Last weekend was the 2014 Fall Conference for The League of Utah Writers. It was held up in Layton Utah at the Davis County Conference Center. I was there and it was great. It would have been great if I wasn’t there, but then I’d have had to learn about it second hand.
I taught three classes, sat on one panel and gave the dinner keynote address. And then, you know what, those stinkers, those lovable lovely stinkers, gave ELEANOR, THE UNSEEN a Gold Quill award for Best Young Adult of the Year. I was moved, shaken, and stirred. What a thrill. Then those guys and gals turned around and named me THE UTAH WRITER OF THE YEAR.
I was floored. In a room of some of the best writers in the state, and arguably the universe, my peers had recognized me as a hard working writing dude and presented me with a plaque and I, for once, was left speechless.
Jolly Fish Press swept the published novel categories. Here’s a picture of us.
Eric Bishop, Gold Quill winner Novel for his book THE SAMARITAN'S PISTOL
Yours Truly, Gold Quill winner Young Adult Novel, ELEANOR, THE UNSEEN & Writer of the Year.
Leisel Hill, Silver Quill winner for her Novel CITADELS OF FIRE
Lehua Parker, Gold Quill winner for Middle Grade Novel, ONE BOY, NO WATER
If the weekend had ended on my keynote speech it would have been the highpoint of my writing career so far. But you guys topped it with a cherry and I’m thrilled.
I was asked by several there to post my notes from the keynote speech, which they said amused them and inspired them. Below, I dutifully oblige. You’ll have to imagine the big animated tie-dye wearing me hopping around and gesturing dramatically but thanks to a few kind photographers, there are pictures to help. These were my notes. What I said may or may not be represented from what lies below, but this is what I had when I went up.
Thanks again LUW, my friends and comrades on this crazy path. Misery loves company but crazy really appreciates it.
NOTES: Keynote address for the League of Utah Writers September 13, 2014
My name is Johnny Worthen and I’m an author.
I love saying that. I am an author. I am a writer. That’s what I put on my tax return now.
Tonight I’m going to talk to you about my journey so far. I’m going ramble. I’m going to complain and rejoice. I’m going to quote liberally. I’m going to make some terrible accusations and I’m going to wax philosophical in the name of our art.
I am a native Utahn, child of the valley – Holladay and Sandy.
I attended the University of Utah under scholarship and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in English Lit with a minor in Classical Studies - I read Latin. To this I added a Master’s Degree in American Studies, Film Emphasis.
With training like this I naturally and inevitably ended up in the fast food service industry. Among a dozen other “careers,” I opened a bagel shop in Oregon and made sandwiches for years before the rains of the Northwest threatened to wash my soul away and I returned to the sand from which I was bred and came home to the high desert snows of Utah. More businesses, more changes. Less rain.
“I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky. ” ― Sharon Olds
My debut BEATRYSEL was released last year by Omnium Gatherum Media in Los Angeles. My young adult paranormal trilogy THE UNSEEN, kicked off this last July from Jolly Fish Press with the release of ELEANOR. Next year the trilogy continues in June with CELESTE, THE UNSEEN and after that DAVID, THE UNSEEN.
Though it is The Unseen Trilogy, I’d appreciate it if you all look for it.
Also next year I’ll unleash upon the world my satirical neo-noire detective Tony Flaner in THE FINGER TRAP. That’ll be in the Fall. And I just received notice from Cherokee McGhee publishers in Virginia that before all of that, my political mystery THE BRAND DEMAND, a story in the flavor of Edward Abby’s MONKEY WRENCH GANG will come out in May.
I have stories in anthologies and a novelette - that’s more a short story less than a novella. You gotta know these things. That’s DR. STUART’S HEART, it’s a companion piece to BEATRYSEL. I like it.
I have presented and paneled at Comic Con, FantasyCon and Fan-X, Fandemonium, LTUE down in Provo and LUW last spring and this weekend.
Those, and my stunningly handsome physique are my credentials.
I’ve had a break out year.
I consider myself a new author but an old writer. I’ve been writing my whole life, but only dedicated it to the written word for the last three years.
I’ve had some success but at the cost of a wall of failure so formidable that there have been many times I’ve asked myself, why I do it.
And the answer I come up with is always the same. I must be crazy.
To quote Cornelia Funke (Foon-ka), Inkspell “All writers are lunatics!”
I’m not being facetious when I suggest this. It’s a sensitive subject but I feel alright talking about this tonight because I know I’m in a room of crazy people. You all suffer from the same mental malady that I do.
You have to be crazy to do this work.
First off, It’s hard.
Non writers don’t understand what I’m talking about. They can’t imagine being a writer as being anything but great.
The hours are long but at least the pay sucks.
But Mr. Hypothetical might say, and what a jerk he is: Isn’t writing the easiest job in the world? There’s no heavy lifting. You might get a paper cut or a cramp. Carpel tunnel at worse. Hell, playing your gitar on the MTV looks like hellish slavery compared to the easy life of a writer. Isn’t that how it is?
What do we do?
― Neil Gaiman “Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it's always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.”
Have you ever had anyone come up to you and say, I have a great idea for a book. I’ll tell it to you and you write it and we’ll split the money.”
Nothing to it.
I got a corollary of this the other day. “I’m going to write a book. I’d tell you what it’s about but I’m afraid you’ll steal it.”
Because all you need is a single idea. Right?
Many a day I’ve sat staring into the abyssal depths of my computer screen waiting for the words to appear and they don’t. I don’t believe in writers block, but I do know I fight myself sometimes. Writing is hard and I’m lazy. That’s a problem with many writers. We’re artists. We’re flighty.
― Dorothy Parker’s quote is one of my all time favorites “I hate writing, I love having written.”
Writing is a whole enchilada. It’s not an assembly line where muscle memory takes over from repetition. Writers have to CONSTANTLY court inspiration. We have to ponder, brainstorm, outline, plan, write, re-write, edit, edit again, write more, ponder, edit brainstorm and fix. And then, if you want to get published, you have a whole new can of worms to crack, querying, marketing, reviews, tours, pain and suffering…. It’s a complete creative act and it’s a job in an industry which someone observed is entirely run by amateurs.
Even if it’s only your hobby, you know writing is a job. It’s not enough to say the right thing; you have to say the thing right.
It is work.
Writing is creation; creation is hard. It requires our complete presence, our entire soul, our mental, physical and spiritual beings uniting for a single corralled emotional act.
And writing is emotional. Even if you write memoir and history – a text book, your emotions will play in your creation. Emotions become thoughts become language become words on the page.
Another one of my favorite quotes is from Ernest Hemingway “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
You can’t turn your mind off when writing, nor quiet your soul. That’s what makes it so hard. You must set yourself on fire for the light to write by.
Don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy work. You’d have to be crazy to do it.
And we are.
|E. L. Doctorow|
There are voices in my head. There are lots of voices in my head.
There are other minds, other people, other beings that inhabit my head when I’m writing.
I am not always sure I created them. Sometimes I truly think I’m channeling, so real are these personas in my mind.
Often when I get stuck in a book, I have this trick I do: I put my characters together and let them work it out. I listen and take a dictation. I become a passive observer to my own madness. The characters will invariably show me where to go.
When I’m writing, as when I’m reading a good book, the characters are as real to me - no more real - than actual people. I know them better than anyone. We share thoughts. I sympathize and empathize and worry and rejoice with them. I get angry with them, and love them. They are separate from me and yet part of me.
When I’m writing, I host these others, these characters and voices and they talk through me as if I’m a possessed medium.
Whether I made them or not, whether I found them or they found me, I cannot be sure.
I don’t think I’m the only one here who’s had this happen.
And then there’s the Muse the sudden magical rush of energy and insight. Inspiration. A transcendental connection beyond yourself to some greater source. You feel it.
Voices in our heads, personal connections to mystic allies? Claim these in the wrong circumstances and they’ll put you away.
If only for these phenomenon, we must all agree that writers are always at least a little, insane
And I’ll tell you another thing. If you aren’t crazy before you start writing, you soon will be.
The heart of a writer is the heart of a poet and both are sensitive to a fault.
I cry at my own books. I was in a pancake house before my launch of ELEANOR, skimming a copy and looking for good passages to read to public and I got the scene where David asks Eleanor to the prom. I lost myself in my own damn book and when I looked up there was a whole restaurant full of people staring at me while I wiped tears from my eyes from my own book. My picture’s on the back of it.
I handed out a couple of bookmarks. I can tell you a sold a few books that day.
But it’s not just my books that get to me. It’s other books. And other things. People, sunsets, ideas move me. I have fits of depression and eruptions of joy like I never had before I committed myself to writing.
I see meaning in trivia. I spend hours ruminate over my life and my children’s live’s, over the past and future, society and culture, right and wrong, divinity and fate. I think the big thoughts. I’m like I was at college, but now I have some real experience.
I’m a frayed live wire. When I’m in the groove, I’m hypersensitive and hyperaware. My senses pull in data like they have own gravity, refilling a reservoir of sensation and ideas.
Things look different through the eyes of a writer.
I had a English teacher in college who put it this way. As we go through our lives we will have ups and downs, but even in the worst unimaginable tragedy of our lives, there will be a part of a writer’s brain standing back away from it, distanced, objective and taking notes.
Even the journal writer has some idea, some hope that someone else will one day read what they’ve written. Most of us beg for people to read our words. Not just for money, though that would be nice, but also because we want to be understood, we want to be appreciated. Remembered. Loved.
And herein lies another level of madness. The craziness of rejection.
If there’s a career that offers you more opportunities for rejection than writing, I’d like to know what it is. I think telephone solicitors with tourettes get more positive reinforcement than writers on a query hunt. Or at least it feels like it. But I’m kinda’ sensitive.
We are a fragile lot, we writers, constantly seeking approval and weathering the rejection of critics, and publishers, agents, readers, blog trolls and even family.
Maybe you all have a great literary family. I don’t. I have to resort to extortion to get my kids to read. When one turned sixteen, guess what he didn’t get until he read one of my books. The other wanted a Lagoon Pass that one took a little longer, but I got it done.
They haven’t read my new stuff yet. Christmas is coming up. I have high hopes for December.
And don’t get me started with cousins and friends and the people who proudly proclaim to me “I don’t read,” like they’re proud of it.
That’s a different talk. But the problem is real, the rejection is real. The struggles are real.
We are often unappreciated. And yet we go on.
We wrestle with ideas, nuance and grayscales. We ponder the big questions. We open ourselves to wonder and turmoil. We pour ourselves out, bear our souls and offer it up like sacrifice.
The plots, twists and turns in our stories are always first lived out in ourselves. We are guinea pigs and lab rats, we are crash-test dummies and victims for every calamity we can imagine. We put ourselves through all of it, so that that little person in the back of our heads can watch, detached, objective and taking notes.
Fools, but blessed fools.
― Ray Bradbury
I may be insane but I wouldn’t be change my state for anything. We writers are the luckiest people in the world. And amongst the most powerful.
“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” ― Philip Pullman
I got my master’s degree in American Studies Film Emphasis by reading books and watching movies. I went into film because that’s where I saw the cultural narrative being told. What I mean by cultural narrative is the stories that unite us as a people. They are our shared stories. We have them going back to beginning of language. The Bible, Homer and Shakespeare, but also Dickens and Twain. We know Captain Ahab and Captain America. We share these stories and they inspire us individually and communally.
But film is a very collaborated media. Do you sit through the end credits looking for stingers at the end? Marvel has done that to us. You see how many people are involved in making The Avengers? They could post the Lehi phone book and have shorter credit reel.
Then there’s TV. That’s collaborate. Radio and plays, actors directors, technicians. And video games. All collaborate narrative media.
But then there are books. For a published book you have editors and publishers, alpha-readers and beta-readers, all putting in their input.
But at the beginning, at the creation of the story, there is only the author.
It is a personal and independent act of creation.
One voice, one thought, one mind. — The writer’s mind.
No other media allows this kind of freedom. And from this glorious freedom comes the foundation that all other collaborate media builds upon.
Because of technology collaborative media is the primary force behind our cultural narrative today, but behind each one, is the mind a single author.
That’s some awesome power right there.
I had a weird thing happen to me at Fan-X last April. I snuck into the gold room, that’s the room the recognizable celebrities hang out in as opposed to the green room where I got to go for a sandwich.
Anyway, I found it and snuck in. I got a bottle of Perier water. I still have it in the fridge. There sitting on the couches was the bridge crew of Star Trek the Next Generation. My heroes. Counselor Troi, Dr. Crusher, Data and Riker all right there.
But they weren’t.
I realized that though Brent Spiner had brought Data to life, his trials, accomplishments and failures were not his. Nor even does the root of that character reside in the actor. He’s somewhere in the middle between cinematography and the editing room.
No the character came from a writer, not an actor. I could thank Brent for his work, his interpretation which allowed the concept to bloom as it did, but to credit him with my hero would be like to credit a gardner for a pie. If there is a single mortal entity that should be admired for the existence of that character that I love, it must be the writer, must it not? From that mind and that magick came forth that marvelous creation.
I left without asking for an autograph, little glass bottle of water in my hand, silently thanking the authors who conceived the wonders and the characters which moved me as a child and I returned to the green room where I hung out with crazy people, other authors, and knew I was in the right place.
Socrates - “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates
Johnny - “An unlived life is not worth examining; better live a few.”
“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” ― Anaïs Nin
When you read a book, you live a life beyond your own. The hours you spend between the covers can span lifetimes. That’s why I think people who read are smarter and wiser than those who don’t - they’ve literally had more life than non-readers.
“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It's a way of understanding it.” ― Lloyd Alexander
As writers we do this as a conduit of creation. We not only live the story through our characters and plots, but as writers we direct it. So in these other lives we are creating and living, we are not only witnesses but active agents. If reading gives us lifetimes beyond our own, writing is reading on active steroids. It is the difference between watching a child play, and raising one.
― Joss Whedon
If we are insane as I claim, let me state we are also in the unique position to treat our own malady. There are many reasons to write, but one of them, is surely for therapy.
I wrote an entire novel, a 107,000 word young adult dystopian that probably will never get published. I wrote it because I had to work something out. I was angry and I felt powerless. I wanted to explain why I was angry, what needed to be done to fix things, what the consequences would be if we didn’t. I needed to scream.
It was the clumsiest book I’ve ever written and will need ages of work to ever see print, but I’ll tell you what, that book got me through my anger. My feelings were expressed. I faced and explored that reality and I came through it a better and wiser man.
I think of it like one of those letters you write when you’re mad. You have to get it out of you or you’ll choke on it. But like letters written while angry, I’m not sure it should leave the house.
Our art may make us crazy, but it also gives us the armor the withstand it. The cause is the cure.
― Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing says “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
And let’s talk about reality. Those of you who know my works know something of the Magickal world view. The occult philosophy that maintains that there is precious little dividing will from form. Thought from matter.
Think of it this way. A thought has energy and will resonate upon the universe through your actions. If that thought is spoken it will resonate further having entered someone else’s mind. If it is written, further still and it exists now independently and beyond its creator. There a tradition in many cultures that what is written is magic and alive.
You, my writing friends, are powerful beyond your dreams. You are magicians all. You have the potential to change the universe. The pen and the sword, and all that.
Your words will outlive you.
Your writing is life. It is creation. It is a holy act.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1
The Creator began the universe with a word and we are the inheritors of that tradition!
Add Megalomania to the list. I’m comparing myself with Diety? Do I sound crazy?
Insanity is a relative term of course. We are insane only because we do things that are not “normal” but, as George Orwell remarked in 1984, “Sanity is not statistical.” You can be right and the rest of the world wrong.
So let me rephrase my entire talk and state that we are the sane ones. We are the ones tasting life twice. We are aware and awake. We live lives far beyond our own. We create universes beyond our own time and our minds. We feel. We express. We touch. We create.
When I asked my writer friends why we do this, one reply was to turn the question around and wonder why everyone doesn’t do it. We must pity them.
Though there are days when I struggle for hours for a single word, there are other days.
There are days when my words flow out me like water from a glacier and it’s all I can do to keep up. There are days when words flow out of me like blood and I am left a weakened husk at the end of it. There are days when I can’t see my keyboard for the tears in my eyes or hear the words in my head for my laughing.
There are those days.
“Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.” ― Neil Gaiman
We write to remember what should be remembered.
We write to say what needs to be said.
We write to teach others and express ourselves.
We write to praise and condemn, to celebrate – but ever and always we write to change the world.
“A word after a word after a word is power.” ― Margaret Atwood.
Go forth my crazy friends and wield your power wisely. Make yourself insane - more insane, feel and heal, shake and touch, love and live. Express! Live life twice and thrice and make your scratches upon the wall that in the lamplight we may know we were not alone.