Monday, December 29, 2014

And the gun that’s hanging on the kitchen wall, dear

New England Christmas -- fourteen pounds!
On the beach, during my childhood in Thailand, we celebrated Christmas.  We went and ate shish kabobs and sunned ourselves.  We played ping-pong with other missionary kids from other Christian schools scattered around southeast Asia.  I read Agatha Christie novels and built sand castles.

We did not feel guilty.  Yet it was other people’s sacrifice funding our tropical vacation.  At some point during my childhood, maybe when someone else pointed it out, I realized that all of our income came at the mercy of strangers.  We went “home” to the States, on furlough, to raise money from churches.  These churches, and their elderly members, or families much like ours, working-class families, or wealthy families, or friends—all of them “supported” us.  They gave us money because they believed in what we were doing, evangelizing Buddhist Thailand, and their hard-earned savings funded our barbecue crab dinners and beachfront bungalow.

It sounds sordid, maybe—but only if you don’t believe in what we were doing.  And we did believe.  We believed with all our hearts.  My parents continue the same work, now living in Islamic Indonesia, where people keep framed photographs of Osama bin Laden enshrined on their walls.  There they run a Bible school, in a country which has a regular history of mass slaughter of its Christian minority.

Now I’m doing the same thing.  Asking for “support” from people who believe in what I’m doing, merely to fund my life, merely to fund what I believe in.  And I’m getting it.  I am absolutely blown away that today, with 6 days left of my Kickstarter campaign, I am at 68 percent support.  It feels great, and it also feels terrifying.  Because if people believe in me, then that means I actually have to do the work.  Do my work.

Books about creativity frequently talk about fear, not just fear of failure, but fear of success.  Because being successful means inviting people in, to see the work.  Being successful means that the bar is raised.  Being successful invites rejection and critique.  It means accountability.

Accountability, or the lack of it, is the hardest part of being an artist alone in the world.  I’ve never missed a day of scheduled work—and by that I mean any one of many menial office jobs, or bar-tending, or waitressing, or my numerous other minimum-wage jobs—any job where I had to clock in and report to a boss and had FICA taken out of a paycheck.  Maybe I occasionally showed up late, I took personal days—but I met my obligations.  I called in.  I knew I had to be there so I was there.  But working for myself is a different story entirely.  Why is it so much harder to meet an obligation to myself?

Also, I feel guilt.  If other people are funding my life by their sacrifice, what right do I have to sit in front of the television?  To take days off?  To eat shish kabobs or play ping-pong?  I do not share my parents’ certainty of belief.

Instead, I find myself returning an old prayer, again and again:  Lord, I believe.  Help Thou my unbelief.

After having prayed I believe for a little while longer.  This whole experiment, discovering a community of friends, friends of friends, family, blessed strangers—maybe can make me believe in myself.  One friend, an old friend, my first donor, wrote a beautiful email that said:  the patrons of your art demand such boldness.  And they do.  You do.

[Give here:]

Friday, December 19, 2014

Don’t be afraid

Were Keats’ final words.  More light, more light—the dying words of Goethe.  Fear not, was what the angel Gabriel said when he appeared to Mary, and the command most often repeated in the Bible.  How many times do I have to hear it?

And still I am afraid.  Occasionally I have moments of boldness.  As today, posting a Kickstarter campaign, supporting the fiction residency to which I was accepted this month.  I’ve been at this business, trying to build a career, trying to publish, for ten years now, but this is the first time I’ve actually come out and ask anyone for money—what if all of you say no?

The Vermont Studio Center has granted me $2100 to attend their residency program for a full month:  including room, board, and most precious of all, my own personal writing studio, with desk, chair, privacy, quiet, silence, and space.  But an equivalent amount is mine to match, mine to find somewhere in the dwindling free digital economy.

In my video (watch, to hear me read you a story), I say:  "I know, from personal experience, the ways in which writers are finding it harder than ever to make a living.  Traditional publishing has been upended, and publishing companies are finding their budgets and staff cut yearly.  Yet the demand for content—satisfying, beautiful, well-made content—is at an all-time high."

I can say that I am alive, working as a writer, but am I making a living?  I am alive by the grace of God, by the grace of my dead grandmother, by the kindness of family members and strangers.  Making a living means people actually buying my work.  Choosing to spend their money on it rather than on a coffee or a donut or a mortgage payment.

Writing as a career is a diaphanous veil over an abyss.  Since I was a child, I’ve been told to give up, that I’ll never be successful financially as a writer.  My grandfather started his own publishing company to put his exegetical theology in print, a publishing company that’s slowly going out of business even now.

The things I create do not exist in any space except in your own mind.  Jonathan Safran Foer said, in an interview I attended, that writers are artists that paint on the canvas of other people’s subconscious minds.  The terror of the internet age, as Gillian Welch tells us, is that everything is free.  If everything is free, then how shall any of us eat?  But the terror of the internet comes with corresponding beauty: it puts the power into the hands of the masses.  Into your hands.  What we want is ours to ask for, ours to ask the whole universe for.

J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter while on welfare.  She trusted in her work enough to demand that the British taxpayer to pay for it.  I’m just asking you.

So go check it out.  The worst that can happen?  Utter humiliation and a big fat goose egg.  Nothing to be afraid of.

[Edit to add a link to the campaign--realizing I forgot to include it last night.  Clearly I'm a beginner at this:]