Clarion: Cheshire Cat

Chesire cat on a tree limb from the Disney Alice in Wonderland animated movie.“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the [Cheshire] Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.” 

— Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol

You have to be a little mad to write.  Most authors earn poverty rates from their writing.

This isn’t from a lack of effort on their part.  There has been a significant shift in the last 50 years away from paying creators for their work.  Some of that is tied up in corporate copyright law, and the ownership of Intellectual Property (IP) by larger and larger business entities. Some of it has to do with the “free” model of the internet, where businesses traded advertising dollars for banner ad pennies.  With word processors and spell check software, the ability to write a presentable submission (not necessarily a good one), online submissions, and true self-publishing services (not the vanity presses of yore, though, those still exist) make being a writer even more within the reach of the average person.  You no longer need to be able to write “cleanly” on the first draft.  You don’t need to know how to spell “Anarcho-syndicalism,” you just have to get close enoughDrawing of the Mad Hatter from an old illistration of Alice in Wonderland to recognize which corrected word is the right choice (still not easy for a dyslexic).  You don’t even need a stamp for most markets these days (though you do need access to the Internet).  What markets that have survived people wanting everything free and the shrinking of profits, are flooded with stories.  The incentives are against them paying more regardless of the rising cost of living.  SFWA helps counterbalance that, by setting minimum pay rates, but even there the pressures squeezing the publishing markets are inescapable.

You need to be a little mad, like the Mad Hatter to want to write for publication.  The pay rate, per hour of work, is poor, especially in the short story space.  Forget poetry.  No poet makes a living on their writing.  Most authors have “day jobs.”So do, by the way, a good number of agents and editors.  We are all mad here.

Picture of the signs in Tuggly wood from Disney's animated Alice in Wonderland movie

We are also lost in a wood, much like the Tugley Woods of Alice in Wonderland.  There are signs pointing us in every direction.  Write every day! Outline.  Use Scrivener!  Get an Masters of Fine Arts degree!  Don’t get an MFA! Get an agent! Self-publish! Write in the morning! Write late at night!  Write in blocks of 15 minutes.  20 minutes.  2 hour blocks like a desk job!

Drink Me jar, Eat Me cake, and keyAnd then there is the advice that isn’t posted because its specific to what you are writing.  The submission process for journalism is wildly different from speculative short fiction, is different from contemporary fiction, from novels. Each publisher, on top of that, has their own submission process, preferred format, and font.  Fortunately those instructions are marked clearly on each bottle and cake, just be sure you read carefully before you partake or you might embarrass yourself.

Alice too small the reach the key

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

— Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol

How do you even know how to get to where you want to go?  Experience, talking to other authors, and professional workshops.  Can you tell what I’m going to plug here?  Clarion.  Clarion West. Odyssey. A good professional workshop, targeted to your genre and designed to give you a boost in the business is a shortcut through finding everything out the hard way.  But, an in-person workshop of this type (some as long as 6 weeks of residential work), costs money.  Remember that earlier discussion of pay rates for the written word?  You could set up a system that says only the rich get to take the shortcut to professional writing.  Clarion (and most others) have decided that isn’t how you get the very best writers.  Clarion has a grant fund that awards scholarships.  And, I’m fundraising for that fund. 

In honor of the seemingly nonsense world of publishing, I’m giving a handmade string art of the Cheshire cat to one lucky person who sponsors me. We are running out of time for entry, too, as the Clarion-write-a-thon ends August 1st. I know it’s a weird year, but please consider donating.  We are all mad here.  Help support the madness.img_2284

Buttons and Marital Strife

Picture of Nyla Bright as a toddler.About twenty years ago a therapist asked me how I had felt about the divorce of my parents when I was five years old.  My answer was, “It was a relief.”  Only in retrospect has it occurred to me that I must have been asked that question by a lot of therapists over the years to have that answer so pat.  And, it isn’t entirely honest.  There are complex feelings of abandonment tied up in the divorce. Adults, overwhelmed with their own grief, often make choices that aren’t child-centered.  Nor should adults center their existence around their children to the exclusion of their own well being.

But it is also true that the divorce was a relief.  I was often the catalyst for the fights between my parents, just as I was the cause of the marriage.  Mom didn’t want to marry again, but she was pregnant, and in the early 1970s there weren’t genetic paternity tests.  My father went so far as to hire a lawyer to explain the legal ramifications to her: marry the father of her child or end up in a tangled legal mess.  My mother was a captured tiger from the start.

I was smack dab in the center of everything that wasn’t going to work in that marriage. The fights simple questions triggered were epic.  I asked my father once if the ruffles on my underpants went in the front or the back.  He, wrongly, answered front.  Mom told him he was wrong.  He reminded her that he had three other children and wasn’t going to be contradicted by her. Fight.

Another of those triggering events involved a collectible doll, a small button, and the fact I still picked my nose.  And that is where the story “Mother’s Know Buttons” in the July 2020 issue of Dreamforge Magazine comes from.

The story started as a memoir piece. Describing, as best I could remember, the argument between my father and mother over if I had a button stuck up my nose. I vividly remember Mom trying to look up my nose with a flashlight and my father saying, “Bea, I’ve raised three other children.  She does not have a button stuck up her nose.”

Spoiler alert: I had a button stuck up my nose.

About twenty-nine years later I would have my child on his back on the dining room floor, while my husband held his head still, and I used a pair of tweezers to get a pea out of his nose.

I don’t know what was wrong with my half-siblings that they never stuck anything up their noses.  I suspect that perhaps they did but our father wasn’t around for the solution. They were born, after all, in the late 1950s through the 1960s.  Fatherhood in America was different back then.  And my mother was not the same kind of mother his first wife had been.

The story of my father not listening to me or my mother gained a different aspect when I married it to my frustration over the smart speaker. The speaker frequently doesn’t even register I’m talking to it.  It hears my husband and son with near one hundred percent accuracy. When I talk, about ten percent of the time it doesn’t catch any command was given beyond the trigger words.

My whole family, myself included, speak in the blandest of Midland Northern accents (the same accent most national news reporters have).  Midland Northern is supposed to be the most easily understood accent.  Allegedly smart speakers use female voices because people rare women’s voices as more easily understood. Despite those two facts, my speaker often misunderstands or ignores me.  I’m not alone there has been a survey showing two-thirds of women with smart speakers report issues not being understood.

When writers talk about mining personal experiences, this is what they speak of. Is the mother in this story my mom or even me?  Nope.  Not even close.  Nor is my father a soulless disembodied voice. There was a lot more heat in the argument on the way to the hospital (which in retrospect was completely unnecessary, the button would have held just fine where it was until morning).  No.  These characters aren’t the real people. It’s their frustrations and uneasy relationship, or as much as is possible to recapture from a childhood memory augmented with my own lived experiences as a mother.

Banner for the short story Mothers Know Buttons, illistrated by Jane Noel in Dreamforge Magazine, july 2020

You need a subscription to check out my story. Sorry. Dreamforge is a great magazine with lovely illustrations; well worth the subscription.