One of the few who got it right

In nearly every creative writing guide, the author eventually refers to “success stories”, explaining how out of the many who want to become writers, only a few “got it right”.

I recently reread the book The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman (Fireside, 2000) and enjoyed it as I did the first time, but with the added awareness that this book is a rare specimen among its kind.

Lukeman’s book is “A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile”. In other words is it a book intended for writers about how to write books and present manuscripts.

Since it has become the “in” thing for people to become writers – and with every university offering “creative writing” degrees and producing countless ‘experts’ professing to pass on their knowledge – books like this are flooding the market, in addition to books about how to get noticed in that same market.

The latter are trying to teach writers what is not their natural talent (so they can compete), while the former are trying to make writers out of those whose natural talents may lay elsewhere.

Sure, techniques need to be learned. After all, the great painters of the past, despite having the natural talent, went into apprenticeship with a master painter to learn the techniques and the great classical composers all took music lessons. But the vast majority of such writing advice presents the techniques not as guidelines, but as a regimen. They will even add a chapter on how to behave as a writer – such as “organize your desk” and “discipline yourself to sit down for four hours each day” – or they devote an entire chapter on where to find inspiration and how to overcome “writer’s block”

But inspiration isn’t a technique; it is that what forces writers to write regardless of what is happening in their lives. Those who need to be told what to write about or have to discipline themselves to get around to writing are not natural born writers.

“The art of writing cannot be taught, but the craft of writing can,” says Lukeman  (p 15), yet “… ultimately, the only person who can teach you about writing is yourself” (p 11).

The question that is relevant today more than ever: Is the measure of an artist in the quality of the art, in the mastering of the technique, or in the success of the marketing?

Rembrandt, had he simply copied the techniques he had learned, would have never stood out as a great painter and Van Gogh is certainly not considered a great artist because he managed to make money doing so.

Many of the great composers took what they had learned and turned it into something unique, often deliberately ignoring the rules.

So techniques are useful, but they don’t make art, because art needs creative space to develop. No artist has ever become great from following techniques without experimenting.

Art is subjective; some works of the greatest artists are rejected based on taste, yet those who are born with the drive to write for the sake of the art; those with the inspiration (and even desperation), cannot be stopped. As Lukeman says, “Here lies the difference between someone writing for money and a writer.” (p 152)

Psychological type explains why some people are born with a talent for marketing (or business), others with a talent for visual arts, for musical or for performing art, and yet others with a talent for writing or for editing and proofreading. Editors are not the same type of people as are writers. The latter tend to naturally grasp the big picture and focus on the semantics, the social message or the human relationships, while the former have an eye for syntax, detail and composition. So the two complement each other and in a respectful relationship both are aware of that.

And the beauty of Lukeman’s book is that he realizes this.

Most books (or classes) on writing are condescending toward writers, proclaiming their importance because “most writers don’t know….”  – and then berating these same writers for not respecting their readers.

But Lukeman is different. His book doesn’t say “Hey stupid, here is how you should do it”. He says: I am an editor and here is what I look for when I reject manuscripts, so if you want yours to have a chance, consider the following. He doesn’t say that his advice should be followed to the letter or that his methods are right, but only that they are common.

Additionally, his book doesn’t just spit our cliché advice, like “don’t hit your readers over the head” and “show, don’t tell”, but it actually gives examples of what he means by that; what not to do.

Besides, Lukeman acknowledges that the phrase “show, don’t tell” is not very accurate. Writers need to show and tell, as long as they don’t tell what they have already shown. Telling is not the same as making statements and it has its place in fiction.

Writers (especially independent writers) experience a similar sort of being talked down on when trying to present their books to booksellers, because they don’t have the money to employ big distributors. Book sellers don’t want the trouble of having to deal with only a few copies of a title that is not guaranteed to sell because nobody knows it exists – one even told me that it isn’t worth their time in administration and book keeping to deal with individuals – yet titles need to be on display before people can notice them.

Others believe that independent writes cannot produce a product of quality. One manager of a book shop chain, without even asking for samples, picked up a book from his counter and continued to show me that books have a cover and are formatted, apparently under the impression that a self-published book consists of a number of stapled together sheets straight from the printer.

Of similar intelligence was the book seller I tried to show my science fiction to. – Okay, writers in Paris or New York may not experience the following problem, but I live in New Zealand, which only has four million inhabitants, and which has a strong national pride, so that most publishers only accept books that are distinctly local. For example, a detective novel has to be set in a local town or it won’t get published.

But considering that New Zealanders are not immune to the lifestyle of the twenty-first century, all the social issues and human emotions that affect New Zealanders are the same issues and emotions that affect people in all other countries, so that they will read books that are not local even if they refuse to publish them. And the inventors and scientists in New Zealand build on and exchange information with their colleagues in the same fields abroad – because science (and therefore science fiction) generally does not limit itself to national borders. Yet stepping into book sellers, I am told that their readers want local books and that “New Zealand readers don’t buy science fiction”.

This same shop is full of mainstream titles that are written abroad and come in bulk from overseas distributors. And that last statement is based on statistics taken from the mainstream bookshops – not counting those books that are bought over the internet (from abroad) and probably not even those that are sold in the second hand shops that specialize in science fiction (because there is a demand for it). So they refuse to put such books in their shops because “they won’t sell”, based on the fact that they have not sold any – which makes me wonder if they know what a blatant circular argument is.

So writers are stuck between the book sellers talking down on them because their work isn’t already in demand and condescending writing instructors that tell them they are never going to make it in the first place because their techniques are wrong.

Thus I wanted to mention Lukeman’s book, which is respectful in the way it approaches writers; it is not pretentious and actually gives sound advice, which makes it a rare exception that deserves to be noticed as one of the few who got it right.

And while we’re at it, there is one book shop (I know of) – Arty Bees in Wellington – that deserves a special mention for the same reason as Lukeman’s book, because it respects the writer (and science fiction).


Freedom of Belief and Human Rights

A few years ago, a relative of mine was called for jury duty. In the summons there was a clause stating that those people who had objections for religious reasons could file for an exemption. My relative had no organized religion to call her own, but she did have ethical objections to participating.

When I wanted to continue home educating my children after moving countries, I had to register with the ministry of education and give my reasons for wanting to forfeit traditional schooling. The options given were “religious convictions” or “other; please explain”.

Just the other day I read an article in the news, stating that public child care centres (in NSW) are allowed to ban children who are not vaccinated, but there are exemptions for those parents who refuse to vaccinate their children for “religious or for medical reasons”.

Now, organized religions are moral institutions with their own moral values and rules that may, indeed, require of their members that they refuse to participate in state organized activities (such as jury duty, schooling and vaccinations) if the moral values of the state differ with those of their own belief system. A state, after all, despite being a social institution, tends to have a predominant culture and that culture tends to set the moral standards. In some eras the state will be very intolerant to other beliefs; in others eras there is more cultural mixing.

Today we live on the tail end of such a culturally mixed society and in that light – needing to present themselves as ethnically and culturally tolerant – most western countries will claim religious freedom. It is based on that claim that exemptions are granted.

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and all such documents are also an expression of moral values. A declaration is a set of moral laws that represent the belief system of the writers – in this case many countries:

Article 18

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

So, article eighteen refers to thought, belief, conscience and religion, which implies the ethical and moral values a person holds, while article nineteen refers to the expression of such values to others.

Now, public institutions (like a state, school, church or group representing a certain belief or cultural system) have these sets of moral laws because they have certain beliefs and want their members to act accordingly. If you choose to join a group, you choose to accept its moral rules and the members of the group generally reserve the right to call each other on their actions would they stray. Moral rules therefore have to do with behaviour, which can be observed.

Conscience is a belief a person holds within, usually about being good or bad, and generally not clearly definable. In other words, if you ask somebody why he considers something good or bad, he either refers to the moral laws that describe the behaviour that represents that sense of good or bad for him – he may have internalized his conscience from the beliefs of his environment – or he cannot exactly say why, “It just is” or “it feels that way”.

Conscience therefore is about ethical values (not moral ones). Ethical values are about the sense of what is good or bad in a person or what makes a good person, while moral values are about right or wrong action.

What people feel inside (their conscience or ethical sense) cannot be objectively measured or defined, but public actions usually can.

For example, if you punch somebody in the face your action will be considered wrong by many people, but others may consider your motivations and consider it right, but their judgment is about the right or wrong of the act; nobody will argue about the act itself: it was observable.

If you punch people in the face regularly, then some people may judge you to be a bad person based on your wrong actions. But there will still be others who understand your troubled youth and argue that yes, the actions are wrong, but the person isn’t really bad. This inner person cannot be objectively observed and therefore cannot be measured to any standard.

As described in my book, a number of psychological types are more inclined to equate ethical and moral values; they internalize the moral values of their environment so strongly that they equate the behaviour with the goodness of a person, while other types feel a strong distinction between the two. This is not a choice people make, but part of their inborn psychology and therefore neither viewpoint is right or wrong, but we have to be aware that the other perspective exists.

Also be aware that, as a result of the people who organize society usually being of the former types, the term “ethics” (as in work ethics) actually refers to moral values, since they refer to a code of conduct.

Apart from distinguishing between ethical and moral values, I personally also distinguish “moral values” from “morality”, in which the former refers to the above mentioned considerations of right and wrong action and the latter to the peer pressure exercised by the majority of the members of a group in order to force people with different values to comply. They tend to do this with gossip, bullying, exclusion, disdainful looks or comments and so on.

I have no issue with moral values. In fact, a group’s identity relies on them, but I strongly object to morality.

The next step after morality is, of course, legality, in which the authorities of a group enforce their own moral values using the penal system.

Now, like I said above, we still live in a culturally diverse society and the authorities claim to be tolerant to different belief systems (different moral codes) and this is why they allow exemptions for people with regard jury duty, healthcare and schooling.

But what about ethical values or principles?

Why is it that my relative had to explain in a letter that she objected to being part of a jury on an ethical basis and that being forced to participate would influence her sense of objectivity?

Why is it that I have to choose between claiming a religious belief I don’t have or try to explain an ethical sense (which by its very nature is not objective) and risk not being allowed to home educate my children, while people who belong to an organized religion can simply tick a box?

Why is it that religious institutions have the right to protect their children from vaccines that may be potentially dangerous, but I cannot do so on ethical grounds?

Why is it  that people who object to military service on principle either have to do community service or go to prison? Why is it that people who cannot claim an organized religion are being chased by the police if they don’t want to expose their child to the poisons of chemotherapy?

Why is it that people with moral beliefs based on an accepted institution are allowed such privileges or exemptions, but people who do not belong to an organized religion are expected to be without values (except those of the state)?

One explanation could be that the authorities rely on publicity and being seen as tolerant. They don’t want to risk the wrath of an entire group of people – that isn’t good for their public image – but they have little concern for the individual.

So what happened to “everyone has the right”?

What happened to “alone or in community with others and in public or private”?

What happened to “without interference”?

The other, more likely explanation is that the authorities have no clue about the difference between ethical and moral values, because of the types of people they are, so they cannot see that they are in effect discriminating against inborn personality types.

I am not affiliated with any religious order, whether big or small, traditional or new and whether western or from anywhere else. Yet I have very strong ethical principals, which are not negotiable and I want respect for those. It consider it an insult that I am expected to submit my child to mass vaccinations, send them to traditional public school and submit to the legal system, because my beliefs are not considered legitimate unless I belong to a religious organization.

Sure, if I insist – write a letter explaining my philosophy – I do get exemptions,  but I want respect for the idea that people can have moral and ethical values without any outside authority having imposed them. I want my human right acknowledged by the government of a state that claims tolerance to individual opinions and beliefs.