10 April 2018

Epiphany of a Blue-Collar Writer

by Michael Bracken

Art Taylor and me trying to out-charm one another.
At the 2017 Bouchercon in Toronto, Art Taylor and I were paired for Speed Dating, an event in which pairs of authors move from table to table around a room and spend a shared two minutes at each table introducing ourselves and our work to mystery fans. The instructions were to speak for one minute each, the beginning, mid-point, and end time of our two minutes announced by the ringing of a bell. Much like Pavlov’s dogs, authors were expected to respond to the neutral stimulus of the bell by launching immediately into a conditioned response: blatant self-promotion. The premise seemed a bit automatonic to me.

I “knew” Art prior to this pairing because we occasionally crossed paths on the Internet and spoke for a few minutes at the Short Mystery Fiction Society lunch at the New Orleans Bouchercon in 2016. So, I asked, via email, if he might be interested in spicing things up. Art may look like a mild-mannered English professor, but deep down he’s quite the radical, and we kicked around several ideas.

We didn’t have an opportunity to test drive our ideas before Speed Dating began Thursday morning, so Robert and Terri Lopresti had the misfortune of being first to witness our unrehearsed song-and-dance. Art and I soon fell into a groove, though, and by the time we presented at our last table we had perfected a Broadway-worthy performance.

Rather than each of us filling a minute talking about our work and ourselves, I introduced Art and he talked about “Parallel Play” (Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning), a 2017 Anthony Award nominee. Then he introduced me and I discussed “Dixie Quickies” (Black Cat Mystery Magazine #1). We wrapped things up by suggesting that readers interested in learning more about our work purchase Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (Down & Out Books) because they could easily compare and contrast how we took the same assignment and created radically different stories. (Art’s “A Necessary Ingredient” is nominated for an Agatha; my “Mr. Private Eye Behind the Motel with a .38” may only be eligible for an honorary Harlan Ellison longest title award.)

And here’s where this incredibly long anecdote is leading: While preparing our introductions, we needed, given the time constraints, to focus on one key aspect of the other’s writing career that would be memorable and easy to relate to listeners who might know nothing about us. In my introduction of Art, I focused on the number of awards and award nominations he’s received. In his introduction of me, Art focused on the number of short stories I’ve written.

In our emails leading up to this decision, I compared us to Walmart and Tiffany. (To stretch this analogy to the absurd: I have a store on every corner, filled with mass-produced goods suitable for every consumer; Art has only a few locations, each offering polished jewels to those with refined taste.) Art was polite enough not to agree with my self-assessment.

I long ago accepted my place in the writing hierarchy: I am a blue-collar writer, the type of grunt who gets up each morning, puts on his writer pants, and produces words.

Day in. Day out.

I do my best, my work gets published, and I’ve established myself as a solid middle-of-the-anthology, back-of-the-magazine writer who rarely misses deadlines. When I was younger, I bemoaned my place in the literary universe. I was dismayed by the world’s failure to recognize my genius (a common ailment among the young who feel the world owes them something just for participating) and was frustrated when I attended conventions and sat on panels with writers who had produced a mere handful of stories yet had somehow captured the zeitgeist of the moment.

That changed about ten years ago.

There’s nothing like heart surgery to refocus your attention on what’s important, but my epiphany, such as it was, didn’t arrive in a flash; it developed slowly. After quadruple heart bypass surgery in September 2008, three days after turning 51, I realized I was a grouchy old writer, complaining about the new-fangled publishing world and the writers who inhabit it. I also realized I had accomplished what many writers of my generation had not: I had survived—not just literally, thanks to surgery, but literarily as well. Many of the writers who captured the zeitgeist of their time were of their time and have since burned out, stopped writing, and turned to other things. By plodding along as a blue-collar writer, producing words day in and day out, I created, and continue to create, a substantial body of work.

On a personal level, I learned be happy, to enjoy what I have rather than stress about what I haven’t. On a professional level, that meant a return to writing for the joy of writing, a refocus on the creative act rather than on the end goal of publication, fame, and fortune. Surprisingly, or perhaps not to those who’ve experienced something similar, I not only enjoy the act of writing more than ever before, but I am reaping unexpected benefits.

Because I now realize the publishing world owes me nothing—that there are no prizes just for participating—I enjoy seeing my name on the cover of a magazine, I appreciate the kind words of a reader, and I share the joy of other writers’ achievements.

And if we’re ever paired up for Speed Dating, let’s try to make it fun!

Interested in playing compare and contrast? Art Taylor and I have stories in the current issue of Down & Out: The Magazine. Later this month, I will read my D&O story, “Texas Sundown,” at Noir at the Bar Dallas. Join us, 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 18, at The Wild Detectives, 314 W. 8th St., Dallas, Texas. In other news: “My Stripper Past” appears in Pulp Adventures #28 and “One Last Job,” wherein I discuss the genesis of my recent Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine story “The Mourning Man,” is a guest post at Trace Evidence.

13 comments:

O'Neil De Noux said...

Cool article. Nice insights about yourself, Michael. Funny with the Harlan Ellison longest title award, as in his "I See a Man Sitting on a Chair and the Chair is Biting His Leg."

Richard Krauss said...

Another fine post, Michael. You're new attitude is paying off, I keep seeing your byline everywhere: Down & Out, Pulp Adventures, Black Cat, Hitchcock, Weirdbook, Mystery Weekly. Congratulations!

Steve Liskow said...

Great points, Michael.

It's hard to step outside and look at yourself, and working with either you or Art would be a great advantage for anyone. Sometimes we see clearly in other people what we can't see in ourselves. That's especially true in editing and revising.

And I still envy both of you. ;-)

Congratulations on the new publication (probably three more by the time I post this...)

janice law said...

That sounds like a fun event. Congratulations on your latest stories, too!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Michael, for the great post here--and not just because you've featured me so prominently in the intro! I feel self-conscious with all the kindness you've shown me--and still disagree vehemently with that analogy of yours!


My wife Tara and I talk sometimes about how we view our own career and successes, always feel like we're not doing what we should do, not where we need to be. Maybe it's the nature of the work, some bit of dissatisfaction that pushes you onward? (Maybe that's revealing too much about myself.)

I often feel like I should be writing and publishing more--and feel envious of both your great productivity and your great prowess as a writer and storyteller, in other words not just the quantity but the quality as well. What's the secret Michael has that I'm missing?! And yet, circling back to Tara and me and to your post here, we need to remind ourselves that what we're doing is what we're doing, accomplishments to be proud of, first and foremost at the level of the creative act itself.

I'm not articulating things well, I know. Basically saying thanks for the post here and for the friendship. I'm with you in more ways than one here. Keep up the great work.

Melodie Campbell said...

Loved this one. And can relate. One of my humorous/quirky accomplishments is having been shortlisted along with Margaret Atwood for an award. (Atwood won.) I say quirky, because I wanted to be her at some time in the past. And then I discovered my talent (if there is such a thing) is for easy-read comedic work. Almost broke my heart. No literary kudos for me. I am definitely in the working class.
Which is fitting for a gal from The Hammer. (Hamilton, for those who don't get it. Our skyline includes steel plants.)

Eve Fisher said...

I think we all have times when we wonder where we fit into the arts / publishing / creative world. Then, if we have any sense, we let it go and get back to writing. Humans almost never get to decide our own legacy, unless we do something spectacular (good or bad). I'm in awe of your ability to produce, produce, produce! Wow! And Art - you're amazing, too.

PS - Don't forget Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" for longest title.

Mary Sutton said...

Great post. I think that's important to remember and know about yourself. I feel much the same way about my own (admittedly nascent) career.

Mary/Liz

Rusty Barnes said...

There's a great deal to be said for getting the work done at such a consistently high level.

Thomas Pluck said...

Glad you've both stuck around. Best advice I received was from Wayne D. Dundee, creator of the Joe Hannibal PI series, and the first editor of Hardboiled Magazine... a single word: PERSEVERE.
I have it printed out, covering my laptop camera.
I keep threatening to have it tattooed on myself as a reminder. I'm blue collar and getting older- I remember when visible tattoos were a commitment to remain outside of society, for bikers, musicians, and the like. Now it would just make me a quirky office worker, so I've put it off.

Michael Bracken said...

Thanks for all the wonderful comments.

Thomas: Back in the day I had a story published in Hardboiled, but I don't remember if Dundee was still the editor or if Gary Lovisi had taken over by then.

O'Neil, Eve, others: I've noticed the average length of my titles getting longer, but I always keep in mind what a smarter writer once told me: It isn't the length of your title that matters, it's what you do with the story beneath it.

Janice: It was a fun event. I'm doing another speed dating event at Malice Domestic in a few weeks, but I don't know with whom I've been paired.

Steve, Mary: It is difficult to step outside oneself to examine one's place in the world, but it can be quite liberating when we do.

Melody: Shortlisted with Margaret Atwood? That's a died-and-gone-to-heaven experience! Can I be envious for a moment?

Rusty: Thanks. For those who don't know, Rusty is editor/publisher of Tough, a kick-ass online/print publication that recently accepted a fourth story from me. Check it out. Then send him some good stories.

Richard: For those who don't know, Richard is editor/publisher of The Digest Enthusiast, a digest about digests. I've read almost every word of every issue and have learned so much from it.

And Art: We may need some quiet time at Malice to further discuss that "bit of dissatisfaction that pushes you onward."

Don Coffin said...

Well, you sold me a book (Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea), so you must be doing something right.

Michael Bracken said...

Enjoy the anthology, Don. It's filled with great stories.