While wandering lost in the desert, my character Venus repeatedly fantasizes her eventual rescue as a way to keep herself alive. The centerpiece of her self-sustaining vision is an ice-cold coconut piña colada she’ll enjoy in the shade of a Martian oasis:
I’m not there yet; I’m still stranded in this God-forsaken place, but the oasis is here, too, because I can see it right in front of me. It’s like they’re two different pages in a picture book I’m mentally composing, and I can flip back and forth between them in my mind.
At that time (1971) we still didn’t know whether Martian oases existed or not, although we’d begun to have some serious doubts.
The Lesson-to-Self here is that it doesn’t matter whether your goal is real or not, as long as you keep pursuing it – because that’s the only way you’ll find out. It’s like the impossibility of time travel – your goal exists in the future so there’s no way to know whether it’s real without actually going there – and you can’t do that, just yet.
There was a mind-bending episode of “The New Twilight Zone” in which space-time got out of sync and the characters found themselves wandering through a construction zone – it was their own future being built. None of it was finished yet, but presumably it would be by the time they were supposed to get there.
I want to go to there, as Liz Lemon would say. I want to go to some point in the future and see what’s being built for me, even if it’s still a work-in-progress. I want to see the framework in place, if not the finishing touches – because that would be proof enough that the future I’m envisioning is real – or will be.
Odd, I think, that the “Twilight Zone” couple didn’t grab a hammer or drill and get to work building their future just the way they wanted it to be. No, instead they fretted about how to find their way back to normality. The present, not the future, was their goal!
Two potential publishers who have expressed interest are now reading the manuscript. They are my dual Schroedinger’s Cats, the quantum agents of my unknown and unknowable future. If I could peek forward, I’d see the outcome, or at least a suggestion of it. I’d see Frances or Anita (not their real names) reading with interest, or else I’d see the manuscript abandoned on a desk or desktop (one was submitted electronically, the other as hard copy). Until I hear from one of them, both outcomes co-exist.
And that chilled piña colada will have to wait.
Yes, I said he laments. You might think being an expert in one’s field is the end-all, be-all, have-it-all situation. You’re arrived, people admire your accomplishments, you get invited to speak or consult and you might even make money doing all this. Meanwhile your resume expands to outlandish proportions.
Being an expert is a fairly modern phenomenon. Past civilizations lived more generic lives out of necessity, growing their food, educating their children, building, maintaining and defending their homes. Now we shop for heirloom tomatoes, send our kids off to preschool, call a plumber when the faucet leaks, speed-dial 911 when danger arises. If there weren’t experts, we couldn’t do any of this.
We are encouraged from an early age to specialize, the first step on our way to becoming experts – we join the math club, take tap-dancing lessons, go out for a sports team, declare a major, pursue a profession.
I didn’t do any of those things – in college, my major chose me, and my professional goals seemed indistinct and forever pliable. I explored the arts; mostly cool things seemed to happen to me and I rarely questioned my good fortune. A teaching job, for me? A grant, how nice! An award, a sabbatical – why, thank you! Before I knew it I’d become an expert – a professor of cinema with a Ph.D. and a load of accomplishments.
I’m thinking about all this after completing my new web site, which collects, organizes, maybe even boasts about what all I’ve done, and adds a few new bells and whistles to boot. At the conclusion of this arduous task I was so pleased with myself that I almost glowed like the old-fashioned bathing beauty on my home page, the one I scanned from a vintage postcard, the one whose head emits sun flares I created with Photoshop – expertly, I might add. Even if I never accomplish another thing, I thought smugly to myself, I’ve already done so much, and have done it all so well.
This is where the lamenting part comes in. Why lament over one’s laudable successes? Let’s ask Jeff Herman.
“Experts stand still and cultivate their crops,” Herman writes. “Explorers keep moving, looking, touching, consuming and discovering.”
An expert’s professional life, Herman explains, generates a momentum that has a way of self-perpetuating itself – doing one’s job, perhaps with mounting responsibilities, making decisions, meeting deadlines, responding to professional requests, and yes, polishing one’s image, perhaps with a fancy new web site.
Explorers’ lives are messier. Without a plan, without sometimes even a clue, they are able to navigate beyond the day-to-day obligations most of us take for granted. Perhaps, as non-experts, less is expected of them, providing them with more flex-time to decide what to do next, or to accept the bounty of whatever opportunity presents itself. (I’m not talking hippie-fied free-spirit here, but more a balanced approach in which one keeps the explorer self forever alert and responsive.)
My characters Lulu and Dr. P illustrate the difference between expert and explorer. He’s an astronomer committed to his work, first documenting those canals on Mars, later in life conducting the elusive search for “Planet X,” while she, the non-expert, pursues her ideas in a decidedly unconventional way:
“I begin each morning without a coherent theory, but always with a vague and fragmented idea that seems to have crept into my head as I’ve slept. By the end of the day, I try to either coalesce my notion, or else dismiss it and wait for another to announce itself. I realize, of course, this is not scientific protocol, but I am a secretary, not a scientist, and it is the method that works best for me.”
If I have taught myself anything while writing this novel and the previous one, it is the need to free myself up enough to explore, along with my characters, whatever lies ahead. Laika the space dog does this literally, going where no dog or human has gone before, while Lulu achieves some sort of cosmic self-awareness that seems to serve her well:
“As I lift my skirt and step cautiously across the rock-strewn desert, I am inventing my future: views never seen in a territory not yet charted, an ever-expanding route through a complex universe that future beings will calculate all the way to infinity.”
In his transition from explorer to expert, Jeff Herman says, “the more visceral messages from my heart and gut lost their traditional primacy in the constitution of my life.” His conclusion that our society needs both does not diminish the need for individuals to think carefully – and often – about which defines best their life and work, and if something seems out of whack, to keep in mind that transitions can come at any time.
I may have become an expert, but now, thankfully, I find myself transitioning from expert back to explorer.
I just joined Inkubate – actually you have to be invited to join but this just involves asking for an invitation and they replied to me within a minute, which means they’re either very efficient or they’re just getting started and are hungry for fodder. Either way it works for me.
I read about Inkubate on the HuffPo and it sounds legit. Authors post tiny excerpts from their work (really tiny – 2000 characters or less and spaces count), plus an even tinier pitch (200 characters). That was the hardest part – I pulled sample after sample from my manuscript and they were all too long. And I’d already written what I thought were short blurbs, but they were all more than 200 characters. It took me last night and this morning to come to terms with their severe restrictions and post something that seems well-written, representative of my work and “stand-alone” (i.e.not needing any explanation).
Publishers and agents sign up to look at these (otherwise they’re privacy protected) and if they like what they see, they can bid to represent the author. If my wildest fantasy comes true and more than publisher or agent one gets interested, a bidding war commences – woohoo! Plus the writer gets paid by Inkubate each time his/her materials are read.
It’s a new model attempting to pre-empt and streamline the nearly unworkable method of submitting materials individually to agents and publishers then waiting, waiting while they sit in a “slush pile” – exactly what I’ve been doing (I’m feeling very slushy these days).
You go, Inkubate!
I’m sorry this blog has gone dark over the past few weeks – so much to do, so little to say about it.
My work is out there, is more out there every day, and as a result, I find myself in a massive holding pattern. Most places I’ve sent queries, manuscripts, synopses and CVs, are small, independent presses with miniscule staffs, and it takes forever (one literally says “forever” on their web site) for them to respond. You have to play by their rules and obey their etiquette because otherwise they’re liable to toss your work right into their virtual or actual trashcan.
So to amuse myself in the interim, I’ve been working on my stratification. I learned about this from real businesspeople so it must be of some value. I’ve identified three levels so far – the base level made up of my individual projects (each book I’m writing, each movie I’m editing, each class I’m teaching or preparing to teach). There are specific tasks to do within each project (write, design, edit, organize, publicize).
The next level up collects all the individual projects into larger categories of professional interest and activity like “web cinema,” “fiction writing,” “interactivity,” “cosmology,” “water fitness,” “music” (those are some of my categories). I haven’t yet figured out what to do on this level, but it’s nice to go there and think about how some areas may be connected (like creating a web site or video trailer for a book I’m writing, or building a working model for the interactive novel I’m envisioning).
The top level, where I seem to be spending most of my time these days, is Jan Millsapps – who I am, what I do, how I “brand” myself or how I explain myself to the world. I’m nearly done designing and building a new top-level web site, since the one I’ve used for the past ten or so years (“futurecine.com”) doesn’t really describe all I do any more. I registered “janillsapps.com” and will have the new site up and running within a few days (you can go there now if you want to preview, but all the links aren’t working yet). I’m also in the process of being “wikipedia-ed” and will have my own listing online soon. Yes, I’ll let you know.
The idea of stratification is that there’s always something to work on – when my novel is stalled out, there’s more fiction or nonfiction to write, more queries to send out, writing a new entry for this blog, updating my Flickr photos, designing the “interactive cinema” class I’ll soon be teaching, or creating a new playlist and some new moves for my water aerobics class.
And it’s all valid activity, because everything I accomplish on one strata benefits something that lives on another one.
“Who is Jan Millsapps” informs “what is interactive cinema” informs coming to terms with a new kind of participatory fiction in which readers engage more directly with the material, using a variety of media and said model of interactive narrative. Or my nifty new home page with updated bio will be an easy link I can text or email to potentials agents and publishers.
I’ve spent days working on my new home page (top strata) that has involved my Photoshopping and animating a visual representing myself (bottom strata) and then using Dreamweaver to put the whole thing together, links and all (middle strata), in preparation for launching my new site, my new virtual persona, my online presence (top level, with drum roll, please).
Will this help me write good novels, or even more, help get them published?
It certainly can’t hurt.