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.



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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Make Art Not War 2017 (Part 2): Draft Guidelines

Make Art Not War by Shepard Fairy
Make Art Not War is a phrase that’s been popularized by street artist Shepard Fairy in a series of murals, like the one pictured above, found in Los Angeles and other parts of California. The phrase is simple. Powerful. The imagery clear. And it is my motto for 2017 for these reasons.

To that end, I’m devoting 2017 to a simple art challenge using a series of mantras and basic guidelines. The one I concocted is Don’t Get Mad, Make Art, and you can read about how I applied that over on Scalzi’s “Whatever” Blog in The Big Idea with Monica Valentinelli. All my frustration, all my rage, all my sorrow and empathy and joy… I want to finish sharpening my sword and engraving it to make a mega-butt ton of my own art in 2017.

Why am I keeping the rules for this simple? Couple of reasons. First, after working full-time as a writer, what I’ve found is that while discipline is crucial to making art, working on my own stuff fell to the wayside. And, I’m going to tell you why that is: money. If I can’t justify spending the time on something, I don’t do it because I can’t see the benefit. Even with Upside Down, which had a great launch, there was a lot of risk involved from the start. What if the collection isn’t received well? What if the slush pile doesn’t yield trope-smashing stories? What if, after pulling so many people together, it doesn’t fund at all? Money isn’t something writers talk about, because there’s still this pervasive idea that either we shouldn’t make it, that we’re asking too much, or that we should suffer for our art.

I don’t want to suffer. (Been there, did that.) I’ve already made decisions and gauge, constantly, how I can make a living doing what I love the most. If I had my choice, I would devote my time to my original work and not work for anybody else–but I can’t. I can’t afford it, and I can’t turn my back on the readers who supported me from the beginning. They came from my media/tie-in efforts, and I’m very grateful and aware of how I’ve grown as a result. Maybe some day I’ll have the power to command publishers and hordes of readers at my beck and call, but being as pragmatic as I am… Well, there aren’t a lot of writers who do and who can. Instead, we have to make it work with the tools and resources we have at our disposal, and I’m using this as a chance to bring my original worlds and stories into the world.

Another reason why I want to create simple guidelines, is because there are a lot of new writers and hobbyists out there who (have told me) are intimidated by any kind of challenge. It’s frustrating for them, because they haven’t internalized how to make the thing they love so they either never start, don’t find the time, or get discouraged. Unfortunately, the only way to learn is by doing. All the great ideas in the world can never manifest unless you shimmy and get out there and make art!

Without further adieu, here are the draft guidelines for my challenge. Comments welcome!

Author’s Note: I will post the manifesto and guidelines next week, so we have time to prepare for January 1, 2017.

Draft Guidelines for Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge

What I want to do for the 2017 challenge guidelines, is to cover three areas: time, tracking, and check-in. I don’t want to shape the challenge by telling people “what” to make, though I might toss a few fun bits in throughout the year to inspire y’all. I’m using some of the disciplinary practices I had to do when I used to play piano as a baseline.

1. Daily Practice: Devote one hour a day to making original art. Yes, all 365 days a year! If, barring sickness and what have you, a day is missed it needs to be made up.

2. Weekly Practice: I will post a minimum of two blogs per week. The first will be a check-in to see how both myself and everybody else’s doing. Comments will be open, so you can post links to your websites if you have something new to share. The second, will be about some cool thing I like. In other words, while this challenge is about making my own art, I can still support you (the reader) and my peers. I don’t want to say “I will post metrics, I will post what I’ve done, I will post pictures…” That feels a little too show-y to me, and I think that needs to be more organic than that.

3. And lastly… Social Media Usage: Okay, so originally I thought about taking a year off from social media, but that won’t work. I’ve got a lot of releases coming out, I’ve got fans to chat with, and unfortunately the vast majority of my writerly friends are more introverted than I am. Instead, I want to limit my public engagement for the entire year to no more than twice a week. I’ve got a few private means to keep in contact with friends and whatnot; this is the Twitter/Facebook/whatever stuff.

Thoughts? Am I in the right direction or do I need rethink this?

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