Saturday, January 5, 2008

Idealism vs. Pragmatism in the Publishing World

Years ago I heard a story about Abraham Lincoln that has stuck with me. During his early political career as a statesman, Lincoln became frustrated with the unwise decisions of a collegue who had recently been voted as state treasurer. Specifically, the man, a Mr. Shields, I think, made a rule that state taxes would only be accepted in gold or silver and not the paper money issued by the state. The irony of the situation made for easy attack and Lincoln wrote some scathing letters to the local newspaper under a psuedonym. Others added their feelings also incognito and the whole thing snowballed into a vicious attack of the man's character. Sheilds was so offended he demanded of the editor who started it and Abraham Lincoln's name was divulged. The man challenged Lincoln to a duel which was cancelled at the last minute but since that time, Lincoln vowed he would be more careful with his words, realizing their power.

The unsubstantiated part of the story (and if anyone finds out if its really true, I'd appreciate a resource) is that when Lincoln had sensitive things to say he would often write one letter with his true feelings in plain English and keep that copy for himself and then write another gentle, well-crafted letter to send out to the world.

As idealistic, unpaid writers we often live in a world of passion, fantasy or twisted fiction far from the realms of paid technical writers. As we create our prose, we sometimes grow a sweet attachment to the cleverness of our plots but in so doing relegate them to be forever archived or to sit unnoticed on Snippets or some other sites where no one really reads them.

This was me. Then one of my sisters (I have seven) read my manuscript and made a suggestion to make it more marketable i.e. take out the entire plot and make the subplot the book. At first I was offended, how could I destroy my masterpiece? A few months later after thirteen rejections I bent and it sold! What a surprise. I felt excited but shaken at the same time.

A few weeks later one of my past missionary companions from Scotland who I haven't seen in twenty years somehow found the original version on Snippets and loved it. She encouraged me to keep it and I thought of Abraham Lincoln.

Recently I've been doing a lot of research on C. S. Lewis and I found out that he hated writing nonfiction. "Mere Christianity", "The Problem with Pain", "The Great Divorce" were more obligations. While writing the "Screwtape Letters" he confessed that he hated what it did to his soul and would not write a sequel. Even "The Chronicles of Narnia" weren't his favorite work. No, he liked fiction...and perhaps most ironic of all the man who had difficulty with simple math and disliked science as a rule, loved to write science fiction. "Paralandrea" was one of his personal favorites, which very few C. S. Lewis fans have ever read. "Til We have Faces" which was his biggest flop, was the book he claimed to be his very best. There is even some question whether these books would have been published at all if C. S. Lewis hadn't pragmatically bent from his first love of poetry (like Elder Maxwell he wanted to be a poet) and write that which the public was reading.

As writer's we often are driven to write what is in our hearts but sometimes the result is not very marketable. On the other hand, if we stifle that creative muse within us, we can lose the power of our unique voice- the very thing that makes our writing meaningful. Perhaps, Lincoln didn't have a bad idea. Go and write your heart's desire. Do you BIAM. Then turn around and look what is selling. Can you take a current work and shift it into something marketable? If not, can you find a project that fills a hole or enter a contest or write a magazine article. Anything to strenghten your portfolio.

Hopefully, if you balance your writing efforts between the idealistic and the pragmatic you can create a big enough name to release your real dreams on the world like C. S. Lewis did. Even though many didn't read his favorite books, I did and both stories lifted me and opened my eyes. I love "Til We Have Faces" best and if you have self-esteem issues (feel fat or ugly) you've got to read it. It starts out slow but the last chapter is life changing!

I believe, maybe idealistically, that most writers long to be read. That is why we write, it is part of the drive and I hope that those who are willing to pay the price will do what it takes to become part of the "conversation of humanity"- even when the price is bending not morally but perhaps artistically. It isn't unethical to do so, only pragmatic.


Kari Pike said...

Thank you for the insights. I think I am going to put Til We Have Faces at the top of my reading list. Would it be appropriate for my RS book club?

Christine Thackeray said...

Yes, we did "Till We Have Faces" for our bookclub. My favorite quote is "Men are strong but women are tough."

Suzy said...

I'm so glad to have found you! Well,..actually my mother did, but I just spent time reading all of your posts and love "hearing" your voice again.
I'm hoping you'll remember me...Suzanne Gilliam (now Greer since I'm married) from the Excelsior Ward.

Anonymous said...

hi, new to the site, thanks.