I’m reading a very strange little book called Awareness by Anthony De Mello. It’s apparently a transcript of all the talking he did at a retreat many years ago, and was published after his death. And, boy, did he do a lot of talking at that retreat! I both love and hate the style. It’s filled with bold statements that make you want to read more to figure out what the hell he’s really saying: “You are never in love with anyone. You’re only in love with your prejudiced and hopeful idea of that person.”
Wait, huh? That kind of thing grabs you.
Unfortunately, like a lot of spiritual / religious texts, it’s repetitive. I know repetition is a technique often used to emphasize a point and make sure the reader / listener doesn’t forget something, but it’s my least favorite rhetorical device. It annoys the hell out of me:
“Call 1-800-GET-LOST. That’s 1-800-GET-LOST. Call 1-800-GET-LOST. 1-800-GET-LOST. Today!”
Younger readers probably haven’t heard such annoying tags, and older readers (thankfully) probably don’t watch TV commercials any more. But you get the point.
Awareness is a book that’s the result of what I call chaotic thinking, as opposed to ordered, rational thinking. There is no organization to speak of in the information that’s presented. It’s just thrown at the board to see what sticks. The method seems to have worked for De Mello. It doesn’t work for most people I know. It may have helped De Mello that he lived in India, so he wasn’t living the same kind of life as most people I know.
Anyway, De Mello relates an anecdote that struck me:
There’s an American doctor who wrote about the effect of competition on his life. He went to medical school in Switzerland and there was a fairly large contingent of Americans at the school. He said some of the students went into shock when they realized that there were no grades, there were no awards, there was no dean’s list, no first or second in the class at school. You either passed or you didn’t. He said, “Some of us just couldn’t take it. We became almost paranoid. We thought there must be some kind of trick here.” So some of them went to another school. Those who survived suddenly discovered a strange thing they had never noticed at American universities: students, brilliant ones, helping others to pass, sharing notes. His son goes to medical school in the United States and he tells him that, in the lab, people often tamper with the microscope so that it’ll take the next student three or four minutes to readjust it. Competition. They have to succeed. They have to be perfect.
The ugly competition of the American medical schools relayed herein meshes with my experience through most of my student and professional careers. An awful lot of people succeed by making others look bad, and an awful lot of people who generously help their fellows find their help used to advance someone else, and they’re never given credit. In fact, often, some of these dedicated helpers find themselves cheated out of a job or an opportunity.
But this anecdote crystalized something in my head. I think of myself as a competitive person. I want to be the best. I want people to read my writing, listen to my podcast, attend my convention or benefit from my development and management skills and say, “Wow. No one else can do what that guy does.”
I’ve never wanted to succeed by pushing anybody else down. I’ve always helped anybody who asked for or needed help. I actually derive pleasure from knowing that I’ve helped someone learn something they wouldn’t otherwise have learned, that I’ve helped them reach their own potential. I guess, for me, that’s part of doing what someone else couldn’t have done in a given situation. One of my most treasured possessions is a volume of Poe inscribed simply, “To Steve, who gave me a lot of help.” It was a gift from a classmate who excelled in math and science, but struggled in English because it wasn’t his first language. I edited his papers for freshman English, and I recall he got an ‘A’ in the course. I liked that feeling, and helping him do the best he could took nothing away from me. Well, it took some time, but it was time I enjoyed spending because, again, I was doing something that no one else seemed able to do. Similarly, I promote the books and podcasts of other (and more successful) authors and creators. I work other people’s (more profitable) conventions for them. I’ll put in hours documenting my observations on how someone else can make her project more successful.
Now I make no claims to sainthood. I’ve felt satisfaction when I’ve seen others fail: Loudmouths who claimed they were better than everyone else, cheaters who took advantage of others. I’ve felt envy when someone else gets recognition for something that I also did as well or better than they did. Why them and not me? I’m a better writer. My podcasts are more professionally edited. I write more solid code. I feel the sting of a competitive nature. But for some reason, that never stops me from wanting to help other people succeed. I guess the whole “being the best” thing, for me, is being the best against my own standards.
But there’s no question that we get measured by the standards of others, and those standards are often influenced heavily by a sense of competition. We’ve got to have / build / be the best, and there’s no room for anyone who isn’t “the best.”
Yeah, hang on a second there. No one is “the best” by all objective standards. So finding “the best” by winnowing the field of those who don’t meet your standards may leave you, not with “the best” but with those who best fit your narrow definition of the best. And since your narrow definition may be flavor of the month, next month your narrow field of candidates for “the best” may not suit you at all.
I read this passage on non-competitiveness in De Mello’s book as I myself was being winnowed out by one of those sets of standards of what constitutes “the best.” In this case, I had submitted a story and it got rejected. Happens all the time, of course. In this case, though, it happened after the editor had requested and received a re-write, which is a bit unusual. Oh, sure, if an author argues his way through the re-write process and screams “I refuse to have my child vivisected!” each time the editor suggests that a comma be added, that author is probably going to wind up rejected. But I’m generally very easy to edit. I challenge edits only when I think they actually conflict with a rule of style or grammar, and that doesn’t happen often. So I was surprised to hear from the editor, after making all her requested changes, that the story didn’t fit her ideal. It was, after all, now a product of her work as well as my own. I concluded that this editor didn’t know what the hell she was looking for, and I submitted the story to the next market. Of course, I grumbled a bit about doing custom work for someone who didn’t bother to pay me for it. Next time I’ll ask for a contract first.
But it got me thinking about myself as an editor, and that story about the Swiss medical school resonated as I thought. Now I don’t read unsolicited submissions. Let me make that very clear. I know enough people with talent that I don’t need to wade through a slush pile. I only read submissions from authors I’ve invited to send me something. But I’ll tell you a deep, dark secret: if I invite you to submit, as long as you don’t speak to me of vivisection and the tears you shed in my presence fall short of filling an average-size prescription bottle, you’re going to get published. Because I don’t publish literature. I publish people. If I tap you, I know you have a story to tell.
And if you have a story to tell, why would I read it against a rubric of things I think a story is? Or, heaven forbid, a rubric of things some “expert” told me a story is? Unless you’re telepathic, or unless you subscribe to the same expert, the odds are not good that you’re going to produce a work that meets “my” standards. Worse, if you do meet them, all I’m ever going to publish is homogenized pablum, book after book or podcast after podcast of stories that all look and sound and read alike.
There are, supposedly, only seven distinct stories. I won’t name them. I don’t know what they are. I just hear that a lot. There are only seven original plots. All else is derivative. Okay. But there are over seven billion people on earth. Seven billion storytellers. And each one is going to personalize the story, make it his own. That means there are 49 billion different stories that could be told in this generation, without really repeating. And some of us like to hear stories repeated, don’t we?
“Oh,” I hear a voice in the peanut gallery say, “but the editor’s job is to be the gatekeeper. The editor protects the public from the 6.9999 billion who can’t tell their story well.”
Nah. I say that most of the editors out there are simply looking among the slush pile for something that looks just like that one story that got made into a Hollywood blockbuster last summer. Oh, then there are the literary types. They’re looking for the five stories that score at least 90% on the rubric of what makes a “literary story.” And, if they don’t make it, the editor uses stock phrases like “inconsistent prose,” “pulled me out of the world,” or, least imaginative of all, “something off about the tone,” to say, “You didn’t write the story that I would have written.
Well, as an editor, I don’t want you to write the story I would have written. Because I either will write that story or I already did. And I don’t consider it my job as an editor to protect the public from your bad prose. Have you read the New York Times bestseller list? The public neither desires nor deserves to be protected from bad writing.
No, as an editor, I want you to tell your story. Tell it to me, tell it in your voice. If I’ve picked you as a storyteller, then it’s a foregone conclusion to me that it will be worth hearing, worth reading, and I’m going to share it with others. I certainly may tell you that I think a passage of dialogue could be crisper, that an emotional scene needs more depth, so you need to dig deeper into your own feelings. I’ve told authors that they’re short-changing themselves by trying to be too much like what the rubric demands, and I’ve told them that they’re holding back, afraid of letting too much of their real feelings out on the page. But I can’t tell them their story doesn’t deserve to be heard, because, of course, it does.
Grammar? Spelling? Please. If I select someone to tell a story, they know how to put words together into a sentence. Style? It’s the reader’s job to pick the style he likes, not mine.
I’m not in competition with other writers. Everyone has a story to tell. They should be told. If they applaud yours more loudly than mine, that takes nothing away from me. I don’t want to succeed by being the only mediocre storyteller they have access to. And any good storyteller knows that his craft improves as he listens to other storytellers.
I’m not a gatekeeper. I’m not keeping writers out. If anything, I’m a shepherd, reaching out and drawing storytellers in, bringing them to where the ground is level and the grazing is good.
Because De Mello was right. We don’t need to be in competition. Each of us can be the best. The best one to tell his or her own stories. And if they don’t match each other in tone, well, aren’t collections of very different sounds put together to make symphonies?
My submissions are still invitation-only though! Queries must be submitted in person, at the hotel bar at any convention I’m attending, and should come in a glass.
I could only wish that more editors felt that way! Perhaps there would be more books I enjoyed then…
As for competition, I’m with Juan Rico, I don’t want a prize I didn’t earn… so doing someone dirty to win doesn’t work for me. I also wouldn’t want to be “the best” doctor at the expense of people who are seen by other doctors not getting the best possible care from the other doctor, because I withheld help from a fellow student.
So, there’s competitiveness to want to excel, and there’s wanting to be called “the best” even though you didn’t earn it, made someone else do better to get there, etc.