Bay Area Book Festival

Writers talking about writing: sometimes it’s interesting, sometimes it ain’t.

When you come across a writer who thinks clearly and speaks well, it can be a rewarding, sometimes inspiring time. So I spent an enjoyable hour with Dana Spiotta and Jonathan Lethem, inspired to read their books, which was exactly the point of it all, but also feeling optimistic about my own work. Maybe it’s just the projection fantasy – seeing myself on that stage – but it’s enough to get me back to work on the next novel.

Dana Spiotta and Jonathan Lethem
Dana Spiotta and Jonathan Lethem

But sometimes things run off the rails – as they did with a panel of European writers – and often it’s because writers in the audience are looking for THE ANSWER. “Who are your major influences? Do you outline or fly by the seat of your pants? Is it necessary to have an MFA? Do you? Here’s where the moderator needs to step in and limit the scope of the conversation.

Talking about the ideas in a novel, OK. Talking about the craft of writing, not so much. Because, like most creative endeavors, writing is about 10% inspiration and the rest is hard work. So there’s really not much to talk about: you’re inspired to write, or you’re not, either you sit down and do the work, or you don’t.

Bay Area Book Festival
Bay Area Book Festival

Now publishing is something altogether different and that took me to a seminar entitled the Lifecycle of a Book, featuring an agent, a small publisher, a publicist, a social media guru, and a marketing specialist. Andy Ross, the agent, found humor in the enormous odds against getting anything published in the traditional way. I didn’t.

Brooke Warner, the publisher, responded by presenting a new hybrid publishing model in which the author pays production costs and receives a larger royalty, as well as editorial, distribution, and marketing services. This is middle ground between self-publishing, where the author pays for everything then has to figure out how to get readers to find the book, and traditional publishing, where the author trades most of the income for these services, although the amount of promotion and publicity publishers do seems to be diminishing and is now seen as a shared obligation. The other speakers filled us in on how much authors will have to do for themselves and how much it’s still going to cost.

If I had left this a little earlier, I might not have been shut out of Adam Hochshild’s sold out talk about his new book on the Spanish Civil War. I might have learned something useful there.

©2016 Ron Scherl

Gateway to Understanding

Is emotion the gateway to reason or is it an obstacle to understanding?

I had always believed in the power of the intellect, that an educated intelligence should be sufficient to decode the clues and understand the opportunities and conflicts we all face. Now I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m pretty sure the opposite is true; it is only through emotional engagement that we can truly understand anything at all. How we respond to art offers a window.

Angle of Reflection contains a scene in a museum where Ben and Emma are discussing a Picasso exhibit. Ben is able to admire the technique and appreciate the results from an intellectual distance but maintains that Picasso never moves him. (Let’s assume he’s never seen Guernica.) Emma tells him it may yet happen and to beware of sealing his emotions in today’s opinion.

Later he reflects on a painting that moved him more than most: Vermeer’s, A Maid Asleep. “I couldn’t turn away. I was immediately and profoundly drawn into that world, I could walk into that woman’s dreams and imagine stories that explained all the elements Vermeer chose to include.” We can’t know whether the artist had the same stories in mind but it doesn’t matter, what is significant is that the emotional reaction to the image made the content knowable.

Here’s where we get back to the question of antidepressant medication: it is my contention that one of the severe effects of many years on SSRIs was a stifling of emotion, which led to a failure to understand what was happening to me. I couldn’t get to it because I couldn’t feel it.

I’m not the first to report this. “SSRIs also cause a multitude of troubling side effects. These include sexual dysfunction, suppression of REM sleep, muscle tics, fatigue, emotional blunting, and apathy. In addition, investigators have reported that long-term use is associated with memory impairment, problem-solving difficulties, loss of creativity, and learning deficiencies.” Robert Whitaker: Anatomy of an Epidemic, Broadway Books, Random House, 2010.

I’m beginning to feel that I’m nearing the finish line for Angle. Could be wrong, of course, I’ve thought this before, then I sent it to my editor. I began to wonder how you know when you’re done with a novel. There is no requirement for length, no facts that have to be explained, no rules to follow. Thinking won’t get you there. I suppose you can say that it’s finished when someone decides to publish it, but Fitzgerald was still trying to rewrite Gatsby as it was on the press. I asked a friend who is a wonderful painter how she knew when a painting was finished. She said: “I don’t know, I just feel it.”

Feels right to me.

©2015 Ron Scherl