Talented vs. Delusional: The Conundrum of an Indie Artist

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A few years after I started writing, encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive feedback, I submitted my work for publication.  A quick Google search will demonstrate that my attempts have yielded, to date, one publishing deal.  I took the publishers’ lack of interest as my writing being unworthy of being published.  Of course, that is not the case: as hard as it is to produce a quality manuscript, it is even harder to get it published.

While frustrating, I can’t get upset at publishing companies for following sound business rules, by only purchasing books they feel will sell enough to generate profit.  Fortunately, the indie scene provides authors with great content a place where they can share their work.  Two of my personal favourites are writers Sieni A.M. and Ripley Patton.

As of last month, I myself went indie (shameless plug: you can find my first self-published book, Chills: A Short Story Collection, on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Nobles, and iBooks.)  It took me a couple of years to take the jump, as I was struggling with one big question: what is the line between knowing you have talent and sharing your art, and just being arrogant and self-delusional?

Intention is of course important.  If an author, however talented he or she might be, just wants to make money, it translates into the book they write quite clearly.  But unfortunately, good intentions never automatically translate into good books.

This is where effort comes in. Good intentions coupled with sincere, earnest effort increase the probability that a book will be good.  But of course, that’s not enough. Trust me.  I have spent a lot time writing pieces that, a few years later, I couldn’t delete fast enough.

Feedback is something else that increases chances that a book will be good.  Professional editors and proofreaders, coupled with family and friends who can help refine a storyline, can greatly buff a book into a beautiful shine.

I hesitate using sales as an indicator of the quality of a book, as many terrible books have sold millions of copies.  Furthermore, our sense of success as determined by sales is defined by things such as the New York Times best sellers list.  This implies that quality writing is akin to millions of copies sold, which is a benchmark one could hope to achieve only after a few years of intense work as an indie author.  Reviews do give a better indication of the success of a book when they are descriptive enough, but these sort of reviews are unfortunately rare.  One of my current, personal favourites is fan reaction in the form of comments, emails, tweets, and reblogs.

So why did I finally end up taking the indie jump, despite not finding a clear answer to my question?  Because writing a book is not an end in itself.  Writing is about learning, from the moment an idea is sparked to the conversations the finished product generate.  And however bad a book might be, despite the intention, the effort, the positive feedback, the sales, and the reviews, it can always generate great learning.

Image credit: Chad Mauger

The Perhaps Not So Surprising Grief at the Passing of an Artist

First Flower on the Apple Tree

When Michael Jackson passed away in 2009, I was captivated by the outpouring of grief that I both witnessed and felt. Yet again I was intrigued four months ago by the expressions of sorrow after the passing of Cory Monteith from a drug overdose during what seemed to be a successful Glee summer hiatus (during which he filmed two movies.)

Of course, one cannot compare the breadth and depth of Michael Jackson’s career, which spanned forty-something years, to that of Cory Monteith’s, which had just begun. But a fan is a fan; whatever one thinks of the artist, one cannot deny a fan his or her grief.

Which brings me to the main question at hand: why does the death of a person they have never met affect fans so much? While it is sad that both Michael Jackson and Cory Monteith passed away at relatively young ages, death is a part of life, and marks the transition to a better place.

Similarly, why does the grief of individuals we have never met affect us so much? Just like the Jackson children, many lost their parents and still grew up to be healthy, well rounded adults; and many individuals, after having lost their partner just like Lea Michele, were able to lead healthy lives, some of them even able to find another partner after a certain amount of time.

Empathy has a large part to play, of course. One cannot watch little Paris proclaiming her love for her Dad, or Lea’s promise to Cory’s fans, without feeling sad for the pain they are going through.

When it comes to performers, selfishness might also have a part to play (hopefully a very small one!) For fans who were looking forward to the This Is It concert, for those anticipating how Rachel and Finn’s story would end, the passing of Michael Jackson and Cory Monteith marked a drastic shift from expected ending to reality.

But what we witnessed felt like more than mere disappointment. Could it be that, to some extent, the depth of fans’ grief has to do with the special connection between artists and those they share their art with? Michael Jackson wrote songs that touched hearts, such as Man in the Mirror, Earth Song, and Lost Children, to name but a few. Cory Monteith was the face of Finn Hudson, the popular quarterback who defends the rights of nerdy glee club members. No doubt both artists influenced millions of people, by making them think about issues affecting both their personal development and their contribution to the betterment of society. So of course one would feel a sort of grief over their passing.

It might also be the effect stars can have on our lives as a collective. Here we are, millions of people who, for the most part, do not know each other, and yet we are connected through our relationship with these artists that touched our hearts. Social media helped us form a bond over shared experiences like listening to Michael Jackson’s songs or following Finn Hudson’s struggles and successes. Some of these bonds have transformed into friendships, which can last for years.

There is something hopeful, almost innocently so, about such connections. I think it just might be because of the glimpses they offer us of the beauty of what unity can look like, when such a large mass of people agree wholeheartedly on their appreciation for an artist. We also saw a form of harmony, when all these fans came together to celebrate the lives of these artists that touched their lives. This unity and this harmony, however brief, fleeting, weak, and superficial, are incredibly beautiful. And for the many of us working to contribute to a peaceful, united world, this glimpse, however imperfect, into what unity can look like, is breathtaking.

What, then, is the responsibility of artists?

Image credit: Chad Mauger

Out of Our Silos: Becoming a Community

Blue Shutters

As a self-professed, proud nerd, I find it thrilling how understanding constantly evolves.  This means that there is always something more to learn! A friend and I had a wonderful moment last week when we felt our brains expand a little bit more around our newfound understanding of the meaning of community. We were discussing how we both often get the feeling that, although those who live near us are friendly, we talk to them often, and we do various activities together, we each still live within the confines of our own life silo, and when they happen to intersect, we spend time together.

Then we wondered: does such a pattern of behavior actually correspond to individuals living in a community? Could our discomfort be due to the fact that perhaps it isn’t?

When we thought about the analogy of the community as a human body, it became pretty clear that no, such a pattern of behavior does not correspond to what community life should be. The various organs in a human body do not just do their own thing and work together only when they have to; they are always in sync with each other, to the point that a small change in one organ is registered in all the others. So somehow, the members of a community have to learn to have such a connection that, as soon as something happens to someone, everyone registers is, and adjusts accordingly.

I have no idea what that actually looks like, and I know that it is going to take time and effort to figure it out. I think we are going to have to greatly redefine the way we define a community, and, consequently, the patterns of behavior that define it. I also think that it means pushing our understanding about the meaning of coherence. A lot of the conversations I have been having with friends about coherence are centered on the individual, and how the different aspects of our lives have to be coherent one with the other. Could the next level of coherence be the one between the members of a community, in which the actions of one are defined by the measure with which it contributes to the advancement of the community?

Image credit: Chad Mauger

Why Compete? Building on Strength as an Approach to Seek Truth

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I have had the amazing opportunity, in the last year or so, to both see and be a part of decision-making processes that were very different from what I had experienced previously.

Those processes were based on one person convincing the others that his or her opinion was the best. It felt more like a competition than anything else; the person who was able to talk the loudest, the longest, and in such a way as to break apart the logic of every single other person at the table, was the one who “won.” In this sort of environment, the skill to take apart and destroy someone else’s opinion was the best asset one could have.

This approach does not seem to take advantage of the fact that “the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man.” By adopting such an approach, we are limiting our ability to seek the truth by following the opinion of one person.

What if instead, we had a decision-making process that builds on the unique views of each participant? It demands quite a change in perspective: instead of placing importance on the ability to destroy someone else’s argument, it requires that we place importance on the capacity to find the common point, build on opinions, put them together, and, ultimately, create a whole that is stronger than any of the parts.

I myself try to control my urges to over-instruct or to “win” a conversation, trying instead to find the common point between the people in my group. I remind myself constantly that “consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth.” It isn’t easy! But more often than not, it leads the participants, including myself, to realize that there are many ways of thinking about something that, if we give them a chance, shine of the truth as much as ours does. And another benefit of such an approach is that all those involved in the process feel a sense of ownership in the decisions that are taken.

I can’t help but wonder how a consultative approach would transform our justice system from a fight between two sides to a group effort towards achieving a just verdict. For example, in such a consultative environment, one side could look for signs of guilt, the other for signs of innocence; both sides would then sit together and consult about every piece of evidence, not resorting to twisting words and situations, but rather to seeing the entire picture.

For such a consultative approach to work, we have to turn away from our agendas, and turn instead towards such things as the common good, justice, etc. Of course the most powerful impetus is given when we realize our true purpose in life. It’s just like with Tuesday’s post, where I mentioned how “spouses should put each other first for the sake and in light of Holy Writings. Putting your spouse first is both a means to an end, as well as the result of a life centered on fulfilling one’s purpose of knowing and worshipping God.” Focusing on the betterment of the world as the object of our consultations definitely helps us turn away from ourselves and contribute to an environment conducive to consultation, in which we will be able to “weigh [our] opinions with the utmost serenity, calmness and composure,” and we will be able to, “before expressing [our] own views [to] should carefully consider the views already advanced by others.” And imagine what a group of people consulting like this could achieve!

Putting Your Spouse First: Not Quite What You Thought It Looked Like

Well-Groomed Trees

The refinement of one’s character is intimately related to the taming of one’s ego, the extreme manifestations of which being both the easiest to identify and to learn to control (no, really, it’s NOT all about you!)

But then come the trick questions, the ones we don’t quite expect to be ego driven at all, the situations where the line between letting one’s ego or justice control the choice making process is very, very hard to find. I was recently discussing the importance, in a marriage, to put one’s spouse first, when someone asked: “What if I am putting my spouse first in a selfish way?”
“You would know,” said someone else.
“Are you sure?” gently challenged the first person. “Wouldn’t you put yourself first, since that’s what your spouse would want?”
Needless to say, that blew more than one mind. And some of us are still recuperating from that one.

Last year, I wrote a post about a husband and a wife being like intertwined trees, and how the spiritual growth of one affects the spiritual growth of the other. I think the answer to my friend’s question might lie in this same metaphor. If the two trees are directed only towards one another, they will end up stunting each other’s growth. But what if they instead directed themselves towards the sun, while at the same time, not letting go of one another? They would strengthen one another as they became taller and taller, providing increasing shelter under their foliage. Which leads me to think that spouses should put each other first for the sake and in light of Holy Writings. Putting your spouse first is both a means to an end, as well as the result of a life centered on fulfilling ones purpose of knowing and worshipping God.

Thankfully, that pretty much takes care of all the potential circular and brain-aching logic of is putting the other first selfless or selfish!

It Takes a Village to Raise a Child: One Way We Can Contribute

childrenWhile not a parent myself, the well-being of children is a heartfelt concern of mine, increasingly so as more and more of my friends are having babies. While the Baha’i Writings offer excellent guidance on how to raise children, there is still a wide breadth of options available within it. And so, it is not uncommon that Baha’i parents end up raising their children very differently one from the other. I have friends who yell at their kids, some who don’t; some chat with their children, some don’t; some who ignore their kids’ tantrums, and others that acknowledge them; etcetera, etcetera.

In all of the abovementioned cases, the children, without exception, are intelligent, caring, sociable, and well-mannered (tantrums aside.) It might have to do with the only thing these parents seem to have in common: consistency. It is not the rules in themselves that will help the children as much as the process of obeying the rules, eventually understanding them, and some day, consulting on how to change them to suit the increasing maturity of the child.

What does that tell me? That, as friend of the family, the most important contribution that I can make to the education of these children is to never, ever contradict the parent, but rather, to always defer to their authority. Because ultimately, learning to follow rules is what will make these children grow up into youth and adults who will strive to adhere to Baha’i laws and principles.

The same, of course, goes for my friends who are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or atheists; it also goes for parents who believe in different schools of thought when it comes to childrearing.

Image credit: Chad Mauger

Adopting a learning mode: what it can look like

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Loving fellowship, mutual encouragement, and willingness to learn together are natural properties of any group of youth sincerely striving for the same ends…

There is a lot that we have to learn, every single day in our lives. Sometimes, when we make a mistake while trying to learn, we encounter honks, stares, and negative comments. But sometimes, those who happen to be present during our “learning moment” lend us a helping hand – and magic ensues.

A couple of years ago, at the end of a long day of work, I stepped into the bus that would take me home, as it has for many years. I recognized most of the faces around me, and many smiled at me as I took my usual spot. I slipped on headphones and started to relax as my hour-long bus ride began.

But a quarter of the way through, something went wrong. The young driver, clearly fresh out of “bus driving school”, had made a wrong turn. I took my headphones off and exchanged glances with the other passengers. As if by mutual agreement, an older gentleman stood up and headed up to the front of the bus.

“Son, are you aware that you tool a wrong turn?” he kindly said.
The poor young driver looked very stressed. “Yes, yes I am,” he said, a little defensively. “I never come to this side of town, I have no idea where I am!”
“Well I come from this side of town, and I wouldn’t know how to drive my way home,” the older gentleman said with a smile. He turned around to face me and the girl sitting beside me. “Maybe these lovely ladies could help us?”
“Don’t just show him the way; take him back and show him the right way,” a lady from the back called out. “Then he will know the route for his next run.”
“Is everyone OK with that?” asked the older gentlemen, who had somehow become the moderator of a bus-wide consultation on empowering a young person.
Everyone nodded.
“I do have to eat something tough,” said a middle-aged man. “I have a medical condition; I might get sick if I don’t.”

People rummaged through their bags and purses, and offered him an attractive selection from which he almonds. His offer to financially compensate the donor was gently turned down.

We guided the bus driver back to right before he made the wrong turn, and taught him how to make the right one. And when he turned the bus into the first major stop on the line, the entire bus cheered, most smiling, some laughing. The young driver, visibly distressed before, now looked much more relaxed and happy. He profusely thanked each passenger as they got off for their patience. He never made a mistake on his route ever again, and from then on, I always felt that his smile was warmer when he greeted one of us entering his bus.

Image credit: Chad Mauger

midnight musings of an overactive mind

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