Confessions of a Recovering Hobbyist: A Defense of Lisa Morton’s “Ten Questions to Know if You’re a Pro”
So…I’ve been out of synch with my ordinary routine while visiting my ailing father in Maryland.
As a result, I’m just now catching on to the fact that Lisa Morton’s recent blog “Ten Questions to Know if You’re a Pro” has gone viral, and suffered some intense criticism from high places. (First getting denounced by Brian Keene on his blog, and this evening getting slammed by John Scalzi – first on Twitter and then on his blog. Morton’s post even incurred the derision of The Great and Powerful Gaiman, himself, on Twitter).
You should go and read it, if you haven’t. (After all, you want to know what I’m defending, right?)
Keene calls the article “condescending” and implies that it suffers from “elitism”. Scalzi says it’s “kind of terrible”. Gaiman says “I answered no to all of (the questions). What kind of monster am I?”. Speculative fiction’s alpha males have, it seems, all spoken. (All we need is an uncharacteristically-snarky comment from George R.R. Martin to make it a sweep). Matter settled, right?
Well, perhaps not…
Allow me to rebut some of the recurring criticisms of Morton’s piece.
Criticism #1 (paraphrasing): “But we’re uber-successful pros and we’re not obsessed with our work in the way Lisa Morton describes in the quiz…so obviously this is all horseshit.”
I don’t think the Keenes and Scalzis and Gaimans of the world were the intended audience for Morton’s blog. For one thing, we can safely assume that all three are at the point in their careers in which they no longer have the steep learning curve ahead of them. They no longer have to invest time in learning how to write well. They may, of course, continue to grow and change as writers, but the hard slogging of honing their craft is behind them. So, they can — I suppose – afford to avoid the workaholic approach to writing because that mammoth task is in the rear view mirror.
I think that it’s also quite possible that the aforementioned mega-pros have all lost sight of the forest due to the trees. Sure, you can – like Keene and Scalzi – take issue with specific question after specific question on Morton’s list. I think that misses the point, though. I don’t think Morton is seriously reducing professionalism to ten simple questions. When I read the piece, I looked at it more as a discussion of the benefits of obsession and a call to develop a solid work ethic (the sort of call that Brian Keene has made, himself, on more than one occasion).
When asked to give advice to newer writers (at conventions, on his blog, etc), Keene has often repeated the tried and true formula: read every day, write every day. (Simple, but not easy.)
For me to accomplish such tasks, I had to prioritize them. It was, essentially, the beginning of a lifestyle change. Based on my experience since 2008, a daily regimen of reading and writing leads very much to the state of affairs painted by Morton’s ten questions. To coin an analogy, I’m puzzled at Keene’s critique of Morton’s blog because the directions Keene gave led me straight to Morton’s destination. I don’t think their positions are as far apart as Keene would make it seem.
Criticism #2 (paraphrasing): “She’s calling people hobbyists! Profane! Profane!”
First of all, “hobbyist” isn’t necessarily a dirty word. In the course of history, many a compelling story has been written by a hobbyist. “Hobbyist” and ”professional” (as, I think, Morton uses the words in her blog) merely describe the relative centrality of writing in an author’s life. They don’t necessarily refer to the quality of the work produced. For every flighty hobbyist there is a professional hack who has found what Alan Moore calls “the golden rut”.
That having been said, there’s a variety of hobbyist writing that is self-defeating. I should know because it’s the sort of writing I engaged in from 2000-2003, when I made my first attempt at getting published. From 2000-2003, I wasn’t really part of the publishing world. It was more like I was part of a writing-themed LARP being run right next door to the publishing world. I adored conventions. I gave readings at conventions. I loved my writer’s group and all the parties held by the writer’s group. I wrote a few stories. I wasn’t part of a critique group (which seems odd, since I was part of a “writing group”…even I can’t explain that one). I never ran my stories by anyone else before submitting them. It pains me to admit this: but, hell, I never read that many books, back then. I watched a hell of a lot of movies and TV shows, though. They were my primary influence, as a writer.
I wrote crap. I sold very few stories. Rinse. Repeat.
I didn’t make progress until I became teachable. In 2008 (when I came back to writing after a five year hiatus), I realized the need to follow Keene’s advice. And that process ended up inducing an absolute obsession for the written word. (I once read a short story each and every night, for over 500 nights, only stopping so I could start reading more novels). Nowadays, my TV viewing is well under ten hours a week. I haven’t been to see a movie in the theater in years. Too busy reading. Too busy writing. New priorities crafted a new lifestyle.
Five years into my new habits, I’ve made substantial progress. I’ve had books blurbed by my literary heroes (Thomas Ligotti, Jack Ketchum, and Gary A. Braunbeck). I’ve been well-reviewed in Black Static and on the website for Famous Monsters of Filmland. I’m not yet where I want to be, but I feel like I’m on my way.
I wish Morton’s blog could have been there for me to read back in 2003. But even if it had been, I may not have benefited from it. I might have read major names in spec fic taking whacks at her blog like it was a Walmart piñata, and kept merrily moving along in my LARP. Then again, maybe it would have given me a sufficient kick in the ass to level up. Maybe I wouldn’t have wasted all that time.
Criticism #3: (Enter snarky remark about HWA here)
I’ve noticed that some of the criticism of Morton’s blog is getting conflated with general criticism of HWA. When reading the blog, I didn’t see it as any kind of official pronouncement (I haven’t read anyone seriously suggesting otherwise). And yet, the snark continues. The tone of the article makes it clear, to me, that this is essentially a casual op-ed piece. Could Morton have done a better job of clearly stating that the blog was merely her opinion (and in no way represented the official stance of HWA)? Yes, I suppose she could have. But readers should really consider the context of her blog, too.
This isn’t a blog on the main HWA website. This is a blog on the Los Angeles chapter’s website (which is a branch off the main HWA website). This juxtaposition may be driving some of the confusion. Still, the disclaimer “Here are some articles about writing from our members.”
makes it pretty darned clear this isn’t an official pronouncement.
Criticism #4 (paraphrasing): “My advances and royalty checks are what make me a professional, not my habits or obsessions.”
Well, yes, that is — of course — true.
But “get big royalty checks” isn’t the most helpful advice in the world. Too much “what”, not enough “how”.
Again, I see Morton’s article as directed toward newer writers, not established ones.
I interpret Morton’s blog as an attempt to provide examples of the sorts of sacrifices and lifestyle changes many people make to counteract the inertia that drags us away from the arts and into…plastics.
Such a discussion is, I think, a positive thing. I’d love to see the viral aspect of this used to stir an honest discussion of what sort of sacrifices are necessary to build a career (and which aren’t). What say you, Cushingistas?