Thursday, October 22, 2009

Writing Away: The Creative Cooperative

I'm very honored to be here in Breckenridge, Colorado at one of Cicily Janus's Writing Away Retreats.

Cicily called to invite me to join her staff just as I was leaving Plume last Spring. She explained that this was an opportunity for writers to get unprecedented access to publishing professionals, and I was intrigued. My first thought was, why would any one want me now? I can't buy your manuscript. I can't represent your project. No longer an acquisitions editor, no desire to agent, I am of no material use. It's a bizarre feeling, going from being mobbed in elevators at writing conferences, to being able to go to the ladies room in absolute peace and quiet. And at first I didn't know what to make of it all. But I did know one thing: leaving Penguin was an unfortunate necessity. And in fact, I had tried to stay. All I wanted was the opportunity to continue doing what I was doing, and if I couldn't do it on Penguin's terms, I knew I had to do it on my own. So I started Pike Literary Services. I don't have a web page, and I don't publicize. And I have found my work within my own company has been so incredibly rewarding, I sometimes want to pinch myself. I am still helping writers, in whatever way I can, achieve their dreams. And I truly feel that is something I can be proud of.

Standing in the huge kitchen tonight, talking with a writer, she mentioned that publishing professionals have a mystique about them, an inaccessibility. She's right. And to anyone outside the business it seems totally silly. I mean, we're talking about a profession here, where if you're a straight man, and you're say.... a 7 on a scale from 1 -10 in the looks department, you enter book publishing and instantly become a 9. Er, okay. 9.5. It's almost as though each single guy is running their own private Rock of Love special.

For the most part, women rule publishing, and some are icon worthy, and some are less so, but everyone is intelligent, that's a given. So I can understand. I told her, "Sometimes, at least from my perspective, other writers are inaccessible too."

The problem is, a mystique, an inaccessibility is sometimes necessary in today's world.

I mean, I had a man pitch me a book at my father's funeral. I don't really know what's lower than that. When it comes to publishing conferences and editors, it's just like life: there's always that metaphorical one asshole who ruins it for everybody. And after you've been through that, or even far less, the damage is done. Or so we think.

But when you're in a house, in the middle of the mountains of Colorado, with a group of 12 writers who are all there to work, to share, to improve, it can break down some walls. It can help me remember who I am and what I came for.

I say, Yes, it's still important to have a professionalism. That means, I tell her, perhaps it's an important thing that these people have a mystic, an inaccessibility, because they are, in effect, gate-keepers. And the gate-keepers have earned their rights, and they deserve to be respected. This means, don't pass them your hand written notes at the lunch table. Don't pitch them something that isn't to their tastes -- you have their bio's. I don't say this in words, because these days, we have lost our subtlety, and I think that's a shame. I say them in other ways, and I know that she begins to understand. These days we just can't take a hint. We need someone to get it out in the open, communicate it clearly! If you don't say it, they will have no idea what you mean!

I think that's sad. And now that I've finally learned about the value of subtlety, I do try to use it. Allegory is nice, that works, or should. I try that sometimes, and I wonder -- could this be working? Someone said today, "It's so true! We've lost our subtlety. Someone should write a book about it." I say, that wouldn't be very subtle, now, would it?

The point is, of course "we" -- if I can call myself a we, which is debatable -- are approachable. We are, as you know, human. And this environment is set up so that we can all have an opportunity to see the humanity in each other. We can talk over lunch and dinner and wine and coffee, and the editor from Harper Collins can pee in peace. Publishing is lucky that so many writers want to write, and one nice thing about publishing, is that I haven't met a single publishing professional who takes that for granted. We know it. Writers sustain us. We need them, and they need us, but any professional relationship necessitates boundaries. We are responsible for respecting these boundaries on both sides, and it is important, in my mind, that we do not expect a professionalism that we ourselves do not exhibit. The rules are simple, the game is involving, but at the end of it, we each shall either contribute or not contribute. What has really mattered was the creative sharing that has taken place during that process. And this is, wonderfully, what this retreat seeks to capitalize on -- exchanges. And nourishing our creative selves, as well as our minds, and our bodies. It's certainly a unique retreat model, and one that deserve propagating, but with care. If there is a balance that is kept, and mutual respect maintained, it can only flourish, and ideas and projects can only prosper, should they bear the correct ingredients.

This is all to say.... art is art. And here, some of us are writers, and some of us are publishers, and some of us are readers, and we are all connected by a common thread -- the love, the admiration, the passion, the permanence of the written word. And so for a week we become an island. And in that week, each day is precious. Each day we learn about drive, human kindness, and human creativity, and to be a part of that, now that could be a lifetime achievement.