Monday, June 13, 2011

a guide to writers in the 21st century

Book Life, by Jeff Vandermere (San Francisco, Tachyon, ISBN 1-892391-90-2), subtitled "Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century," is well worthwhile for any writer. It is neither a how-to-write book nor an inspirational work of the Julia Cameron variety. Rather, it advises writers as to how to conduct themselves when using the new media, and how to plan for the long haul.

Vander Meer believes in setting goals in writing, assessing ones strengths and weaknesses, and formulating a five year plan, a one year plan, and monthly and weekly task lists. To operate from a to-do list made daily is to think tactically rather than strategically, he says.

"Be yourself" is another key piece of advice. Choose the type of internet presence that feels right for you, and consider the kinds of information you are willing to share with the world. When it comes to publicizing your books, "define your level of effort", he advises, and don't feel that you have to follow a certain course just because others are doing it.

His statement that "it requires effort to re-brand yourself" struck a chord with me. Earlier in my writing life I taught courses on memoir-writing, and although I have been publishing fiction for many years now and have won awards for my fiction, people still ask me to teach courses in life writing.

Vander Meer tells new writers that "there is not always a link between improved technology and greater efficiency" and that "new media breed a sense of swift entitlement and accomplishment." This is definitely food for thought, as is the remark, which he quotes from Nathan Ballingrud, that "What will stunt your writing is a lack of emotional and cultural experience.'

The items I have quoted or paraphrased above are only a small sample of the helpful information in Book Life. Read it for yourself.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Tom and Gerri

If you enjoyed the movies Vera Drake and Secrets and Lies, you will enjoy Mike Leigh's latest film, Another Year. This movie about aging centres on a year in the life of Tom and Gerri, a married couple in their early sixties We see them working enthusiastically in their allotment garden, an oasis in the city of London, and later sharing a cup of tea in their garden hut during a shower. At home together they always have much to talk about. He is a geologist, she a mental health counsellor at a medical clinic. In one scene we show her employing all her skills to draw out a sullen uncommunicative older woman, who rates herself a "1" out of 10 when it comes to happiness, but will say little else other than that she wants sleeping pills.

The relevance of this scene is revealed later in the movie when we meet Gerri's co-worker, Mary, a pretty vivacious woman somewhere between forty and fifty. As it turns out, Tom and Gerri have two relatives and two friends who are clearly not as happy as they are, and Mary is the troubled friend who is the chief drain on their energy. When Gerri and Tom invite her for dinner she gets drunk and weepy over a long-ago divorce and subsequent affair with a married man. She wishes she were as happy as Tom and Gerri are, but the conversation reveals that while she could pursue some of the small satisfying projects in life, like cooking and gardening, that they enjoy, she doesn't. Watching, I wondered if Mary would make a play for Tom in a harebrained attempt to become part of their happy family, but I was mistaken as to the focus of her attentions.

Mary's counterpart is Ken, a boyhood friend of Tom and his brother, Ronnie. Ken, divorced, eats and drinks too much, longs for the good old days when he was young and part of a crowd of football fans, and clings to his job because he doesn't know what he would do in retirement.
The aging friends and relatives who are troubled appear to be the sort of people who, in their youth, alaways latched onto the easiest option.

Some reviewers have suggested that Tom and Gerri befriend unfulfilled people in order to feel superior and successful, but I did not find this so. First of all, their circle includes at least one friend and one relative who are happy and busy. As for their troubled friends and relatives, Gerri treats them like full adults, never criticizing or giving them advice, even when they sorely need it, and showing them simple kindness. Tom, while very kind, tends to be more direct than Gerri, who simly says, "Life isn't always kind." Only when her goodness has been pushed to the limit does she tell a friend to "take responsibility" for actions and to "seek professional help."

As the film continues, we learn that Tom came from humble beginnings, that both he and Gerri put in years of study, then endured a long separation when the first job he could get was out of the country. Some reviewers say that the movie tells us that some lives are fulfilled and others aren't, and that there's nothing to be done, but Gerri wouldn't agree. Her behaviour reveals her belief that, with help and willingness to change, despair can be turned into garden variety unhappiness, and maybe something better.

The fragility of Tom and Gerri's happiness is shown by a funeral in the "winter" part of the movie. One imagines, however, that when death separates them, the widowed partner will continue reaching out to friends and pursuing worthwhile interests and projects.

I wish Tom and Gerri were real people and would invite us to their house for dinner. We don't get drunk and whine.