"The myth of the suffering artist is a myth. Suffering may inspire great art, but nutrition, sleep and security will take it from inspiration to actuality," says Karen Lord. Photo by Ryan Durgasingh. Copyright © 2016.
The following was presented as the feature address at the 2016 Frank Collymore Literary Awards ceremony in Barbados January 7, 2017.
BEING AND BECOMING a writer…in other words, I am going to talk about what makes a writer. Everybody has an opinion on that, and with the audience in this room I am definitely preaching to the choir. However, I am also preaching to the journalists present, who, I trust, will take some of my remarks to a wider audience who may not have considered the matter in depth.
If you are a writer who wants to be considered “a real writer,” you may be called on to defend yourself. You may have to list your training, your influences, your sales, and your awards. Critics and academics can debate whether your work deserves a place in our Caribbean literary canon. But history shows us again and again that you may not even become a “real writer” until you die and your work achieves stunning post-mortem popularity.
But these are matters of acceptance, esteem and ego. I am not going to discuss what makes a particular individual a writer. I am taking a look at the environment that produces and supports writers, and the literature they create, and the readership that consumes, appreciates and internalizes that literature.
I have identified three stages, hobby, profession and industry, but the boundaries are very porous, and it is not my intention to imply there is no overlap. I’ve defined hobby as the area where leisure, pleasure and muse combine. The writer faces no pressure and gets no pay. It is the playground for amateurs, but some of the highest quality work can also emerge from this space.
The area I call profession concerns the writers who get paid for their writing. That is a very broad definition, and some professional organizations pin it down by insisting on a certain amount of work (one novel, or three short stories), a certain amount per word (12 cents per word), and publication in pre-approved professional markets (usually any publisher or periodical that reliably pays a professional rate). Since those lower limits don’t come anywhere close to a living wage, rest assured that when I speak of a professional writer, I am not referring only to those writers who are able to make a living from their writing.
The third area, industry, refers to the structure that supports professional writers. Within that framework, handshake agreements give way to written contracts, people are paid professional fees for products and services, and governments extract their due in taxes.
THE EARLY STAGES of forming a hobby and habit of literature are extremely important, because the environment that creates and nurtures fledgling writers is the same environment that creates and nurtures dedicated readers—and without dedicated readers, who are we writing for? We need public libraries, school libraries, local bookstores, literary festivals. We need book clubs, literature classes, writing workshops. We want people to fall in love with language, get wrapped up in storytelling, and absorb a shared set of cultural references that connects our local communities to our nation, to our region, and to our world.
My stories and essays are in conversation with all my early influences: Edgar Mittelholzer, and Ray Bradbury on the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) syllabus; Madeleine L’Engle and Diana Wynne Jones in the public National Library; C. S. Lewis and Tolkien; and so many more from friends and family as loans, gifts and recommendations. I read everything—sublime and ridiculous, serious and fun, realist and fantastical, literary and not.
Use your libraries. Tell the staff what books you want to see on the shelves. Use your bookstores. Once in a while, instead of ordering online, go to your local bookstore and ask them to bring in a title for you. Give books on every occasion, especially to children. The Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) English syllabus has a suggested reading list. Use it! My mother, Muriel Lord, had a photocopy of that list. She bought me books, she took me to the library, she gave me a book allowance, and as a result I had read every book from years one to four and most of the year five books by the time I was sixteen. And she bought me The Lord of the Rings for my sixteenth birthday. I dedicated my first book to her memory.
The latter stages of the hobby of literature involve the transition from dedicated reader to amateur writer, from reading and appreciating a story to crafting and completing a story. Reading not only for recreation, but for education. Analyzing good stories and the techniques of good authors. Signing up for workshops to critique and be critiqued. Entering competitions, submitting to journals and magazines. Discovering the local literary community: the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment, the National Cultural Foundation, the Barbados Copyright Agency (BCOPY), ArtsEtc, Voices, Writers’ Ink, Poui, Bim, and more. Discovering the regional literary community: the Caribbean Review of Books, Small Axe, the Bim LitFest in Barbados, the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad & Tobago, Calabash in Jamaica, and more. Listening to the conversations of those who have been in this business for decades. Simply absorbing the atmosphere.
Improving. Finding your voice. Writing not because you can, but because you must. Not because you want to, but because you can’t stop yourself. Enjoying the process even when it is painful. Enjoying rewriting, editing and polishing a finished product as much as writing a rough draft.
Learning to be flexible, to see your work through the eyes of others. Learning to work with editors, and to let go of that incredibly clever thing you tried out which wasn’t as clever as you thought.
Learning when and how to fight for the language and culture of your books. Realizing that the nicest, kindest editor can still be deeply influenced by unexamined biases while she works to fit your manuscript to her standards. Knowing when to murmur, “Stet,” and when to yell, “Hell, no.” Preparing to deconstruct and defend your literary tradition, your culture, and your work, like a PhD student in a never-ending viva.
Somewhere in the midst of working on craft and networking with the literary community, you may sell a work. You begin to enter the phase of being a professional, but you should never leave entirely that fruitful phase of being an amateur. Never stop learning. Never stop questioning, inventing and reinventing, meeting new people and trying new approaches. That is where the muse lives, and it will remain at the heart of your writing life.
SO WHAT does it mean to be a professional writer?
Understanding the jargon of contracts. Finding an agent, or learning to do without. Dealing with foreign and subsidiary rights, withholding taxes and double-taxation agreements, and the different paperwork requirements of foreign governments that must be satisfied before you can get paid.
Getting used to doing promotional activities—which are great if you’re an extrovert who draws energy from lots of interactions, but draining otherwise. Budgeting for a professional photographer for the author photos that will be on your book covers, on your publisher’s site, and on the site of every literary festival, conference and event that you attend. Keeping your author bio and your bibliography always ready and up-to-date. Curating your public image, how you look and what you say, because the Internet is forever, and people will not forget.
Surviving the unscrupulous. Surviving people who are well-meaning but unprofessional and incompetent, and also people who are professional but fallible. Never assuming that people know what they’re talking about, even when they appear to be experts. Asking questions, finding out the right questions to ask, and asking more questions. Finding your own way in a publishing industry that privileges the search for the next new runaway bestseller over the cultivation of several midlist authors along a steady and improving career path. Writing in other genres and other media, and finding new, innovative ways to make money from the production of words. Dealing with projects that fall through, publishers that go bankrupt, and award-winning, perhaps even brilliant work with unsatisfactory sales.
Keeping your day job because health insurance, pension plans and regular paycheques do not come packaged with the writing career. Accepting that the bestselling big names in commercial and literary fiction are outliers, not even the one per cent, but the one-thousandth of one per cent. Many authors around the world never get the chance to quit their day jobs. For the vast majority of us, income from books is both unpredictable and small. I know authors who rely on the stability of full-time income as teachers, academics, journalists. I know a brilliant author who works as a waiter. Some depend on their retirement pension, or family wealth. Some have a willing partner who pays most of the bills.
Sounds overwhelming? It can be, which is why writers must make it a priority to take care of themselves.
First, professional jealousy is useless. Award-winning authors often wish they had more money, bestselling authors wish they had more critical acclaim, and critically acclaimed, bestselling authors who are constantly in demand for interviews and appearances…wish they had more time. The grass is always greener. Find your own corner and cultivate your own garden without worrying about what your neighbour’s vegetable patch is doing.
Second, be careful of your time, your energy and your muse, because it is so easy to burn out. In my genre, colleagues congratulate you if you are still writing and publishing five years after your debut. You may have one good book in you, but what if you could have had three or four more good books if only you had kept your day job, survived that publishing scam, or been a little more careful about time spent on social media, interviews and public appearances? Be kind to yourself. The myth of the suffering artist is a myth. Suffering may inspire great art, but nutrition, sleep and security will take it from inspiration to actuality.
ENOUGH ABOUT how writers should take care of themselves. How do we as a collective, as an industry, take care of our writers?
If you need a writer’s words for an event or a project, even a small, symbolic compensation matters. This is work. Pay us. Stop expecting writers to do things for free. This is our time, our skill, our blood, sweat and tears. It’s not only the principle of the thing; the more you support a writer, the more resources they will have to build a career in which they can grow and improve and create better and better work. Yes, there will be occasions for freely volunteering time and work for a good cause; but there again, if writers are properly compensated, they will be able to do more volunteer work in the areas where it is genuinely needed. And you will find better quality if you do not restrict yourself to writers who are, presumably, affluent enough to subsist on unpaid “exposure.”
I always encourage readers to read what they like without apology. But sometimes you have to go a little deeper and discover value in work that is not exactly to your personal taste. Support our work. Read and recommend as widely as possible. Don’t wait for a foreigner to educate you on your own literature. We can’t like everything, we can’t even read everything, but we must acknowledge the excellence that we already have in our midst.
It is not only writers, readers and patrons who make a difference. Publishing is a process, and a completed draft is only the start. Support that process. Writers need lawyers to help with contracts, accountants to help with taxes, brand managers to advise on promotion, agents to seek out opportunities. Most writers cannot afford these services on an individual basis, but there are non-governmental, governmental and community organizations that assist writers; contribute according to your specialization. Or take the model used by professional agents and work on commission.
Entrepreneurship, sales and promotion require time and talent. Writing requires time and talent. Do not expect writers to manage every aspect of producing and promoting their books. Do not imagine that only writers are essential to the industry. Everyone wants to be the next Stephen King, but does anyone want to be the next Stephen King’s accountant? Or the accountant for a group of writers who, considered together, have an output and income equivalent to a Stephen King? Think about it.
Our literature can only survive and thrive if we develop our own industry, an industry of authors, publishers, booksellers—yes, but also lawyers, accountants, agents, publicists, innovators, and entrepreneurs. We must make it a priority to maintain a literary legacy that gives us a clear mirror of who we are, and a clear vision of who we can be.
I CAN HONESTLY say that it is due to the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment that I am where I am today. The Nation published an article online about the 2008 awards ceremony. The acclaimed author Nalo Hopkinson—one of our own in the diaspora who specializes in Caribbean speculative fiction—she saw the article and blogged about it. Award-winning publisher Small Beer Press saw her post and contacted me about the manuscript. That was how Redemption in Indigo got published. But that prize money also supported me during a time of recession as I started work on my second manuscript. The money from the 2009 award helped fund a trip to an overseas conference, where I was awarded my first international prize for Redemption in Indigo. Funding from the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment and from Invest Barbados got me to the World Fantasy Convention, where I met publishers, editors, reviewers—and my new agent, who sold the manuscript of my second novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds, in a two-book deal that would include its sequel, The Galaxy Game.
That is the concatenation of small, practical details that make a writing career. Prizes. Newspaper coverage. Grant funding. Networking. It all adds up to time, money and opportunity, and so many individuals and organizations, too many to mention, helped me along the way.
Literature is rarely described as a money-making industry. It is a labour of love, a way to self-discovery, a calling—but it must at least be a sustainable industry for the professionals, the amateurs, and the readers. I ask every Barbadian to think seriously about what they can do to support our literature and our literary community. What can you do to sustain our writers and facilitate their work?
As a reader and buyer of books, you are a consumer, but as a citizen, you are a curator. What we do is not less than the “real job” of living-wage work. It is the record of our life, culture and humanity told by us, for us. We are witnesses and dreamers for the people here and now, and for the generations to come. We rely on you to recognize and appreciate the excellent and the ordinary, the internationally acclaimed and the locally relevant—all part of our national and regional literature, and all essential to our values, our identity and our future.
To those who have already done so much and continue to do more, I say, “Thank you”: for supporting me, for supporting us. Thank you for giving us roots and validating us in our work so that we can have confidence wherever we go, and wherever our words go.
It is a good work that we do, and the work continues.