The reading/writing day of the residency. I got a fair amount of work done, although there’s always more to write. Our workshop time was spent looking closely at “Paper Lantern” by Stuart Dybek (which is finally coming out in a Dybek collection in June) and “Differently” by Alice Munro.
Our lone seminar of the day was entitled “Cobbling together a living in the arts” and was presented by musician/writers Wesley Stace (perhaps better known as John Wesley Harding) and Joe Pernice. Some of the themes which emerged out of this included the fact that the publishing world is rather gentlemanly and civilized while the music world is cynical and cutthroat. Both Stace and Pernice have moved self-releasing their music, but are currently under contract for their books (Pernice actually commented that he was hoping that Penguin would turn down his next book so he could self-publish it). One of our MFA students, Greg Wilhelm, asked about the difference in perceptions between self-released music and self-published books. While both Stace and Pernice were relatively positive about self-published books, I don’t think that they really addressed what Greg was asking. So, Greg, here’s my own take on it: The barrier to entry to writing is relatively low. Everyone (thinks they) can write. And with print on demand and e-book publishing, there is little financial barrier to putting out a bad book.
Music on the other hand has a number of barriers to entry. First, there’s the basic technical ability required to perform a song, let alone write one (my early attempts at writing music were plagued by unintentional plagiarism). Not everyone can sing and fewer can play a musical instrument. Even though every Mac comes with a copy of Garageband, there is still a fair amount more needed to actually make a reasonable recording: instruments, microphones, headphones, etc. And what’s more, while it’s possible, few people have the ability to make a recording without at least some collaboration, if only someone to hit the record button.
And then of course, there’s the whole business ulture difference that was mentioned earlier. Few successful writers feel that they would do better on their own than with their publishing company. The publisher not only provides useful services, but it treats those as its own expenses, not the expenses of the author, and the author retains the moral rights to their work. In music, on the other hand, the record company take ownership of the master recording, but makes the musician cover all the costs of creating it. Small wonder that so many recording artists who aren’t in the world of superstardom have moved to self-releasing their own work.
The evening “reading” was Stace reading from his forthcoming novel followed by Pernice and Stace performing their songs, in an alternating format, great banter, and Wesley occasionally looking like he was about to join in on Joe’s songs but never actually doing so.
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