Mary Clark’s latest book Tally: An Intuitive Life lets us watch the ever-evolving philosophy of Bohemian artist Tally, a character based on the life of printer/artist Paul “PJ” Johnston who was active in Greenwich Village and Woodstock. PJ explored his ideas about life and awareness in “The Document,” his stream-of-consciousness journal which ran to thousands of single-spaced typed pages.
In an e-mail interview, Mary discusses her book, the current state of writing and publishing, and what it’s like to be an independent author in the twenty-first century.The story of Tally beautifully evokes the atmosphere of Greenwich Village in the 1960’s; I wonder if you’d like to compare that place and time to what we see today in terms of artistic freedom and expression?
Actually, the story takes place in the late 1970s and 1980s. However, the resonance of the 1960s is definitely present, and it is tied to the cultural adventures of the 1910s and 1920s. PJ, the central character in Tally: An Intuitive Life, arrived in the Village in 1919, when it was a thriving community of artists and thinkers.
At the time there were new ideas: Freud, Darwin, Jung, and others, and new forms of fine art, music and writing. Most repressed were the sexual ideas, and those of gender and male/female relationships. D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller’s books were banned. Virginia Woolf, in writing about women’s roles, was seen as radical. Political thought was beginning to be suspect, as was the scrutiny of our economic system.
Today, our freedom is circumscribed in a more pervasive and comprehensive way. Certain ideas and beliefs are taken for granted; if you counter them, your work will be categorized as subversive. In other words, to question capitalism makes you a communist, to speak of other concepts of God makes you an atheist. The rise of ideology is hampering our intellectual debate, our critical thinking.
Then there’s the practical side of artistic and intellectual expression and freedom. In the early 20th Century, a particular set of new ideas and technology allowed more artists and thinkers to communicate. They experimented with new forms of expression, and new ways to get art and writing to the public. PJ as a teenager was able to read the latest literary publications of Greenwich Village, while nestled in a book nook in the Atlanta, Georgia library, in the late 1910s. The first paperbacks appeared in the 1920s.
The Village was connected by these publications and by travelers and expats to other arts communities, primarily in Europe. There was a lively debate about ideas and events, and about forms of writing and fine art and music. Experimenting was encouraged, balanced by a lively atmosphere of critical thinking. There was an ethical distance between this community and the world that permitted freedom of expression.
Today, there’s a great deal of artistic expression. I think what is missing is the honest evaluation of our work. This can happen in an intellectually and artistically challenging relationship where there is mutual respect. These relationships are simply easier to form in a community of artists and thinkers.
Will the Internet lead to forming new kinds of artistic communities? There’s a lot of nonsense and noise online. What we need is online platforms for artists and writers. Some kind of wiki-type program would enable artists and writers to work together on projects and to receive objective feedback on individual projects.
Another intriguing aspect of Tally’s story is how the insights and conversations include the old and the young, with ideas cutting across all ages; do you feel the mentor model holds up well today? Has it gotten lost with more and more young people moving toward electronic communication? Or is it evolving into a new form?
If you’re seeking knowledge and understanding, you’ll look for those whose ideas interest you. The challenge is to move outside your group, or “friends,” and that was true before the Internet. Personally, I don’t think of PJ as a mentor. That implies a more directed relationship. He had his ideas and I listened, thought about them, thought about my own, and talked with him about what interested me. He says that his first employer was not a mentor, but he was influenced by him. This was done by listening, reading, observing, discussing, and thinking on my own. In other words, there was an ethical distance. Power was not out of balance in the relationship. All this is possible on the Internet today. There are several blogs I follow because I find them intellectually challenging. I participate when I want. Today, you can find so much interesting material online that the opportunity to listen, read, view, and discuss is greater than ever before.
The Internet and electronic communications provide us distance as individuals while simultaneously giving us the ability to bridge the gap. This is a great opportunity for us to expand our understanding of one another. At the same time, it can be used to focus on one person or group of persons and hound them. Like all technology, it is a double-edged sword. Learning to keeping an ethical distance is going to be necessary for our electronic interactions.
The stream-of-consciousness style of modern electronic communication lends itself to sharing every mundane thought. In a way, this aspect of our consciousness has been enabled, and forms a global stream-of-consciousness network. Will it evolve into a deeper consciousness? Will we begin to pay attention to the underlying stream-of-consciousness, where we reflect and consider our intentions, actions and their consequences? On that awareness of others’ hopes and dreams, their motives, behavior, and our impact on the environment? It’s my hope that this enabled communication will lead to that.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? What first prompted you or inspired you to write, in general?
My first experience with writing was a free-writing exercise in 6th grade. This was a new concept for me. Before that, I had always been thinking inside boxes, looking for beauty, universality, form and change. I studied the early Roman Empire, especially its architecture and political structure. I loved the Greek myths. Athena was my favorite goddess. I read history and biography. In school, I was good at learning what was required and did well on tests. But I began to daydream, and became bored and restless. My fantasies were of a life spent in the wonders of nature, exploring new worlds both actual and mythical, or taking action in regard to important psychological and social issues.
When I wrote my first poem, I was alone in the woods not far from my home. The pain of not being able to communicate with anyone about joy, fear, and curiosity was mixed with excitement at trying out a new way of expressing and even, I hoped, communicating, feelings and ideas. There, in the rain, under a shelter I had built, I was overcome by the beauty of nature and I wrote with joy about it, wrote out of love, with love, in a way that more than enhanced, but freed and fulfilled me.
Can you tell us a little about your writing process? Do you follow a more structured practice or is it a more free-flowing activity?
I’ve been lucky that I haven’t experienced writer’s block. That doesn’t mean there weren’t times when I wasn’t writing, or writing very much. I think when you have trouble writing, it’s because you have a too preconceived idea of what you want to write. Being too conceptual will freeze your subject. Writing comes from an intuitive source; it flows out. But when you write you are also ordering your ideas, your life. There has to be balance between the intuitive process and the ordering process. When I wasn’t writing, I didn’t panic. I was living my life. It’s important to be a fully rounded human being. I knew that I would return to writing. So, take a step back and live a little. Another thing I did was get back to where I began: loving words and writing not knowing where it would lead. Play with words. One of my favorites was “parallegory.” “Papa Alle Gory,” “para-al-gore-y,” and doesn’t “allegory” sound like “allegheny” so “papa Allegheny,” leads to “Papua New Guinea.” In the end, it may seem I’ve written an experimental poem. But I probably haven’t. That’s an attempt to order and categorize. So, again, it’s that balance between free-flowing and structured.
So, no, I don’t have a scheduled time when I write. I don’t set a number of words to write in each session. I do have to remind myself to make time for writing and not let the endless amusements and errands of modern life divert me. I do have goals, though: to finish a chapter, to see through a part of a story, to continue exploring an idea. If I’m having trouble, I move on. I have so much to write. Later, I will come back and find the intuitive thread again and finish it.
What inspires you artistically? Do you have particular writers, artists, music, etc., that you enjoy and that give you ideas or energy for creating?
I do have writers that I return to periodically. Albert Camus and Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) are two of them. I’ll always find some statement of theirs that will echo what I’m thinking, or set me off in a new direction. If the writing, no matter how beautiful, doesn’t take me down the rabbit hole into a distinct and unfamiliar world, and doesn’t elucidate any powerful ideas, I’m not interested. Writing like this occurs in film and music as well as books.
Music is helpful in establishing rhythms and in turn trains of subliminal thought as well as unchaining feelings. My musical taste is eclectic and depends on my mood. Sometimes I write listening to music, but usually the words are the music. I think of my mind as a sandbox and a soundbox. I enjoy going to art galleries but don’t often find this a direct inspiration for writing.
What inspires me most is the combination of form and change, of logic and the unexpected, in the natural world and in people. There is the logic of love, of generosity, and the illogic of hatred and revenge. I’ve known people who were capable of love and generosity, but who were also unpredictable. They could surprise you with a talent or interest previously hidden, or with a momentary flash of temper.
What can you tell us about the process of getting your most recent work out to the public (i.e., decisions, publishing, marketing, etc.)?
I followed the age-old advice. I went to a bookstore and looked at the independent publishers’ shelves and found books that seemed similar to the kinds of things I was writing. I wrote down the names of these publishers and researched them online. All Things That Matter Press was the first to catch my eye. After researching several publishers, I submitted Tally: An Intuitive Life to ATTMP. A friend said I was following my intuition. I’ve had a very good experience with this publisher and would recommend it to writers of alternative thought and spirituality.
ATTMP works with its writers on marketing and promotion. I was already on Twitter, LinkedIn and Goodreads. Rather than do a website, I decided to do a blog. Of course, you can do both. ATTMP recommended this, and Facebook and Amazon Author Pages. These last pages are less for promotion than for giving information to those who are responding to the marketing efforts. Gatewood Journal was first to publish an overview of Tally, followed by an excerpt, before it found a publisher. It’s important that such websites exist, because it helps widen the network of thinkers.
How do you feel about the many options for writers to get their work out now compared to the old paradigm of hoping to attract a publisher? With so many ways for writers to self-publish today, do you feel this has opened up the field for undiscovered writers or has it begun to water down the product by giving anyone with a computer the power to publish?
The old paradigm rode off into the sunset forty years ago. Unless you have had the opportunity to network, and primarily if not exclusively within academia, you did not and will not now have a chance of a snowball on the Equator to be around long enough to see your dream come true.
In the 1970s, the major book publishers and established art galleries had become exclusive, too “in-crowd” or commercially-oriented. The need for a more inclusive and diverse platform for writing and art led to the small press movement. Unfortunately, there was no way to promote these books and works of art to the general public. It was too expensive, and even the major publishers only concentrated on a small number of books. There was talk of forming cooperatives for promotion and distribution, but it just wasn’t feasible.
Once the Internet became available, many writers and small publishers jumped at it. I, for one, was thrilled. My memory of the first years of the internet is that there was little critique, but people were thoughtful about what they put online. It was to be their best, their most cherished work. The online pool was much smaller than it is now, and participants were able to view and read and respond with more attention. The enabling of free expression was exciting.
However, it was a limited pool, and a lot of interesting work was not online. Every day I hoped for, and searched for new content. Oh, the glorious days of surfing the Net! Anyway, now, of course, the amount of work online is overwhelming.
Would you advise other writers to go the route of self-publication, contact established publishing houses directly, or try to secure representation through an agent? What have your own experiences been like?
It’s no longer possible to contact established publishing houses directly, with a few exceptions and these publishers are deluged with submissions. My experience in trying to find an agent is laughable. They are apparently in search of “passion” for the work they represent. Otherwise, they say they’ll not be able to overcome the immense challenges of marketing it to publishers. This is an indication of what’s wrong with these publishers, and the agents are buying into and prolonging a system that doesn’t work. It has boiled down to publishing celebrities and those in the loop.
I have been self-publishing since 1979. PJ did it too. So did Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf and Robert Frost. For PJ and I, and many others who self-published before the internet, it was a combination of the love of printing and design as much as getting out our writing. PJ also published others’ work, as did I.
Self-publishing is not to be viewed as unprofessional. It takes a lot of work to self-publish, even now with the assistance of major online companies such as Amazon, and others specializing in e-publishing like Smashwords. Writers need to price their work accordingly. If it doesn’t sell, then there’s a problem with the writing or the marketing, or both. There are non-profit publishers that will make their books available for free. That will not devalue writing, since it promotes a value that is well understood.
Is there any particular piece of special advice you’d like to give to new writers or artists?
Choose carefully your venues. Look for websites and publishers that have a clearly stated mission, or an ethos of critical thinking and fairness, encouraging quality work.
What’s next? Are you working on a new project?
I’m working on a documentary-style memoir of my early days in the Manhattan neighborhood known colloquially as Hell’s Kitchen, and officially as Clinton, on NYC’s west side. It’s titled Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen. Another piece in progress is Children of the Moon, a prose prequel to the poetry novel, Children of Light. Children of Light is online for free, published by Ten Penny Players on Scribd.com.
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