Effortless Diversity : a book review

Some books can justifiably be defined as masterpieces. These are literary works that stand the test of time; The Classics, and all the other fine novels and texts we can read over and over again without tiring. All of us have books like that. I, for one, have always loved losing myself in words, in the geography of my imagination.

My husband, however, is not like that. If he reads a text-heavy book, it is probably nonfiction. However, a true Frenchman, he has long been an admirer of graphic novels. In the American context, these have until recently often been dismissed as (or rather, lumped in) with comic books. Superheroes and stuff. No offense if that’s your thing; too much spandex for my taste.

One book we can both agree on, now, is Saga. This is fast becoming one of my favorite series ever. It is, essentially, a space opera. Think SciFi/Romance. Yet of the deepest, most engaging kind. Yes, sexy aliens are getting naked and busy on a regular basis (That’s fun! And hey, graphic novel, so you get the artsy eye candy to go with…), but there’s so much more to it. Themes of diversity; clash of cultures; discrimination and stereotyping; the meaning of family; even the uniting power of literature; are woven throughout the main story. Adventure can be found aplenty, but for me, Saga is an inspiring example of effortless diversity. (Much like the delightful online cartoon I previously mentioned, Fated.)

15704307With my recent musing on how to address white privilege in writing, reading the recently-released sixth book of Saga was a welcome reminder that there is lots of great literature out there already fighting the good fight. In Saga, aliens come in all shapes, sizes, ages and colors. They live together, fuck together, fight each other, and generally are no better or worse than most “humans;” except way more badass. The blend makes this fantastic world excitingly familiar. Reading Saga, I can totally imagine how an inter-galactic, multi-species society might be. And you know what? All of a sudden, small differences are erased by the bigger picture. That picture happens to be an endless (and pointless) civil war, but hey, conflict has to come from somewhere.

Saga is the real deal. If you want some seriously good science fiction – and enjoy beautiful art, snappy dialogue, an un-put-downable story, thoughtful sexiness, and effortless diversity to boot – then you need to buy a copy right now. I’ll just be counting the months until the next book comes out…

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Aren’t we artisans?

For a long time, I distributed my writing for free. It was the usual routine: I wrote a story for fun (and because it got me hot), gave it a cursory once-over, then plastered it on Literotica or — and I fully admit to this — WAY back in the day, on Fanfiction.net. (Yeah. Legolas was my guy in those heady days of the early 2000’s…) Anyway, at that time I considered myself an amateur. And I was; an amateur, of course, is someone who does something for the love of it, and nothing more.

I ceased to consider myself an amateur when I began investing more concentrated time (and money, too) in perfecting my work. I connected with beta readers, hired a proofreader, designed book covers, wrote and polished blurbs, edited, revised, and rewrote until I was sick of my own work. All of this was through a desire to make my writing the best it can possibly be. And in the process, I realized it had value. Real value: the worth of my time and effort.

So now, I consider myself an artisan. This is not the same thing as a professional. Professionals make their income from their work, whatever it is. Probably they have invested a large chunk of their life into their career, specializing in a profession, taking workshops and focused trainings, putting their nose to the grindstone and climbing the ladder. I do that, too, in my professional life. This is something I separate from my art, however.

Get it? Profession = professional; Art = artisan. So, unless you happen to be signed with a big publishing company, who pays you regularly and buys your work in advance, you, too, are an artisan. (There are professional artists, of course. My grandparents were; they struggled their whole lives with it. Hence, my preference for keeping art and work apart!)

Think about cheese – one of my favorite things! You can buy tasty cheese from professionals. Say, Tillamook. No matter where you are, you can get a nice brick of cheddar, knowing it has been made in a large, reputable plant, wherein they have been producing quality cheese for generations. Tillamook is a professional cheese-making business. They make TONS of cheese and maintain a level of quality we expect from professionals

Now imagine you’re at the local farmers market. Cheese can be found here, too, but this time it’s artisan cheese. You might find a small-batch herbed chevre, or fresh mozzarella. It’s all been lovingly made by hand, the product of individuals or small groups working in quite a different system than the big companies. Oftentimes artisanal cheese is delicious, far richer and more tempting than the grocery store variety. Other times, alas, it is less than amazing. In any case, it is likely to surprise you.

Lots of people say artisan is better, for this reason. Others prefer the consistency of professional products. Neither is right or wrong; they’re just two different ways of producing, buying, and enjoying cheese.

Keep that in mind when buying indie books. Self-published authors are artisans; we don’t work for any big company or publisher. There’s no safety net. We just quietly producing our work — our art — in the hopes that customers (that means you, gentle reader!) might prefer to buy a small, artisanal product rather than a predictable grocery store bestseller. Just know that, whichever you choose, there’s an artist behind it. But when you pay that artist directly, more of the benefit stays with them.

So buy from artisans! Shop at your local potter, beekeeper, couturier, farmer, bakery, woodworker, candlemaker, art gallery. Support us Indie authors, too. We may not sell at the farmers’ market, but we are artists and craftsmen, just the same.

It is better to be a part-time artist than a starving one

I have always had an affinity for art. Notably visual art, such as painting and sculpture, but also the artistry of words, and of movement in dance. True artists make huge sacrifices for their craft, devoting uncountable hours to practice, revision, and the perfection of each element. This is admirable – awe-inspiring, sometimes – and those who make these Herculean efforts become exceptional artists.

However, they aren’t always paid for it. Yes, yes, I know the whole “starving artist” thing is a stereotype, but like so many it has deep roots in reality. For me, it has a personal flavor.

Two of my grandparents were artists all their lives. That’s how they made a living. They were good, too; professional quality work, because of course they were professionals, and they were always, always working. Yet it never seemed quite enough to make ends meet. They made do, of course, like everyone who grew up during the Great Depression and matured during WWII. But the stress and strain of living paycheck to uncertain paycheck drained them. Their talent never wavered, and a passion for art was with them to the end – they were both still working on paintings the day each of them died – but their zest for life had been dampened by hardships. The hardship of being, if not actually starving, certainly struggling artists.

I remember when I was very young, even before I could read (much less write), I was always drawing. Proudly, I told my grandmother I would like to be an artist. She shook her head and said, “No, dear, anything but an artist.” This from a woman whose whole life had been devoted to art. In her admittedly brutal way, she was trying to discourage me from committing to such a difficult (sometimes painful, always uncertain, occasionally transcendent) career path. Art was always part of me, and continues to be, but after many twists and turns it turns out I followed her advice. I am not a starving artist, as she was.

Instead, I am a part-time one. It’s taken me a while to come to terms with what that means, and that it’s okay. However, the reality is most artists are also – some might say primarily – “something else.” My dance teacher works in an office; another fabulous dancer does her 9 to 5 at the DMV. (Oh, the horror!) Most painters I know are either retired, or weekend/vacation artists who paint in their extra time. Writers, naturally, are the same. You can find us hunched over laptops in cafes, typing madly while occasionally remembering to sip our cooling cappuccinos. Or, as I tend to do, sitting in front of computers in the evening, with a cup of tea or a glass of wine, maybe some little snacks, waiting for inspiration to flow from our minds into our fingers (ideally the kind that requires no thinking at all, because the story has already taken on its own breath, it’s unexpected life, and is now out of my hands…). All of this outside of typical working hours.

This is why, as I’ve said before, it’s so important to keep that balance between art and day job. Luckily for me, I enjoy my job (at least, most days). It’s hard, and it takes up a lot of time – 40 hour weeks are not something I know much about at this point in my life – but that’s okay, because it’s my career and I am invested in it. Because I have to be, but also because I want to be.

We’ve all gotta pay the bills somehow or other. But that does not make our art any less important, or of lower quality, simply because we artists are part-time. Would my grandparents have been exceptional artists if they had also been, for example, lawyers or secretaries? Perhaps not, but probably so; just maybe at a different point in their lives, or in a different context. Art is in a person’s blood and bone. Nothing – not even 11-hour workdays – can stop it. But I think my grandparents would agree: if you have to choose, it is better to be a part-time artist than a starving one.