Friday, December 17, 2010

Writing Spaces

Ray Bradbury used to open his half-hour anthology series with a quick narration answering what may well be the professional fictionalist's most commonly asked question, “Where do you get your idea's from?” His answer, via narration and a long camera pan, was his writing space. I hesitate to call it an office, because if anything it resembled a small museum of knick-knacks and sci-fi doo-dads. There were a couple of robots, probably an alien or two, and I seem to recall one of those generic t-rex-like green plastic dinosaurs. I doubt it was his actual writing space, and suspect like the little vignette of Stephen J Cannell's desk at the end of the credits for each of his shows it was staged more for cinematic effect than verisimilitude, but even if it wasn't I suspect Bradbury had a space that at least resembled it.

Writer's seem to need their space. I know of more than a few authors who have written their first novel (or two or three) at the kitchen table or tucked in next to the laundromat. There is the old cliché about the writer working in the attic or the basement, and like all cliches there is a certain amount of truth to it. The subject of writers working down in the dark or up in the rafters came up at the conference I attended, and there seemed to be a fair proportion of the writers there who did, in fact, work in such spaces. (I happen to work upstairs on the third floor, in what is, essentially, a converted attic.)

I would posit, however, that a writer's space is slightly different from a home office, in at least one regard. This has nothing to do with the level of organization, as I am sure that varies from writer to writer. (I spent two hours organizing my own space the other day when what started as an attempt to find a particular document became a whole-scale exercise in sorting and filing. But it looks a lot neater now, and I did eventually find the document.)

Rather, a writer's space has that little extra something in the way of inspiration. I am not talking about the inspirational posters with the black borders and blasé scenes of sunsets and mountains. (But if you have a few of those I'm not going to point fingers. They are pretty pictures, for the most part.) No, these are the extra items, the pictures, the posters, the figurines, the what-nots and whatevers that line the shelves or the edges of the desk or hang on the walls. They are different for every writer, and they are often the kind of thing that you wouldn't decorate your corporate office with. These may even include posters, as I have my space lined with movie posters of various genres.

They are also the books. I don't know of any writer with their own space that doesn't include books. The usual manual of style, of course, and a couple of writing tomes, of course, but then the other books as well. The ones that probably don't serve any professional purpose even if they were bought under the rationalization umbrella that afflicts all of us when we look at something neat and think, “Hey, I could use that!” knowing full well we probably never will. I have an entire shelf of those. They do get opened from time to time because I still enjoy looking up things the old-fashioned way, but by and large they are there for inspirational purposes only. And because I like books.

These are the kind of things that say, "There's more going on here than bookkeeping." They provide that extra sense of personality, that little hint that while serious work goes on here, it's also a place of imagination and fun. Where ideas are given free reign in an environment that probably wouldn't exist in a stuffy corporate office.

Come to think of it, has any writer ever written in a stuffy corporate office? I may have to go look that up. Somehow. Might even be in one of my books.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Serious Fiction

I attended a conference some time back. A small, more or less regional affair on the outskirts of Baltimore, I went because it was close enough to get to on a budget (by car, in other words) and for some of the ancillary benefits that come from a trip to the greater Baltimore/D.C. area. Also, I needed a mini-vacation. More on that some other time.

It was a good conference, and worth the drive for sure. It was the first writing conference I've been to, and I know I didn't get as much out of it as I could have since I wasn't able to do as many workshops as I wanted to. Those will have to wait for the next conference. There was only a small crowd there, which helped give it a more intimate feel. If I was going to compare it to something, it was like a first date of writing conferences: nothing too fancy, mostly low-key, and mainly a way to see if this was something I'd want to do again.

It is, though next time I will attend one more genre-specific, just to contrast. That said, like a lot of first dates, there was the inevitable misstep. That moment where your date says something, and you just know it's over. Maybe you'll give them another chance, maybe not, but you're essentially tuning out the rest of the conversation in favor of contemplating the dessert menu. (Of course, I've been on the other side of that too, though usually you don't realize that until you get home. Unless it's a really good dessert menu.)

In this instance, it was one of the speakers. Not the key-note speaker, she was a well-known author and her speech and reading were spot-on. No, this was one of the warm-up acts. I tuned him out, more or less, the moment he uttered the phrase “serious writer” and meant it as a stand-in for all those writers who do not write genre fiction. This is not a case of my being overly sensitive, a quick to take offense against the literary establishment hack genre writer – though I proudly admit to being a hack genre writer. The speaker was quite clear in laying out exactly what he meant by the term... and then proceeded to continue using it.

It would have irked me less if he'd said “serious fiction” or even “serious writing.” I take less issue with those, as I have heard any number of popular genre authors freely admit – albeit somewhat self-deprecatingly – that they do not engage in serious writing. I imagine that comes with a bit more freedom, and a bit more enjoyment on their end than when they do attempt serious writing. (Stephen King, for example, writes very well on baseball, even if he is a Red Sox fan.)

This is not to say that more literary writers don't enjoy what they do, too. I suspect they wouldn't do so otherwise. This is, however, an argument that they do not deserve the term of “serious writer” to the exclusion of non-literary writers. All of the successful authors I know or know of tend to take it pretty seriously. They have to, as this is how they earn a living after all. If they didn't take it seriously they could well be stuck having to work a regular office job, or worse, and frankly one of the reasons we all write is so we don't have to do those things.

(There are exceptions, of course.)

I would make the argument that anyone who keeps at it, makes a concerted effort, day in and day out, to get words down, stories out (or poems, or plays, or whatever) and does so even knowing the odds against success and despite the sheer volume of rejections that come as payment for every sale, no matter how small, is, by definition, a serious writer. And this is regardless of what they write. I cannot, for the life of me, take the whole sparkly vampire thing seriously, and many of the arguments against them and their creator are legitimate ones, but I would never suggest Stephanie Meyer is not a “serious writer” no matter how much she tried to suggest otherwise in the interview I heard her give some years back.

A concept which, no doubt, would have caused the speaker's skin to crawl, and why I was left metaphorically contemplating the cheese cake.