Literary Rogues in a Bardic Market

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The Bard by John Martin (1817) – AKA, “STRUMMMMM!”

There are those among us—flamboyant, extroverted souls—for whom marketing and self-projection and sharing is, beyond all shadow of a doubt, a real knack. Certainly, it’s something that seems to be paramount for the modern age of communication, even amongst publishers eyeballing potential writers.

I am not one of those people. I have never had that privilege.

Sorry, potential publishers.

In regards to those I meet and bond with, I make a fierce, dedicated connection. If it’s in my power, I would do it for them. Yet I do not connect easily. I wrap myself in thick cloaks and try to go through life covered up, lest someone see something they don’t like. I can ask questions and assail political and fantastic intrigue with abandon; turn the question around on me, and I introvert hard.

In that way, I may be a writer in a world which prefers bards.

This may also be why I’m the rogue of most adventures. I do my best work in the shadows.

Which is a problem, because stories unite mankind.

When I was just starting out as a journalist, I remember one of my first editors told me a fun fact about local journalism.

“Honestly, we could kill the headlines, kill the articles, and most people wouldn’t mind,” he said. “So long as you have the obituaries and the sports and the puzzles, people will keep coming back for more.”

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Roguish Art by Linda Lithen@Darantha (From the Critical Role Fan Art Gallery)

All of human existence is based on interaction, on the notion of society—finding ways to work together. Some cave person somewhere woke up one morning and went, “Bloody hell, I’ve been living next to that fellow down the mountain for 10 years; he could have figured out the means to ride sabretooth tigers, and I would never know.”

Stories make people more real to us. They break down fear and hate and grow empathy. The person sitting in the coffee shop reading about the 80-year-old former air force pilot in town who died this week isn’t doing it because he’s plotting out which zombies might be best for his necromantic army—he’s reading the story of someone he never got to know in life, learning of the wife and children left behind, the opportunities for other human interactions and adventures yet to be told.

Of course, it’s harder for a story to be heard when you’ve no audience at hand, isn’t it?

Apathy breeds discontent. It breeds fear. We don’t try because we’re afraid of what might happen. We’re afraid of what people might say. Somehow, the stigma of trying and failing has become worse than doing nothing at all—no matter how dependent we are on the outcome.

In my case, the whole matter isn’t helped by a severe clinical case of depression (which, like so many other personal details, I don’t talk about all that much publicly). I expect the world to have struggle. We all should. But my own mind struggles with me—it plays up the bad and laughs in the face of logic.

Of course it’s bad, it’ll say. No one cares. But it could certainly be worse…

And when people ask, that little voice is right there to remind me of the people who turned away because they were sickened by that hurt and weakness, and tell me it’s better to suffer in silence than be true. “I’m in pain” becomes “I’m fine,” and I become complacent in my own destruction.

Some rogue, setting off my own traps.

In a way, it’s the same with writing. You get what I put out there, what you see—not necessarily what is. Thus, for many writers, for performers, for the lot, it can all appear so effortless.

It’s not easy. Not for me. Not for a lot of people. There are days nothing more than sheer necessity allow me the strength to muscle out of bed. This past month, in the wake of the disastrous election, I’ve found it particularly difficult to write. Nothing comes without effort—there are whole days I spend struggling to convince myself I should exist. I feel like I’m drowning, flailing in a dire attempt to gulp one more mouthful of air.

Some days are easier, some days grueling. I try to create because it’s intrinsic to my being. The need is always there, but it is agonizing to do in the face of my own innards.

I stumble.

I fall down.

I break.

I fail.

You don’t see that, because of that introvert tendency.

But you need to understand that I’m human. The same as the person on the other side of that counter, as the child sulking in the corner of the playground, as you. I’m over here trying to tell myself this doesn’t make me weak.

It just means I need to be better about accepting and fessing up to my human failings. If that doesn’t make me the most desirable catch economically, well…

I’m just going to have to keep fighting through the terror and doubt to keep on living anyways.

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Writing in Spite of the End of the World

Right now, my country stands at a crossroads.

I do not write this lightly—every nation, it seems, is destined to face such trials.

As a writer, that puts me in a curious position. There are a hundred things I could write about the important concerns of today: the election, racism, fascism, climate change. Yet I also empathize with a question many fiction writers are asking in the wake of such events: why?

Right now, our country has had the last remnants of journalistic capability broken apart and shredded for good measure. Their ability to act remains, for the moment, unfettered, but their ability to act successfully has been eviscerated. We find ourselves in a culture that has actually embraced the stance that truth is whatever we want it to be.

I have friends—strong, fierce, creative friends—who have been unable to cope. Events have left their pens dry and their word documents blank. How can we feel inspired by a world that has voted for fear and rage? A world where hate trumped love? They look at fiction as a luxury that can be ill-afforded in a world facing such dire straits as ours.

Around me, the streets are filled with division. Enmity at best becomes apathy, at worst becomes violent. Hate crimes are on the rise, lives and livelihoods are threatened, and no one knows how to react.

Americans are curious creatures. We like to have things set in clear cut text. Everything comes down to the notion of Axis and Allies—Evil and Good, War and Peace. We are righteous, or at least, desperate to believe we are on the side of righteousness. We don’t pass laws on drugs; we fight a war on drugs. Communism isn’t a different social structure, it’s the great atheistic evil. We don’t even support education: we fight wars against illiteracy. The world over, the running joke is that we are and have always been a bunch of cowboys running around. I can’t say they’re wrong. We face the world on strict terms: our terms, with all others to be defeated.

Ours is a rather aggressive culture, truth be told. The current villains on the stage have tapped rather effectively into that aggression.

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V for Vendetta

But even now, stories matter, the same as activism matters, and community service, and everything else that needs doing. Good people need to make themselves heard at every level of the spectrum. We need people to wield the power invested in them by the people, but we also need people there to inspire people to reach for that power and wield it for good. If you can help by hitting the streets with Black Lives Matter or providing water to the protesters at Standing Rock, by all means do so. But at the heart of all these things is the spark of an idea, for while they can be corrupted, ideas are, in the end, as V from V for Vendetta declares: “Bulletproof.”

As both a journalist and a fiction writer I have been told by both sides I am for and sides I am against that my opinion does not matter. That my perceived inaction in the battle between light and dark means I am unable to have voice. Aggressors will always posit such means to discredit opposition or to build themselves up, and truth be told, they are right in a way. Writers are not fighting battles. Their writings are a refusal to meet violence with violence, but instead to channel their opposition or their ideas to positive means. They are not fighting, but to say they are not engaging the issue, or that their opinion is somehow lessened by a lack of blood on their hands? Absurdist.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”

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Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every story is a seed. Writers water them. Readers reap the fruits of that labor. Hopefully, the seeds will spread, and with them, the fruits…

Writers can entertain, they can charm and judge and analyze, but at their hearts, all writers have a story to tell, a story made up of ideas and ideals. Whether they believe it or not—whether it means anything to us or not—they are committed to the struggle which is making something heard.

For my part? That includes defending the progress we as a civilization have made and beating back with vast verbosity those forces which would tear that work down for their own benefit. We have forgotten so much over the centuries, even as we have learned so much more. I will never allow people to forget what zealotry, greed and bigotry look like, nor the damage they wreak.

My message is not everyone else’s. For some, abolishing poverty is all. For others, defending the freedom of speech. Still more might have the ability to capture the essence of agony which resonates through society with every hate crime against the LGBTQ, immigrants, Muslims…

But if that’s the case, why fiction? Nonfiction is necessary. It might lack flavor or texture, but it is to the point. Fiction, on the other hand, works through subtler means. It may not always have the ability to enlighten, but it teaches through metaphor and simile, allows us to  spawn our “what-ifs” into whole other realities so that we might never have to live such terrors in ours—or, alternatively, so we have something hopeful to reach for. You will never find yourself inside a book of nonfiction the way you do in fiction. The seed buries deeper. Its roots come at problems sidewise, exploring paths we otherwise might not have considered.

In all honesty, I don’t know what peace looks like. I’ve seen the shape of it, caught its silhouette in the back of crowds cheering certain moments and decisions, but I’ve never looked at it head on. This country, as I’ve said, has a real thing for violence—and a lot of problems inside. But just because I have not held peace in my hand does not mean I do not want it, or will do what I can to help others attain it.

Yes, it hurts to write when the world around us is burning.

It hurts to think you’re just escaping into a story when the walls are caving in.

But even the lightest of escapism is necessary, at the least, for sanity—no one under attack at all times, unable to catch a breather, will last long. Life is cruel. Life is hard. Life is a struggle. Stories give us hope for change and the ability to step outside our own heads.

Don’t discount or discredit that.

There is a reason I write fiction in addition to journalistic prattle. Good old Gandalf probably sums it up:

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

When Our Heroes Go Astray

gandalf_the_white_returnsThe dawn of the fifth day has come and passed. I looked to the east, but Gandalf never came.

Commander Shepard, I suspect, is still endorsing stores on the Citadel.

Mario went down the wrong pipe.

We have a fascination with heroes in our culture. Books, comics, movies, stories in general—they entrance, largely through the adventure of assailed figures fighting for salvation. Heroes can be born and bred to the part, or could be ordinary people who have greatness thrust upon them. They might hem and haw, or try to pass the mantle on, but in the end, they get the job done. We eat these stories up with fervor, often picturing ourselves there beside them, headed off to become a wizard or blast clear villains out of the vast nothingness between us and our dreams.

Escapism, it’s a beautiful thing.

But is it just that?  Who among us wouldn’t want to be whisked away from their routine lives, pointed at the big bad, and told: YOU’VE GOT THIS?

There are those who call such beliefs childish and lazy and, in adults, downright irresponsible distractions. Fact is, though, many of us feel helpless in the day to day. We watch things slip through our fingers and good people get constantly, irrevocably hurt, and unlike in the stories, we possess little if any recourse, because more often than not, the law is on the side of the people doing the hurting. We are restless and frustrated, and afraid above all, and all our media is designed around the notion that when evil seems set to triumph, a hero will rise to set us free…

The truth is harder to deal with. What heroes we have are often suppressed, marginalized, or killed. At best they become martyrs, at worst they live long enough to see themselves become the villains, or to see their good works perverted by still craftier villains. We know no one is coming to save us. But we’ve been trained to expect it, and people keep perverting that expectation to their own ends.

I’m rather sick of it. I write, in part, because it allows me to process the world and where I see it headed, what I’ve seen it do before. I read, because I want to find ways among others’ dreams to impact and change our own hell.

And I’m sick to death of villains reading the same, and thinking, “God, if I just play the part for a while, they’ll eat it up.” So I’m left here to wonder: if even our ideas of heroes have gone astray, how do we fight in a way that will actually make a difference?