Inclusivity

These days it is hard to not see a conversation on Facebook or social media about inclusivity.  In some ways, I don’t even know where to begin, but here as a few of my thoughts on what has been happening in our country.

Education

Americans are experiencing the inflation of education, in which the importance of a College education has been stressed so much that it is integral to our national identity.  Yes, an education is something no one can take away from you, but as I walked around in Target yesterday with my son, I heard a woman talking to her young daughter saying something I have heard a hundred thousand times.

“If you go to school and get good grades, go to college and get an education, you’ll get a good job and you won’t need a boyfriend or a husband to get nice things.  You can have them all on your own!”

Yes, independence!  Great!  Education.  Great! But here’s the bullshit we are all fed from a young age.  “If you go to college, you can get a good job…”  I remember being told this when I was a kid.

I watched my dad come home from the coal mine, blowing black dust out of his nose, coughing his guts up every morning before he drove off to the pit in -30 F weather to work a ten hour shift.  He hated his job.  It was backbreaking work.  The money was good, but in a boom/bust lifestyle, it was difficult.

My mom got to see doors closed because the jobs she applied for were going to people with a Bachelor’s degree.  Later, in her 50s, she got a BA and by then, doors were getting closed on her because they were now looking for an MA to fill those positions.

My grandparents ran a trucking business, which they sold and retired on on their mid-50s.  They warned against running a business because it was so much work and so much of a hassle.  My great-grandpa had started the company and he had an eighth grade education.

I hear a lot of “You just can’t do that anymore.”

I have to wonder why.

Gatekeepers

I got to thinking about this as I walked around the place where I work.  My day job is at the same university where I got my BA.  I haven’t gone far, considering the job I worked as a student was just down the hall as a computer lab consultant.  I have 16 years in the same building right now.

I work with a population of older women who got jobs here when you only needed a high school degree to work as an office clerk.  Some of them have retired with 35+ years in their positions, accumulating a lot of work experience in what they do.  However, when they retire, the jobs are opened for people with BAs, MAs, and knowing a second language.  A lot of this is because as an institution of higher learning, we ought to at least look the part.

Office staff are “educated” while custodians, maintenance, and food staff are not.  The university is drinking its own Kool Aid.  The funny thing is that even though some of us “educated” employees are independent thinkers, have a wide range of talents and backgrounds, we are continually reminded of our place.

We don’t have letters after our names.  No Ph.Ds.  So when we are working or having a discussion, those who do get to be called upper administrators or faculty, they have no qualms with interrupting whatever is going on to get what they need done.  And you know what?  A lot of people are happy to allow this.

In this country, we stand in awe at those who have amassed an education.  We consider them our “experts” even though so much of what the news reports as breaking news is just gleaned from peer reviewed papers professors have to write to keep their jobs.  And a whole bunch of other professors can refute these papers and have their differing opinion published to keep their jobs.

Really what it boils down to is a lot of people who never had to graduate high school.  They make a comfortable living dispensing degrees and holding or shutting the gates on others as they see fit.  And who tells us an advanced degree is the best way to be successful in this country?

The higher education system.

Drinking the kool-aid

Think about that.  Remember when Phillip Morris used to tell us how healthy cigarettes were?  Or what about the companies that made margarine as a healthier alternate to butter?  This country is now polarized.

We see a lot of “woke” or educated people whose perception of common sense is vastly different than the salt of the earth people who still live here.  We are led to believe that Trump won the election because of Russian collusion, or maybe even racism.  I see more of an indoctrination of the “educated” who also tend to have more liberal leanings.  Because as a person who has been through the system, I can assure you that being told about my privilege, my whiteness, and my affluence is ruining the lives of the same people of color or those poor uneducated bastards who would love to be in college right now but can’t, just reminds me that people who bought into the lie of “get an education and you will get a good job” look down their noses at plumbers and electricians and people who own their own sanitation businesses.

While an “educated” man such as myself is paid less than a new hire with zero experience just coming into this institution. Much less than someone who sells beer to restaurants for a living. Because being saddled with $100k in student loan debt makes sense when you are getting a degree to teach English for $15 an hour.

I’m smarter than you so I know better

These are the “smart”people who plaster Facebook with diatribes of how the Right are Nazis.  Where did they learn that?  Because the people who didn’t go to college, usually don’t flex their intellectually superior nuts like that.

I walk on these grounds without concern, because I went through the system and I no longer hold it in the same awe as someone who didn’t.  Certainly not like that lady in Target.  I make a living from being here.  But I also know I am not a part of it other than a cog in the machine.  It exists because it reminds everyone how important it is.  How successful those at the top are.  How the idea of not having it limits capable people who are brilliant, but don’t have the degree to validate this.

But how important is it, really?

Does the professor calling a towtruck from the side of the road consider this whenever he gets a flat he has no idea how to fix on his own?

I can see why Mike Rowe made a whole living off telling people the importance of trade professions. Or maybe that’s how my lens is tinged because I’ve worked here for so long and see just how ridiculous it all is.

I have known people who make six figures who have considered themselves underachievers, because unlike me, they didn’t get their BA.  People, I went to college to make that kind of money and I probably never will.  Definitely not in my major’s field. Back in the day, I was told to better myself, just like that little girl, and that meant going in a different direction than what my parents did. That meant college.  What would my life have been like had I gone to a trade school, rather than driving a desk around people who are infinitely wiser just because they sat through six more years of school?

I’d probably be on vacation right now.  Running my own company.  Cashing checks.  That’s what people do who have worked a job for 20 years solid usually.  They aren’t just sitting down the hall from where they worked as a student.

If you are making a good living, regardless of where or if you went to college, you won.

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Deadlines and what it means to be Freelance

The other day, I visited my friendly local Starbucks.  Only because I was running late for work and didn’t have the half hour to drive to Dutch Bros.  There, I talked with Suzie the barista and caught up, since she hadn’t seen me in awhile.  She mentioned to one of the other baristas, a skinny college guy, that I was a writer and had my own travel blog.

I could tell from his reaction that he was an aspiring writer himself.  I offhandedly mentioned that I had five articles to write about boats, compasses, rigging, and PFDs.  Due on June 1st.  That’s today.

He said “I don’t write anything with deadlines.  I like to keep everything I do more freelance.”

Freelance.

You keep using this word, but I don’ think you know what this word means.

With his mindset, if that was how I wrote, the only thing true about “freelance” would be that I was writing everything for free.  Yes, I have written a book and many short stories that may as well have been for the love of writing.  But as a writer, as some point you might want to get paid doing what you love.  If you truly love it, then writing about clamps and pocketknives and boat rigging and asbestos testing won’t diminish your love of the craft.

It will get you out of a freaking office where everyone thinks you suck and one day you will die having nothing to show for it other than hemorrhoids and carpal tunnel syndrome.  At least as a writer, you get those, AND a sense of fulfillment.  You have created something.  That is rare in this world.

So, I just nodded and smiled because the kid is 20, maybe 21 and knows everything.  Just as I did at that age.  And it has taken me that much longer to understand that sometimes you don’t want to write the stuff that isn’t fun.  But when the checks come and you get to fly to London and dink around for nearly two weeks, it was worth all the stupid copy you had to write for companies.  It is an investment in getting to experience more of the world for the stories that matter.  Inspiring pieces that are beyond the scope of your imagination, which I gotta tell you, without inspiration from the outside, is pretty limited.

Anyway, enough procrastinating.  I have copy to write and maybe some stories.  Because that is what a freelancer really does.

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The Secret to Successful Writing Part 2

In four years of college, I learned a few things about writing.  In the years following college, I learned everything else.

What I learned in college

First of all, only one of my professors actually wrote outside of academia.  He was a poet. The thing that struck me most about him was how he had no front teeth and wore sweatpants to class.  But the first night, he showed up and memorized the names of 30 students.  He came into the Barnes and Noble where I was working years later and remembered my name.  Asked me how the writing was going.  I’ll never forget that.

In my creative writing courses, I learned that a bunch of kids can sit around and pat each other on the back for whatever crap they churn out.  Their teacher can grade them, encourage them to submit to literary magazines, and steeple their fingers, look thoughtful, and really have no fucking idea what they are talking about.

But in college, we built a community of writers in that class that encouraged each other to write.  That was a good thing to take away from it.

What else I learned

I decided I wanted to be a writer in college when an art class revealed how much my drawing skills sucked (I wanted to be an illustrator like Michael Whelan or Ted Nasmith).  I was self-taught, but art does require talent.  Then I started playing music with some friends from high school.  We had a garage band.  We made an album.  It was then that I realized that being a professional drummer does require some talent.  So, I started working on a book.

Turns out, I actually had some talent for that.  Writing does require talent.  I was blessed with a big brain, a bigger mouth, and a masochistic quality I didn’t know about myself that the word “No” just makes me try harder.  From an editor, that is.  No means no, kids.  Remember that.  From an editor it means “Fix your goddamned grammar, do more than a second draft, and try harder next time.”

In spite of not being very well-read, I did know my way around a story, and I loved descriptive language.  (I was a shit English major, having only read about 10% of the assigned work and never having taken notes throughout my academic career–I was a B+ student).

When the book was finished, I expected instant fame and success.  To be honest, I had two drafts down on the manuscript, but I had entire reams that were rubberbanded together that I would ship off to a publisher or editor once in awhile.  I did actually get back a signed rejection letter a few times.  Little did I know back then, but that was actually a good sign.

I decided to start writing short stories.

I thought this would be easier than writing novels.  Did I mention I was young and stupid?

Short stories are like the crucible of testing your worth as a writer.  They test your true talent, which isn’t dazzling people with dialog or description or poetry.  The true talents of being a writer are as follows:

  • Resilience: You will be told “no.”  Your college prof might have blown smoke up your ass, but in reality, you are competing with some amazing writers.  Most of you won’t ever be published.  If you can’t take “no” then stop writing, stop submitting your writing, and just be a reader.  Because you will be told NO.
  • Perseverance: Being told No is the best thing you can hear, because it gives you room to improve.  It also should spur you on to say “fuck you!” and keep your butt in your chair and your fingers on the keys where they belong, writing more stuff.  By the way, that is the other piece of perseverance.  No matter how bored you get, how lonely you are, or how you would rather be binge-watching Ozark, you have to keep writing.
  • Memory: Sure writers read a lot.  But they also remember.  Snippets of dialog overheard at diners, family reunions, sunsets and long deep kisses, all the sensory memories get put back onto the page.  Otherwise, none of that research means anything. If you can’t remember, carry a notepad around with you and write shit down.
  • Adaptation: The story you are writing has probably been written by someone else.  They were better, smarter, and more connected too.  So adapt.  Adapt to shifting markets. Adapt to new trends.  Learn how to catch a wave and ride it in.  Keep tabs on trends and try not to be the guy who writes what is popular now, because that trend already started dying two years ago when the big deal ms started going through the publishing houses.
  • Stepping outside of yourself: Your work needs to marinate, grow, evolve, whatever.  But you are biased.  Read it critically. If you can’t, sucker somebody else to read it and allow them to be brutal.  Don’t take it personally.
  • Knowing when to shut up: Not only when knowing when to stop your story, but also within your community of writers.  I have seen careers torpedoed when someone expressed their opinions on gun control, abortion, socialism, gay marriage, feminism, and any other socio-political movement out there.  Unless you are a political writer, keep your writer persona OUT of politics.
  • Procrastination/Inspiration: Take those moments when the muse strikes (for example, I have written two blog posts on the subject of writing in about an hour).  But get over the procrastination that is keeping you from writing $10 a pop articles about clamps. One is fun.  The other will let you buy fish and chips on your upcoming trip to London.  TODAY is the day you need to get started on your novel.  Not “tomorrow.”  Jeez, haven’t you ever seen Annie?
  • Writing books and short stories is as different as running marathons and the 100 meter.  Both involve vaguely the same activity. But the two are vastly different.  Practice BOTH of them if you can.
  • Buy a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and read that shit.  If I had done that, I could have saved my dad thousands of dollars in tuition for my English major.
  • True talent is knowing how to stick all of these together.
  • Iron sharpens iron.  Bad writing that is encouraged will result in more bad writing.  I’m looking at you Season 8 of Game of Thrones!

Knowing your shit when it comes to writing that sells

On the internet forums, I got a Masters/PhD course in creative writing from some of the greatest minds in the SF/F genre.  I’m going to name drop.  Gardner Dozois was one of them.  He was extremely generous in what he shared.  He was good friends with Isaac Asimov, George RR Martin, Gene Wolfe, Connie Willis, etc. etc. effing etc.  He wasn’t the only one on those forums who had info to share either.

A bunch of us would just pester the hell out of them as to what worked and what didn’t.  Some of this I learned from hundreds of rejections too.  After a while, you just get it.  Here’s some gems I wish my creative writing teacher in college would have known.

  • Show, don’t tell:  Unless you need to tell.  Then tell. It’s okay.
  • Start as close to the action as possible: Nobody needs a bunch of backstory to enjoy a story.  All of that can be whittled away with a good enough description or turn of phrase
  • Create likable characters:  this is called Pathos.  The reader needs to identify with characters in order to become invested in them.
  • Muddy characters: Nobody likes a Mary Sue.  Give your characters some grit as well as vulnerabilities.
  • Hooks to catch their interest: How many damned John Joseph Adams rejection letters I got with the dreaded “Alas, this didn’t catch my interest” was due to a lack of a decent hook.
  • Pacing to hold your readers’ interest:  See the JJA rejection letter above.
  • Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end:  Start strong/Finish strong.  The middle should be good too.
  • Connections: Treat everyone with respect.  Don’t make enemies.  One day, the person you helped out might become an editor and say, “Hey, I know somebody who writes this stuff!” and they might invite you to contribute to an anthology. At the very least, they won’t blackball you for calling them a bad word online.
  • Also, the writer is NOT the same as the stuff they write:  I have a lot of writer friends who I know only as friends who share the same obsession and I am impressed by their character, not their works.  I guess that is why they are friends and I’m not necessarily a fan.  They also pick their nose in traffic and cheat at Monopoly.
  • Just dumb luck: A lot of people out there can’t write their way out of a paper bag.  But they have three book deals, seven figure advances, and sold their soul to HBO for a series.  It happens.  Just be grateful if it happens to you, and try not to be an asshole about it.  Luck is a one shot deal, but putting in the work is real.
  • TAKE ALL ADVICE WITH A GRAIN OF SALT

But try to keep the words of W. Somerset Maugham in mind:

“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”