A Letter to My Readers

Okay so here’s the thing.

I’ve been having something of a crisis of confidence. Maybe not a crisis, actually, because it’s been going on for quite a while; I’m still not out of it, in fact. But I’m realizing that it is probably more important than I’ve been giving it credit for being, and it almost certainly has to do with this blog, and what has happened to the kinds of things I post on here. I think this is the reason why I’ve reduced myself to posting only book reviews (Not that there’s anything wrong with that), and why all of my intentions to post frequently have fallen by the wayside, so that now I’m lucky if I get one post a week on here.

What happened is that I found out that I’m not actually very good at arguing. I think quickly, but I think shallowly; I tend not to do much research, I don’t argue about things that I have spent years learning; I jump in with both feet and start slinging opinions around everywhere. Then I get angry, and I start insulting my opponents – sometimes subtly, sometimes not so much – and when they insult me back, then I get huffy and leave the argument on my high horse. Though frequently, I say I’m leaving the argument but then I don’t; I just take a little longer to think up my next response, or I let other people talk for a while and then I wade back in. Basically, I’m really, really annoying, and the main reason why I always thought I was good at arguing was because I surrounded myself with people who agreed with me, and who therefore complimented me on my ability to take down my opponents. I don’t think I actually took them down very often; I just needled them into shutting up, or else I made wittier fun of them than they made of me, and so my audience applauded.

I don’t like this, but it’s true. It may be a little too harsh; I have had many arguments, and some have gone well, and sometimes I do know what I’m talking about. But ever since I found this out, I’ve noticed how often I talk without thinking, how often I ignore the need for facts to support my arguments, relying on words and, y’know, “logic.” Meaning explaining my thoughts and expecting other people to agree with my thoughts, which is mostly what we mean by logic. I have noticed how often I get angry and then say something shitty. And so I’ve started deleting those nasty comments, and more importantly, I’ve started avoiding arguments. Which I think is a good thing.
Along with that, however, I’ve stopped thinking that I should be ranting about the state of the world, and then sharing those rants with the world. I no longer see myself as a natural authority on truth, justice, and the American way, because my reason for thinking that was mostly that I could win arguments, which I thought made me right. It doesn’t. And if I’m not right, what exactly am I bringing to the table when I post about politics or the state of the world?

Not much, as it turns out. I don’t have a whole lot to offer society as a whole. So I’ve stopped wanting to offer it.

But there’s good news. I still think I write well. I think I have good stories that I’ve written, that I am writing. I think I do a decent book review, though there are certainly others who do more thorough assessments of their books, and who give more useful information; but I think mine are okay, so I’ve kept writing them. But that isn’t the exciting part. The exciting part is that I have kept writing fiction, and other than the fact that I have to spend much too much of my time working and also living my life, I have been writing fiction the whole time I have been pulling away from blogging and ranting and arguing. Which, yeah, that’s good news. Because I write well.

And then this last week sometime – the days all blend together, it seems – I had another realization. While I’m going through this fiction-writing adventure: why the hell am I not blogging about it? I mean, sure, it’s a change from what I’ve done in the past, but if that stuff was not very good, maybe this is a good change. Maybe I should stop ranting for a while, and instead keep this blog as, y’know, a blog, a weblog, an online journal detailing what I’m living through right now.

So to that end, I plan to start keeping a record, as often as I can manage, about this new thing I’m doing. I may still rant sometimes (I certainly will have some ranting to do about school and the world of education, I have no doubt) and I’ll keep up with the book reviews as much as I can; but otherwise, this will be the subject of this blog. Rather than trying to be Just Dusty, I’m going to make this – just Dusty.

Oh right. So what am I going through, you ask? Those of you who are still reading this, that is? Both of you?

I’m publishing my book.

I did this before, but I did it in such a terrible way that I don’t even count it. I wrote a book, completed it in 2006, and then when it wasn’t picked up by an agency or a publishing house after fifteen or twenty query letters (I think; I don’t even remember at this point how often I sent it out, though I do remember buying at least three Writer’s Markets to look for leads), I decided to self-publish it as an ebook. I joined Amazon.com’s Kindle publishing program, followed their instructions, and uploaded my book to the Kindle Store. I made an author profile, and – that’s about it. I didn’t really edit the book — still had more than a dozen simple typos, and I don’t know how many clunky passages, because I didn’t go through and smooth them out. It didn’t have a cover; I found a pattern image on my cheap-ass graphics program, slapped the title and my name on the front, and called it good. Here, this is it:

 

The Dreamer Wakes (The Dreamer's Tale Book 1) by [Humphrey, Theoden]

Yeesh.

My plan was actually to include a plug for my book in all of my Amazon reviews, because at the time, I had something like 100 book reviews on the site which had garnered some thousands of positive votes; seemed like a good opportunity to say, at the end of my long and detailed reviews, “Hey, maybe you should go check out my book, too.” But when I added a line at the end of my reviews, Amazon pulled them from the site. Because you can’t advertise for a book in the reviews of a different book. And of course I get that – but also, why the hell not? The whole page is designed to get customers to look at other books, other books by the author, other books that people bought after looking at this book, other books that Amazon thinks are related to the one you’re checking out. My review plug clearly wasn’t Amazon’s choice for readers, only mine, so I didn’t see why they got pissy about it. Anyway, I pulled the plugs out of the reviews, and then I did nothing at all to promote the book. It’s still there, still for sale, but in the two years – three years? – that I’ve had this particular blog, I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned it before.

Turns out I’m not only bad at arguing, I’m also bad at advertising.

But it’s okay! I’m really not trying to denigrate myself. It’s still a good book. (Though the larger problem now is that it is actually the first book in an intended trilogy or tetralogy, and I’ve never written the other books. Which is vile and wrong of me, and considering how much crap I’ve talked about George R. R. Martin for never finishing the Song of Ice and Fire series of books before he turned into a TV mogul, it’s really pretty appalling that my only work available for sale is an unfinished series.) It’s just not the story I’ve been writing.

The story I’ve been writing, which I have brought back for its second go-round as a serial blog, is The Adventures of Damnation Kane. It’s the story of an Irish pirate from the 17th century who finds himself, with his ship and his crew, in 2011. I started this story in 2013, kept it as a serial blog for about a year, and then stopped. But I love this story, and I want to finish it all the way to the end; and this time, while I’m writing it, I also want to publish it. This time, I have a real plan. This time, I’m going to do it right.

And that includes trying to talk up the book wherever and whenever I can. I want people to be as excited about the book as I am.

Which means that I should be talking about it – here. Among other places, of course, but certainly, at the least, in this space, which is supposed to be a collection of my thoughts, of the things I believe are important. If I don’t put my own book into this space, what the heck am I doing? If my own work isn’t important to me, then what is?

So here’s the deal, you two people who stuck it out through all this navel-gazing: The Adventures of Damnation Kane are currently available, from the beginning, on my other blog. But only until I get the book published, and then the chapters will come down; I will keep up a couple of the first chapters so a new reader could get an idea of what it’s all about; and I will keep posting new chapters every Saturday as I’ve been doing for ten months, now. The first volume of the Adventures will be available in trade paperback form, and also as a series of four short ebooks; my readers on this blog who review books, I will be asking you all to write me a review, if you would be so kind. And in the meantime, while I am working on getting these books out into the world, I will be writing about the process and the experience of writing and publishing books.

I hope and believe that this time, I’m on the right path. Thanks for coming along with me this far.

Yours,

Dusty Humphrey

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Targeted Marketing

Going through my local grocery store checkout line. It’s a good store: Sprouts is the name of the chain; local and organic food are the specialties (in theory — I am suspicious of their prices, which seem lower than one would expect from a sort of organic food market. But I know that the brands they carry are good brands.), the location is very convenient for us, directly between work and home; the staff are polite and friendly and efficient. Only very rare problems with things being out of stock, and their produce is generally top-notch.

And so, it seems, is their demographic-specific marketing. Because while they clearly cater to the new age/hippie/free spirit subset of their larger mainly liberal consumer base, they are in Arizona, after all, which is a damned conservative place. So as we were going through the line, on one side — the left side — was this adult coloring book:

Pagan Coloring Book

“Activates the creative process of your imagination.”

 

And on the other side — the right side — was this one:

Jesus Coloring Book

 

Now I just need to find the aisle that has the atheist/Cthulhu coloring books. “Coloring Cthulhu activates the healing powers of your madness!”

Marketing lol

“You’re not marketers,” she said. You’re right. I’m not.

So why have I been in a training about marketing all afternoon? (Especially on Monday?? After a four-day weekend???)

“It is not your responsibility to recruit.” Right again.

So why are we discussing the best ways to recruit new students?

“What sells this school, what brings new students here, is two things: the rigorous academics, and the familial atmosphere.” Makes sense to me; that’s what brought me back to this school for my second year.

So why, rather than spending these same 90 minutes working on my rigorous academic curriculum, am I being told how to bring strangers into the school family? Why am I being treated in this rather condescending way, which somehow assumes that I don’t represent the school well? Why do you feel you have to tell me that I should speak well of the place where I work, and that I should do my job well in order to turn people into positive voices for the school rather than negative ones? Do you think I don’t know that? More importantly: do you think I do my job well so that the school can have good PR?

Hi! In case we haven’t met, let me introduce myself. I’m Dusty. I’m a high school English teacher. I work at a public charter school. If you’re not familiar with charter schools, they are just like other schools, except rather than an elected school board making decisions, there is a private entity – in this case, it is a board of directors for the corporation that runs about ten different schools in this state – and the students are drawn from all over, rather than a specific geographic area. We are non-profit, tuition-free, state-funded, and we teach the same basic curriculum, with the same accountability, as do other schools. I teach five English classes, two of them Advanced Placement, and I run a creative writing club. My students like and respect me, and so do their parents, as far as I can tell. I work very hard at what I consider the most important aspects of my job: I create a comfortable atmosphere, where students feel like they can say whatever they need to say; I drive my students to think critically and dig deeper, both into the content I teach and into their own thinking and assumptions; and I try to make language arts a vital and useful part of my students’ lives, by showing the beauty and power of great writing, and the importance of reading and thinking. And I am good at what I do.

Now let me tell you what I’m not.

I am not a salesman. Despite what the marketing consultant hired by my school said to us in that afternoon workshop, that’s what the school wants us to be. She even said why: because the charter school market in this state is flooded, is one of the most competitive in the country, because Arizona turned to “school choice” as a priority earlier than most other states that have since followed suit; the school where I work has a 15-year history, which is lengthy for a charter school. But you see, despite the belief that competition brings out the best in everyone and everything, that the free market inevitably produces the best possible results, competition between charter schools to recruit students has quite the opposite effect: rather than encourage schools to be the best schools and get more students that way, it asks teachers to become marketers – because advertising is cheaper, easier, and let’s be honest, more effective than simple excellence. Just ask Donald Trump. As part of my regular job – which is apparently at least part marketing executive – I am required to staff open houses, where I give tours to prospective student families; I am frequently asked to volunteer at community events, to hand out fliers, to put those doorknob-hangers on the houses in my neighborhood. I am asked to encourage parents to post positive reviews of the school on Yelp and GooglePlus and the like.

But I am not a salesman. I do not consider my students to be either clients or customers: that’s why I call them students. Their parents are also not clients or customers: they are the parents of my students.

I am not a parent. I do not consider my students my family, nor my fellow teachers and staff members. I like them, both students and staff, and I do what I can to help and support them as I would any group of students or staff. But I do not staff sleepovers (Seriously: my school has sleepovers. Where students stay the night at the school, with teachers supervising them. I suppose I should mention that the school is K-12, and the sleepovers tend towards the younger end of the range than the elder.), and I don’t do home visits and have dinner with students’ families, and I would not describe the school to others as having a familial atmosphere. Even though the marketing consultant wishes me to say that, and what’s more, wishes me to draw other people – she calls them “prospective clients” – into that familial atmosphere, to show them how wonderful the school is so that they will want to be a part of it, will want to join my family.

But I can’t help but wonder: at what point does it cease to be a familial atmosphere? Do people recruit strangers for their families? I suppose if I were a medieval baronet looking to arrange marriages for my offspring, then sure; but I’m not. I think the answer probably is: it ceases to be a familial atmosphere when my bosses ask me to go out and bring strangers into our family so that my family can secure more funding. I think that’s the point that I no longer feel valued for my own contributions to the family.

Now all I can think of is The Godfather. Forgive me, my Don, for speaking against the family.

I am not competitive. I do not care if the school is the besterest in the whole wide world. I do not care if the school’s reputation is shinier than anyone else’s. I don’t care at all how the school is perceived, other than I want that perception to be accurate. I do want the school to be an effective place of learning, and a safe place for our students and staff; and if other people want to know about that, then well and good. But school pride makes no sense to me, any more than does patriotism: my country didn’t make me, didn’t raise me, didn’t teach me; people did that. Those people shared a national identity with me, but they also shared a generally symmetrical and bipedal form, two ears, two eyes, and a chin, and I don’t feel any special loyalty to that, either. (Yay for chins! Chinned people unite! See how ridiculous that sounds? Now replace “chin” with “America.”) So talking up the school? Trying to enter competitions so that the school can add awards? Creating special events so that we can brag about the awesome stuff we’re doing there? Nah, and double nah. If I do awesome stuff, if I encourage my students to enter competitions or help them win the ones they enter, it is for the sake of the awesome stuff, or for the sake of the students; I couldn’t care less about whether the school’s reputation benefits.

My essential point is that I am not a capitalist. I do not believe the profit motive is actually a good way to bring out the best in people; I do not think the free market produces the best possible goods and services. I teach as well as I can, and work as hard as I can, because I believe in what I do. I believe that art is the soul of humanity, and language is our church. I believe that young people should have help to become better adults (Though I also believe that help should be offered but not imposed, and the young people have to want it and take it from me.). I believe that I can help them, and that I do a good thing when I do it. That’s why I work hard. I require a wage for my work, because I require subsistence, and my work deserves reward; but I do not work harder and improve my craft in the hope of more money; I do it in the hope of better results. I teach as well as I can because I teach: and that is important to me.

I am not a data collector. More, I am not a data masseuse. I will not put my time and effort into squeezing a few more points out of my students. The school would like me to, as they would like me to actively market the school (And please note, in terms of capitalism: they are not paying me more for my marketing, not even if I bring in new students. And that’s why the free market doesn’t produce the best possible product: because sometimes you can get results without improving your product, especially if you can get your employees to work harder for nothing.). The number-one way that the school earns its reputation, and therefore increases its recruitment numbers, is academics. And rightfully so: I’d rather be at a school known for its education than one known for its football program; there’s a reason I don’t live in Texas. But there is a right way and a wrong way to show academic success: the right way is to hire good teachers and provide them the time and support they need to teach well; to provide many opportunities for your students to succeed in various academic endeavors; and to help your students achieve academic success in their chosen endeavor. If you then want to brag about that stuff, go nuts: I’ll even join in. And in those things, my school has done a good job: the graduating class earned an average of $25,000 in scholarships last year, we had two National Merit semi-finalists this year; we have an award-winning robotics program along with award-winning essayists, artists, and a poetry recital contestant going to the state finals.

The wrong way to go about it is to have high test scores and high grades. Because the more you focus on those aspects as the means to a better reputation, the more you force teachers and students to focus on superficial data, rather than actual education. The reputation based on test scores becomes advertising, intended largely to increase our funding; and like any other advertising, it takes on the shade of propaganda: in other words, it becomes a lie. We have all of those award winning students because they were not forced to focus solely on raising their test scores. I will not participate in that superficial, specious, insidious nonsense called “teaching to the test.” I will not recommend certain of my students for the AP exams and discourage others; when asked which of my students are ready to try the AP exam, my answer is, “All of them. And all of the other students, too. And how about some people walking down the street? And their dog? And that lizard basking in the sun over there?” Because why not? Other than the hefty test fee, why shouldn’t everyone give it a shot, if they want to? What does it matter if they fail? It’s only a test, after all.

I like the school where I work. I am proud to be associated with the staff there, and happy to work with the students there. It’s the best school I’ve worked at in sixteen years as a teacher, in three states. But I wish they had a better idea of who I am, and what I do. I wish they understood me.

Isn’t that what family is for?