10 March 2015

The Writer’s Life

The Writer's Life

The Writer's Life

A reporter called me week to interview me about a talk I'm giving this weekend in Bucks County. She was bright and well-prepared, she also let me know she is working on a novel, as often happens with reporters on newspapers (it happened with me.) She wanted, she said, to be a New York Times bestseller, like I was.

I sighed, and took a breath and told her that the publishing world had changed. New York Times bestsellers these days are rarely good first novels, they are more likely to be left-right polemics promoting one loopy conspiracy theory or another. The New York Times does not make best-selling books any more, their list no longer has any meaning for young or new writers or older mid-list writers like me. And publishers don't care much for unknown novelists or mid-list writers much now, they want to publish Shades of Grey and sensational tell-alls.

Well, she said, what should I want? You should want to make a living writing in any way you can, I said, and use new technology to do it. Getting to write is the point, not being a bestseller. Nobody even knows what that means any more. Start a blog, I said, and try and build up an audience there. Start making friends on Facebook. The endgame is no longer always getting a commercial publisher, it might very well be selling chapters or chunks of your work online, and selling your novel there as well.

I've had this conversation a million times, I doubt she believed me or heard what I was saying. Writers all want to be New York Times Bestsellers, I know it is what I wanted, and what I got, and it is difficult to want something else, something new, riskier and different.

I used to make all of my income from royalties and advances, I refused to take any money for the blog. This conceit was bludgeoned out of me a few years. Subscriptions now make up a small but growing part of my income, they help support my work and offset the decline in revenues, they also support the blog. It is good to be paid for my work. I need it, of course, but it also gives my writing and my photos meaning. One does work differently when people care enough about your work to pay for it. That is a contract I work hard to honor on my end.

We all need to be paid for what we do, that is about dignity as well as money.

A  small percentage of blog readers subscribe, but the number is growing slowly and steadily, people are getting used to the idea of paying people for their work online.  No financial information is stored on my blog, two security companies monitor it and recurring subscriptions can easily be canceled any time.

I will be frank, I appreciate these subscriptions, they make a real difference, among other things they help me take photos and publish the blog well. They make it possible to offer it for free to those who aren't able to pay for it. It is, of course, free to anyone who cannot pay or does not wish to.

Blogs and subscriptions are also part of the writer's new life, and the writer's life now is as much about change as it is about writing.

I became an author writing books about 33 years ago, and I have written more than 28 books, and my writing life is different.  I started my blog  on Memorial Day in 2007, it was supposed to support my book publishing. I ended up sharing my breakdown. Today, the blog is the focal point of my writing, the center of my creative life, my writing, and photography and some occasional poetry.

The books are a part of my creative life, not the only part,  or even the most central part. I can hardly believe that, I wanted so badly to be a book writer and have earned a living writing books for decades. And I still love writing books. But mostly, I love writing. I do it every day of my life, without fail. I am committed to doing it, and doing it authentically.

Photography is another way to write for me, another to tell stories, mine and that of other people and of animals and of the natural world.

Today, I consider my blog my great work, a living and illustrated memoir and record of my life, which is what an honest memoir ought to be. People ask me about my writing habits all the time. I am a devotee of the John Updike method of writing. I get up early,  usually between 6:30 and 7 a.m., sometimes much earlier, and I know I can only be creative and original for between three and six hours a day. I try and protect that time. I get up, make breakfast for me and Maria, we go and feed the animals, then we take a short walk together.

I am at my desk by 8:30 or 9 a.m. at the latest, often earlier and I write through lunchtime and often into the early afternoon. I use special mood lights in the dark winter and candles, and I burn a fresh stick of incense every day. I am superstitious, I have muses and statues and Madonnas and voodoo candles. I drink tea and bottled water. My desk is buried in papers, books, printouts, wires.

My study is a chaotic mess, Maria comes in only to water the plants. The cats know never to set food near my desk.

Red lies on a soft bed by my feet, he never moves while I am at the computer. I appreciate his presence very much. Writing is solitary, a good dog keeps it from being lonely.

The first thing I do is post on the blog, take a fresh and daily photo that  reflects life on a given day – snow, Red and Liam, the sun rising. I like to let people know what is happening in my life that day. Then I work on my book or, as has  happened often this year, the carriage horses talk to me and I write about the  horses and lately, the elephants in the circus. This sometimes requires me to call people for information or do research.

Generally speaking, I do not argue my writing on Facebook or in e-mails with strangers. If I did, I would turn into one of the angry and miserable people who watch cable news all day. Same thing. Americans are forgetting how to communicate in a civil way, many people think if we are on Facebook together, we must be good friends, they write me about their sick dogs and cats, the books they want to write, their fights with their parents, their troubles at work.

As a rule, I do not answer or read messages from people I do not know, it is, like arguing, one of the quicksand traps on social media. I get about 1,000 messages a day in one form or another, I cannot come close to reading them all and replying to them. I get irritated when people ask me for advice or want to chit-chat. I don't know what their schedules are like, I can't do it. And if I could, I wouldn't want to do it. Writing takes discipline, it is a choice every day. You can write or you can do things that are not writing. I choose to write, as much as I can, as often as I can.

That means saying no. A lot. Some people resent that.

I devote one or two days a week to my next book, "Talking To Animals." Editors in publishing houses rarely edit any more,  writers arrange for it privately. And pay for it themselves. I have a gifted freelance editor named Rosemary Ahern, she is sharp and tough and indispensable. She is a precious friend, a lifesaver.  I sent each chapter to her, she invariably sends it back for more work. We are about halfway done. I get away with nothing. It will take at least another six months. We never exchange paper, we work online. I do print out her edits, it is easier for me to follow them that way.

I post on the blog two or three times a day and then again, at night after dinner (like now.) I don't plot it out, but usually I write a longer essay or piece, and then some short captioned stories enhanced by photographs. Sometimes the photographs stand alone, I see each photo as it's own story.

I show Maria my chapters as soon as I write them, she never tries to edit them, she tells me if she likes them or not. At first, I did not trust her, she was an artist, I thought. What could she know about writing? Her instincts are very good, she has blossomed into an excellent writer, among many things. It is a joy for me to see that. I value what she says.

On the blog, there is little time or proof-reading or grammar checks, that is frustrating to some people, but it is the only way I can write as much as I want and say as much as I want. I break for lunch around 12:30, Maria usually sends me texts saying "I am hungry!", and I spring to the kitchen.

I don't proofread much. If I proofread everything carefully  here, there would be half as much to read. Over the course of the day, I re-read posts and clean them up.  I have a lot to say on the blog, it never feels like work to me, it is pure joy. Many people tell me they are afraid to do a blog because it might not be perfect, they might make mistakes, and I laugh. They will most likely never have a blog, blogs are not for anxious perfectionists.

Well, mine is far from perfect. You get the good  Katz and the bad Katz, but you will get the real one.

The blog is successful, there are about four million visits a year, between 350,000 and 400,000 unique visitors. I do not ever think of the blog when I write, I am always shocked when people tell me it means a lot to them. And i am happy. People surprise me all the time by saying they sometimes disagree with me. Why would anyone read a writer they always agreed with? I have never understood that idea.

Writing in the new era requires a new sensibility, a new way of looking at writing. With social media, there is also a dialogue between my readers and me. Facebook is valuable, but also a trap. I spend little time there, unless I am under continuous assault, which happens regularly. I feel an obligation to face my readers when I stir the pot. They are entitled to that, up to a point. In the old publishing paradigm, that would never have happened.

This new interactivity is sometimes exhilarating, sometimes maddening, sometimes quite healthy and interesting. I do not like being told what to write or what to do, I do not seek advice from strangers on the Internet. I get a lot.  I think, on balance, it is a remarkable interaction, it has done me far more good than harm.

I am not one of those writers who laments the old days. I reject chronic old fartism in all of it's hoary forms, I do not wish to hear that everything 20 years ago was better than everything today, I know this to be bullshit, like old people talk. It is a disease of aging, more deadly than most.

Publishing is healthier than ever, there are more books to read in more forms at lower costs that at any time in the history of human beings. That cannot be  bad for writing.

My reporter friend didn't really want to hear that, she is thinking she will write her great first novel, get on the Today Show, be on the front page of the New York Times and end up at cocktail parties at the Dakota at Central Park West, writing in a loft in Soho, free to write without worrying about money. That was probably never true, but it is surely not true now. Book tours are mostly over, publishers no longer support writers or publicize their work, they just publish books.  And only a handful of writers make a living at it. There are still plenty of good books to read, writers are durable and irrepressible.

I am not yet the writer I hoped to be and wished to be, but there is still plenty of time. I'm working on it. In the meantime, I give thanks at least once a day that I get to do what I always wanted to do, what I always dreamed of doing, and I will do it to the last breath, and maybe even beyond. Nothing would surprise me in life.

On balance, I do not miss the old life. I love every day of my new writing life, I am still doing what I always wanted to do, still making a living out of it, still loving my life every day. Change is perhaps the most creative thing in the human arsenal, and when I stop embracing it, my true life as a writer will be over.

Posted in General

The String Chair: Life With An Artist

Life With An Artist

Life With An Artist

I appreciate my life with an artist, because everything becomes art, our life is a gallery. In the barn, there was an old wicker chair with the seat and back gone or rotted out, and every day, we have strings of baling wire from feeding the animals on the farm. Maria saw a way to take these two disparate things and make some art. Thus, the string chair, the old chair now has a back and seat made from baling wire. I see that this is how an artist thinks, and I love watching it, there is a steady unfolding of the creative process.

Maria's mind is not like my mind or most minds, she sees the world visually, this is how she pieces together her hanging pieces and quilts and potholders. This morning, she took a few minutes to braid the back of the string chair, I suspect it will be on display at the Open House in June. I suspect the chickens might lay an egg on it one of these days.

Posted in General

Grace: The Winter Meadow

The Winter Meadow

The Winter Meadow

The days are numbered for the winter meadow, I will miss it in many ways. It speaks to me of grace and acceptance, of beauty and waiting, even in a harsh winter.

Posted in General

Headbutt: Confrontation On The Path, Red And Liam. Coming To Blows

Confrontation On The Path

Confrontation On The Path. Com

The work of a working dog is never done. As Maria fed the donkeys some carrots, Liam decided he wanted one and charged down the path and lowered his head and butted Red on the forehead. Liam is twice the weight of Red at least but Red did not move an inch or budge. He stood head-to-head with Liam and I gave him the command to "get 'em up," which is to move the sheep, period.

Red nipped at Liam's leg, then nipped him in the nose, the spot border collies are supposed to use when there is trouble. Liam turned and retreated to the flock. Getting butted is something the dog should not have to accept, and it was good of Red to keep his cool, Rose would have drawn some blood there, I imagine. Other dogs I have had would have done worse.

Red is tough as nails, but only as rough as he has to be. He is a thorough professional. Liam needed a lesson here, and he got one. No scratch or blood on him, Red knows what he is doing. The narrow paths in the snow have made confrontations inevitable every morning, Liam is fairly gentle himself. He is obstinate but not too rough. This morning was an effort to intimidate Red. That will not work.

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I sent a link to this story to my friend Dr. Karen Thompson, the wonderful soul who gave me Red, and she replied: "I read how he handled Liam so APPROPRIATELY.  Red is the epitome of what a sheepdog should be in every respect plus having a sensitive and intuitive soul!  Thank you for loving and appreciating Red, and keeping me informed." The thanks go to her.

Posted in General

Vol. 4. To Be Abused: The New Work Of Animals

Road To Hell

Road To Hell

Until World War II, the work of animals was boundless, it was essential, celebrated, ubiquitous, respected, even sacred. Work was almost never considered abuse, work was the most natural connection of domesticated animals and people. Most Americans lived with or near animals, knew them and loved them.

That is no longer so. There has been a profound change in the way we see animals.  Today, it seems the work of animals is to be abused, so that human beings  can find an outlet for their anger and discontent,  a way to feel better about themselves and superior to other people  in a sometimes angry and soulless world. As they have always done, animals have risen up to serve.

We ignore the human poor, deny them health care, hide from the deepening traumas of the earth, suffer the epidemic abuse of children and woman, the wanton discarding of human beings by inhuman corporations. We turn needy immigrant children away and call them thieves, we worship money and security, not love or compassion.  As a society, we are becoming addicted to the idea of the abused animal, in part because it is an easy way – sometimes the only way – for us to feel good about ourselves and our lives.

So we reject the work of animals. We scour the world for animals who are abused and can be rescued, not for suffering people. We spent billions uncomplainingly on animal health care while denying humans theirs. We vent our rage on the people who live and work with animals, not at the people who mistreat people. Our new understanding of animals is that they need to be taken away from people who are increasingly seen as unfit to care for them.

We seek to send one animal after another away from their lives with humans and out of the world  – sled dogs, animals in the zoo, carriage horses, circus elephants, chickens on farms, bred animals, ponies in farmers markets, horses in Hollywood movies.

We justify it the same way every time, it is all in the name of abuse. In this almost mythical demonizing of the animal world, the human beings are always the evil and uncaring abusers, the animals are always in need of rescue. We have lost the joy of living with animals and working with them, there is only the hollow and angry feeling of taking them away.

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Sociologists say human suffering is epidemic throughout the world- wars, famine, genocide, political unrest. Where, in your world, are people demonstrating every day and gathering online in enraged communities to protest the abuse and impoverishment of people?  Tens of millions of humans languish in rescue camps. You will find very few people on Facebook rushing to find them pick them up and re-home them, find new lives for them.

You can find demonstrators every Sunday in Central Park, waving placards at the carriage horses,  calling the riders and their children murderers and torturers. In Alaska, they are demanding that the sled dog races – the great event for sled dogs –  be banned, or protesting the elephants in the circus when they come to town, or chasing after the ponies who give rides to children out of farmer's markets, or assaulting zoos, even the most modern and evolved ones.

In ancient times, the creative spirit and conscience of humans was worshiped by society. But times have changed. Our culture is becoming one in which people are hated and animals are worshiped, often at their peril. Plato said the sacred thing about humans was the conscience, something animals could never have. But he did not imagine conscience gone awry.

Rage and cruelty and lying used to be frowned upon in our culture, even punished. Now they are sanctioned as noble and virtuous, cruelty and distortion can host safely and shamelessly and grow in the name of loving animals and protecting their rights. Extremism in the name of animals is no vice, loving animals and working with them – a mainstay of human civilization – is no longer a virtue. The farther we get from animals and the natural world, the more ignorant we are of them. We have no idea how much we need them to be around us, how much we can do for them, we are so busy chasing them away.

I believe the Native-Americans are correct when they warn our disconnection from and cruelty to one another are closely linked to our war against the animals and our despoiling of the world. One goes hand in hand with the other. We ruin the habitats of the horses and the elephants, we pollute the earth, we live on processed foods and petrochemicals, we spew our carbon into the skies and suffer horrific weather,  have developed half the species of the earth out of existence, according to the World Wildlife Federation.

And instead of taking any personal or individual responsibility for what we have done to the animals, we corral them on "preserves" and lose sight or consciousness of them. We blame everyone else.  We hide behind our computers and point our fingers at the carriage drives and the circus owners, it is so much easier to blame them than ourselves, so much easier to push them out of sight than find ways to care for them well. We want to ban the horses, the most natural and beautiful things in Central Park, but leave the trucks, buses, pedicabs and condos.

Animals are always a mirror of us, they reflect us, good and bad. What will the elephants really see?

Who left the horses with no place to be but the great park, their true preserve?

We did.

Who left the elephants with no work to do or place to be but the circuses?

Ringling Bros. didn't do that.

We did, but you will not ever see that admission in the raging messages on social media, we are a nation of  argument and the judgment of others.  We tell other people what to do, invade their lives and disrespect their honor and intentions. It seemed this week that every one on Facebook knew what the elephants were thinking and needing.  Had any of the messengers seen one? They are not likely to now.

And we are so lazy and self-serving we think that if the elephants leave the circus, then our work is done and we are heroes and they will be happy and we can move onto the zoos or the ponies or the horses. Nobody wants to talk about what will become of these animals when they have no role to play among human beings, it is a question no interviewer ever asks.

Does it matter to anyone that we have no saved the elephants or improved their lives, we have just brought them to the last chapter of their time in the world, they will soon enough be gone, free of abuse – and love and care and purpose – forever.

Chief Avrol Looking Horse is the spiritual leader of the Sioux Nation and a caretaker of the horses. He writes this: "To us, as caretakers of the heart of Mother Earth, falls the responsibility of turning back the powers of destruction. You yourself are the one who must decide. You alone – and only you – can make this crucial choice, to walk in honor or to dishonor your relatives. On your decision depends the fate of the entire World. Each of us is put here in this time and this place to personally decide the future of humankind."

I accept this challenge, I believe we fail in our responsibility to the earth if we exploit animals to make us feel virtuous and drive them away the name of saving them. I believe we must seek ways of keeping them safely among us, and helping the people who live and work with them treat them well. As our world seems to deteriorate we demand that the lives of animals be perfect and without any suffering or discomfort, something we do not ask for ourselves or other people. No human can be guaranteed that, and as this idea of the perfect life for animals has become the standard, it is more and more difficult for ordinary people – or even big circuses –  to meet. The people who actually wish to keep animals in our world are abandoned, left with no rational path.

This is the agony of the carriage trade. No horse can ever stumble, fall or fall ill. Every turn of life is now abuse.

If we owe animals a just and safe world, what do we owe people?

The circus owners give up their elephants, the carriage drivers are being told to give up their horses, people who work can't adopt dogs, poor people  are denied dogs or have their dogs taken away from and killed because the new cadres of animal police have accused them of abuse, the elderly are denied dogs because they can't walk them, researchers denied grants because chickens and mice may die, workers denied animals because they work all day, pensioners refused cats because they might go outside, pony rides are shut down because there isn't enough shade, the border collies shouldn't herd sheep, the sled dogs shouldn't pull sleds, just as the carriage horses should never pull carriages.

This is a powerful and destructive cycle, it becoming the story of animals, the goal of  political lobbyists with lots of money to spend. Our understanding of animals has shrunk, it has been reduced to the specter of abuse, the great club wielded so thoughtlessly and frequently. Abuse is the great hysteria and witch hunt raging around the very idea of animals, the McCarthy trials and the witch trials for people who love animals. We need a wiser understanding of animals than this.

I often think of the Salem Witch trials when I read of the  growing number of animal rights trials, conducted  all over the country, funded by well-meaning people who think their money is going to save animals. These Kangaroo courts are conducted outside of any due process, judges, juries or the law. If you are accused, then you must be guilty. If you protest your innocence, then you must be guilty as well as evil.

A couple in Michigan calls the police because they see a cow lying down in the snow, a carriage stable in Chicago is set on fire so that suddenly homeless horses can be "freed" to go to slaughter, a Saratoga housewife is handcuffed and jailed because she left her beloved poodle in her SUV on a cool sunny day while she rushed into a store to pick up a package,  a homeless man has his dog taken away and killed because he didn't have enough money on hand for surgery or medication, militias patrol mall parking lots looking to break the windows of cars with dogs in them if the sun is out.

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The new work of animals is  to make unhappy and and angry people feel better about themselves and to provide a continuous outlet for fury and judgment, the twin addictions of the dis-empowered. There are no children in the animal rights movement, no animal lovers either.

How did this happen? The roots took hold in the early 1960's, perhaps with the assassination of a beloved President. Our world changed. People got divorced, split up, the interstate helped families scatter, move away. Work became uncertain. Technology stopped being something that lifted us up, it became  confusing and overwhelming. Our politics were no longer inspiring, but increasingly divisive and demoralizing. People left farms and rural life by the millions in search of work and lost their connection to the natural world. The number of pets skyrocketed, and the moved closer to the center of our emotional lives.

And the Internet, the provider of good and awful things,  gave angry people their own one dimensional communities, heating oil for rage and righteousness that is free and never runs empty. We don't take care of the truly abused animals, or the growing numbers of poor and hungry people. But we keep finding abused animals, even if they are not being abused. They seem to be everywhere.

There are few thorough studies about the abuse of animals in America, most veterinary school researchers and sociologists (The University of Pennsylvania, the North American Veterinary Association, academic James Serpell) have found that real abuse of animals is actually relatively rare in America, much less frequent than people are led to believe.  Animal shelter workers often suggest abuse because it helps animals find homes.  But abuse has become the focal point of our relationship with animals, the prism through which we have come – and need – to see them.

Thus horses who have pulled carriages for many thousands of years are suddenly piteous and unhappy. Elephants who have worked with people, brought joy and magic to farms and rural life and children, are now objects of outrage and commiseration, their abandonment by the circuses and removal from the world a cause for celebration among people who have absolutely idea what they are really doing.

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We have not improved the lives of animals, something that perhaps ought to be the goal of an animal rights movement.

Consider the elephants.

We have not reduced their travel, banned the bull hooks, given them more rest. Their retirement from the circus is not a victory, but a defeat. We have simply taken them out of the world, just as the mayor of New York and his allies in the animal rights movement are seeking to do in the New York City.

They could so easily install special traffic lanes in the city, make development deals for new stables, find more parkland for the horses, ease traffic in Central Park. But the work of animals is no longer to be with people, to help them, uplift them, and yes, entertain them. It is to be abused and saved, one after the other, until the domesticated animals that built the world with us are gone, and there are only dependent pets left to be abused and saved. Get ready.

If the point of having animals in our world is for them to be abused, then it must inevitably follow that they must all be taken away. It is acceptable in our culture to ignore poverty and the abuse and the abuse of people, but it cannot be accepted in the life of any animal. If people who have worked with animals for generations are not to be trusted with them, why should I be? Why should you be?

So where do we go from here.  What is the true message of the elephants, and this sad break in their long and glorious bond with the circus, of which they were the symbol, all over the world, a harbinger of magic and mystery for so many thousands of years.

So we build our own righteous Ark and put all the animals on it,  a giant floating rescue boat, and sent them off to the mystical world of preserves, where they will vanish into the mist of our narrow visions and hardening hearts. Will they go to heaven or simply circle the world for all eternity? Nobody knows, nobody seems to care. They were being abused, no doubt about it. They will soon find out that there are any things worse than abuse facing animals in our world.

What then, will the angry armies of the righteous do, when the Ark is gone and all of the animals who have helped us and healed us and lived us for so long?

Who and what will fill this increasingly insatiable need to save and rescue, to judge and condemn? I don't know, really, I do not have that image in my crystal ball.

I am sorry to see the elephants go, I will miss them and I ache for the children of the world who must live in this joyless vision and will never see one. It was something I was anxious to do with my grandchild, if and when one comes. I can picture the look on his face.

When I think of it, I find myself leaning over and hugging my border collie Red, who, as always, hops up and runs to the door. He thinks he is going to work.

 

Posted in General