The Circle of (a Writer’s) Life: PART 2

When my friend and former writing professor, James Brown, invited me to speak to the students of his Advanced Creative Writing class, I was both excited and honored. In July of 2011 I officially became an indie author with the publication of my novel, Inside the Outside. Brown's students, being in the MFA program, will all presumably look to have their own work published one day and so he thought it'd be good for them to hear about my experience as an independent publisher. He'd set up Tuesday, November 15, 2011, as my day to speak. I spent quite a lot of time thinking about the presentation I wanted to give and the things I wanted to tell the students.

I wanted to tell them that I remember what it's like to sit where they're sitting, to work so hard on your craft without any real promise that you'll see your work in print. I wanted to tell them that I can relate to the anxiety and desperation that comes when you start sending your work out to agents and publishers, only to be met with rejection time and time again. I wanted to tell them about how I spent two years working on my "first" novel, only to have it rejected by every agent I sent it to, before spending another five years working on the novel that would become Inside the Outside, which, despite much interest from agents, was also soundly rejected. I wanted to tell them that when the time came for them to publish their own work that they had other options, that they weren't beholden to the system of traditional publishing, that there was more than one way to share their work with the world.

And while, when the time came, I spent over an hour speaking to Brown's students (who, incidentally, were both gracious and welcoming) about the pragmatics of independent publishing, what I really wanted to convey was hope. Because, the unfortunate truth about being a writer, or an artist of any discipline, is that, when you choose to pursue a career in your craft, you will be met by a seemingly endless line of people who want to tell you no, to turn around, to knock on someone else's door, or, perhaps, to stop trying altogether. Most of those people will never understand what it means to invest the whole of your heart into an artistic endeavor, to invest your love and imagination into something that, were it not for you, would not exist at all. And most of those people, the ones who say no, will never truly understand the crushing disappointment that exists on the other side of their rejection.

Because I know only too well that this is the world that many of Brown's students will one day enter, I wanted, more than anything, to provide them with the knowledge that there is another way. It's a road that strays from the traditional path, a road lined with the footsteps of rebels and mavericks. A road lit by the rays of hope, leading to a place where writers are free to take control of their own destiny.

Why Isn't This Dude Famous?

In the summer of 2009, my girlfriend, Chanel, invited me to join her and a group of friends to watch a stage production of the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The story is about a fictional rock band whose lead singer is a transgender East German man named Hedwig. The play, written by John Cameron Mitchell, originally premiered off-Broadway in 1998. In 2001, Mitchell's play was produced by Killer Films into a brilliant film. Consequently, Hedwig has developed an intensely loyal cult following.

While I had previously seen the film, I think it’s only fair that I tell you I didn’t watch it willingly. I knew next to nothing about it, however, based on the little bit I did know, it just didn’t sound like anything I’d enjoy. As it turns out, I loved every single moment of it and I could hardly believe I almost didn’t watch it. So, suffice it to say, when Chanel invited me to go with her and her friends to watch a live production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I jumped at the opportunity.

And so, on a Wednesday night in the middle of June, we all headed out to The Empire Theatre in Santa Ana where Theatre Out—a gay and lesbian theater company based in Orange County—puts on its shows. The theatre itself, set in Santa Ana's Artists Village, didn’t look particularly theatrical from the outside and, if you didn’t already know there was a production being put on, you might not notice it at all. Passing through the lobby, we entered the stage area, which was surprisingly small, not much bigger than a classroom.

The walls and floor were concrete, and the stage wasn’t so much a stage as it was a designated area in the corner of the room. I don’t imagine there were more than 30 or 40 seats in there; each and every seat, however, was filled by the time the show began. Nonetheless, I couldn’t imagine how they were going to put on this show in such a small space. That is, of course, until Darius Rose entered the room.

Darius Rose, the star of the show, didn’t simply play the title role of Hedwig—he embodied it. His performance was out-of-this-world amazing, from his powerful singing voice to his mesmerizing acting ability. The character of Hedwig is, to the say least, complex on many levels and Rose managed to express all of Hedwig’s complexities with brilliant humor and heartbreaking pathos. And as I sat in that small, concrete theater on a Wednesday night in the middle of Santa Ana watching a brilliant actor on the top of his game, I couldn’t help but wonder—why isn’t this dude famous?

His performance deserved to be captured on film and projected onto the big screen. He should have been whisked off on an international promotional tour, giving interviews and making TV appearances. He should be having power lunches with Harvey and Bob Weinstein and brainstorming with the Cohen Brothers. There should be rumors regarding his personal life in the tabloids and sightings of him on TMZ. His name should regularly come up during awards season and he should be making brilliant cameo appearances on Glee.

Yet, despite the abundance of ability he has to offer, he is a relatively anonymous actor. And that’s a shame. Because for all of the actors in Hollywood that are household names, far too many of them don’t have the talent to validate their celebrity. And then there are actors like Darius Rose who have talent to spare, but are underutilized and, generally speaking, under-appreciated.

Now, I’ve never met Darius Rose and I can’t speak to the aspirations he has for his acting career, but I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t feel at least a little slighted for not being a bigger name in entertainment. But during that Wednesday night in Santa Ana, watching him perform, I got the impression that Rose didn’t feel slighted or bitter. I suspect, whether you put him in front of an audience of 30 or 3,000, he would be satisfied for the opportunity to simply exercise his craft. And it was this idea of simply enjoying one’s craft for its own sake that resonated with me for days and weeks after I saw Darius Rose’s performance in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

As a writer, I'd spent many years thinking that nothing less than a lucrative book deal with a major publisher and bestseller status would make me happy. Thoughts of settling for a small press or, God forbid, independent publishing felt akin to giving up. I had spent many years learning my craft and many more years working on my novel, so why, I would ask myself, would I settle for anything less? And then I watched Darius Rose completely mesmerize the 30 or 40 folks that were audience to his performance. I realized that even if he only affected one person that night, then his brilliant performance would not have been in vain.

So kudos to Darius Rose, Theatre Out, and any other artist out there who hasn’t forgotten why art exists at all and why we love it so much.

Ani DiFranco: One Righteous Babe

UPDATED 7/15/14:

Below is Episode 24 of The Martin Lastrapes Show Podcast Hour, "One RIghteous Babe," in which Martin and Chanel discuss discuss Ani DiFranco's epic and controversial 9/11 poem, "Self Evident," as well as her pioneering efforts as an independent artist.

My decision to become an independent publisher began about two years ago, while I was having lunch with my brother Greg at Vitello’s, an Italian restaurant in Studio City, CA, best known for being the spot where Robert Blake allegedly murdered his wife.  As we waited for our food, I was moaning about how frustrating it was trying to get my novel, Inside the Outside, published. “Why not publish it yourself?” Greg said.

I wasn’t the least bit interested in publishing it myself.  I wanted to be a traditional author with a literary agent and a book deal.

"I just can't imagine I'd be able to reach many readers if I published it myself."

"Even if you reach only a small audience, at least people would be reading it," he said.  "And isn't that the point, to have people read your book?”

Because there was—and is—a long-standing stigma attached to self-publishers, I feared that bucking the system would somehow taint me, making me unappealing to any future publishers.  And I told Greg as much.  It was at this point that he pulled out his trump card.

“What would Ani DiFranco do?”

Ani DiFranco, if you’re not familiar, is a singer, songwriter, poet, and political activist who, once upon a time, walked away from a record deal offered to her by a major label, choosing instead to find her own way as an independent artist.  Along the way, she created Righteous Babe Records, which allowed her to forge her way outside of the mainstream, succeeding primarily because of a loyal army of fans built largely on word-of-mouth.

In an open letter to Ms. Magazine in 1997, Ani says:

“I’m just a folksinger, not an entrepreneur. My hope is that my music and poetry will be enjoyable and/or meaningful to someone, somewhere, not that I maximize my profit margins. It was 15 years and 11 albums getting to this place of notoriety and, if anything, I think I was happier way back when. Not that I regret any of my decisions, mind you. I’m glad I didn’t sign on to the corporate army. I mourn the commodification and homogenization of music by the music industry, and I fear the manufacture of consent by the corporately-controlled media. Last thing I want to do is feed the machine.”

I first became aware of Ani DiFranco when, in the early spring of 2002, my girlfriend asked me to go with her to see Ani in concert at the Grove of Anaheim.  I’d never heard of Ani and I really wasn’t interested, but, being a loyal boyfriend, I begrudgingly agreed to go.  For the most part, I was underwhelmed with the show, until halfway through when Ani began reciting a poem she was working on, which she would later call “Self Evident.”

It's an epic poem about the tragedy of September 11, which is unapologetically critical of both America and then-President George W. Bush. Bush, at the time, was at the height of his popularity, so bashing him hadn’t yet come into vogue.

I wasn’t even sure if I agreed with everything she said in the poem, but it was so powerful and unflinching that I instantly became a fan.  I went on to listen to all of her records (I believe she had thirteen or fourteen at the time) for the next couple of days, while scouring the Internet for her song lyrics, which themselves read like poetry.  I eventually became acquainted with her story of being a maverick, of creating her own path.

So, when, while we sat in our booth at Vitello’s, Greg asked me, “What would Ani DiFranco do?”, what he was really doing was holding me up to the standard of my artistic hero.  He knew that for me to reject the idea of being an independent author would be akin to rejecting Ani DiFranco.  And he was right.  Humbled by my brother’s simple logic, I decided it was time to reject the system that had already rejected me—over and over again—and try my hand at being a maverick.

In that same open letter to Ms. Magazine, Ani says:

“We have a view which reaches beyond profit margins into poetry, and a vocabulary to articulate the difference.”

Torch in hand, Ani has been leading the way for nearly twenty years, inspiring artists like myself to take the road less traveled.  Her example provides me with no small amount of hope that there are treasures to be discovered in the place where ambition and integrity meet.

And I thank her for it.