The CanvasRebel interview came out Monday, April 24, and includes lots of photos. CanvasRebel’s mission (from their website) “is to create a space for artists, creatives and entrepreneurs to be able to learn from their peers through the magic and power of storytelling.” Here’s the text of my interview below. I’ve done numerous other online interviews, but here I tried to come up with some unique answers to the interviewer’s questions.
Michael, appreciate you joining us today. How did you learn to do what you do? Knowing what you know now, what could you have done to speed up your learning process? What skills do you think were most essential? What obstacles stood in the way of learning more?
Eighty percent of my creative output is writing, and twenty percent is visual art. This seems an appropriate balance for me. In both areas I keep learning by what I call “navigating by energy,” in that I choose whichever activity sparks the most energy. In that state both writing and art are fun and compelling, never a chore, and I’m motivated to keep exploring new techniques. I’ve never had anything approaching writer’s block unless I begin veering toward a low-energy state, such as an obligation to write a certain way, or to please or impress others.
I began learning about high energy in the fifth grade. Even then I wholeheartedly embraced the idea that I was a writer. Our class was told to write stories containing that week’s ten or so new spelling words, but I wrote my first story in that mood of fearful obligation, hating its insipid detective plot even as I composed it. But soon I found my high-energy kid science fiction voice with “Voyage to Venus,” starring my newly-minted space hero Jack Commer, who later became the focus of my Jack Commer, Supreme Commander SF series. Each subsequent spelling assignment became a chance to eagerly plot more SF.
Not only did I have full confidence that I could fit in all the spelling words, but I also knew they’d assist me and move the assignment into fantastic storylines and odd directions. I understood that I was easily mastering adverbial phrases and dialog where others in the class could not. It all seemed natural, as if I’d done this in a previous lifetime and was now simply picking up where I’d left off. When we had to read our stories aloud to the class, mine enthralled my classmates and even riveted the fifth-grade bullies who otherwise had it in for me.
So I wrote eleven stories for class, and composed twenty-three others on my own, compiling them into a blue notebook arranged by their event dates from 1860 to 6000. I made my share of mistakes; a couple stories were bad ripoffs of movies I’d just seen, and sometimes I gave up and turned the story into a joke. At the time I wouldn’t have been able to put into words that the mediocre, low-energy stories were great learning experiences, but of course that’s what they were.
One of the bizarre aspects of The Blue Notebook is the massive amount of flippant self-promotion plastered throughout, the flavor of which I’m sure I picked up from book covers, TV commercials, and movie posters. All this would probably have been fertile ground for a child psychologist. “The Gap in the Earth,” for instance, begins with the admonition that this is “A great novel by Mickey Smith.” At the end of “February 11, 1971, DOOMSDAY” we are told: “In three months the Earth will be at war with Guacoazezama. Don’t miss it!” Stories have titles like “Case 3 of the New Fritening Experiences,” and conclude that “This has been a Mickey Smith Film Presentation.”
I wonder why I can’t seem to market like that now!
Michael, love having you share your insights with us. Before we ask you more questions, maybe you can take a moment to introduce yourself to our readers who might have missed our earlier conversations?
I write surreal, humorous novels where characters confront bewildering psychic forces. Sometimes they react badly. Sometimes they fight well. Usually all this happens is in a science fiction framework, but some of my novels are literary, including my flagship novel, The Soul Institute, where a computer technician seeks sanctuary as the writer in residence at a vast, mythic, foggy university. Even then, absurdist elements soon take over the story.
The idea of writing being normal work is liberating. In the course of writing eighteen novels I’ve managed to remove the mystical high; though unexpected things happen in any writing session, it still comes down to fun work. Visual art on the other hand works differently, and I don’t know why; it’s still surrounded by an inexplicable numinosity. I’m never sure what will happen when I take up pencil or paintbrush. But I can still tell the difference between high and low energy.
I have several writing voices: correspondence, journal, literary novel, science fiction novel (those two differ), and my newest one, a blog voice which has been a satisfying and expressive development. I’m definitely trying to make myself understood as clearly as possible.
Navigating by energy, in either my writing or my visual art, is another way of saying that I’m open to channeling energies; I’m certainly not the first person to note that the best fiction or best art seems to come from somewhere else. We need to enhance ourselves to receive these gifts. Set methods kill energy and become empty rituals. We may have seasons of a certain way of doing things, but we need to be open to changing everything entirely. We need to recognize that any process has to be reevaluated when the universe (or whatever it is) decides that something new is to be poured through us.
Visually, I work in both abstraction and realism according to how the energies can best be channeled. Abstract artworks are like bizarre dreams you struggle to convey to a listener. Sometimes the result is necessary and resonating. Sometimes it’s confusing and boring. Sometimes a realistic image is needed to ground me in what’s real.
Any resources you can share with us that might be helpful to other creatives?
I seem to have always gotten the resources I need at the right time. Having come into my own as a writer and artist in the pre-Internet era, though, I’d have to say that it would’ve been much easier to have had Internet publishing, eBooks, websites, and blogs from the beginning. But I learned much from analog work.
My ancient manual typewriter had processed in the neighborhood of twenty thousand sheets of paper before I went electronic. I did finish a 320-page typescript of one novel, and it was quite a task to mail off not only query letters and sample chapters, but sometimes a manuscript box containing the entire novel.
The top value of word processing is the scarcely believable amount of time saved as a novel morphs from rough draft to MS. without entirely new manuscripts to retype. The ease of revising a final manuscript or even a published novel seems obvious now, but it was extremely difficult before word processing. And now it’s feasible to work on a lot of writing projects simultaneously.
In any case, the age of mailed typewritten manuscripts with self-addressed stamped envelopes is over, along with poring through the printed Writer’s Market and Literary Market Place for publishers, standing in line at the post office, dealing with handwritten corrections with proofreader’s marks, and waiting weeks or months for a response.
In the same way, showcasing my visual art on sortmind.com is so much easier than painstakingly taking slide photographs and arranging them into binders to be hand-carried to galleries. I’ve not done much with digital art so far, but intend to expand my skills there.
Do you think there is something that non-creatives might struggle to understand about your journey as a creative? Maybe you can shed some light?
In my novel Sortmind a chapter titled “So This is What the Lives of Non-Artists Are Like” describes a young artist character struggling to understand why he’s in thrall to a sociopathic political strongman. It’s fruitful for an artist to step back and realize that other people are interacting with the world entirely differently than you are. But you can’t be arrogant or disrespectful; human creativity manifests itself in all disciplines and throughout daily life and daily work. In that sense there really are no “non-creatives.” There are also many people who want to create art but who will have to remove some blocks to get there. Who knows what will happen with them?
This gets us to normal world interaction with work, organizations, and careers. Since almost all writers and artists need to support themselves, this can lead to a sort of split personality. In my case I retired two months ago after 42 years as a librarian. I’m still processing the entire career, as it mixed into my writing and art life, as a strange, rocky, detour-filled journey. I used to wonder if people from each world could hold me in contempt for selling out to the other side; artists could mock my management/library skills, and library staff could mock my pretensions of being an artist/writer. But now I see this as amusing; it’s not any sort of obstacle, and during all this time I’ve steadily been producing novels and paintings.
The library career, despite various deleterious effects such as the enormous amount of time spent doing libraries and not art, provided structure and funds for an art life. It also provided a treasury of themes and experiences for new art. Admittedly it’s not war correspondent / astronaut /deep sea explorer / famous actor / military hero experience, but it’s what life gave to me.
We read stories of successful artists or actors whose autobiographies stress such total commitment to their craft that at age seventeen they totally threw themselves into it without a look back, that they never mired themselves in other careers. These stories are inspiring, but then again, history is written by the victors. Think of all the artists who also threw themselves so heedlessly into nothing-but-art, and their lucky break, also well-delineated in the autobiographies, never came. What was their survival choice? I know perseverance is also a major factor in the success stories, and that my analysis is simplistic, but … how can one artist ever compare his or her story to that of another?