A dramatic reading of my one-star reviews.

A dramatic reading of selected one-star reviews of The Actual Star.

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The Valentine candy incident.

Every Valentine’s Day, I think about this story about my Dad.

As a kid, I had a sweet tooth. (As an adult, I have a sweet tooth too, but let’s leave that for now.) And when I was eight or nine, I was just starting to figure out where my parents kept the candy before holidays. 

Valentine’s Day was coming up and I just REALLY wanted some candy. I knew Dad was hiding the stash he was going to give us in the old cabinet at the end of the hallway. I thought I could just open it up, take something small, and no one would notice. So, my ambition outpacing my moral faculty, I messed with the cabinet until it opened. There was the candy—foil-wrapped chocolate hearts and all! But there was nothing small I could easily take, and now I felt kinda guilty about the whole business, so I closed the cabinet door. 

Except…it wouldn’t close. 

There was something wrong with the lock. I couldn’t get it the key to stick! Something was gumming it all up! I struggled with it a bit more, and then got bored and thought “well, this is good enough, no one will notice anyway,” and went off to do something else. 

An hour later, Dad found me and told me to come follow him. 

He seemed pretty angry. We stood in front of the cabinet. He explained to me that it was an antique, and I’d broken it, and now I was going to stand there while he tried to fix it. 

I did. It was awful. 

The longer I stood there, the worse I felt, watching him get out his whole toolbox and struggle to fix the lock, nothing working, angry and silent the whole time.

And he could see it on my face. After ten minutes, he relented and said I could go. I did. I went straight to my room and, instead of sitting on my bed, crawled *under* my bed because I didn’t feel worthy to sit *on* my bed. I just felt terrible. I lay there and kept feeling terrible. 

Eventually I felt like I had to do something. So I crawled out from under my bed, got a pen and paper, crawled back under my bed, and wrote a note to Dad: that I was SO sorry, that I felt SO bad, and that I was under my bed “breathing dust” because I felt so bad. 

Then I folded up the note and put it in an envelope. And who should happen to walk by my door just then, than Abby, the sweet family dog.  (This is Abby. I still dream about her. She was such a very good girl.)

I pulled her into my room and asked her to wait. I got out a hole puncher and some yarn, and then hung the note around her neck, and told her to “go find Dad.” She ambled out of the room. 

I waited. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen. Twenty.   

I began to lose faith in Abby. 

Then, just as I was about to give up hope…she ambled right back into my room. And this time, she had a new note tied around her neck. 

I opened it up. This is what it said: 

Here’s the text:

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Dear Monica,

Of course I know you felt pretty bad about it, and I presumed you were sorry. And I was glad to get your note, via Abby (who seemed sorry, too), and now I know you are sorry and accept your apology. We are still friends, and I never stop loving you even when you are naughty and I am angry.

You must admit, it is good for the soul to say it face to face. It is also very difficult because SO much emotion is near the surface. Work on that next time you offend someone or me; take the initiative, go to them and tell them you’re sorry. It’s not a sign of weakness, but of strength, and if the person doesn’t accept your apology, that’s their problem then, not yours. But you’d be surprised how good it feels after you say it. And how good the hug feels after, too. Why don’t you give me one, after you read this?

I’m sorry there was dust under your bed. Is it time to clean your room?

Love,
Dad

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I crawled out from under the bed and went straight to my Dad’s study and gave him a hug. And I cried, and we talked a little, and we were okay again. 

When Valentine’s Day arrived, we enjoyed all of the candy, at the right time…plus Dad had gotten me something extra: 

I’m going to resist tying this up by making huge extrapolations about who he was, who I am, or how we influenced each other. But, just: this is what I mean when I say my Dad was also my best friend. And why I miss him. Happy Valentine’s Day, Dad. I love you.   

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The Durham Arts Funding Reform Proposal: what happened two years ago?

Durham artist Alyssa Noble, speaking to Council on October 24, 2019, as part of the artist-organized speaker series.

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First things first: here is the proposal itself, now posted for public access.

Second: I’ve been meaning to write this summary for a long time, and I apologize to the Durham community for not doing so sooner. I’m writing it now because members of DCAB (the Durham Cultural Advisory Board) are meeting with Durham County and City officials next week to advocate for a new Cultural Master Plan, partly using the proposal in their presentation, so I thought it would be a good time to finally sit down and get this out.

Here’s what happened:

In early 2018, I and two fellow artists (Monét Noelle Marshall and Ashley Melzer) became dismayed at how quickly we were losing treasured independent arts institutions around Durham, due to rising rent; how the city was benefiting so much from its “arts scene” but doing very little to protect or nurture it, especially in comparison to its peer cities; and how long this had been a problem, with artists raising alarms and no meaningful response from the city. We spoke at a City Council work session that spring, but again, nothing happened. So in the summer of 2019, after we lost The Carrack, I started organizing local artists to speak at every City Council work session for the next four months.

This series is archived in its entirety here, with many artists volunteering to speak, and many artists showing up to support them (dressed in purple!). I remain forever grateful to everyone who came. Thank you.

That October, midway through the speaker series, three of the artists who’d spoken–myself, Akiva Fox, and Marshall Botvinick–sat down to draft a proposal that would distill the artists’ expressed concerns into a workable proposal. We aimed to submit it to City Council for consideration for its 2021-22 budget. (How this working group crystallized is detailed in the Appendix C of the proposal–again, link here.)

To summarize very briefly, the proposal asked the city to allot $1.325 million dollars–an amount comparable to investments made by our peer cities, to their artists–to a new direct granting program for both artist organizations and individual artists. The three keystones of the proposal were: (1) racial equity, wherein at least half of all monies would dedicated to artists of color and artist organizations of color; (2) a living wage for all labor done (e.g., no one would be asked to “volunteer” for evaluation panels); and (3) a hybrid lottery system, to eliminate evaluator bias. We met with and obtained statements of support from our proposed administrative partners, Hayti Heritage Center and the Durham Arts Council; and also gained full support from the Durham Cultural Advisory Board, which advises City Council on the arts.

After rounds of staff and community feedback, we submitted the final version of the proposal to City Council in February 2020. We believed we had enough support across City Council for at least partial funding of the proposal, even after the departure of Council Member Alston, who had been a valued collaborator from the beginning.

Then two major crises came to the fore: McDougald Terrace and Covid.

You can listen to the full City Council discussion of the proposal here, starting at 1:55:13. What we hoped for was true–that several members of Council, possibly even a majority, supported at least partial funding of the proposal. However, Council Members Freeman and Middleton argued that the McDougald Terrace emergency was more important, that this arts movement was much more “recent,” and that it would look bad to fund any part of the arts proposal in light of that crisis.

Speaking for myself, though I respect their decisions, I was frustrated with Council Member Middleton’s assertion that discontent in the Durham arts community was a recent phenomenon, rather than the capstone of a decade of sounding alarms that had gone unheard by Council. I’ll also note that Council Member Middleton was the only Member who did not reply to repeated requests for meetings (emails from me alone dated 20 March 2018, 21 October 2019, and 3 February 2020). All other Council Members had met with us and given us valuable feedback, for which we are very grateful.

In any case: the McDougald and Covid crises wiped out the city budget for that fiscal year. And everyone went into lockdown. And Akiva, Marshall, and I were completely burned out. And that was that.

However, I’ve been really encouraged to hear from colleagues on DCAB that they’ve used our proposal as a basis to move forward on related projects. If anyone wants to use the proposal as a template for advocacy–in Durham, or anywhere–please do. We believe it outlines a vision for a progressive relationship between artists and their city. One last time, here it is. Thanks, Durham.


Nominate The Actual Star for the Hugo and Nebula Awards!

Hello friends. Nominations are now open for the Hugo and Nebula Awards, the two biggest honors in science fiction. If you’re eligible to nominate for either award–which means being or becoming a member of WorldCon (in the case of the Hugos) or a member of SFWA (in the case of the Nebulas)–

I’d be honored if you considered nominating The Actual Star for Best Novel.

If you can’t nominate for either, no worries! Just spreading the word–especially to your science-fiction-reading friends–helps enormously. Feel free to pass on my homemade “highlight reel”tweeted hereInstagrammed here, and embedded here:

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THE ACTUAL STAR: A conversation with Hal Stern.

Author photo credit: Marion Ettlinger.

I had the distinct pleasure of conversing with Hal Stern about The Actual Star. By day, Hal is a technology executive with a pharmaceutical company, and by non-day an avid consumer of sci-fi, music and good sandwiches. He writes on Medium and Substack. And, well, he asks damn good questions. See his intro and the conversation below.

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TL;DR version: I got to interview Monica Byrne about her new book, The Actual Star, which is one of the most thought-provoking and hope-filled books I’ve read in a few years. If Annalee Newitz’s Scatter, Adapt and Remember is the scientific template for our long-term survival, then The Actual Star is its future hagiography.

Full backstory: I’ve been asked a few times “How do you get to interview writers?” It’s basic business networking–I ask a question about their themes or ideas (usually via Twitter or Instagram), the conversation turns to an application or interpretation of their work, and it expands from there. The same pattern played out after I read Monica Byrne’s The Girl In The Road last spring–I read it as a hajj or pilgrimage story, and asked her about some references, ended up joining her Patreon (please support writers), and then received an early copy of The Actual Star. Our email threads after I raced to finish the book covered religion as a startup, symbolism that puts F. Scott Fitzgerald to shame, acrostic clues in the text, threads I missed and those I interpreted through the weave of the three parallel storylines. In addition to being an exciting and daring book, it’s crafted with care so you can easily, stealthily, breathlessly follow what took nine years–and the merging of three book ideas–to complete.

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Stern: First up, thank you for sitting down at parallel keyboards to talk about The Actual Star. I absolutely loved the book as it integrated so many approaches I treasure: parallel storytelling, our feelings of place and space, how and why we create myths and their pageantry, and a post-climate apocalypse future where the kids are remarkably alright.

Can we start with the basic structure of the book? It’s told as three parallel stories set 1,000 years apart. The past is set in the late stages of the Maya people in Belize in 1012; the current timeline follows a young woman from Minnesota as she searches for her roots in 2012; and the future is in a nomadic, highly fluid society where only eight million people have survived economic and climate disaster.

Byrne: If you can believe it, I originally imagined it as a trilogy of three separate books. That’s how we first tried to sell it in 2016. We submitted the first book (the 1012 era, called The Nameless Days) and an outline of the other two. Editors were intrigued, but just couldn’t visualize the whole picture. One editor, in his kind rejection, suggested combining all three books into one. So after a period of mourning, I went to a coffee shop, made color-coded index cards for every scene, and spent a whole day just arranging them on a big wooden table. I eventually settled on a structure of 1012-2012-3012-repeat, because with so much to keep track of, a chronological order imposed some sense of familiarity.

Stern: Once I found the first link between the three timelines, I was reminded of the “ah ha” moment I had during the This Is Us pilot episode. Your parallel storylines are elegantly crafted with Easter eggs dropped forward through time and sometimes space. I’m going to have to read this at least one more time to find and cherish them and their reflections.

Byrne: That makes me so happy! This is a weird book, because once you read how each timeline ends, it changes the way you read the other two. So ideally, it’s meant to be read twice–once to see what happens, and then again, to see all of the foreshadowing seeded throughout. That happened with me, too!–every time I revised, I found new threads to connect.

Stern: I first described The Actual Star as the evolution of pageantry over 2,000 years, rooted in religion and our social views of religion. An old boss used to joke that religions are the worst startup because they take 1,000 years to get their models right–but you jumped right into that evolution of belief systems. So much of the book resonated with me around aspects of storytelling, myth creation, and our interpretation and personalization of those over long periods of time.

Byrne: I definitely thought a lot about how religions evolve. I saw a beautiful statue of John the Baptist recently, and thought about how he was just this filthy skinny guy in the desert two thousand years ago, wearing goat skins and yelling at people; and now there are statues of him all over the world, carved in marble and gold. How did that happen! It’s mind-boggling. Why him, and not some other skinny guy in the desert? (That’s why I put in Niloux’s line, “History is so arbitrary. Let that be recorded.”)

In terms of evolution, of course the religion I know best is Catholicism, which has done a terrific job of upending everything Jesus ever stood for. But no religion or ideology is exempt from this: the founding feeling, that sets a generation afire, becomes rigid dogma; and worse, it becomes the excuse for abuses of power. You definitely see that happen in the 3012 timeline, when both sides are so convinced of their rightness.

Stern: When working on “The Clock of the Long Now,” (a clock that will run for 10,000 years), Danny Hillis told me that anything we intend to survive for a long time becomes a religion. As you explore the rise and fall of religious practice, with the central era–the Age of Emergency–dominated by capitalism, I have to ask: Is capitalism our current religion? Is hoarding an extreme (fanatical) form of capitalism?

Byrne: Those in Laviaja would consider us all hoarders. Me included. I have a whole apartment full of Stuff–even that is grotesque to viajeras. But of course, they’d think far worse of those who accumulated far more. They consider billionaires psychopaths, and honestly, so do I.

There are many aspects of capitalism that have the feeling of incontrovertible gospel; for example, the idea that growth is only ever good. I was shocked when I found out they don’t even teach degrowth in business schools; then again, I shouldn’t be. How would business schools continue to exist without the endowments of the high holy elders of capitalism, who won the game, by exploiting laborers for decades? These are not bastions of truth or ethics. There are rules about what you can and can’t say, what you can and can’t challenge. That definitely has commonalities with fundamentalist religion.

Stern: Threads of loss–of family, of belief systems, of totems–are so carefully woven through the story. Your discussion of the Maya diaspora–not disappearance–is equally lovely, as seen through modern-day Leah’s eyes. The story of the Maya people is told indirectly through Leah and then amplified in the future timeline. There is longevity in those stories even if there is no direct lineage; it made me think of your essay, “The End Of My Line.” 

Byrne: Absolutely. There are so many ways to be a mother. I think I learned that early, when I lost my own mother, and so many other kinds of mothering filled in the vacuum–self-mothering, sister-mothering, aunt-mothering, mentor-mothering, father-mothering, future-generation-mothering. All of those roles feel far more important to me than actually birthing a child from my own body, and I’m grateful for that clarity, especially as we enter such a time of global uncertainty.

Stern: There is this continuous balancing act between what is real and what is not that amplifies the religious themes. It was most obvious to me in the future era scenes where psilocybin is taken in efforts to discover the “god of a place.” There are shades of everything from ritual wine to Carlos Castenada in there, and it’s a fantastic way to push on the question of “what is actual?”

Byrne: Totally.One of the hallmarks of the psychedelic experience is the “noetic quality.” That is, you have no doubt that the truths you’re experiencing are real, actual, timeless. That’s how I tried to describe the gods in the ancient Maya timeline: when you see the gods, you know they’re gods, because you have no doubt that they’re gods. You just know. And that certainty stays, even when you come out from under the influence.

Stern: I want to explore this idea of a “god of a place” a bit more. You and I have strong connections to certain geophysical locations–for me it’s Prague and Kiev. The first time I walked through Prague, horribly jet lagged, at 5am, I felt that I was retracing the footsteps of my family going back three generations. I didn’t even have to get into the Slivovitz to feel that I had some personal history there; on the other extreme I was a slobbering mess after visiting the Babi Yar memorial in Kiev. I felt like I was walking on the remains of relatives of that same Prague-grounded generation.

Byrne: Yes, yes, yes. That’s real. I’ve felt it many times too, and that’s the feeling I was trying to codify into, well, a whole book. Why do we feel so drawn to some places and not others? Even if we don’t have ancestry there? Belize draws me back over and over–and I feel similar callings back to Kerala and Iran–but other places, like Costa Rica or San Francisco, feel barren. For a materialist or atheist, maybe that feeling can be explained as the resurfacing of some subconscious memory. But for me as a theist, it feels like evidence of reincarnation, possession, and/or ancestral memory. It’s no coincidence that I first went to Belize because my mother had taught there in 1963. She loved it and always wanted to go back, but never was able to before she died. Even then, I felt like I was going “for” her–I just had no idea how strongly I would feel once I got there.

Stern: Against this backdrop of religious evolution, you’ve created this incredible future world with a gender and work identity system that eludes our preconceived or biased notions by simply starting from the ground up. 

Byrne: The gender system was a long time evolving. Originally, I used the word “gender” to encompass the entirety of a person’s identity. But then I hired an amazing consultant who’s the head of the Transgender Health Program at UNC, who patiently educated me on the fact that gender, orientation, and penetrative preference are all distinct from each other. For example, she said, a kid generally knows what they are (girl/boy/nonbinary/agender) by a very young age; and later in puberty, usually a general preference develops toward one mode of sexual action (penetrative/receptive/both/neither). So that’s how the genéra/manéra/preféra system came about. It’s based on the most current science!

Stern: Add in to that mix the idea that a profession is selected, trained through osmosis and then practiced with guidance from the all-seeing, resource-balancing ai. In “The End of My Line,” you describe writing out a future family map of names of professions, and your sister questioning this planned family, “How will you control what they’ll be?” I think you answered the question with your gender and vocation fluidity; it’s not just what, but who they will be. 

Byrne: Right. The idea is that everyone performs certain essential tasks as needed by the local collective–maintenance, cleaning, repair, companionship–that ensure everyone’s basic needs are met. But the rest of the time is free to pursue your vocation. That could be anything–observing wildlife, making art, taking care of children, studying supernovae, and so on. That’s an extreme version of what people hope would happen with UBI–that anyone would be free to pursue what they love, and the world would be a better place for it. (I should also say that I got this model from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which illustrates these principles in action more beautifully than anywhere else I’ve seen.)

Stern: There’s a lot of sci-fi that speculates about children being raised in communal creches, freeing the adults for more critical roles piloting ships or blowing things up. Your world separates children and their birth parents to eliminate temptations of selfishness (which would lead to hoarding again) and to emphasize the global village raising the child. I’m reminded of the synthetic families created in the Rwandan Agohozo-Shalom Youth Village for children orphaned by the genocide in that country. In both cases the synthetic family model–your zadres–provides structure to move past exceptionally difficult times of loss like your Age of Emergency.

Byrne: I didn’t know about the Rwandan models! That is fascinating. I also got the idea of shared, detached parenting from The Dispossessed. It seemed important to me to specify “Esta ninx es tu ninx” and not “Cada ninx es tu ninx”–we can’t care for every child, world over; we can only care for the child in front of us. But if everyone does that, (and is ensured by algorithm wherever there are gaps), then theoretically, every child would be taken care of. It’s a utopian vision, but….that’s the point, as Niloux says during the dinner in Persia. “This is as close as we’re ever going to get. And we’re still unhappy!”

Stern: You seem to have spent considerable energy on naming people, creating linkages across the timelines and suggesting all sorts of interpretation. There are acrostic identity clues, much like the strange initial-named siblings in Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town.

Byrne: Well hell, I need to read that. And yes, I took the naming convention straight from Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, with a slight change–instead of the reincarnated characters’ names beginning with an I, B, K, or S, my reincarnated characters’ names each contain an X, a J, and an E.

(Tanaaj’s name was actually “Saraaj” for the majority of writing, and if I’m honest, that’s the name I still think of her by. I changed it because I was so frustrated with how I was writing her–passive, reactive–that I thought if I gave her a “stronger” sounding name, it’d be easier to write her as a more active character. It did help a little, but now I want to go back and change it back to Saraaj. Oh well, too late!)

Stern: Your post-capitalism world is managed by a true invisible hand–the aug and the ai that powers it. There are so many subtleties and the number of things left ambiguous was wonderful–you let your readers think about what makes sense for them, and in doing so we end up at different views of the future era. I found myself questioning the actual creators of the ai (who runs it? where is it? how is it powered? how much bias was infused into it, or how is the bias removed as the Age of Emergency came to an end? Or is it post Emergent?). What kind of germline editing was necessary for pelt creation? Why do pelts only manipulate secondary sexual characteristics? I thought this was an elegant way of marrying the gender and sexual preference into the story without needing four sexes or explaining how reproduction would work.

Byrne: I’m somewhat chagrined to admit that I got the idea for decentralized computing from HBO’s Silicon Valley. The only computing I ever learned officially was binary in seventh grade, so I’m probably going to use very clunky and inexact language here, but my idea about who “runs” the ai is that it’s a distributed decentralized network. So everyone carries a little bit of it in their implants; or even further, there are processing nodes planted everywhere in the landscape, like seeds. It’s just such an integrated software-hardware world that we have a hard time imagining it.

As for the ai aspect–yeah, I left that ambiguous partly because it’d be such a vast subject, and I wanted to create only as much of the history as I needed to to write the story. (One of scifi novelists’ favorite ways to procrastinate is endless, compulsive worldbuilding. In some cases I had to catch myself and just say, you know what? I’m not trying to invent these damn technologies. I’m just showing how they work in my characters’ daily lives.) And as for bias–the character Keira in Kaua’i mentions that she mostly gets assigned algorithm maintenance, meaning, bias weeding. As if bias were a weed that sprouts up and needs constant identification and pulling out, both on a local and global level.

Stern: In our early discussion of The Actual Star you mentioned the privacy aspects of the ai, the panopticon that records reality for global review, including criminal action. The first places my brain went were the Amish concept of shunning, the social capital whuffie accrued in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom, and aspects of shame. And likely Cory Doctorow’s views of privacy and pervasive monitoring and mine diverge here: I didn’t see the ai as endangering privacy because you challenge the notions of privacy with your future state: money, healthcare, sex, even religious views are lived out loud, publicly and communally. There’s a neat balance of healthy agency versus directed action from the ai. It’s a stark contrast to Shoshanna Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, because in a post-capitalist (and significantly smaller) society, the value of surveillance isn’t about directing action. If the aug provides relative assurance that the equitable distribution of attention and resources works to my advantage, then it’s significantly preferable to the panopticon that makes me an advertising target in our current system. It also bumps into this tenor of shame and vulnerability around religious practice; it’s been wrapped in the concept of confession whether it’s with a priest or the public Jewish confessional on Yom Kippur. It starts with teenaged Leah and carries forward into your “scrupes” who once again manage to pull shame from the vulnerability introduced by the aug.

Byrne: Right. A political scientist friend once explained to me that the original concept of the panopticon wasn’t just the guards monitoring the prisoners, but also society monitoring the guards. So it was less a one-way totalitarianism than a system of communal accountability. Can it still be abused? Absolutely, especially when there’s money to be made. But what if there isn’t? What value does privacy continue to have if there is no (or very little) discrimination and everyone’s needs are met? I don’t pretend to answer this question definitively, but I definitely pose it in the book. (I know that Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg and the other tech titans would say, they agree on privacy being overrated–but that’s because they enrich themselves and their stockholders from its exploitation. Different thing.)

Stern: The final comment I’ll offer is a bit of a reading guide.  Once I got about six chapters in I found it very helpful to consume the vocabulary guide in the end matter. Sounding out the Kriol slowly helped read it more quickly, which is important as the current timeline story evolves, and don’t be afraid to translate some of the high Spanish so you don’t miss the subtleties of naming. I loved the fact that I had to work at understanding the book, and even a few weeks after my first read, I’m continuing to turn it over and find new facets. It’s definitely going on the holiday gift list, and thanks again for making us think.

Byrne: Fantastic. And yes! If you can’t figure something out from context clues, the glossary and Google Translate are your friends!

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Want me to visit your book club? Just ask!

The Actual Star comes out on September 14th, and trust me, it’s the kind of book you’re going to want to talk to other people about. If you’re part of a book club and you choose to read it, let me know, and I’ll be happy to come visit on Zoom! Just drop me an email at monica at monicabyrne dot org.

Remember to pre-order from your local indies, whenever possible!–but if you can’t, you can pre-order here. And again, if you want to pre-order SIGNED copies, order from one of my local indies:

Golden Fig Books

Regulator Bookshop

Letters Bookshop

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My ad-free work is supported entirely by sustainers like you on Patreon. Please go here to sign up, or here to make a one-time donation. Thank you.


Back to the future.

So remember, waaaaaay back in 2015, when I announced that the title of my next novel would be The Actual Star…?

It’s here. Publication date is less than a month away, and the blurbs and early reviews have been glowing. Much more to come, but for now, here is the gorgeous cover. And here’s where to pre-order.

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My ad-free work is supported entirely by sustainers like you on Patreon. Please go here to sign up, or here to make a one-time donation. Thank you.


Hello loves. It’s been awhile.

…since Covid started, as it turns out.

But the good news is: I’m back. With lots of juicy things to share.

Stay tuned. I missed you.

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My ad-free work is supported entirely by sustainers like you on Patreon. Please go here to sign up, or go here to make a one-time donation. Thank you.


The five (actual) factors of success for an artist.

Every now and then on Twitter, a thread goes viral about how the Real Path to Success in a Creative Field just comes down to a combination of persistence, resourcefulness, and “being true to oneself.” The authors tout them as some kind of secret knowledge when really, it’s just garden-variety meritocracy porn, almost always written by white men who imagine that their audience is also white men who inhabit a reality similar to their own. If the authors consider the realities of the rest of the population at all, it’s as an afterthought: “Oh right, and—I’ve heard none of this applies if you don’t look like me? Idk.”

To its credit, science fiction—the field I know best—has become much more self-aware in recent years. But I’ve recently started to follow screenwriters and showrunners, and I’m really surprised at how popular (and uncontested!) these threads still are.

So I want to write my own list, based on my own experience and that of artists I know. I’m a USian able-bodied white cis woman from a middle-class background, with a lot of educational privilege, so of course my perspective is informed by that, and necessarily incomplete. But I’m hoping it’s a closer snapshot to the lived reality of the larger artist population in the U.S.

Here are my Five (Actual) Factors of Success for Artists, ranked by importance. Some qualifiers: All the factors intersect with each other—it’s like a five-way Venn diagram, rather than five discrete factors. I wrote it specifically for the U.S. context, which I know best. None of the factors are meant to be determinative or absolute; there have always been exceptions and compensations. But overall, I hope it’s a more accurate picture of how creative success is achieved than the one presented in so many of those viral threads, where success is achieved by effort alone. In mine, an artist has control over only one and a half of these factors—#3 (Hard Work) and #2 (Connections). This isn’t meant to be discouraging; on the contrary, the only way we can change is to first tell the truth.

And—to be clear—none of this is new. A lot of folks have been telling this truth for a long time already.


  1. Privilege. Your privilege is a huge factor in your ability to achieve creative success. This is by far the most important factor, because it intersects with and constrains all the others. U.S. society is built for the advantage of white men (given changing definitions of “white” over the centuries), and has been since the Spanish invaded in the 1500s. If you’re disabled, trans, poor, queer, indigenous, chronically sick, neurodivergent, an immigrant, a person of color, a woman, or a combination of these, then our society is deliberately designed to make it more difficult for you to prosper, including in creative fields. The cumulative, intergenerational impact of this design is impossible to overstate.*

  2. Community and connections. An artist has two communities. The first is the one you’re born into, which you have no control over and largely overlaps with privilege. The second community is the one you seek out as you grow up, to whatever extent you’re able. Both of these communities determine your connections—that is, supporters and gatekeepers. Supporters are the people who love you, who encourage your work, who read it or listen to it or come to see it, who talk about it with you, who wish you well, who want to see you prosper. Supporters are essential, but they might not have access to capital. Gatekeepers do. Gatekeepers are the people who say yes, who buy your story, who read your screenplay, who loan you money, who give you a chance, who do you a favor, who pull some strings, who write a recommendation, who donate a space, who put in a good word, who pay the tab, who introduce you to other gatekeepers. Work and talent can only get you so far. A career is built on connections.

  3. Hard work. On this factor, I agree with the viral threads. Hard work is incredibly important. So much of the job is just showing up, day after day, and doing the work even when you don’t feel like it. I’ve seen so many talented artists give up after a few years, or a lack of attention, or a series of creative rejections; when setbacks, fallow spells, and rebuilding years are just part of the job. But again: the ability to put in the work—usually without pay, for extended periods of time—is largely determined by privilege.

  4. Talent. This one is controversial. I do believe in raw talent. That is, an artist either has the spark or they don’t, and it can’t be taught, only encouraged. But again, it’s nearly beside the point, because the question of who has talent is impossible to separate from the question of who has the opportunity to develop their talent. As Leila Janah said, “Talent is equally distributed. Opportunity is not.”

  5. Luck. Again, it’s hard to distinguish pure luck from the cumulative “luck” of privileged circumstances. But sometimes, crazy things just happen because someone was in the right place at the right time. This factor is maddening because it’s the least controllable, but its role in “success stories” is very real—I know a lot of artists who’d put it higher on the list.

Again, as you can see, privilege is the factor that encompasses all the others. I don’t want to imply that anyone born to privilege has to feel guilty all the time. I do wish, however, that those born to privilege—including the authors of those viral threads—would express humility and realize their responsibility: humility, that whatever success they’ve achieved, they’ve achieved because they had the chance to build their skills in the first place; and responsibility, to help build a world where everyone has the same chance. I hope this list is a useful baseline for anyone who truly wants to do that. Also, I encourage anyone reading to comment with their stories of how these factors played a part in their careers.

Also: I approve all comments before they get published. So if you want to write about how white men are actually very disadvantaged or something like that, I’ll likely just delete it and block you from being able to make further comments. Thanks.

*If you’re curious about learning more about the role of privilege in U.S. society, I recommend “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” the classic essay from 1988 and “The Myth of Meritocracy,” a new classic from 2019; The 1619 Project, which demonstrates how the U.S. was built by disenfranchised people who remain so to this day, by design; “The Case for Reparations” explains how to begin to right that wrong. And finally, “Explaining Privilege to a Broke White Person” and “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting” are really useful pieces by white people who came from poor backgrounds.

~

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Final independent artists’ remarks to Durham City Council IX, December 19, 2019.

Above: Durham arts activist Laura Ritchie addressing City Council. 

Posted below are the comments made by local independent artists to Durham City Council on December 19th, 2019, on the crisis of arts funding in the city. Thank you to Andrew Aghapour, Laura Ritchie, Ed Hunt, Monét Noelle Marshall, and Mark Iwinski for sharing their comments. http://link? See previous speakers’ comments here (August 22)here (September 5)here (September 19)here (October 10), here (October 24), here (November 7), here (November 21), and here (December 5th). This is the final installment in the planned speaker series. Thank you to all who spoke or showed up to support.

Andrew Aghapour

[Audio link forthcoming]

Laura Ritchie

“My name is Laura Ritchie. I’m a founder of The Carrack, a community art space that opened on Parrish Street in 2011 and closed this September on East Main. I serve on the Public Art Committee, on the boards of several arts organizations in our region, and am a member of Art Ain’t Innocent. I’m here to share some of The Carrack’s story, and to call attention to the urgent need for increased funding for, and more equitable stewardship of, the arts in Durham by our city’s leadership.

The Carrack was started to address a need. A need for a radically accessible gallery model that could support underrepresented creators, including artists of color; queer and trans artists; and local emerging artists. And we did that. In our eight year tenure, we exhibited work by over 1,000 visual artists in more than 150 solo or group shows, and programmed hundreds of community gatherings, performances, and art events – all at zero cost to artists.

But The Carrack, like so many arts organizations, was dependent upon free labor. Labor I could afford to give because I am a white woman with a wealthy family. For most years as director, I worked more than 40 hours a week. I never made more than $8,000. Annually. At our best, under capable new leadership, two staff made $15/hour for a cumulative 35 hours a week. At the end of that year, they’d worked over 300 hours without pay. Though we achieved our mission outwardly, we failed the artists at the core of our organization – our staff. And rather than continue to center white, class-privileged leadership out of financial necessity, and thereby perpetuate the inequity we were fighting against in the first place, we decided to close.

I have heard Mayor Schewel emphasize the need for more private sector support. I’d like to respectfully counter that that was not the key to saving The Carrack. Our annual fundraiser drew 500 attendees four years in a row and many donors gave through our monthly sustainer program. What we needed was access to ongoing operational support so we could fairly pay our staff – so they could keep building on the development efforts we already had in place. These grants do not currently exist for organizations like The Carrack. The closest options, through our state and city arts councils, would have granted us a max of $10,000 annually, combined, and came with requirements that would have increased the strain on our already taxed staff.

I commend Monica, Akiva, and Marshall for their immense effort, and am heartened by the attention their proposal is receiving. It deserves it. I am also concerned that the work to protect, preserve, and nurture the arts has been left to us – the already overworked and underpaid artists and arts organizers – motivated by the urgency of our art scene’s potential disappearance and the harmful ways art has been wielded and discarded in the process of Durham’s gentrification.

We still need The Carrack – and The Shed, and Outsider’s, and Unexposed, and Manbites, and Durham Artists Movement, to name just a few of the spaces we’ve recently lost.
Our arts ecosystem is resilient, but also incredibly vulnerable. And without direct, financial support from the City, I fear for its future. Thank you.

Ed Hunt

“Good afternoon, members of the council, thank you for your time.

My name is Ed Hunt. I am a 35-year Durham resident; I moved here in 1984. I am here to speak in support of the independent artists initiative.

A quick history:

My partner and husband Jeff Storer run Manbites Dog Theater, a company we founded in 1987 in downtown Durham. We were a vagabond company for our first ten years, performing in makeshift spaces in Durham and all over the Triangle with very little funding.

In 1998, thanks to grassroots generosity from our audiences and supporters, we were able to raise enough money for a down payment and purchased a building on Foster Street, which became our home for the next 20 years. During our 31-year run, we produced over 150 plays and presented the work of dozens of other local theater companies and artists.

Last year we closed down as a producing company, sold our building, put the resulting assets in a fund, and transitioned into a support organization for Triangle theater companies and artists.

In August, we awarded our first round of grants, totaling over $38,000, to support 25 Triangle theater projects being produced this season. Over 60% of these projects are being created by Durham artists and companies.

Our grants aren’t large – the maximum amount is $2,500 – but we know from experience how important that kind of support can be for small companies.

Our overall strategy is simple: more support for theater means more local theater. More support for artists means more local art.

I want to live in a city known for its locally created art, and that means a city willing to support and encourage its artists. That’s why I encourage your support for the initiatives being proposed.

Thank you very much for your time.”

Monét Noelle Marshall

“Good morning! My name is Monèt Noelle Marshall. I am an artist, facilitator and cultural organizer. I serve on the Public Art  committee and I am a member of Art Ain’t Innocent. And I choose to call Durham home.

I have huge dreams. Dreams not just for myself but for Durham. I would like to invite you in to my dream. Imagine driving through East Durham on a Thursday evening and there’s rehearsal on the front steps of Angier Avenue Baptist Church. You roll down your window and hear NC Central’s marching band playing in the distance. You turn on 90.7 and hear a new song from local jazz/hip hop band Zoocrü’s upcoming album and learn that they are on a national tour. You drive towards downtown and you see a group of teenagers completing a striking mural with Brenda Miller Holmes’ guidance. You cut down main and see that the storefront that was empty for years is opening soon. It will be a Art co-op. Books, desserts, tea, visual art exhibitions and performances all in one place. You remember that you got an email from the Office of Arts and Culture about a new business opening. It reminds you to get your child’s Tri5 membership renewed. With this free membership, they can get up to 4 $5 tickets to local performances from Ailey at Duke to Monet’s new show. You’ve noticed the improvement in your child’s communication skills since writing performance critiques and getting their thoughts published in the Indy has boosted their confidence. You easily find a parking spot and walk towards the arts council building. It’s buzzing with an artist talk on the main level, a concert in the parking lot and a new exhibition opening. You cut through the crowd to get to the quarterly Arts Jam. It’s a place for all types of artists to perform and share. It never disappoints and has become one of the hottest tickets in town. As the lights dim you are grateful that you invested in Durham artists and provided them the resources necessary to become the world class talents they always were.
Wasn’t that fun?! I want that Durham. I want to live, make, love, raise a family, buy a home and invest in that Durham. I want to build a many acred art space, a multidisciplinary internationally known creation lab and venue a la Tyler Perry studios in that Durham. And regardless of how you feel about Tyler Perry, Tyler Perry Studios has an annual revenue of $900 million. Imagine the taxes! We can’t get that Durham without work. This work requires a serious financial investment in Durham’s art community. But that’s not all. It requires us to do the painstaking work of creating systems that are actively anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-transphobic, anti-homophobic, anti-classist. It requires a commitment to shift our relationship to risk, accountability, creativity, collaboration and failure, something that artists are especially good at. Durham artists are investing in the Durham we’re dreaming. I stand here asking you to match our investment. Thank you.”

Mark Iwinski

“Good Afternoon Mayor Schewel and City Council.

Thank you for fitting me in.  I appreciate the opportunity and your attention as I speak before you today in support of the arts initiatives set forth in the proposals by Monica Byrne and her colleagues over these last sessions.  Some of you may know me as a member of Durham Area Designers engaged in promoting good urban design for Durham through charrettes, including the vision plan for East Main Street and the light rail [The light rail is dead, long live the light rail.].  But you probably don’t know that I am a nationally recognized visual artist living in Durham since 2008, an art professor at Elon University and the recipient of multiple state and private grants from Vermont, New York and North Carolina as a 2010 North Carolina Arts Council Fellow.

The NCAC fellowship is an amazing award and as a fellow I can testify to its’ significance in bolstering an artist’s career.  [So much so that I stood before the NCAC board of directors during a public hearing after a republican majority was elected to the legislature and arts funding was in doubt.  I asked the chair and the board to protect the artist grants from defunding and was assured during that session that indeed they would be.] But NCAC fellowships only touch a small fraction of the artists in our entire state over a given year.  What is being proposed here is a robust, visionary, localized granting program on par with other major cities which would ensure the longevity, vibrancy and diversity of the arts in Durham.

It has been written (Timberg) that the perfect combination for a strong cultural life in a city is “a slightly decaying downtown” we all know how Durham prides itself on its grunginess, “a university that gives you an interested public” we have two! [Three, if you count the suburb of Chapel Hill.]  And “a scene”.

Here in lies the rub.  A cultural, artistic scene requires investment and supporting institutions.  Great cities have all recognized that long term significant investment in arts and cultural institutions needs to be part of their ongoing strategy.  This is not just about importing Broadway here as the DPAC so effectively does.  It is about attracting, engaging and supporting independent artists and arts organizations so that Durham is the generator of cultural export other cities desire.  City’s which do so not only attract fortune 500 companies but see multiple spinoffs suffusing the local economy.

We do have the Durham Arts Council and their Emerging Artists Grants. But do they meet our needs?  In a word no.  The DAC and its granting process are completely insufficient to the task in their current iteration and will not be able to support or guide the mature growth and cultural investment necessary to make Durham a great cultural city.  The grants themselves, progressive when first instituted, are now woefully inadequate financially to accomplish significant work. Fine for someone just out of school but as a true catalyst for serious artistic growth in the community they are wanting.  And the DAC has a high proportion of administrative overhead compared to granting.   Further, the grant process itself is hampered by limited thinking and lack of vision both by the board and those administering them resulting in a status quo that has not altered in over a decade.

No, a new visionary model for the arts in Durham required. And to reach a state of maturity all cities, [ states and nations] systematically invest in the arts.  It is a sign of cultural and political maturity for a city to make such investments and Durham is poised to become that mature city. But only if you have the political will.  The proposals authored by Ms. Byrne and her colleagues are a robust, mature vision for arts funding in Durham.  Democratic government at its best should encourage and enhance the life of the mind. (Frohnmeyer) And so Durham needs to become a leader in the realm of ideas, to demand wisdom and vison from its citizenry and its institutions and to foster and substantially invest in this vision through access to and support for the arts, humanities and education.”