Thanks, 2016. In 2017, We’ll Battle for our American Identity

Wonder Woman Avatar

It’s hard to imagine what December 2017 will be like, but thanks to 2016 we have a fight on our hands. Who we are, as a country, is no longer certain and for the first time in years our American identity is questionable. Who are we? What does it mean to be American? Is there only one type of American, and if we don’t fit that description are we no longer a part of this country? Despite this nation’s many ills, we have been innovative, brave, hard-working, creative, curious, and industrious–but much of this could be forgotten in 2017. It’s hard to understand why this is; as a nation we’re young and scrappy with compared to the rest of the world and haven’t had much time to suffer from an identity crisis. We’ve been regarded as the leader of the free world and are known for significant achievements like the invention of electricity, the internet, the foundation of the United Nations, and our NASA space program, but we’ve also got an awful history we don’t talk about very much and we struggle to have hard conversations about our past with those still suffering its effects.

America’s turbulent history is, like many countries, three-dimensional. We have hope, we have sorrow, we have joy, and we have pain borne from slavery, indentured servitude, bloody battles, and genocide. And yet, we forget all of our nation’s ills when we witness the Statue of Liberty and her burning torch, a shining beacon of hope for so many immigrants and natural-born citizens. “In America,” Liberty sings, “You can be anything. You can do anything. You are welcome here.” Confident and brash, we have always believed America is “the” land of opportunity, a realm of dreams where, if you work hard enough, you’d get what you deserved.

Of course, this isn’t true for everyone. Once reality sets in, our fantasies evaporate in a puff of smoke. When we fail or lose or don’t measure up to society’s many expectations, we’re left wondering if we did something wrong. The answer is often: we did the best we could with what we had. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop us from questioning what we could have done; on a cellular level, we believe in the power of American individualism that’s been imprinted on us since birth. You can do anything you want, without help, because that’s how you become successful. It’s easy, if you just try hard enough.

Our belief in the American dream extends to how we view the wealthy and the powerful. Anyone who’s deemed a success, by whatever measuring stick we use, has obviously deserved that money, fame, beauty, etc. As a result, for us that person embodies the American myth; if we envy them, it’s because we picture ourselves in their place. If they can do it? We can, too. Only, that’s not often the case. Some people toil in obscurity for years and never get anywhere, while others inherit billions and walk the red carpet. Money grants power–regardless of how you get it–as does popularity. And, according to 2016, it doesn’t matter how you claim your corner of fame as long as you get in that spotlight. To get that lucrative shot, you also have to be in the right place at the right time with the right people. For whatever reason, however, whether it’s family obligations or worrying about that next bill, we can’t always do the things that grant us key opportunities no matter how hard we try. So, we make do with what we have, envy those who “made it”, and keeping dreaming that American dream.

Many of us also understand that the ability to achieve your wildest dreams is not just about who you are, who you know, and what you have, but how everyone else perceives your value, too. That ever-changing lens is often based on the color of your skin, your age, your gender, your appearance, and your body type; these thoughts are often wrapped up in a host of other people’s opinions both real and manufactured by gossip rags and this season’s fashion trends. They exist and, no matter how much we do to ignore them, we are aware that some invisible hand holds us back and it’s not true that every opportunity is available. Worse, often we feel we can’t talk about glass ceilings, because thanks to that myth of American individualism, for many those ceilings don’t exist and our real struggles are reduced to lying, whining, or being a sore loser.

The fact that Americans do not govern themselves and we are not all treated equal, dear reader, is partly why we have officials on a local, state, and national level. We elect politicians because we trust and need them to look out for us, the proverbial “little guy”, who lives on every corner of every street in America. We’ve grown up believing that our politicians, elected by the People, for the People, are supposed to pledge governance for all Americans–not just some of us. Yet, here we are at the end of 2016. We feel betrayed, because we have been deserted by politicians who have forgotten why they exist in the first place: to serve all Americans and not just themselves and “their” voters.

We understood, intellectually, that this was going to happen. We don’t have to look very far to examine the evidence: the erosion of bipartisanship over the past two decades, the power grabs by state governors, the foot-stomping in Congress, the endless conspiracy theories about President Obama, etc. We knew that it was possible for a President to hold office who also shares those same, self-serving ideologies as our local and state politicians, but deep down we didn’t think it was. For those of us who didn’t vote for Trump, we thought that the betrayal our British allies felt after Brexit wouldn’t happen here, but it did.

Now, on a national level, regardless of what the President-Elect does or doesn’t do after he’s inaugurated, we will be forced to ask ourselves hard questions about who we are both as a country and as individuals–and that “we” includes Trump supporters. Why? Because, regardless of whether or not you believe that your “side” won, politicians are supposed to compromise and work towards by-partisanship because they govern all American citizens–not just the ones who agree with them. Right now, I do not believe this (bipartisanship) will be a goal for this presidency, because it hasn’t held true in Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, etc. Only “some” benefit, and if you don’t agree with their policies and exercise your constitutional right to protest, you’re clearly an enemy just for being who you are and deserve to be hurt. Why? For so many who are crushed under the weight of American individualism, their lack of success isn’t the fault of the system or economic inequality, it’s your fault. Either they don’t see themselves in you and they’re afraid to admit it, or you have something they feel they deserved. The accessible target, are always the easy ones to blame.

America is not broken because of our diversity; we are beautiful and prosperous when we embrace it. The stories we all share are what give me hope, what makes me proud to be an American. I know who I am, and your stories do not threaten my identity–they inspire me to be a better human being. Now, at the end of a soul-shattering year, I am left with more questions than answers because my faith in this country has been shaken. Can we, as a nation, be successful despite our many differences because we are all Americans in the end? Right now, my answer would be: “I don’t know.” If our politicians won’t fight for all of us, then who will? What happens when our country defaults to ideological purity and millions of Americans become “one of them”? And who is “them”, anyway? Is it a moving target dictated by your identity and your beliefs rather than your actions? When someone is attacked, either verbally or physically, right in front of us–will we step up or step aside? Will we make different choices because we internalized a stranger’s value is less than because we don’t share their identity? Will we seek change when we recognize what biases we’ve internalized? What happens when the infighting between those of us classified as “them” gets so bad you’d rather hide or run away or join the “winning” side than take a stand because you’re being attacked by people you agree with?

If these questions feel overwhelming, it’s because they are. If you fear that our identity as Americans is in trouble, it’s because it is. In the end, the one soul-searching, gut-wrenching question we’re forced to ask is this: “What can I do?”

My answer isn’t a set of actions, but a promise. “I will do the best I can with what I have, for as long as I can.”

So long 2016, and thanks for nothing.



Prepping for the MANW 2017 Challenge

Less than a week before my Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge begins! I hope you’ve had your fill of Christmas cookies, nog, and coffee–wait, what am I saying? One can never have too much coffee, of course. But, if you had to give that java-flavored nectar of the gods up, how would you do it? You might make a New Year’s Resolution, but do you have a plan in place? What would you replace your coffee with?

Okay, I admit it. That was a trick question, and not a very good one at that. My point, is that in order for resolutions to be successful, something has to change. The desire you have–whether it’s making art for an hour a day or not–is the door to where you want to go. In order to head some place new, you have to leave another place behind. Making art an hour a day doesn’t seem like it’s that big of a change, but in order to carve out that time something else has to go.

My suggestion to make room for your art was take a hard look at your social media usage for two reasons: one, because it’s a commonality that we all share. Two, however, is something I wasn’t explicit about, and that’s. Back when I was in online marketing, one of the older books I read on the subject talked about how the average person is presented with over 4,000 brands on a daily basis, but only retains two or three(1). The philosophy that emerges from this, is that we are bombarded with information on a daily basis. Every update we see on social media is information presented through words or pictures, but more than that it’s not emotion-free–especially when a commenter is being a jerk, or doesn’t recognize that other people are responding and reacting to their words.

Connection is important, and for me I prefer Twitter because I also use it as a news feed. But, those online connections also occupy precious head space that needs to be devoted to thinking about what I need to do to make art.

Of course, your mileage will vary. For as much as I have a rule about bi-weekly check-ins, I can’t totally disconnect due to work reasons so those check-ins are personal. In my case, the bi-weekly check-ins are general guidelines or best practices, in part because I use Twitter as a news aggregator in addition to a social media tool. I’m not going to punish myself if I don’t keep on top of that; the guidelines are there to ensure I remain focused.

To this end, however, I’m going to use bullet journalling as a means of staying on track. (More on that later.) Your experiences, your connection will definitely be different than mine. If you’re not aware of how it impacts your art, you may discover things about yourself during the challenge. For example, you might find yourself disconnecting naturally as your focus becomes stronger and sharper on your art. That’s okay! That’s what happens when you turn your attention from what’s around you to what’s inside.

So, if you’re preparing for my Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge, think about how you’ll make room for your art to increase the likelihood that you’ll stick with it all year. If you’re not sure what to do–don’t worry! Your fellow challengers will support you, and I’ll post motivational tips every week to help keep you on track.

Just a few days to go, and we’ll kick this year-long art-making party off. Let’s make some f-bombing art!

(1) I don’t have the source off the top of my head, but if I find it I’ll link to it.

Because Santa Cards are Way Better with Zombies

The Grinch Avatar

I want to get rocking on my Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge, and as part of that one of my “wish list” items is to squee about something cool that I really enjoy. Today’s squee is timely, and it’s about Michael Spradlin’s Zombie Christmas Cards. I found out we had a couple of these left, and off in the mail they went with braaaaaaiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnsssssss.

Anyway, I dig Michael’s illustrations and the jokes for these cards. Zombies are a nice, geeky way to share the holiday spirit for those who appreciate the undead with their candy canes and nog.

Here’s a picture of one of the cards; if you click on it, it’ll take you to www.zombie-cards.com where you can see both illustrations, their interiors, and buy a set for next year.



Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge & Rules

Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge Participant Badge

Born out of both my personal experiences and the knowledge that oppression tends to crush the artistic spirit on a cellular level, I have created a Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge for those who need it. This challenge, which came together from inspiration to draft guidelines, is designed to be flexible to work with your talents and lifestyle. Don’t be afraid to customize the specifics to fit your needs. Your art? Your rules.

Why take the Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge? When times are tough, the feeling that artists are not necessary tends to permeate because art is viewed as a luxury item in some cultures since we don’t produce food, clothing, or housing. The exact opposite is true, because art is a documentation and representation of our humanity and all our struggles. People turn to stories to find hope, to be inspired, to reach inside themselves and discover their own courage. This challenge is about making art to tap into your voice and tell your story. After all, one story can change the world. The problem is, we have no idea which story that will be, when it will be told, or in what medium. It’s up to us to find it–by making art!

Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge

I’ve designed the challenge to be simple, but grounded in four actionable areas. They are: Motivation, Discipline, Accountability, and Connection.

Rules Summary

This is a summary of the rules I’ve designed for the challenge. In the longer version, I offer means of customization to fit your lifestyles. After you’ve read the rules, write down in four-to-five sentences what you’ll pledge to do for 2017 and post them publicly or privately. Combined, those actionable items will help keep you grounded and focused on making art, while remaining connected to the world around you.

My Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge pledge:

  • I pledge to devote one hour a day to my original art.
  • If I don’t feel motivated, I pledge to write down the reasons why I wanted to take this challenge for fifteen minutes or one-to-three pages whichever comes first.
  • I pledge to mark down on the calendar whenever I complete a day’s efforts.
  • As the challenge creator, I pledge to create a weekly accountability post every Wednesday beginning on January 9th. Comments will be open. Hashtag #makeartnotwar2017 #manw2017
  • I pledge to check into social media twice a week for personal use, and once a month with my local community of artists and writers.

Motivation

Find your personal reason to make art and use that as your rallying cry for 2017.

Artists are human beings, not robots. Writers need to discover our characters’ voices. Painters need to glance at a blank canvas and draw that first line. Musicians need to hear the first stanza. Sometimes, however, we get stuck. We don’t know what to write. We don’t know if our art will resonate. We don’t see how our words will matter–because we can’t predict the future so we freeze up. We punish ourselves. Then, we read the news and get depressed; or, we get bad news and get even more depressed. Caught in that never-ending cycle of wondering what our worth is, some artists cease to create altogether.

There are 1,000 reasons to never pick up that pen, that inkwell, that stylus. What is more important? Those precious few reasons why you’re making art. Before you begin the challenge, figure out why you want to make art to find your motivation. Maybe you have a mantra, like “I want to make readers laugh.” Maybe, however, making art is so ingrained in your identity you might say: “I need to write to be happy.” Or, maybe you have a goal or business plan that helps keep you grounded on: “I need to draw to pay the bills”.

When you get stuck, take fifteen minutes and remind yourself that you’ve taken this challenge because your art is important to you. Abandoning the act of making art is not an option, and you will not retreat. Say that reason out loud, sing it, letter it, draw it–whatever you need to do. Focus on that mantra and recharge your artistic batteries, for the well of inspiration you draw from will never empty, not as long as you have the will to draw from it. After all, motivation is about reminding yourself how to find the will to make art when you lose it.

Discipline

Discipline is the time you will take every day in 2017 to make art.

The challenge is designed around spending one hour every day to make your original art.
Modifications are as follows:

  • Subtract Half an Hour: Thirty minutes is good for beginners! If this allotted time does not challenge you, however, consider upping it to 45 minutes or an hour.
  • Add Fifteen Minutes: Tackle one household chore or personal health item every day like making the bed, eating vegetables, flossing, etc.
  • Add Half an Hour: Get moving, get grooving. Pledge to dedicate this time to a physical activity like biking, climbing stairs, going for a walk, going to the gym, etc.
  • Add an Hour: Switch techniques, genres, art forms and start something brand new–or double your time.

One thing to keep in mind, is that it doesn’t matter how good the art is you make if you are learning. Stretching the boundaries of what you normally do often means that your first attempts will probably suck. That’s okay! Give yourself permission to suck, but also to improve, revise, refine. You cannot see how far you’ve come, or how you’ve internalized the techniques you’ve been practicing, unless you put the time in. This is why discipline is needed to keep you on track.

A few things to think about depending upon your situation:

  • One hour writing sprints typically yield 750 to 1,200 words of text.
  • To hit the NaNoWriMo word count goal of 50,000, you would average 1.5 to 2 hours of writing every day.
  • If you’re a professional artist, consider using this hour to create something you haven’t sold or been contracted to create yet. Think of this as your pie-in-the-sky wish list!
  • If you need supplies, pay yourself a dollar every time you make art.
  • If you have kids, roommates, or family obligations, consider working out a time where you have an hour to yourself or, alternatively, break it up into two half-hour segments.
  • To instill discipline, you will need consistency. If you know you’re going to miss a day, either plan to make it up (if that works for you) or spend half the time on it instead.

The keys to making your own art on a regular basis is commitment. The motivation is the “why”, the discipline is the “how”, and the accountability is the “what”.

Accountability

Pledge to hold yourself accountable to this Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge.

It’s one thing to say you’re going to make art or write that novel or what have you, it’s another to actually do it. Accountability is about proving to yourself that you have done the work you pledged to do.

Methods for accountability include:

  • Use a diary and write journal entries to mark your progress.
  • Buy a calendar and put smiley face stickers on it, or use the calendar on your phone.
  • Buddy up and find someone else who’s taking this challenge to hold each other accountable.
  • Check in every Wednesday here on my website, beginning on January 4th. Comments will be open.
  • Print out a free calendar and “X” off the days.
  • Use the hashtag #makeartnotwar2017 or #manw2017. Share your efforts every week–even talking about it with other challengers will help!

Accountability doesn’t have to take a long time; just by checking off a date on your calendar right after you’re done will complete this part of the challenge. There is no greater sense of accomplishment than being able to quickly look back at what you’ve done. Super important!

Connection

Manage your connections with your online and offline communities to remain focused but grounded.

For this challenge, connection taps back into the reasons why you’re making art. A story you write could make someone cry. A digital painting you create could instill a sense of wonder. The art you produce is a unique part of your identity, your humanity, and at the other end of your art is a reader, viewer, or player who’s interacting with your creation. Often, the best art evokes an emotional reaction, regardless of how well its crafted. Our relationships help give us the connections needed to understand the spectrum of human emotion. They also provide the means for self-care, and a tool to help us support one another.

Unfortunately, our connections can work against us because there are so many different ways to connect, that they wind up distracting us from what we want to accomplish as artists. The truth is that artists need solitude in order to create; being alone, even when it’s depicted in a positive, almost spiritual light, carries many stigmas with it. We hear the word “loner” and internalize our need or enjoyment of solitude as being wrong or bad or a sign that we’re broken. We need that “alone time” to focus, to listen to our innermost selves, to channel our voices into making art before we can share our creations with others.

This leg of the challenge is about managing your ability to connect against the discipline required to make art. For me, that is broken up into two, distinct parts: offline and online. Your mileage on these two areas in particular will vary widely, depending upon your situation.

I am listing below what I’m pledging to do for my challenge, in the hopes that you’ll use this as a baseline.

    Weekly Check-In: Pending any work-related promotions, interviews, this challenge, etc., I pledge to check in to social media no more than twice a week for personal usage.
    Quarterly Downtime: A few years ago, I took 100 days off of social media, and since then I’ve found that it took me two weeks to reset. I usually take the week off after a big show, but I will consider taking more of these breaks if limiting my access is not effective.
    Monthly Connection: I started this back in October/November, but it bears repeating now. Once a month, I am connecting with other artists/writers in my local community–outside of convention season.

Now that I’ve written the rules, it’s time to spend the last two weeks of the year reflecting on what I want to do for my challenge by reviewing what I’ve got on deck. I will post next week about this in particular, to help you prepare as well.

Rise up. And take the Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge with me!

Thank You For a Successful Anthology Launch

Thank You eCard! Really appreciate the signal boost for Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling. Woo!

Thanks so much for backing the Kickstarter, spreading the word, and being patient with me for the release of Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling. We were all thrilled with the starred review from Publisher’s Weekly prior to its release, and have been working on guest blogs hosted by literary luminaries such as John Scalzi and Mary Robinette, and interviews as well. As a result of this visibility and excitement, we broke the Top 20 in three Kindle categories and debuted at #1 in Science Fiction Short Stories. We are also the number one hottest seller on DriveThruFiction.com, our digital fulfillment partner, too!

This success would not be possible without you. Thank you! Oh, and before I wander off to scare the cats, if you enjoy the collection please consider leaving a review. That helps your fellow readers know what the stories are all about, and it also adds a vote–which is crucial for online bookstores.

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