Today I wrote my second single-copy book. Well, I guess that’s not entirely correct, as I wrote three or more of these as a youngster, but in the last year of my adulthood, I’ve written two books that exist as only single copies. One was a “Baby’s First Philosophy Book” that I wrote and illustrated for a friend’s precocious youngster. The second was a 32-page pocket-sized, staple-bound work, the first volume in a planned series of “Mr. Hagemann and His Teachings.” The title came from a student paper of a few year’s back, and the motivation comes from my school’s February book-reading program: I decided I didn’t want to read any other writer’s words so much as I wanted to read my own.
Now, while my baby’s philosophy book took some time to plan and color (not that I’m any great artist: many of my illustrations were abstracts in the Crayola medium), the book I wrote today took about a half-hour and was completely improvised during my study-hall duty. It was a spontaneous book. It included a mythical back-story of the titular Mr. Hagemann, written in 3rd person, and it included such tautological platitudes as “Numbers are numbery.” And I had some pen-scrawl drawings of spiders and a dog with square head and undershot jaw.
I gave it to a student who had asked about the poster outside my room on which I had mentioned that my favorite book to read was “Mr. Hagemann and His Teachings.” I love the idea that I have “teachings” — as if I were the high school’s very own Carlos Castaneda. I don’t think the student who wrote “Mr. Hagemann and His Teachings” intended that connotation, but I like it. Why shouldn’t I have teachings?
And I say that not as an egomaniac (I hope), but as an artist. So much of my recently becoming willing to publish has been a matter of strengthening confidence: the idea that I can just write stuff and throw it out there. Even if I don’t really like the writing today, I may appreciate it years later.
I had planned on self-publishing a handful of copies of my simple little pamphlet books, designed as word-processing documents and then printed out, folded, stapled, trimmed, and delivered. But this morning the idea came to me that each book could be unique. Each little pamphlet book could be its own volume in the (soon to be) extensive library of my “Teachings.”
This is such a simple idea, and yet it has tickled me all day just to realize how much I’m looking at the publishing concept in a different way than I had before. Instead of working a long time to get a text as good as I can get it, with “good” defined by whatever arbitrary standards I have chosen (whether I’m aware of the choosing or not), and then printing off many copies, why not have a different standard of good (being defined not as “perfection” or “matching an ideal” but as “spontaneous” and “honest”) and write lots of little books.
I enjoy the creative process, especially the spontaneous, free-writing part, so I have lately started to question why I need to revise at all. That idea is stupidly simple, of course; one revises a text so that the text is easily readable by and attractive to others, and so that the text really says what one wants to say. But what if one doesn’t really know what one wants to say? Why should one have to declare such a thing?
If clarity and easy-reading aren’t the highest virtues, well, we can look at writing in quite a different way. If we aren’t trying to reach a large audience, then we don’t need to perceive publishing as the end-goal. The writing itself can become prominent. I don’t want to slow down my new writing in order to edit the old.
Caveat: I’m not advocating never revising — of course, revision has its place, and sometimes I do enjoy the revising process, too. But I don’t know any more that the book is something that needs to be revered. We often talk about reading books as if that were somehow more virtuous or intellectually rewarding than reading, well, everything else that’s in print. I’m not sure that’s so.
The thing is, I enjoy the act of writing, and I don’t know that I care to write for publication. I’m not sure that making texts that are acceptable to editors and readers produces texts that are all that interesting. No matter how avant-garde or experimental a text is, if it has been published, it’s been approved by professionals, and lately I’m thinking that a professional in the art world is someone who can make an artwork look polished, even if it’s a vapid, empty work.
Editors put an imprimatur on a text, and I feel like such an imprimatur somehow deadens a text. Publishing a book turns it into a consumer good, a product. I guess that a one-off book is also an object that could be collected or sold, but it’s not 20,000 copies of the same book, searching for 20,000 buyers.
Anyway, I don’t really want to argue for this idea or defend it. It just struck me today how much I’ve thought that Being a Writer meant writing some incredible book and making it perfect and then selling lots of copies of it. That’s only one way, though, and maybe it’s not even the way that makes for an interesting, enjoyable process.
And today’s idea got me thinking about what standards a poet uses in deciding to collect her poems for publication. Maybe she collects the poems she simply feels are her best … but in what sense of best? In the sense of “likely to be interesting across the ravages of time”? In the sense of “most likely to be popular with readers”? I’m just starting to think about these things. And I’m sensing that the world is open with possibilities.
And when I’m not judging my work by comparing it to known works and known standards, but am just appreciating what is there, I enjoy my own past work more. A reader brings so much to interpreting a text anyway–I don’t want to take out that sense of possibility that a less-edited, more-spontaneous text can have.