In Solidarity

(3/29/2020)

So here we are, ladies and gentlemen.  COVID-19 has not only introduced itself, it has become the menace that now influences nearly every action and decision we as a people make.  It’s all you see on the news anymore.  It’s all anyone seems to want to talk about.  People are wandering the streets wearing surgical masks and latex gloves.  Store shelves are barren.  And boy, some people have sure gotten meaner: arguing with store clerks, mocking those who are wearing protective gear, and licking odd items in defiance of the disease itself.  There’s the two extremes, right there:  those who are scared to the point of irrationality, while others scoff that it’s “no big deal,” declaring that those who are worried about their safety are pathetic and weak, and that what most folks commonly call the coronavirus (which is actually a class of viruses that happens to include COVID-19) is not much worse than an ordinary flu.

Most of us–the vast majority of us–fall somewhere in between these two extremes.  This post isn’t for you so much.  You see, it’s the people in those two extremes I’d like to talk to.

To the scoffers, I can’t say this plainly enough:  COVID-19 is a big deal–and it’s not an ordinary flu.  Now, it is indeed true that many who become infected by COVID-19 experience only mild symptoms (and some experience no symptoms at all), just like a run-of-the-mill flu.  And yes, a run-of-the-mill flu can and does kill people each and every year.  That’s all true.  I’m right there with you at least that far.  So are the statistics.

However…

A run-of-the-mill flu doesn’t overwhelm our hospitals to the point of begging for ventilators and other supplies, nor does a run-of-the-mill flu force doctors to make decisions over who lives and who dies once those supplies are gone.  COVID-19 does.  In some areas, it’s doing it now.  Right now.  As you read this.

If it isn’t happening at your hospital, it likely will.  Soon.

Nearly every medical professional is sounding alarms.  Treating the sick isn’t sorta-kinda what these people do–it is what they do.  The training they receive is incredible, and it doesn’t end for the entirety of their careers.  If they’re worried and think it’s a big deal, I’d say it’s a big deal.

But you’re not convinced.  Of course you’re not.  For some of you, it’s good enough that your idolized political hero told you either not to worry about it, or that it’s under control.  Did it ever dawn on you that keeping the economy roaring just might be a greater concern of his than your health?  Do yourself a favor and watch Jaws.  That mayor who cared more about keeping the beaches open and bringing in the tourists’ dollars than he cared about taking care of the problem–and hoping the problem went away on its own?  Remember him?  You’re listening to that guy.  Here’s your grain of salt.  You’ll need it if you’re going to take any advice from him.

(Special message to American scoffers who might hold this particular opinion:  no, COVID-19 is not a Democrat conspiracy meant to make President Donald Trump look bad.  Donald Trump does a good enough of a job of looking like a buffoon without anybody’s help.  What, you think this disease skips folks who have Bernie Sanders stickers on their automobiles?  Are you ignoring the fact that people all around the world are dealing with this thing?)

Thankfully, some of you have already figured this out.

“But the symptoms are mild for most people,” you say.  Okay, fine.  Let’s look at that one.  Let’s say you get it and you don’t feel all that bad.  A little achy.  Maybe a low-grade fever that goes away in a few days.  A bit of a cough that resolves itself pretty quickly.  You’ve seen far worse.  Good for you.  You’re very fortunate.  Of course, you need to understand that your symptoms aren’t universal.  If you’re going to be a member of the Human Race, then you’re going to have to consider how others around you are going to handle it once you’ve given your disease to them.  Make no mistake about it:  if you’re treating this as “no big deal,” you are going to pass this virus on to several more people, who may in turn spread it to several more.  As I mentioned earlier, hospitals are full of those who certainly didn’t have mild symptoms.

No, this is serious stuff, folks.  If you’re not going to let it scare you, that’s fine and dandy.  You should, however, most definitely respect it for what it is.

Which brings me to those of you who probably had to move a box of toilet paper out of the way in order to sit down and read this.  Maybe you’ve got another tab open on your browser, obsessively checking to see if Purell is back in stock on Amazon so that you can buy another case of it before it’s gone again.  Thank God you’ve got enough bleach to keep your entire state’s tidy-whiteys gleaming for years to come.  And it’s a good thing you cleaned out three different stores of their supply of beans (which might go a long way toward explaining why you need all that toilet paper and bleach).  You’ve got enough flour to build a snowman in your living room.  You’ve got enough masks and gloves to start your own hospital.

Okay, fine.  I’m exaggerating.  You got me there.

Of course, so are you.

Ever notice that it never seems like you’ve got enough, no matter how much you stockpile?  How you’re constantly looking for a supply of more?  How you glare at family members who use a single package of something, because it now means you’re not as well-stocked as you were before?  How you’re trying to hide what you bring home from full view of your neighbors?  Maybe you’ve even stocked up on ammunition for that very purpose; gotta keep ’em honest, and outta your stuff.

To these people, I say this:  I understand.  No, really, I do.  I’ve got a family of my own, and I’m currently their sole source of income.  It’s up to me to make sure they have what they need.  When you find yourself faced with a situation that you feel you cannot control, it’s very natural to take any aspect that you can control, and control the living hell out of it.  Control it right into the ground.  No, I get it.  I do.

But you’re making the situation worse for yourself as well as for others.  Let’s think about this rationally for a moment.

No one’s talking about shutting down stores which sell the essentials.  (At least, they aren’t to the best of my knowledge.)  These stores survive because they have goods to sell, which means they have no interest in displaying empty shelves.  They’re going to keep ordering stuff–and if you only buy what you need, they’ll continue to have just as much in stock as they did before this mess started.  They had plenty of everything before, right?  You bet they did.

Then life changed, and the panic hit.  People went crazy.  Absolutely ape shit.  Like I said, I understand.  I sympathize.  But it doesn’t change the fact that hoarding begets hoarding.  Here’s a scenario for you:  you buy ten cases of paper towels and leave the store’s shelf empty.  The next guy’s going to buy a case of paper towels the first time he sees they’re available again, even though he usually only buys one roll.  Can you blame him?  I mean, he’s seen that shelf empty before; he doesn’t know how long it’ll be before they’re gone again.  Now he’s making the problem (that you started) worse for someone else.  While this scenario only involves two hypothetical shoppers, scale it up by thousands of people and you can see why we’ve got issues here.  Let’s play again, this time using toilet paper as our example instead of paper towels.  Same outcome, right?

The bottom line is this:  buy only what you need.  If you or someone in your household has been exposed (or has reason to believe that they have been exposed), the suggested length of self-quarantine is, at the time of this writing, two weeks.  Not two decades, or even two months.  Two weeks.  Chances are pretty good that you don’t need a pallet of toilet paper for two weeks:  this is a coronavirus, not dysentery.   And unless you or a family member who lives with you is sick, there’s no need to own enough sanitizers to make your home suitable for use as a surgery suite:  you can’t kill a virus that isn’t there in the first place.  Absolutely you should up your cleaning game–don’t get me wrong.  But when it comes to needing a case of bleach for two weeks’ worth of housekeeping, color me skeptical.

We need to think logically, not emotionally.

If everyone did that, we’d all be able to get what we need the moment we need it.  Hell, you might even reach a point where you’re no longer preparing to shoot your neighbor.  You know, like you’re a civilized human being again, or something.  (Your neighbor wouldn’t have to resort to stealing your stash in the first place since he could easily find his own, but I digress.)

Let’s not forget that we’re all in this together.  It’s not every man (or woman) for him- (or her-) self.  Indeed if it was, we’re all screwed.  Even you, with your cute little arsenal of firearms and adorable crates of sloppy joe mix.  The good news is that society has not broken down–and it won’t so long as you don’t allow it to.  That takes all of us acting together and looking out for one another.  That’s why it’s called a society in the first place.

Besides, you’ve got more control here than you think you do.  It’s easy.  Listen to the experts, and think critically about what self-interest they may have for telling you what they’re telling you.  Stay home if you’re sick, and call your doctor’s office (don’t just show up there!) for further instructions.  Wash your hands frequently–particularly after touching things that potentially-infected people might have touched.  Give others space while out in public.  Cover coughs and sneezes with your elbows rather than your hands.  If your state has a “shelter in place” or “stay at home” order, obey it.

And of course remember that others are having a tough time right now.  Do your part to not make things worse for them.  A virus is easy to share… but so is courtesy.  We’re human beings.  We do best when we behave as such.

The Successful Writer?

(8/09/2018)

The funny thing about being a writer is what happens when people discover you’re a writer.  Even people who have known you for years suddenly look at you as if you’re some strange new species.  The discussion takes a dramatic shift and quickly hits all the same questions you have no doubt seen covered in author interviews with the biggest names in the business:  What made you want to become a writer?  What type of books do you write?  Where do you get your ideas?  Any movie deals coming up?

Then they ask you two questions which both live as cozy roommates in the minds of everyone who feels he or she has a story tucked inside of themselves:  what advice do you have for someone who is just starting out as a writer?  What’s it take to be successful and make lots of money?

During this conversation, no doubt your own mind is full of memories of all the late nights and guzzled caffeine spent fighting the good fight against the written word.  Maybe you’re frowning over the size of your audience base, and how difficult it actually is to get your work noticed.  Maybe your entire royalty check for that month was spent on the coffee you’re now holding in your hand.  All the same, it’s obvious to you that the way your company suddenly sees you is not the same as how you see yourself.

The more you run into this situation, the more you wonder what you’re doing wrong.  There must be something–or why would everyone you meet instantly draw the conclusion that somehow the very act of writing immediately leads to smashing financial success?  Should there be a swimming pool full of money in your spacious and landscaped back yard?  Should there be a roomful of suits standing around signing checks in your name at black-tie cocktail parties which are full of celebrities?

You study yourself in your mental mirror.  You see yourself standing in grubby street-clothes, wearing tennis shoes which have blowouts in the sides.  You live in a very modest home, or perhaps an apartment.  You work a day job.  Your book sales come in spurts when they come at all, and very few of those sales result in reviews.  You were just that very morning stressing about some bill, and wondering how you’re going to pay for it.

Your inquisitor sees you as the Monopoly Guy.  You’re a writer, after all–and you must be successful, since after all they’re able to find your work listed on Amazon and perhaps Barnes and Noble or Booksamillion.  And as a successful writer, you must have some sage advice worth offering.  So… what advice would you give a new writer, then?

Never mind all of that, what advice should you be giving to yourself?

Since you’re reading my blog, dear reader, here’s my personal answer:  recognize that you’ve just fallen into a trap, and get yourself the hell out of it.

No, it is a trap.  Yes, it is!  Remember when you were first writing, and you’d set goals for yourself?  Maybe it was something like three pages of manuscript each day.  Maybe it was finishing a particular section.  Maybe it was simply clearing your schedule so that you had time to write at all.  Each goal you achieved felt like a triumph.  It was a success.  When you saw your work out there in the public realm, each new sale was a success; it meant that a new reader had just discovered you, and was about to invest several irreplaceable hours of his or her life reading your hard-fought words.

Yet now here you are examining the word “success” as defined by your company’s standard–in terms of money.  Fame.  Movie deals.  Not on Suzie in Ohio, who just contacted you from off of your blog to tell you how very much she loved your work.  Not on John’s raving Amazon review–he can’t wait for your next book, says he, and you’re pretty sure his name was just added to your mailing list.  Instead of savoring these things, you’re now focused on the fact that Universal Studios isn’t knocking down your door to have you write a screenplay or at least discuss buying rights from you.

Don’t get me wrong:  it’d sure be nice if something like hitting the bestseller’s list or getting interviewed in Playboy ever happened.  But never allow yourself to feel like a failure when it doesn’t.  For most writers, it won’t.

It doesn’t matter to Suzie in Ohio, or to Amazon John.  It shouldn’t matter to you, either.

Author Stephen King is a rock star in the writing world.  He also has been writing novels since well before some of us were even born; he has over fifty books to his credit–and if you’re only counting books, you’re not even scratching the surface.  At the beginning of his career, he’s mentioned repeatedly about how there were bills to be worried about and credit cards which were being relied upon.  Still he wrote.  And wrote.  And wrote.  And wrote.  And for variety, he wrote some more.  His successes with each day’s goals added into the sum of his successes with the completion of each new project, which added into his success at exposure, which added into his success at earning a living.  He was a successful writer before he ever became a “successful” writer.  While I’m sure he’d agree that the money is nice, it clearly wasn’t his driving force.

The love of writing was, and still is.  I guarantee you that if somehow our economic system ended tonight, he’d still get up tomorrow and write some more.  While I have yet to have the pleasure of meeting the man, I don’t think he’d mind me saying so.

I also don’t think that author David Morrell would mind if I shared with you the gist of the online conversation we had about readers themselves.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Mr. Morrell’s work, he is the creator of the character Rambo, which first appeared in his novel First Blood.  In fact he’s done a lot more work than that.  And still more.  He’s a man who has experienced the bestseller’s list several times.  Do you know what he’s noticed?  That interest in reading has declined over the years.  As writers, we compete with the instant and easy gratification of online binge-watching and on-demand articles, not to mention social media.  People still have free time, yes; it’s just that they have more things to choose from in order to fill it.  The rate at which people buy and read novels has taken a hit as a result.  Do you know what he does about it?  He continues to write.  It’s in his blood.  It’s what he’s made of.  (I’ll just insert my wink right here, thanks.)

Now let’s go back to you, you little writer, you.  You don’t have fifty books out there, do you?  And you’re frowning over slow book sales, having never before known the love of the bestseller’s list, aren’t you?  You’re worried that your reader base isn’t growing as fast as you expected it to, right?  If you’re judging success according to the amount that’s in your bank account, you’d might as well call it a night.

Suzie and John sure hope you don’t.  You see, when it comes to entertaining them–maybe giving them something to think about, or maybe providing a source of enjoyment that (who knows?) might be rare in their lives…

Well, you’ve succeeded.  You succeeded in writing and bringing your work out into the world.  You succeeded in gaining appreciative readers.  That’s success.  Wealth doesn’t really factor in here:  keep in mind, some people are born into money.  That’s not  success–it’s random chance.  Some people buy the winning lottery ticket.  That’s not success, either–once again, it’s random chance.

Those who build their fortune a bit at a time, starting with little more than an idea and a belief in themselves… well, now that’s success, right?  Wrong.  The money is a side effect of their success.  The success is in creating something that people are willing to consume, even if they have to buy it.  Only when that happens does money have its place at the table.

All of this means, of course, that there’s only one answer for our advice to the newbie writer:  write.  Write some more.  It doesn’t matter if you’re an indie author or if you have a traditional agent and publisher–just write.  Read the prose of others and learn from them.  Perfect your craft because your craft deserves it, and forgive yourself of your missteps along the way.  Once each project is done, keep writing.  If that sounds like work to you and you’d rather skip right to the money, then that means you’re not in it for the right reason.  Might I suggest the Stock Market?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have another book to write.  So do you.  I’m sure if we both stay focused, we’ll be successful.

 

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