question. One of the strongest complaints against the novel is the fact that at the end of the book, the heroine converts from Judaism to Christianity and this is what “saves” her. Kate Breslin is a writer of Christian fiction. That’s her agenda. From what I’ve read it sounds as if she wanted to show that no one is beyond God’s love and the teachings of Jesus can bring hope and salvation to anyone, even a Nazi.

Honestly, I doubt she looked beyond that agenda when writing this story. One of the other complaints about the story is they felt she worked so hard to make this “romance” work that it actually didn’t. In spite of her struggle to be as historically accurate as possible, she bent her own rules by forcing her hero to be a Nazi. She ignored the fact that no one who achieved a high enough status as to be in charge of one of the death camps would be anything less than a completely committed follower of Hitler. Her story needed him to have some qualms, so she gave him some. Doing so fit her agenda.

With her focus on accomplishing her goal with her story, the idea that many would find her work offensive likely never occurred to her.¬†As I said, I believe every writer, every artist has an agenda. There’s a reason every woman in Nora Roberts’ books ends up empowered, and usually in business for themselves. Female empowerment is her agenda and the romance is part of that. When I pick up a book by Sherilyn Kenyon I know going in that the hero, and probably the heroine will have suffered a painful and abusive childhood. Her agenda is to demonstrate that can be overcome through love.

And that is the big question to me. How important is our own agenda when we write? Do we recognize what our agenda is? And do we recognize it in the work of others? There were a number of people who commented that this novel should never have been published, that it was so insensitive and so offensive it should have been rejected. But we need to remember that the publisher and the author share a common agenda: to spread the word of Christ. Simply because we may not share that agenda doesn’t mean they aren’t entitled to have it.

Rather than censoring the work, it might be better if we understood and evaluated that work in terms of the agenda behind it. There are always going to be things out there which grate on the edges of our nerves, or stir intense and disturbing feelings in us. Even better, they make us stand up and say this is wrong, this is bad, this is hurtful. The more we practice standing up for what we believe, the more chance we stand of changing other people’s agendas.

darkroom

Know what this is? Neither do I. But I’m hoping it’s the door of opportunity opening (I’m also hoping I don’t trip over something in the dark in my rush to get to the door, but that’s another set of issues altogether).

I’ve been asking for an opportunity and the answer up till now has felt like standing in a dark room. I haven’t known what the hell to do to get where I want to be so I stood still. Not the smartest move I can make. Now the light is peeking in and it’s time for me to move toward it. So here’s hoping the old theatre adage to “break a leg” isn’t figurative. Wish me luck.