Tag Archives: publishing

Having new ideas is fun

It’s possible to leave behind one’s old ideas and have new ones, see the world anew, and it’s fun to do this!

This is the message I have to share with the world: It’s fun to create! It’s deeply satisfying! It shows the world to you in new ways — it reveals new aspects of the world. It shows that there’s more to the world than we know. It has shown me that ideas are not the truth — ideas I thought were real I now see as arbitrary. A lot of my new worldview has come from creative experiences.

It’s a wonderfully simple message! But it’s one that was a long time in coming to me, perhaps because so much of our culture is now provided by and accessed through commercial means — bookstores, art galleries, TV, movies, magazines — all these commercial forums — and we see art as having the purposes of getting us fame and money (or career).

Maybe my message, what I model to the world, is that I like my life even without getting published! I’m not perfect, not the only model to follow, but my way of living — which includes the daily creative act of freewriting my journals — is pretty fun and interesting and worth trying.

I don’t want to define myself as someone who writes about only a certain topic, or who writes in a habitual style or tone. I want to share my work style, my process, and then go on to create my own particular things. I want to demonstrate creativity in its least-restrictive form, which is that I’m not trying to make any product to sell. If you, as an artist, decide that you’re gonna make something for someone else, you’re already limiting your creativity — you’re abstracting whom your audience is from your limited experiences with other people, with the result that you’re condescending to others, assuming to know what others want or need. And then there’s the problem of there not being really all that many ideas within the range of tellable stories — whereas in my writing, I go well beyond stories. I may be limited by words, by thinkable thoughts — not all experiences can be easily described — but I can look at words as merely a medium, as the tools I use to have the creative experiences I enjoy.

The types of texts that get published — novels, nonfiction reports, celebrity interviews — are so narrow compared to all the types of texts there are, including diaries, conversations between non-famous people, descriptions of regular life, real places. There’s the bias toward the spectacular that seems to leave regular lived life in real places largely unexplored.

Kerouac’s On the Road is a book that captivated me when I read it at age 19 — I think I understood it as instructive, that I could perhaps view my life as he viewed his. But now I see that book was the telling not about Kerouac’s regular life but about his vacations, essentially — he wrote his scroll as a story told to impress and/or amuse others. What remains is the challenge of how to live daily life in a rewarding way.

So what interests me now is escaping narrow definitions of what life is or could or should be and instead dipping my toes into the unknown, into what’s beyond the definitions. I want to have my own ideas, do my own thinking, and if I never feel like advocating my ideas to others, that’s fine — maybe I can advocate my process!

Everything I publish might be read as an exuberance — defined in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate 11th as, in part, “joyously unrestrained and enthusiastic,” “plentiful.” I’d never thought of myself as exuberant before — maybe this is just a positive spin on the “intense” adjective others have used to describe me.

Over time, I do come to new ideas that seem to solve my problems, increase my understanding.

And when I publish, I don’t need to have everything nailed down and tidy. I don’t have to fret whether I seem a respectable, authoritative-type voice. I don’t need to post — my experience is already had; I’ve already had the joy and satisfaction of the earlier journal-writing session! So publish whatever! I don’t need to publish — there’s some good freedom. And once I’ve realized that, it gets easier to publish!


Freeing myself to write honestly by not publishing now

Cover of a journal, most likely one that contains content that would be unflattering to me.

Cover of a journal, most likely one that contains content that would be unflattering to me.

When I write nonfiction, such as this text I am writing now, I become a character in the text. What the narrator “I” says here in this text are things that Matt Hagemann himself means. What I write and mean takes on a power, a legitimacy, because I, Matt, a living person of (hopefully) respectable reputation, said it.

However, everything I say or write also may change what you, the reader, think of me as a writer and also as a person. If I say outrageous or inflammatory things, you may think poorly of me (and you may even seek to discredit me or get me fired from my job, as has happened to some people).

Fiction writers and poets, by the way, have the “poetic license” to separate their creating selves from their narrating selves. This frees these writers to say terrible things in their characters’ voices and not have this necessarily reflect on the writers themselves, but also, what these characters say does not have the force of a claim made by a real person.

So, when I publish a text that I claim to be nonfiction, I am aware that I’m tying this text to my reputation. So the safest thing would be to say nothing at all. I could be a consummate professional and never say anything controversial.

And, really, I’m starting to think that that’s not all that bad of a way of living. I have written before about how I’m learning to not express my opinions in certain situations. And I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how what I have to say, at any particular moment, may not be all that valuable or useful. I have moments of wisdom, but also moments of arrogance, egotism, and worse. The world may be a better place if it wasn’t so easy to express ourselves to, essentially, a world-wide audience via the Interwebs.

And perhaps this is a rather obvious sort of insight, but I’ve long felt that my opinions were valid and useful and interesting to others. (This may be a personality flaw encouraged by my liberal arts education and by my family’s practice of frequent debates, and also by my self-confidence encouraged by my male-privilege!) For a while after college, I thought that the ideal writing job for me would be as a news columnist, where I would get paid to tell others what my opinions were.

Now I’m glad that I didn’t overexpose myself in that way. After all, it’s very easy to say or write things in the present that I would later come to regret. I’ve been noticing in myself lately how, when I read something that questions or criticizes something I believe or value, I’ll react almost instinctively with a self-righteous urge to defend or promote my own views.

But I am holding myself back more lately from actually responding. I’m getting better at seeing criticisms as merely alternate views, views that are not necessarily any more correct than my views, and that my views are not necessarily correct, either. The world may be ultimately unknowable, and so all ideas may be inadequate. Thus, I can let go of conflicts I’d start by opposing others’ ideas.

I remember reading something about the Buddhist idea of “nonattachment to views,” that one did not need to hold onto certain ideas or attitudes, because the holding on made one suffer. But lately I’m also thinking that it’s not just that I’m attaching to views, but that views are attaching to me, and I don’t want to define myself by my views.

So what I’ve realized lately is that I am less interested in expressing my views in public. I still have ideas, opinions, judgments, etc., but by writing them in my journal rather than blogging about them, I am able to keep from attaching these views to me. I would prefer to be seen as someone who doesn’t have strong opinions — I’d prefer to be seen as just a person — rather than being seen as “that liberal” or “the radical teacher” or “that crazy son of a bitch.” (Maybe there is some wisdom in that old Disney line, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”)

But I do still express myself in my journals. And sometimes these journals are interesting. But I don’t want to publish things that I feel strongly about now, because I might not feel strongly about them later. If what I write is valuable in a timeless sense (and I hope it is, because I’m not interested in writing news or news analysis or in being the first person on the Internet to make a certain clever joke), then it’ll still be valuable weeks or years from now, and I can write down my ideas now and edit them later. Letting time lapse is a great way of knowing what it is that I really WANT to publish.

And even if an idea seems interesting to me once the urgency of its newness has passed, I don’t necessarily want to defend or promote the idea. I’m not trying to sell something here. The idea should speak for itself, and so I don’t really want these ideas written by a Then-Me to be associated with Now-Me.

Of course, that’s not fully possible, but one idea I’ve had is that the separation in time between the writing and the editing not only gives me the perspective I need in order to edit, it also creates separation for the reader. What I wrote 20 years ago is clearly not the product of who I am today. This allows me to edit and publish my nonfiction with a little bit of the distance that the fiction writers enjoy. I can treat my old writings as those of the Then-Me character (who doesn’t need to be as suave and wise as I’d like to think I am now!), and those writings don’t directly reflect on Now-Me.

If I were to write and publish as Now-Me (as I’m writing and publishing this post), I would feel a need to present myself as a reasonable, intelligent, well-spoken, professional sort of person. This presentation of self is basically the creation of a persona of me, not the full me. It’s basically impossible to reveal the fullness of my expression, and I’m not sure anyone really wants or needs that (for example, how interesting are most people’s self-presentations on various social-media platforms?). While some artists are praised for revealing themselves, for being “honest” or “raw,” I’m not sure most people can really live like that — I feel that I’d be less honest if I were publishing in real time). If I wrote my daily journals on a blog, I’d be self-censoring to a great extent. I gotta have privacy in order to be free, and then I can later edit my writings for the benefit of my readers — while protecting the professional career I need now to keep myself fed, warm, and writing!

I Write for Me: A Manifesto Of My Self-Importance

I write a lot, but not for other people.

I write mostly to and for myself: journals, poems, notes, etc. I enjoy being engaged in the writing process, and I want to write about what I want to write about, and these aren’t always things that I think other people would care about.

I write these blog posts to be read by others, whoever you are. I mostly write these for myself as well, but I want to let you know, Readers, that at least I’m thinking of you. The thought is what counts.

For years, I’ve wanted to turn the things I wrote into things that others would want to read. But that hasn’t been going so well. I mean, unless I’m writing to a specific person, I don’t know who I’m writing to. I suspect that I’m writing to others like myself, which could suggest that what I’m already doing is pretty great! I needn’t change a word! But do others who are like me need to hear what I’m saying, or do they already know it?

So, I’m considering changing my approach and just embracing whatever the hell it is that I do. I mean, if there are no standards — and in creative work, why would there be? — then I can do whatever I like.

I have, over recent days, been reading some emails I wrote 5 and 6 years ago to a friend, and while I was conscious of writing to him, I was also just writing to air my own thoughts, explore my own ideas. And I remarked, in an email, upon that tendency of mine. And as I read that remark today, I thought, hell, why not?

Why not come out and embrace what I have been doing, but not acknowledging to myself, all these years? For years, I’ve been thinking that I had to be something other than what I was: I still expected myself to one day write things that would be for other people, wonderful, witty texts that would impress, entertain, and instruct my readers, and that would establish my reputation as a Writer Worth Reading.

But I’m not sure I need that kind of validation anymore. Or, let’s say, I’m not sure that I want to work for that validation (but I’d take it if it came!). I’m coming to terms with who I am: a self-centered writer. I love to write about my own ideas and experiences. I want to write whatever I want to write and not worry (as I so often have) about whether a text is good enough or not to share.

Some of this worrying has prompted me to write merely charming or clever texts, and some of this worrying has prompted me to overedit the texts that I share. I’m not sure these are what I want to be doing.

I will accept that I may never sell a book, or even write one, and that such a lifestyle is gonna be OK with me. I don’t have to achieve Authorhood. I am already a writer. I don’t gotta sell nothin’. I’m willing to be subversive, as described in a recent New Yorker article by Andrew Marantz: “In our data-obsessed moment, it is subversive to assert that the value of a product is not reducible to its salability.”

My books won’t be salable, because I won’t sell them — or, let’s say, I’m not sure why I myself would care about sales, since publishing is not a creative act but is a business act, an ego-act, and it’s also a business that seems terrible for a lot of writers now. I’ll give away on this blog whatever I feel like giving away. If I feel like it, I’ll make single copies of books.

I don’t need to sell products to strangers in order to feel good about myself (or so I’m still trying to convince myself — maybe I’m not quite there yet, and maybe this mini-manifesto is pushing me to get there). How wonderful that we live in a time where we do have this Internet available for instant, world-wide distribution! I’m not gonna fret about getting paid — I’m an Artist, dammit!

A book-publishing contract is not a ‘halo’: Publishing as a business deal

Laura Miller, in an article at Salon, uses the context of the Amazon-Hachette disagreement to make an important point to would-be authors about what it means to get one’s book published:

It helps to understand what’s happening here if we all stop thinking about a traditional book publishing contract as a halo of literary worthiness bestowed upon an author by entities invested with a sacred, ineffable authority. Actually, it’s a business deal. It signifies that a disinterested party (i.e., not your mom or spouse) believes enough in the book’s potential appeal that it is willing to put its own money into the project. Publishers don’t just supply professional services (editing, design, distribution, marketing); they are investors. Doesn’t mean they’re always right; publishers often aren’t. But publishing a book is always a gamble of sorts, and a traditional publisher has ponied up.

I’ll admit that, at times, I’ve thought that selling a book would be a kind of validation of my talent, my ideas, my worth as a human being on this planet. (Though I should know better, considering that back when I was a journalist, I had a lot of things published and/or broadcast, and doing so didn’t feel all that special. Well, sure, the first time was special, but after that, not so much.) But it helps me to remember that companies publish books to make money. What gets published is what somebody thinks will sell, and a lot of respected texts didn’t sell very well, including Thoreau’s Walden.

Still, I’ll also admit to, at times, entertaining the fantasy that someone would contact me with an offer to publish my brilliant texts. Why not? But I also don’t really try that hard to seek publication because, well, I find the act of writing far more rewarding that the act of seeing my name in print.

We write for others like ourselves

I don’t know why I share the things I think.

I write a lot of my thoughts privately, in journals and notes, and I share most of these things seldom, with maybe only close friends and family members.

But then I also post some of these thoughts online. I also sometimes email ideas or even jokes to my co-workers, many of whom won’t be interested in the ideas or may not get the jokes.

Probably, most of what I say is of interest only to people whose minds think like mine does, and then only a subset of those people will be interested in what I say at the time they encounter what I say.

Communication is hard.

The textbooks say there are three main purposes to nonfiction communication: to entertain, to persuade, or to inform. These are bullshit, of course, for all but the most formal communications; I usually only think “this interests me, and may interest others” before I say or write something to others, and this “interest” might be some combination of all three purposes, or may be beyond those three. I’m not even sure it matters why I say a thing — I may not even be aware of why I express a thing before I say or write it. (After all, we don’t even have to mean all that we say. Or, as happens to me during a free-write, I may say something before I know if I mean it or not.)

And once I’ve said a thing, I don’t know that it matters to me whether others find what I’ve said interesting or not. Sure, it’s fun to make others laugh, or to receive a “that’s interesting” response, but it’s not like I’ll stop sharing things online even when I get very little response.

I don’t, and can’t, know how others really feel about my sayings or writings. Very often, when we’re around others, they don’t want to receive my “sayings” or “writings” at all — I’m learning that some ideas and messages fail to be interesting when I ask a person to read them in front of me. We need silence, separateness, for these things. We need to encounter certain messages when their authors aren’t around.

And then, as readers, how are they to respond? They may respond with a positive comment, or a critical one, or no response at all. Some of the things I’ve read that have had the most influence on my thinking are things that settled in over time, that resonated and stayed with me for months. Eventually I may write a letter to that author, saying, well, what? That “your work has been influential to me”? That’s nice, but … but what if what authors really want is my money rather than my praise?

This may be why promoting a piece of writing, or maybe promoting any artwork, seems kinda silly. (Here’s an example of someone trying to promote Bruce Springsteen, which seems difficult. How can you argue someone into sharing your taste?) An author or marketer can promise that a book is a thrilling read, or an incredible story, or is thought-provoking — but the reaction to an artwork is ever and always particular to the reader. Some readers may feel thrilled or provoked, while others are not. It’s to this first group I write, I guess, and yet, I may be writing to those who are similar to me in outlook, in thinking habits. I want to write to others who aren’t like me (maybe so they will better understand me?), and I want to read the writings of those who aren’t like me, so that I may understand a different perspective, and yet, if the writer and reader are too different, there may not be the basis for communication. I tend not to like reading self-help or positive-thinking books (as one of my brothers does), and that’s just not something I’m gonna connect with. It feels too different (it doesn’t share my philosophical values and/or assumptions) and I’m not gonna learn from it.

And I find myself feeling this way, at times, around some of my small-town neighbors, who are much more engaged by football, hunting, and Polaris jackets than I am. Of course, it’s not that I couldn’t do these things myself, but from an early age, I’ve sorta seen (whether from an emotional need or an intellectual disconnect, or both, or a nature-and-nurture combination) myself as different from those I grew up with, and so I have avoided small-town culture (such as it is) on principle.

So I tend to make friends with others who avoid small-town culture, many of whom have left the small towns (thus I’m a little like Gonzo the Great in the first Muppet movie, who says he’s gonna try to become a big film star but not in Hollywood. Also, I’m someone who references both Unte magazine and Gonzo the Great — not that that makes me a great person, but that these references come to my mind naturally, it’s not always easy to communicate with others who don’t catch these references, don’t share at least some of my patterns of mind). This makes me aware that most of my neighbors don’t give a crap about my interests — as Annie Dillard says, writing is beyond the pale — and it makes me wonder whether most writers felt understood outside of a small group of other writers.

Watching a PBS documentary about James Baldwin the other day, I realized that most of the people praising him were fellow writers, rather than people from society in general. No doubt there were even people in his own family who didn’t like everything Baldwin wrote. (Baldwin says he became a writer against the wishes of his father, who wanted Baldwin to be a preacher, which he did before becoming a writer). If our neighbors and families don’t appreciate our ideas, our talents (and why would they, other than out of “tribal” pride? Just because we live near someone or share DNA with someone doesn’t mean they’ll share our mental life.), we need to seek like-minded others, and we will be valued by those whom we value, those by whom we want to be valued.

Of course, this narrowness would seem to question the whole idea of fame, and even, for writers, being canonized. Being liked by those who are already like us doesn’t seem like such a worthy accomplishment. It could be all accomplishments are bullshit, of course, as they are either A) easy/natural for us to do, or B) mainly accidental (being in the right place at the right time and simply reacting), and C) our value, our dignity, as human individuals can’t rest on accomplishment, anyway.

Maybe wanting to share, wanting to be understood, even wanting acclaim, are just emotional or psychological needs that can’t be further dissected.

I write because I find the engaged-in-writing mind to be very satisfying. I share writings with others because, I guess, of a hope that others might feel they can, by reading, recognize or commune with a like-mind, a like-mind that stretches their understanding in ways their minds are ready to be streched — and that I would likewise benefit from having my writing be meaningful to others.

I feel I need to end this post, thought I don’t quite feel I’ve broken through to a deeper idea or understanding here. That happens too, sometimes.

Addition:  Several years ago, my wife and I were swimming at a glacial lake in California when we saw a man tell his children to wash their hair with shampoo in the seemingly pristine water. He said something preemptively defensive about how the environmentalists wouldn’t like them using shampoo. We couldn’t think of anything to say to the man that we thought would work to change his mind and his actions.

Not that this was a big deal — it was just shampoo, not toxic waste — but this incident has come to mind lately as an example of how it might not really be possible to argue someone into changing his/her mind. People probably have to be receptive to other viewpoints, willing to change their mind, or else they get defensive and more-resolute in their views. Perhaps arguing a point, trying to convince someone of your point of view, only works when the audience hasn’t already decided one way or the other, like our jury system. Both sides in a trial try to convince unbiased jurors — if the plaintiff had to convince the defendant, or vice versa, in order to bring the trial to a conclusion, surely that’d make decisions more difficult.

Link: Reasons Publishers Rejected Future Classics

This list at Cracked.com reveals a bit of the arbitrariness of the publishing industry. Of course, no one can predict the future, and no doubt most of the books rejected for publication are rightly rejected.

But the reasons given here — that the first Harry Potter book was too long, that Seuss’s first book was too silly — seem to reflect the idea that part of what audiences love is novelty. And it seems difficult for industries to break from the formula of offering more of what is already popular and take a risk with huge upside potential.

Of course, I’m sure there’s more to the stories of these books than just what is revealed in how they came to be published. Possibly these books also got good publicity or lucky breaks that allowed them to sell well when other books didn’t. But it’s interesting to consider what it is that promotes any particular book to success — Robert Pirsig says in his afterword to “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” that his book struck a chord that resonated with the public at the particular cultural moment of its publication.

I’m not nearly enough of an expert to offer actual insight into the publishing world, but my impression of publishing success is that it’s not something that an author can take too seriously — I’m not sure that good sales mean the book was good, or that poor sales mean the book was bad. I’m not sure a book’s reception means much of anything to an author. The book being written, the author moves on.

Nonfic: Single-copy books: ‘Mr. Hagemann and His Teachings’

2013_01_22_mh (8)_subjectivepeopleToday 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.