Seeing the Other Side: Publishing, Kerfuffles, and Empathy

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” — The Great Gatsby

Another day, another crisis in publishing. Feels like that sometimes, anyway. Authors behaving badly, publishers behaving badly, fans behaving badly, event organizers behaving badly. There’s always something to blog about.

Sometimes the issues seem pretty clear-cut. An author has said some vile thing at someone else, publicly. Or a publisher isn’t paying their authors. Or an agent has absconded to Tahiti and now the IRS is making some phone calls. Whatever it is, there’s typically more than one side to the story. And when you’re an observer, it can be easier to see all the sides to the story, as you read blogs and tweets and facebook posts and watch the story unfold.

But obviously not everybody’s an observer. The crisis has to come from somewhere. There are often many parties involved, with several sides to take. And when you’re in the middle of a crisis that is directly impacting you, it can be difficult to see any viewpoint other than your own.

I would venture to say one of the more important characteristics for a writer to have is empathy. The ability to understand how someone without your particular background, beliefs, and attributes might react to something, and how the situation might appear to them, is critical in writing rich and varied characters. For instance, if you are white, and you have a black character in your story, it behooves you to be able to understand how race can impact one’s experiences and shape one’s character and judgement. Otherwise you’re likely to write stock characters, cliches that don’t reflect anyone’s actual experiences.

Which is why I find myself sometimes surprised by the lack of empathy in some of these kerfuffles, especially from writers. I’m surprised that people find it difficult to understand that the circumstances they find themselves in are not universal, and that others may hold differing opinions as a result.

Say an issue came up where there was what appeared to be an obvious moral high ground. Stand tall, do what’s right, perhaps take a bit of a hit for it, but you know in the end you did the right thing. Sure. That’s a fine opinion to hold. Moral high ground is a good place to be. And sometimes the opposite of the moral high ground is getting a cheque, and how great are you for sacrificing money in the name of what’s right? That’s great. I’m sincerely glad you’re able to stand tall on that issue.

But when you’re documenting your stance on the issue, consider including judgement of others in that statement. Not everybody has that same luxury. Most people, I’d wager, would like to remain on the moral high ground, but that can be challenging when a cheque means food on the table, or back-taxes paid, or finally getting to handle that costly medical procedure. Are they horrible and morally unsound simply because they took the money out of sheer necessity? Not everybody has had the same advantages that you’ve had.

I certainly understand that if you’re caught up in your own concerns it can occasionally be difficult to see the other side. But that’s what we as writers are challenged to do — to see viewpoints beyond our own. And we should challenge ourselves to really consider the experience of others. So the next time you’re putting your two cents in on the newest kerfuffle, take a breather before you post, and consider what the other side is seeing.

(Don’t) Give ‘Em What They Want

Troy D. Smith is from Sparta, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, and teaches U.S. and American Indian history at Tennessee Tech. In addition to history, he writes short stories of all stripes, has written for several magazines, published poetry (but not lately), and writes western and mystery novels.

Recently, at the writers’ workshop I teach, we spent the afternoon discussing the ways characterization intersects with plot, particularly where conflict is concerned. After all, conflict moves story, but characters must have some element within themselves that makes them willing to engage in the conflict at hand… the hero’s quest, yadda yadda. At some point, early on, I made the very basic statement: as a writer it is your job to figure out what your character wants, then don’t let them have it. Because once they do, the story is over (so all right, let them have it at the end. That’s what makes it the end.)

Recently I’ve been thinking about what that means when you have an ensemble cast instead of a single protagonist. In the Western Fictioneers series Wolf Creek (by the multitudinous, multifaceted, and multifarious Ford Fargo), for example, every volume has about two dozen potential protagonists to draw from, each one with very different goals and desires/ How do we as a writing team, and I as an editor, keep them all from getting what they want, ever? It’s a sobering thought, at least from my end.

I’ve been thinking about some of the great western ensemble casts of bygone years. Deadwood had a magnificent ensemble cast. The network frustrated the desires of all the characters, and the audience as well, by canceling the show in the middle of a storyline. That’s clearly not the way to go.

The other greatest ensemble cast, in my opinion, was Gunsmoke (with plenty of other contenders). Most of the members of that ensemble had simple desires. Festus seemed to want a carefree life, and Chester a work-free one. Those desires are easily frustrated. Doc wanted to keep people from dying –in a place like Dodge City (at least on television), the frustration of that particular desire was guaranteed.

Which left the main protagonists, Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty. Matt wanted to be a lawman, and Kitty wanted to get married. Matt could not accede to Kitty’s desire, at least in his own mind, and hold on to his –considering it unfair to get married when he could be killed any day. I think that, really, he just didn’t want to be married. So Kitty never got what she wanted, and one suspects Matt was not able to fully enjoy his own life for the guilt he must have felt… and the story continued for about twenty years, with both of them stuck somewhere between vague contentment and unacknowledged sadness. Which was god for the show, really, because the tension between them remained, over and above the tension of each episode’s outlaw gang or Indian raid. And it was all very much between-the-lines, almost subliminal.

But, as I said, in Wolf Creek we have almost two dozen main characters. It would be nice if we could pair them off, a la Matt and Miss Kitty, so that their desires cancel one another out –maybe there’s a way to do that, I’ll have to give it some further thought.

I suppose I should begin by looking closer at the two characters I “run” –Black Seminole scout Charley Blackfeather and Marshal Samuel Horace Gardner. The two are about as different as night and day.

Charley is a remarkably complex man, with remarkably simple desires. He wants his universe to have balance. It is a major tenet of his, and his people’s, spirituality. If anything disturbs that balance it needs to be rectified. If there’s one fictional place your peace of mind can be jacked up, it’s Wolf Creek –check. This puts Charley in a similar situation as Doc Adams (and Doc Logan, in our series) –the one thing that most defines him is constantly going to be challenged as long as he is in that environment. It would be like being a housekeeper in a frat house.

Sam Gardner, on the other hand, is different. The one thing that defines him, that drove him from his Illinois home and keeps him in rowdy places like Wolf Creek, is his desire –his compulsive need –for action. He bores very easily. This makes Wolf Creek the kind of place he would thrive. It also makes for some very witty dialogue –but not much tension. I find myself digging a littelr deeper for the personality quirk that would cause discontent for the marshal in our rough-and-ready environs. And I think, in our most recent efforts (including some that have yet to see print, but will), I have found it.

Sam Gardner, in addition to craving action, craves respect. Not the sort of respect the corrupt mayor or crime boss of the town have, respect for his unique abilities. And that is already causing him some discontent in Wolf Creek. If he is successful at his job, and cleans up the town, there’ll be nothing for him to do. Not that there’s much danger of that; Sam is a prodigious gunman, but cleaning up Wolf Creek is a tall order indeed –the more he tries, the worse things seem to get. And that’s all well and good so far as things remaining exciting, but it is also causing people around town –and elsewhere –to doubt Sam’s abilities. So the marshal is I a Catch-22 of his own making, that is just going to get progressively worse. How long can that continue? I’m not sure –I guess we’ll have to ride along and see.

You can see things begin to unravel for Sam in Wolf Creek 4: The Taylor County War, out now.

Writing For A Cause

Troy D. Smith is from Sparta, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, and teaches U.S. and American Indian history at Tennessee Tech. In addition to history, he writes short stories of all stripes, has written for several magazines, published poetry (but not lately), and writes western and mystery novels.

It’s a funny thing about writers. Sometimes, when we go about our life’s activities, especially if those activities involve worthwhile charities or causes, we forget about the wellspring of contributions we have access to as authors. Those contributions include both our own well-honed talents and those of the network of colleagues most of us are connected to.

In my day job, I am a history professor at Tennessee Tech University, specializing in Native American Indian history. In that capacity, last year I was asked to serve on the board of directors of a new project: the Standing Stone American Indian Cultural Center. At the time, it existed only as a concept: a center located in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee, which in the colonial and pre-contact area had been a trade and diplomacy crossroads of sorts between several different tribes, that would eventually house a museum, an educational program offering various classes to the public, and fund indigenous cultural events and –someday –perhaps fund one or more scholarships to nearby TTU for American Indian students.

We’ve come a long way in a year, but we have a lot further to go. Most of all, we need to find funding –we had hoped to procure grants and so forth, but the continuing economy doldrums have dried up many of the sources we could normally have turned to. We have been brainstorming ways to reach potential donors who might be able to help –we tossed around ideas about fundraisers and outreach activities. That’s when it hit me.

I’m a writer. I write westerns. Lots of my friends write westerns.

Westerns are often about Indians.

Why not a fund-raising short story collection?

So I put out the word –and am putting it out now.

I will be overseeing the publication of Tales from Indian Country, under the aegis of Standing Stone American Indian Cultural Center (SSAICC). Authors are being asked to donate a story (keeping their own rights to said story, other than for this publication) –either an original tale or a previously published one they have the rights to –featuring American Indian protagonists and/or Indian themes. We do ask that they be well researched for cultural accuracy. There are no minimum word counts, though there is a 10,000 max. All royalties (beyond printing fees and other costs) will go to the SSAICC. The book will be available in both paperback and digital; if there is enough interest from writers, there may be more than one volume. With the potential long shelf life of books in this new digital age of ours, there is a chance our anthology (or anthologies) will continue to benefit the center as it grows (with the understanding that, if SSAICC should dissolve, the royalties would be diverted to a similar Native American Indian educational project.)

I would never have considered the possibility of editing such a volume if I had not spent the past year editing Western Fictioneers’ Wolf Creek series (and by the way, the fourth book in that series –The Taylor County War- just came out). Several of my colleagues from that series have already offered to pitch in for Tales from Indian Country. Like me, they are delighted to have a chance to use their unique skills for a greater good.

I encourage you to also think of ways to use your fearsome and formidable powers for some noble cause. And, if you write about Indians, or have done so, please consider pitching in to our cause, as well. You can email me at tdsmith at tntech dot edu for details. You can also learn more about SSAICC –including just what the “Standing Stone” of the title refers to. You might also want to check out the SSAICC Facebook page (or make direct financial contributions to their Fundrazr page).

Artistic Responsibility and Unexamined Art


I recently read an article which took the time to compile a series of tweets between Lupe Fiasco and Talib Kweli, discussing the prevalence of violent and abusive lyrics in rap and hip-hop (instigated by a recent song by Rick Ross that contains a glorification of date rape). While their conversation applies specifically to rap/hip-hop, it’s a subject I hear discussed heatedly, in waves: artistic responsibility, or the lack thereof.

Art is never divorced of its context. The art you create is informed by your life experience, by the world you live in, the language(s) you speak, and, importantly, the art you yourself have consumed. In my opinion, this is a good thing, and the greater variety of voices and backgrounds we can bring to the table, the more varied and wonderful our art will be. But unfortunately, some people come from toxic environments of varying categories, consume toxic art of varying degrees, and they either do not have the ability or do not take the time to examine these things for their flaws. Instead of critiquing their context and art, their art will at best present them without comment, at worst celebrate them.

It’s really inevitable, there will be art that doesn’t examine context. Art that degrades instead of uplifts. Art that abuses and hurts instead of empowers and cares. Is this art a symptom of the negative things in the world we live in, or a cause? And what do we as fellow artists do when confronted by this art?

The first question, asking whether hurtful art is a symptom or a disease, well, I feel like it oversimplifies the issue, demands that art as a collected body be only one thing for all of us. Art is both a symptom of our context and a cause of it. Repeatedly, in books, television, film, we see people of color as villains, as sacrifices, as helpers, as secondary characters, never as heroes. We see the tragic gay romance, if we see one at all. We’re lucky if we see a disabled character.

People learn from stories. We have fairy tales to pass down our learned cautionary tales. It’s how we gain insight into the experiences of others. How we learn where we “fit” in the world. And if we see these persistent messages of the inferiority of specific people based on traits they were born to rather than the content of their character, and if we refuse to examine these messages, we are more likely to act them out in reality.

If we truly believe that people should be judged based not on their gender, sexual preference, skin color, or dis/ability, then it behooves us to examine our art. Writing, painting, photography, film, any medium we use to convey our thoughts to the world at large, we should understand how these things fit in a greater context, and what our use of them says about our beliefs.

So what do we do when we see this art? More importantly, what do we do when it’s pointed out that our art failed to be aware of the negative aspects of the context it emerged from?

We as a community of artists really have three choices here. One, we can ignore these transgressions, perhaps out of apathy, or indifference, or a tired hope it will go away. Two, we can shun these artists, reject them entirely. Or three, we can engage them on their craft, thoughtfully critique them, and attempt to work with them on being more aware of their art and the context it is in.

I’m sure you can guess where I stand on this one.

It’s of course optimistic to say that we can engage artists on their hurtful art. It’s a fact that many of them will not be able to see past their own context, or will simply not care to. And it’s even more optimistic to think that when we as creators are confronted about the failures of our art, that we will be able to respond graciously and thoughtfully. But optimistic as this may be, it’s something we should strive towards, in the effort of making art that challenges, art that confronts the negative, art that investigates our world and reveals it for what it is.

And what if my aim is not for great art? you ask. What if I just want to entertain? Well, in that case, how do you expect to entertain when your art is hurtful? How do you expect to bring a pleasant distraction when your art uncritically reflects these painful realities? Even in entertaining, it behooves you to be critical. It behooves you to examine your art. Like the unexamined life is not worth living, unexamined art is not worth creating.