Business Musings: Brain Quakes
I appear to be on a new blog streak. I wouldn’t be sitting in my hotel room writing this, if I weren’t. This is the thirty-third week in a row that I’ve posted a Business Musing. I guess that counts as a streak.
I’m in Ashland, Oregon, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Mostly, I’m here for research. If you’ve read my story in Fiction River: Hex in the City or my story in the most recent Uncollected Anthology, The Streets Where We Live, you’ve probably guessed that I’m writing a novel about those three sisters, magical dramaturges, all.
And before you ask: No, I haven’t started the novel—on the page, anyway. My subconscious is way ahead of me. And no, I don’t know when it’ll be published. And no, I don’t have a deadline. And no, it will not get in the way of all the other things you folks want me to finish right now. (Or maybe it will, but I’m not going to say that in public, for heaven’s sake. <VBG>)
As part of this, I’m brushing up on my Shakespeare. I was very active in theater and professional theater until I moved to Oregon. I was a history major, though, not a theater or English major. My involvement with theater was always behind the scenes. And my first adult fiction was written in play form. (A dear friend of mine, a professional playwright, was one of the first real writers I ever knew.) So this is a great love that I’m returning to.
I’m trying to see the festival as an overall event, and seeing individual plays. I’m also attending classes and lectures. Sometimes research, for me, is just soaking up atmosphere.
I’ve been here before, so I’m not taking the backstage tours. And I do plan to talk with some of the folks involved in the business side of things.
But most of what I want from this trip isn’t something I can quantify exactly. In fact, in this morning’s Shakespeare Comprehensive class, the instructor—Martine Kei Green-Rogers, a real dramaturg from the University of Utah—asked us all what we hoped to learn.
I ask the same question when I teach. That way, I can tailor the class to what my students want, not to what I think they need. (That’s the difference between teaching in an organized class setting, with grades and degrees as the reward, and teaching adults who don’t need the grades and already have the degrees.)
In this class, most people specified what they wanted to learn. I didn’t. I was rather startled by the question. Because I’m not here to learn something. I’m here to shake up my brain.
It’s hard to quantify brain-shaking. It’s a little moment of oh? what? Although I often find that the experience is reflected in that lovely Yiddish question, nu? I love that word because it almost sounds like “new.” And it also means, “does that surprise you?” Yep, it does. That’s how my brain feels when it’s shaken. Nu?
Often what shakes my brain isn’t something I would have expected. For example, this morning the instructor asked us to write down our nicknames and the personal pronouns we use. Immediately, I understood, although most of the class didn’t. Martine Kei Green-Rogers teaches at a university, so she’s dealing with young people, many of whom don’t accept a particular gender role. Some of these young people are transgender. What a brilliant and sensitive way to ask people how they identify themselves.
And I never would have considered it without opening myself up to a new learning experience.
Sometimes my brain shakes when it realizes it’s thought of things one way forever, and I’ve never put the information into context. That shaking happened a lot for me this morning, partly because I did most of my in-class Shakespeare learning in my late teens and early twenties. I have seen professionally produced Shakespeare plays for the past four decades, but I’ve never really returned to an organized learning environment to consider the Bard.
And y’know, sometimes life experience does influence how you look at material.
For example, I’ve always known that Shakespeare was business-minded. That fact got mentioned in every single class I ever took on Shakespeare. How he was part owner of the company that performed the plays, and how he had died a wealthy man.
As a kid, I just figured bestselling writer=wealthy writer, and dismissed the rest of it as unimportant.
It’s not unimportant. Because business is always a big part of writing, something I know as a working writer and didn’t know as a wannabe.
I also know that making money off copyright in that time period, in that country, was almost impossible, something I hadn’t know as a young woman. So there’s an entire side to Shakespeare I had known about and hadn’t given any thought at all.
He knew how to manage money. He not only knew it; he did it so well, he became rich.
Huh. Not sure what I’ll do with that yet, because it’ll take some work on my part, but I’m throwing it out there, in part, because it fits into something I’ve noticed through my years as a working writer: Successful writers are, with very few exceptions, good businesspeople. For example, Charles Dickens. Excellent businessman. Knew how to work his way around the difficult business issues of the day (such as the way that the United States kept stealing his copyright). Seems Old Bill Shakespeare knew how to do the same thing.
Which is one of the reasons this blog exists—to teach you all how to be businesspeople so that you have a chance at success as writers.
There were other nu? moments, but none of them relevant to this blog.
The relevant thing is staying fresh, and opening yourself to new ideas. Or a recasting of old ideas.
Frankly, I miss living in a university town, because those opportunities exist more in a university town than they do in a little out-of-the-way town. But I spent most of my first three decades around universities, and I also learned there are patterns to university people and university towns. Those patterns are just different than patterns of small town Oregon.
I think the problem is that as people, we get into ruts—in our thinking, our behavior, our contacts. Travel always knocks me out of my comfort zone, and traveling alone is particularly beneficial for me, because then I talk to people.
So far, I’ve spoken to a number of people about things as diverse as the color of the clouds in Southern Oregon, the language in Shakespeare’s plays, and how long it takes to make kimchi. At least one of those things will make it into a story.
I believe that staying fresh is one of the most important things to a long-term career in writing. A lot of writers write the same things over and over again. They read exclusively in the same genre that they write in. They hang out with the same people, both at home and in their writing careers. And they rarely challenge themselves with new techniques, new thoughts, and new genres.
I just discussed new thoughts. Now that my health has improved so that I can travel again, I have several trips planned. Some are family- and friend-related, but some are discovery and new-thought related.
This trip and one more in July are also new-technique related. I’m studying Shakespeare for a reason. While one woman here mentioned how upset she is that the class won’t delve deeply into Shakespeare’s language, I’m relieved. Because we’ve been discussing story, and I still have a lot to learn about story, particularly from a writer whose stories have endured for centuries.
I can combine my love of theater with learning how to tell stories in new and different ways. I learned a few terms this morning that have meaning in the academic world, and mean something entirely different to my brain. Those terms have become suggestions, and believe me, I’ll be using them.
In that way, this week’s travel dovetails nicely with my women in science fiction project. Because I’m revisiting old favorites there as well, and that’s caused me to realize a few things. I realized that, despite my best efforts, I’ve internalized a lot of stupid rules about writing, rules that my favorite writers constantly broke. (Rules, I’m figuring out, that Shakespeare broke. I knew that, but I didn’t know it. And, before you say anything, he didn’t break them because he was Famous Playwright (as in, J.K. Rowling can break the rules, but you can’t). He broke them in service of the story.
I find a lot of new techniques by visiting other disciplines in the arts, studying other artists’ lives, and learning how other artists think/thought. Not only do I find such things inspiring, I also find them illuminating.
And, as I mentioned, sometimes my learning is new-genre related. Sometimes I mean a new genre to me, something I haven’t played with before, but which existed for a long time. And sometimes I mean, let’s mash up this genre with that genre and see what we get. We’ve been discussing that a bit in the comments from last week’s post, and I have to admit, it has my brain humming.
All of this has my brain humming. I’ve got lots to figure out and lots to write. But in the next hour, I have to post this blog, buy myself dinner, get gas for the car, and get back to the festival. In theory, I’ll see a play tonight. In practice, I might not. As I said, we’re in the middle of storms, and this show is outside.
I expect that, either way, I’ll be having an adventure.
And an adventure now and then is as important to my writing as reading is. Which is to say, essential.
“Business Musings: Brain Quakes,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.