Iceland writers, and some thoughts on publishing

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I recently got back from Iceland, where I attended the Iceland Writers Retreat. It was a very well-designed and well-organized event, and took place mostly at the Icelandair Natura Hotel in Reykjavik. In general it was a great experience, very illuminating, inspiring, and fun. There were 105 participants from 15 countries, and 10 instructors who administered short workshops on various aspects of writing. With such a large group it was impossible to get to meet and talk with everyone but I did get to meet and chat with many of the attendees. It was a very diverse group, all sorts of people of all ages and writing backgrounds and interests, and I found them all to be very interesting. I got a chance to have some very interesting chats with two of the writer-instructors, Adelle Waldman and Neel Mukherjee, whose work I admire very much. We went on a tour, had some great group dinners at Reykjavik restaurants, receptions, and had a fun time at a pub called Kex where two rather prominent Icelandic writers did readings and there was a beautiful performance by an Icelandic singer/guitarist who calls herself Lay Low.

Toward the end of the event there was a Q&A session in the hotel auditorium in which the assembled group of instructors was asked questions by members of the assembled audience of workshop participants. I found it to be pretty interesting but there was one question that led to some responses that I thought were problematic: a participant asked about self-publishing. One of the instructors, a moderately well-known writer with many books to his credit, took the position that self-publishing is essentially a waste of time, because (1) you will sell very few books if you self-publish, and (2) self-published books are generally not very good because if they are any good they will get picked up by a conventional publisher and then will no longer be self-published. Some of the other instructors chimed in their agreement, but I, having had some experience of self-publishing and having found it to be an interesting and creatively satisfying experience, was terribly disappointed that this very experienced writer would advance such a very simplistic view of publishing. Surely he can’t be naive enough to believe that the publishing world is a natural meritocracy, i.e. that good books will inevitably find a publisher, and books that don’t must not be any good? Or that the only reason for publishing a book to to sell a lot of copies? If that were true then Fifty Shades of Grey must be one of the greatest English-language novels of all time.

The nature of publishing has been undergoing a big change in recent years. The number of writers producing manuscripts has been increasing dramatically while the number of commercial publishers has decreased. Writers are looking now for alternatives to the traditional, big commercial publishers which used to be the only way to get something published. To find an audience for one’s writing has become a much more complicated and diverse challenge. These days an author would do well to cultivate an attitude of flexibility and to keep a keen eye out for all kinds of possibilities for presenting their work to the public, including publishing with small non-profit presses, self-publishing, organizing their own readings, presenting their work on the internet via blogs or Youtube, and any other ways (perhaps some that we can’t yet imagine) that might become available for getting one’s work out there. I agree with Neil Gaiman that we should start learning to think like dandelions.

Book finally coming together

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For the past year I’ve been working on a book. It’s a collection of personal essays. Some of them are very short, less than a page. You could also think of it as a very loosely-constructed memoir. I never intended to write a memoir in the traditional sense, i.e. a story about oneself that has a continuous narrative that runs through the whole of one’s life. I never felt that I had such a continuous thread in my own life. My book is a collection of little stories that come from my own experience. They are stories of struggling to overcome neurosis and of trying to understand my life and my own nature, a long and at times agonizing process of exploration and inquiry into the nature of human life. Many people (most, probably) will not see this book as being of any relevance to them. But perhaps some other people may be able to relate to these stories and to understand why I find them to be significant, because they have experienced similar struggles and have been similarly driven to inquire more deeply into just what the hell is really going on in their own lives. I hope that in writing this book I might be able to communicate with a few of those people.

After doing a few rewrites of the basic manuscript I finally reached the point where I just couldn’t rewrite it anymore, and I turned it over to my small group of reviewers to see what they can make of it. I haven’t gotten the final reports back from the reviewers but initial indications are that they like it and that they only have a few small corrections to suggest. So that is encouraging. I hope to get this thing published sometime in September.

On writing about one’s life

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I would like to write about my own life. A few years ago I got the idea of trying to write a memoir and spent some time thinking about what would be involved in doing that. I decided it would be too difficult, partly because there are some aspects of my life, especially my early life, that I would rather not write about but mainly because my life as a whole seems disjointed and disconnected to me. It is hard to find a narrative thread that would tie it together in a meaningful way, and furthermore there’s much that I simply don’t remember very well (I think that if a narrative were to be written about my whole life an appropriate title would be What the Fuck, or maybe The Disorientation Chronicles).

It occurred to me that maybe a better way of handling it would be to make it a collection of short personal essays, each of which would be essentially self-contained, instead of trying to force some kind of coherent overall narrative, which from my point of view would be rather artificial and gratutious, on it.  I see many of these little essays or personal stories as being quite short, succinct, and tightly focused.  So that is what I’m working on.  I’m not too far along on it yet but I hope to self-publish the book sometime in 2015.

When a friend of mine asked what I was working on and I told her that I’d begun working on a book of autobiographical essays, she seemed skeptical.  I think she tried to tactfully suggest that a book that would be just about my own experience would not necessarily be of interest to anyone else.  A fair point, one which I’ve thought a great deal about.  I don’t think it is necessarily the case that a writer writing about her/his own experience is indulging in a narcissistic exercise.  In fact often in the course of my reading I’ve found that the experience of one particular writer, expressed with skill and honesty, can provide a lot of insight into the general human condition.  It seems that the deeper we penetrate into the underlying psychological layers of our own experience, the closer we get to the mysterious spiritual core of human life that we all share.  Let’s face it, as different as we all are, we all are challenged with trying to find ways to liberate ourselves from all the bullshit we grew up with, how to create meaning in our lives, how to navigate our way through the not-very-humane culture in which we live, and to find some core of authenticity and integrity in the middle of the chaos that is ordinary life.  This is why there will always be people telling stories about their own experience, and why other people will be interested in those stories.