Thursday, July 25, 2013

My Ideal Writing Self

Fiona Sampson asked a small group of us yesterday to write about our ideal writing selves, whatever that may mean to us. I guess many writers have this fantasy where we live in the mountains, away from responsibilities and distractions and write for hours on end until our manuscript emerges, perfect. The writer also emerges, probably smelling gross. I've often thought about this idea, and decided to post my thoughts on it.

The thing is, I already am my true writing self. That person--she is me. I work when I can because life requires a lot of attention. I'm a linguist, a barbershop quartet singer, a best friend, a sister and a daughter. I don't have time to write for eight hours a day, and I wouldn't even if I had it. I love writing, though. Rae Taylor, Diesel Soaring, Carolina Marlborough, Gideon Strong, Satoru--these characters have secrets worth uncovering. But even at the most writerly, the most focused on my pen, I remain a linguist, a singer, a daughter, friend and sister. These do not change. How could they?

So I'll make myself some tea, bring my laptop to the group table in the dorm (or window ledge at the cafe or my lap on a train) and write. Because I love it. Because Diesel needs to get over the addiction, because Gideon has to fall in love, Rae must become and overcome her secret past, and Satoru--like all villains--must meet his end.

The ideal persona is the one you put on everyday and make.

Let Me In!

Over the past four weeks, I've studied linguistics of all kinds at the University of Michigan for the Linguistic Society of America's Summer Institute. I think perhaps most people would be bored by my discoveries, but they amount to an exciting conclusion. In graduate school, I want to pursue one of two paths in linguistics:

The first is ASL sociolinguistics. Sociolinguistics studies how variation in lexicon, pronunciation, and other linguistic features helps create and constantly renegotiate our personas in different social situations. For example, think of the words you use and how you speak in public at a presentation or with your romantic partner. Why do these different social situations present such different manners of speaking? What are we trying to communicate about ourselves? So I want to do the same thing many linguists do with English or other languages, and apply that to ASL. For example, how do Deaf speakers identify themselves as "Deaf from New York" or "Deaf and gay" in their speech?

Believe it or not, this is Michigan. Not England. 
The second interest I discovered at the Institute is forensic linguistics. I want to specialize in speaker identification and linguistic profiling. I have some ideas about how to conduct research in this field that I don't think anyone else has considered, so I hope to explore that quite a bit more.

In any case, the point is that I had a wonderful time at the Institute. I met some wonderful, intelligent, quirky people who never once asked me how many languages I speak as a linguist. They taught me new ASL signs, gave me insights to the Russian queer community, and taught me about speaker identification in calls of distress. They all deserve to become prominent in their fields.

What talk of Michigan is complete without some graffiti?
Like all good things, however, the Institute ended. I got a ride to the airport, obnoxiously large orange suitcase in hand. I had a layover in Chicago, and then off to London!

Or so I thought.

Once I got to Chicago, I was informed that my next flight was cancelled due to mechanical issues. On the bright side, they paid for my food that evening, a cab, my hotel room that night, the next morning's cab, and food while I waited for the rebooked flight. The down side is that I didn't get to go to London a day early like I'd wanted.

They eventually let me into the country, though. That's gotta count for something.

Returning to England felt like coming back to my room after being in college for a few months. Most of the things I remember are in their proper place--King's College, Benet's Ice Cream, my old flat on Thompson's Lane--and others have changed. A woman I used to chat with at the Market wasn't there when I visited, and some other buildings are now under construction. But it's so similar to my memories that I'm shocked. I remember where most of my favorite clubs and restaurants are.

The lovely King's College facade, forever one of my favorite landmarks to photograph in Cambridge.

On the other hand, this program differs from PKP in many other ways. First of all, we only have about 25 people this year. We come from all over: Malaysia, France, Norway, and Australia at least (though of course Americans remain the majority). So far, they seem like talented, thoughtful individuals with great writing potential. We have guest lectures by prominent editors, biographers, and others twice a week. We meet for supervisions to workshop our work biweekly as well. We have key themed lectures as well, from the program coordinators Richard Beard and Fiona Sampson. So far, the lectures have given me valuable insights on my writing.

My lovely room! It's large, just like last year :)

A picture of The Anchor bar on the Cam, taken from La Granta bar. You can't see the mosquitoes, but they were all over.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Art of Asking Palmer came out with a video this week on TedTalks on the art of letting people pay for her music instead of finding ways to make them. Her talk reminds us that throughout history, musicians have mostly been local artists, not celebrities we watch and adore from afar. 'Passing the hat' to make money didn't amount to begging back then, and she argues that it doesn't now. While her music passes as an odd mix between punk and avant-garde, her fans call almost every continent home. She often travels with the band and couch-surfs when touring. She says that it lets her fans have a connection with her she wouldn't otherwise get.

And her fans pay for her music even though they don't have to.

Her Kickstarter project received over $1.2 million in donations. She learned how to pass the hat and make connections with those who love her music. You hardly see her begging for money. More than that, her product didn't lose any value from this venture.

Of course, artists fear loss of value more than death. Palmer asks us to consider what this might mean for our own craft. Chuck Windig spoke about this TedTalk and its ramifications for authors on his (very funny and irreverent) blog. He asked if trust could pay his bills, or feed his family. As artists, we all need to ask the same questions. Does it really matter how much of a connection craft has with people if the creator can't pay rent?
Neil Gaiman also discussed what it means to be an artist in today's world in his commencement speech to the University of the Arts. Just twenty minutes long, this speech inspired thousands of artists, writers, filmmakers, and bloggers to follow their passions. I think back on his words often, especially when I need the reminder to "make good art." I don't know whether Gaiman made any money from this talk (although I hear they're going to make his speech into a book). The impact that he made spans far greater than a paycheck.

Is that point to inspire others, then, or to make money? If we had to choose, which one is more important? And how do we live these decisions?

So what does that mean for me, as a writer? Does it mean I blog for free and post up my novels? I don't know. But making good art and letting people pay for it because it's good sounds like a higher value of exchange than mass-producing something quick-n-dirty and forcing money into my wallet.