Review of The Pursuit of Perfection and how it Harms Writers

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s The Pursuit of Perfection: And How It Harms Writers (WMG Writer’s Guide) (Volume 3) is one of the best — though brief at 46 pages — writing advice books I’ve read in some time (click either on the link or cover image to purchase at Amazon.). It’s especially valuable to those of us who are perfectionists, either by nature or training or a mix of the two. (I think most of us get a little of both along the way. Or perhaps the training reinforces the nature?) It’s also a nice introduction to thinking about writing in terms of a business pursuit as much as an art or craft.

The business side of writing is an area I’ve only recently begun to explore, so I won’t at this point talk too much about trying to tackle the business side of freelance writing. That area is regrettably one I’ve cast aside for far too long and have much to learn.

On the nature side of things, I think some of my perfectionistic tendencies might be rooted in psychological fears about money learned at an early age and reinforced in later life by negative experience and accepting some myths about writing, myths Rusch explores in the book. I wonder how many of you have had similar backgrounds when dealing with money and business education?

What I want to concentrate on in this review are some of the myths Rusch brings up. In particular, myths from the world of the MFA in creative writing. Now, I sheepishly admit there’s a bit of me — the ego protecting me — still touchy about not getting into an MFA program when I entered graduate school eons ago, so I tend to get a bit giddy about critiques of MFA programs in general. But, for me, I saw the MFA as a route to becoming a fiction writer — as a way other than publishing that validated my fiction as valuable. Isn’t either Stephen King or George Orwell who says writers write to get published because a publication is a validation of existence?

While I didn’t get into my school’s MFA program, I did get into its graduate program in English — barely. At least I would be around the MFAs, right? Maybe I could absorb some of those writers’ wisdom? (Of course, there are other reasons I went to grad school: I was deeply afraid of engaging with the real world. Fear is always a constant bugaboo, isn’t it?).

So, here is one paragraph from Rusch’s book that dug into my brain like a hungry worm:

Creative writing, so far as I can tell, is the only degree a student can get that doesn’t offer any study of how to make a career as a professional who makes her living at the craft described in the title of the degree. In fact, in most universities, creative writers are told from day one that they cannot make a living at their chosen profession.

And that’s just bullshit.

What hit me so much about this passage was that it seemed outside of being a scholar and teaching (whether in secondary schools or at colleges or universities) there was nothing offered of how my English degree could help me make a living. It wasn’t until I consulted a school counseling service for other issues that I even thought I could be an editor. Still, I had no idea how to go about becoming an editor. And for that matter, an editor of what?

Scholarship seemed to be for scholarship’s sake as getting a creative writing degree seemed to be for the sake of producing more MFAs. On the other hand, the journalism department at the other end of campus taught their students to be journalists. You learned how to get internships at a paper or radio or TV station. You learned marketable job skills.

There was also a sense in grad school that a career of some sort, that pursuing a profession was something of a betrayal of art or politics or even self. Now, this was the ’90s and I know now there are classes in editing, and degrees offered in technical and professional writing. So, things are changing. Maybe? But how many people are getting their MFAs just to get them?

Anyhow, this isn’t to disparage my graduate school experience: I learned great research skills, I read a lot of literary works that I had missed or avoided in my reading life and my critical thinking skills are stronger than say the average bear.

But, I’ve had to struggle with the cannot make a living at writing thing for a long time — about two decades. I would write stories and take two or three months and polish them to perfection then submit them to one or two usually non-paying literary journals or magazines, get them rejected and pretty much give up on them. I still go through this. I’ve brought my perfectionism to my journalism and to my fiction writing still.

It’s something I work through and hope to overcome. Some of it’s rooted in fear, which I think is part of the perfectionist’s nature. But, Reading Rusch’s book has helped even with that part of me, giving me a different way of thinking.

— Todd

 

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The Martian: A review

So, I must admit I am apparently the only person — at least on this planet — who hasn’t seen The Martian on the big screen, but I’ve finally jumped on the bandwagon and read the book.* (A nice review of the movie by Melinda Snodgrass is here. She reviews the movie and book and includes some of George R.R. Martin’s commentary about book/movie adaptation. I’ve written some about book/movie adaptation in a review of Sideways.)

Like most readers, I loved book. It’s the kind of SF I think even Sad Puppies might enjoy, given it has space ships and white guys sciencing the shit out of stuff. It does, I suppose hearken back to classic SF — whatever that is.

But, its appeal is Mark Watney’s voice and the gallows humor Andy Weir has bestowed on Watney’s character. (It almost seems as if Weir had Matt Damon in mind as he was developing Watney’s voice. Of course, that could simply be the hazard of reading a novel when a movie is out that makes the voice sound like Damon’s. Or could it be Matt Damon lives inside my head?)

The book also serves as a really good study of keeping the tension flowing in a story, although there are moments when you want Weir to let up a little, and maybe let someone have a picnic at a peaceful beach or something.

For a non-science guy like me, the science in it is readable and I have to commend Weir on that. Given he has a science background — computer science — I’m pretty sure he knows how to science the shit out of stuff, or at least research enough to make the science sound plausible. The science even got Neil deGrasse Tyson approval, and that’s no small feat.

So, read the book. It’s good fun. And eventually, I will launch out at some point to see the movie.

— Todd

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*Editor’s note: I hope you will consider buying the book through this Amazon link. While I don’t want to be too agressive of a marketer, I would also like to monetize this blog a little. Thanks for your support.

 

Review: The Flicker Men by Ted Kosmatka

Until I read his The Flicker Men, I had only known of Ted Kosmatka through his short fiction in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Asimov’s. Now that I’ve read The Flicker Men, I’m glad I’ve met Ted in long form.

This SF-thriller drops faith and science into the pit with the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t universe of quantum physics wherein a washed out scientist, Eric Argus, replicates a double-slit experiment that lights up some alternate realities and potentially threatens the universe. At the same time, the experiment gains the attention of nefarious forces that include a televangelist bent on using Argus’s work to prove souls exist and what I would say were pan-dimensional beings. These forces pursue Argus and attempt to destroy his work and him before the whole of reality runs completely amok, if it hasn’t already.

Kosmatka’s style — his driving short sentences — hammers narrative forward. And he’s such a crafty storyteller, he’s able blend a complicated field of science into the narrative without relying heavily on infodumps.

Review of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World

The Drowned WorldThe Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is our future, or how our future was imagined by J.G. Ballard in 1962, about two decades before scientists generally began to notice and grow concerned about a significant spike in the Earth’s atmospheric temperature. The Drowned World, though, is not truly a novel about global warming–rising temps and melting icecaps result primarily from solar storms, an event humans can’t curb.

This drowned world is much like Earth’s Triassic period with humans thrown in the mix and struggling to resettle amid hungry iguanas and alligators. (For a perhaps more realistic SF novel of global warming as we now understand it, I recommend Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain.) Ballard’s drowned world pits scientists like Dr. Robert Kerans and rogues like the bizarre and Kurtz-like Mr. Strangman against an environment that is physically and psychologically hostile toward humanity.

It’s good mix of 1970’s lost world movies like The Land Time Forgot and Heart of Darkness. The hallucinatory psychological adjustments humans have to make to this new environment are as intriguing as the drowned world itself.

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One-sentence Review: Thomas Harlan’s Wasteland of Flint

Wasteland of FlintWasteland of Flint by Thomas Harlan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is fun read—a combination of a Traveller RPG adventure, Aliens, Prometheus, Lara Croft and Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris with some Carlos Castaneda thrown in.

“In some far distant future year, the human race has spread out among the stars, encountering other species and an Empire that spans at least this corner of the galaxy. The Empire is ruled from the Imperial City of Tenochtitlan (which he know as Mexico City), the capital of the planet Anahuac. But the advance of Imperial Mexica has revealed that there were earlier powerful interstellar empires, which are long gone now, leaving behind their mysterious artifacts.

When a survey team goes missing, it’s up to Dr. Gretchen Anderssen to unravel the mystery, a mystery centered on these ancient artifacts, one that could shake the very foundations of the Empire.”—From the Goodreads description

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Albert of AdelaideAlbert of Adelaide by Howard L. Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To compare the story of a platypus in search of Old Australia to the allegedly deep, profound post-apocalyptic nihilism of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is, it may seem,  an apples-to-watermelons comparison.

But, shave off Cormac McCarthy’s layers of pretentious faux Faulknerway prose, and humans-reduced- to-pronouns nihilism, and you have the story of a journey through the heart of darkness that is just darkness and virtually no story.

With Howard L. Anderson’s Albert of Adelaide, on the other hand, you get a journey into and out of the heart of darkness, as seen through the eyes of a platypus, Albert, escaped from the Adelaide Zoo to search for a promised land known as Old Australia. What Albert finds instead is a pyromaniacal wombat, drunken bandicoots, a militia of kangaroos (bent on preserving the purity and superiority of marsupialness over other species)and various and sundry misadventures in a barren desert settlement known as the Gates of Hell.

Unlike McCarthy’s dark, soulless novel, Anderson has achieved with Albert of Adelaide what few supposedly literary novels do—give readers a story and characters to care about, even as they are committing atrocious acts of violence, and a protagonist worth caring about, as he preserves his humanity (or would that be platypussity?). Something McCarthy’s The Road, his protagonists, fails to do.

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