Name Calling - What They REALLY Mean
Do You Call People "Fat"? Here's Your Smackdown

Quirky Scholar and Idiosyncratic Genius - A Conversation with Craig Conley

I know this guy, see. To say he's brilliant is an understatement. He blows me away with what he knows, and what he grasps. I've been tested as having a genius IQ (via a psychologist)...but him? Into the stratosphere. He's like  a walking illuminated manuscript.

He's also kind, thoughtful and enlightened. 

It's about time you meet my friend Craig Conley. And hear some of his unbelievable stories about writing, publishing and the creative life--including internet crazies, Tarot, censorship, social media and prolificity.

Janet: How, as a relative unknown, did you convince HarperCollins to take on something as offbeat as a dictionary of one-letter words? And what's your feeling about working with big publishing houses?

Craig: The HarperCollins deal was a glorious fiasco. Interestingly, it was the very day that I officially gave up calling myself a writer that I found the literary agent who sold my book to HarperCollins. (I think I was trying to follow Ram Dass' wisdom that we spend the first half of our lives becoming somebody, and now we can work on becoming nobody: "For when you become nobody there is no tension, no pretense, no one trying to be anyone or anything. The natural state of the mind shines through unobstructed.") I recall thinking, "Well, if I'm not a writer anymore, there's no need to dread another rejection from a literary agent." So I casually sent off an e-mail to the first agent who came up on Google. Who was it who said that one is never more attractive than when one isn't desperate? The agent accepted my book instantly, and days later he'd generated a bidding war among several top publishers. The deal he secured was lucrative -- fully fifty times the dollars for the number of one-letter words I'd collected.

Working with HarperCollins was like climbing aboard a grand roller coaster that broke at the top of the first lift and then tumbled out of control on its way down. On the bright side, the big publishers are giant cogs in the machine, and they generate big publicity. There's no way my one-letter words dictionary would have been scooped by Page Six, for example, had it not been associated with a major publisher. I was covered by NPR, the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the New York Post, the Dallas Morning News, Publisher's Weekly, and dozens of other major outlets. The difference between my publicity for One-Letter Words and my publicity for Magic Words: A Dictionary (through Weiser) is like night and day. The smaller company's voice struggles to be heard in the market. The larger publishers, like any larger corporations, are less personal, however. If you're not a bestseller, you fall out of the publisher's radar quite quickly. (It's just business, of course, but it can feel brutal just the same.) 

One-Letter Words was intended to be HarperCollins' answer to the phenomenon Eats, Shoots & Leaves. A variety of circumstances (including Barnes & Noble's 11th hour surprise decision not to carry the book, Restoration Hardware inexplicably dropping out of a marketing deal after demanding a supply of books months before the official publication date, the editor of my book going on maternity leave before publication) all decimated my book's initial -- and vital -- Christmas season exposure. Once that first Christmas is over, everyone moves on to the next big things. Anyway, glamorous as it is to snag a big contract, so many more forces conspire to break a book than to make it. Everyone involved desires success, surely, but the inner workings of the marketplace are as complex and unpredictable as the weather. 

One letter
My experience with HarperCollins solidified my preference for self-publishing. With self-publishing, you retain ownership and control of your work. When HarperCollins bought One-Letter Words, I was forced to undo the highly successful marketing I had established on the internet. For years I had been providing a free web version of my dictionary, and this unusual resource had been linked by hundreds upon hundreds of schools, libraries, and other institutions around the world. All of that invaluable networking became dead links because of HarperCollins' old-fashioned business model. Years later, I've still not been able to restore the level of worldwide linkage I once enjoyed. The internet grows exponentially by the moment, and every day, every hour, it becomes more challenging to make one's mark.

My own fan base actually doesn't buy much of my self-published work, but over time my titles have garnered a decent number of sales from strangers. What's neat about the internet is that one's proper market can find one's work. For example, my books apparently have more of a European sensibility than an American one, and a great many of my sales go to Europe. Since this summer, Amazon allows authors to list CreateSpace-published books in its various European catalogs (to be sold in Euros), and I started enjoying increased sales immediately.

Janet: Craig, you deleted your Facebook account several months ago. I’m finding it a cesspool, myself (especially the Tarot-related groups which I won’t go near). It’s worse than high school in terms of cliques and gossip! Would you share why you deleted your account? And, in your estimation, how important is social media—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, etc.—to a writer’s or artist’s career? Well-being?

Craig: Just as a blueprint reveals the underlying structure of a building and the intention of the architect, the history of Facebook reveals that it was rotten from the beginning. In his book Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich lays bare that Facebook originated as an ignoble tool for Harvard students to vote on the "hotness" of their female classmates. That base mentality of ranking and objectification is inseparable from the website today. It's like walking into a peep-show facility intending to make some genuine friendships -- the building itself is designed with holes in the wall, and if you step under a spotlight then others will be viewing you in a certain way regardless of your own motivations. It's difficult to circumvent an existing structure when its very design is intended to promote very specific sorts of interactions.

One day I realized that every time I opened Facebook I felt worse than I did previously. I realized that I was unnecessarily learning too many intimate details about my friend's lives (and vice versa, surely). One of my friends assures me that he has countless meaningful interactions on Facebook, and I have no reason to question his experience, but I must admit to having failed miserably to generate my own meaningful interactions on Facebook. Heck, looking for meaning in the mundane is all I ever do -- it seriously is my job description boiled down to a sentence. But Facebook left me utterly stumped, and I finally quit it cold turkey and haven't looked back.

Craig 2
The importance of social media -- that's a good question, and I'm not sure I have tangible evidence either way. So many successful people don't have any social media accounts whatsoever. Ideally, those sites would be the equivalent of the Parisian sidewalk cafés where, in the aftermaths of both World Wars, expatriate writers, artists, and intellects searching for a voice would gather to inspire one another and to foster innovation and experimentation. The social media site that comes closest to that ideal is surely Tumblr. But like Parisian cafés, social media sites come and go. Remember MySpace? Feeling connected to other artists is vital to one's well-being, yet I have to wonder whether too many folks are forgetting the gifts of solitude. As Hans F. Hansen said, "People inspire you, or they drain you; pick them wisely."

Janet:  You’re familiar with myriad forms of divination, including creating a few of your own systems. I’m finding that Tarot, in particular, seems to draw what I call “low level” energy; that is, readers/enthusiasts who are insecure, immature, needy, desperate, petty, greedy—rampant dysfunction in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd chakras. In fact, it’s why I’m now retired from Tarot writing, blogging and reviewing. I felt like the bulk of my innovative work was going into an insatiable black hole, so to speak. And, I now suspect it’s why Tarot—unlike other forms of divination—can’t seem to crawl its way out of the dark cloud that surrounds it: the people who practice it are “dark” (unaware, ignorant and unenlightened).

Have you noticed that Tarot draws a different “crowd” than other esoteric disciplines? Or is this just my perspective?

Craig: Your mention of Tarot seeming to activate the lower chakras reminded me of this: "If Freud had lived before the Tarot was created, it would have been a reasonable bet to have suggested that he was responsible for the cards and their meanings" (Lionel & Patricia Fanthorpe, The World's Most Mysterious Objects, 2002). Though I've created several Tarot decks and written two books on the subject, I've remained an outsider to the community. I'd like to say I'm of the Groucho Marx school: "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member." But in truth I'm more like Marshall McLuhan (via Timothy Leary): I tend to tune in and then drop out. The group mind invariably leaves me feeling alienated. To this day, all my favorite television shows have been cancelled due to unpopularity.

Janet: What advice can you offer to creatives that are simply unable to play the “politics game”: trying to play nice, be likeable, join the team, etc.? It’s no secret that this world is not a fair one, tending to reward those who take shortcuts, brownnose and are willing to enter a popularity contest. What hard-won wisdom can you share with those who love to create and innovate, but don’t have the desire (or ability) to play the “social games” that many say are necessary for “success”?

Craig: The only game to play is the one you're making up right now. I just heard screenwriter Joss Whedon reveal the great secret of his success: you put ALL your cards on the table at once. And then you're forced to create another whole set of cards for your next move. That's how he writes movies, and it can be a philosophy of life. There's a school of thought that a work of art generates its own rules, making it self-contained and therefore placing it outside of history. I wonder how many artists have felt "ahead of their time." That sentiment is no mere copout -- it's a terrible, despairing sort of Limbo. The great challenge in the wasteland of inconspicuousness is to fend off mortal discouragement.

In Porius, a novel about Merlin, John Cowper Powys refers to "Destiny, that great god, [and] Chance, that still greater one!" That's a tremendously encouraging worldview, in which no miserable fate is set in stone because Lady Luck can always intervene. The world is indeed not fair, and success is hardly merit-based, yet no innovator is irremediably doomed to obscurity. Still, if one is to stay sane along the way, the work must be a reward in itself. If one's lofty goal is to give people what they don't know they want (à la Steve Jobs), in all fairness there might be quite a climb involved.

Craig 3
Janet: You were homeschooled, were you not? Can you tell us a bit about that experience? Would your life trajectory be different had you not been homeschooled, do you think?

Craig: Oh yes, my homeschooling experience affected me profoundly. When we started, back in the mid-1970s, homeschooling was illegal in most states. In fact, it wasn't even called "homeschooling" back then, but rather "unschooling" (coined by John Holt in his "Growing Without Schooling" newsletter). We had serious fears of truant officers in those days! My family used the Calvert correspondence program, in hopes of satisfying the authorities with paperwork, but my true homeschool education was free-form. I pursued my own interests, at my own pace. I quickly came to understand that learning and independent thinking are one's own responsibility. Though I tried a high school for the performing arts, midway through the 10th grade I dropped out, took the G.E.D. exam, and entered college early. After teaching college writing and literature for nine years, I again dropped out and pursued my research as an independent scholar.

Janet: To quote a line from Napoleon Dynamite: Lucky!

Craig, I was mortified to find out that hackers are diligently erasing your work from the internet. How can an author protect his or her online presence from being erased? And just how threatening is your work, anyway?

Craig: I suppose it qualifies as a Retroactive Lifetime Goal (to borrow a phrase from humorist Jonathan Caws-Elwitt) to be such a "dangerous" artist that my work must be obliterated from existence. For the second time this year, a hacker unknown to me wiped out a chunk of my daily Abecedarian blog. This time it was five full months' worth of postings. What a peculiar feeling; having the contents of one's mind destroyed feels even more personal than having one's house ransacked. Lady Luck, in her cruel aspect, saw to it that my back-up server was on the blink, but a night's (eternity's) worth of virtual jigsaw puzzling brought the menace of my work back online. Eerily, I felt *really* lousy -- even before I discovered the erasure in progress -- but, like a character in some Philip K. Dick novel, I could hardly put my finger on what was being erased from my virtual brain. Perhaps I need to embrace being too dangerous to exist on the internet?

My advice to other authors with websites is to build in at least two levels of authentication for your content management system. In addition to the password login, restrict the IP addresses of who can access the back-end, if you can, and limit it to your personal home network. Never rely on the fact that what's supposed to be restricted definitely is. Back up your content daily, keeping at least three months of snapshots. (I recommend Amazon S3 as a cost-effective storage platform.) Presume that someone can and will guess your password. Presume that anything you put online could be lost, and plan accordingly. If Murphy's Law hits and everything that can go wrong does go wrong, Google's cache server and's Wayback Machine can be a blessing as you piece your site back together from scratch.

Just how threatening is my work? I have to allow that I'm not simply a victim here. I have to shoulder some responsibility for delving into areas that are perhaps best left untouched. My research takes me into gray areas that turn out to be quite volatile. There's superficial humor in my pursuits (like collecting one-letter words, studying blank maps, tracing genealogy to fairy folk, using punctuation marks for divination, listening for unicorns, locating genuine ghosts trapped by Google's book scanners), but underlying that humor is a serious threat to the neatness and tidiness of the establishment. One might think my several dictionaries are benign entities (including magic words, words without vowels, words without consonants, the meanings of chess pieces, and words of one letter), but recall the audacity and profundity inherent in the act of defining. "He who defines dominates and lives," as Thomas Stephen Szasz has noted. "He who is defined is subjugated and destroyed."

Janet: How many websites do you have, anyway? (Because, I swear, you deliberately hide them!)

Craig: Let's see ... here they are, and you might want to check them out ASAP because they could be hacked into oblivion at any moment.

I hunt for magic words and Tarot archetypes in the wild, and here are the trophies, so to speak:

I have a Zen conversion of the Rock-Paper-Scissors game:

My most esoteric books and articles are here, most with extensive or full web versions:

My most unusual reference manuals are here:

Here's my daily blog that covers the broadest range of my eccentric research:

Dansk Jävlarna

I was the first to recognize the village of Portmeirion (Wales) as a pop-up book of Tarot cards. Here's the story on that, as well as the Tarot of Portmeirion I created:

Janet: Your Tarot of Portmeirion (which I love!) is Majors-only; any plans on publishing the Minors, too, so we can play with a full deck?

Craig: Yes, I do need to find a card printer to take on the full deck! For now, the Minors are all represented in the free online version.

Janet: Speaking of Tarot, how and when did you get involved in the cards, anyway?

Craig: It all began with a moment of slapstick. My first step into the Tarot world coincided with a Rider-Waite deck falling on my foot while I was browsing in a bookstore. I try to be cognizant of signs that occur in daily life, if only to participate in a waking dream. For a lifelong student of comparative religion, Jungian psychology, and magic (both stage performance and shamanism), the history and symbolism of Tarot meet every criterion of fascination. Marie-Louise Von Franz's On Divination and Synchronicity solidified my love for the field.

Janet: Craig, what is your take on "evil" or, at least, "crazy online people"? You and I have seen our share of truly jaw-dropping, over-the-top reactionary behavior--especially in the metaphysical community (especially, for me, the seedy online Tarot world). What do you make of this?

Craig: To paraphrase a popular saying, people encountered via the internet are not only stranger than we imagine, they're stranger than we can imagine. The more an author puts himself or herself "out there," the more weirdness gets invited in. I have a "What fresh hell is this?" moment on almost a daily basis. Here's just the latest insanity I've been dealing with: a few years ago I created a silly little crossword puzzle inspired by the film Dr. Strangelove, in which every answer across and down was "purity of essence" or "peace on earth." I put the puzzle inside a winter holiday card and had it printed at Zazzle here. The other day, Zazzle removed the card from their catalog on the grounds of copyright infringement. I marveled at this; even assuming that a film studio had filed a complaint, I couldn't fathom how my puzzle constituted any sort of infringement. I asked Zazzle for information on how, exactly, my puzzle infringed. Their answer took me by the maximum surprise possible: it wasn't a movie studio at all, but the estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. who had demanded the card be removed.

It turns out that I refer to Martin Luther King, Jr. in the clue to 2 Across. Apparently -- and I will admit that this was news to me -- one doesn't have the right to print the name of Martin Luther King, Jr., not even in a crossword clue. As Zazzle explained, "Unfortunately, your product contained text 'Martin Luther King, Jr.' which infringes upon the intellectual property rights of Estate of Martin Luther King Jr." I feel like I'm living in some sort of George Orwell novel (well, a very particular George Orwell novel, but now I'm afraid to type most anything lest a deranged attorney contact me!) It's not that I give a hoot about the greeting card in question -- it's not a huge seller, anyway. It's the sheer perversity of it all. Unwilling to accept having my own creation removed for so ridiculous a reason, I reworded the clue to 2 Across in Pig Latin. I wonder if the MLKJ estate attorneys are scouring the web for Pig Latin mentions of the unwritable (and, I presume, forthwith unpronounceable) name. Time will tell.

Strangelove Puzzle
I'm coming to realize that when one's work explores fringe topics, one is destined to encounter other weirdos who have likewise strayed from the mainstream. Immersed as I am in the world of linguistic oddities, esoteric imagery, cryptozoology, and blank maps, it's easy to forget that I'm essentially on another planet from everyday folks. My pursuits are normal to me, but no doubt my average day would blow the minds of most. So I'm trying to take in my stride the craziness I encounter along the way. But the thing about craziness, of course, is that one can't technically prepare for it, by definition.

Janet: Unfreakinbelievable, Craig. I mean, really.

Because you tend to be an unintentional Hermit, I'd like you to list all the books and goodies you have to offer humanity.

Craig: Let's see:

Pomegranate's One-Letter Words Quiz Deck

One-Letter Words: A Dictionary

The Collected Lost Meanings of Christmas

Oracle of the Two-Fold Gods

A Field Guide to Identifying Unicorns by Sound

Magic Archetypes

The Carte Blanche Atlas

The Minimalist Coloring Book

Puzzling Portmeirion

Magic Words: A Dictionary

Moon-Fish-Ocean: A Zen Conversion of Rock-Paper-Scissors


If a Chessman Were a Word: A Chess-Calvino Dictionary

Heirs to the Queen of Hearts: Tracing Magical Genealogy

Astragalomancy: A Loaded Guide

Divination By Punctuation

Franzlations: The Imaginary Kafka Parables

Wye's Dictionary of Improbable Words

The Ghost in the [Scanning] Machine

Not Rocket Science

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Annotated Ellipses

Human Diversity: A Guide for Understanding

Diverse Learners in the Classroom

Presumptive Conundrums

The One Minute Mystic

Six Degrees of Jubilation

Your Ship Will Come In

A Fine Line Between ...

Forgotten Wisdom

The Skeleton Key of Solomon

Unity Symbols Coloring Book

And dozens more titles, which are listed here:

Craig lime
Craig Conley in the internet's very first "lime in limelight".

And there you have it, dear Readers. One of the most brilliant, unique creatures on this gorgeous planet. I'm pleased as punch to call Craig my friend; he's truly a very special soul. Incidentally, he's also Snowland's official vintage image curator, so he's responsible for all the lovely whismy he gathers for us here.

-- Janet


Roy Crose

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