It’s odd to consider that, by definition, trust begins with complete strangers. Each must assess the level of honesty in the other. There is no “communal trust.” It’s always between two people. A hundred thousand people might trust a writer, but each does so individually. “America” or “culture” can’t trust a writer.
The same kind of trust is involved in a publisher buying your manuscript, a reader buying a book in a bookstore, or a librarian ordering a book for the collection. Do I trust this author’s contribution? Do I accept it, or reject it?
Even after a purchase is made, a decision to retain or reject remains. Booksellers return unsold books to the publisher, publishers can decide on a second book or reject it, readers thin their collections when their shelves become crowded, and librarians weed to reduce clutter and keep their collections up to date.
The decision to accept or reject is based on trust. This has to be a two-way street. An author is not entering a religious temple of certification and apotheosis, but coming to make a contribution. Is the author’s psyche is in the right place to make a contribution? Is his or her potential for contribution evident to others?
The bottom line is often money, but I’m not concerned with trying to game that system. A decision to trust an author mainly because “the work will sell” is a form of trust, sure. But not the kind of deep trust of quality I’m speaking to now.
Aside from my one published story, my brief Rice University stint as editor of the infamous Wiess Crack, and the faint hint of “publishing” involved in posting on my web site or blog, I live on the outside of the publishing world. My first two eras of sending novel queries, 1984-1986 and 1992-1994, were marked by half-hearted attempts to assail the Castle with unassertive query letters. Looking back, I see I wasn’t ready to make any sort of contribution. Both I and my writing really weren’t ready. I had no concept that I should enter into a trust relation with other human beings. Instead I saw sending a query as akin to buying a lottery ticket and hoping I “hit the jackpot,” because I “deserved” to have my novels published and receive enough money from them to live on. I had no sense of a real contribution to make, no thought that the contribution would also imply a responsibility to back up what I had written with my own life, to articulately defend and explain my vision, to be able to speak out and assist and even educate where necessary.
I wanted to send the novel query off and two weeks later receive a letter stating that publication was scheduled for next year. The letter would also include an advance large enough to purchase a three hundred acre farm and ensure I never had to work again. I didn’t want even a phone call, because then I’d have to talk to someone. It would be OK to meet my editor at the publication party, where I’d finally allow myself to shyly hobnob with literati before retiring to my new farm to await the ever-increasing royalty checks. No interviews, ever, as I was petrified at the idea of having to think on my feet.
Of course, despair followed the above unreality: with a million other entrants and the editors’ desks piled high with the clamorings of wannabees, why should anybody want to read my lottery ticket? How could I expect any frantically busy slush pile reader to stick with my novel long enough to experience the slow unfolding of pure genius?
My next thought was that I could fall back on my visual art. After all, you know in a second whether or not you like a $1,000 painting, whereas it takes several days to read an unsolicited ms. and form a judgment, with maybe a $1,000 advance if you make it all the way to a publication decision. The first case has a half day of work producing $1,000. The second has five years seeking the same result.
So for a long time I denigrated attempts to publish as time-consuming and non-lucrative. I knew I’d still have fun writing, but I’d look to visual art to make that great first impression.
The error of this supposition is that without a willingness to trust and be trusted, without an honest desire to explore the core energies, you’re left with flashy visual symbols and pizzazz-plus writing that are only designed to hook someone. Hook someone into being … hooked a little further … until the money/fame/adulation starts flowing from them to you. Until you’ve successfully siphoned off their gas.
Both visual art and writing have their ways of confusing their victims. An artwork can pack a stunning initial impression, which, upon closer examination, is seen to be empty. Often large size achieves the effect, but so can passionate complication, meticulously reworked patterns, startling color, photo-realistic daring-do, and bizarre or repulsive distortions. In writing we have the famous “first sentence that grabs you,” accompanied by the promise of the complex page-turning pyrotechnics of a standard political military detective science fiction horror thriller.
But do you really think you’ll impress, startle, overwhelm or conquer a reader with the clever first line? Is everyone really clamoring to be dazzled by pizzazz? Do you really think you can blast your way in with that volume? An amplifier can make any messy guitar riff sound powerful, but ultimately it’s not in accord with the universe and nobody will ever really benefit from it.
Secondly, what is the “in” you’ve blasted into? The only true value of being “in” would be to take on responsibility for the word. Whatever that entails. There will be no noisy fame, no quiet fame for that matter, no ego-striking accolades, no deification. What have you got to contribute? Are you willing to work creatively with other honest human beings to further that contribution? Why shouldn’t everybody win? Are you trying to put something over on someone? Are you imbued with the fear that editors are doorkeepers who need to be dueled with and outwitted? Yes, maybe some of them are. Are they your kindred spirits?
I’m sympathetic to editors. Any author who can, for the purposes of a novel, imagine himself as a soldier, a little girl, a theatrical producer or an astronaut should certainly be able to imagine what it would be like to be an editor surrounded by ten thousand unsolicited manuscripts, deadlines, personality insanities, and financial pressures.
Nobody of merit or nobility wants to deal with a swashbuckling liar. But liar’s crap can get published by someone who wants or needs to be fooled. Enormous marketing resources can hype and market vile nonsense. If the deceit is charming enough, everyone down the line can be twisted by it.
The only thing is that it will collapse, and be ugly when it does.
What is the author’s real agenda? To become rich and famous, the writer at the top of the heap, the winner? Does the writer give a damn about his reader? Does he care about wasting the reader’s time and life energy? Are we just going to continue the primal scream therapy and project it to people in pain? So that pain can feed upon pain?
It does take longer to assess writing than it does visual art. But consider that power writing can manifest itself in a few pages. If there is genuine, honest power, trust can start within a few paragraphs. Real power can’t be gimmicked with the clever first sentence. There is no one to impress. There is just something important to say.
Power writing is the compelling truth that comes through one person, yet it’s writing that we can all see as channeled through that person from the universe. What we applaud is how well the writer channeled. What we receive as a gift is the universe’s energy and insight.
Don Miguel Ruiz writes in The Four Agreements: “The word is not just a sound or a written symbol. The word is a force; it is the power you have to express and communicate, to think, and thereby to create the events in your life. You can speak. What other animal on the planet can speak? The word is the most powerful tool you have as a human; it is the tool of magic. But like a sword with two edges, your word can create the most beautiful dream, or your word can destroy everything around you.”
Mailer wrote in The Deer Park: “ … for part of a man’s style is what he thinks of other people and whether he wants them to be in awe of him or to think of him as an equal.” This quote about a writer’s style has stuck with me for decades. Despite the fact that its first phrase is overblown, this was the first time I’d encountered this concept.
In Chronicles Volume I, Dylan wrote: “Most of the other singers tried to put themselves across, rather than the song, but I didn’t care about doing that. With me, it was about putting the song across.”
In approaching publishing, each of us knows exactly where we’re starting from. Are you a total unknown, or a well-established author? What does it mean, how does it affect the writing, how does it affect the level of trust between author, editor, and reader, to write and submit at any given point along the continuum between 1) when you have no idea if the work can be published, and 2) when you are 100% sure it will be published?
No successful writer would ever want to go back to unknown status, to start over again. Some have cockily tried out new directions under a pseudonym, which is valid. But imagine the temptation to nudge that a bit and say, by the way, you do realize that I am really Famous X …? Which is why pseudonymous books often wind up declaring themselves “by Famous X writing as Unknown Z.” Unknown Z must also become “famous” so the new brand can be successfully marketed.
Trust comes from feeling yourself in good hands. It’s a gut feeling of honesty and integrity shared between two people. You know the writer has something to contribute and is seeking to do that honestly, paying attention to reality and not living an ego-stroking fantasy life.
An honest effort can be marred by some degree of ego and delusion, which will likely lessen the trust you’re willing to place in that author. But depending on the amount of real honesty and potential for contribution, trust might still get shakily established and grow in the future.
“Word of mouth” is an example of trust. Still, the initial decision to publish, to put the work out there and eventually make word of mouth possible, came from a source vetting the manuscript, a publisher with whom you established mutual trust.
I could be wrong, but I’ve had the feeling that small publishers, like small art galleries, establish their comfort level of trust by having their business cater to the work of family and friends. Yet this is understandable: trust is needed, the business is just starting out, one needs to be sure of the folks one works with. All the same, the results are sometimes comical, for example, there are plenty of Writer’s Market listings that read thusly:
Joe Crampton Books. Receives 500 manuscripts a month. Publishes two books per year. Pays in contributor copies. Tips: “We only accept the best. Don’t submit here unless your work is of the highest quality.” Last book published: A Flight of Preposterous Sick Angels, by Joe Crampton. Coming next year: Cooking with Beeswax, by Melinda Crampton.
Where is the real quest, where you don’t worry about what your imaginary editors and gallery owners think? Where what you are doing is so important that it doesn’t matter if anyone buys it? And that art is the kind that must make its way in the world, as honest human beings eventually respond to it–even if it happens to be after you’re dead.
What are all your sly self-promotions, emails, web sites, query letters, and artist statements really intended to accomplish?
Where is the compelling writing that is self-evidently power and speaks for itself?
It isn’t easy to acknowledge, but it’s quite possible that “I” may not be destined to channel that power. What if “Michael D. Smith’s” secretarial/channeling skills, or his internal wiring, are not up to what the universe needs? It’s a possibility, and if it proves to be the case, I must accept it. I may have already made all the contributions I’m destined to make.
But somehow I feel there is more in store. The adventure, the psychological novel of it all, is still going full blast. I think the Michael D. Smith ego is not going to figure into the equation at all anymore except as a support system.
I wouldn’t mind using a pseudonym, as I’ve recognized that “Michael D. Smith” is not exactly a catchy author name. But so far I haven’t felt one reverberate as something that would look great on the title page of a story or novel. Could I summon one the way I come up with titles for paintings? In the name of the new writing that must come from beyond my daily identity? And I consider this not out of a desire to “hook readers” but just because aesthetically, “a novel by Coronae Erg Rhinos” looks a lot better on a title page than “a novel by Michael D. Smith.”
The new writing can’t be distant, clever “sci-fi” that hides the real self. What if I were to really speak to what has really been going on?
Isn’t that what real writers do?
We’re often told to write about what we know as a way of writing with authority as well as establishing rapport and credentials with our audience. Okay, but what about exploring new territory? In other words, is it really a choice between “safe writing”–even if it’s fascinating, say the author is an expert on the Civil War and his alternate Civil War novels are factual and believable and highly entertaining–and writing that risks a great deal of psychic security, that may be prone to errors? Can you trust the author to do valid experimentation and exploration? Yes, bad psychic errors are grounds for distrust, but there are valid mixtures–confused but struggling for the truth, deluded but with important points to express.
I distrust memoir writing even as I’m attracted by it. Coming to grips with a massive life calamity is a major accomplishment. But it does seem too easy to decide that after it’s over, when you’re basking in your relief, you can plunder your life and so eloquently describe it all in Shadow Dream: My Decades of Depression Following My Diagnosis as Bipolar Manic Depressive Barr-Epstein Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Life in Words and Pain.
I recently discovered there are people who teach courses in memoir writing. I’m sure there is a way to learn how to do this. I’m sure it could have improved my one experimental foray into this genre. But is it just more safety? Shouldn’t we risk a little more and probe for even deeper energies through the novel?
Wouldn’t that be a way to trust ourselves more and to establish deeper trust with each other?
copyright 2010 Michael D. Smith